By Raquel Reichard
There’s an uprising in the Caribbean. For more than a week, hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans have been protesting on the cobblestone streets of Old San Juan, Ponce, Mayagüez, and other towns on the island. The voices of elders, young adults, and children in unison yell “¡Ricky, renuncia!,” demanding Governor Ricardo Rosselló vacate his seat. On Monday, demonstrations even shut down a major highway in the capital.
The protests began on Saturday, July 13, after 889 pages of damning chats between Rosselló and members of his administration were leaked to the public — but the people’s grievances extend far beyond the embattled politicians. On the walls of aged buildings in the old city, artists, activists, and students painted graffiti calling for the dissolution of an unelected fiscal control board, while protestors decry the U.S. territory’s colonial status on posters held high among a sea of red, white and blue Puerto Rican flags.
This is a revolution, and it’s one that has helped the people of a foiled and forgotten archipelago to not only realize their power — but harness it.
When the Center for Investigative Journalism published a Telegram chat between Rosselló and several high-ranking politicos on July 13, divulging a government with little respect of its people, Puerto Ricans on the archipelago and in the diaspora sprang into action. The messages, dubbed #Telegramgate, show Rosselló and his frat-like cabinet engaging in expletive-laden homophobic, transphobic, and misogynistic conversations about celebrities, dissenters, and political adversaries. They referred to female leaders as putas and male rivals as mamabichos. The men also joked about the decomposing bodies that amassed in the Office of the Medical Examiner days after Hurricane María battered the island. “Do we not have a corpse to feed our crows,” Christian Sobrino, the former chief financial officer and governor’s representative to the fiscal control board who resigned after the scandal, quipped, referring to journalists whose stories the boys’ club attempted to bury.
In the days that followed, even the most politically disengaged people have begun to demonstrate in front of La Fortaleza, the governor's mansion, holding signs of the names of María's victims. (In post-María Puerto Rico, it’s not a stretch to say that everyone had a relative, friend, or acquaintance who died as a result of the catastrophic storm or its cataclysmic recovery.) “Papi, aqui luchando por tu honor,” read one poster in a mass of thousands. “4,645,” read another, referencing a Harvard estimate of the number of people who died, a sum President Donald Trump still denies. For Boricuas, gags about painful, state-assisted deaths and efforts to cover up the vast scale of the calamity was proof of political violence.
Rosselló attempted to invalidate the uprising by falsely saying demonstrators were paid by socialists in Venezuela and the continental U.S. He also apologized for committing “improper acts,” resigned as president of the ruling New Progressive Party, and has announced that he would not seek re-election in 2020 — but repeatedly refused to resign as governor. After mounting pressure from both his constituents and his fellow pro-statehood party leaders, he officially announced his resignation on July 24. Many members of his cabinet have also abdicated; his secretary of state, chief financial officer, press secretary and, as of Tuesday, chief of staff have submitted their resignations. Puerto Rico’s Secretary of Justice Wanda Vázquez Garced is expected to take Rosselló's place, but people are already circulating memes calling for her resignation because they believe she is too closely tied to Rosselló.
But the chats were only the latest evidence of governmental corruption. In mid-June, former secretary of state Raúl Maldonado alleged that there was an “institutional Mafia” polluting local politics. That same day, his son Raúl Jr. claimed that Rosselló ordered accounting firm BDO to alter a negative report about Unidos por Puerto Rico, a nonprofit run by the governor’s wife to raise money for post-María relief; the report, according to Raúl Jr, initially found that freight containers holding FEMA aid had been misplaced. One week later, the FBI arrested five governmental officials on fraud and money-laundering charges. Among them was the governor’s secretary of education, Julia Keleher, whom the people have long lambasted for the decision to shut down hundreds of schools and open Puerto Rico’s first charter school.
These scandals follow a $123 billion debt as well as health care and education crises that were compounded by an abysmal response to mother nature’s natural blows as well as the political jabs of an unelected fiscal control board. The Obama-instituted board, known on the island as la junta, oversees the island’s debt restructuring and has made controversial cuts on public services that are desperately vital to an island where nearly half the population lives below the poverty line. Now the people are demanding the cessation of the board, which many have argued deepens its colonial ties to the U.S.; an audit of its debt; and an end to the austerity measures that have forced hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans to flee the island for opportunities elsewhere. Spectators who rarely consider Puerto Rico might believe the political improprieties are new, but the people there know their insurgence is hundreds of years in the making.
