On September 20th 2017 a Category 4 hurricane struck the island of Puerto Rico, leaving the 3.5 million people on the island without power, food, water, or communication. Today it has been approximately three weeks since the hurricane hit the island, many remain uncommunicated, without food or water, experts predict a massive exodus to mainland U.S, of around 100 000 to 200 000 citizens. What remains to be seen is whether the current situation on the island will change the way the United States and the English language has been historically perceived by islanders. It is with this in mind that I now reflect on the anthropological study I conducted in Autumn 2015 to Spring 2016.
At the the outset of this project, I had the intention of observing the role English played on the island. I was interested in observing the linguistic outcome of a 119 year old relationship with the United States following the Spanish-American War of 1898. Contemporary Puerto Rico is divided into three major political parties, all of which reflect a stance on the relationship between the island and mainland U.S.: independence, commonwealth, and statehood ideologies. At the very heart of this struggle for identity – or arriving at an concensus of what Puerto Rico is – is the issue of language. In the past, many politicians on the island have used language as a starting point to discussing the fate of Puerto Rico’s identity: Spanish is often treated as the most obvious signifier of Hispanic heritage and thus authentic Puerto Rican identity, meanwhile English is treated as an outsider’s code, necessary in order to assimilate to a largely English-speaking United States. Some traditionalist scholars and teachers have suggested the co-existence of English alongside the local Spanish as detrimental to the purity of Spanish and Puerto Rican culture.
Inspired by ongoing talks of globalisation and Late Modernity, I was keen to see how technological advances and mobility altered the fabric of traditional language ideologies, as well as the very distribution of languages on the island. I was inspired by the post-structuralist work of sociolinguists such as Ben Rampton in the U.K. and Penelope Eckert in the U.S. and their moves towards incorporating anthropological methods to describing language in society. I saw ethnography as key to arriving at an accurate portrayal of the distribution of English on the island, its contextualised uses, and its social meaning. Beyond immediate political values attributed to the existence of English on the island, English simultaneously possesses an international currency as the language of technology, business, science, and higher education. Thus, the present study is my attempt at doing justice to the issue of the English language in Puerto Rico, considering all of its potential implications or social meanings – that is, “what it means to speak English in Puerto Rico”. This dissertation considers the understudied adolescent community: the future of Puerto Rico. With this dissertation I aim to represent the voices of the adolescents who so graciously gifted me with their time and their patience, and helped me accomplish my goal of conducting two school ethnographies in Puerto Rico. I dedicate this thesis to them.
As with any ethnography, the present research possesses the following setback: though a lot of work and time was invested in gathering data to give shape to this study, it still represents a snapshot of society at a particular moment in time. That is, if I were to conduct this same study on the same group of people today, I may not get the same results I once did when I first embarked on this journey in September 2015. This is especially true now, when the island not only faces the consequences of a crushing government debt and high unemployment rate (as it still did at the time of my observations), but now the struggle has become a new one: one of desperation and survival following the aftermath of a powerful natural disaster. Perhaps now, more than ever, English acquisiton will be perceived as a way out of the current state of affairs on the island. Only time will tell.
Friday, October 17 2017