Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Miami Girl Wins Gold

Is it just me, or are we living increasingly more in the land of narrative?

I’m not against narrative: what writer could be? But there is something about the intersection of sports and narrative that I don’t get.

If you don’t know, Mónica or Monica Puig succeeded in getting a tennis ball over the net fractionally more often than her opponent. She went on to win a gold medal, the first gold medal by a player representing Puerto Rico. That’s a crucial difference: Gigi Fernández, who won two gold medals in women’s doubles tennis, was born and raised in Puerto Rico, but represented the United States.

“So tell me about that again,” I asked Mr. Fernández—no relation to Gigi, but definitely related to me (he’s my husband).

“Well, she got some flak at the time, but she said she wanted to represent Puerto Rico, but there was no one for her to partner with…”

Is that true?

I have no idea.

OK—back to Mónica / Monica. No one can deny her personal triumph, and no one can deny that tennis is a superbly difficult game. That she was not expected to win, and that she did, is a gripping story. And even I, as the game was playing out, and Mr. Fernández was cooking dinner, guiltily snuck onto ESPN—quite a novel experience—to check in on how things were going for Monica.

Or Mónica….

Then dinner was served, and one does not, in Mr. Fernández’s house, engage with electronics at table. Fortunately, though, there were people engaged with electronics, since the cigar bar across the road had both the doors open and the game on the large screen. So every time Fernández scored, the street erupted. Sometime just before the end of dinner, the crescendo peaked, and it became clear—the crowd outside was going crazy.

“Well, either Monica won, or Dayanara won the Miss Universe contest again,” I said to Mr. Fernández. Dayanara Torres was the Miss Universe of 1993, and her win was announced by similar street fanfare.

So I checked in, and sure enough, Monica Puig was there , standing on the center and highest dais; the Puerto Rican flag was rising higher than the two others, La Borinquena was playing.  And then Monica Puig was tweeting. Well, after getting the medal, of course. And what was she tweeting?


“We did it, Puerto Rico,” is a poor translation. “We achieved it,” is literal but equally  poor. So maybe it’s best to say that Monica was saying, “this is Puerto Rico’s win.”

This is the gracious thing to say. It is also emotionally true, since Puerto Ricans, whether living on the island or living elsewhere, feel an amazing connectedness to home.

But is it true in any real sense? Did everybody on the island take turns driving Monica to her tennis lessons? Work a second job to get her the best coach? Hold her hand when it was needed, and tell her to keep her dream alive? Or were we smoking cigars and watching her win, and celebrating our victory?

To some degree, any individual achievement in any endeavor belongs to the community which fosters that achievement. A Puerto Rican singing at the Metropolitan Opera—Ana Martínez—was raised on the island, studied for a time on the island, and then went off to the Boston Conservatory and Juilliard. But still, Puerto Rico has some claim to her. But what about Monica Puig?

Although the 22-year-old moved to Miami as a baby, has spent virtually all of her life living and training in South Florida, and sheepishly admitted she doesn’t know the words to the Puerto Rican anthem, she was overwhelmed with Puerto Rican pride during and after the match. She said she considers herself a true “Boricua” (Puerto Rican) and was energized by the many Puerto Rican fans in the stands who chanted “Si se puede!” (yes you can) throughout the match.

She says more:

I still have family in Puerto Rico. It’s my favorite place to go when I just want to go to the beach and be with family. That island has given me so much love and support my whole career. I just owe this one to them.”

I totally believe her. But take note: she comes to the beach, she visits her family, and
“that” island has given her so much support….

What isn’t Monica experiencing? Well, she isn’t waiting for her tax refund, which the local paper has just announced isn’t coming any time soon. She wasn’t the victim of a murder on a court in a community center at 8:50 PM in the small town of Las Piedras. But there is good news, according to today’s paper: the medical evacuation by helicopter service, which had stopped providing service when the government stopped providing funds, is now up and running again!

I have nothing but praise for Monica Puig. I admire her fidelity to her roots, I applaud her huge personal achievements, I salute her grace in thanking Puerto Rico.

So what’s my problem?

There are things—many things—that Puerto Rico can be proud of. Consider the fact that the students of the engineering school of the University of Puerto Rico-Mayagüez routinely win first place in national and international competitions. In fact, the school is ranked number four nationwide.

So when a student or graduate of the university goes on to work for Boeing as a senior engineer responsible for “all electrical wire design, integration and equipment installations on the 747 and 767 programs, including the new 747-8 and the 767 Refueling Tanker Programs”—well, we can be proud. We built and maintained that university, recruited the faculty, nurtured the talent. And while it may not be an Olympic gold medal, well, which would you prefer, as you step onto a 747?

Am I being a killjoy? What’s wrong, after a decade of horrendous news in Puerto Rico, with feeling—at long last—a little pride? Joy, at seeing a hometown girl make the gold?

We live by narrative. We tell ourselves stories about who we are, who they are, what our world is. And the truer those stories are, the better we get on with our lives.

I wouldn’t be writing this if it were just Monica Puig. But while researching this, I found out that Gigi Fernández is the cousin of José Ferrer, the famous actor, and where was his fame achieved? Oh, and he went to Princeton, where he wrote a thesis on French Naturalism, and was a member of the Princeton Triangle Club. He died in Coral Gables, Florida, but he did donate his Academy Award to the University of Puerto Rico. Will it soften the blow if Wikipedia tells you, not I:

The award was stolen after being misplaced during the remodeling of the university's theater. 

Ana Martínez—born and raised in Puerto Rico, graduated from Juilliard—stepped in at the last minute to replace an ailing soprano in Madame Butterfly. The Observer called it “a triumph.”

And now Monica Puig? Or remember all that business of Mónica / Monica Puig? Isn’t it fairer to say that this island produces great talent—Ferrer, Fernández, Martínez, Puig? And that they go off, leave, and make their successes elsewhere?

And if that were the narrative we embraced, we would have to look at ourselves, and wonder what we could do to have…

…our very best stay at home.