To be born Boricua is to be born into struggle. And in its 121 years under U.S. imperialism, Puerto Rico has undergone an astounding sum of state violence.
While most Latinx American countries colonized by Spain found independence in the 19th century, the island of Borikén, as its native Tainos called it, was invaded and occupied by the U.S. In 1917, the alleged “land of the free” forced second-class citizenship on the people of Puerto Rico, one where they were able to serve in the U.S. military, but not able to vote for the president or elect voting senators or representatives in the U.S. Congress. As a result, nearly 20,000 Boricuas were immediately deployed to fight in World War I.
Puerto Rico was and is an island always in resistance, and has never accepted its colonial status; without political power, the people have utilized people power to effect change. In the 1960s, protests among the diaspora brought attention to unethical clinical trials in which U.S. scientists used the bodies of impoverished women on the island as guinea pigs for birth control research without their informed consent. Three women died; not one of their deaths was investigated by the federal government, who backed the trials. In 2003, it was only after years of massive protests that the Navy ceased bombing exercises on the island-municipality of Vieques; in using it as a site for military testing, they had rendered parts of the land unlivable and contributed to public health dangers, including increased cancer rates.
For hundreds of years the children of Borikén have rebelled against local and federal governments, fighting for the freedom of their matria across the archipelago as well as in Washington, DC. Their struggle has been infiltrated and thwarted by U.S. operatives, who tortured and murdered Puerto Rico’s freedom fighters, including the president of the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party and leader of the 1950 uprising Pedro Albizu Campos. They arrested liberty’s heroes and heroines, like Oscar López Rivera, the U.S.’s longest-serving political prisoner whose sentence was commuted by Obama in 2017. They silenced millions with a gag law that made it illegal to own or display a Puerto Rican flag or speak of independence; it was only repealed in 1957. And they gaslit an occupied people, telling us that we were and are incapable of obtaining our freedom or of flourishing without colonial rule.
But that was before Hurricane María exposed the lie that Puerto Rico needs the U.S. government to survive, as its colonial ties to the “great nation” proved more of a hindrance to the island’s recovery than an advantage. It was prior to the biggest natural disaster in the island’s recent history reminding them of their brilliance and might. It was before the fiscal control board robbed the futures of an already-destitute people. It was previous to Rosselló’s leaked chats, which attacked the island’s women, LGBTQ+ people, jíbaros, and poor communities, uniting a once-divided archipelago. Each of these disasters woke people up, reminded them of the resiliency that runs through their veins, and sparked one of the largest, most diverse, and inclusive revolutionary movements in the history of Puerto Rico.
The remarkable protests have brought nearly a million Boricuas together in innovative demonstrations. Beyond jamming the streets of Old San Juan, the people have organized in dissent through colossal motorist caravans, horse rides en route to the old city, maritime actions, bombazos, queer parties and perreos, and early-morning yoga sessions. Ricky Martin, who was derided in the chats, waved both the Puerto Rican and Pride flags high above protestors on Monday, while Latin trap king Bad Bunny, rapper Residente and singer iLe have shown up to two mass marches; the three Boricua artists also released the movement’s unofficial anthem “Afilando los Cuchillos.” Reggaeton megastar Daddy Yankee, salsera La India, boxing champion Félix “Tito” Trinidad, actor Benicio Del Toro, and local artists PJ Sin Suela and Kany García have been in attendance. Jennifer Lopez shouted out her ancestral homeland on tour. Protestors from across the diaspora danced the electric slide in Grand Central and outside the White House.
This is a protest of rage and power and pride and joy. This is an uprising of the people, who refuse to be silenced. This is a testament to reclaiming a platform, and making the world listen.
For many, the hard-fought win is the first in a long battle against local corruption and colonialism, and it has energized the people’s struggle after years of consecutive devastating disasters. Now, they are following in the footsteps of Albizu Campos, Blanca Canales, López Rivera, and freedom fighter Lolita Lebrón, who once said, “I did not come to kill anyone. I came to die for Puerto Rico.” Their progeny are uprising against cruel and oppressive rule by leading peaceful demonstrations, even as police launch tear gas and shoot rubber bullets to repress their struggle. They are joining together in San Juan, Ponce, New York, Orlando, Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston, Los Angeles, Miami, Santo Domingo, Barcelona, and across the globe.
Together, they are recognizing their might and using it to fight for self-determination and a just future for Borikén.