More than three million Americans in Puerto Rico are struggling to meet basic needs after a devastating strike from Hurricane Maria, but their suffering is attracting far less public or political attention than the suffering caused by the recent hurricanes in Texas and Florida. Had President Trump said Texas or Florida busted the budget while visiting their states to boost morale and view recovery and relief efforts, he would still be apologizing today and there would be calls for his impeachment. So if only 32 percent approve of how the president is handling disaster relief in Puerto Rico and 49 percent disapprove, why no public outrage or backlash?
Its true the N.F.L. kneeling controversy, Russian election interference revelations and recent viability questions surrounding Secretary of State Rex Tillerson have diverted media and public attention. Also one cannot deny that the lack of functioning power and communications in Puerto Rico has made reporting from there very difficult, creating an out of sight out of mind scenario for the American public.
But a more accurate explanation is the disconnect that mainland Americans feel toward Americans living in Puerto Rico, apparently President Trump didn’t even know where the island was located until Hurricane Maria struck.
According to a Morning Consult poll published in the New York Times, only 54 percent of Americans know that people born in Puerto Rico, a commonwealth of the United States, are U.S. citizens. The article reports:
Inaccurate beliefs on this question matter, because Americans often support cuts to foreign aid when asked to evaluate spending priorities. In our poll, support for additional aid was strongly associated with knowledge of the citizenship status of Puerto Ricans. More than 8 in 10 Americans who know Puerto Ricans are citizens support aid, compared with only 4 in 10 of those who do not.
Being informed about the citizenship status of Puerto Ricans also modestly increases support for aid. Overall 64 percent of Americans in the poll who were given no additional information said that Puerto Rico should receive additional government aid to help rebuild the territory, while 14 percent said it was not necessary and 20 percent said they did not know or had no opinion. But when a random sample of participants was informed that Puerto Ricans were U.S. citizens before answering this question, support for aid increased four percentage points, to 68 percent.
Puerto Rico’s location off the mainland of America certainly is part of the reason for the disconnect Americans feel, but also the language barrier that exist is another reason that many Americans might not feel connected to Puerto Ricans.
As I watched the limited coverage of Puerto Rican survivors the vast majority of them did not speak English but Spanish, fortunately MSNBC Correspondent Mariana Atencio is bilingual and could translate the survivors pleas for help. Language plays an important role in unifying people, it’s the bridge that brings different cultures together. Sometimes it’s difficult to relate or feel connected to something that’s different or not understandable.
Joshua Rivera a Puerto Rican born in New York speaks to this from the Puerto Rican perspective in an article he wrote for GQ magazine about Puerto Rico, “On the island I’d always be a gringo, my Spanish was too clumsy” he writes. This was the case even among his family who lived there because even though he could speak Spanish it was not his primary language, meaning when he spoke it, he sounded foreign to his Puerto Rican relatives.
Americans watching Puerto Rican survivors on TV and hearing them speak a different language, had the same gut reaction to them as Joshua’s relatives have hearing him speak broken Spanish. The gut reaction is a feeling that says this is not connected to me, this is different than me, it’s not my culture and this is definitely not American.
Demographic changes taking place in America make it more important than ever that all Americans understand the difference between foreign culture and multiple American cultures. America is transitioning from a majority European cultured white race society to a majority multi-race, multi-culture and multi-religion society. There will be several cultures on first blush to some that seem foreign but are in fact as American as apple pie.
But in order for America to be the ultimate melting pot and true to our creed E Pluribus Unum, Out Of Many One, there must be a common denominator, a common thread that unites and connects the different races, cultures and religions. Language is that common denominator and a vital part of American society moving beyond seeing itself from a black/white perspective.
Designating English as the official language of America is the most consequential step to the true unification of America. Because if we are truly to be a melting pot, a blend of diverse cultures, religions and multi-colored races then what’s the tangible and readily accessible trait that indicates American citizenship ? Not what race you are, not what god you worship or don’t worship, not the texture or style of your hair and not what political party you are a member of but what same language do we speak!