By Elizabeth Burdette Roberts (text) and John Ray Roberts (photos)
We went on a vacation to San Juan, Puerto Rico in the midst of protests demanding that the governor resign. This is what our trip looked like.
Months ago, my partner and I planned out a vacation — our first real vacation since our honeymoon five years ago. For the first time in five years, we both had full-time salaried jobs and could take two weeks off work without bringing financial ruin upon ourselves. We settled on San Juan, Puerto Rico. It was a place I’d visited and loved back in college, back before Hurricane Maria, before a yearlong power outage, before the current U.S. president threw paper towels into a crowd. My memories of the place from that trip were vague: the constant symphony of coqui frogs, nightly parades leading up to a local election where people threw hard candy from the back of pickup trucks, trying to explain in Spanish to a pharmacist that I had pink eye and needed antibiotics, garlicky and delicious mofongo that was like a mystical dish I would never find again. I wanted to go back.
We weighed the decision carefully. As mainlanders, we would be going with a certain amount of privilege. While we share the same U.S. citizenship, we are able to vote and have a say in how we are represented. We also didn’t want to be disrespectful in visiting a place that was still recovering from a natural disaster. While we struggled with the implications of vacationing in Puerto Rico, we finally decided that we would strive to do what we always do: support local businesses.
Less than a week before leaving for our vacation, protests broke out in Old San Juan, just ten minutes from where we would be staying. Puerto Ricans took to the streets calling for their governor, Ricardo Roselló, to resign. He had taken office two years prior at a time when Puerto Rico was struggling with debt and all-around economic crisis. Unemployment and education cuts grew under Roselló. This compounded with the devastating effects of Maria and the energy crisis were fuel to a fire, and the spark that lit the fire was Telegramgate. That’s when the protests begin.
The Birth of Revolución
Screenshots of a chat of which he was part were released to the public that showed him making sexist, homophobic, and threatening comments about other politicians. They also confirmed what many already suspected: that there was corruption in his business dealings. In the ten days before we were scheduled to fly to San Juan, we followed the news and media coverage of the protests. I reached out to our host to confirm that it was still okay for us to come. We were less concerned about our own safety (we live in a city that has regular protests and in a country with insanely high gun and domestic violence rates); it was more that we didn’t want to come voyeuristically as a resistance unfolded. We are politically engaged at home, and we have our own issues that lead us to protest. However, we didn’t want to wander through Old San Juan looking at shops, exploring historic sites, and drinking cocktails ignorant of the resistance happening around us. We weighed the decision yet again: could we enjoy ourselves in a place that has dealt with so much power inequality? Or would we be complicit in the inequality? Our host reassured us that we were coming at a “peaceful” and “historic” for Puerto Rico, “for our people,” she said.
The day after we arrived, we went out to dinner at the nearby strip of restaurants and shops on Calle Loíza. Signs of the resistance were everywhere, from a giant black flag waving over Ocean Park that read “RICKY RENUNCIA” to the flyers comparing Ricky and his friends to basura. At dinner, the televisions were playing the news. My Spanish is rusty, but I had enough to translate the headlines to my partner — Ricky was to make a big announcement that night. This was likely in response to the fact that the Puerto Rico Legislative Assembly had announced earlier that day that they would proceed with impeachment related to his misconduct.
No sooner had I spoken the headline aloud in English that the entire dynamic of the restaurant changed. The bartender dug around for several remotes, turning off the music and unmuting the television. Bodies shifted, no longer interested in their drinks or food but searching the screens for Ricky’s appearance. Instead, bodyguards emerged from the baby blue and white doors of La Fortaleza and a man in a suit who confirmed what the headline implied, that Ricky would announce his resignation that night. We stayed at the restaurant for an hour after that man returned inside La Fortaleza. The news coverage that followed just focused on the doors, unmoving. Finally, we wandered down the street to a nearby bar that also doubled as a barbershop.
It was quiet, just us, a bartender who fluidly switched from English to Spanish to making smoky Old Fashioneds, and a middle-aged couple from San Juan. They were tuned in to the same news coverage of La Fortaleza’s front doors. Someone appeared, but it was the first lady letting the dog out. Both she and the dog went back inside, and the doors stayed closed. Nothing had changed. We all sat at the bar together and the couple jokingly said, “Ya se fue” — he’s already left. Hungry to be part of momentous occasions, I stayed until John Ray finally convinced me to walk home, after all, this was not our resistance. Back in our little apartment, Ricky still hadn’t formally announced his resignation as of 11:30pm. We both doubted he would go through with it.
The Mark of Resistencia
The next morning, we awoke to the news: he had promised to step down effective 5pm on August 2nd, the day after our flight home. The protests in Old San Juan turned to celebrations, and all of our Uber drivers and servers talked to us about their experiences with the protests, with the resignation. We visited Old San Juan, or El Viejo as it was called, that day. I felt energized by the signs of protest. It was intoxicating: magnificent art, graffiti on walls and monuments (even ones that had nothing to do with colonialism or corruption as far as we could tell), flyers, policía. While I initially looked at the signs of protest with rose-colored glasses, John Ray pointed out to me that I was glossing over broken windows, a piece of plywood spray-painted with “gringos cochinos,” and the messages wishing death on Ricky. Resistance is rarely clean and simple.
We stood at the intersection of Calle de la Resistencia and Calle del Revolución, at the entrance to La Fortaleza, barricaded and heavily guarded as a young boy sat on the barricade and waved a Puerto Rican flag, a man with a cup of coffee shouted for the governor to come out. At another gate to La Fortaleza, we watched as an SUV readied to leave La Fortaleza and everyone seemed to be drawn in — news anchors and camera crews, tourists, and locals — hoping to catch a glimpse of history in the making. All we saw, though, was a silver SUV with heavily tinted windows drive down toward a nearby park and heliport.
