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hen the Spanish Empire built the Puerto Rican Governor’s Mansion in the sixteenth century, it was imagined as impenetrable. Colloquially known as La Fortaleza (the fortress), for centuries it has been a symbol of colonial power. In 1950, six armed Puerto Rican nationalists unsuccessfully tried to storm it. The following day, pictures of their dead bodies circulated in the national press, sending a powerful message of the state’s merciless power (Acosta Lespier, 2008). The eponymous street that leads to the mansion has also been imbued with great symbolism. After the US occupation, it was re-named Allen St, to honor colonial governor Charles Allen. It was later renamed back to Calle de la Fortaleza.
For decades, the west end of Calle Fortaleza has been a site for protest where social groups and movements, along with trade unions, have often converged to articulate their demands. For example, in November 2018, feminist political organization La Colectiva Feminista en Construcción (Feminist Collective in Construction, or La Cole) camped in front of the mansion for three nights over Thanksgiving weekend. They demanded the signing of an Executive Order by now ex-Governor Ricardo Rosselló declaring a “State of Emergency” addressing the alarming amount of femicides and gender violence in the archipelago. Rosselló did not meet with La Cole and the other protesters, but they were instead pepper sprayed and struck with batons wielded by police officers, one of them in plain clothes. Although La Cole’s demand that a state of emergency be declared was not met, that weekend created a fissure in the once-impenetrable walls of La Fortaleza.
The #RickyRenuncia movement also re-signified the ways people protested and the spaces where those events took place. During the Summer 2019 uprising, the street was renamed by protesters as “Calle de la Resistencia” (Resistance Street) after thousands of people met there every night for more than two weeks demanding Rosselló’s resignation despite the violent efforts of police to disperse the protests. The street continued to display its new name long after he stepped down. Months prior to these events, former First Lady Beatriz Rosselló tweeted an early twentieth century picture of the Governor’s Mansion covered in US flags commemorating the 4th of July. The image, an homage to an idealized Americanness, reified colonial logics. Unbeknownst to Beatriz Rosselló was that the image was part of Pablo Delano’s Museum of the Old Colony, an itinerant art project that (re)produces images from the early years of the US occupation to highlight their colonial underpinnings.
The space seems to hold special significance for the former First Lady. Months before the summer protests, Beatriz Rosselló commissioned an art installation where colorful umbrellas hung from buildings in front of the mansion. It attracted tourists that snapped photos and uploaded them to social media, oblivious to the economic and political crisis that Puerto Rico had been facing long before the umbrellas were installed. As the protests grew, the umbrellas became a target for demonstrators, and the government eventually took them down, a partial symbolic defeat that was celebrated by the protesters. The events that took place on those streets radically transformed Old San Juan’s landscape and its meanings. The occupation of Calle Fortaleza disrupted the colonial space, replacing neoliberal spatiality with social solidarity. As David Harvey (2019, 25) posits, “[t]he neoliberal state is hostile to (and in some cases overtly repressive of) all forms of social solidarity,” particularly in instances where social movements contradict capital accumulation’s business as usual. While people acted in collective ways – sharing food and giving out security kits after getting tear gassed – the police acted in the offense, mobilizing state repertoires of violence to, in part, prevent the disruption of these symbols of coloniality. To this day, this stretch of La Fortaleza continues to be contested. On November 30, 2019, with a coy smile and the hashtag #Comebacksoon, Beatriz Rosselló posted a picture on social media, posing under a gigantic Puerto Rican flag that replaced the umbrellas that used to hang there.
During the Primavera de Verano or Summer Spring, as this summer’s protests have come to be called, multiple geographies of protest emerged throughout Puerto Rico. Marches, rallies, and creative protests took place in different towns and municipalities, in both public and private spaces. The protest repertoires included anything from workshops for children’s banner-making, protests on water and underwater; rallies by horse, bicycle, or motorcycle; pot banging cacerolazos at home, to entering government buildings and removing the former governor's framed picture. While these events varied in scale, July 17 and 22 were pivotal moments in the sustained protests, where hundreds of thousands of people from all class and identity sectors marched demanding Rosselló’s immediate resignation. Every evening, after the day’s busy protest agenda, people gathered in front of the governor’s mansion to sing, dance, and chant. There, all those multiple geographies of protest came together through a unifying demand: ¡Ricky Renuncia!
