By Yarimar Bonilla
Sandra Rodriguez Cotto views her job as a journalist and a radio host in Puerto Rico as that of being a spark. “I find out about things and pass them on so others can disseminate them,” she told MTV News. She doesn’t consider herself an influencer, but more of a provocateur. But for women, that task can lead to erasure down the line: even if they are the first to put out a message, it is often others who are recognized for the work of moving that message forward.
But there’s no chance of that happening this time: On Saturday, July 13, several journalists, including Rodriguez Cotto, leaked 11 pages of a governmental Telegram chat to the public. They were just a few of the many powerful women who helped bring down Puerto Rico’s governor and hold the island accountable to change that actually benefits its people.
For her coverage of the leak, Rodriguez Cotto, who runs the blog En Blanco Y Negro, focused her reporting on officials' use of misogynistic language and the threat of violence against women in the cat. As she and others reported, Rosselló repeatedly referred to women in the opposition as “putas” (the Spanish slur for prostitute) and one of his advisors made crude comments about gunning down Carmen Yulín Cruz, the mayor of San Juan.
The public responded by protesting for nearly two weeks and, on July 25, Puerto Rico’s Governor Ricardo Rosselló resigned from public office via Facebook Live. His unprecedented resignation was the result of massive public pressure from broad sectors of civil society, including international celebrities like Ricky Martin, Bad Bunny, iLe, and Residente.
All of them had their reasons to protest: Among other outrages, the chats mocked the victims and survivors of Hurricane Maria. In one exchange, then-governor Rosselló joked about the cadavers that had been piling up at the public morgue during and after the storm, prompting one of his aids to joke about using the morgues as bait for the administration’s enemies, writing: “Don’t we have some cadavers to feed our crows?” To this day, neither the U.S. government nor the government of Puerto Rico have publicly acknowledged that over 3,000 people died as a result of the storm and the subsequent systemic failure to help Puerto Ricans in need.
The Puerto Rican government had been failing its citizens long before the hurricane. The released chat, with its misogynistic and homophobic language, pointed to some of those trends: According to an ACLU report, Puerto Rico has the highest per capita rate in the world of femicides, specifically of women killed by their partners. While Rossello's administration makes light of gender violence behind closed doors, local feminists groups have long been calling for greater governmental attention to these issues. One group, Colectiva Feminista en Construcción has been particularly active in the battle against gender violence both before and after Hurricane Maria; as a result, they were directly targeted in the governor’s chat for their efforts to hold the government accountable for the gender-based violence crisis.
It was La Colectiva who first called for protests against the governor, including the massive march held in response to the chat on Wednesday, July 17, which was later joined by international celebrities. They were also the first to stage cacerolazos (protests with pots and pans); in November 2018, they camped out outside the governor’s mansion, in what they called a plantón, to demand that he declare a state of emergency around gender violence, thus turning this space into a site of resistance long before the current protests.
The administration’s blatant disregard for the livelihoods of the members of her community inspired journalists like Rodriguez Cotto to fight for Puerto Rico: After Hurricane Maria, she served as one of the main sources of information on the island for WAPA radio when residents found themselves with no electricity or cell phone service. She used her platform to tell the stories of women in particular who were deeply affected by the storm, particularly those who were victims of domestic violence and who found themselves doubly vulnerable in the midst of the disaster.
Because of her reporting, Rodriguez Cotto became a target: Her home was broken into, and she feared for her safety and that of her daughter. Despite it all, she has continued to report on government corruption and gender violence on En Blanco y Negro, and during her radio show on Red Informativa.
But fear of retaliation isn’t stopping the women-led independent journalists who have continued to push their stories to the next level. After the original 11 pages of chats circulated in the press, the Center for Investigative Journalism published nearly a thousand additional pages of damning messages. “The decision to publish it was made collectively,” Omaya Sosa Pascual, one of the CPI’s founding directors, told MTV News, adding that the CPI had received the initial chat leaks but held back from publishing until they could see the full context. “We knew there was much more than what was originally unveiled, and our interest was always in the possible illegalities and unethical activity that the chat might reveal.” Once they received the full chat, CPI executive director Carla Minet decided that they would not just publish snippets, but release the full chat online for all to read along with their own investigation into government corruption.
It wasn’t the CPI’s first time breaking stories. The women-led organization has earned an important reputation in Puerto Rico for its in-depth reporting and unveiling of government mismanagement, notably leading the charge in the wake of Hurricane Maria to counter the official cover-up that claimed a death toll of 16 for months, while many could tell from their own personal experience that the truth was exponentially larger. (To this day, the local government refuses to do a full accounting of those that were lost to the storm. All that exists are statistical analyses which suggest that thousands more died the year of Hurricane Maria than would have died in a normal year.) The group eventually created an interactive website designed to preserve individual stories of hurricane victims; the names and individual stories of those who were lost have primarily been honored through the individual efforts of the CPI and other independent journalists.
