Long Road to Gold for Puerto Rico

On August 13, 2016, professional tennis player Monica Puig became the first Olympian to win a gold medal for Puerto Rico. Competing in the 2016 Rio Summer Olympics in the women’s tennis singles, Puig managed to beat the German Angelique Kerber, who is ranked as the second-best tennis player in the world currently. On top of those accolades, Puig is also the first Latin American to win a gold medal in the women’s tennis singles, the first Puerto Rican to win an Olympic medal in tennis, and the first female athlete to win a medal for the island.

It’s been a long road to the gold for Puerto Rico. There has been a Puerto Rican delegation, independent of the U.S. team, in every Summer Olympics since the 1948 London games – and even a few Winter Olympics games. Puerto Rican athletes have a total of nine medals, with six out of that nine in boxing. Juan Evangelista Venegas Trinidad of Rio Piedras won the first medal in the 1948 games in the men’s bantamweight boxing by beating Louis Callenboat of Beligum by unanimous decision. Puerto Rico wouldn’t win another medal until the 1976 Montreal games, another bronze in boxing by Orlando Maldonado of Bayamon in the men’s fly lightweight division.

Puerto Rico received its first Olympic silver medal in the 1984 Los Angeles games, by way of lightweight boxer Luis Ortiz of Humacao. Though he lost his final bout by a knockout in the second round, it was reported that he was still given a hero’s welcome in Puerto Rico. Yet he was not the only one making history for the island, as fellow boxer Aristides Gonzalez won a bronze in the middleweight event to give Puerto Rico two medals from one delegation.

The next time the U.S. territory won a silver medal was in the 2012 London games, which also ended up being the second time Puerto Rico won two medals and the first time AND second time the island received a medal in a category besides boxing. Jaime Espinal, originally from Santo Domingo of the Dominican Republic, won his silver in freestyle wrestling, while his compatriot Javier Culson, of Ponce, won a bronze in the 400-meter hurdle event.

The reception received by Puig from Puerto Ricans, as well as her own jubilation, shows just how much this win means for all Boricuas, those on the island, the mainland, and abroad. Having their own delegation has helped to shape and maintain Puerto Rico’s own national identity. Events at the 1948 games led to Puerto Rico establishing its own flag, after the U.S. complained about the P.R. delegation carrying theirs’. Now more than 60 years later, people in the U.S. take to social media to complain about Puig referring to Puerto Rico as a separate nation in a case of the greatest irony.

Puig is technically not the first Olympian born in Puerto Rico to win the gold, nor is she even the first to win one in women’s tennis. Gigi Fernandez, born in San Juan, won gold medals in 1992 and 1996 in the women’s doubles events. However, she won them for the U.S. delegation, generating significant controversy in Puerto Rico. She also generated controversy recently when she seemingly insulted Puerto Rico’s most recent silver medalist, Jaime Espinal, for his Dominican ancestry. Espinal emigrated to Puerto Rico when he was five, and though he moved with his family to Brooklyn when he was 15, he quickly returned to Puerto Rico – even going so far as to leave without the rest of his family. It’s interesting to note that the exceedingly humble Espinal has actually defended Fernandez, despite the backlash against her carried out in his name.

Two things should be taken from this tale. The first is that the unanswered question of Puerto Rico’s sovereignty and identity does eventually spill over into everything. The second, however, is that the island’s national and cultural pride can be a unifying factor. The Olympian athletes who’ve represented Puerto Rico have been of all colors and backgrounds, but have had one motivation. Monica Puig may have spent a good part of her life living and training in the U.S., but she went out of her way to represent the island of her birth. The love she showed for Puerto Rico was paid back exponentially by her countrymen and women, a testament to the respect Puerto Ricans give to their national heroes.

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#BlackLivesMatter and Puerto Rico

The #BlackLivesMatter movement began with a simple hashtag and a statement of frustration, a reaction to a rash of highly publicized fatal altercations between African-Americans and police (and at least one private citizen acting as if he was the police). Since its inception, it has galvanized people from many different backgrounds and spawned chapters in several American cities, as well as a number of overseas offshoots. Over the past month, a photograph taken by Joaquin Medina from Humacao, Puerto Rico, has been shared all over social media which depicts a group of black Puerto Ricans raising their fists with the tagline “#BlackLivesMatter Puerto Rico.”

The photo doesn’t seem to indicate that those involved are part of a new chapter of BLM in Puerto Rico, but rather the image itself is part of a reoccurring theme in Medina’s photography work that frequently showcases Afro-Ricans as part of the African Diaspora in Puerto Rico. The caption for the version posted on his Instagram account explains that the intention of the photo was to “show solidarity and unity with the black community in the United States,” roughly translated, though the exact language he uses is interesting. Specifically, he calls the killings by the police “the abuses of the government,” which speaks very heavily towards the history of police brutality in Puerto Rico – often targeting black Puerto Ricans of both genders and all ages, and carried out by a monolithic, overbearing police force.

