Sport, Culture & Politics in Puerto Rico


A review of Playing the Nation in a Colonial Island: Sport, Culture, and Politics in Puerto Rico, by Antonio Sotomayor Carlo.

The end of the Spanish-American War in 1898 transformed Puerto Ricans from Spanish colonial subjects to US subjects. Even after Puerto Ricans gained the status of US citizens in 1917, the colonial status remained—and persists to the present. Except in sports. In sports, Puerto Ricans represent their nation and the uniqueness of their island territory. Puerto Rico participates as an equal to the independent nations of the world in the Olympics, Pan American Games, and Central American and Caribbean Games. Since the island sent its first delegation to the Central American and Caribbean Games in 1930, Puerto Ricans have performed their nation in sport.

In “Playing the Nation in a Colonial Island: Sport, Culture, and Politics in Puerto Rico,” Antonio Sotomayor examines how Puerto Ricans formed a national identity and international renown through their participation in international sporting events and the institutionalization of sport on the island. This process was a heavily political one led by Julio Enrique Monagas, whom Sotomayor labels the “Sports Czar.” Sotomayor places Monagas on a level similar to that gained by Puerto Rican Governor Luis Muñoz Marín in legitimizing the Popular Democratic Party (Partido Popular Democrático, PPD) government that led the nation for decades and for making the nation-territory a model for the Good Neighbor Policy in the 1930s and of Latin American development in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s. Programs headed by Monagas sparked popular participation and legitimized the PPD government platform of “pro-American populism and social justice” in the process (p. 33). The contradictions in this program paralleled those apparent in the role of sport in the formation of the Puerto Rican national identity. Sport provided an arena in which Puerto Ricans could perform their nation and participate as national citizens, but their ability to participate in international competition remained dependent on US permission and funding from the US government. By examining these contradictions as they arise in his analysis, Sotomayor demonstrates the indirect path Puerto Rico followed toward modernization and presents a nuanced account of the power of sport, a power that can both liberate and subjugate.

Sotomayor lays a solid framework of secondary source material by US and Puerto Rican scholars around questions of national identity, sport and society, and the relationship of sport and national identity.  He structures the dissertation on the model presented by Joseph L. Arbena in a 1992 article, “Sport and the Promotion of Nationalism in Latin America” (“Sport and the Promotion of Nationalism in Latin America: A Preliminary Interpretation,” Studies in Latin America Popular Culture 11 (1992): 143–156). The model describes three steps countries complete as they promote themselves through sport: 1) establishing physical education and sporting programs and institutions domestically, 2) preparing individuals and teams for international competitions, and 3) hosting international events. Sotomayor recounts Puerto Rico’s sport development along this path through the feeble successes of the Spanish system in Puerto Rico before the island passed to US control to demonstrate that the roots of Puerto Ricans’ enthusiasm for sport predated the US military presence. Organization continued with the US presence on the island, but the real focus on sports development came with the election of the Partido Popular Democrático (PPD) and the populist program directed toward the institutionalization of sport on the island. Government investment in and popular demand for sport led to Puerto Rico’s participation in the II Central American and Caribbean Games in 1930, signaling a progression to the second step in Arbena’s model. But Puerto Rico could reach the final step, hosting an event, only through the collaboration between the populist government and organizations like the Puerto Rican Olympic Committee (COPR) and Public Recreation Parks Administration (PRPA) and their sports programs and investment in facilities through the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s. Puerto Rico reached this step when the X Central American and Caribbean Games opened in San Juan in 1966.

