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What Puig’s Olympic Gold Really Means for Puerto Rico

The island’s first gold medal is a source of pride and hope amid financial and health woes.
Mónica Puig
Photo: Tatiana (flickr) September 29, 2014

On Saturday afternoon, I was sitting with my blanket gripped tightly to my face as my boyfriend patiently repeated (for the fifth time) the difference between a game and a set.

Like many other Puerto Ricans, it was the first time I had watched tennis, and I kept forgetting the rules. For the 8 million of us on the island and in the diaspora, time stood still as our eyes were glued to TV screens, laptops and cell phones to see if 22-year-old Mónica Puig would make history as Puerto Rico’s first gold medalist.

Puig’s win set up a series of firsts. It was the first time that a Puerto Rican woman who competed under our single star had medaled, and our first gold medal at that. Because of Puig, “La Borinqueña,” Puerto Rico’s national anthem, played on the Olympic stage for the very first time.

In the days leading up to the gold medal match, Pica Power fever took over. Puig’s matches were screened in malls, schools, hospitals, gas stations, and even Senate offices. By Saturday, #PicaPower was trending worldwide on Twitter. The band Plena Libre summed it up perfectly in a song they wrote and streamed live: “I feel a pride I can’t explain…Mónica Puig, you are from Puerto Rico.” She is a Puerto Rican who moved to Florida as a young girl, and yet chose to play under the Puerto Rican flag. That alone was more than enough.  

In a year where Puerto Rico’s sovereignty has been put into question by the U.S. Supreme Court, that Puerto Rico fielded a team at all seems almost political. For over 60 years, it had been generally understood that a 1950 agreement and Puerto Rico’s 1952 constitution made it a self-governing territory. They were used as justification for removing Puerto Rico from the United Nations’ list of non-self-governing territories in 1953. An amicus brief filed by the U.S. government and the Court’s subsequent June ruling essentially rewrote history, asserting that all matters regarding Puerto Rico belong to Congress alone.

In 2016, for all intents and purposes, the U.S. declared Puerto Rico a colony. And yet, despite never having achieved independence, through a quirk of sports history Puerto Rico has competed internationally as a separate entity since 1948 — four years before being granted what was, at the time, considered semi-autonomous status as a Commonwealth.

For Puig, playing for Puerto Rico was never a question. “I’ve always been 100 percent loyal to where I was born, the roots I was raised up in […] That island has given me so much love and support my whole career,” she said.

As the unseeded Puig clinched her win over her second-seeded opponent, Puerto Ricans all over the world exploded in shouts of unbridled joy. The significance of a member of the diaspora playing for her nation was not lost on me. I cried, feeling a sense of pride for a woman whom I had never met playing a sport I had never watched.

The pride we felt came not only from seeing one of our own compete on the world’s largest stage, but in our ability to see in Puig our very best attributes in a year when the focus seems to be on the various crises on the island: our passion, our love and loyalty toward our island no matter where we live, our tenacity and determination to disprove those who call us “easy prey with no track record of success,” and our ability to persevere with joy, no matter the odds.

For two glorious hours we forgot about Zika, violent crime and Congress’ decision to install a controversial fiscal control board to help right Puerto Rico’s finances. Puig united us; and she did so by honoring where she comes from, blemishes and all.

In a few short days, the Olympics will end and the glow of our Cinderella moment will start to fade. There are serious challenges ahead, both for Puerto Ricans on the island and those of us in the diaspora as we help determine the 2016 election. But for now, we bask in having proved the world wrong. As Puig stated moments after her win, “This is definitely for them. They're going through some tough times and they needed this and I needed this. I think I just united a nation. I love where I come from.”

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García is the social media editor and production editor for Americas Quarterly. Follow her on Twitter @LeaniGarcia.

Any opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of Americas Quarterly or its publishers.
Tags: Puerto Rico, Rio Olympics, sovereignty, Commonwealth