Americas

Puerto Ricans embrace their protest identity in historic march against the governor

The morning after the governor of Puerto Rico insisted he would not resign amid demands for his ouster, hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans responded with a record-breaking march that shut down a main highway, surrounding roads and major malls to protest the leadership of Ricardo Rosselló.

Hours after a national strike began at 9 a.m., protesters continued to arrive at the San Juan Hiram Bithorn stadium by the hundreds, riding in cars and on motorcycles, taking buses, scooters or wheelchairs, long after the nearby parking lots were packed full.

Dozens of vendors stood ready with coolers selling local Medalla beer and water, running hot dog stands and selling chicken and pork pinchos. Others sold Puerto Rican flags. Graphic artists laid out tables with their merchandise, including T-shirts with a Puerto Rican flag in the shape of an arm that held Rosselló’s severed head on it.

Demonstrators parked their cars on sprawled-out grassy areas near the Las Américas highway, popped the trunk open and pulled out beers and sangrias in a pouch. They chanted, “¿Dónde está Ricky? Ricky no está aquí. Ricky está vendiendo lo que queda del país.” (Where is Ricky? Ricky is not here. Ricky is busy selling what is left of our country.) They cheered. They held impromptu cacerolazos, banging on pots and pans. They danced. They waved the flags of their home cities. They slung hammocks between palm trees.

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Thousands of Puerto Ricans marching on Las Américas expressway call for Puerto Rico’s Gov. Ricardo “Ricky” Rosselló to resign following the leak of private chats. The massive march was Monday, July 22, 2019. Pedro Portal pportal@miamiherald.com

As their government was submerged in a far-reaching corruption scandal, leaked profanity-laden chats, vacant cabinet positions and an embattled governor, Puerto Ricans were at their most effusive, most ironic and irreverent, facing their situation with humor and celebration.

“The truth is we Puerto Ricans are like that. We’re all party-seekers. No matter where we are, we’re going to have a good time,” said 34-year-old Rodolfo Vega. “Whether it’s protesting, whatever it is we’re going to do, we’re going to make sure we have a good time doing it.”

Monday’s massive protest, which garnered national and international attention, was a rare event for Puerto Ricans. And even as rain poured over San Juan in the afternoon, flooding some streets and forcing some to seek shelter, many demonstrators marched with wet hair and soaked socks, holding Puerto Rican flags and chanting. Dozens of protests also took place in other towns around the island. Puerto Rican celebrities including the rapper known as Bad Bunny, singer Ricky Martin and boxer Félix ‘Tito’ Trinidad also marched with the large crowd.

The event capped more than a week of relentless demonstrations in front of the governor’s Fortaleza mansion, which show no signs of ceasing, demanding that Rosselló step down. Puerto Ricans from communities in the U.S. traveled to the island to attend the march. Tourists in Puerto Rico on vacation also went to witness and support the historic moment.

The last time thousands flooded and shut down this same highway was in 2000, during the administration of Rosselló’s father, former Gov. Pedro Rosselló. Nearly 200,000 demonstrators then called for the U.S. Navy, under former President Bill Clinton, to cease military testing and leave the island town of Vieques. This time, 19 years later, marchers estimated in the hundreds of thousands, called for Rosselló’s son to leave the government entirely.

On Sunday night, Rosselló said in a video statement streamed over Facebook Live that he would be stepping down as president of the pro-statehood New Progressive Party and withdrawing his candidacy for a second term in 2020. He also said he would be open to a possible process of impeachment if it were pursued by the island’s legislative assembly.

“We’re going to keep pressuring him in any way possible. Here, on social media, over the phone, I think there were people riding Jet Skis on water, too,” said Vega, from Guaynabo. “Every direction he looks, we will keep applying pressure until he leaves, because apparently he doesn’t get it, so we have to keep pushing until he does.”

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Protesters look for cover from the rain as thousands of Puerto Ricans marched on Las Américas expressway calling for Puerto Rican Gov. Ricardo “Ricky” Rosselló to resign following the leak of private chats. The massive demonstration was Monday, July 22, 2019. Pedro Portal pportal@miamiherald.com

The governor’s message fell short of convincing his constituents that he could still govern for the next year and a half. Overwhelmingly, Puerto Ricans carry unresolved resentments over widespread unemployment, a decade-long fiscal crisis, a crippling debt, and a fraught response to Hurricane Maria in 2017. The current unrest was triggered by six federal indictments of top government officials and the indiscriminate ridicule from Rosselló and 11 other close allies in a group chat that became public on July 13.

