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For the Spanish version of this article, please click here.
If Black women were free, it would mean that everyone else
would have to be free since our freedom would necessitate
the destruction of all systems of oppression
(Combahee River Collective Statement, 1977)
n Thursday, July 11, 2019, I was woken up very early by a call from a friend at the airport in Madrid, Spain who needed my address in order to complete a form before boarding a plane to come visit me in San Juan, Puerto Rico. He told me that, while waiting, he observed some excitement in the terminal. The embattled governor of Puerto Rico, Ricardo Rosselló Nevares, would be traveling on the same flight.
As soon as he told me, I thought of arriving earlier at the Isla Verde airport to join the demonstrations, which I anticipated would take place there upon my friend’s and Rosselló’s arrival. My friend's stay, his first visit to the archipelago, became a combination of internal tourism and political activism. The agenda included going to the beach in the morning and taking to the streets of Old San Juan to demand Rosselló’s resignation in the afternoon. We did all this while listening to my playlist, which included La Borinqueña (the revolutionary version sung by Danny Rivera), Verde Luz (by Antonio Cabán Vale), Boricua en la luna (by Roy Brown), El wanabí (by Fiel a la Vega) and Afilando los cuchillos (by René Pérez, Bad Bunny and iLe).
By the time my friend joined me in Puerto Rico, the governor had no choice but to admit his participation, together with advisors and members of his cabinet, in a private chat on the Telegram messaging platform. On July 13, 2019, the Centro de Periodismo Investigativo (Center for Investigative Journalism, or CPI) released the full content of the chats – 889 pages. Describing the content of the chats the CPI noted:
The exchanges – ranging from the end of 2018 to January 20 of this year- also show the setting and manipulation of political polls to advance the public image of the Governor and his administration. This without counting the numerous jokes of a sexual nature and misogynistic jokes, as well as teasing journalists such as Benjamín Torres Gotay whom they call "mamabicho" [cocksucker], activist groups such as the La Colectiva Feminista, politicians of all parties, with emphasis on the mayor San Juan, Carmen Yulín Cruz, and officers of the Oversight Board, including president José Carrión and director Natalie Jaresko.
From that moment, Puerto Rico responded to the call of the artists Ricky Martin, René Pérez, Bad Bunny, among other artists and grassroots organizations and collectives such as Colectiva Feminista en Construcción, and threw themselves into the street en masse. The intergenerational mass demonstration took place on Wednesday, July 17, 2019 and included a march from the Capitol building to El Morro, a Spanish colonial era fort. The demonstration brought together a cross section of Puerto Rican society and exposed the extent of the people’s outrage, which had been accumulating since before the disaster of Hurricane María. The chat content, although it included people from Rosselló's own political party and members of the Oversight Board, particularly targeted marginalized and racialized minorities in Puerto Rico. In this way, the anger at the Rosselló administration crossed party lines and, in some cases, even class distinctions, to create a call from much of civil society for the governor and members of his administration to resign.
Unlike other protests I have participated in such as in defense of the University of Puerto Rico or in favor of the release of the political prisoner Oscar López Rivera, during the 2019 summer protests, I seldom encountered familiar faces around me at the protests. There wasn’t a typical protester – there were people of all ages, of a wide spectrum of skin tones, and bodies that are associated with various groups, causes and classes. Everything and everybody was there. Mainly, the mockery of people who died after Hurricane Maria, calling women “whores,” the misogynist, homophobic, racist and degrading tone of the chat and the celebration of their corrupt fraternity were the spark for social anger, bringing together an intergenerational and intersectional movement against the Rosselló government that had much deeper roots in historic and systemic inequality.
My friend was surprised by the unity he perceived in the country. He compared it with the M-15 Movement in Spain. “This is a revolution,” we said after marching among a sea of people with Puerto Rican flags, chanting choruses and banging on pans in Old San Juan. The revolutionary spirit was visible too in the walls spray painted with graffiti that read “Ricky, resign,” in the countless banners with creative and diverse messages of repudiation, the t-shirts and other accessories people wore that reiterated the request for resignation, and the countless conversations about the disastrous chat that unmasked the former first executive of the country. We were surprised by the mass outrage. For many people, not even the “Paz para Vieques”[i] (Peace for Vieques) march in 2000 or the massive “Nación en Marcha”[ii] (Nation in March) in 1996 compared to the non-stop demonstrations that took place from July 11, the day Rosselló Nevares returned to the archipelago from France, until August 2, 2019, the day that he left la Fortaleza (the governor’s mansion).
