Boxers aren’t just athletes in Puerto Rico, they’re diplomats. Late in Angel Manuel Soto’s El Púgil—a short documentary about fighter Angel “Tito” Acosta, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival last week—the boxer’s trainer points to the role fighters have played in the country’s history.
“Every time they go outside, they fly the flag high. And when they fight, they fight in the name of the country,” said Javier Arce of the island’s numerous boxers, among them legends like Félix “Tito” Trinidad and Miguel Cotto and, going even farther back, Sixto Escobar.
Given Puerto Rico’s nebulous political status, its fondness for boxing makes a certain kind of sense—if the island is not to have a vote in Congress or economic autonomy, then a world champion will do. It’s an irresistible and classic narrative, the underdog triumphing over adversity. Puerto Rico, it seems, has always been searching for its Rocky moment.
“I honestly believe that one of the main reasons why we love boxing so much is because it clearly represents our struggle,” Soto said in between screenings of the short.
The struggle is real. Puerto Rico faces defaulting on a $72 billion debt unless Congress acts to allow it to restructure its debts. Public schools and hospitals have closed while thousands of Puerto Ricans—who are U.S. citizens by birth—have moved stateside. And Zika is spreading, too.
No Puerto Rican boxer better embodies the scrappiness and "started from the bottom now we’re here" attitude of the island than 25-year-old Acosta. He's a bantamweight, which means he weighs in between 112 and 118 pounds. Petite, really. The current Latin American world champion even hails from Barrio Obrero, which literally translates into “working-class neighborhood.”
He dropped out of school in the seventh grade. He doesn’t drink. He doesn’t smoke. He barely even speaks. What he does is get up at dawn to train, rest, and then train again. In the film, Acosta’s regimented devotion to boxing contrasts the spiraling chaos of the neighborhood around him and the country he lives in. Early in the film, Acosta explains how he was brought to the training gym at age 10 by “a brother of mine who right now is not with us.” He lets the sentence trail off, without explaining how or when his brother died. He fights. Quietly.
Soto, a 33-year-old who shares Cotto’s hometown of Bairoa, is himself a refugee of the economic crisis. He landed in Los Angeles two years ago and found a Hollywood ending. He had first shot El Púgil in 2013 as part of an art festival that, among other projects, filmed short documentaries about life in Santurce, an arts district of San Juan. After Soto began working at RYOT Films, he showed the short to co-founder Bryn Mooser, who loved it. Only, he didn’t understand it. Soto added subtitles and, with Friday Night Lights' Peter Berg onboard as an executive producer, the film landed at Tribeca.
“I guess I should’ve put subtitles from the beginning,” Soto said.
His success as a filmmaker outside of Puerto Rico underscores the tough terrain for directors on the island. Puerto Rico has long been what Soto called “a fiscal paradise” for foreign filmmakers with tax incentives and exemptions that amount to millions of dollars for productions such as the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise.
“All these movies from Hollywood, or series, from the states come over to Puerto Rico and shoot and they provide employment and that’s really good,” he said. “It’s just that, locally, anything that is meant to grow a creative power within the island kind of gets shut down. And I get it, there’s no money.”
For Soto, it’s a different fight, to someday make movies in Puerto Rico again and foster the art culture there. In the meantime, RYOT released a sequel of sorts to El Púgil on Vimeo Friday. ¡Ti-To! finds Acosta has matured into an undefeated fighter (a trainer calls an opponent who lasted seven rounds “worthy”). Cameras follow Acosta as he shyly greets neighbors who call him “Campeón.”
The champion, Acosta, defended his Latin American WBC Championship title April 24 in Puerto Rico, but Soto couldn’t be there—he was screening El Púgil at the Tribeca Film Festival.
Tito won—it was a knockout.
Gabriela Resto-Montero spends her days repping Puerto Rico and Colorado, writing about politics and culture, and scamming for Hamilton tickets. She awaits both Rihanna and Wisin y Yandel's new albums with equal anticipation.