Language, Elites, and the State: Nationalism in Puerto Rico and Quebec

Language, Elites, and the State: Nationalism in Puerto Rico and Quebec

Language, Elites, and the State: Nationalism in Puerto Rico and Quebec

Language, Elites, and the State: Nationalism in Puerto Rico and Quebec


For decades the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico and the Canadian province of Quebec have been riveted by the politics of nationalism, the question of their final status, and the protection of their local languages. In the name of cultural defense, the legislatures in San Juan and Quebec City have passed several laws focusing on protecting the vernacular. Barreto explores these two cases and challenges some general preconceived notions about nationalist movements.

A common premise in ethnic conflict studies is that nationalism is caused by cultural traits, such as language or religion, or is a result of a region's subservient economic role vis-à-vis the country's core. However, Barreto contends that Puerto Rican and Québécois elites turned to nationalism in reaction to their social marginalization and economic suppression. Anglophone elites in the U.S. and Canada established a hegemonic order making English a requirement for social and economic ascendancy. Shunned by the country's dominant group on account of their language, elites in Puerto Rico and Quebec took up the banner of nationalism attempting to establish a counter-hegemonic order. Thus, nationalism, Barreto contends, is an unanticipated reaction to the exclusionary attitudes and policies of one group against another. This analysis is important to political scientists, social scientists, and researchers involved with nationalism, ethnic conflict, and Puerto Rican and Canadian studies.


Throughout the twentieth century numerous scholars and policy-makers have celebrated a requiem for the phenomenon known as nationalism. Like the renowned phoenix, nationalism seems to disprove its detractors and rise from the ashes to challenge the supremacy of the sacrosanct modern state. Where they did not previously exist, nationalists requested or insisted on the creation of ethnically based political units. Moderate territorial demands amounted to the establishment of autonomous regions within the confines of the existing state apparatus. More militant demands insisted on the secession of the ethnic enclave, thus creating a new independent country. How leaders reacted to nationalist demands varied tremendously by country, time period, and administration. In most cases, and throughout most of the past two centuries, governments have vehemently resisted negotiating with any incipient nationalist demands, relying on their armed forces to maintain the state’s supremacy.

But not all regimes fought their respective nationalists. Negotiations for autonomy proceeded in many countries as did agreements on eventual secession. While they are fewer in number than their more sanguineous counterparts, they do point out that not all requests for greater self-rule are met by the barrel of a gun. A relatively recent example of peacefully accorded autonomy was the creation of the canton of Jura. Since its break from Bern, this entity has showed no notable signs of trying to leave the Helvetian Federation. On the other hand allout independence was the goal of others. Norway quietly severed its union with Sweden early in the twentieth century. Nor did the partition of the Czechoslovakia in the latter part of the twentieth century involve bloodshed.

To its opponents nationalism is an irrational and outdated doctrine that counters the ordained trajectory of historic evolution. Their underlying premise asserts that history follows a linear and evolutionary path from primitive tribal organizations to more advanced and culturally heterogeneous states. Nationalism’s critics see modern states as necessary vehicles for technological and eco-

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