Puerto Rico Remade

Puerto Rico Remade

The historic protests that forced the resignation of Ricardo Roselló have not ushered in a revolution. But Puerto Ricans now believe they have a future and are willing to fight for it.

Ricky Martin and Residente at the July protests (photo courtesy of the author)

The massive protests that stirred Puerto Rico and its diaspora from July 10 to July 23 have been called a “revolution.”

To the chant of “¡Ricky Renuncia!” thousands took to the streets for thirteen consecutive days, demanding the resignation of the island’s governor, Ricardo Rosselló of the pro-statehood New Progressive Party (PNP). Igniting the revolt was the leak of 889 pages of private chats that took place between late 2018 and early 2019. In these chats, the governor and eleven members of his cabinet and inner circle disparaged women by calling them whores, joked about LGBTQ people and feeding Hurricane Maria’s dead to crows, and congratulated themselves on making fools out of their own party members (and getting away with it).

Even though Roselló finally resigned on July 24, Puerto Rico’s demonstrations did not usher in a revolution—that is, a complete reordering of the social and political realms. He was replaced by an equally objectionable governor. Many of the threads that made up the fabric of the protest were also not entirely new. They were woven together from more than a century of labor, anti-colonial, nationalist, student, anti-military, feminist, LGTBQ, and ecological struggles.

But the term “revolution” is also not completely off-base. Puerto Rico, an archipelago that has been subject to U.S. colonialism for 121 years, experienced the moment as a rupture in relation to what came before and as the possibility of a new beginning. Hinting at the contours of another society, the protests were like no others in Puerto Rico’s history.


Thirteen Days that Shook Some Worlds

On July 17, half a million demonstrators jammed into the narrow streets of Old San Juan, breaking the record for protest size in Puerto Rico, which was previously held by anti-Navy demonstrators demanding the exit of the U.S. military from Vieques in 2003. Five days later, on July 22, hundreds of thousands more filled the eleven-lane Las Americas Expressway while countless others joined throughout the island as part of a national strike. If one of the most lacerating lines of the leaked chats was, “I see a splendid future. There are no Puerto Ricans,” the magnitude of the marches signaled that this was not happening any time soon.

As with prior mobilizations, the protests reverberated beyond the archipelago, particularly in the United States, where 5.5 million Puerto Ricans reside. But this time, protests also occurred nearly everywhere where even a small concentration of Puerto Ricans live, including Mexico, Spain, and Peru. Contrary to those who argue that Puerto Ricans do not make up a diaspora because migration is “easy” and “voluntary,” the protests showed that many form diasporic communities wherever they settle.

The protests, organized but decentralized and leaderless, staged a radically different way of doing politics. In place of traditional leadership, a handful of people, largely global reggaeton stars like Rene Pérez (Residente) and Bad Bunny, took on the public role of “convocadores,” issuing calls to their constituents, whether they were fans, followers, or fellow community members.

The demonstrations were the most multi-sectoral in Puerto Rico’s history and included a significant presence of “autoconvocados” (self-summoned) who had never before joined a protest and were not affiliated with any political organization. In a country dominated by an electoral system that divides the population into reds (status quo), blues (pro-statehood), and greens (pro-independence), many crossed party lines to reject the current political landscape, in which parties make each election cycle a plebiscite on status rather than a process to elect representatives that tend to their constituents’ needs.

For the first time in a mass national mobilization, queer people represented unity. At the head of the enormous July 22 march was the pop singer Ricky Martin, an openly gay middle-aged man met by wild cheers from a crowd full of young people, many of whom had not even been born when he debuted in the boy band Menudo at age twelve. But not only was Martin leading the pack, as other celebrities had done before. He did so waving not a Puerto Rican flag but the LGBTQ rainbow banner.

