‘We know that it is not over’: Governor Ricardo Rosselló has finally promised to resign, but protestors aren't ready to go home.
On Monday, July 15, Otura Mun was on his way back to Puerto Rico from San Francisco after a concert tour with his music group, ÌFÉ. Two days earlier, the Center for Investigative Journalism, an independent news organization based in San Juan, leaked all 889 pages of a chat conversation on the messaging app Telegram. The leak implicated the now ex-governor of Puerto Rico, Ricardo Rosselló, and 11 of his cronies, including his secretary of state, secretary of government, fiscal director, deputy chief of staff, secretary of government affairs, and publicist.
The leak instantly sparked national outrage. Rosselló and his accomplices—all of whom have now either been fired or resigned from their positions—had discussed violently assaulting the former speaker of the New York City Council, Melissa Mark-Viverito, and San Juan’s mayor, Carmen Yulín Cruz; disrespected the 4,654 lives lost to Hurricane Maria; and mocked the passing of Carlos Gallisá and Marta Font—key political figures and well-respected members of Puerto Rico’s pro-independence party. The leaked chats also showed ruthless bullying through memes, gifs, and selfies that targeted minorities, women, overweight people, the lower class, and even members of the governor’s pro-statehood party.
The same Saturday that the chat was leaked, protestors ambushed the back gates of the governor’s mansion, La Fortaleza, demanding answers. By Sunday, the three main ways to enter La Fortaleza were blocked by police barricades that held back a mob of angry protesters (including myself) who did not leave Old San Juan until the day of Roselló’s resignation on June 24. “The live social media videos of Monday night’s protest were looking pretty intense, and steadily building in intensity,” said the 44-year-old singer. “Our flight left SFO at 9pm which would be midnight in San Juan. By that time there were huge dumpster fires raging on Calle Fortaleza people broke apart the cobblestone streets,throwing actual pieces of it at the cops, who fired tear gas canisters at unarmed protesters.” For him, the images they saw on social media were like nothing he had seen since moving to the island in 1999. According to Mun, most of his fellow Puerto Rican bandmates “were visibly distressed.” “We stopped for an hour to change planes in New York, and the images and videos we were seeing at 7am on Tuesday were wild,” he said. “It looked like Old San Juan was burning. We saw a video of the cops firing what I hope was a rubber bullet into the back of an unarmed protester while she was making a speech to the crowd. The same cop shot her twice—in the back.” As soon as he landed, Mun left his suitcase at home and headed straight to the streets.“We were coming home to fight,” he said.
“Overthrowing Rosselló was the first step. These past few days have been incredible. You walk out to the street and people hug and congratulate each other, with big smiles on their faces. But we know that it is not over.”
The revolution sparked a movement of combative creativity and mobilization. “The artistic community, from visual arts to music and popular culture, has been super important in [representing through] creative ways the situation that the island has been going through,” said Christopher Rivera, a 36-year-old artist and co-owner of Embajada, a contemporary art gallery in San Juan. Puerto Ricans were and continue to be experiencing a creative high, channeling our rage through sarcastic protest posters, passive-aggressive protest songs, and hilarious, museum-worthy memes. “This has been a creative revolution formed by different groups who were united day after day for the past two weeks, creating one voice that was loud and clear,” he said. During those two weeks, protests included one organized by the now-famous Rey Charlie, who summoned thousands of motorbikers that packed the highway all the way to the entrance of Old San Juan. There was also speed racing, horseback riding, massive yoga classes outside and around La Fortaleza—as well as the Capitolio—a paddle board and kayak ambush of the sea area around the governor’s mansion, and a massive perreo combativo [a style of reggaeton dancing] that saw the streets—and, on the evening of the governor’s resignation, the steps of Old San Juan’s cathedral—packed with dancers. Rumor has it that the Catholic church is planning to do an exorcism of the cathedral to wash away the sins from all the ass-shaking that happened that night.
But not everything was fun and games. During protests, police attacked civilians with tear gas (all four artists interviewed and myself were harmed by them), pepper spray, and rubber bullets. (They even burned down a car.) Police and news reporters put the blame on the protestors, but a social media video proved otherwise.
