For Puerto Ricans, Mónica Puig’s Olympic Gold Is a Symbol of Resilience in Tough Times

Lead Photo: Photo: Bernd Thissen for EPA
Photo: Bernd Thissen for EPA
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For a nation with such an ambiguous political identity, Puerto Rico has a lot anthems. Through decades of displacement and upheaval, nostalgic odes to the homeland like “En mi viejo San Juan” or “Preciosa” have emerged as unofficial stand-ins that unite Boricuas aquí and allá around a common experience and collective memory.

But until Mónica Puig stood atop the podium in Rio de Janeiro this weekend wearing an Olympic gold medal around her neck, Puerto Ricans had never before heard their true anthem, “La Borinqueña,” played on such a grand stage for all the world to see.

As Puig shed uncontrollable tears of joy watching Puerto Rico’s flag hoisted for the first time atop the second and third place finishers, it felt like her emotion was not one of mere personal glory, but of overwhelming cultural pride. And indeed, with her first place finish in the women’s tennis singles competition, the San Juan native not only brought her beloved island its first Olympic gold medal, but also its first female medalist in Olympic history.

In an interview after the poignant medal ceremony, Puig put to rest any doubts about the true importance of her win: “This is for [Puerto Rico]… They’re going through some tough times right now and they needed this, and I needed this.” Out of breath and clearly overcome with emotion, she continued, “I think I just united a nation, and I love where I come from.”

It’s a sentiment that was echoed almost in unison on the front pages of Puerto Rican periodicals the next day: over two and a half excruciating hours, Puig’s dazzling performance had brought together Puerto Ricans of all political stripes, races, and sexual orientations at a time when the island’s future hangs in a precarious balance.

Throughout social media, videos proliferated of massive celebrations in bars and public plazas, songs were composed in her honor, and Puerto Ricans forgot momentarily about all of the seemingly intractable problems that have beset the commonwealth over the past years.

But the significance of her win wasn’t just one of temporary escapism. In the immediate aftermath, Puig emerged as a symbol of Boricua resilience. The President of Puerto Rico’s Olympic Committee Sara Rosario Vélez put it bluntly in a blog post published in the midst of national euphoria. “For all of those [Puerto Ricans] who think we can’t do it,” she said, referring to the country’s numerous difficulties, “I must give you my sincerest condolences. Yesterday Mónica gave us a lesson and showed us the path to follow.”

If the 22-year-old unseeded up-and-comer could beat almost impossible odds in the name of her country, any Puerto Rican with the drive and grit to fight for their dream could achieve similar glory. Puig was living proof that the Puerto Rico is still an island overflowing with possibility.

International media seemed equally fascinated with the upset win from the virtually unknown, #34 ranked player. Despite impressive wins at regional competitions, Puig’s only previous WTA victory was at the relatively minor Internationaux de Strasbourg in 2014. Her Olympic competitors, on the other hand, had taken home the top prize at Grand Slam tennis tournaments like the Australian and French Opens, and even picked up previous Olympic medals at London 2012.

Photo: Vadim Ghirda for AP Photo
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It’s perhaps no surprise, then, that Puig was heavily underestimated by international press, with the Spanish newspaper Marca calling her “easy prey” for the #4 ranked Garbiñe Muguruza ahead of the semi-final round. But Puig emerged as a fierce and passionate competitor, and as she worked her way steadily through the first days of competition, the rising star never failed to recognize the importance of her country.

“I’m very faithful to where I was born and where I come from,” she insisted last week in Rio. “I’m very Latina and I love Puerto Rico with all my heart.” And if there was any doubt, one need only consider the fact that the Miami-based Puig has repeatedly rejected overtures from the US Olympic team in order to compete for the island of her birth. It’s a sentiment she has reinforced time and again throughout her short career, including a heartfelt apology to the people of Puerto Rico following her loss in the semi-finals of the 2015 Pan-American Games.

But Puerto Ricans have been infinitely grateful to Puig for providing the struggling island with a much needed moment of unity. Over the weekend politicians, artists, and public figures from diverse backgrounds all took to social media in a massive outpouring of affection. The sentiment was clear: Puig represents the best of Puerto Rico – and she seems to think so, too. “I have ballsy attitude,” she declared candidly earlier this week. “I have the Puerto Rican fire within me.”