August 13, 2016 will forever be one of those days where almost every Puerto Rican will remember where she or he was and what they were doing. And chances are, they were probably breathlessly watching Puerto Rican tennis player Monica Puig (@MonicaAce93) win Puerto Rico's first ever Olympic gold medal.
Monica Puig played spectacularly well against Angelique Kerber from Germany, who at that moment happened to be ranked number 2 in the world. Puig entered the Olympic games ranked number 34.
But that's just one of the reasons why Monica Puig's victory will be remembered as one of the highlights of the Rio 2016 Olympics. Puig's success holds a very special meaning for Puerto Ricans everywhere. Not only did she win Puerto Rico's first ever Olympic gold medal in any sport, but she is also the first woman to win an Olympic medal for Puerto Rico. (She isn't the first Puerto Rican to win gold, however. That honor belongs to another tennis player, Gigi Fernández, who won gold in the Barcelona 1992 Olympic games playing doubles for the United States.)
Intriguingly, Puig could have chosen to play for the US Olympic delegation, which would have made sense considering she was raised and lives in the state of Florida. She has instead chosen to forge a career playing tennis representing Puerto Rico.
Why Puerto Rico, which is a US territory and has been for more than a century, has its own Olympic delegation is a complicated story. In short, the Olympic governing body recognized Puerto Rico's National Olympic Committee in 1948, and ever since then Puerto Rico has had its own team, though Puerto Ricans hold US citizenship. Other US territories, such as the US Virgin Islands, Guam and American Samoa, also compete with their own delegation.
Puig's victory came at a time when it was very much needed after a summer full of dispiriting headlines for Puerto Rico, from patronizing media coverage about the Zika virus to a loss of political autonomy thanks to a US government-imposed fiscal control board. Her words immediately after winning make it clear that she knew full well the significance this would have for many:
I think I united a nation, and I just love where I come from.
Social media erupted in an avalanche of celebratory joy upon the realization that Monica Puig won the match. Many users, irrespective of gender, changed their profile pictures to show her image and she became a trending topic across social media platforms. Many others reported having cried during the award ceremony, when for the first time ever Puerto Rico's national anthem was played at the Olympics.
Facebook user Margarita Javier shared just how meaningful that moment was for her and for countless Puerto Ricans:
[This] is the first time the Puerto Rican national anthem, “La Borinqueña” was ever played at the Olympics. We have been participating since 1948. I have watched every Olympics and our Puerto Rican athletes closely since I was a little girl, always hoping we'd get to hear the anthem. Even though we're not a politically independent country, ideologically and historically we are a fully realized, complex nation with our own unique culture, and our patriotism and nationalism is a form of colonial resistance. It's impossible to put into words why this moment is so meaningful and important to us. Every Puerto Rican in the island and abroad has been united. We are all Mónica Puig.
It is no wonder, then, that on August 23, 2016, people filled the streets of the capital city of San Juan to receive the Puerto Rico Olympic delegation on their return home. In the following video, students from the Puerto Rico Conservatory of Music can be heard playing the Puerto Ricon national anthem, La borinqueña, when the Olympic team passed by the Conservatory:
Puig's gold medal did more than just unite a people living in an archipelago of three inhabited islands. It united a people who are spread between that archipelago and many other parts of the world, not the least of which is the United States, where most Puerto Ricans emigrate to. When Puig said that she believed she united a nation, it wasn't a mere figure of speech. It was the truth.