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Romney to Puerto Rico: You can still speak Spanish in my America!
Mitt Romney landed in Puerto Rico today ahead of the islands primary this Sunday. And unlike what Rick Santorum said Wednesday, Romney would not require Puerto Rico to meet any language requirement prior to becoming a state. When asked by reporters if Romney would require Puerto Rico to make English the territory’s official language, Romney said he had no “preconditions,” ABC News reports.
You know a presidential primary has turned into a scramble for every last delegate when the candidates start showing up in Puerto Rico.
Politics is a boisterous pastime on this island territory, where campaigns feature festive parades and caravans of cars blaring music. Few places in the world have higher voter turnout.
So you can imagine the excitement over today’s Republican primary in Puerto Rico, which in most presidential campaigns earns at best a token visit from a candidate’s spouse or kid, but last week had Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum hitting the streets of San Juan.
With 23 Republican delegates at stake, Puerto Rico has more influence on the nomination than Hawaii or Delaware. But in the rare occasions when presidential primaries extend into a fight for every delegate, the commonwealth becomes more than a political afterthought bypassed by the major candidates. Four years ago Hillary Rodham Clinton won Puerto Rico handily after she and Obama campaigned aggressively in the territory, and Romney and Santorum made appearances last week.
“I was referred to by many in my state as Senador Puertorriqueño. They used to make fun of me. ‘Why are you representing Puerto Rico?’ ” Santorum boasted in San Juan, recounting his efforts as a U.S. senator to increase Medicare reimbursements to citizens in Puerto Rico.
His pandering was overshadowed, however, by an interview with the newspaper El Vocero in which he said he would support statehood so long as Puerto Rico made English its primary language.
The Constitution does not require any state to make English its official language, and Santorum stepped into the political mine field that defines why Puerto Ricans are sharply divided by the question of statehood: their identity. One Puerto Rican delegate pledged to Santorum promptly quit his campaign after the English language comment.
“Puerto Rico is very different from the United States, and if we became a state I worry we would lose something vital,” said Therese Santos, a university student, who like many Puerto Ricans speaks perfect English. “To say we have to speak English would be changing centuries of tradition and threaten our identity.”
That’s a common sentiment among Puerto Ricans. They say they’re proud to be Americans, but they are equally proud to wave their own flag, and field their own Olympic teams and Miss Universe contestants.
“He really bombed with that comment, but I’m glad Santorum said that because he spoke the truth,” said Evelyn Nieves, a teacher. “And I hope people will question the party leaders pushing statehood who keep telling people everything would stay the same and we would continue with our own flag, our own national anthem.”
Romney has managed to antagonize some Hispanic voters with his calls for “self-deportation” of some 11 million undocumented immigrants in America, but he treaded carefully on the language question in San Juan on Friday.
“Spanish is the language of Puerto Rico’s heritage. English is the language of opportunity,” he said at a news conference. “I would hope that young people would learn both languages, but particularly English so that as they trade throughout the country and participate in educational opportunities throughout the country that their English skills would make it even easier for them.”
In November, Puerto Ricans will hold a referendum on whether they support continuing with territorial status or moving to statehood. Congress would have to approve it, but if Puerto Rico became America’s 51st state, most observers believe that would lead to Democrats picking up seats in the U.S. House and Senate.
“If a majority of Puerto Ricans wish to become a state, then I will support that effort in Washington and I will help lead that effort in Washington,” Romney vowed Friday, flanked by pro-statehood Gov. Fortuno, and Puerto Rican and American flags.
Romney is favored to win today’s primary, but other candidates can still pick up delegates if no one receives more than 50 percent of the vote.
“Puerto Rico’s never mattered more in a presidential primary because every delegate matters,” said John Regis, finance chairman of the island’s Republican Party, who hopes more than 130,000 people turn out.
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