The revolution also took place in social media. Without a doubt, social media and other digital platforms played a crucial role in the political situation during the summer 2019 from the telegram chat itself, to the contents of those chats being leaked online by CPI, to the organizing of various protest actions against Rosselló. The digital sphere hosted spaces for strategizing ways to fold people into the protests in order to create a broad social front against the abuses of the Rosselló administration. Social media was essential to the protests in that it became where information was produced, circulated, and analyzed allowing for great numbers of Puerto Ricans in different geographical spaces to participate in the protests. That pressure generated by social media organizing in tandem with on the street protests left no other option for Rosselló but to respect the decision of the people shouting in unison: “Where is Ricky? Ricky is not here. Ricky is selling/stealing what is left of the country,” “We are more and we are not afraid,” “Help! For whom? For Ricky! Why? Because he cannot withstand the pressure,” among other emblematic phrases of the struggle of a united people. This is a new country, many said. The great racialized Puerto Rican family protested in the streets without fear.
Who constitutes the great racialized Puerto Rican family? What political role did Black women play in the protests of Summer 2019? How has Black feminism (re) emerged in Puerto Rico, from musical performances – bomba, plena, rumba and reggaeton – and platforms such as the NEGRAS radio program? What is the importance of the intersections of race and gender in the analysis of what happened in Summer 2019? These are some of the questions I try to answer in the next section of this brief intervention.
September 20, 2017 marked a before and after in the contemporary history of Puerto Rico. Although the inefficiency of government institutions in the archipelago can be traced back decades, the impact of Hurricane Maria significantly affected the Puerto Rican nation. The natural effects of the tropical cyclone uncovered the weakened government infrastructure created by austerity.[iii] As revealed by several sources, as many as 4,465 people died, and their deaths can be directly linked to the lack of services and access to essential necessities in the aftermath of the hurricane. In the Telegram chat, the former governor and his “brothers,” as they called themselves, mocked the deceased, which became a key catalytic for mass outrage.
The people who died were part of the great racialized Puerto Rican family. Since the 1950s, with the creation of the Commonwealth (1952), Puerto Rican national discourse has celebrated the mixture of three races – the indigenous Taíno, the white Spanish, and the Black African – as constitutive of Puerto Rican culture and identity. Cultural nationalists touted this mixture as the foundation of “la gran familia puertorriqueña,” or the great Puerto Rican family, and suggested that this racial mixing created racial harmony and a unified national identity. The myth of the great Puerto Rican family problematically homogenizes Puerto Ricans and effectively silences denunciations of racism, even though prejudice and racial discrimination are kept alive in the archipelago. In this celebratory institutional and governmental promotion of the great Puerto Rican family, the discussion of the differences in race and class that emerge in Puerto Rico is diluted. By contrast, the great racialized Puerto Rican family not only recognizes the differences within Puerto Rican society but also draws on those differences in order to struggle towards a more just and liberated nation.
I use the phrase “the great Puerto Rican family,” but I add the adjective “racialized,” to emphasize and make visible that the victims of institutional violence and of Hurricane Maria have a specific profile that places them, not only as colonized subjects and second or third class US citizens, but also as Puerto Ricans without privileges whose basic rights are restricted Although all people are racialized, in Puerto Rico, a large part of the population – despite the results of the 2010 Census in which only 12% of the population racially self-identified as Black/African American – is racialized as non-white. This is who we saw out in great numbers during the protests of the Summer 2019.
The needs and concerns of members of the great racialized Puerto Rican family were front and center and are, in many ways, what drove the demands of the protests. Why couldn't they get adequate medical services and on time? Why was the Institute of Forensic Sciences not able to perform autopsies on the hundreds of corpses that accumulated in the morgue? Those who survived took the streets to protest. Women, people from the LGBTTQIA + community, pensioners, students and members of various political movements led the crowd. The majority of those who participated the marches and who met for hours and days in front of barricades of armed police on Fortaleza Street, baptized as Resistance Street by protesters, were visibly non-white. Therefore, the members of the great racialized Puerto Rican family not only belonged, in the nationally systematized racial schema, to a lower level, they also occupied marginalized categories in relation to gender and class. The prejudices and stereotypes that have racialized large swaths of Puerto Ricans constitutes the opposite pole of Puerto Rico’s white-(cis)heteronormative-binary-patriarchal elite, represented by Rosselló and his “brothers”.
