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Celebrity Successes Trigger Puerto Rican Identity Debate

by Robert Becker

March 30, 2001
Copyright © 2001 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

The spotlight seems to be on Puerto Ricans everywhere, and every time Puerto Ricans achieve international success, the debate is ignited on the island: Who are we? Who is Puerto Rican?

Take, for example, the March 3 victory by heavyweight John Ruiz of Boston, Mass., over Evander Holyfield. The win by Ruiz, a journeyman who labored unnoticed for 10 years, caught many fans here by surprise. Once it sank in that Ruiz had become the first Latin American heavyweight champion -- and no less, a Puerto Rican champion -- it set off an exuberant round of celebrating, including a triumphant airport welcome for Ruiz, in which he was presented a gold medal and Puerto Rican flag by Gov. Sila Calderón.

While Ruiz’s victory was, in the fistic world, another meaningless bout in the alphabet soup of professional boxing organizations, it set off a feverish debate on the island among Puerto Ricans, who take both boxing and their identity very seriously. Félix Trinidad Sr., a renowned fight trainer and father of junior middleweight superstar Félix "Tito" Trinidad, said right after the fight that Ruiz, who was born in Massachusetts but whose family lineage traces back to Sabana Grande on the island, was not a true Puerto Rican champion because he was not from "la isla."

Trinidad Sr. touched a raw nerve. While his sentiment reflected the feelings of some many chauvinist diehards, public opinion swung against him. The feeling of Puerto Rican unity, which extends from San Juan to Orlando to New York, trumped Papa Trinidad’s provincial instincts. Newspaper letters to the editor called for unity and embrace of all Puerto Ricans, wherever they lived.

The furor over Ruiz had barely died down when Benicio del Toro, born in San Germán, a picturesque colonial-era town on Puerto Rico’s Southwest Coast, won an Academy Award on March 25 for his portrayal of a Mexican policeman in "Traffic."

Del Toro’s win was front-page headline news in San Juan’s four daily newspapers,

Del Toro left Puerto Rico at age 12 to attend school in Pennsylvania, but his island birth qualified him to be embraced as "one of us." He became just the third Puerto Rican to win an Oscar. José Ferrer did the trick in 1950 with a best actor Oscar for "Cyrano de Bergerac," and Rita Moreno copped a best supporting actress award in 1961 for "West Side Story."

Immediately after his Oscar win, Del Toro received an invitation from the organizers of the annual National Puerto Rican Day parade in New York City to be a guest of honor, along with Ruiz. Del Toro, however, is another matter. Many people in San Juan openly wondered why he didn’t mention his Puerto Rican heritage in his brief Oscar acceptance speech while singling out Mexico. More egregiously, Del Toro failed to wave a Puerto Rican flag or shout "peace for Vieques," gestures which have become standard procedure for Puerto Ricans in the public eye. The fervor and pride associated with del Toro’s recognition will fade quickly on the island if he fails to live up to public expectations for the proper conduct of a Puerto Rican celebrity.

While Ruiz’s and Del Toro’s victories were attention-getters, the brightest spotlight shone on the opening day of major league baseball, held April 1 in San Juan’s Hiram Bithorn Stadium. San Juan’s selection as opening day host city reflected baseball’s keen awareness of Latin America as a market for future growth, not to mention as a hotbed of major league talent.

Baseball sent the Texas Ranger and Toronto Blue Jays, both of which feature marquee Puerto Rican players. In the two days before the game, the Rangers Iván Rodríguez and the Blue Jays Carlos Delgado and José Cruz were scheduled to be everywhere, holding clinics for youngsters, signing autographs, and appearing on local media. ESPN producers were frantically scrambling for historical material on Puerto Rican big league ballplayers in the days before their nationally-televised broadcast

The successes of big-league ballplayers like Rodríguez and Delgado, both of whom are home-grown alumni of the Puerto Rican Winter Baseball League, are also focal points for expressions of Puerto Rican pride. The idolizing that accompanies the successes of Puerto Ricans in the outside world goes beyond that accorded to a local-boy-makes-good hero of Fargo, N. D., say, or Austin, Texas. It is symptomatic of the identity crisis every Puerto Rican feels at one time or another: never fully accepted as " American" in the states, nor possessing the full satisfaction of having an independent nation to call one’s own. The juggling of these conflicting emotions is intrinsic to the unique nature of the Puerto Rican soul, played out in the public expressions of Puerto Rican pride.

Robert Becker, Managing Editor of The San Juan Star, writes the weekly Puerto Rico Report column for the Puerto Rico Herald. He can be reached directly at:

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