Even with the protest crowds absent in the daylight, Old San Juan was alive with the mark of resistance. Perhaps most striking to me, though, was that nearly every Uber driver we encountered — and many bartenders and servers — was willing to talk politics with us. Our sample size is small and limited, but the locals that we discussed the situation with all agreed: Ricky needed to resign. As a mainlander in 2019, I have a hard time imagining people agreeing on any political issue much less being comfortable discussing politics with a stranger who has the power to tip you (or not). They certainly expressed differences in their opinions of how the protests were conducted — one man chose to stay home because he was worried his military training would get him in danger, another criticized the graffiti on monuments and other places that couldn’t easily be repainted, yet another offered free rides to the resistance as a way to support the protests. There was a united front, though, in the people with whom we spoke: they wanted the governor out. Resistance wasn’t far from anyone’s mind.
In the days between Ricky’s announcement of his resignation and the date he had promised to resign, we joined in conversations about who would be the next governor. The line of succession was (and remains) confusing at best to me, an outsider looking in. Flyers appeared that denounced the next few people in line as unacceptable replacements. Some had been part of the chat and were being pushed out. Still, others were seen as an extension of Ricky’s corruption, which was not reassuring to anyone. We went about our trip looking for small businesses to support, cafés off the tourist path, and soaking up Caribbean sun and waves at the nearby beach.
One rainy day, we watched Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown episode in Puerto Rico. Notably, Bourdain filmed the episode just a few months before Hurricane Maria hit in 2017. The episode aired just a few weeks after Maria. When you examine the crushing blow that Maria dealt to the island and to an already struggling economy alongside the hope and persistence that the people interviewed demonstrated, it is gutting. It was for me anyway. Bourdain makes a great point: Puerto Rico remains a colony of the United States, one that has been made financially dependent on other countries to the point of instability. It was a cheap way to buy a country. The political unrest and culture of resistance are not new. If anything, it is as old as Puerto Rico itself, an island colonized by Spain, taken by the United States following the Spanish-American War, and consistently used/abused as a strategic key to the Caribbean. Our history of the island seems to begin with it belonging to others, which is unfair but speaks to the power imbalance that still exists.
These things are all connected. That is why protesters didn’t just hold up signs calling for Ricky’s resignation; they also held up signs with only “4,645” written on them, one estimation of Hurricane Maria’s death toll in Puerto Rico. Protesters see the connection, the intersectionality of the corruption happening in La Fortaleza at the expense of over 3 million Puerto Ricans living on the island and countless more scattered to the mainland and around the world as job prospects have dried up at home. Take note, protesters on the mainland, recognizing intersectionality is so important to resistance. It’s why we can’t talk about mass shootings perpetrated primarily by white men with an inclination for white supremacy without also talking about the deeply rooted racism of our country.
On late August 2nd, Ricky formally left La Fortaleza. I won’t explain here the political and legal processes that happened (and are still happening) in the days after Ricky’s resignation. Journalists have done an excellent job exploring this, and I would refer you to David Begnaud’s Twitter feed for a play-by-play of the line of succession, the loopholes, and complications of the power vacuum currently occupying La Fortaleza. As I write, Puerto Rico is on its third governor in a week, and the protests continue.
Learning from Los Hijos de Borinquen
We are back in the mainland now, watching as our people engage in protests that are our own. This week, the protests being covered by the media are mainly against gun violence and the separation of migrant families. On a weekly basis now, I write desperate emails to my representatives about issues I care about and usually about the ones getting media coverage at the time. I don’t feel heard. I don’t see change happening. I don’t strike up conversations with strangers about the political unrest happening in our country because we as a people are so deeply divided and hold to our political beliefs as though they are palm trees in a hurricane: bending and swaying but never snapping.
As mainlanders, what can we do about the political unrest and economic instability in Puerto Rico? Is there anything to be learned from a seemingly successful movement that ousted one governor but led to (at least) two more unwanted governors to be sworn in? What does Puerto Rico’s future look like and how do Puerto Ricans want to shape their future? These questions (and so, so many more) are distracting me. I still struggle with my role in Puerto Rico’s resistance and future governance. I don’t have the answers, and I frankly never expect to. The situation in Puerto Rico is complicated and hundreds of years in the making. I do think this event is worth watching and developing opinions about. I firmly believe more mainlanders need to be aware of Puerto Rico’s history, of the ways the United States created dependency, and of the power and passion of los boricuas. We should ask our representatives to think about these issues and develop political stances related to Puerto Rico’s future. Mainlanders, take note that a united people with a comprehensive understanding of the intersectional corruption happening in their home effected change. Governors and leaders can be called on to resign, especially when corruption and bigotry are fundamental. Mainlanders, I know you are tired. I know the protest in your heart has been happening for too long, but think of the islanders. Think of the people dancing in the streets, of the children waving flags at the intersection of the resistance and the revolution, of the massive black flag with the message “RICKY RENUNCIA” that appeared almost overnight, of the people banging pots and pans on their balconies, of the lone man and woman shouting into megaphones outside the legislative assembly’s building and calling for their accountability in this mess, of the handwritten sign that just said “4,645,” of the beautiful street art that screams its message, of the movement to make up lost revenue at local Old San Juan businesses, of the taxi driver offering free rides to the resistance because he couldn’t be there himself, of the people who have been told for hundreds of years that they are not capable of governing themselves or managing their own economy or being independent. They are tired, too, but they have not given up. Puerto Rico is strong, and if you aren’t paying attention, now is the time. It is not our civil unrest, but it could be. It can be.