Equally significant, protesters did not attempt to become a single disciplined body. Valuing their differences, demonstrators participated as they wished: doing yoga, biking, horseback riding, performing acrobatics, and group dancing to the Macarena and the Electro Boogie. Among the most spectacular outings were the motorized cavalries led by social media influencer Rey Charlie, which on July 17 brought nearly 4,000 demonstrators, including reggaeton figures and public housing residents, on motorcycles to the front of the governor’s mansion. Another was the irreverent “perreo combativo” session on the steps of the old city’s cathedral, where largely young people engaged in a session of perreo, reggaeton’s signature twerking move.

The demonstrations incorporated a range of arts, such as plena music and carnival practices like stilt walking, which turn protests into spaces of community renewal. As in other demonstrations, the significant presence of the arts was due to their fundamental role in the reproduction of national identity, one that often grants artists—the guardians of collective memory—a higher status and legitimacy than politicians. But the July protests went further: they mobilized art as a form of protest and fashioned protest as an art form. People wanted to be and be seen anew.

Numerous demonstrators used their bodies as moving canvasses, painting tears, blood, and numbers memorializing Maria’s dead on themselves. Defying norms of women’s dress and respectability, many walked without tops or naked, showing off that they had skin in the game. Defining themselves as “la patería combativa”—combative queers—LGBTQ people genderfucked with their clothes, organized a voguing ball in Old San Juan, and led the “perreo combativo.” In this action, they showed that the church was as important a site of corrupt power as the governor’s mansion and the capitol building.

Through writing on almost every surface, including walls, traffic signs, bodies, fabric, umbrellas, and paper, the protests became poetic laboratories in which the meaning of homophobic and misogynist speech was transformed. Thousands of women (and some men) called themselves putas and rhetorically turned the tables on the powerful men who first hurled the term: puta antes que corrupto, a whore before being corrupt; que gobiernen las putxs, las patxs, may the whores and queers govern. By the end, puta was no longer an insult but a synonym of revolt and justice: “Somos la Puta Resistencia,” read the placard of a group of young women dressed as the bank robbers from the TV show Money Heist. The protesters made clear that the problem wasn’t that the governor and his manada had used “dirty” words. The issue was how and why they were using them.

That the majority of these practices put an emphasis on the body is significant. The protests were acts of self-creation at a time where people’s bodies are literally on the line. It is also not a coincidence that the largest protests after the trauma of Maria, which brought such mourning and silence, focused so centrally on voice. Not only were many of the most visible demonstrators singers and radio personalities, it was reggaeton, a music born in the island’s housing projects and once openly persecuted by the state and rejected by the middle class, that served as the protests’ soundtrack. Moreover, it was largely through sound—song, chants, and the cacerolazos (the ritual banging pots and pans every night at 8 p.m.)—that marchers disrupted the hierarchical relationship between governed and governor, in which the governor speaks and people listen.

The date of Rosselló’s resignation speech, which started on July 24 but ended on July 25, reinforces the revolutionary cast of these protests. On July 25, 1898, the United States invaded Puerto Rico. On July 25, 1952, Puerto Rico adopted the constitution that established the Estado Libre Asociado, a camouflaged colony of the United States. And on July 25, 2019, Puerto Ricans reconstituted themselves as the people who gave a “master class” to the world on ousting corrupt and abusive governments by enacting a different form of politics.


The Uses of Catastrophe

In a country that not that long ago was still referred to as a “happy colony,” and more recently has been called an “emptying island,” how can we account for this revolutionary surge? One answer is: catastrophe—not only in the common sense of disaster but in the etymological sense of “overturning,” a moment in which a realization can lead to a change of fortune.

Since 2006, Puerto Ricans have endured a relentless economic recession and the imposition of austerity policies that have resulted in the layoffs of thousands of government employees, cuts to education, and privatizations of public services. The economic crisis deepened after the then-Governor Alejandro García Padilla announced that the government had incurred an “unpayable debt” of $72 billion, in addition to $50 billion in pension obligations. This was followed by the approval of the federal PROMESA law, which led to the appointment of a seven-member Fiscal Oversight and Management Board (pejoratively called the “junta” by Puerto Ricans) that has significantly decreased local political autonomy and brought about even more severe budget cuts.

