NEW YORK – What does pride sound like? Probably something like this: With Monica Puig down a set and trailing 5–2 in the second to Saisai Zheng in her opening-round match at the 2016 U.S. Open on Monday evening, the temporarily-resurrected Grandstand roared to life. The noise reverberated around the old concrete.
¡Si se puede! ¡Si se puede! ¡Si se puede!
Yes we can! It grew louder, legions of fans clad in red and blue, a few carrying Puerto Rican flags, one screaming “Pica Power!” seemingly in between breaths. They had come to Flushing to see the 22-year-old girl who, over the last two weeks, had become one of the most famous Puerto Ricans in the world. Puig stormed through the field in Rio de Janeiro to claim Puerto Rico’s first-ever gold medal, and now she had descended upon a city with millions of Nuyoricans—Puerto Ricans living in and around New York City—eager to embrace the one who elevated Puerto Rico, at least for a moment, from the mire of financial crisis, economic suffering and colonialism.
Si se puede. That was the case on Aug. 14, when Puig beat the favored Angelique Kerber to claim Puerto Rico’s first-ever gold medal at an Olympic Games. The gold-medal match sent the island, and the diaspora, into unadulterated jubilation. When American Sloane Stephens withdrew from the U.S. Open last Friday, Puig was bumped up to the No. 32 seed.
“I’m still caught up a little bit in the Olympics and trying to get ready for the U.S. Open,” Puig said before the tournament. “It’s just been such a rewarding past couple weeks, so I’m still trying to enjoy the moment, because this thing doesn’t come around very often.”
A few hours before Puig took the court on Monday, Jose Morales’s eyes were welling up just thinking about his homeland’s first gold medal. Morales, 47, splits his time between two islands: Puerto Rico, where he has spent most of his life, and Manhattan. On Monday morning, he’s at La Marqueta in El Barrio, a traditionally Puerto Rican and Latin American neighborhood otherwise known as East Harlem or Spanish Harlem. The market, which runs under the elevated Metro North tracks in the center of Park Avenue, between 111th Street and 116th Street, was once a cultural center of Nuyoricans—and thanks to people like Morales, La Marqueta is on its way to fully recapturing that spirit.
For Morales, Puerto Rico’s sporting history fits into a larger narrative of its place in the world. The United States invaded Puerto Rico in 1898, and since then the island has belonged to the U.S. in one way or another. Puerto Rico is officially a territory of the U.S., but its citizens are effectively disenfranchised from national elections. Puerto Rico can make its own laws and elect its own leaders, but the island is still subject to the United States.
“We’re in f****** limbo,” Morales says.
Puerto Rican sports are no exception. San Juan native Gigi Fernandez, a former world No. 1 doubles player, won gold medals at the 1992 and 1996 Olympic Games—but for the United States. The U.S. and Puerto Rico are frequently at odds in international competition, like at the 1979 Pan American Games in San Juan, where Bobby Knight drew the ire of a nation with his derogatory words about Puerto Rico (“the only…thing they know how to do is grow bananas”) and his outlandish behavior, as described by John Papanek in the July 23, 1979 issue of Sports Illustrated. The following year, the U.S. boycotted the Moscow Olympics, but Puerto Rico still sent a delegation. There are rare moments of triumph for Puerto Rico, like when the island upset the U.S. men’s basketball team at the 2004 Olympics.
Creating a space for Puerto Rican culture to thrive at La Marqueta is a priority of Melissa Mark-Viverito, who represents New York City’s eight district—which stretches from East Harlem to Randall’s Island and up to the South Bronx—on the city council. As Speaker of the New York City Council, she is the first Puerto Rican and Latina to hold a citywide elected position, and like Puig she feels an attachment to both Puerto Rico and the United States.
This sense of dual identity is shared by many Puerto Ricans in the U.S. and on the island.
“The reality that Puerto Rico lives and the relationship it has with the U.S. is very complicated,” Mark-Viverito says. “But despite the fact that it is a territory, there is a strong sense of identity, and Spanish is still the dominant language. Despite the fact that it has been part of the United States since 1898, the culture is very unique. So there is a sense of identity that is very distinct.
“So with that, that complexity, for someone like me I am very proud to live in New York, I’m very proud to live in the United States, I’m very proud to be an elected official representing this city and working on behalf of this city,” she continues. “But that doesn’t take away that I have a strong Puerto Rican identity and I can be loyal to both.”
