As background, I am Puerto Rican, born and raised in Borinquen, and I have worked extensively on Puerto Rico issues since I was a teenager, including advising Democratic leaders and presidential candidates on the Puerto Rico status issue.
Anyone who attends school in Puerto Rico learns English. Public school education is in Spanish, but English is taught as a second language since childhood. And English has always been a requirement in the University of Puerto Rico system.
Given that our Democratic and pro-Commonwealth Governor-Elect Alejandro García Padilla obtained a B.A. from the University of Puerto Rico and later earned a law degree from the Interamerican University of Puerto Rico, he reads, writes, and speaks English probably better than many in the United States.
The biggest educational disparity in Puerto Rico is in terms of where you learned English. You're bound to have much better English if you learn it in a private school, and even there, your English is even better if you learned it in a private school where all instruction was in English, except for Spanish class, than if you learned it in a private school where all instruction was in Spanish, except for English class.
Even the older folks (i.e., our great grandparents and grandparents) speak English because they learned it in the old pre-commonwealth public school system run by the US military, which taught all Puerto Ricans English.
Thus, Puerto Rico has a long tradition of poking fun at some of their political leaders' inability to speak English. For example, a 2011 local video on comedic radio program El Circo de la Mega created a pretend conversation between Barack Obama and García Padilla to make fun of what it saw as García Padilla's alleged inability to speak English. It's in Spanglish, pretty funny, and worth a listen.
Given that, you probably won't be surprised to hear that, as reported by local newspaper Primera Hora, Puerto Ricans would find it funny that García Padilla struggled to respond to a reporter's question in English during the event where he announced his transition team. Puerto Ricans found the incident so amusing that a video of the press conference has gone viral on social media.
But the incident has also led some to feel embarrassed and outraged by García Padilla. As governor, Garcia Padilla has to have some command of the English language in order to advance Puerto Rico's interests with US political leaders and officials. Keep in mind that, as a US territory, Puerto Rico depends on the governor's ability to negotiate with the United States government the islands' successful inclusion in social welfare programs. Not being able to speak English could endanger the islands' inclusion in such programs.
Some of the outrage stems from the fact that, when previously asked during the campaign to give voters a sample of his English-speaking skills, García Padilla refused on the grounds that, "This is the Puerto Rico Senate and here we speak in Spanish, so I'll answer any question in Spanish. If I have to go to the United States I will speak English there, but not here." Thus, unlike past Puerto Rico governors, all of whom have had a command of the English language, García Padilla refused to inform voters as to whether he had this essential skill to be an effective governor.
7:34 PM PT: I've been surprised at the strong reaction to my post, but I am grateful as well because it's giving me more of an opportunity to explain our culture.
Keep in mind that in Puerto Rico we breathe, eat, and live politics 24/7. Our most beloved TV character in Puerto Rico that gets the highest ratings is an enormous transgendered puppet called La Comay that comments on politics on a regular basis. See ABC news' take on that subject: http://abcnews.go.com/.... As such, I have updated my post above to provide more of a cultural context and in the hopes of making it more informative for those who know little about Puerto Rico
Tue Nov 13, 2012 at 9:05 AM PT: This morning, Garcia Padilla spoke to El Circo de la Mega about yesterday's incident.
He poked fun at himself saying that he got stuck trying to think of the word "flow" and, as a result, none of the other words came out.
He also said that he asked the reporter to speak more slowly because there was a lot of sound in the room, and he couldn't hear well, and not because he couldn't understand what she was saying.
He emphasized that he does indeed speak English and that this one event should not be a reflection of his English-speaking skills.