Puerto Rico’s status as a colony of the United States combined with economic and other political factors to make Puerto Rico’s progression through Arbena’s model anything but clean and linear. As Sotomayor demonstrates, Puerto Rico’s participation in international events, and particularly the Summer Olympics required new negotiations and terms with international and US organizations, and even among different domestic organizations as the date approached. To accommodate all of these parties and relationships, Sotomayor divides the dissertation into pairs of chapters for “domestic” and “international” happenings for each decade. In each chapter Sotomayor focuses on key events in the decade and how the meaning of sport was negotiated among Puerto Ricans or between Puerto Ricans and international bodies. This format allows Sotomayor to demonstrate change over time in the development of sport institutions in Puerto Rico, in Puerto Rican understandings of their status as “nation,” and in how Puerto Ricans and US officials understood the meanings that sport and participation in international events had for Puerto Ricans and for Puerto Rico.

After an introductory chapter in which Sotomayor details the historiographies that back his findings on Puerto Rican national identity, nationalism and national identity, modernization and nationality, and sports, Sotomayor looks at the colonial origins of sport in Puerto Rico, first in Spanish Puerto Rico, then in US Puerto Rico. Sotomayor’s citations include the necessary theoretical backbone with names such as Benedict Anderson (Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, London: Verso, 1991), Ernest Gellner (Nations and Nationalism, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1983), and Eric Hobsbawm and Terrence Ranger (The Invention of Tradition, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1983), as well as works more specific to Puerto Rico’s colonial-nation status such as Partha Chatterjee (The Nation and Its Fragments: Colonial and Postcolonial Histories, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993), and Puerto Rico-centered writers who distinguish types of nationalism such as Jorge Duany (The Puerto Rican Nation on the Move: Identities on the Island and in the United States, Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2002). Sotomayor has also done extensive reading in the field of sports history and sports studies more generally and distinguishes the work of Arbena as well as that of Allen Guttmann, two of the earliest and most accomplished scholars to emphasize sport in their work. With the work of these men and more recent scholars of sport and sport history, Sotomayor makes a crucial theoretical link between sport and ideas of nation and modernity.

The first body chapter (Chapter 2), “Sport and Game in Colonial Spanish Puerto Rico,” sets up the framework for understanding sport as an embodiment as well as an instrument of culture and politics by demonstrating how the Spanish colonial administration and Puerto Ricans used sport and games to negotiate boundaries of power and authority. This chapter provides an important measure for the process Sotomayor describes in the next chapter, which deals with the attempts of US organizations to “Americanize” Puerto Ricans and Latin Americans more generally through sports and organizations such as the YMCA. Using documents from the Commissioner of Education in Puerto Rico and YMCA Yearbooks, Sotomayor details how the YMCA program was popular and effective in gaining Puerto Rican participation in the US administration. The advancement of the US physical education and sporting program in comparison to the Spanish helped recruit Puerto Ricans for the US colonial project. In this observation, Sotomayor follows work on sport and imperialism such as that by J.A. Mangan (The Games Ethic and Imperialism: Aspects of the Diffusion of an Ideal, Portland, OR: Frank Cass, 1998). But Sotomayor is careful to show that ties to Spain remained, both in the insistence on Spanish-language instruction and in institutional ties to King Alfonso XIII through soccer clubs. Sport brought Puerto Ricans into the US system, but Puerto Ricans remained distinct from their colonial master. Thus, even as they embraced US education and many US sports, Puerto Ricans remained culturally distinct.

The next set of chapters details the rise of sport institutions and sport as a center of national identity during the tumultuous 1930s. Amid the social ills brought on by the Great Depression and militant calls for independence and threats of US abandonment, sport stabilized society, eased tensions, and provided a sense of unity. Chapter 4, “Public Education and Insular Sport in the 1930s,” details the efforts by George Keelan and Cosme Beitía to develop interscholastic sports competition in the University of Puerto Rico High School and the University of Puerto Rico. As leaders in the academic and athletic administrations of their respective institutions, these two men promoted sport participation for the “moral values, health benefits, unifying potential, and their promotion of modernization. Sport meant the modernization of society, and a modern society meant a solid nation” (p. 135).  Sotomayor’s analysis of Keelan’s Annual Report of the Principal in High School documents as well as Beitía’s Annual Report of the Athletic Director of the University of Puerto Rico provides crucial details about these men’s motivations for developing sport and the significance they lent sport in building a modern nation. Despite a lack of financial resources, they constructed a demand for sport and an apparatus for providing it through education that served as a basis for Puerto Rico’s rise to the international sporting stage with the 1930 Central American and Caribbean Games.

