Why I Joined Puerto Rico's History-Making Protest From New York City

Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images.
I heard the chants before I even saw the crowd of protesters that had gathered in New York City's sweltering summer heat in Union Square on Wednesday evening to call for the resignation of Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló. “Somos más, ¡y no tenemos miedo!” — "There are more of us, and we are not afraid!" — the crowd chanted, making it clear to the Democrat and pro-statehood leader that they stand against him.
The protest was one of many demonstrations taking place all over the world, from China to Holland to Chile, making it clear that the boricua community is more united than ever. The display of solidarity was particularly evident in San Juan, Puerto Rico’s capital, where over 100,000 boricuas of all ages, socioeconomic backgrounds, political inclinations, and religions — including celebrities like Ricky Martin, Residente, Ile, and Bad Bunny — came together in the largest protest the U.S. territory has ever seen. Filling Old San Juan, from the Puerto Rican Capitol to the governor’s mansion, mi gente had a clear message: Rosselló must go.
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Members of the first-term governor’s administration, including Secretary of State Luis Rivera Marín, started falling like dominoes after the leak of a group chat between Rosselló, top officials, and lobbyists filled with misogynistic, homophobic, and classist remarks. The crass exchanges were not the only issue: Officials in the chat shared confidential state information with lobbyists, planned how to unleash a horde of trolls on social media to harass political opponents, and even made fun of those who died as a result of Hurricane Maria. The leaks follow a series of high-profile arrests of former top officials in the Rosselló administration who are facing corruption charges. As thousands took to the streets, Puerto Rico’s Center for Investigative Journalism published a blockbuster investigation outlining how Rosselló’s associates have created an entire network of corruption — with his blessing.
The protest, the fifth to take place in San Juan since the group chat was leaked in its entirety over the weekend, was about much more than Rosselló’s so-called “locker-room talk.” As Washington Post reporter Arelis Hernández tweeted:People talk about the Chupacabra, report sightings, but the monster is only a suspicion. Until you see him for yourself. The chats are something tangible for people here, confirming [their] worst fears.”
The driving force behind the mass mobilization was anger over everything we have lost. Over the government mismanagement that led to a debt crisis everyday Puerto Ricans will be paying for over generations. The over 3,000 boricuas who died due to incompetent local and federal responses after Hurricane Maria ravaged Puerto Rico nearly two years ago, while both Rosselló and President Donald Trump denied their deaths ever happened. The nearly 300 schools that closed down due to austerity measures, while former Secretary of Education Julia Keleher was earning $250,000 a year and allegedly funneling federal money to unqualified contractors. The hospitals closing down, making it harder for Puerto Ricans to access healthcare in the wake of the hurricane. The major corporations that exploited the government-led tax breaks for decades before packing their bags once those ended, leaving thousands unemployed and sending Puerto Rico straight into a recession from which it has not recovered. Entire families separated because their only way to survive is to leave.
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It’s been five years since I left Puerto Rico, forced out by the lack of economic opportunities as a young journalist. While in the diaspora, I’ve been able to achieve things I had never imagined I could, but the price I have paid is steep. There are the births, the celebrations, the holidays, and the little daily moments I’ve missed. My parents and abuelita have grown older; my brother and friends have built a life for themselves that I can often only glimpse at from afar. With more than 5.4 million boricuas living stateside and only about 3.2 million on the island, there are more of us spread around the world than back home. And for many of us, the diaspora is constant pain and longing. Puerto Rican composer and singer Noel Estrada said it best when he wrote “En Mi Viejo San Juan” in 1942. “Una tarde me fuí hacia a extraña nación, pues lo quiso el destino. Pero mi corazón se quedó frente al mar, en mi viejo San Juan.” It translates to: “One afternoon I left for a strange nation, for it was destiny. But my heart remained in front of the ocean, in my old San Juan.”
Estrada’s character in the song dreams of returning home, but is never able to. I dream of returning home, too, but the fear of life getting in the way and preventing me from doing so is always there. Entire generations of Puerto Ricans have migrated stateside since the early 20th century. Very few have returned. In New York, I am surrounded by other expats and the children of those who migrated long before I was even born. It's a reminder that the trauma of colonialism and corruption is passed on from generation to generation, no matter whether you're in Puerto Rico or abroad. All of us are fighting the same monsters.
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Rosselló and other Puerto Rican politicians (including the governor's father, former Gov. Pedro Rosselló) have been happy for decades to loot the island’s coffers and share wealth among friends, while 40% of the population lives below the poverty line, schools close down, and families work multiple jobs to make ends meet. Their corruption and their refusal to confront the old colonial mechanisms have blocked the island from moving forward. After 500 years of Spanish and American rule, Puerto Rico remains the oldest colony in the world. That legacy is inextricably linked to the problems the island faces today.
Exhausted and angry, Puerto Ricans are demanding change. Despite the hundreds of thousands calling for him to step down, Rosselló refuses to resign. But boricuas are just getting started. As writer Ana Teresa Toro said, "La primavera boricua es en verano" — the Puerto Rican Spring comes in the summer. I hope you do not look away.
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