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The Congressional Gold Medal awarded to members of the Borinqueneers in 2016. Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images.
The Congressional Gold Medal awarded to members of the Borinqueneers in 2016. Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images.

The college student who recorded a history of Puerto Rican U.S. military service through art

Inspired by a grandfather, one Austin Peay State University student is curating the long history.

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One student at Clarksville, Tennessee’s Austin Peay State University (APSU) recently compiled a select history of Puerto Rico’s involvement in the U.S. military, focusing on some specific moments.

The history was compiled through a collection of artwork, curated by APSU student Carlos R. Carpena, who grew up in Puerto Rico. 

Carpena was an engineering technology student before returning to the school to pursue a second degree in art.

In 1950, Carpena’s grandfather had been involved with a group comprising members of Puerto Rico’s 65th Infantry Regiment, known as the Borinqueneers.

Carpena’s grandfather was one inspiration for the exhibit, but the student was also inspired by what he perceives as a culture of military involvement, stating that most Puerto Ricans have some sort of military history in their family.

Within Puerto Rico’s 100-by-35 mile radius, there are a total of seven military bases.

After one battle, Carpena’s grandfather went missing, and his whereabouts were never discovered. He is still declared missing in action. The Borinqueneers are named as a nod to the Indigenous title of Borinquen. 

This group would end up reinforcing U.S. soldiers around the start of the Korean War. Now, Carpena has successfully compiled a brief history of the Borinqueneers’ military involvement. 

After their participation in the Korean War, the Borinqueneers, an already segregated group, were subjected to numerous accounts of court martialing, and had 91 soldiers jailed in 1952.

The Borinqueneers then spent decades attempting to clear their records. About 60 years later, President Barack Obama awarded the regiment the Congressional Gold Medal in 2014, stating the group had “earned a hallowed place in our history.”

After receiving support from a scholarship through the APSU Center of Excellence for the Creative Arts, Carpena began working on his history-based art exhibition.

The exhibition detailed pieces of history involving Puerto Rico’s military involvement. On display were sculptures, charcoal drawings, video productions, and other pieces.

Included was a video interpretation of PTSD, and a painting of Roberto Clemente, a baseball player and one-time military member. 

These pieces were being displayed within the Barbara Beach Gallery at the APSU Art and Design Building for a period of time. The exhibition even featured a bust of Carpena’s missing grandfather.

“While I was doing this and the research, it took a big toll on me. It was hard. I wanted to celebrate his service because my mom… she’s still hurt because she never met [her father]. Everything she knows is from old stories of family members,” Carpena told APSU.

“It’s been hard for her to talk about this moment… until they find his body or remains, she won’t have any closure.”

Carpena’s exhibit at the Barbara Beach Gallery closed earlier in December.

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