Puerto Rican Black feminists have long been active in the political struggle for racial and gender equality, but it was during the protests of summer 2019 when their demands gained new visibility and traction. Leaders such as Ana Irma Rivera Lassén, former president of the Bar Association of Puerto Rico and spokeswoman for the new Victoria Ciudadana political party; Edda Ileana López-Serrano, secretary of women and gender affairs of the Puerto Rican Independence Party, and Shariana Ferrer-Núñez, spokesperson for the Colectiva Feminista en Construcción (Feminist Collective in Construction), are some of the Black feminists who have denounced the structural racism, misogyny and sexism prevalent in the chat. These women and organizations have likewise demanded the declaration of a state of emergency in the face of high rates of feminicides and sexist violence experienced by Puerto Rican women. They are also leading the fight against Senate Project 950, which seeks to restrict abortion access and criminalize pregnant women who decide to end their pregnancies. These important recent histories of Puerto Rican Black feminist organizing were embodied in the figures of three visibly Black women who demanded that the national government safeguard the bodies of all women in their entirety. For these and other Afro-Puerto Rican leaders, the country's struggles – like Summer 2019 – have to be seen from a feminist, anti-racist and intersectional lens, because non-white women bear the brunt of inequality in Puerto Rico.
Black, non-white, and Afro-descendant women – historically racialized as inferior in Puerto Rico – and feminist activists, are increasingly turning to music as a political tool of visibility and struggle and we saw this clearly during the summer of 2019. Plena Combativa, Ausuba, and the dancing bodies that starred in the “perreo combativo” (typical reggaeton dance twisted to a combative performance) on the steps of the San Juan Bautista Cathedral, in Old San Juan, joined the demands for Rosselló to resign and challenged of all the sexist, colonial, capitalist and neoliberal political policies that affect Puerto Rican women. Hence slogans such as: “Without music there is no revolution”, “The revolution will be feminist or will not be” and “If I cannot “perrear”, it is not a revolution.” Although tunas and coros (musical groups, usually students, that sing traditional serenades often originating in Spain and Portugal) sang in front of the Cathedral in Old San Juan, most of the musical expressions that were at the forefront of the protests were popular, local musical genres. Popular music helps to demonstrate and explain how people are racialized in Puerto Rico. Rooted in Afro-Puerto Rican and circum-Caribbean musical cultures, popular music like bomba, plena, and reggaeton helps us analyze the idiosyncrasies and intersections of Puerto Rican society around questions of race, class, gender, and sexuality just to name a few. The songs heard during the demonstrations of Summer 2019 calibrate the resistance against the violence of the State, particularly it’s expressions of class and gender violence. Through music – lyrics and dances – the great racialized Puerto Rican family made clear their complaints and urgent demands for more just and accessible health care, education, housing, security, etc.
At this historical juncture, movements and groups are strengthening their ties and collaborating in order to learn how Puerto Ricans survived the institutional and atmospheric ravages of 2017 and work towards implementing the vision of the future they have for their vulnerable communities. An example of this is Colectivo Ilé, which developed new strategies to advocate for intersectional demands that emerged post-Maria and actively participated in the demonstrations of Summer 2019. Colectivo Ilé is an organization that guides processes aimed at fostering a healthy racial identity that strengthens and affirms the self-image, self-concept and valuation of people in Puerto Rico. Its mission is to educate, organize, and research in order to support anti-racist and decolonial work that leads to changes in the community, academic, spiritual, psychological-social, cultural, economic and political spheres. In addition, it develops alliances through community organization, with various sectors of society, to affirm African roots, and eradicate institutional, cultural and individual racism in Puerto Rico and its diaspora. The Colectivo Ilé has stood out for its workshops, anti-racist knowledge processes, consulting and publications.
While Colectivo Ilé has promoted anti-racist and decolonial education in Puerto Rico since 1992, after Hurricane Maria, the group initiated the Calderos de Ideas (cauldrons of ideas). Through these meetings with women and members of the LGBTTQIA+ community throughout the archipelago, the most pressing needs of these communities marginalized by the State were listed. The members of Colectivo Ilé were active during the marches of Summer 2019 and on July 25 they celebrated Black and Afro-descendant Women's Day by demanding Rosselló's resignation as part of a larger effort to make racism in Puerto Rico visible to eradicate it. Subsequently, they have continued to work on the right to decent housing – a particularly feminist issue – and in preparation for the 2020 Census encourage more people to racially self-identify as Black/African American. In addition to these campaigns, the NEGRAS radio project was born from the Colectivo Ilé. This media platform serves to make racialized Puerto Ricans visible as non-white and to continue the conversations that emerged during the Summer of 2019.