As I said, many people – including more than a couple of group and celebrity pages associating themselves with BLM – have shared the image across social media. The photo has come at a time when many Person-of-Color organizations made up of other ethnic groups have come out to show support for #BlackLivesMatter, especially Latinos. The narrative surrounding the efforts of Hispanics in the United States to help BLM has for the most part been one of honoring shared experiences and empathy towards the plight of African-Americans.

An acquaintance of ours wrote probably one of the best examples of an outside supporter’s perspective on the movement, which does a good job of displaying the viewpoint of a Latino who believes in BLM. However, despite our support, we at Palenque Connections have mixed feelings about how our solidarity as Latinos is being framed. Now, don’t get it twisted – this is a cause we’ve been championing since before it was an idea on everyone’s lips. Our personal interests in this, though, are exactly the reason why we don’t agree with our portrayal as being on the sidelines. Institutionalized racism against persons of African descent is all too common throughout most of the rest of the Western Hemisphere, and we’ve already pointed out that a certain town in a certain U.S. territory has historically already been the subject of much abuse by police.

The history of that abuse by the police and other state apparatuses in Puerto Rico has already been fairly well-documented. Just as with the mainland, the War on Drugs effectively legalized the criminalization of black people on the island. The difference being that in Puerto Rico, with only about 1% of the U.S. population, most phenotypically black people had congregated in a certain few communities. In addition, the only local police force on the island is the Puerto Rican Police Department, a centralized policing contingent that maintains security for every municipality in the territory. As a result, these communities are often quite literally besieged whenever there is the slightest claim of a crime.

One such incident was the “Loizazo” in 2001, when the PRPD responded to a call about a fight breaking out at a children’s birthday party in Loiza with riot gear and indiscriminate beatings. Even the officers who were actually charged with crimes for this gross misconduct eventually had their convictions overturned by the higher courts. The incident has been widely dismissed by the Puerto Rican government and public, though the American Civil Liberties Union did finally begin investigating the PRPD a few years later. They filed several scathing reports and a lawsuit that saw the Justice Department start to crack down with reforms and independent monitors of the island’s police. However, despite the oversight the PRPD is still as corrupt as ever, and the ACLU only began taking notice when the violent tactics were extended to protesting government workers and students.

The message in the aftermath of all this is one that feels all too unfamiliar in the U.S., and Puerto Rico. Black lives matter only when their suffering begins extending to others, and even then it can only be addressed when it doesn’t start rocking the boat too much. In Puerto Rico the problem is compounded by the populace’s own racial identity. There are several conflicting theories and reports on the true ethnic backgrounds of the people that populate the island today, with census results showing that the further away we get from the last large-scale European migration, the greater number of Puerto Ricans think of themselves as white.

Studies have been conducted which paint a more realistic picture, but the findings always seem to be worded in such a way that leans towards excluding or trivializing mentions of African descent. The most conclusive so far indicates the majority (around 60%) of Puerto Ricans can trace lineages to male European ancestors and female Taino (Puerto Rico natives) ancestors. However, they also found that 84% of the women in the study had genetic markers from Africa. If the sampling is reflective of the greater population, then it might hint at the majority of Puerto Ricans having some trace of African blood in their family trees. “Y tu abuela, donde esta,” indeed.

Even more important than the genetic signs are the cultural. Any salsero would find themselves at home in a West African party, using the same dance moves they would in the Copacabana. Musical styles like Bomba and Plena were created by enslaved and free black communities, and even the Puerto Rican lexicon is saturated by African words and colloquialisms. Puerto Rican popular culture is transparently Afro-Caribbean. This makes the struggle between black citizens, the police and the government not only a class and race conflict, but an internal cultural conflict as well. It is, as others have alluded to, a persistent and physical rejection of blackness by Puerto Rican society, even while they continue to silently participate in Afro-Boricua culture.

In many ways, this struggle perfectly mirrors the struggle between African-Americans and white America, the rejection of the physical embodiment even while defining pop culture with their influences. However, in many other ways it’s even more perverse as Puerto Ricans also reject much of their own heritage, and their own family. It’s also reflective of the anti-blackness that permeates virtually all of the former colonies of the Americas. Ultimately, #BlackLivesMatter will have to move beyond framing their fight as one isolated to the United States and African-Americans. This is a cause that affects all black people in the Western Hemisphere. A good starting point would be making “BLM Puerto Rico” more than a picture. That’s not to say that no one in PR hasn’t already been fighting the good fight. If the efforts taken by the ACLU have shown anything, it’s that the leaders of Afro-Rican enclaves like Loiza would not and have not remained silent, even if it’s taken decades to raise any outside awareness. Yet it also shows that the voice of one community is simply not enough. The problem clearly transcends the lines of nationality – our solidarity and our actions will have to as well.