Then came Hurricane Maria. Almost two years ago, the Category 5 storm destroyed Puerto Rico’s electric and other infrastructure, leaving half a million residents with damaged or destroyed homes and a blackout that lasted a year. Neither the island nor federal government provided adequate and timely assistance to Puerto Ricans, resulting in hunger, homelessness, loss of livelihoods, the deaths of at least 4,645 people, and the migration of over 100,000 residents—4 percent of the population—to Orlando, New York, and other cities. Poverty rates soared to nearly 50 percent.

In this context, the spectacle of corrupt power became the last straw. On July 10, the FBI arrested several ex-government officials, including Julia Keleher, the widely condemned former secretary of education responsible for the closing of a third of Puerto Rico’s public schools, and charged them with thirty-two counts of fraud and money laundering in relation to awarding contracts totaling $15.5 million. Then, on July 13, five days after the release of a small trove of the private chats, the independent Center for Investigative Journalism released all transcripts. The chats revealed something that people knew: that government officials were negligent and dishonest. But the chats also conveyed something new: that they cared for no one and laughed at everyone, including Hurricane Maria’s dead. People took it personally.

The young, sometimes termed the “yo no me dejo” (don’t even try it) generation, came out in full force. Their presence was not surprising. The crisis had particularly affected young people. By 2019, of the estimated 500,000 residents who have left the island since the austerity crisis, half were under twenty-four. Moreover, the closure of hundreds of public schools, the promotion of charter and private schools, and the slashing of the University of Puerto Rico’s budget are, among other things, direct assaults on the young.

Women also marched en masse. The chats attacked or mocked women and groups such as La Colectiva Feminista en Construcción. Reacting to a photo of a Colectiva member with a T-shirt that read “Antipatriarchal. Feminist. Lesbian. Trans. Caribbean. Latin American,” the governor quipped in the chats: “That has to be a kind of record, no?” The joke did not sit well: for two years prior to the marches, La Colectiva had been demanding that Rosselló declare a state of emergency to address the growing number of women, at least 3,906 cases since Maria, who were killed with impunity, including by police officers. The governor refused, saying that he did not consider it an emergency. Fittingly, La Colectiva was one of the first groups to take to the streets.

LGBTQ people of all ages had their own motives to come out. The chats included a direct hit at Ricky Martin’s sexuality and multiple instances of homophobic slurs such as “cocksuckers” during a time of surging violence against queers. The protests allowed LGBTQ people, specially activists, to set everybody straight. They shot back at the PNP: although Rosselló’s party has prominent (closeted) queer members, the party’s coalition includes religious fundamentalists who consistently demonize queer people and oppose LGBTQ rights legislation. By insisting on being seen, they also refused the invisible role that the left had historically assigned to them. Chanting “no hay libertad política sin libertad sexual,” they declared their sexuality and their selves as indispensable to any revolution.

The “people’s” wrath, however, was not the only reason that Rosselló resigned quickly; protesters had history on their side. Whereas the protests were leaderless, their organization was years in the making. They were based on past organizing efforts and the practice of autogestión (self-governance) through which communities took matters into their own hands to assure survival in the face of austerity and government abandonment. The explosion of information and narratives that followed Maria, coming from professional journalists, scholars, activists, students, and anyone with a story and a means to tell it, produced the outline for a common story. Access to social and digital media allowed a range of diverse and geographically dispersed groups and organizations to circulate, communicate, and coordinate mass actions.

Equally important if rarely mentioned, Rosselló began his mandate with the weakest support of any recent governor: he won the 2016 elections with under 42 percent of the vote while independent candidates garnered nearly 17 percent. Reflecting widespread party fatigue, the 2016 election also had one of the lowest rates of voter turnout ever in a regular election, at 55 percent. Furthermore, PNP legislators, some fearing that their party’s re-election prospects were in jeopardy and others seeing an opportunity to advance their own ambitions, did nothing to back Rosselló and threatened impeachment. Even President Trump threw some dirt on the casket, tweeting that Rosselló was a “terrible governor.” The global media did not disagree. At the end, the self-described “resilient” governor had no option but to go.