On the international front, sport further incorporated Puerto Ricans into the US project by promoting the island as a bridge between the United States and Latin America. In Chapter 5, “The Government and the Olympic Movement in Puerto Rico,” Sotomayor analyzes how Puerto Rican delegations to the Central American and Caribbean Games (CACG) offered the United States a chance to display the benefits of US affiliation and the sincerity of the Good Neighbor Policy to Latin American countries. US officials urged participation: the US ambassador to Cuba had actually encouraged the organizing committee in Havana to invite the Puerto Rican delegation in 1930. For Puerto Ricans, this participation had multiple meanings. For some, it solidified the partnership between Puerto Rico and the United States, allowing Puerto Ricans to participate as a representative of the United States to Latin America. At the same time, the CACG gave Puerto Ricans a chance to display their unique culture and promote their island for tourism. They might fly the US flag, but Puerto Ricans participated as members of the Latin American and Caribbean community. Participation in these events “proved to be an ideal method to cultivate a sense of uniqueness and peoplehood that had been denied in the political realm” (p. 142). Participation could also be manipulated for political expressions. In the 1935 Games in El Salvador, Beitía provided a Puerto Rican flag to honor athletes on the medal stand and Salvadoran officials substituted their own anthem for the US anthem as an expression of anti-colonialism. For the 1938 CACG, Governor Blanton Winship ensured that the delegation flew the US flag.

The final six chapters of the dissertation, covering the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, provide the main thrust of Sotomayor’s argument and the most interesting developments for Puerto Rico’s sporting and political future. The title of Chapter 6, “Sport Autonomy and Sport Populism: 1940s,” suggests the significance of this period of structural change in sports and politics. During the 1940s, Puerto Ricans reorganized the economy to free it from colonial dependence (with mixed results), elected their first Puerto Rican Governor, and participated in their first Summer Olympic Games. The election of Luis Muñoz Marín as Governor of Puerto Rico initiated this change through the populist program of his Partido Popular Democrático (PPD). Sotomayor compares Muñoz Marín’s program to those of other Latin American leaders whom he views as driven by social justice, including Lázaro Cárdenas in Mexico, Juan Perón in Argentina, and Getúlio Vargas in Brazil. Julio Enrique Monagas ensured that sport formed a component of this social justice program with the definition of sport and recreation as a humanitarian objective and human rights issue, on par with government aid for housing, clothing, and education. Through programs such as Un parque para cada pueblo (“A park for every town”), Monagas incorporated sport into a master plan for development. Monagas secured funding for these efforts because of their coincidence with beliefs in the Hoover White House about the importance of physical activity and renewed US attention to the island because of its strategic location during World War II. Sport also calmed tensions and captured the people in the PPD program, in part through their requests for parks. Even as sport contributed to political closeness and calm between the United States and Puerto Rico in the 1940s, by 1948 Puerto Ricans found a new forum for cultural expression in the London Olympics.