The full chats came full-circle for Lourdes Muriente, a practicing attorney in San Juan, when she learned that the governor had made light of her former husband, Carlos Gallisá, a prominent activist and political leader on the island who died of cancer in 2018. In response, she and two other women marched into government buildings and began taking the official portrait of the governor off the wall. Videos of their actions soon went viral, inspiring cartoons and copycat actions.
One of the women who joined her was 70-year-old Abigail Ramos, who says that the information drop had a deep impact on her: “I suddenly felt this pain that was not just emotional but also physical. It hurt me physically, I was nauseated. It was just too much,” she told MTV News. She had flashbacks of those she had met who had struggled caring for sick loved ones without electricity or running water for months on end and of friends who were struggling with reduced pensions due to the island’s long-standing financial crisis. “I have a group of friends who are government retirees, who have limited pensions and they have already have had their pensions cut by the government… And for what? To steal? To take money away from schools and the university?” The idea of the governor laughing from the safety of his mansion while many Puerto Ricans struggled with the impact of Maria, compounded by the larger economic crisis, was too much for her to bear.
The persistent silence around the people who were lost in the wake of Hurricane Maria, the insurmountable challenge of mourning them properly, and the blatant disrespect from their governmental officials has been a sore point for local residents in particular. At the rallies, many carried pictures of those they had lost along with personal stories of friends and family who did not survive the storm. The indignation was key to mobilizing the protestors and ignited a fire within the younger generation of Puerto Ricans, many of whom were not even able to vote in the last election.
Among that group was Aliana Bigio Alcoba, a 21-year-old student at the University of Puerto Rico, who runs a Facebook and Instagram site called Con-Sentimiento (a double entendre in Spanish which means consent but also “with sentiment”). She began the site to launch conversations about feminism, gender binaries, and hot-button issues such as abortion. After the first leak, she gathered a group of young women outside the governor’s mansion to protest after the first leak. The group, which took on the name Mujeres en Resistencia, placed duct tape on their mouths as symbols of repression and staged a silent protest to demand the governor’s removal. They also brought published copies of the governor’s chat with them so that visitors to Old San Juan, many of whom were unaware of the actual content of the conversations, could read the messages for themselves.
Another group of young women turned to make-up and body paint to express their discontent and used their bodies as political canvases. They drew international attention for their work and soon became known as las hijas de la crisis (the daughters of the crisis), a name that captures how the current movement spans beyond the governor’s chats and even the crisis of Maria. It tunnels through to a deeper nerve among young Puerto Ricans who are struggling to make the island a place where they can live, dream, and create a new future.
Makeup artist Melanie Rodriguez Rosado began by painting protestor Anamar Pérez-Green, who became the canvas for a Puerto Rican flag lit up in flames. Rodriguez Rosado placed tape covered in drawings of barbed wire across Pérez-Green’s mouth and paired it with smeared black eye makeup streaming down her face. Pérez-Green also wrote the word “puta” across her buttocks, and used her back as a message board so that protestors could write their own messages to the governor. Participants filled her back with choice words borrowed from the chat and messages such as “No more abuse!” and “Resign!” The final look served as a symbol for the pain and emotion felt by protesting, and Puerto Ricans at large; images and videos of Pérez-Green taken by photographer Valeria Martínez-Marrero quickly went viral.
Days later, an iconic image began to circulate of eight girls who together symbolized various aspects of the protests. One was dressed as a white and black Puerto Rican flag, the symbol of resistance; another was painted as a rainbow flag to symbolize inclusivity. A girl painted as a skeleton represented those lost during Maria, who were ever-present in the protest. Other girls bore insults from the infamous leaked chat. Together, they looked like a new band of superheroes for Puerto Rico’s future.
As Bigio explained in a podcast interview, this new generation of girls are a product of Puerto Rico’s current political climate: “I don’t remember, ever since I was a kid, living in a period not characterized by crisis.”
“We have inherited a debt that we did not create and we live carrying a weight that should not be our responsibility,” she added in a post for the feminist website Todas. “We do not rest because of the anxiety of what will or will not be our ‘future.’"
“It is important that my generation become informed and express themselves politically starting now,” said 14-year-old Lorena Isabel Torres Negrón. The accomplished ballet dancer attended the protests with her parents and two brothers because she felt that it was important to be involved in whatever way she can be. “We are the future, but we have to start becoming informed now. If we wait until we are old enough to vote they will deceive us and everything will be worse,” she added.
“We are not only here for ourselves but also for our parents, who pay taxes,” Lorena said, adding, “It's not just about us but about defending our country.”
Bigio agrees that Puerto Rico’s future is in the hands of this new generation. She worries that young people are being forced into greater and greater debt as the university becomes less accessible due to budget cuts and decreased financial aid to athletes and others in the wake of the financial crisis. But she insists that given all these hardships, Puerto Rican young people have nothing to lose.
“We have to go out and take back the country they tried to destroy, always remembering that the resignation of former Governor Ricardo Rosselló is not the end of this fight, but only the beginning,” she wrote for Todas. “We have a lot that needs cleaning up and the young people of this country are ready with broom and dustpan in hand. In the streets, at the polls, in the university, in our homes, and on social media, we will continue to hacer patria and demand a better Puerto Rico for us all.”