Two weeks ago, after writing a series of posts about Puerto Rico for our Hunt the Devil blog, I sat at the bar of the Caribe Hilton in San Juan nursing a drink and watching the sunset on the beach. At such times, it is easy to understand how the first explorers believed they had found Paradise when they discovered the Caribbean islands.
Suddenly my contemplation was disturbed by a storm of police sirens, fire trucks blaring, PA systems screeching, TV news reporters and a mob of hotel guests rushing towards the entrance of the hotel. To the anxious question what is happening? the bartender answered with Beckettian simplicity: “Monica’s here.”
He was referring to the arrival of Monica Puig, first athlete to ever win a gold medal playing for Puerto Rico, fresh from her victory at the Rio Olympics in the single women’s tennis event. She was staying in the hotel complex to train for the upcoming US Open tournament, and to attend a scheduled parade in her honor. At this point in time my wife Margarita, who is a native born Puerto Rican, left the seat beside me to join the rushing crowd trying to get phone pictures of Monica.
I had come to the island to find out what was transpiring given Puerto Rico’s current economic woes. Instead (and perhaps because of the troubles) I found the island and its people—family, high school friends, former students and fellow academics, leading Puerto Rican artists and their relatives—ecstatic over Monica’s triumph, disheartened by Javier Culson’s disqualification in the 400m hurdles, and consumed by the Rio Olympics. This was understandable. I know how much Puerto Ricans treasure their athletes, thinking of them as Davids sent into battle against Goliaths from larger countries.
What I did not expect (although I should have) was the negative reaction that Monica’s victory unleashed among non-Puerto Ricans and US observers. The following four comments, heard by me and/or read on social media, are representative of the tenor of the response.
- Vicarious gloating: The commentator (a Spanish tennis player) of the Spanish broadcast of Puig’s gold-medal match against Angelique Kerber (from Germany) made sure to let his audience know that Puig was of Catalonian descent.
- Vicarious bitterness: One old friend complained on the phone: “Her father was born in Cuba!” He was upset that Cubans had not been given proper credit for Puig’s medal.
- Sour grapes: “If she is Puerto Rican and trains in Florida she should be playing for the American team. Isn’t Puerto Rico a part of the US?” This comment led to two revelations:
- Settlements such as American Samoa, Guam, Hong Kong, etc. are allowed to participate as individual entities in the Olympics in the name of fellowship because we know, given their size, that they will not win. Let one of them win gold, and the medal will be immediately claimed by the colonial nation.
- Americans have never seen a map of America or seen the film of the musical West Side Story. If they had, they would understand that America is not a nation, but a continent, and that Puerto Rico IS in America.
- Low-level jokes: “Now she can sell her gold medal to help pay off Puerto Rico’s debt!” or “How about getting a real job now?” Comments like these make this writer believe, along with Mark Twain, that there is nothing lower in the scale of evolution than the human race.
Perhaps it was easy for me to stay at the bar with my drink, and not join the crowd rushing to get a glimpse of Monica. After all, I had seen her gold medal game on TV, and had cheered for her youth, her fierce determination and sheer beauty of her skill on the court, as one would have cheered for a kin, a neighbor or a relative.
But I never think of myself as belonging to a country. “A healthy nation,” wrote George Bernard Shaw about Ireland at the turn of the 19th century, “is as unconscious of its nationality as a healthy man of his bones. But if you break a nation’s nationality it will think of nothing else but getting it set again.” This may explain (along with the great heart of Puerto Ricans) the effusive love of a US colony for its athletes; but it is a resounding condemnation of a great country that uses Olympic medals—golden or otherwise—as proof of its own exceptionalism.