“Everything that happened with Hurricane Maria, the way he made fun of our dead,” said 53-year-old Luis Villegas from the town of Carolina. “Thank God no one in my family died, but we mourned them, too. Everything we went through, everything we went through and everything we suffered. ... We spent almost a year without power and we had to stand in long lines to get gas.”

Villegas, who attended the protest with his wife, said he had gone to the previous big march last Wednesday in front of the Capitol building in Old San Juan. Monday’s march, for him, represented a message to all future candidates for office in Puerto Rico that their constituents will make themselves heard.

“We won’t tolerate any more corruption. We won’t tolerate any more stealing. We won’t tolerate the abuse of Puerto Rican people,” said Villegas. Rosselló’s statement on Sunday evening, he said, “was disrespectful. We all know he wasn’t going to win a reelection. No one cares about the presidency of the NPP.”

In his first one-on-one interview since the recent political fallout, Rosselló told Fox News’ Shepard Smith on Monday afternoon he was ready to continue the rest of his term.

“My effort and my commitment is to follow through on some of the efforts that I established for the people of Puerto Rico,” he said.

Iris M. Robles, 64, from Barceloneta, said she woke up at 4 a.m. to get to the march on time with at least nine other relatives. It was the first time in her life she attended a protest, moved by the sexist messages shown in the government’s private chat.

“I feel really ashamed of what’s happening, because the whole world is watching it. And it’s an embarrassment that as Puerto Ricans this is happening to us. We’re hardworking, decent and honorable people,” Robles said. “I hope that in his heart he is moved to resign because it is not fair, all the tribulations we have been exposed to.”

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Ricky Martin, alongside Residente, Bad Bunny and other celebrities, joins with thousands of Puerto Ricans marching on Las Américas expressway calling for Gov. Ricardo “Ricky” Rosselló to resign following the leaked of private chats. The massive protest was Monday, July 22, 2019. Pedro Portal pportal@miamiherald.com

As protests approach their second-week mark, there is also an unspoken anxiety among some Puerto Ricans about losing momentum or that residents will get tired of making noise. Over the past several days, many residents are beginning to question themselves about what comes after Rosselló if he resigns or is impeached before his term concludes at the end of 2020.

“This is an awakening in many ways,” said 29-year-old Zayira Albino of Bayamón. “We have to start questioning things. There’s a lot of topics that we still don’t talk about at home. My mom never told me that I should protest. Those are also taboos among Puerto Rican families because they’ve ingrained that in us since we were children, that those who protest are troublemakers. And that’s not true. Everyone comes here peacefully and that’s it.”

Despite the overwhelming anger and embarrassment felt by Puerto Ricans over the ongoing scandals in Rosselló’s administration, the protests in the past 11 nights have resembled the excitement of a multi-day street festival. Puerto Ricans, who are generally not accustomed to taking to the streets, have embraced creative forms of demanding government action.

The protests have also benefited from timing, when many college students are taking their summer break or families can take time off. They are also taking place in front of La Fortaleza in Old San Juan, near bars and restaurants, which has allowed residents driving from out of San Juan to make an outing of the protests.

In the past 10 days, protesters have rode in on horseback and motorcycles into Old San Juan. Surfers, people with Jet Skis and kayaks, scuba divers, and paddleboard groups have also assembled to call for the resignation of Rosselló. Yogis demonstrated. Prayer groups preached for the government, and LGBTQ communities led their own crowds to chant in front of La Fortaleza. Dancers have performed for the cause. Groups gave dramatic readings of the 889-page leaked chat. One man even carried a protest iguana named Don Luis. In Old San Juan, demonstrators brought beers in their backpacks or bought from vendors who’ve benefited from the cause.

“The thing is that when you spend so many hours under the sun, on your feet, you need to motivate yourself so you don’t quit,” said 19-year-old Sofia Castro from Yabucoa. “Because that’s what they’re waiting for, for us to get tired, and we have to somehow — whether it’s through singing, music and dancing — stay active.

“Even if this takes us months, we need to have the same energy we began with.”

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