In Chapter 7, “The Comité Olímpico de Puerto Rico of 1948 and the London Olympics: A Matter of Olympic Legitimation,” Sotomayor details the ambiguities and apparent contradictions raised by the participation of the Puerto Rican delegation in the Olympic Games and US support (eventually) for this participation. Monagas’ appeal to the organizing committee and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) for admission to the London Games came only after he faced criticism for his emphasis on sporting competition against the United States and for his reliance on US trainers and coaches for Puerto Rican athletes. Monagas’ slowness to embrace international competition beyond what he described as a brotherly relationship with the United States paralleled Muñoz Marín’s change in ideology from a goal of eventual independence to seeing US association as the key to providing the economic conditions on which he built his social justice campaign. While participation in the 1948 London Games calmed criticisms against Monagas and Muñoz Marín by giving Puerto Ricans an opportunity to perform the nation, Puerto Rico’s participation also legitimated the US hold on the island by demonstrating the US commitment to freedom and liberty. In the context of the decolonization processes that rose after World War II and the mounting ideological battle with the Soviet Union, allowing Puerto Rico to play as a nation eased anti-US tensions and provided a bulwark against political upheaval. At the same time, Puerto Rico became a member nation of the Olympic community.

Puerto Rico’s participation in the 1930 CACG pushed the nation from the first to the second step of Arbena’s model of sports modernization. The chapters covering the 1940s and 1950s detail the political maneuvers both domestically and internationally that prepared Puerto Rico to achieve parity in the Latin American Olympic movement by hosting the Central American and Caribbean Games in 1966. The formation of the Olympic Committee in 1948 and the PRPA in 1950 provided a foundation for a distinct Puerto Rican cultural identity even after the definition of Puerto Rico as a Commonwealth of the United States (or Estado Libre Asociado, Free Associated State) in July 1952 consolidated its political subjugation to the United States. In Chapter 8, “Toward Sporting and Political Consolidation: 1950s,” Sotomayor uses Puerto Rican government documents to detail how programs such as Un parque para cada pueblo helped to legitimate the political status of the island by increasing participation in and enthusiasm for the PPD government. The program and the popular requests for parks—and complaints over delays—held the government accountable to the population in ways that challenged the centralization of institutions like the PRPA under Monagas and Governor Muñoz Marín. As with other populist governments in the region, Muñoz Marín saw the centralization of modernization programs such as the economic-centered Operation Bootstrap, and later what Sotomayor dons “Operation Sport,” as the necessary sparks for government-led development much like that later institutionalized and spread throughout Latin America in the Alliance for Progress.

The Helsinki Olympics in 1952, a key event in Chapter 9, “The Estado Libre Asociado and Olympism in the 1950s,” provided the perfect venue, and great timing, for Muñoz Marín to sell the Commonwealth idea to any detractors. After participating as a territory of the United States under the US flag for the first six days of the Olympics, the Puerto Rican delegation signaled its new status as a Commonwealth by flying its own flag and playing its anthem after July 25, 1952. For those at home, the Puerto Rican Olympic Team demonstrated their status as a nation, quelling the criticisms of nationalists, even while it maintained Puerto Rico’s ties to the United States, pleasing those in favor of joining the union as a state, or Estadistas. Even as the Puerto Ricans asserted their existence as a nation, the agreement supported US claims to sponsor freedom and champion decolonization—a potent message at the first Olympics to feature a Soviet delegation. Internationally, continued participation in sporting events raised Puerto Rico’s visibility and sporting reputation and asserted the nation’s existence as a culturally unique entity.

The final two body chapters use Puerto Rico’s preparations for and negotiations around hosting the 1966 CACG to continue the story of the ups and downs of sports organization on the island. The centralization of the COPR under Monagas and the PPD government caused conflicts between the COPR and the IOC during the 1950s and into the next decade. Sotomayor focuses on these conflicts and the contradictions they exposed between the IOC’s operations and its charter. The challenge to Monagas in 1956 for his ties to the government and the COPR provided a platform for him to demonstrate the “Olympic maturity and institutional consolidation” of the COPR even while it remained supported by the Puerto Rican political apparatus (p. 327). In Chapter 10, “The Road to the San Juan Games of 1966: Infrastructure and Olympic Conflict,” Sotomayor continues to describe these conflicts in the Puerto Rican Olympic institutions and the new challenges the COPR confronted as it prepared for the San Juan Games. Although Monagas was initially against hosting the event, he realized the benefits hosting entailed for proving Puerto Rico’s maturity as a nation—a comparison Sotomayor makes with Mexico and the 1968 Summer Olympics. Although Monagas faced criticism for directing resources to this international production rather than more local needs like facilities, the CACG put Puerto Rican industrialization, hospitality, economic progress, and sporting achievement on display. Hosting the CACG confirmed Puerto Rico’s national existence in the athletic realm.

