National Geographic : 2003 Mar
In sporting events and beauty pageants the only international venues in which Puerto Rico participates as an independent nation -success takes on extraordinary importance. When, in May 2001, Denise Quinones became the fourth Puerto Rican to win the Miss Uni verse title, the whole island erupted in a frenzy of nationalist exhilaration. Cheering crowds waving the Puerto Rican flag blocked the streets of San Juan for hours. The next day, when local boxer Felix "Tito" Trinidad won a world middleweight boxing championship, celebra tions erupted all over again. At a Trinidad vic tory rally in 2000, fans forced organizers to remove the U.S. flag from the stage. "This is our victory," they shouted. In the past, flaunting the Puerto Rican flag could be dangerous-"my wife was pulled over in the 1950s for displaying a flag sticker on her car," remembers journalist Garcia-Passalacqua but it is something Puerto Ricans now do with abandon. Visiting the island in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks, when the entire U.S. seemed festooned with the Stars and Stripes, I found it strange to see Old Glory relegated almost solely to government buildings while the single star of the Puerto Rican flag sprouted from 46 NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC * MARCH 2003 offices, cars, and homes everywhere. Now even the Statehood Party features the Puerto Rican flag in its TV ads. Two flags fly in front of a modest wooden chapel near an old Spanish fort in San Juan-one the Stars and Stripes, the other the flag of Puerto Rico. The chapel is a reproduction of one built on Vieques, an island 21 miles long and 4 wide off the east coast of Puerto Rico. The protesters who built the ori ginal chapel were demonstrating against the U.S. Navy, which, in 1941, expropriated two-thirds of Vieques for a base and bombing range. The Vieques chapel was torn down by the Navy, so the protesters erected its twin in the capital, complete with a defiantly large Puerto Rican flag. Militant supporters of statehood tore that flag down and replaced it with the Stars and Stripes. Now, in a compromise resolution to the standoff, the two pennants flutter side by side in uneasy proximity. The national uproar over the use of Vieques for U.S. military target practice, however, transcends disagreements about flags-and continues despite a promise by the U.S. to vacate the Navy installation by May of this year.