By Ivan Robles

In my previous post, I acknowledged that the true value of my time in Puerto Rico would not just be academic achievement, but that it would also allow me to begin the introspective work of detangling the island’s intricate web of culture, history, and politics and reveal where I stand within it. Now that my summer in Puerto Rico has come to a close, I can confess that I have only just begun to loosen these threads, delicately working out the knots where disaster meets politics and unraveling the frays where society meets history.

In my conversations with community leaders here, I’ve been granted a glimpse of the interplay of turmoil and teamwork. Nearly two years later, Puerto Ricans are still confronted with the effects of the hurricanes: families remain displaced, blue toldos still cover broken roofs, apagones regularly leave parts of the island in the dark, and everyday citizens continue to grapple with their trauma. However, the island and its pueblos have not remained stagnant. In my short time here, I have witnessed communities responding to these issues with grants to support small businesses, protests calling for a state of emergency against gender-based violence, low-cost housing for displaced families, public eateries for students and those experiencing homelessness, and music and dance classes as a means of momentary escape. Puerto Ricans have channeled their collective ire into action.

When I asked a member of the Brigada del Oeste to describe this work of grassroots recovery, they simply and powerfully replied: “Vamos a seguir la lucha y vamos a rescatar el país” (“We will continue the fight and we will rescue the country”). In these conversations, I would watch smiles widen as I listened to stories of neighbors banding together to “build back better.” These anecdotes only confirmed what I already knew: Puerto Ricans are resilient, resourceful, and above all, proud. But I would also wince when I saw tears forming in their eyes as they described the moments when they realized that the community’s survival was entirely on their shoulders—that no one was going to help them but themselves. The glory of recovery and progress continues to clash with the anger and shame of abandonment.

But many of those I have spoken to agree that despite Hurricane Maria’s devastation, it was also a catalyst to set the island on a new path—one led by the communities responsible for pulling the island from the depths of disaster. This desire for change most clearly manifests itself in the recent protests against the island’s governor Ricardo Rosselló.

Leaked messages between the governor and members of his cabinet revealed sexist and homophobic comments targeted at Puerto Rican politicians, celebrities, and organizations. At one point they even joke about bodies building up at the understaffed morgue after Maria. In response, Puerto Rico mobilized like never before. For two weeks, hundreds of thousands of the island’s residents gathered in the streets, filling the air with the twang of cacerolas battered with metal spoons, steady drum beats, and rousing lemas such as, “¡Ricky renuncia y llévate a la junta!” (“Ricky resign and take your cabinet with you!”).

It quickly became clear that these demonstrations were the result of more than just chatroom memes. The rage and indignation of Puerto Ricans had reached its peak following the hurricane, and these messages were simply the last drop in the bucket to cause these emotions to overflow into the streets and up to the doors of the governor’s mansion. The speed at which Puerto Ricans were galvanized is due to the fact that these acts of protests had already been in progress, isolated to specific groups and communities that had long been challenging and compensating for the government’s incompetence and neglect. 

The Diaspora Also Demands It-Resign

I have spent much of these past weeks pondering what the future held for this island and if the grassroots efforts I had witnessed would truly be enough to diverge its centuries-old path of corruption, subjugation, and suffering. I often asked in my interviews, “Where do you think we are headed? What will be the catalyst for this deeply desired change?” Well, the swells of pride and hope I have felt in the pit of my stomach these past few weeks indicate to me that these demonstrations may be what ignite the revolution that Puerto Rico so desperately needs. And although the power of our chants are limited by 4,645 missing voices, these protests serve as a reminder of the sheer power of collective action—especially when rallied to the beat of bomba and plena rhythms.