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Puerto Rico´s People

Prince of Asturias Award for Literature 1991

Your Majesty,
Your Highness,
Mr. President of the Principality of Asturias,
The Right Honourable Minister for Employment,
Ladies and Gentleman,

The land that Juan Ramón Jiménez once called the friendly isle, where this great poet also set up home outside Spain, today receives the 1991 Prince of Asturias Award for Letters from its Foundation.

Why does Puerto Rico merit this Award? May I answer with a few words by Pedro Salinas, another great Spanish poet: ?because of its regard for and defence of its language.?

For having defended its native language against a policy imposed during the first forty-five years of this century to educate in a different language.

For the ongoing use of the Spanish language in the intimacy of private life.

Because Spanish is still used in every facet of Puerto Rican society.

Because of the creativity of our novelists, poets and writers.

For all these reasons, the Government of the Free Associated State of Puerto Rico has declared Spanish its official language.

All of which has earned the Award we celebrate today, which I thank you for on behalf and in representation of my country.

The language of King Alfonso el Sabio, El Cid, Lebrija and Queen Isabel of Castille arrived in our country almost five centuries ago. It was borne there by such Conquistadors as Juan Ponce de León, such men of the cloth as Bishop Alonso Manso and by colonists like García Troche and Baltazar de Castro. Mediaeval Spanish archaisms that they passed on to us, such as chavo, bellón, ansina, and ínsula, to name but a few, are common terms in our rural dialects. In our fields, one can here the ancient ballads of Delgadina, Blanca Flor and other songs that reached our shores almost five centuries ago. The ten-line stanza is still the most popular poetic form amongst our troubadors.

As also happened in the West Indies, the sweet-sounding, lilting language of Castille was embellished in Puerto Rico by the languages of our native inhabitants and by the centuries-long linguistic contributions of the Africans, who also contributed to our ethnicity and cultural enlightenment.

After colonization, relations between Puerto Rico and Spain were intense, particularly during the last century. Large numbers of Spaniards and Puerto Ricans alike plied the Atlantic in both directions. Mid-way through the last century, Manuel Fernández Juncos set out from here, Asturias, for Puerto Rico at the age of eleven. He was destined to earn a place of honour in our politics and literature. When sovereignty changed in 1898, he was one of the staunchest defenders of our language. One of the many things that Puerto Rico has to thank this son of Ribadesella for is the words to its national anthem, "La Borinqueña".

In 1987, on the occasion of the meeting in San Juan of the National Commissions for the Fifth Centenary of the Discovery of America, King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia of Spain undertook the first visit to Puerto Rico of Spanish sovereigns. The visit highlighted the friendly, family reunion-like rapprochement that had began a few years earlier. This rapprochement has expanded into official, financial, cultural end educational interchange and into other channels to establish singularly closer ties between Spain and Puerto Rico.

The rapprochement coincides with other liaisons that Puerto Rico has established with its Caribbean and Central American neighbours. Espousing the world of Ibero-America, who we share a culture and a language with, comes at a time when our country it exerting its will to play its part in world events and to seek its identity with a power that emanates from the innermost reaches of our being.

This is what sparked our decision about our language; it was a decision that required the tricky counterbalancing of political wills, given the range of opinions amongst the population as to what our links with the United States should consist of.

Asserting one?s own identity does not mean snubbing others?. Respect for others is achieved on the basis of respect for oneself. Our relationship with the United States of America is based on mutual respect and on each other?s freedom to be oneself.

Puerto Rico had the foresight to neither become federated nor separate from the United States. In order to shed its colonial status, Puerto Rico created its own self-governing political space, the Free Associated State, which provides the strength of political and economic union but also allows for the vigour of its own separate cultural identity.

Upon contemplating events in the world, we believe that Puerto Rico and the United States may be able to offer their experience and the lessons learnt from our ninety-three-year old relations. The world?s superpower and a tiny country manage to live in harmony and to mutual benefit within flexible organisations based on democracy and freedom, with enough political space for each to be able to build their identities and culture and to overcome confrontation, terrorism and violence in their different guises.

