Millions of Americans in Puerto Rico are struggling to meet basic needs after the devastation of Hurricane Maria. Their suffering has attracted far less public or political attention than the suffering caused by the recent hurricane devastation in Texas and Florida. Normally the public would not stand for a President visiting a hurricane ravaged state to view recovery efforts, and talk about how their pain and suffering is busting the American budget like President Trump did when visiting Puerto Rico. So if only 32 percent approve of how the president is handling disaster relief in Puerto Rico and 49 percent disapprove, why does it seem that the American public is ignoring the plight of Puerto Rico.
The N.F.L. kneeling controversy, Russian election interference revelations, and Washington political scandals have diverted media and public attention. Also, no electricity and blacked out communications in Puerto Rico has made reporting from there very difficult, creating an out of sight out of mind scenario for the American public.
The true explanation is the disconnect that mainland Americans feel toward Americans living in Puerto Rico, supposedly President Trump didn’t even know where the island was located until Hurricane Maria struck.
A Morning Consult poll published in the New York Times, found 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 contributes to the disconnect Americans feel, but the real disconnect is the language barrier that exists making many Americans feel not 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 survivor’s 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, in an article he wrote for GQ magazine about Puerto Rico and his visits there speaks to this, “On the island, I’d always be a gringo, my Spanish was too clumsy” he writes. Spanish is not his primary language so when he speaks it he sounds foreign, even to his Puerto Rican relatives.
Americans watching Puerto Rican survivors on TV, hearing them speak a different language, had the same gut reaction to Puerto Ricans as Joshua’s relatives have hearing him speak broken Spanish. That gut reaction is a feeling that says this is different than me, it’s not my culture and this is definitely not American.
Demographic changes taking place in America dictate 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 are several cultures existing in America that on first blush to some may seem foreign but are in fact as American as apple pie.
But if America is to be the ultimate melting pot of world culture 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 key to American society moving beyond race and cultural barriers.
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!