A Black South Carolina-born Puerto Rican won the island’s second gold medal ever in the 2020 Olympic women’s 100m hurdles, a moment of pride for many boricuas worldwide. But the lead-up to Jasmine Camacho-Quinn’s win sparked controversy on the island, with many debating if Camacho-Quinn is Puerto Rican because she was born and raised in the States.
The Puerto Rican Olympic Committee considers athletes who have parents or grandparents that were born in Puerto Rico among those who are able to qualify them as having “nacionalidad deportiva puertorriqueña” — Puerto Rican athletic nationality.
Camacho-Quinn, who has a Puerto Rican mother, represented the island at the 2016 Rio Olympics and addressed all questions regarding her identity in 2017: “If I truly wanted to make that U.S. team, trust me I’d be sure to make it. I don’t want to. I love running for PR & I love my supporters,” she wrote in a tweet in 2017, addressing the contention.
Almost 6 million people living in the U.S. are of Puerto Rican descent. This number includes those born on the island who have relocated to the States and those that have family from the island. But what qualifies someone as Puerto Rican is a decades-old argument between islanders and the diaspora. For islanders, folks like Camacho-Quinn and playwright Lin-Manuel Miranda, who spent most of their lives growing up in the mainland, are too Americanized to be boricua. “Son gringos, ni saben español, algunos ni han vivido en la isla.”
Jorge Duany, an anthropologist at Florida International University, said tendencies to gatekeep “Diasporican” identity historically stem from islanders who blamed Nuyoricans returning to the island for bringing gangs, crime, and violence from stateside cities like New York. They were also criticized for not knowing Spanish — a common attribute on people’s laundry list of “Puerto Ricanness.” But with 65% of self-identified Puerto Ricans living outside the island, the list of markers for Puerto Rican identity has become more fluid, Duany said.
“Even Puerto Ricans born and raised in the U.S. who don’t speak Spanish continue to identify as Puerto Rican,” Duany said, which is a difference from Latinxs at large, many of whom choose to assimilate and use a dual identity for their ethnicity (for example, Mexican American). Duany believes that the in-group perception of “Puerto Ricanness” is more persistent and strict.
Loree Drasich is one of those U.S.-raised Puerto Ricans. She was born on the island in Mayagüez but moved to Massachusetts as a child. When other Latinxs would make fun of Drasich’s struggle with her Spanish, she would question her own identity.
“That made me extremely insecure and extremely embarrassed,” Drasich said. “And so, I was thinking ‘I’m not Hispanic, I can’t speak Spanish, am I even Hispanic at all?’”
For many, Drasich not speaking fluent Spanish is an admission that she’s not proud to be Puerto Rican. But for Drasich, her identity has nothing to do with her language skills. It comes down to the instant and inherent sense of community she feels around Puerto Ricans.
Natalia Pérez-González, born and raised in the U.S., is the daughter of a Puerto Rican mother and a Dominican father. Pérez-González’s childhood was rife with Puerto Rican customs and food; their table often decorated with guineitos en escabeche, arroz, habichuelas, and plátanos during the holidays. Pérez-González said identifying as just American or Latinx cuts out a large part of who she is.
“I would say it’s just [my mother’s] intentional embedding of her culture into me, and I feel like identifying with it helps me identify with her and identify with my family. That’s really important to me,” Pérez-González said.
Islanders who have relocated stateside have also experienced questions about their bona fides. María Heysha Carrillo grew up in Canóvanas, Puerto Rico, but has been living in North Carolina for more than seven years. Her time stateside has changed the way she dresses and speaks, including her accent, and Carrillo often encounters Latinxs and Americans who question her identity. Even family members have told her she now looks too different to appear boricua.
“Coño, what am I going to do now? That hit hard. I said ea rayo, I’m not Puerto Rican anywhere. But I feel Puerto Rican,” Carrillo said.
Like Camacho-Quinn, Andrea Gelabert-Mora’s choice to wrap herself in a Puerto Rico team shirt was questioned when she competed in international tennis tournaments. Gelabert-Mora was born in Palma de Mallorca to a Spanish father and Puerto Rican mother. When she was three, she moved to Puerto Rico with her mom. Since then, Gelabert-Mora has grown up, studied, and practiced her sport on the island.
“I sometimes forget I was born in Mallorca, because Puerto Rico has given me everything,” Gelabert-Mora said. “I’ve created my whole life here.”
Personally, the story of people who have been adopted by the island is familiar. Forty years ago, my grandmother and father arrived on a new strip of land they would now call home. The salt air smelled like Havana, the cobblestones laid by the same colonizers, but the Spanish had a different lilt. Puerto Rico — not Cuba — is their home now.
As I watch those questioning Camacho-Quinn’s identity, I think about how the definition of “Puerto Ricanness” in my own family is so fluid and representative of how so many others feel toward the island.
So, to Jasmine Camacho-Quinn: Thank you for representing Puerto Rico. As Bad Bunny would say, boricuas — desde Bayamón a Orlando — are grateful.