When the U.S. signed the treaty with the Spanish to acquire Puerto Rico in 1898, the Americans overlooked one major detail: how to accurately spell the territory’s name. Scholar Amílcar Barreto details why the island was called “Porto Rico” for more than a quarter of a century and the contentious debate to change it back to its original spelling.
Brian Balogh: As we’ve heard, Puerto Rico has been a United States territory since 1898, but it hasn’t always been called Puerto Rico, at least not by folks who didn’t speak Spanish.
Ed Ayers: Really? What else would you call it?
Brian Balogh: Take a look at a map from the early 20th century, Ed, and you’ll see the island is named Porto Rico, as in P-O-R-T-O. In Spanish, puerto means port, but in porto, that doesn’t mean anything at all. That didn’t stop Congress from officially recognizing the island as Porto Rico for decades. It wasn’t until 1932, more than a quarter of a century later, when they finally fixed the spelling to what we use today.
Nathan Connolly: That’s the year they invented spellcheck.
Brian Balogh: You’re jumping the gun a little bit on that, Nathan, but that mistake all came down to a typo. I spoke with Professor Amilcar Barreto about the mistake that changed the island’s name from Puerto to Porto and the surprisingly divisive debate about changing it back. He’s researched the name change and says it started after the war with the Spanish.
Amilcar Barreto: The United States ends up taking over Spain’s overseas colonies, Guam and the Philippines in the Pacific, Puerto Rico and Cuba in the Atlantic. They negotiate the peace treaty in Paris. Clearly they were gonna work on two drafts of the treaty, one in Spanish, one in English. They never bothered to painstakingly proofread the two versions to see if they completely matched. The English language version misspelled Puerto Rico as Porto Rico, and of course the version in Spanish spelled it quite correctly. After all, Spain had been in charge of the island for 400 years, they knew how to spell the island.
Brian Balogh: They got that right, huh? I know that there was a debate about spelling it and pronouncing it correctly throughout the beginning of the 20th century. Could you give me a sense of the arguments on both sides?
Amilcar Barreto: Once Puerto Ricans discovered that, oops, there was a mistake, because they began seeing the name of their island appearing in federal documents, what have you, as Porto Rico, they began a process of asking Congress, “Can you please change our name back?” Puerto Rico as a U.S. territory still to this day has no formal representation in the U.S. Congress except for a non-voting delegate, who’s referred to as the island’s resident commissioner. The resident commissioners throughout the first 30 years of the 20th century kept asking Congress, “Will you please consider changing our name back?”
Male: Mr. Chairman, first of all I must say that I feel very proud and greatly honored on this first occasion in which I am to be heard by this high body. I represent a small country, but a country which is a community of one and a half million American citizens. Puerto Rico is the name we have given to our fair land. Puerto Rico is the word associated with the tombs of our parents and the cradles of our sons. Puerto Rico is the word we have consecrated as representative of our patriotic sentiments. I am here because we have faith in the justice of the American people and because we believe in American institutions. We know that this Congress is not willing to impose itself upon the patriotic feelings of the people of Puerto Rico, and we know that we are going to have the restitution that we are asking for in this bill, which is of immense significance to the high feelings and patriotic sentiments of one and a half million American citizens on the island of Puerto Rico.
Amilcar Barreto: It was such a low priority that Congress, to be blunt, kept blowing off Puerto Rico, until finally in 1930 the Puerto Rican legislature passed a unanimous resolution asking Congress and President Hoover, “Will you please change our name back?” That’s what got the ball rolling in Congress, a process from 1930 to ’32, culminating in the name change.
Brian Balogh: What were the arguments against changing the name? Why antagonize all of those Puerto Ricans?
Amilcar Barreto: The arguments were absolutely precious. First, there were some who didn’t want to change the name, who insisted that porto was a perfectly legitimate word next to Spanish. Some of them, by the way, insisted that porto was the correct English version of the island’s name. Others insisted that porto, P-O-R-T-O, was a Spanish name, which clearly it was not, ignoring, by the way, other members of Congress who knew Spanish and were telling them, “No, this is not correct.” They also chose to ignore Puerto Rico’s legislature. After all, they should know how their island is spelled. Some questioned the cost, “Is this gonna cost too much money?”
Brian Balogh: Wait wait wait wait. Hold up. Hold on. Hold the presses, quite literally. These were the days where, yes, they might’ve had to reprint something. Are you telling me people argued we can’t change the name because the printing cost will be too high?
