This is America: How covering the Tokyo Olympics helped reveal more of my own identity

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TOKYO – They say nothing prepares you for covering your first Olympics. “They” are 100% correct.

They forgot to mention you also learn about yourself, sometimes just by doing your job.

What’s up everyone, this is sports reporter Chris Bumbaca, and on Tuesday I returned from the most rewarding professional experience of my life: covering the Tokyo Olympics.

I was at the first day of the men’s golf tournament when I heard something I felt like I’d been waiting my whole life to hear. Sepp Straka, a white man born in Austria to an American-born mother, represented his birth country at the Olympics and had just finished the first round as the leader.

Although not your traditional “mixed” person, he’d been asked a question people with multiple backgrounds are asked frequently, almost always innocently, but is awkward for the one being asked.

“How connected do you feel to Austria?”

His answer helped me make sense of who I am.

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Before the closing ceremony, I had to have my picture taken with the Olympic rings.
Before the closing ceremony, I had to have my picture taken with the Olympic rings.

Half-Italian, half-Puerto Rican, 100% me

Had the reporter done basic research, he’d have known Straka is quite connected to Austria; he lived there for the first 14 years of his life.

But here’s what Straka said that crystallized my own identity as a half-Italian and half-Puerto Rican man.

(Yes, the Broadway musical “West Side Story” is conflicting. But watching that gives me less anxiety than a standard-form “please pick one” race inquiry. Don’t even get me started on the “ethnicity” question.)

“I used to say that I was 50% Austrian and 50% American,” he said. “A friend of mine corrected me and said I’m 100% Austrian and 100% American.”

I guess I needed to travel 6,000 miles away from home to learn that I can be 100% me without worrying which half I am that day. I can be both — wholly and simultaneously both. That is the beauty of my identity. There doesn’t need to be a “winner.”

And these Games were a celebration of the totality of my identity, as a Puerto Rican, as an Italian (shoutout Lamont Marcell Jacobs), as an American.

I want to highlight one person though: Jasmine Camacho-Quinn.

Born in South Carolina to a Black father and Puerto Rican mother, she became the second boricua to win a gold medal after she became the 100 meter hurdles champion. I remember exactly where I was when Monica Puig won the first gold medal in Puerto Rico’s history five years ago by defeating Angelique Kerber in the women’s tennis final and the pride I felt then.

“La Boriqueña” played as Camacho-Quinn stood on top of the podium. The scene had me going “¡Wepa!” and tweeting flag emojis. More seriously, as an Afro-Puerto Rican, Camacho-Quinn offers representation for an even deeper-marginalized group and is proof that the diaspora is wide-ranging. It spans skin color and generations.

“She challenged the models that were set up,” Antonio Sotomayor, professor of Spanish and Portuguese at the University of Illinois, told Rich Tenorio for the National Association of Hispanic Journalists-run publication "palabra."

"It's not based on being a white man from the island, Spanish-speaking," Sotomayor added.

My grandmother, “Bila” – a nickname deriving from a failed attempt by my then-toddler cousin attempting to say “abuelita” – does three things, aside from loving her family: 1) go to (or, during the pandemic, watch) church; 2) watch telenovelas and Univision; and 3) make the most fire rice and beans in all of Brooklyn.

I’ve visited family in Puerto Rico only twice in my life, yet I feel tremendous pride that my grandmother and late grandfather lived the first 20-plus years of their lives there. They moved to the U.S. in search of greater opportunity for their future children (they certainly succeeded). And Camacho-Quinn and I are in lockstep on this point of pride despite not being born there.

“It means a lot to represent such a small country,” she said.

The last word she uttered is why I often feel sadness and frustration for a place I love, a place that feels like home, but can sometimes feel so far away because of the forces at work against it in the country I’ve called home my whole life.

As my own newspaper awkwardly pointed out in a Twitter thread, Puerto Rico is not a country. It is a U.S. territory.

The statehood vs. independence debate has only intensified in recent years. In Congress, a pair of boricua representatives from New York, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Nydia Velazquez, have authored a self-determination bill for the more than 3 million people of the island to conduct a binding vote, rather than the three low-turnout plebiscites (non-binding referendums, as the power lies with Congress) that have occurred in the last nine years.

So while the U.S., which has essentially been a colonial occupier of the island since 1898, continues to sit on its hands, the International Olympic Committee has – and this is a weird set of words to write after “International Olympic Committee” – done the right thing by recognizing Puerto Rico as an independent entity, going back nearly 70 years.

On the Olympic stage, the Puerto Rican flag processes through the opening and closing ceremony, equal to the other 205 Olympic national committees and the Refugee Olympic Committee.

From one of the three days I spent covering baseball in Yokohama, Japan.
From one of the three days I spent covering baseball in Yokohama, Japan.

Between horrid domestic leadership, gender-violence crimes that have led to marches in the streets, devastating natural disasters like Hurricane Maria, and a dissatisfied younger generation, Puerto Rico could have used a success story in Tokyo.

A Black woman from South Carolina stepped up, and gave the island – and make no mistake, Puerto Rico has fully claimed Camacho-Quinn – a dose of something it had been searching for lately: hope.

As Cesar Torres, a co-editor of "Olimpismo: The Olympic Movement in the Making of Latin America and the Caribbean," told Tenorio:

“(Camacho-Quinn) represents that experience of Puerto Ricans in the continent, being, in many cases, a second-generation or third- or fourth-generation Puerto Rican. She manifests how those roots are kept, how those roots are developed and understood.”

That’s me, right there. Second-generation.

What I realized in Japan is that those roots, while not immediate, are 100% me. I will always keep and develop those roots. And I am only starting to understand them.

Follow Chris Bumbaca on Twitter @BOOMbaca.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Tokyo Olympics helped reveal more of my own identity