The Commonwealth of Puerto Rico came under the global spotlight on August 2 when the Caribbean island territory of the United States won the Olympic gold for the second time ever. That day, Puerto Rican sprinter Jasmine Camacho-Quinn won first place in the 100-meter hurdles. But her celebration was cut short and marked by dissatisfaction in terms of identity.
Camacho-Quinn was born to a Puerto Rican mother and an African American father. She was born and raised in South Carolina not speaking Spanish (something she is working to learn). Her background made her a target for many enraged Puerto Ricans who questioned the authenticity of her Puerto Rican roots. One such person was Puerto Rican tennis player Gigi Fernández, the athlete responsible for the territory’s first gold medal. Prior to Camacho-Quinn’s winning race, Fernández took to Twitter to air her frustration. In a now-deleted tweet that received much criticism, she said:
“And is she Puerto Rican?” Fernández wrote in Spanish. “Does she speak Spanish? Was she raised in Puerto Rico? Hmm. How curious.”
Puerto Rico has been under United States’s control since its invasion of the island in 1898 and wrestled the territory out of Spain’s domination as part of the Spanish-American War. In spite of this, Puerto Ricans held on to their own traditions and have a thriving culture of their own. Moreover, according to the Jones Act of 1917, any individual born in Puerto Rico after April 24, 1898, also becomes a US citizen without the right to vote during presidential elections and can freely travel between both regions.
In the present day context, this means that Puerto Rican athletes competing in the Olympics can choose which region they’re representing. “Fernández, who rose to No. 1 in doubles in 1991, chose to compete in 1992 for the U.S. alongside Mary Joe Fernández, the No. 9-ranked doubles player in the world, to improve her odds of winning. The decision provoked scorn,” reported a Los Angeles Times article. Camacho-Quinn, on the other hand, chose to represent Puerto Rico to honor her mother.
When the 24-year-old runner received her historic medal on the podium while her national anthem “La Borinqueña” played, it is hard not to be reminded of yet another Puerto Rican who shuttled between two roots. The reminder is none other than La Borinqueña, the fictional comic book superhero and Puerto Rican patriotic symbol, created by graphic novelist Edgardo Miranda-Rodriguez. Her origin story is as Marisol Rios De La Luz, a Columbia University Earth and Environmental Sciences Undergraduate student living with her parents in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. She takes a semester off to study abroad in collaboration with the University of Puerto Rico. “There she explores the caves of Puerto Rico and finds five similar sized crystals. Atabex, the Taino mother goddess, appears before Marisol once the crystals are united and summons her sons Yúcahu, spirt of the seas and mountains and Juracan, spirit of the hurricanes,” said the La Borinqueña website. They ultimately give her superhuman powers like extreme strength, the power of flight and control over storms.
La Borinqueña‘s official Instagram page even paid homage to Camacho-Quinn, likening the two women because of their notable representation and strength. “Honestly I know she [Camacho-Quinn] isn’t an actress but if there was ever a person to play Marisol in a live action. Just sayin,” said one comment.
In fact, creator Miranda-Rodriguez was inspired to formulate La Borinqueña in 2012 because of Puerto Rico’s contentious ties with the US. The region had been wrought in a two decade-long economic downturn that began in the 1990s when President Bill Clinton stopped providing tax cuts to Puerto Rican workers. It resulted in closed factories, massive unemployment and widespread debt.
“No one was talking about how all of this was affecting those living in the island,” said Miranda-Rodriguez to Laura Castro Lindarte in her feature on the comic book series. “They weren’t talking about the 300 schools that were closing, the hospitals that closed, the thousands of Puerto Ricans that were dying in the island,” he said. Much like Camacho-Quinn who was inspired by her mother to pledge allegiance to Puerto Rico for the Tokyo Olympics, Miranda-Rodriguez too was influenced by the female figures who raised him when he conceptualized La Borinqueña. He even credited Puerto Rico and how countries are often referred to in the feminine. “Even the word country in Spanish is conjugated like a feminine noun [la patria]. No one ever says ‘el patrio,’” he said.
His titular character even gets her name from Puerto Rico’s national anthem, but not the one currently taught in schools. Here too, the female icon is honored. The superhero La Borinqueña is named after the original version of the anthem composed during Puerto Rico’s revolution by a woman named Lola Rodriguez de Tío in 1868.
Puerto Rico is experiencing internal strife where its people are wrestling with the idea of statehood, holding on to its current commonwealth status, or fighting for complete independence. “Most people support either the pro-statehood New Progressive Party or the Popular Democratic Party, which supports the island’s current commonwealth status. A smaller percentage of “independentistas” support the Puerto Rican Independence Party, which advocates for the island’s independence from the U.S.,” reported NBC News.
Others also quick to point out that Puerto Rico is not a country, even when Puerto Ricans mean so. In Camacho-Quinn’s case, she expressed joy after winning by saying: “I’m pretty sure everybody’s excited. Just to put on for such a small country, to give little kids hope. I’m just glad I’m the person to do that. I’m pretty happy with that.” USA Today then tweaked her quote to replace “country” with “territory”. As they faced backlash, the newsroom replied with: “Clarification: A version of this story was updated to clarify a quote by Jasmine Camacho-Quinn, who called the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico a country.”
"I am pretty sure everybody [in Puerto Rico] is excited," Camacho-Quinn told reporters. "For such a small [territory] it gives little people hope. I am just glad I am the person to do that.— USA TODAY (@USATODAY) August 2, 2021
📸 James Lang, @usatodaysports pic.twitter.com/vtfrynynLf
Both Camacho-Quinn and La Borinqueña are radical in their own right. Both Afro-Puerto Rican women lit up Puerto Rico with new spotlights of sports and superhero, respectively. Miranda-Rodriguez’s words ring true: “With everything going on with Puerto Rico, we need something to elevate our culture, our heritage, our pride.”