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Celebrating Lesser Known P.R. Achievements

by Barbara Leblanc

October 1, 1999
Copyright © 1999 THE SAN JUAN STAR. All Rights Reserved.

I admit that, as a sports fan, I am pretty unreliable. About 17 years ago, some newspaper colleagues talked me into attending Yaz Day at Fenway Park - the last day on the field for beloved Red Sox outfielder Carl Yastrzemski. I passed the game reading a magazine - while 33,000 or so other spectators cheered and screamed - a fact that my friends still don't let me live down.

As for boxing, I avoid it in the same way I do violent movies. And watching the massacres in Die Hard 2 won't get you spattered with blood, no matter how close you sit to the screen.

Needless to say, then, I have found it hard to understand Puerto Rico's uproar over Tito Trinidad.

We live in a world where heroes who wear Nikes always win the greatest acclaim. That puts me out of step to start with. But my puzzlement over the reaction to Trinidad's win is more than just a tin ear to the nuances of sports idolatry.

Trinidad by all accounts is a fine boxer who could be on his way to greatness. Yet most fans seemed to agree that his match with Oscar de la Hoya was not a particularly good show of boxing. In fact, there isn't even full agreement that Trinidad deserved the judges' decision that he had won.

While I watched all the chest beating and revelry, that continues nearly two weeks after the fight, I thought of the many other Puerto Ricans whose accomplishments go unheralded because they toil in less glitzy fields. They slip quietly on and off the island without motorcades or hero's welcomes, yet their contributions are significant.

The roar in Puerto Rico is deafening when a sports figure brings home a championship or a poised young woman takes the Miss Universe crown. But what about the Puerto Rican curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York? The Puerto Rican cancer researcher in Ohio? Or the Puerto Rican aviation mechanic who has kept the royal jets safe for the King of Spain, the Puerto Rican car designer at Ford Motor Co. or the Mayagüez-trained engineers at NASA?

Name almost any field, and over the years you will find a Puerto Rican excelling in it. Section 936 companies export not only the pills and gadgets they produce in island plants. They have sent Puerto Rican managers to high posts in the United States and other parts of the world. Puerto Rico's actors, opera singers, dancers and musicians regularly win prestigious contests, not to mention fame - and not to mention the pop star whose name is currently sweeping the world.

Gov. Rosselló had a national reputation as a pediatric surgeon before becoming a politician. Independence Party leader Rubén Barríos can claim kinship with President Clinton as a fellow graduate of Georgetown, Yale and Oxford.

Puerto Rico's elite tends to be impressive: bilingual, educated and versed in Latin American, European and U.S. cultures. But it is not from them that I started recognizing how cultured Puerto Ricans can be. That happened in the early 1980's in Holyoke, Mass. Most of the Puerto Ricans in that old mill town are poor and not well-educated. but when the Figueroa family came to town, they packed a hall for the concert of danzas and other classical music. They closed their eyes and swayed to the music.

These days, young Puerto Ricans from the poorest parts of Boston are taking advantage of a city ballet program that has landed one or two of them permanent spots with the Boston Ballet.

Puerto Rico and Puerto Ricans are not perfect, of course. but maybe the island's problems are too well delineated. The focus on the island's disadvantages, often for the gain of a political party, is pernicious. It blurs the evidence of success. It eats away at self-esteem.

Puerto Rico needs no bomb-building fanatics from Chicago to strike a blow for la patria. Regular Puerto Ricans do that everyday, in ways that make real contributions to the world.

In fact, the successes the island produces are all the greater for the hurdles Puerto Ricans face - a weak public education system, political inequality with the states, small size, geographic distance and relatively few resources, in general.

So keep the motorcades for the boxers and Miss Universes. Maybe they deserve them. But we should keep in mind, too, that they alone are not the measure of Puerto Rico's contribution. That measure can be taken day in and day out in the less dazzling, but arguably more important, work of Puerto Ricans here and around the world.

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