In Puerto Rico, young people have come of age in a time of constant crisis. Throughout a 13-year-long recession, thousands have been forced to flee to the U.S. mainland in search of better opportunities, while those left behind have fought to survive on a battered island.
When leaked chats between Gov. Ricardo Rosselló and his associates became public, sending the island into a frenzy, los jóvenes bet on mobilizing to oust him and every other official implicated in the scandal. They told themselves there was nothing to lose. And on Wednesday evening, an embattled Rosselló announced he would step down — a first for the U.S. territory.
"They've taken everything from us. We have nothing to lose if we create a revolution. What else could we lose? The local government has no money, many times young people are forced to leave the island because they have no opportunities, we live paycheck to paycheck. We needed to fight," Tatiana Hornedo Santiago, one of the hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans who peacefully protested over the past two weeks calling for Rosselló's resignation, told Refinery29. "Young people are politically conscious, and we know democracy is not limited to every four years when we cast a ballot. Democracy happens every day. At the end of the day, it's the people who have the power."
Puerto Ricans will tell you that the historic movement was born out of so much more than the misogynistic, homophobic, and classist remarks made by Rosselló and his associates. Unlike their elders, the millennial and Gen Z generations have only known precariousness: Puerto Rico has been in a recession since 2006, the effects of the 2008 financial crisis trickled down to the island, former Gov. Alejandro García Padilla announced in 2015 that the government was facing a debt of $72 billion, and then Hurricane Maria hit in 2017, devastating the island. These events have led two generations to reject the status quo — and Rosselló, the son of a former governor and someone people feel has failed Puerto Rico at its most critical moments, embodied exactly that. The leak also followed a series of high-profile arrests of former top officials in the Rosselló administration who are facing corruption charges.
For people like Hornedo Santiago, who lost her dad in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, the chats were la gota que colmó el vaso — the last straw. She said: "We are not the same we were 50 years ago." Every day she marched, she did it for her father, who passed away in her hometown of Coamo in October 2017. He was one of nearly 3,000 Puerto Ricans who died as a consequence of Hurricane Maria and the insufficient response at the local and federal level. Hornedo Santiago said her dad received inadequate medical care after suffering a fall. At the time, hospitals were understaffed, struggling with the impact of the island's power grid being shattered and limited access to clean water and medicine.
In the leaked chats, one of Rosselló's associates, Christian Sobrino Vega, made fun of the bodies that piled up in morgues after the storm. He ended up resigning from his role as Puerto Rico's chief fiscal officer. Sobrino Vega was one of the first officials to fall like a domino.
When the protests began, the Rosselló administration and their allies tried to paint the protesters as just a handful of troublemakers. Before falling out with Rosselló, House Speaker Carlos "Johnny" Méndez said the protesters were "los mismos de siempre" — the same people as always. But it soon became clear that was not the case. People on the ground also say the protests happened organically. "This was not organized by one person or by one institution. It was the people," Alexandra-Marie Figueroa Miranda, campaign and activism coordinator with Amnesty International Puerto Rico, told Refinery29. "People would just show up. ... A regular person would say something on Twitter, and everyone would follow through."
The recent demonstrations were not the first time Figueroa Miranda took to the streets. But what she saw during the past two weeks was unlike anything she's seen before as an organizer. "This is historical. We've joined the handful of countries that have democratically ousted corrupt politicians. This is, without any doubt, one of the most beautiful experiences I have had the privilege to share con este pueblo," she said, her voice breaking. "There's something incredible in standing in our streets filled with history, on the largest highway of Puerto Rico, and being surrounded by thousands of others who are there with you. People who don't know you, but still treat you like family."
Celebrities like Ricky Martin, Residente, Ile, and Bad Bunny joined the protests. But everyday Puerto Ricans were the true stars. For two weeks, thousands of boricuas surrounded the governor’s mansion. While your average protests might look like people holding signs and chanting slogans, Puerto Ricans did so much more: They organized performance art protests, motorcycle protests, scuba diving protests, horseback protests, kayaking protests, yoga protests, cacerolazos (protests where you bang pots and pans), prayer protests, and even a perreo combativo protest where people twerked like their lives depended on it as reggaeton blasted through the streets of Old San Juan.
Aliana Margarita Bigio Alcoba, a student who runs the gender equality project Con(Sentimiento), was one of the people who decided to use art as a way to call for Rosselló's resignation. Immediately following #TelegramGate, in which the governor called former New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito a "puta" (whore), Bigio Alcoba got together with other women and sat in front of the governor's mansion with their mouths taped. Every day since, the words written on the duct tape changed. First, it was the violent language used by Rosselló and his cronies. Other times, it was simply: "Resign."
"It was empowering. We were not asking him to resign — we were demanding it. Our attitude was: You have to face us. We're the people, and we're the ones that call the shots," the 21-year-old told Refinery29. While Rosselló's last day in office will be August 2, Bigio Alcoba says the fight is not over yet. "The issue does not end with Rosselló; this is just the first part of challenging a system that has been broken for a long time. I don't think Puerto Ricans will go back to what they were before. No one can say protesting does not work. We're seeing the results of people demanding the government do the right thing," she said. "What is coming next is going to be spectacular. There'll be change. It will be hard and exhausting, but it's our job to hold these elected officials accountable."
Protesters are also already calling for Secretary of Justice Wanda Vázquez, who is likely to be Rosselló's successor, not to take the job amid concerns that she has engaged in unethical and corrupt behavior as well. Even after Rosselló's resignation, people have continued to fill the streets of Old San Juan and organized events in other parts of the island. For people like Carla Margarita Pérez Mélendez, the massive protests that led to Rosselló's ousting signal a new era in Puerto Rico. "For the past two weeks, we were one. That sense of impotency people felt for so long was canalized into something beautiful," the 25-year-old told Refinery29. "I think Hurricane Maria woke us up. We were able to realize our strength and that we are our own leaders, doing the work day in and day out. I’m a little bit in shock, still. I never thought something like this movement would happen. It was magical."