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Entertainers, Scientists, Athletes Among The Island's Famous People

by Chris Hawley

November 10, 1999
Copyright © 1999 ASSOCIATED PRESS NEWSWIRES. All Rights Reserved.
Dayton Daily News

On November 18, Ivan "Pudge" Rodriguez was named the American League's Most Valuable Player for 1999. The Texas Rangers catcher - a native of Manatí, Puerto Rico - called the award "the dream of every player." El 18 de noviembre, Ivan "Pudge" Rodriguez fue seleccionado el Jugador Más Valioso de 1999 de la Liga Americana de las Grandes Ligas. El receptor para los Rangers de Texas - nativo de Manatí, Puerto Rico - describió el galardón como "el sueño de todo jugador."

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) - New York Yankees Bernie Williams, Ricky Ledee and Jorge Posada helped win the World Series. Singer Ricky Martin is burning up the U.S. charts. Boxing champ Felix "Tito" Trinidad just unseated golden boy Oscar de la Hoya.

They all hail from the Spanish-speaking U.S. territory Puerto Rico - part of a wave of new stars that also includes New York-born singers Jennifer Lopez and Marc Anthony.

Although some Puerto Ricans lament that it is their athletes and singers - not scientists and writers - that are achieving all the fame, many more are loving their day in the pop culture sun.

"It's like the world is suddenly discovering the talent we have," said Tito Peraza, owner of the Milagros Barbecue in Cupey, Puerto Rico , where Trinidad grew up eating seasoned red beans and sweet yellow plantains.

And while the U.S. Congress is still reluctant to consider making Puerto Rico the 51st state, the stars have given islanders hope that their stereotype as ruffians and cheap laborers may be fading.

"In a few months, they have done much to undo the decades of damage done by West Side Story," said local Sen. Kenneth McClintock, referring to the U.S. musical that portrayed Puerto Ricans as street gangsters. His Senate colleague Charlie Rodriguez delighted that Latinos have been accepted by American young people.

Trinidad's upset of Mexican-American Oscar De La Hoya in September was watched by millions. Martin, Lopez and Anthony have stormed Billboard charts, while 10 Puerto Ricans were nominated for Grammys this year. Singers Chayanne and Elvis Crespo play to packed stadiums in Latin America and Spain, and label EMI is grooming Carlos Ponce to become a pop icon too.

Puerto Rican successes are not unprecedented. They include baseball great Roberto Clemente, actor Raul Julia, singer Jose Feliciano and boxer Wilfredo Gomez. But the magnitude of the current crop is impressive considering there are only 4 million Puerto Ricans here and 2 million on the mainland.

The phenomenon is rooted in social and cultural factors.

Puerto Ricans credit their wealth of athletes to strong sports leagues, including six professional baseball teams.

The island is also fertile ground for musicians. Official news conferences often feature live music, and no political rally is complete without a roster of bands. Small recording studios churn out jingles for a booming radio market and inexpensive albums featuring salsa, merengue, plena, bolero and rap-reggae groups.

The U.S. Hispanic population will become the largest minority group by 2010, according to the Census Bureau, and such growth feeds demand and easier artist access to producers and scouts.

"It is all linked with the rise of Hispanics in the United States," said Martin's manager, Angelo Medina.

Martin and Anthony have also expanded their audience with English-language albums.

The cultural successes have accompanied - and perhaps fed - a surge of Puerto Rican nationalism, fueled by the release from prison of 11 Puerto Rican independence activists and the controversy about live U.S. Navy bombings on the populated outlying island of Vieques. The Navy says the training is vital.

Martin, Trinidad and others have pushed for the closure of the bombing range. Martin - whose World Cup soccer anthem, "La Copa de la Vida," was adopted by Puerto Rico 's pro- statehood party - has promised to bring up Vieques when he meets President Clinton in January.

"People are rediscovering their roots and have more pride in being Puerto Rican," said sociologist Ricardo Alegria. Times have changed, he noted, since U.S. cartoons depicted islanders as savages and there was "a complex of inferiority because we are so small and were so poor."

Alegria complained that while the United States knows the island's athletes and musicians, the language barrier, and ignorance of Latin American culture, has blinded Americans to other contributions.

Writer Luis Rafael Sanchez, for example, is one of Latin America's most acclaimed writers but has only published one book in English. Novelist Rosario Ferre was barely known in the United States until her first book in English, "The House on the Lagoon," was nominated for a National Book Award in 1995.

Frustrated with what they see as slighting of their literature, the island's cultural institutions launched an unsuccessful letter-writing campaign this year urging the Swedish Academy to award a Nobel Prize to Enrique Laguerre, a prolific author whose "The Blaze" is required reading in schools here.

The island also boasts historians and political theorists, a small group of respected filmmakers and a flourishing art scene led by internationally known painters Rafael Tufino, Arturo Martorell and Luis Alonzo.

There's science too. International Telephone and Telegraph was founded in San Juan, and AIDS expert Antonio Novello became U.S. Surgeon General under President Bush. On the island is the world's largest radiotelescope dish, used by scientists to detect planets outside the solar system. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention researches dengue fever and other tropical diseases here, and the U.S. Sea Grant Program at the University of Puerto Rico leads studies of coral reefs.

The university produces more than 2,000 science, math, engineering and technological degrees annually - but most graduates head to the mainland for jobs; NASA has more than 200 Puerto Rican engineers and researchers.

"We produce great scientists, great engineers - but when I talk to people in the States all they say is, `Hey, you make great boxers and singers down there,"' said Manuel Gomez, vice president of research at the University of Puerto Rico . "It hurts a little."

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