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Island Still Split Over Its Identity

By Ivan Roman

May 21, 2001
Copyright © 2001 ORLANDO SENTINEL. All Rights Reserved.

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- The glittering Miss Universe crown looked kind of cute on middleweight boxer Felix "Tito" Trinidad.

The crowd at his first triumphant news conference back on the island, on Mother's Day, roared with laughter when new beauty queen Denise Quiñones put it on him.

Then he put his middleweight championship belt on her.

All four local newspapers splashed the pair hamming it up on their front pages. One even inserted the Puerto Rican flag as a backdrop.

The two met at the airport as Trinidad was returning from defeating middleweight champion William Joppy at Madison Square Garden. Quiñones was flying off, two days after her triumphant night, to start her world travels.

"We are great!" a headline read.

It was a great way to cap off a great weekend for Puerto Rico, a triumph of boxing and beauty that brought out the parties and the pride.

In other parts of the world, such things could seem trivial. But they're big news here.

The reaction to Puerto Rico's win in the Miss Universe pageant was so strong that caravans of cars filled with cheering people waving Puerto Rican flags took to the streets and paralyzed traffic after the pageant at 1 a.m.

Some say these kinds of demonstrations signal a growing "nationalism" on this Caribbean island of 3.8 million people. But what it means and what effect it can have on Puerto Rico's future is not clear.

As a U.S. commonwealth, which critics call a glorified colony, Puerto Rico has a degree of autonomy over its fiscal and administrative affairs. In what some call "the best of both worlds," it also offers the space for Puerto Ricans, who are U.S. citizens, to affirm their cultural identity and to take to the world stage on their own in sports and the Miss Universe pageant.

"Those are the prime examples of what we would lose if we became a state of the United States," Senate President Antonio Fas Alzamora, who supports an "enhanced commonwealth," told El Nuevo Dia newspaper. "In both settings, Puerto Rico competes on its own. And in these cases, with Denise and Tito, our people competed against those representing the United States."

Some academics say Puerto Ricans' glee about such victories helps fight poor self-esteem caused by the political situation. Many islanders think Congress is often insensitive or disrespectful in dealing with them.

Others just call it the emergence of a "cultural nationalism" among people whose culture and identity were under attack during decades of strict colonial rule and political repression.

But such things as talk of making Spanish the sole official language again and Trinidad fans forcing victory-rally organizers last year to take the U.S. flag off the stage -- "This is our victory!" one yelled -- can call into question Puerto Ricans' loyalty to the United States.

That often sends pro-statehood politicians on damage-control missions to Washington, most recently after a clash three weeks ago between the U.S. Navy and protesters in Vieques resulted in about 180 arrests.

Statehooders sustained heavy losses at the polls in November, but they don't see that as a rejection of statehood or the United States.

The same people who rush to reassure friends in Congress about Puerto Rican loyalty say they don't see a "cultural nationalism" turning into a political one. Puerto Ricans have repeatedly shunned independence at the polls.

"I'm glad they won," House Minority Speaker Edison Misla Aldarondo said of Trinidad and Quiñones. "But Juan del Pueblo [the average citizen] knows that what's important is security and handing over to his children and grandchildren a Puerto Rico where you have real peace and a better quality of life.

"They are not going to let winning or losing a beauty pageant affect the way they vote."

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