Multiple cartographies were also operating and overlapping in La Fortaleza. The street that leads to the Governor’s mansion became a space where people that navigated and inhabited different social identities, positionalities, and political understandings came together. This posed a challenge to neoliberal logics that envisioned these streets as part of the city’s tourist and labor infrastructure, not intended for popular assemblages, much less politicized popular assemblages. There was no need for protesters to ask “whose streets?” as they affirmed that the streets belonged to them through their ongoing presence.
In what is commonly known as a “dead month,” Old San Juan sprung to life with an energy it had not seen before in July. The old city was transformed. As a commerce hub for tourists coming in by plane or cruise ships, visitors saw a very different islet, full of political graffiti messages and pasted posters denouncing Rosselló and his administration’s corruption, as well as other symbols, such as the anarchist “circle-A.” It was also well known that, as some protesters argued, “la noche es pa’l combate,” (the night is for combat). At night, the former walled city underwent a radical transformation. As conflicts with police became a nightly occurrence during the protests, specifically after 11:00 p.m., protesters used whatever they could find to shield themselves from tear gas and rubber bullets. The streets resembled a war zone, with trash bins and ashes from small fires strewn, the smell permeating the streets adjacent to and at La Fortaleza. Instead of condemning the demonstrators for the graffiti on the walls of their establishments, small business owners covered their storefront windows with wood panels, turning them into “Tablones de Expresión” (expression boards) for people to write on them.
During the protests, rage and joy intertwined. The bodies that showed up, night after night in July, repurposed the functions of La Fortaleza street, queering the landscape with “the possibility of coalition that takes up the logic of decoloniality” (Lugones, 2010, 755) in direct resistance to heteropatriarchal capitalism. The protest repertoires went beyond traditional scripts of chants and marches. The claims of the archipelago’s ungrievable folks (Butler, 2009) erupted into queer balls and perreo combativo (combative perreo dances). The presence of queer and feminist groups at the forefront of these protests marked a shift in Puerto Rico’s protest politics as usual. As Santiago Ortiz has noted, those targeted in the #TelegramChat also used the protests to engage and address the attacks from the governor and his inner circle. Through banners and chants, people took to the streets to subvert the government’s xenophobic, misogynist, and transphobic rhetoric. For example, the phrase, “Homofóbico, machista, xenofóbico: ¡Renuncia! (Homophobe, misogynist, xenophobe: Resign!) became very common in protesters’ banners.
Image 2: Provided by Jhoni Jackson
Social media was also crucial to the protests that took place in La Fortaleza. Diverse digital geographies were strategically mobilized to enable the active participation of the global Puerto Rican diaspora in the protests. The virtual dimensions of the movement were so powerful that #RickyRenuncia became viral, reaching the #2 hashtag in the United States and #19 worldwide. As the events unfolded, we were living in the US diaspora. Our daily lives were at a standstill as we spent most of our time looking for live feeds, updates, and in touch with friends who were on the ground. As corporate media presented videos and images, usually from behind the barricades and next to the police, we navigated the crowds through live feeds created by activists and alternative media outlets like Bandera roja or El calce. These outlets also became important to challenge media narratives about the self-defense actions that were taking place in the streets of San Juan. For example, on the night of July 23, the police began throwing tear gas to disperse the crowds. One of those canisters broke a car window, immediately setting the vehicle on fire. Corporate news outlets initially reported that it had been protesters who purposely lit the car on fire. However, as alternative media videos began to surface, it became clear that it had been ignited by a gas canister, forcing the police to publicly admit their fault in the incident.
While unprecedented, the events that took place in July were not spontaneous. As we have argued elsewhere, they were part of a broader infrastructure of resistance. That is, political action does not take place in a vacuum. It feeds from previous actions, as well as political cultures and imaginaries that laid the groundwork for these vibrant cultures of protest. While it is true that the archipelago’s history is plagued by colonialism, imperialism, patriarchy, and capitalist exploitation, these infrastructures of resistance are not always discernible and often operate rhizomatically, connecting struggles that might not always be understood in proximity to one another.