After the Party

Immediately following the governor’s resignation, many protesters began to ask what is to be done “after Ricky.” While there is broad consensus on key points, groups are acting on different priorities, each of which presents its own challenges.

For some, the best way to maintain momentum is to keep the pressure on the succession process and leadership of the PNP. That process, they hope, will make evident the corruption of the party, leading to its collapse—¡que se vayan todos! For others, the next step is to mobilize for an audit of Puerto Rico’s debt in order to dismantle the fiscal control board, which will relieve generations from odious indebtedness, curtail the greed of corporate entities feeding on the crisis, and reclaim political power. A third group argues that the only way forward is to press for a process of status self-determination, arguing that U.S. colonialism is at the root of all problems.

Those pressuring the PNP had a partial victory in that Rosselló’s immediate successor, Secretary of Justice Wanda Vazquez, is already under investigation and has repeatedly said she does not want to be governor. But the call ¡que se vayan todos! needs to go beyond the PNP and must include the rival Popular Democratic Party (PDP). Although no doubt the protesters were diverse and the protesters crossed party lines, the governor’s pro-statehood stance helped mobilize organized grassroots groups, which tend to be pro-independence and commonwealth supporters. “Siempre puta, nunca PNP,” read more than one placard. It would be limited progress if Rosselló’s resignation weakened the PNP only to benefit the PDP, a no less corrupt party.

The chant of “Ricky Renuncia” had a second part: “llévate a la junta” (take the board with you), a demand to remove the control board installed by PROMESA. Most Puerto Ricans would like to see it go. Yet mass protests in Puerto Rico alone will not lead to its dismissal under a Trump White House and a Republican-controlled Senate, and a U.S. press that supports their positions on Puerto Rico. On July 25, while the Wall Street Journal ran a scathing editorial stating that Puerto Ricans need to submit to the control board, Trump tweeted that the “United States Congress foolishly gave 92 Billion Dollars for hurricane relief to a corrupt government.” Only seven days later, Department of Housing and Urban Development officials stated that they would begin to disburse recovery funds to states but not to Puerto Rico due to the government’s “alleged corruption” and “fiscal irregularities.” The fact that, on August 2, Pedro Pierluisi, a former lawyer for the control board, was sworn in as governor in violation of the constitution underscores the intricate difficulties ahead. To remove the board, Puerto Ricans will need the support of the diaspora and other political allies in the United States.

The call for self-determination may present even greater challenges. Although supporters of independence were integral to the protests, the demonstrations were not a demand for national independence. If a process of self-determination is only understood as a choice between independence and statehood, old divisions will flare and status politics will continue to obscure the growing and multiple inequities inside Puerto Rican society. An exclusive focus on status also overlooks the fact that austerity policies and corruption are problems in numerous nation-states, including in the United States.

Appeals for self-determination may be more fruitful if they are broader. The political subordination of Puerto Rico to the United States needs to be contested. At the same time, the protests show that it is possible to conceive of decolonization more broadly: not just as a discrete event, but as a process that affirms freedoms and expands rights, transforms social relations, establishes equitable forms of governance, and refuses the colonial-capitalist order—in other words, a process that amplifies people’s sense of the possible and allows for collective political deliberation free of fear. The very factors that made the protests so powerful—robust, creative, and diverse citizen participation—offer the most promise for a different Puerto Rico.

Yet, whatever happens next, there is no doubt that the protests remade Puerto Rico. People, particularly the young, now believe they have a future and are willing to fight for it. As one man in Dorado put it on July 23, “El puertorriqueño ya no es el de antes”—Puerto Ricans aren’t the same as before. This will be true even if this revolution, like all revolutions, cannot deliver on all it promises.

Frances Negrón-Muntaner is a scholar, artist, and professor at Columbia University.