Monday, August 15, 2016

Monica Puig, citizenship and representation

A few days ago, Monica Puig won Olympic gold in tennis, the first athlete competing under the flag of Puerto Rico ever to do so.  I was sitting at my computer when I heard the news and a bolt of electricity shot through my body.   I cried the first time I saw Puig on the medal stand and heard "La Borinqueña" in the background, and cry every subsequent time I watch the clip. It took me back to my childhood, when my entire neighborhood sat around the television set and watched Wilfredo Benitez and Wilfredo Gomez win world championships in boxing.  The sense of pride is indescribable.  

Yet my passport tells me I am an American citizen.  My passport is wrong.
Puerto Rico has been an American colony since the close of the Spanish American War and the signing of the Treaty of Paris on December 10, 1898.  Puerto Ricans became American citizens in1917 and the Jones Act.  But the island has remained in constitutional limbo since then, a colony of the United States, an unincorporated territory and "foreign in a domestic sense."  We are American citizens in name only; so long as we remain on the island, we are not full and equal citizens of the United States.  We cannot vote for president or members of Congress for example.  Also, Congress can treat island citizens differently from citizens of the states.  We owe this unequal condition to the Supreme Court and the Insular Cases, decided over a century ago.  This is indefensible as a question of democratic theory or American constitutional law.

 I am interested in what Monica Puig teaches us about identity, citizenship and US constitutionalism.  I am an "American citizen" and yet, why does Puig's victory affect me in ways that Michael Phelps' myriad gold medals do not.  Why does Puerto Rico's upset victory over the United States in basketball in the 2004 Athens Olympics move me in ways that the 2016 US women's gymnastics team does not?  Why does watching "In the Heights" move me to tears, and so does Anthony Ramos when he waves the Puerto Rican flag at the 2016 Grammys?  Why do I feel immense pride every time I see Lin-Manuel Miranda in the news, or Carlos Correa, or Justice Sonia Sotomayor?

The answer is obvious.  The concept of citizenship is far more complicated than we often recognize.  I am, and forever will be, a citizen of Puerto Rico, irrespective of the Jones Act and stated US policy.  And to be clear, I do not mean this as a criticism of US policy towards Puerto Rico -- though I am critical of it. I mean this as a question of identity and democratic theory.  Citizenship cannot be imposed from above.  Citizenship is not words on a piece of paper.  Citizenship is goose bumps when you see your flag and hear your national anthem at the Olympics.  Citizenship is the sense of pride you feel when your compatriots achieve great things.  Citizenship is the reflexive and unconditional love you feel for your country.  Citizenship is a state of mind.

And here is where it gets more complicated still.  I remember the tremendous sense of pride I felt when Gigi Fernandez became the number one doubles tennis player in the world.  I remember when she played doubles with Martina Navratilova.  I remember when she won her many grand slam doubles titles.  I loved every single one.  

And then, she committed what, to some people, amounts to a sin: she chose to play for the flag of the United States in the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona.  She had her reasons.  To many people, this amounted to a betrayal.  In a delicious irony, her partner was Mary Joe Fernandez, a US citizen born in the Dominican Republic.

I don't get it.  Gigi Fernandez was born in San Juan, played for Puerto Rico in Olympic, Pan American, and Central American games before switching flags in a sport where she needed a world class partner in order to compete at a top level.  And here's the thing: not once did I think that she was not representing Puerto Rico.  She was Gigi Fernandez all along, born in San Juan, one of us.  She never stopped being one of us simply because she played under the US flag.    And I felt tremendous pride with her many victories.  The only thought that ever crossed my mind at the time, and still does today, is that a Puerto Rican was the top doubles player in the world.    Her choice to play under a different flag was irrelevant to me.

And therein lies the rub.  Gigi Fernandez could no more represent the United States than I could represent the Dominican Republic, the country of my father's birth and where many of my relatives live.  I am not Dominican.  To be sure, I feel great love for the Dominican Republic, more so than most people.  But great love does not equal citizenship.  Citizenship requires much more. 

So yes, I will enjoy and feel great pride in Monica Puig's tremendous achievement.  I will cry every time I see the medal ceremony.  But I will do the same about Gigi Fernandez's illustrious career.  She is one of us.  She represents Puerto Rico, whether playing under the Puerto Rican flag or not.

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