This article appeared in the July 19, 2012, premier issue.
I have a memory of watching a TV screen in my parents’ bedroom with eight men in shorts squatting side by side on a track full of intersecting white lines. This was in our house in the La Cañada section of Guatemala City.
Guatemala was in the middle of the period historians somewhat unimaginatively call the Violence. A simmering civil war is what it was. I bring it up only to illustrate why when the starter’s gun fired, I identified the sound easily. The men took off, running faster than anybody I had ever seen before. Wow, I thought, look at what they can do!
“What is this?” I asked my dad.
“The Olympics,” he said, and tried to explain how, every four years, countries all over the world sent their best athletes to the same city in order to have them compete against one another. In my mind, I imagined hundreds of athletes jammed into a stadium, running races in a crowd with the losers winnowed out, death-match style, until only one was left standing. Mind blowing stuff to at least one young child.
I can’t really tell you with any certainty which Olympic Games that was. Most likely Munich—part of me wants to believe it was Mexico City, but that means I would’ve been 3 years old. I have other early Olympic memories, most having to do with being irritated that the games weren’t on when I expected them to be, and with adults watching the TV set tensely—likely, I now realize, following the terrorist attack on the Israeli compound.
No other sporting event on the planet compares to the Olympics in terms of inducing wonderment at the physical feats that humans are capable of.
Yes, the games are bloated, with too many ludicrous events and too many corporate sponsors; the athletes have been too frequently bloated with steroids; the television coverage is nearly always laughable in its nationalist bombast, and, yes, the IOC is rife with corruption and led by sputtering villains, but still… Boy, can those athletes can run and jump and swim and throw and put topspin on a Ping-Pong ball!
And here’s another thing that the Olympics do extremely well: They tell stories. Many are versions of the typical athletic tale of perseverance, of overcoming the odds, of finding the will to excel—the kind of thing that Will Ferrell has built a career out of parodying.
But sometimes the games tell richer stories, at once more personal and more political. Stories like that of the American freestyle wrestler Henry Cejudo, the child of undocumented Mexicans who grew up being shuttled between California, New Mexico, and Arizona, and who became the embodiment of the illegal immigrants’ “anchor child” in the right-wing media and blogs after making the US wrestling squad in 2008.
Cejudo’s mother couldn’t go to Beijing to watch him compete for a gold medal because she couldn’t get a passport. After winning, he draped himself in the American flag—and it’s just as easy to read that as an expression of righteous indignation and defiance as of national pride. Probably it was a bit of both.
More than just about any other people on the planet, Latinos know all too well that identity is about a hell of a lot more than which country issues your passport. Take, for example, Javier Culson Pérez of Puerto Rico. Culson just happens to be one of the two best 400m hurdlers in the world (the other being Dai Greene of the UK). Right now, you can find chat rooms in which people are wondering why Culson doesn’t join Team USA. After all, the opportunities for endorsement riches are much bigger for members of the mainland squad, and plenty of other successful Boricua athletes have done it—tennis player Gigi Fernández, for one—so there wouldn’t be much stigma attached to switching over.
The fact is that Culson chooses to compete for Puerto Rico because his identity is rooted en la isla del encanto. Considerations like that that can be difficult for the común y corriente gringo to understand.
Or consider the curious case of freestyle wrestler Jesse Ruiz. He grew up in Santa Ana, Calif., the child of Mexican immigrants. When he qualified for the London Olympics, his hometown City Council honored him at an emotional meeting. One councilwoman crowed that finally “somebody born and raised in the city of Santa Ana” would “have the opportunity to really represent us.” Why is this at all remarkable? The country Ruiz will be representing at the Olympics is Mexico.
But then, as I sit here, off the top of my head I can think of dozens of athletes born in Cuba, Mexico, the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Brazil, and Puerto Rico who have competed or are competing for the US. And athletes who grew up here have frequently looked to the land of their parents or grandparents for the opportunity to compete at the highest international levels.
The Latin American inverse-diaspora—I say “inverse” because people from many countries have come to one—has created a uniquely fluid sense of identity, one that comes to life dynamically in the spectacle of international sports.
V as in Victor celebrates that fluidity, and recounts the successes that Latinos have had and are having across all sporting endeavors—except maybe curling. (Don’t get me wrong: I love curling. It may be my favorite Winter Games event, but I doubt a Latino has ever excelled at it. Or maybe one has. Show me that I’m wrong. Send the evidence using the app’s feedback form, or, better still, tell me stories I don’t know.)
There will be a new issue every other day during the Olympics, then, at some point in the not-too-distant future, we’ll begin publishing weekly. Every Olympic issue will include a profile of a Latino or Latin American athlete participating in London; an opinionated analysis of what you might have missed by keeping your TV on NBC rather than exploring the webcast of, say, the Greco-Roman wrestling; links to the best articles (in English and Spanish) about events and athletes from around the web; conversations with ordinary and prominent Latinos and Latin Americans about what they love and remember best about the Games; and even little glimpses of Olympic history to make you clap your forehead and say, “I forgot about that!”
No doubt, you will get to know me and my idiosyncrasies a bit better in coming issues, but let me briefly introduce myself. I am a writer and editor who’s worked at places like ESPN The Magazine and ESPN Books, Time, Newsweek, The New Yorker. Strictly speaking, I come by my Latino through my mom, a Guatemalan citizen who grew up largely in Mexico. My love of sports I get from my dad, who my mom would refer to as the gringo of the family. He was an American citizen, but his parents moved the family from Cuba to Colombia to Mexico.
The other abiding legacy handed down to me from my father is the manner in which, to this day, I spell out my surname for strangers in English. If I had a nickel for every time I heard him say, “V as in Victor...” I would have a lot of nickels. (The way we spell it out in Spanish isn’t quite so nice: “Ve de vaca…”)
V as in Victor will also feature Arlin Carlos Ortiz’s wonderful drawings. Arlin—whose father is Puerto Rican—is a native of New York City, but he grew up in Arnold Palmer’s hometown of Latrobe, Penna. Drawn back to attend the Pratt Institute, he’s now a freelance illustrator in Brooklyn and has a very entertaining illustrated blog.
When the people at 29th Street Publishing and I were casting about for an illustrator, we asked Arlin to draw one of the equine competitors for this year’s dressage competition, Rafalca—a horse that happens to be co-owned by Mitt Romney’s wife, Ann—doing a clumsy, unintended maneuver imagined by the Guatemalan-born novelist Francisco Goldman during a funny Q&A that you'll see soon. We fell love with the image that Arlin produced.
Let the Games begin!