Why a runner born in South Carolina considered herself Puerto Rican.
Washington Post, August 5, 2021
by Jorell Meléndez-Badillo, Assistant Professor of History, Dartmouth College
On Aug. 1, millions of Puerto Ricans held their breath for 12.37 seconds as Jasmine Camacho-Quinn ran in the women's 100 meter hurdles final at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. She had already broken the Olympic record in the semifinals. They collectively exhaled and cheered as she won Puerto Rico's second gold medal in the country's history. For some U.S. audiences, it might have been a surprise that Camacho-Quinn, born in South Carolina and a University of Kentucky alum, was running for Puerto Rico. For her mother and family members who celebrated with screams and tears of joy, it was a victory for their country, Puerto Rico.
Camacho-Quinn's Olympic gold medal is a powerful reminder that Puerto Rico is, in fact, a U.S. colony in the 21st century. But although Puerto Rico lacks sovereignty, Puerto Ricans have created complex, fluid and ever-changing national identities in this context. That is, they have crafted a shared sense of belonging to a collective group with shared pasts, cultures and struggles. For Puerto Ricans, Camacho-Quinn's victory is historically important in its own right. But it also forces us to reckon with the fact that Puerto Rico is, in the words of anthropologist Jorge Duany, a nation on the move, one that encompasses a large number of Puerto Ricans now living outside the archipelago itself.
Puerto Rico is a Caribbean archipelago that was first inhabited by Indigenous communities almost a millennia ago. The Spaniards first arrived in 1493 and began its colonization 15 years later. It remained a Spanish colonial possession until 1898 when the United States waged war against the decaying Spanish Empire. In the Treaty of Paris, signed Dec. 10, 1898, Puerto Rico became a colonial possession of the United States.
The status of Puerto Rico was contested and challenged in the early 20th century through a series of "Insular Cases" at the U.S. Supreme Court. Racist and xenophobic ideas permeated some of the justices' opinions; several of the justices, after all, had recently weighed in on Plessy v. Ferguson, which codified segregation in the South.
In court documents, Puerto Ricans were described as weak, inferior, and "alien races." Puerto Rico, it was decided, was "foreign in a domestic sense." That is, Puerto Rico belonged to the United States, but was not part of it — because to be part of it would mean including nearly a million Puerto Ricans in the U.S. population. And while the 1917 Jones Law granted Puerto Ricans U.S. citizenship, they would not be fully protected by the Constitution while outside of the continental United States. To this day, they carry a second-class citizenship.
But Puerto Ricans were also at work crafting their own ideas of citizenship and nation. Beginning in the late 19th century, a handful of intellectuals started crafting a national identity by building what scholars have called "The Great Puerto Rican Family" trope. Similar to racial democracy myths in Latin America, it was a powerful narrative that sought to incorporate everyone on the archipelago into the Puerto Rican nation, regardless of their class, race or gender. In practice, however, it erased discussions about Blackness, indigeneity and gender.
Divisions along these lines mattered. The architects of the Great Puerto Rican Family trope were wealthy professionals who had studied in Europe and the United States. They wanted to shape the nation and decide who belonged to it. In their vision, to belong to the nation the working classes had to reform, women needed to be decent and Black people needed to be civilized; all of these were codes for demanding conformity with Eurocentric White culture.
After the U.S. occupation of 1898, many intellectuals and elites sided with the new colonial regime. They supported the annexation of Puerto Rico to the United States because they thought this would expand their own political and financial power. Some working-class intellectuals agreed, hoping that the possible annexation of Puerto Rico could bring more labor rights and protections.
They were, however, disillusioned by the aftermath of the U.S. occupation. Absentee corporations controlled the production of sugar and tobacco, two of the most important crops. Workers' salaries stagnated, while consumer prices soared. The hierarchies that poor Puerto Ricans navigated during Spanish colonial times were now codified and policed by the new colonial regime.
By the 1930s intellectuals began reformulating the idea of the nation, and they looked to the period before U.S. occupation to find it. Some idealized the Spanish colonial times. While Puerto Ricans were imagined as a mixture of White Spaniards, Taíno Indians and formerly enslaved Africans, some intellectuals, who were mostly White, praised their European heritage while blaming the other parts of the triad for Puerto Ricans' faults. Those discourses set the foundations for the rise of cultural nationalism in the 1950s.
The idea of the Puerto Rican nation was also shaped by migration. Puerto Rican emigration began in the late 19th century, but it soared from the 1950s onward. Hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans migrated to U.S. east coast cities. At first, departing the archipelago meant being excluded from the Puerto Rican nation because intellectuals and local leaders grounded the concept in space and geography.
The diaspora, however, challenged that. Diasporic Puerto Ricans crafted their own conceptions of belonging to the nation, regardless of where they lived and were born. In part, this was because Puerto Ricans in New York and elsewhere in the U.S. faced racial discrimination and social exclusion. But Puerto Rican communities became enclaves where Puerto Rican flags became symbols of solidarity and a shared experience.
Ideas about the relationship between Puerto Rico and the U.S. also changed conceptions of Puerto Rican identity. By the 1960s and 1970s, in the aftermath of the Cuban Revolution, independence and nationalist movements became more attuned to race, internationalism and the oppression of the working classes. Groups like the Young Lords Party and the Puerto Rican Socialist Party began bridging conversations about the shared yet different oppressions that Puerto Ricans lived through in the archipelago and in the United States.
Today the archipelago has 3.1 million inhabitants. But there are 5.6 million people that claim a Puerto Rican identity in the U.S. diaspora. Following Hurricane María in 2017 the diaspora became a lifeline for many in the archipelago as the government became inoperative because of corruption and a failing infrastructure. By affirming their sense of belonging to the nation even from overseas, Puerto Ricans are challenging essentialist notions of who can claim Puerto Ricanness.
Due to her mother, María Milagros Camacho, having been born in Trujillo Alto, Puerto Rico, Camacho-Quinn was able to run for Puerto Rico. But her choice to do so reflects not just her genealogy but a sense of national pride, one that has been fostered in the diaspora. Responding to charges that she simply hadn't been able to make the U.S. team, she tweeted: "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."
Camacho-Quinn's Olympic gold medal is a testament to the ways that despite centuries of colonization, Puerto Ricans have crafted a nation. As a poem by Juan Antonio Corretjer argued more than 50 years ago, "yo sería borincano aunque naciera en la luna" (I would be a Puerto Rican, even if I was born on the moon). An illustration that circulated online shortly after Camacho-Quinn's victory noted, "Puerto Rican women are born wherever they want."
This framing hasn't gone unchallenged. After her victory, Camacho-Quinn argued in an interview, "I am pretty sure everybody [in Puerto Rico] is excited. For such a small country it gives little kids hope. I am just glad I am the person to do that." When USA Today posted a transcript of the interview on Twitter, they changed "country" to "[territory]," elevating U.S. power over Camacho-Quinn and other Puerto Ricans' sense of their own nation. The idea of the Puerto Rican nation is still a transgression in mainstream U.S. media.
Camacho-Quinn's choice to run for Puerto Rico challenges the national tropes that historically sought to silence and erase the identities that she proudly carries as a Black Puerto Rican woman from the diaspora. Ultimately, her victory and the energetic celebrations that it triggered force us to recognize that Puerto Rico's decolonial future will be shaped not just by people on the archipelago, but by those in the diaspora.