Even as the organization of the Games confirmed Puerto Rico’s sports maturity and existence as a nation in the athletic realm, the logistics behind the arrival of international delegations to the Puerto Rican territory revealed the limits on Puerto Rico’s operation as a nation—particularly surrounding the issue of visas for the Cuban delegation. In the final body chapter, “Los Juegos de San Juan, 1966: Colonial Olympism and Olympic Politics during the Cold War,” Sotomayor demonstrates these limitations through the controversy in Puerto Rico surrounding the participation of a Cuba delegation in the CACG. Puerto Rican sports officials originally withheld an invitation to the Cuban delegation because of fears of protests by the Cubans exiled on the island, a fear that Sotomayor substantiated in the previous chapter with his examination of the confrontation between exiles and the Cuban delegation during the 1962 Games in Kingston. After the COPR delayed in arranging for the Cubans’ visas, the delegation arrived in international waters just off the Puerto Rican coast days before Opening Ceremonies. Though COPR officials accommodated them and greeted them with the expected sporting fraternity, IOC President Avery Brundage went over the head of the Puerto Rican governor and spoke directly to US State Department representatives to secure visas. Puerto Rico lacked the sovereignty to even determine who could enter the territory. Even as the Olympics and Olympic-type events attributed national status to Puerto Rico, Olympic officials could ignore that status when they saw fit because of the colonial relationship. This lack of sovereignty combined with the economic reliance on the United States that provided the funds for the Olympic organization to form what Sotomayor calls “Colonial Olympism.”  Puerto Rico’s national identity in the Olympic realm was dependent on its ties to the United States.

Along with his informative insights into and nuanced treatment of the apparent contradictions in Puerto Rico’s athletic national identity, Sotomayor provides concrete examples of the politics inherent in sport and the various meanings that populations and governments attribute to sport. He adds the Puerto Rican case in the San Juan Games as further evidence of the inability to part politics from international sporting events. These examples support Allen Guttmann’s portrayal in The Olympic Games: A History of the Modern Games (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1992) of Brundage’s unintentionally political acts in the Olympic Games, particularly around the Mexican Games in 1968 and later boycotts by the United States and Soviet Union. Even sports, which Sotomayor shows as a unifying factor and a site of popular-government interaction during the PPD government, could lead to political divides among nations and within individual ones. Showing the politics behind sport in Puerto Rico contributes to our understandings of sport and how historians might use sport in their examinations of national and colonial politics. But Sotomayor’s most important contribution may be his portrayal of the complexities of Puerto Rican identity and politics in a way to which both Latin Americanists and Caribbeanists can relate. In the end, Sotomayor wrote an exemplary piece of sports history that can be used as effectively in a course on Latin American or Caribbean history or one on national identities as in a class centered on sports.

April Yoder
History Department
Georgetown University

Primary Sources

Avery Brundage Olympic Archive, University of Illinois, Urbana, Illinois
Fondo Oficina del Gobernador, Archivo General de Puerto Rico
Yearbook of the Young Men’s Christian Association of North America
Colección Puertorriqueña
, Universidad de Puerto Rico, San Juan, Puerto Rico
Office of Territories Classified Files, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, DC

Dissertation Information

University of Chicago. 2012. 492pp. Primary Advisor: Dain Borges.


Image: “¡Nuestro Adelanto Depende de Usted ¡No deje que se detenga!” Photographer unknown. Photo taken from El Mundo, March 6, 1964, 9. Colección Puertorriqueña, Universidad de Puerto Rico.

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