This is the meaning of Monica Puig: She’s an American, yes, but her strong connection to her birthplace was clear to anyone who watched her in Rio or saw the ensuing scenes of celebration when she returned to the island.
For Mark-Viverito, the island’s only gold medalist affirms that Puerto Ricans can be both proud of their American citizenship and their Puerto Rican heritage.
“She was raised here in Florida but she is still proud to be Puerto Rican,” Mark-Viverito says. “She has that part of her identity that still tugs at her and is still part of her, who she is.”
What does pride sound like? Ask Carlos Cuevas, who sits on the board of New York Junior Tennis & Learning, a tennis and education program for New York City kids. As he and his wife watched Puig clinch the gold medal from his home in Riverdale, in the Bronx, the former New York City clerk and Bronx deputy borough president thought about decades of Puerto Rican history, intertwined with his own as a native Puerto Rican whose family moved to America in search of a better life.
He thought about millions of immigrants to America, like Puig, who moved to Miami as an infant. He thought about discrimination. About the 65th Infantry Regiment, a volunteer Puerto Rican unit in the Korean War. About the current economic situation in Puerto Rico, which is facing a huge debt crisis. About Congress’s lack of urgency as the island suffers. And when Puig won, he cried.
“I don’t know what the future holds for Puerto Rico,” he says, choking up with emotion. “But it certainly did help.”
In July, Puerto Rico defaulted on a huge debt payment, failing to pay $911 million to bondholders. This year, as the government’s fiscal crisis grew, so did calls for the U.S. to take action on its troubled territory. Just a few days before the default, Congress—after months of slowly shuffling its feet—passed legislation to restructure $72 billion in bond debt and to create new oversight. Adding to its woes, the island has also become a hotbed for Zika virus transmission.
Puig did not end Puerto Rico’s financial crisis, nor did she heal the economic suffering of millions of Puerto Ricans. But her gold medal has given Nuyoricans concerned about the island’s wellbeing, and frustrated with U.S. inaction, something powerful: hope, joy and pride.
“Her being able to stand on that podium and for the anthem to be played and to receive that gold medal on behalf of Puerto Rico let us shine individually and independently for a moment,” Mark-Viverto says.
Cuevas serves on the board of NYJTL, which operates the Cary Leeds Center for Tennis and Learning, a sleek new facility nestled in Crotona Park, a largely Hispanic neighborhood in the South Bronx. Talk to almost anyone at the center and they’ll tell you about Pica Power—not Puig’s powerful strokes, which are undeniably formidable, but her potential impact on aspiring tennis players, particularly of Hispanic descent.
“I think it’s huge. I think a lot of Hispanics, Puerto Ricans, people of Hispanic descent around the Bronx, they look at tennis as more of a suburban sport,” NYJTL instructor Rene Cintrón, 39, says. “But I don’t think it’s true.”
“I think it’s bigger than the whole tennis thing,” says Cary Leeds front desk manager Ingrid Caraballo, 47, who was born and raised in New York City to two Puerto Rican parents. “It’s the example that if you work hard enough and long enough at something, it will pay off.”
Puig lost on Monday, falling 6-4, 6-2 to Zheng in her first match since Rio 2016. She was positive after the match, crediting her opponent and noting that other players, like Garbine Muguruza, had struggled to maintain momentum after their first career-defining victory.
“A lot of pressure, a lot of expectation, but I can always continue to learn. That's what I'm going to try and do,” she said after the match. “These are new waters for me, new territory. I'm going to have to start getting used to it.”
Undoubtedly, Nuyoricans, of which there are millions, won’t stop embracing Puig anytime soon. They’ll look to her with a sense of reverence—for providing momentary respite from the island’s economic crisis, embodying the dual identities of Puerto Ricans, offering hope to young Hispanics in the city, and mostly for giving a proud people an even greater sense of pride. Si se puede.
What does pride sound like? It sounds like Monica Puig, even after her defeat on Monday.
“Everyone was there supporting me. They didn’t really let down at any moment. It’s even great to see that at my lowest points they were there for me. I really appreciate it,” she said. “I know that I can always come back to New York and have a Puerto Rican family there for me.”