SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) — Rick Santorum came to Puerto Rico and promptly waded into the emotional debate over the role English should play in the island's future, sparking a furor that led the former Pennsylvania senator to insist his remarks were misreported.
Santorum was forced to repeatedly clarify remarks he made Wednesday, when he said English would have to be the "main language" for Puerto Rico to become a state.
"I never said only English should be spoken here. Never did I even intimate that," Santorum told local reporters gathered in El Capitolio, the island's Capitol building. "What I said was that English had to be spoken as well as other — obviously Spanish is going to be spoken, this would be a bilingual country."
In an official statement as he left the island, Santorum emphasized his roots as the descendent of Italian immigrants who spoke both Italian and English when they first lived in the U.S.
"As the son of an Italian immigrant myself, I continue to believe that English is the language of opportunity in America, under statehood or the current status," Santorum said in the statement. "What I want is for every child in Puerto Rico to speak English fluently, in addition to Spanish of course."
But that paragraph was left out of the farewell statement Santorum sent to national reporters. A Santorum spokeswoman did not immediately respond to a request for comment on why the statement was changed.
Santorum told El Nuevo Dia newspaper Wednesday that English is key to developing Puerto Rico's economy. "I have no doubt that one of the requirements that will be put forth to Congress is a requirement that English would be universal here on the island," he said. "That doesn't mean that people can't speak Spanish in their homes, or in their business, or on the street, but that everyone would have a proficiency in English."
The English language issue is tied to whether Puerto Rico should become the 51st state, a highly charged question that divides politics on the island. Many Puerto Ricans do not speak English, and some worry becoming a state would mean they would have to learn.
"It's an issue that the opposition party has always used to combat statehood here in Puerto Rico," said Henry Neumann, a local official who favors statehood, backs Santorum and has toured the island with him for the past two days. "The majority of Puerto Ricans don't speak English so they would feel threatened if a candidate would come backing statehood and say everyone needs to speak English."
It's riled some of the establishment in Puerto Rico. Jenniffer Gonzalez, president of the island's House of Representatives, told Univision on Thursday that she was upset by Santorum's comments.
"We are not going to stop speaking Spanish," she said. "They cannot require us to do something that they have not required any other state in the U.S. to do."
Santorum's stand already has cost him some support. One statehood backer who had signed on as a Santorum delegate, Oreste Ramos, told the El Vocero newspaper he'll no longer be willing to do so because of Santorum's comments about the English language.
Santorum told reporters Thursday he would replace Ramos with Carlos Baerga, the retired Puerto Rican professional baseball player.
The Caribbean island of 3.7 million people is a U.S. territory acquired in 1898 following the Spanish American War. Spain had controlled the island since Christopher Columbus claimed it for the Spanish crown in 1493. Even though Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens, they pay no federal income tax and cannot vote in presidential elections. Its political parties are largely built around disagreements over its political status. The island divides its politics over its status more than it does over the traditional Republican-Democratic split. One aspect of the statehood fight is whether English only should be made the official language in the former Spanish colony.
Spanish and English are the official languages though the majority of people speak Spanish as their primary language. Santorum on Thursday said having the country use English should be a "condition" for the island to become a state, a position advocated by tea party groups.
"This needs to be a bilingual country, not just a Spanish-speaking country. Right now, it is overwhelmingly just Spanish," Santorum told reporters Thursday.
Those who attended Santorum's events here — he's spent two days in Puerto Rico, meeting with the governor and holding town hall meetings in addition to visiting an evangelical church — were overwhelmingly concerned about statehood and English. At a town hall Wednesday focused on veterans' issues, Santorum was asked about statehood. And during a Thursday morning visit to a special needs school, one of the invited parents changed the subject away from caring for a special needs child to the island's political future.
"How would you see the possibility of a dual language state in Puerto Rico?" she asked.
Santorum said he would back statehood, but he didn't answer her question about language.
Associated Press writer Danica Coto contributed to this report.