The Award being bestowed on Puerto Rico today also honours the United States of America. It honours them precisely because of the respect they have always shown for the decision taken by Puerto Rico. The freedom that our self-governing relationship guarantees allows plenty of leeway for cultural diversity.

Furthermore, as part of the democracy and freedom fuelled from within the United States itself by the advance of social and ethnic pluralism, a new vision of man and the world, based on the coexistence of the English and Spanish languages in the very heart of that country, will one day issue forth from this great nation.

Your Majesty,
Your Highness,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

Puerto Rico?s choice of language looks to the future rather than the past. Our society is in the vanguard. We are an island state that has taken democracy and a free economy as cornerstones; within the context of the Caribbean, we have developped technologies and an industrial sector of ample scope that can compete in all the world?s markets, a strong financial sector that has a powerful impact on our region?s countries, and a foreign trade second only to Mexico and Brazil in Latin America.

We boast a working class that is amongst the best qualified in the world; 10% of our population has a university education acquired either in Puerto Rico or in one of the state-of-the-art educational establishments abroad. We have a highly trained scientific and technical class. We hold our own in international sport. We are preparing to bid for the 2004 Olympic Games. Our artists are known internationally.

Our modern, dynamic society has been culturally enrichened by its contact with North American society. English is a very useful tool for us that we value highly. But our mother tongue is what binds and unites us as a nation and is what we use to express our deepest feelings and beliefs and our most jealously guarded thoughts and values.

Spanish as the official language is the bedrock for a strong policy to curb semi-lingualism. We are fighting semi-lingualism, an ailment that affects people where cultures mingle. Across-the-board impoverishment of expression, a lack of vocabulary, fuzzy thought and general inarticulateness are some of its millstones. In contrast, we encourage bilingualism by providing wide-ranging opportunities in education, though we acknowledge that it should be the outcome of individual effort and interest.

The nation of Puerto Rico propounds building its future on the cornerstone of Spanish. We are honoured by the Award and feel welcomed by a brotherhood that shares a language and a vision of the world.

We view the events that will take place in Spain this coming year on the occasion of the Fifth Centenary of the Discovery of America with the utmost interest. We hope and trust that, having established our political position as a Free Associated State, we can participate in events in a way that is befitting of an irrevocably Latin American country.

Your Majesty,
Your Highness,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

Allow me to speak of my country, Puerto Rico, as it receives this great honour, to finish this brief speech.

Its heroic nigh-on century-long defence of Spanish was not simply a feat of our intellectuals, our politicians and our writers. The decisive resistance was by the people, by the simple, humble folk of Puerto Rico. Resistance was spawned in the San Juan quarter, in the rocky outcrops of Cabo Rojo, in the sugar-cane plantations of my native town of Ponce, on the beaches of Luquillo, in the mountains of Utuado, by the humble peasants who learnt their prayers, their ten-line stanzas and their ballads in Spanish. Resistence was born of this people and nation, which treasures the Castillian vocabulary used to describe their lives in hidden corners of their very being and in the palpitation of their souls.

The people are the heroes. It is the people who have preserved the language in which God purveyed the Gospel according to Don Quixote to Cervantes. It was the people and their heroic resistance that enables us to belong to the language community that unites the three hundred and forty one million people who express themselves in Spanish.

The people?s victory has enabled the works of our poets, novelists, playrights and essayists to be produced in the universal language that they share with Juan Ramón Jiménez, with Borges, with García Márquez, with Cela and with Octavio Paz.

On behalf of the land of Borinquen, who took the words of its national anthem from one of the offspring of the land that now bestows this Award upon us;

On behalf of the island that this great Asturian figure called the ?daughter of the sea and the sun?;

On behalf of the good people of Puerto Rico, who have remained true to themselves, I thank you.

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