The massive protests demanding the resignation of Puerto Rico’s governor have brought the world’s eyes to the strip of cobblestoned street in front of the Fortaleza mansion, where protesters hold daily demonstrations, at times escalating into violent confrontations with police.
But beyond having to deal with the calls of an outraged citizenry on this corner of Calle Fortaleza in the heart of Old San Juan, next to a row of cement barricades, embattled Gov. Ricardo Rosselló has an angry neighbor.
His name is Javier Santiago and he has run a nonprofit cultural center for the past 23 years located just a few steps away from the governor’s Fortaleza palatial residence. In the past two decades, Santiago has witnessed history from the balconies of this light green colonial building on 56 Calle Fortaleza — and sometimes created it, hosting visits from high-profile Puerto Rican artists like Lin-Manuel Miranda, Jose Feliciano and the rap group Calle 13.
Santiago’s anger is not new. It has been at a slow boil over the red tape he has had to navigate to fund public events promoting local singers, keep up a 30,000-album vinyl collection, and pay a basic skeletal staff. He has grown frustrated over the past two weeks at how the government has blocked the entrance to La Fortaleza, making his establishment invisible to tourists and visitors who want to visit the cultural foundation.
Central to his frustration, however, is the fact that ever since Rosselló came into office in 2016, his administration slashed regular arts funding crucial to the running of the National Foundation for Popular Culture.
“Here I have so many available jobs for the community, but what else do they want us to contribute? We contribute the building, they don’t pay for that and everything they do, they make everything harder for us. They keep adding permits over permits,” said Santiago, 59. “And they question everything as if we were stealing, when we are not the crooks.”
Ever since the protests in front of La Fortaleza forced Santiago to board up the windows of his building and temporarily close down a restaurant the center shares space with, Santiago said the foundation’s board of directors was thinking of ways to use their “privileged balconies,” as he called them.
Puerto Ricans have taken to the streets to call for Rosselló’s resignation since a series of scandals have rocked the government, including a leaked group message full of profane insults that the governor was a part of, and the indictment of six government officials. Since then, the Puerto Rican government has had a slew of vacancies in top cabinet positions, including the secretary of state and the government’s representative on the federally appointed fiscal control board.
As a former journalist who worked for the newspaper El Mundo, Santiago said he was not angry at the protesters. He supports them. In fact, when the Fortaleza staff wanted to paint over graffiti on his building calling for Rosselló to leave the government, Santiago refused.
“Sure there is some excess, but there is excess in everything we do. And never forget that there is always a provocation element. Things don’t just suddenly come about which made 10 artists come out in support of this cause,” Santiago said. “There was a provocation. The drop falls on the stone until it breaks.”
Santiago’s way of contributing to the cause has been to open the doors to his building to reporters and photojournalists, who can witness the historic protests right above the action. It has allowed both local and international reporters to photograph and capture tensions with police, and provide visuals of the deployment of tear gas and the shooting of rubber bullets. The foundation charges media $200 daily to rent out the space.
“Those expressions are genuine. You cannot erase that,” Santiago said. “There’s this discomfort because we have to be closed, but there’s also a discomfort because there has been so much stealing. This ... is an escape valve. We need this, we needed to burst.”
Santiago said the Rosselló administration is not the first to cut the arts budget. Under the administration of former Gov. Luis Fortuño, the foundation also suffered. But, he said, the center knows how to do more with less.
“There are some moments when we have been more flush with funds, and in others we haven’t, but we continue to fight. We have passed through six governors, and you can see here that we’re coming up on a seventh, and we haven’t fallen,” Santiago said. “None of them can last this long.”