Puerto Rico and the Santorum Hispanic Problem

Patricio Navia

Buenos Aires Herald, March 20, 2012


The 20 delegates Puerto Ricans elected last Saturday to the Republican Convention pushed forward Mitt Romney's laborious journey to securing his party's presidential nomination. A statement made by Rick Santorum about speaking English as a condition for Puerto Rico to become the 51st state in the Union was the most welcome news for the Romney camp coming out of the Puerto Rican primary. Because it was perceived as looking down on Spanish and on Puerto Rican culture in general, Santorum's comments have come to symbolize his inability to include ethnic minorities into his campaign message. If Romney has problems attracting Latino support, Santorum has now successfully transformed himself into the anti-Spanish language candidate.


Ahead of last Saturday's primary, Rick Santorum offered a comment that quickly polarized the small but potentially symbolic Republican electorate in island inhabited by 3.7 million people. When asked about the long term legal status of that commonwealth territory, Santorum said that English would need to become the “main language” if the island were to become a state in the union. Santorum was apparently unaware that the U.S. constitution does not state that English is the official language and that Congress has not passed legislation making English the official language.  Though Santorum had a point when he claimed that he was taken out of context, the comment was unnecessary. Most Puerto Ricans want their children to learn English.  Besides, precisely because the question of statehood is not on the agenda and it is unlikely that a decision over the long term status of the island will be made in the next few years, the comment was pointless and ended up catalyzing Puerto Rican public opinion against Santorum.  With the stir caused by the comments, it became clear that Santorum would lose in Puerto Rico.  However, the real damage could happen later, when states with a strong Latino population hold their primaries.


Santorum’s comments were widely presented in the Hispanic media in the U.S. as anti-Latino. Though the suggestion that English is a necessary language to be successful in the U.S. and an essential tool to get ahead and achieve the Sueño Americano, Santorum erred in discussing languages as an either one or the other type of choice.  Incorporation into the American culture does not require people to abandon their own cultures and traditions. Latinos feel strongly about holding on to their traditions and incorporating into American society. Successful politicians have developed a discourse that combines integration and inclusion policies with celebration and respect for traditions. Santorum should not have made this unforced error on a highly sensitive issue for a key electoral constituency.


Puerto Rico has been a U.S. possession since the Spanish American war of 1898. In 1917, Puerto Ricans were granted U.S. citizenship. In 1952, Puerto Rico became a free and associated state. Puerto Ricans do not pay federal income taxes and are not allowed to vote in national elections, though those Puerto Ricans who reside in the 50 states have full citizenship rights.  They do elect their own governor and have their own constitution, but are bound by the U.S. Constitution and the island foreign and trade affairs are run by Washington D.C.  The current governor of Puerto Rico is Luis Fortuño, from the pro-statehood New Progressive Party.  Born in 1960, Fortuño represents a new generation of Puerto Ricans that see their future inextricably linked to the U.S.  However, many Puerto Ricans who also see their future linked to the U.S. believe that the island should retain its own national identity and thus favor the status quo.  Every time the pro-statehood movement gains strength, nationalist sentiments emerge. Thus, statehood advocates must always be careful in preventing that their push for statehood be seen as weakening Puerto Rican identity.  In addition to damaging his own chances to attract Latino support, Santorum’s comments did a huge disservice to the statehood cause.


For the hype produced by Santorum’s statement, the Puerto Rican primaries did not attract that many voters.  Only 110 thousand voters overwhelmingly supported Romney (80%) and handed him 20 delegates.  Four years ago, almost 400 thousand Puerto Ricans participated in the Democratic primaries, giving a 68% majority to Hillary Clinton. Historically, Puerto Ricans in the mainland have overwhelmingly voted democratic, though their sitting governor is also a member of the Republican Party. 


The Republican decision to hold primaries in Puerto Rico—rather than a caucus as in 2008—was an opportunity to speak directly to Latino voters in the rest of the United States.  A victory in Puerto Rico would give the winning candidate a platform to reach out to Latinos elsewhere.  Today’s primary in Illinois—where Romney is expected to win—underlines the increasing relevance of the Latino vote.  Upcoming primaries in New York, Texas and California will further test the ability of the Republican Party to attract Latino voters. With Santorum having to repeatedly explain himself, Romney has found himself in a great position to attract the Latino vote, if Latinos even bother to participate in the upcoming Republican Party primaries.