November 14, 2012

I nearly drowned in the surf near Humacao on the Atlantic side of Puerto Rico. This was in 1993. I was at a tony resort with my girlfriend of the time, Xan (short for Alexandra), and her parents. One morning, we all went down to the beach.

While her parents settled into their beach chairs, Xan and I waded out into the water—not too terribly far in, maybe to mid-chest. Xan stretched out in the water and swam away from me. The drawstring on my swimsuit had gotten loose, and I was trying to re-tie it but couldn’t in the waves that would occasionally come in over my head.

Still focused on my shorts, I suddenly heard the lifeguard whistling frantically. Looking up, I wondered what ninny had strayed beyond the green flags that marked the safe portion of the beach. Here is my hard-learned lesson: If you have to ask for whom the lifeguard’s whistle blows, my friend, it probably blows for thee.

Sure enough, I had drifted wide of the safe point. The drawstring, however, was completely untied and my trunks were as loose as Cantinflas’ pants. I could still touch the sandy bottom between waves, but I was having a harder and harder time keeping my head clear and catching my breath.

Figuring that it was my best shot, I pulled off my suit, balled it up in my hand, turned my cheeks to face God, and started swimming for shore. Fat, as they say, chance.

The next time I prairie-dogged to check on my progress I was, if anything, a bit further out. I could hear Xan calling to me from what was a shockingly short but apparently uncrossable distance. The lifeguard had dropped off his chair and was charging across the sand to the shoreline. Strangely, I remember registering that he was wearing red shorts very much like the ones David Hasselhoff used on Baywatch. Is that a universal uni for lifeguards? I asked myself.

Then I came back to stark naked reality. Very, very shortly that lifeguard in the lifeguard universal red swimsuit was going to reach me, and if he pulled me out of the water unconscious … the possibility was too gruesome to land on for too long. Want to know true fear? Contemplate the idea of your probably soon to be ex future mother-in-law getting as close a look at your hammer and tongs as she can stomach.

Head under again, swimming as hard as I could, maybe I made a bit of headway, maybe I didn’t. In any event, little red lifeguard shorts and Xan reached me at about the same time and helped pull me to shore. Gasping but conscious enough to know better, I made them stop in waist-deep water so that I could put my stupid swimsuit back on.

Now, you may be wondering why I bring this all up. You see, apart from my brush with mortality, the thing from that trip that stuck with me the longest was the series of conversations I had with people about the referendum being voted on that year as to whether they would prefer Puerto Rico to become a US state, declare its independence, or retain in its neither-fish-nor-fowl status as a commonwealth territory of the US.

Sound familiar? It should.

The referendum that was held Nov. 13 of this year was the fourth such vote that Puerto Ricans have cast during my lifetime (1967, 1993, and 1998). The previous times, the results have indicated an electorate well split between the three options, with statehood “winning” with less than 50% of the vote.

This time, 61% of those who voted selected statehood. Pretty convincing, right?

Turns out that one of the island’s major political parties—the Popular Democrats, which is pro the status quo—urged its supporters to leave ballots blank to protest what it saw as the gerrymandered wording and structure of the referendum question designed to bring in a pro-statehood result.

Too clever by half. So clever, in fact, that the nearly half a million voters who chose not to cast a vote on the referendum locked in precisely the result the party didn’t want and gave its opponents the appearance of a mandate.

Take your ball and go home is never a good option. You go away and are miserable, while everyone else is miserable, too, and blames you for it. And that’s the good outcome. The bad one is, somebody finds a ball somewhere, and everybody proceeds to have a ball without you.

And I don’t believe there’s a serious chance that Puerto Rico will become our 51st state any time soon, for obvious, GOP House control sorts of reasons.

And back in 1993, the conversations I had with people about independence led me to think of Puerto Rico as something of an in-between place. Neither separate country nor colony; neither fish nor fowl; ni chicha ni limonada. Both a part and apart.

And I didn’t get the impression that anyone was truly ready to strike out in the big wide world completely unmoored from the US. Taking that sort of step, seeking out a sink-or-swim strategy—that doesn’t usually happen without some kind of a nudge.

It’s strange the forms this can take when talking about sports. A man I spoke to about the possibility of statehood while sitting on the wide green lawn of the Morro in old San Juan asked me (if I can reconstruct his words with any accuracy nearly 20 years on), “Do you think they’d still let us have our own Olympic team?”

Of all the things to think of, that struck me as a strange concern. But there is something wonderful about world-class athletes like hurdler Javier Culson Pérez, tennis player Gigi Fernández, and golfer Chi Chi Rodriguez having the choice of representing Puerto Rico or the US.

And it made sense in a way. The man was a few years older than me; he had a well-paying job as a croupier at one of the small casinos in one of the carbon-copy hotels that stretch out along the coastline east of old San Juan; and he loved boxing.

I mentioned Héctor Camacho, who had recently lost to Julio César Chavez while wearing shorts made to look like the Puerto Rican flag, but he was dismissive. “Camacho’s one of yours,” he told me, meaning that he was too much of a New Yorker to be a true Boricua.

The boxer he did get animated about was a young welterweight who had just won the IBF belt. It wasn’t anyone I had heard of, according to the croupier, a real headhunter by the name of Félix Trinidad.

As the Guatemalan-born child of parents who could claim home ties to Mexico, the US, Colombia, and Greece; as a baseball fan whose earliest World Series memories include admiring the defiant Roberto Clemente, marveling at his will to excel, at his prideful, self-contained, island-in-a-sea-of-ignorance demeanor, but loving maybe a bit more the smiling, apparently uncomplicated Panamanian catcher Manny Sanguillen; as a young man who had already had a couple of opportunities (one relatively recent one) to contemplate his own mortality, I could understand in-between-ness and how it can become a part of one’s identity. Even a national identity.

Maybe that’s why I felt so at home in Puerto Rico and have returned a couple of times even though it once tried to kill me. Now I just stay out of the water.

Oh and, by the way, Puerto Rico has never won an Olympic swimming medal. Just saying.


What’s with the Lakers? Why does everything they do have to turn into a frigging soap opera? If you get into the lotus position in order to have your spirit dancer engage in a pas de deux with Zen master Phil, you don’t ditch him when the first swarthy Italian walks into the room.

Hope D’Antoni has a easier time handling Kobe’s ego than he did Melo’s. (That’s likely.)

“Water, Water, Everywhere,” by Bill Vourvoulias.

From “Sink or Swim,” the November 14, 2012, issue of V as in Victor.

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