With her victory over Petra Kvitová in Friday’s women’s singles semifinals match in Rio de Janiero, Monica Puig ensured that she will become the first woman to win a medal representing Puerto Rico at the Olympics. If she completes her unforeseen run by beating Germany’s Angelique Kerber on Saturday, Puig will become the first person to ever win an Olympic gold medal for Puerto Rico.
But Puig, 22, wouldn’t be the first Puerto Rican to win a gold medal. She wouldn’t even be the first Puerto Rican woman to win a gold medal in tennis. Gigi Fernández was the first, claiming the gold medal in women’s doubles at the 1992 Games and repeating the feat in 1996. Like Puig, Fernández was born in Puerto Rico and identifies as Puerto Rican. The difference? When she stood on the podium in Barcelona and Atlanta, “The Star-Spangled Banner” was played, not “La Borinqueña.”
Fernández’s decision to represent the United States drew intense backlash in Puerto Rico and the scorn has resurfaced in recent days, illustrating the powerful link between international sporting competition and Puerto Rico’s distinct — and complicated — national identity.
First, the background: Puerto Rico has been an unincorporated territory of the United States since the culmination of the Spanish-American War in 1898, with its own culture, customs and language (Spanish and English are the official languages). With the passing of the Jones Act in 1917, anyone born in Puerto Rico on or after April 25, 1898 became a U.S. citizen, though without the right to vote in presidential elections. In 1952, the U.S. Congress approved the Constitution of Puerto Rico, which granted more autonomy for Puerto Rico under U.S. control.
Puerto Ricans, therefore, have the option to represent the United States if they choose — and qualify — even though Puerto Rico has sent its own delegation to every Summer Olympic Games since 1948. It also works the other way around: A person born outside Puerto Rico who has blood ties to the island no further than a grandparent or is married to a Puerto Rican while having resided in Puerto Rico for at least three years prior to competing is eligible to represent Puerto Rico in the Olympics.
So, one may wonder, how does Puerto Rico enjoy sporting sovereignty without political sovereignty? The short answer is Puerto Rico wanted it, international bodies recognized it, and the United States didn’t impede, though there were complications at first.
Nearly seven decades since Puerto Rico’s Olympics debut, Fernández is regarded as the most accomplished female Puerto Rican-born athlete ever. She rose to No. 1 in the world in women’s doubles in 1991, won 17 grand slam titles in doubles and reached the 1994 Wimbledon semifinals in singles. Before the 1992 Olympics, she had represented Puerto Rico in various international tournaments and Puerto Rico sought her. She was offered the role of flag-bearer at the opening ceremony in Barcelona.
But Fernández wanted to win a medal and her best chance was in doubles. Her doubles partner if she chose to represent Puerto Rico would have been a player outside the top 240 world rankings. Qualifying would have been a long shot. The U.S. offered Mary Joe Fernández, a Dominican-born player who was ranked No. 9 in doubles in the world, as a doubles partner. So the Puerto Rican Fernández, who had already played for the U.S. at the Federation Cup, chose to represent the United States.
The decision was not popular in Puerto Rico. After her first victory in Barcelona, a Puerto Rican congressman of the island’s independence party claimed Fernández betrayed Puerto Rico’s Olympic team.
“I still feel Puerto Rican,” Fernández told The New York Times in August 1992. “My whole family is there … I’m very proud for Puerto Rico. I’m very proud for the U.S. I’m very proud.”
Last week, 20 years after Fernández’s second gold, Puerto Rican identity became an impassioned topic of discussion among Puerto Ricans once again — with Fernández back at the core. During the Opening Ceremonies, Fernández, whose Twitter bio concludes with “Proud to be Puerto Rican,” tweeted a photo of the Puerto Rican delegation on television with a question, “Is he Dominican or Puerto Rican?” in Spanish, followed by “Double standard” in English.
Fernández was referring to Puerto Rico’s flag bearer, Jaime Espinal, a wrestler who was born in the Dominican Republic and moved to Puerto Rico when he was 5. Espinal has only represented Puerto Rico in international events and he won the island’s second-ever Olympic silver medal at the 2012 Games London in freestyle wrestling.
Fernández was widely condemned for the tweet. Critics called her a racist and a sellout. Espinal responded to Fernández that he was Dominican but “represents Puerto Rico with his life.”
Espinal then wrote an essay that appeared on the website of El Nuevo Día, Puerto Rico’s largest newspaper, on Friday defending Fernández, who has tweeted her support for both Espinal and Puig.
“Only God knows what she has gone through and why she made that decision,” Espinal wrote in Spanish. “Every four years it surfaces that she represented the United States and not Puerto Rico, and without wasting the opportunity we pounce on her, we get angry, and we hate her. If we had that same passion to stop ourselves in front of an idea and struggle for it until the end, Puerto Rico’s history would be different.”
The episode is the latest snapshot of the convoluted and inexact Puerto Rican identity often on display in international sporting events, one that includes a diaspora that makes up more than half of the imagined Puerto Rican nation created by the island’s ambiguous political status and amplified by its recent economic crisis.
There have been moments of Puerto Rican Olympic triumph scattered through the years. In its first 17 Summer Olympics appearances, Puerto Rico won eight medals — six bronze and two silver. Six have come in boxing. In 2004, the Puerto Rican men’s basketball team became the first to beat Team USA since NBA players were allowed to compete in 1992.
The pinnacle could be reached Saturday afternoon, when the world’s eyes will fixate on perhaps the greatest Puerto Rican Olympic performer since Fernández. Puig is assured of Puerto Rico’s ninth and the first for a woman.
One question remains: will “La Borinqueña” play on the Olympic stage for the first time?
Jorge Castillo covers the Washington Nationals for The Washington Post. His senior thesis at Yale — Puerto Rican National Identity: America’s Colony on the International Sporting Stage from 1930 to the Present — focused on the intersection of Puerto Rican identity and sports.