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  • The Triangle of Empire: Sport, Religion, and Imperialism in Puerto Rico’s YMCA, 1898–1926
  • Antonio Sotomayor

In 1891, Luther H. Gulik, a prominent member of the international leadership of the YMCA of the United States, established the triangle as the YMCA symbol. He saw the triangle as a symbol imbued with Christian beliefs that would become the spearhead of a worldwide missionary movement. About the Triangle, Gulik wrote:

The triangle stands . . . for the symmetrical man, each part developed with reference to the whole, and not merely with reference to itself. . . . What authority have we for believing that this triangle idea is correct? It is scriptural. . . . Such statements as, “Thou shalt love the Lord Thy God with all they heart and soul and mind and strength,” indicate . . . the scriptural view . . . that the service of the Lord includes the whole man. The words, which in the Hebrew and Greek are translated “strength,” refer in both cases entirely to physical strength.1

As the YMCA International Committee’s first secretary for athletic work (1889–1902), Gulik had strong reason to create a symbol that could be recognized anywhere in the world. He was a firm believer in the expanding Muscular Christianity movement, which glorified patriotic duty and manliness expressed through athletics, and a strong believer in the civilizing agency of missionary Protestantism as it sought to establish a United States Christian righteous empire.2 [End Page 481]

During and after the Spanish American War of 1898, which ended four centuries of Spanish rule, the YMCA became an integral ally in the United States invasion of Puerto Rico, Cuba, and the Philippines. Entering these islands as the Army and Navy YMCA, the organization helped to establish the new imperial hegemony by developing missionary activities and creating a modern athletic culture, all part of fulfilling US promises to fostering and develop liberal democratic institutions.3 While Gulik never set foot in Puerto Rico, he did articulate and institutionalize the parameters that made athletic activities and sport an essential part of the religious mission of the YMCA, not only in the United States but also in Puerto Rico and beyond.4

Although the YMCA entered Cuba and the Philippines as well as Puerto Rico with the US Army in 1898, this article will focus on Puerto Rico, since it was here that the YMCA had a more stable and fertile ground for proselytizing. Puerto Ricans, familiar with modern sports since before 1898, were also familiar with and often admiring of the US’s democratic tradition and liberal economy.5 Their admiration for US republicanism and capitalism, especially in contrast to what they felt to be an oppressive Spanish monarchy, allowed them to welcome and conditionally accept the YMCA’s premise of promoting their mental, spiritual, and physical well-being.6 This article will show that in the midst of these imperial, colonial, and hegemonic transitions, religion and sport became a significant element in the negotiations over the meaning of culture and progress.

Despite Spanish repression in the island, Puerto Rico remained a predominantly Catholic society and carried centuries-long traditions as the home of a Hispanic Caribbean people with a politically informed elite. Although there were some Protestant groups on the island before 1898, the US missionary endeavor in Puerto Rico after 1898 was different: it was part of a concentrated Americanization project, intended to turn what the US considered backward traditions, including Spanish Catholicism, into civilized and progressive values of Anglo-Saxon Protestantism and democracy.7 However, proponents of Americanization in Puerto Rico faced a 400-year-old Catholic and Hispanic [End Page 482] society led by an articulate Puerto Rican elite that was already carrying out its own hegemonic agenda.8

This article will demonstrate that along with a military and missionary invasion, a new approach to play and recreation—known as sports—became an imperial tool in the attempt to transform Puerto Ricans to fit American values.9 For the YMCA, sport, or “physical work” as they called it, would help US officials turn Puerto Ricans into the American ideal of physical strength, which was inherently tied to ideas of Christian strength. On the other hand, Puerto Ricans saw sports as an...


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pp. 481-512
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