In Competitive Sports, Puerto Ricans Gain A Sense Of Independence This week, Puerto Ricans marked 100 years of U.S. citizenship. The island's political status remains unique, along with its strong sense of cultural identity — most clearly seen in its sports.
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In Competitive Sports, Puerto Ricans Gain A Sense Of Independence

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In Competitive Sports, Puerto Ricans Gain A Sense Of Independence

In Competitive Sports, Puerto Ricans Gain A Sense Of Independence

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This week, Puerto Ricans mark the centennial of Congress granting U.S. citizenship to those born on the island. In the years since, many Puerto Ricans have had to navigate a complicated dual identity. But one area in which they are distinctly Puerto Rican and on par with the United States is at the Olympics. NPR's Marisa Peñaloza spoke with Puerto Rican athletes about their decision to go for Team Puerto Rico or Team USA.

MARISA PEÑALOZA, BYLINE: It's a breezy, sunny afternoon at Puerto Rico's Olympic Village in Salinas - about an hour south of San Juan. Young athletes jump into the Olympic pool one by one and start swimming laps. Kids from around the island try out for athletic scholarships that could lead to a spot in Puerto Rico's Olympic team.

PAOLA SANTIAGO: It's an honor to represent Puerto Rico, our country, in the sports.

PEÑALOZA: Meet 17-year-old Paola Santiago. Like most Puerto Ricans, she refers to the island as pais, the country, even though it's not. It's a U.S. territory. Paola says it never even occurred to her to try out for the U.S. national swim team.

SANTIAGO: I wouldn't feel that happy because I feel like I feel more comfortable being here and represent Puerto Rico. I don't live there. I don't do anything there.

PEÑALOZA: There meaing the mainland. Smiling comes easily to Paola, even as she gets ready for her second two-hour-long training session of the day. She is determined to make her island proud, just like tennis player Monica Puig did last summer in Rio.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting) Puerto Rico.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking Spanish).

PEÑALOZA: Puig gave the island its first gold medal, and Puerto Ricans went into a collective explosion of pride when she won.

(CHEERING)

PEÑALOZA: Here, almost everyone feels passionate about sports and about the importance of Puerto Rico having its own Olympic Committee. Manuel Natal is a member of Puerto Rico's House of Representatives.

MANUEL NATAL: Puerto Ricans value the sovereignty that we have in terms of sport. It's something that it's part of our national identity.

FERNANDO DELGADO: (Speaking Spanish).

PEÑALOZA: Swim coach Fernando Delgado runs the stopwatch on the pool deck at the Olympic Village. Delgado has been coaching here for 31 years.

DELGADO: I can't explain you the emotion that we feel, the feelings about that moment.

PEÑALOZA: That moment is when he marches at Olympic ceremonies around the world. At a loss for words, he points to the goosebumps on his large, tanned arms as a way to explain his emotions. Delgado's overwhelming pride in Puerto Rico's athletic independence is shared by many on the island. He says this is the only arena where we feel like an independent nation. Marisa Peñaloza, NPR News, Salinas, Puerto Rico.

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