April 12, 1900 – Foraker Act Establishes Civilian Government on Island of Puerto Rico

The Foraker Act, Pub.L. 56–191, 31 Stat. 77, replaced the governing military regime in Puerto Rico with a limited form of civil governance. Puerto Rico had recently become a possession of the United States as a result of the Spanish–American War. The legislation was known as the “Foraker Act” after its sponsor, Ohio Senator Joseph B. Foraker, although its main author has been identified as Secretary of War Elihu Root.

The new government had a governor and an 11-member executive council appointed by the President of the United States, a House of Representatives with 35 elected members, a judicial system with a Supreme Court (also appointed) and a United States District Court, and a non-voting Resident Commissioner in Congress. In addition, all federal laws of the United States were to be in effect on the island.

In this 1898 cartoon, Uncle Sam offers a suit of “stars and stripes” to a young Puerto Rican. The question of Puerto Rico’s assimilation and status remained a constant source of political friction on the island and in Congress. Image via Library of Congress

As the Pulitzer-Prize winning dramatist Quiara Alegría Hudes pointed out in her memoir, “My Broken Language”:

Language differences threatened then new colonizers’ ability to rule. Four hundred years of Puerto Rican literature, history, laws, and business records were in Spanish, but neither the U.S. government nor American sugar corporations hungry to buy up land spoke it. A few years into the acquisition, the Foraker Act foisted English, virtually unknown on the island, onto every level of the culture. Overnight, government departments were mandated to use English coequally with Spanish. . . . School days now began with the United States pledge of allegiance and national anthem. Students learned both phonetically, oblivious to their meaning. Teachers and students were forbidden to speak Spanish in schools. . . . English enforcement (for the ease of stateside governors and sugar corporations) was justified as moral imperative. New leaders touted their will to bestow the blessings of enlightened civilization on the island’s masses. English was not simply a language, but a betterment project.”

The Foraker Act was superseded in 1917 by the Jones–Shafroth Act (Pub.L. 64–368, 39 Stat. 951, enacted March 2, 1917) This act superseded the Foraker Act and granted U.S. citizenship to anyone born in Puerto Rico on or after April 11, 1899. It also created the Senate of Puerto Rico, established a bill of rights, and authorized the election of a Resident Commissioner (previously appointed by the President) to a four-year term. The act also exempted Puerto Rican bonds from federal, state, and local taxes regardless of where the bondholder resides.

In 1991 the government of Puerto Rico, under the administration of the Popular Democratic Party’s Rafael Hernández Colón, made Spanish its sole official language through a law commonly called the “Spanish-only Law.” On January 4, 1993, the 12th Legislative Assembly, with the support of the newly elected New Progressive Party (PNP) government of Pedro Rosselló González passed Senate Bill 1, establishing both Spanish and English as official languages of the government of Puerto Rico.

2019 cartoon on America’s continued colonization of Puerto Rico

As James Baldwin wrote for the New York Times in 1979 on the uses of language as a political tool:

Language, incontestably, reveals the speaker. Language, also, far more dubiously, is meant to define the other. . . . People evolve a language in order to describe and thus control their circumstances, or in order not to be submerged by a reality that they cannot articulate. (And, if they cannot articulate it, they are submerged.)”

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