Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Uncle Sam's Catch-22

As perplexing as this may sound, keep in mind that Puerto Rico's unemployment rate is over 16%, the local government is contemplating a guest-worker program to bring in people from nearby Haiti and the Dominican Republican to harvest coffee. Picking coffee beans isn't rocket science, but it seems like very few people want to roll up their sleeves and labor under the sun. Many attribute this kind of mentality to the culture in which Uncle Sam has helped create, one in which people would rather live on government assistance (on the island, it's colloquially known as "cupones") than earn a paycheck. An estimated six out of ten families are beneficiaries of the Nutrition Assistance for Puerto Rico (PAN) program, and less than half of the people on the island work. Officially, the labor participation rate hovers at around 40%. However, for those of you who live on the island, you're probably aware of the existence of a sizeable underground economy.

Nevertheless, in some of the most impoverished towns on the island, such as Comerío, the unemployment rate is at a whopping 22.8% and 60% of the residents are recipients of PAN. While some criticize such entitlement programs in creating more harm than good, others believe it has helped improved the lives of many low-income families. According to the 2006 U.S Census, 45.6% of the island's population lived below the poverty level. This statistic is quite mind-boggling, especially while taking a stroll at Plaza Las Américas and seeing all those luxury cars on the street.

While the 2011 federal budget calls for cuts in some programs designed to help the neediest, it will not affect PAN, which Puerto Rico expects to receive $2 billion this year. The Times Magazine columnist Fareed Zakaria, who is also host of CNN's Global Public Square, was invited to the island by the Center for the New Economy to talk about his perspective on the island's economy. During his speech, he spoke for Puerto Rico's desperate need to abandon the "politics of dependence" on federal funds. The island must begin the process of transformation and focus on creating wealth, and stop looking towards the U.S federal government as a "money machine," said Zakaria. Furthermore, Puerto Ricans must not wait for politicians to begin this transformation. Indeed, nobody could have said it better.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Defending the Mother Tongue

"¿Como se dice slash en español?" (translation: "how do you say slash in Spanish?") asked Xavier Serbia during a recent edition of "Dinero," a program on CNN en Español. My brother looked at me and we both thought the same thing, is this guy serious? We then looked at the television screen and answered his question in unison, "barra." (For the record, you can also say "diagonal.") This isn't the first occasion in which I've heard Mr. Serbia, the first Puerto Rican to host a program on CNN's Spanish language news channel, speak in Spanglish. In fact, he brazenly confesses to speaking it. Since CNN en Español is broadcast throughout Latin America, Mr. Serbia confirms the stereotype that Puerto Ricans can't speak Spanish correctly.

Defending the mother tongue is an argument which many in the pro-independence and pro-colony parties have strongly adhered to. They believe that if Puerto Rico ever becomes the 51st state, the island will cease to speak Spanish. Well, I have a bit of news for those who foresee the obsolescence of the mother tongue, it's already happening. Today the island celebrated the birthday of José de Diego, considered to be "the Father of the Puerto Rican Independence Movement" and staunch defender of the Spanish language. I firmly believe, should Mr. de Diego be alive today, that he would be extremely disappointed with the island's vernacular transformation. Just today, in El Nuevo Día, I saw a headline which read: "Posible 'Hit and Run.'"

Truth be told, people do not come to Puerto Rico to learn how to speak Spanish. Unlike countries in Latin America, such as Guatemala, Mexico and Costa Rica, among many others, the island does not have schools dedicated to teaching Spanish. I have only seen a continuing education program at the University of Puerto Rico which offers "Conversational Spanish." Language can speak volumes about a country's culture. In Puerto Rico, Spanglish is spoken and it clearly indicates the strong American influence on the island. For those who view the proliferation of English as a threat to the island's culture and identity, today served as a reminder to preserve the Spanish language. They might also represent the decreasing number of Boricuas who say "estamos listos," (translation: "we are ready") instead of "estamos ready."

Note: The image above was obtained from the Facebook page of Unidos por Nuestro Idioma, a group which believes in the importance of preserving the usage of Spanish in Puerto Rico.