Felipe Birriel Fernández, affectionately known as “El Gigante de Carolina” (Carolina’s Giant), holds a place in Puerto Rican history as the tallest individual, with an unconfirmed height of 7 feet 11 inches.
Early Years: Born in Carolina, Puerto Rico, on August 16, 1916, Felipe Birriel was the eldest of six siblings and received education up to the second grade. His childhood was marked by work in farm fields, where he assisted in planting vegetable seeds, picked fruits and coffee beans, and served as a waterboy for sugar cane workers.
Condition and Treatment: In 1932, at the age of 16, Birriel experienced a sudden growth spurt, prompting a visit to the doctor due to illness and weakness. A tumor in his pituitary gland was diagnosed, a condition deemed treatable but requiring a radiotherapy machine available only in the United States. Despite the machine’s dispatch in 1932, it reached Puerto Rico nine years later in 1941.
Later Years and Achievements: Living in Carolina with his brother and sister-in-law, Felipe Birriel became a folk hero, earning the moniker “El Gigante de Carolina.” In 1974, during the FIBA World Basketball Championships in San Juan, Puerto Rico, he was honored and, to the applause of spectators, effortlessly dunked the basketball without jumping.
Despite his economic struggles, the Puerto Rican government and local businesses provided support. Owners of furniture stores even crafted custom furniture for Birriel. His health, however, deteriorated over time, leading to his passing from a heart attack on March 15, 1994, at the age of 77.
Honors and Legacy: Carolina, recognizing Birriel’s unique stature, is known as the “Land of Giants.” A mural in the town proudly proclaims “Carolina, Tierra de Gigantes” (Carolina, Land of Giants). The BSN basketball team of Carolina bears the name “Los Gigantes de Carolina” (The Carolina Giants), and a museum and street, “El Paseo Felipe Birriel,” pay tribute to his memory.
Author Wanda de Jesús Arvelo from Carolina penned a children’s book titled “Felipe Corazón de Gigantes,” further immortalizing the legacy of Felipe Birriel Fernández.
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