¡Puerto Rico Se Levanta!

It was 50 years ago that I first learned about my government’s colonial relationship to Puerto Rico,and the uninterrupted resistance to it. I was in a feminist consciousness-raising circle, and we had learned that our government had engineered the sterilization of 1/3 of the island’s women of childbearing age and allowed the testing of birth control pills on Puerto Rican women before they could be sold to women in the U.S. Long before I heard the word “intersectionality,” I began to grasp the toxic interrelationships between colonialism, racism, and patriarchy.

From the U.S. invasion of the island in 1898, Puerto Ricans have always resisted U.S. colonialism. The Puerto Rican Nationalist Party, whose goal was independence, led a series of armed uprisings on the island in the 1950s. That movement was such a threat that the U.S. enacted a “gag law” that made it illegal to display a Puerto Rican flag, to sing a patriotic song, or to talk of independence. After 60 years of struggle, Puerto Ricans succeeded in 2003 in forcing the U.S. Navy out of Vieques, the Puerto Rican island that was turned into a bombing range with disastrous impacts on the health of the population there. And the Puerto Rican people have consistently fought for, and won, the liberation of their political prisoners held by the U.S.

As I learned this history, I began to understand that as a citizen of the country that held Puerto Rico as a colony, I had a particular responsibility to support the Puerto Rican people’s struggle for decolonization and self-determination. I have spent the intervening decades trying to do that.

The Match to Kindling

Fast forward to this month, when on a visit to compañeras on the island I was privileged to see the beginnings of the current uprising there. 

It began in mid-June with the resignation of the secretary of state, Raúl Maldonado,who claimed that there was an “institutional mafia” element infecting the government. From there, things began to fall like dominoes: the arrests of the former Secretary of Education and five other members of the Puerto Rican government, some of whom were charged with profiteering through kickbacks in the wake of Hurricane Maria. A few days later,investigative journalists released an 889-page document detailing incredibly misogynistic, homophobic and threatening chat messages between Governor Ricardo (“Ricky”) Roselló and members of his cabinet – the “Rickyleaks” scandal that sent thousands of Puerto Ricans into the street demanding his resignation. 

Then, there was nowhere for Roselló to hide in the face of his people’s anger – the Governor’s mansion was surrounded and he could not get into his own office; his country house was surrounded by protestors and police squads were deployed to protect it. Beloved artists like Ricky Martin, Bad Bunny, iLe of Calle 13, and Residente joined the actions where music, creativity, and style predominated, and the leadership of feminists and gender non-conforming people was prominent.  A week into the protests, Roselló refused to resign and the people continued to escalate, culminating in the July 22 demonstration of more than 500,000 people in the streets of San Juan.  Puerto Ricans in the diaspora organized actions all across the world under the hashtag #RickyRenuncia.This unrelenting pressure resulted in Roselló’s resignation last night, a tremendous victory for the people. 

 On July 22nd, 500,000 people marched in San Juan to demand the resignation of Ricardo Roselló.

How did offensive comments in a chat group – the kind of comments we hear from the occupant of the White House on a daily basis – become a lit match to kindling? The answer, I think, lies in both the level of suffering experienced by the Puerto Rican people and in their long history of resistance. 

Hurricane Maria was beyond devastating to this island of 3.2 million: nearly 5,000 deaths, not the 16 parroted by Trump as he praised FEMA’s response to the disaster.Over 500,000 people have left the island in the aftermath of Maria; families are fractured, many people are still without safe housing, clean water, enough food, jobs. In the absence of real assistance from the U.S. government, most of the aid was mutual aid among Puerto Ricans on the island and in the diaspora, as communities organized themselves to repair homes, provide meals, and reopen schools. No one was left unaffected, and the trauma still runs deep. Everyone we met had a post-Maria story that needed to be told, even amidst the signs of grassroots resilience.

“Ricky, renuncia, y llévate a la junta” — Ricky, resign, and take the board with you.

Maria came on the heels of the federal government’s creation of a fiscal control board,the “junta,” designed to force Puerto Rico to pay an unjust, illegal, and unpayable debt of $123 billion. The board’s austerity plan has caused tremendous suffering on the island through massive budget cuts to education, health care, pensions, infrastructure, and the basic safety net that a majority of the people depend on for survival. People have reached a breaking point, which is why the other demand from these recent demonstrations is an end to the junta.

This upsurge is part of an unbroken history of resistance, a response to years of exploitation and violence.  It’s a demand for dignity, for justice, and for many, an end to a colonial relationship that has bled the island for over 100 years. While a political solution to this crisis may not be immediately visible, one thing is clear: nothing the U.S. does will ever destroy the Puerto Rican identity and the desire for self-determination that is the spirit of this island. In the words of former political prisoner Alicia Rodriguez, “this is not the same island it was a week ago.”

For more about the current situation:

The Protests in Puerto Rico Are About Life and Death

Puerto Rico Protests: Demonstrators Demand Governor’s Resignation

As Puerto Rico Erupts in Protests, “La Junta” Eyes More Power

In solidarity with the Puerto Rican people, 

Donna Willmott
Catalyst Project