NEGRAS is an innovative proposal. Within the framework of the Decade for People of African Descent, 2015-2024, and in preparation of the 2020 Census campaign, Colectivo Ilé created a weekly radio program that addresses the absence of discussion of the issue of racialization in Puerto Rico. Although we live in a racialized nation where race cuts across society and its social interactions, issues that affect the country from the intersectionality of race or colorism are often not discussed. That is the angle that is privileged in the conversations that are generated in each edition of NEGRAS. In each program, the guests are Afro-descendant women who share their diverse knowledge and analyze the issues and situations that afflict racialized women as inferior in the country. The conversations that are generated in the radio program show that the inequality of Afro-descendant women has its genesis before September 20, 2017 and that they must continue to be still after Summer 2019, because the struggles are multiple, and the country is still beset by government forces with retrograde and recalcitrant mentalities that underlie racism, misogyny and sexism. This space, conceived by visibly black women, is a trench to think of a Puerto Rico from the intersectionalities of race and gender, and from where anti-racist, anti-sexists and anti-colonial pronouncements occur.
In Summer 2019, the great racialized Puerto Rican family protested on the streets without fear. Already existing groups and other diverse participants demanded the resignation of Ricardo Rosselló Nevares. That claim is extrapolated to a whole political – bipartisan – corrupt scaffolding that has been in power in Puerto Rico for decades. Summer 2019, which drew attention internationally, explicitly exhibited the diverse inequalities that racialized people survive as populations marked as inferior and non-white in the archipelago. Undoubtedly, to think about Puerto Rico from the intersections of race and gender is to think about it from the perspective of dismantling an institutionalized and normalized system of oppression, a revolutionary process that is decolonial, contestatory, transgressive, humanizing and liberating.
[i] “Paz para Vieques” was a march of more than 150,000 people who, together with acts of civil disobedience in the island municipality of Vieques, took place on February 21, 2000 in San Juan, to demand the cessation of military practices and the immediate departure of the United States Navy from Viequense lands. On July 29, 2001, Vieques residents voted in favor of the immediate departure of the Navy, which had occupied Vieques since the 1940s. The fight for the end of military practices in Vieques was intensified by “accidental” death of a local guard, victim of a bomb dropped from a military plane. The civil disobedience that brought together national and international figures marked a milestone in the history of the struggles for the decolonization of Puerto Rico. However, today, Vieques residents remain flooded in a sea of economic, political and social inequalities. The sea that geographically unites them to the big island is the same sea that separates them and places them in the wake of inequality. https://www.claridadpuertorico.com/editorial-vieques-sin-marina-20-anos-despues/
[ii] On July 14, 1996, after the public statements of former Governor Carlos Romero Barceló that Puerto Rico is not a nation, the “Nación en Marcha” took place. The town of Fajardo served as a stage for the march, a coalition multisectoral that served as a counter-discourse to the annexation of Pedro Rosselló and reaffirmation of the Puerto Rican national identity. Along with that mass demonstration, the meeting of the governors of the United States was held at the El Conquistador hotel in the same municipality. http://www.redbetances.com/columnas/julio-muriente/797-julio-a-muriente-perez--copresidente-del-minh.html
Other essays from this forum include:
Making Space for Decolonial Futures: An Editors’ Introduction, Joaquín Villanueva and Marisol LeBrón
La Calle Fortaleza in Puerto Rico’s Primavera de Verano, Aurora Santiago-Ortiz and Jorell Meléndez-Badillo
The Public Reckoning: Anti-debt Futures After #RickyRenuncia, Sarah Molinari
Aguadilla, Decoloniality, and the Summer of ‘19, Pedro Lebrón Ortiz
Bárbara I. Abadía-Rexach is a communication studies scholar and sociocultural anthropologist. She works as a Term Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology of the School of Social Sciences at the University of Puerto Rico in Río Piedras. As a member of Colectivo Ilé (Ilé Collective), she produces and moderates NEGRAS, a radio program at Cadena Radio Universidad de Puerto Rico. She is also a member of the Black Latinas Know Collective. In addition, she collaborates as a columnist for Afroféminas.com and Todaspr.com.