Discomfort about this administration had started on day one of Rosselló’s election. “How could I not be there?” says 32-year-old performance artist nibia pastrana santiago, who performed for the 2019 Whitney Biennial. “There are so many reasons,” she continued. “It’s been an accumulation of long years of corruption and abuse, and above all, there is a great deal of disrespect towards Puerto Ricans from the Rosselló administration. My main reason to be there was that I want to Puerto Rico to be ours again. I’ve had it. I’m sick and tired of all the budget cuts in education and health care.” On July 10, Julia Keleher, Puerto Rico’s former secretary of education, who had masterminded the highly criticized decision to close 422 public schools, and Ángela Dávila, who oversaw Puerto Rico’s chaotic healthcare reform, were arrested in Washington, DC and San Juan respectively. Both women were then charged with corruption and fraud for stealing millions of dollars of public funds. They were released after paying bail and Keleher, an American woman who spoke little-to-no Spanish, may be pardoned by the pro-statehood party.
pastrana santiago is also disturbed by the Rosselló administration’s indifference to violence against women. “So far, this year, there have been 41 women murdered,” she says. In one of the leaked messages, Rosselló said about Melissa Mark-Viverito that he “could not wait to beat up that whore.” In another, Rosselló said then-fiscal director Christian Sobrino Vega would be doing him “a big favor” by shooting Carmen Yulín Cruz. “If an administration can not face femicide, then this government does not deserve to be in power,” said pastrana santiago. Rivera added that ever since Rosselló took power, his government, just like that of his father [Pedro Rosselló, who was the Governor of Puerto Rico from 1992 to 2000], was destroying the island’s education and healthcare system, as well as its cultural institutions. “This is a government that at closed doors negotiated and sold us to bigger interests,” Rivera says, “and handed us out to the Fiscal Board without wanting to audit our supposed debt.”
“‘This has been a creative revolution formed by different groups who were united day after day for the past two weeks, creating one voice that was loud and clear, [Christopher Rivera] said.’”
Then there was the administration’s cruel mocking of the unaccounted victims of Hurricane Maria. (“Do we have any more bodies to feed our vultures?” Christian Sobrino, the now ex-chief advisor of economic development, was revealed to have asked in the leaked messages.) 35-year-old queer farmer Tara Rodríguez Besosa is one of the leaders of the new agricultural movements that occurred after Hurricane Maria. “I was born in a colony that can not take it anymore,” she told me. “When the protests started, I identified with this collective rage and through it I was able to learn more about what was happening. I spoke with many people, and participated in a reading of the chat in front of the Capitolio.” Rodríguez Besosa was one of many business owners who had to shut down operations because of Hurricane Maria. “Before all of this erupted, I was working on my farm and focusing on reopening El Departamento de la Comida [her farm-to-table restaurant and market]. I don’t have a lot of spare time, but I could not isolate from this situation, and no one should.”
Puerto Rico’s LGBTTQQIAAP community has been a big part of the protests, staging a vogue ball and an all-inclusive make-out, and taking care of the health of all protestors. “It’s important to recognize that we were not only affected by the hurricane, but we also get a lot of heat from all the religious right that is inside the government,” said Rodríguez Besosa of her community’s ongoing struggle. “You can’t have political freedom without sexual freedom, or as some of us like to say, ‘You can’t have political freedom without a transexual leader.’”
Overthrowing Rosselló was the first step. These past few days have been incredible. You walk out to the street and people hug and congratulate each other, with big smiles on their faces. But we know that it is not over. We’re beginning the next phase of this fight, and demanding the resignation of Secretary of Justice, Wanda Vázquez Garced. “We have to weed them out,” said pastrana santiago.
In the leaked messages, one of Rosselló’s men had said that he saw the future of Puerto Rico, and there were no Puerto Ricans. That’s clearly not the case. The recent days of scandal, unrest, arrests, tear gas, fireworks, happiness, anger, celebrations, rage, and laughter will go down in Puerto Rican history. Millions of Puerto Ricans marched here and around the world to protest and show love for our island. We see the future of Puerto Rico and it is filled with Puerto Ricans.