Amilcar Barreto: That is correct.
Brian Balogh: Come on.
Amilcar Barreto: This appears in the Congressional record. I kid you not. The arguments become even more ridiculous. The ultimate trump card is children, “Oh, we’ve spent so much time and effort teaching them Porto Rico, it would be an undue burden to force them to learn Puerto Rico.”
Brian Balogh: Spill the beans, who’s the ringleader against changing the name back to Puerto Rico?
Amilcar Barreto: A couple of names come up in the Congressional records as staunch opponents of the name change. A particularly feisty one was Representative William Henry Stafford, a Republican from the state of Wisconsin. He was particularly vehement in his dismissal of Puerto Rican sentimentality, “English is fine,” which means Porto, which he thought was English. There was no problem attaching it to Puerto. He brought up on several occasions the people over there of Spanish descent and how what they want is not American. In fact, talk about a grammatical error, Representative Stafford kept referring to Porto as the proper Anglican, quote unquote, version of the name. The last time I checked, Anglican referred to a church, not to a language, but oh well.
Male: Mr. Chairman, I take the time in opposition to this bill, because I believe it would be a mistake to change a name that all the children, all the people for years back have known under that name the island adjoining that of Cuba. Now it is a mistake for us to try to engraft a Spanish name upon an Anglican name. Porto is Anglican for “this island,” and it has been accepted as such. It would not only cost thousands, but hundreds of thousands of dollars to make this change. Why would we in this particular change a name just because the legislature of Porto Rico wishes to have a Spanish rather than an American name? We have it established in the minds of the people of this country as Porto Rico as the name of the island, and when the bill is read, I intend to move to strike out the enacting clause, because I do not think this Congress should be occupied with these insignificant matters.
Brian Balogh: Professor Barreto, you are a professional of cultures, societies, global studies. It sounds to me like there’s more than a typo going on here. Will you tell us what’s going on behind this? We’ve been laughing at it. It’s a rather farcical story on the surface.
Amilcar Barreto: Behind all this is the story of Americanization. Americanization was a formal policy implemented in Puerto Rico between 1898, really 1899, and about the late 1940s, but the most intensive period was those first three decades of the 20th century. From the perspective of the federal government, the dream was to have everyone culturally switch over and become English-dominant, hence justifying something in the name of the English language was perfectly reasonable from their perspective.
Brian Balogh: You call this overall attitude, I think the phrase you use in your scholarship is malign neglect. Could you explain that?
Amilcar Barreto: Yes. It’s a form of neglect. Federal government for the most part doesn’t care what’s going on, not realizing that it’s hands off when it rules the island, it is the sovereign, has all sorts of negative consequences. We see a very good example of it today with the consequences of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico and the realization that, hmm, a lot more people died than we thought right after the event. Malign neglect.
Brian Balogh: I think that your explication of the history of Puerto Rico to Porto Rico back to Puerto Rico is very illuminating and sheds light on the larger relationship, but some would say, “Oh come on, this is just historical political correctness. Who cares?”
Amilcar Barreto: It’s interesting how a fundamental aspect of those debates is repeated in contemporary debates about Puerto Rico. Those who advocated restoring the island’s name brought up on several occasion, “These people are our citizens, to be clear.” 1898, Puerto Ricans lose their Spanish citizenship, but Puerto Rican Islanders would not acquire U.S. citizenship until 1917. De facto we were stateless for 19 years. Officially we were so-called citizens of Porto Rico. What does that mean to be a citizen of a territory? The notion of citizenship and that bestowing worthiness upon a people repeats itself in contemporary debates about Puerto Rico’s status vis a vis the federal government. That part of that debate from the 1930s endures in different forms. Oftentimes today it’ll take on more nuances, such as not only do Puerto Ricans have citizenship, but since World War I they have fought in every major American conflict. It’s a nuance on the same theme of worthiness and citizenship.
Brian Balogh: It’s more than a typo. It’s more than misspelling.
Amilcar Barreto: It’s an attitude.
Brian Balogh: You know that the current American president is somewhat infamous for misspellings in his tweets. Are you worried that he might return Puerto Rico to Porto Rico?
Amilcar Barreto: That would take an act of Congress, and I suspect that Congress has higher priorities than name changing.
Brian Balogh: Amilcar Barreto is a professor of culture, societies, and global studies at Northeastern University.