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.