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Puerto Rican Artists Lead Protests Calling for Governor’s Resignation

The streets of San Juan are filled with protesters outraged over misogynist, homophobic, and violent comments made by Puerto Rican governor Ricardo Rosselló. Artists have played a key role in global awareness of the controversy.

Protests against governor Ricardo Rosselló in San Juan, Puerto Rico (courtesy Frances Negrón-Muntaner)

While still recovering from the devastating damages of Hurricane Maria, and trapped in an intractable debt crisis, Puerto Rico is now in the midst of a new crisis. Since Sunday, July 14, tens of thousands of protestors have marched the streets of the archipelago’s capital city San Juan demanding the resignation of Puerto Rico’s governor, Ricardo Rosselló. The protests were sparked by outrage over leaked group chats in which Rosselló and his cohort exchanged homophobic and misogynist comments targeting journalists, local politicians, and Puerto Rican civilians. Two government officials who participated in the group chat have resigned. The governor, as of now, remains defiant.

“Ricky, renuncia” (“Ricky, resign”), protesters chanted in sustained days of protest that rival in size previous protests against the island’s austerity crises. On Saturday, July 13, the Center for Investigative Journalism in Puerto Rico published nearly 900 pages of conversation Rosselló conducted with his inner circle in a private group chat on encrypted app Telegram. In those chats, Rosselló uses derisive language against Puerto Rico-born former speaker of the New York City Council, whom he called a “whore,” and singer Ricky Martin, calling him “a male chauvinist” who “fucks men because women don’t measure up.” In another chat, he responded to Puerto Rico’s former chief fiscal officer Christian Sobrino’s wishes to kill San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz (“I am salivating to shoot her,” Sobrino wrote) with the comment “You’d be doing me a grand favor.”

A protest sign smeared with fake blood calling governor Ricardo Rosselló a “killer” (courtesy Christopher Rivera)

In a comment that enraged Puerto Ricans, Rosselló suggested feeding cows with the cadavers of victims of Hurricane Maria. “That alone is outrageous,” said Christopher Rivera, owner of the San Juan gallery Embajada, in a conversation with Hyperallergic. “We’ve reached a limit,” Rivera added, “even people from Rosselló’s own political party don’t want him anymore.”

Protestors marching the streets of San Juan (courtesy Christopher Rivera)

Singers, performers, and visual artists are at the forefront of the protests on the island. The song “Afilando los cuchillos” (Sharpening Knives) by the singer iLe (Ileana Mercedes Cabra Joglar), rapper Residente (René Juan Pérez Joglar), and the Latin trap artist Bad Bunny (Benito Antonio Martínez Ocasio), released before the march, has become an unofficial anthem for the protests. Illustrators play a major role in designing banners fro the marches and on social media. Members of the carnivalesque Zanqueros group (stilt walkers) are a fixture in the protests, where they perform to live music. A Peurto Rican newspaper called artists a unifying element in the protests. “One of the missions of this governor is to destroy our culture and heritage,”  Rivera said, “that’s why artists, musicians, and members of the cultural community have a great presence in these protests.”

“There is a significant presence of women, LGTBQ people, and youth,” artist and scholar Frances Negrón-Muntaner, who recently returned to New York City after participating in the marches in Puerto Rico, told Hyperallergic in a phone conversation. “This has been in the making for years, but it was massive,” she said. “Everybody is very active, that’s why I’m so proud,” Rivera added, “It’s been many years since I’ve seen grandmothers, children, and members of the LGBTQ community go out to the streets.”

Shortly before the group chat scandal broke, Puerto Rico’s former education secretary Julia Keleher and a group of five other officials were arrested by the FBI over allegations of corruption and misappropriation of $15.5 million in federal funds given to the island after Hurricane Maria. In one of the most circulated illustrations on social media in Puerto Rico, artist Mya Pagán shows Keleher together with governer Rosselló and other politicians suspected in corruption behind prison bars with a caption that reads: “consequences for those who are stealing our country.”

“Most of the protests I’ve been to in the past were led mainly by pro-independence people,” Pagán told Hyperallergic in a phone conversation from San Juan. “In this protest, people are more united and organizes,” she added, “It was incredible to see everyone there, even religious people.” In a nation riven with political divisions between the pro-independence movement and proponents of the American hegemony, the leaked chats, now referred to as “RickyLeaks”, have unified all sides of the political spectrum against Rosselló.

Although they actively rally to oust Rosselló, artists admit that the situation is complicated. According to Puerto Rico’s laws, the secretary of state succeeds the governor in case the latter steps down. But since the island’s secretary of state has himself stepped down because of the scandal, there’s no one to replace Rosselló.

“On the one hand I’m very proud of the people who are going out to protest,” Rivera said, “but I also worry because we’re already in a precarious situation on the island, and this will add to it.”

“I can’t imagine [Rosselló] not resigning after all this pressure,” Pagán said. “If he doesn’t, we will keep protesting in the streets and make him quit.”

Update 7/25/19 2:32pm: On Wednesday, July 24, Ricardo Rosselló announced his resignation in a statement posted online. The governor’s decision to step down came after two weeks of sustained and unprecedentedly large protests on the island. 

After listing his administration’s accomplishments, Rosselló said, “I feel that to continue in this position would make it difficult for the success that I have achieved to endure.” The governor said that he has “heard the people” and will hence step down on Friday, August 2. Rosselló announced Wanda Vázquez, a former district attorney who once headed the island’s office of women’s affairs, as his successor. “I hope this decision serves as a call to citizen reconciliation,” he said about his resignation.

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