These infrastructures of resistance also operate as popular archives of the limits, possibilities, and potentialities of political struggles. It was not uncommon during these summer protests for people to evoke the memory of the struggle against the Navy in Vieques, recent May Day actions (Meléndez-Badillo, 2019), or recent student strikes at the University of Puerto Rico (LeBrón, 2019). Perhaps, the events marked a turning point, where people understood that they had nothing to lose, or that they were more, and were no longer afraid (“somos más y no tenemos miedo”). The Primavera de Verano pushed the limits of what was considered possible, thus generating new infrastructures that will inevitably feed future struggles and radical imaginaries. These infrastructures, however, are not inherently radical or linear. They feed from public mobilizations and actions. That is one of the biggest challenges of sustaining the Primavera de Verano’s radical momentum, more so if we look at recent historical memory and the examples of the Arab Spring, where heads of state were forced to resign, only to give way to other authoritarian and repressive governments.
While these infrastructures of resistance created the blueprint for the Primavera de Verano in Puerto Rico, protest politics have shifted. Whereas racial, gender, and sexual difference were not at the forefront of mass social movements in Puerto Rico, now, queer, Black, and femme bodies are radically reconfiguring the geographies of protest, complicating long-held essentialist notions of Puerto Rican identity, in both the archipelago and in the global diaspora. There were also those that without any political education took to the streets in their own forms of protest. Without these political actors, #RickyRenuncia might not have happened as swiftly as it did.
In the months following Rossellós resignation, people’s assemblies have organized locally in many municipalities across Puerto Rico, taking advantage of the momentum. Working groups on the debt, the educational system, and land use policies have formed autonomously and have been gathering at public squares since August. Yet these assemblies, although a necessary tool for popular political education, lack the turnout of the mass protests.
The events that unfolded during the Puerto Rican Summer demonstrated the interdependent character of the claims of the various groups that participated in them. People came together under the banner of #RickyRenuncia, yet they all had distinct motivations that called for Rosselló’s resignation. The multiplicity of causes are intertwined within colonialism’s matrix of domination. For example, public school closures affect low income families that are also racialized and legislation restricting abortion access and intimate partner violence affects people of all genders. Nonetheless, the decisions affecting the majority of the population are made in spaces where most are not allowed a seat at the table. The question now lies in whether these multiple solidarities and coalitions created in the Verano 2019 can be sustained and strengthened across lines of difference (Lorde, 2007), and whether the sustained efforts can center those at the margins.
Other essays from this forum include:
Making Space for Decolonial Futures: An Editors’ Introduction, Joaquín Villanueva and Marisol LeBrón
Summer 2019: The Great Racialized Puerto Rican Family Protesting in the Street Fearlessly, Bárbara I. Abadía-Rexach (a version of this article is also provided in Spanish)
Three Poems from the Summer 2019, Ana Portnoy Brimmer
The Public Reckoning: Anti-debt Futures After #RickyRenuncia, Sarah Molinari
Aguadilla, Decoloniality, and the Summer of ‘19, Pedro Lebrón Ortiz
Acosta Lespier, I (2008 ) La mordaza. Río Piedras: Editorial Edil.
Butler, J (2009) Frames of War: When is a Life Grievable? New York and London: Verso.
Harvey, D (2019 ) Spaces of Global Capitalism: A Theory of Uneven Geographical Development. New York and London: Verso.
LeBrón, M (2019) Policing Life and Death: Race, Violence, and Death in Puerto Rico. Oakland: University of California Press.
Lorde, A (2007) Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. Berkeley: The Crossing Press.
Lugones, M (2010) Toward a decolonial feminism. Hypathia 25(4): 742-759.
Meléndez-Badillo, J (2019) Commemorating May Day in Puerto Rico. NACLA Report on the Americas 51(3): 301-305.
N.a. (2019) ¡Puerto Rico triunfó! ¡El pueblo en las calles, democracia en acción! San Juan: CG Printing Group.
Aurora Santiago-Ortiz is a social justice scholar and PhD candidate at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Her research connects anticolonial, antiracist, queer, and feminist social movements in Puerto Rico, the US, and the Americas to community-based, collaborative and participatory action research approaches that seek to foster solidarity. Her work has appeared in The Abusable Past, Zora Magazine by Medium, El Vocero, and The Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning.
Jorell Meléndez-Badillo is Mellon Faculty Fellow, Founding Faculty Fellow of Dartmouth's Consortium of Studies in Race, Migration, and Sexualities, and Assistant Professor of History at Dartmouth College. His work has appeared in Caribbean Studies Journal, NACLA Report on the Americas, International Labor and Working-Class History Journal, The Abusable Past, and Latin American Perspectives, among other journals and magazines.