Puerto Rico, a colonial territory of the US since 1898, has faced a fiscal crisis since the deep recession of 2006. Unable to declare bankruptcy due to its political status of “belonging to, but not a part of” the US, the archipelago was placed into an economic conservatorship by the US Congress in 2016 under the PROMESA Act.
The law designated the appointment of a Fiscal Control Board to decide how Puerto Rico repays its debt – mostly though austerity measures and budget cuts to health, education, and retirement pensions.
Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico’s already crumbling infrastructure. Faced with power outages lasting up to a year in some areas, the ensuing disaster was a product of corruption, mismanagement, and crass negligence from the Puerto Rican and Federal Government. Thousands of deaths in Maria’s wake could have been prevented if the aid arrived on time and if there was a well-maintained electrical grid.
Puerto Rican Summer
On July 13th, 2019, 889 pages of Telegram chat transcripts surfaced involving then-governor Ricardo Rosselló, members of his cabinet, as well as his advisors. In the chat, homophobic, fat-phobic, and misogynist comments were used to address celebrities such as Ricky Martin, followers of Rosselló’s own political party, as well as a well-known prosecutor. The chat derisively referred to the deaths of approximately 4,645 people from Hurricane Maria as pawns in a media campaign.
The chat leak arrived on the heels of the arrest of Julia Keleher, the Secretary of the Education Department of Puerto Rico. Keleher, who is from the United States, was arrested on July 10th along with other government administrators. She spearheaded the closing of more than 400 public schools in the archipelago as part of a plan to convert many of them into charter schools – and was ultimately charged with various counts of fraud, money laundering, and theft.
The leaked chat marked a tipping point for the people of Puerto Rico. On July 10th, protesters took to the streets. While the protests concentrated in Old San Juan, they were decentralized and diverse. As Jorell Meléndez Badillo and I have mentioned, the protests came in a variety of forms: motorcades, underwater rallies and even stand-up paddle yoga. Mainstay activist groups were joined by those that had not attended marches previously. Many felt compelled to participate because the chats unveiled the neglect of an elite group of white, affluent men towards a population that suffered the brunt of a disaster in their making.
As I have also written about with Jorell Meléndez Badillo (forthcoming), the infrastructure for the Summer Uprising was built by other anticolonial movements. Student activists from the University of Puerto Rico have been resisting policies that threaten Puerto Rico’s public university. Labor unions have been protesting the privatization of public corporations such as the Puerto Rico Telephone Company. Thousands of pro-independence supporters, along with other socialist and radical groups have been organizing marches, rallies, and acts of civil disobedience in the archipelago to end the US Navy’s occupation of Vieques which gained momentum after a bomb killed David Sanes, a security guard at the naval base.
Yet the summer protests centered around another agenda. The chants of #RickyRenuncia came from a variety of sectors and after two weeks of sustained protests calling for his resignation, Governor Ricardo Rosselló stepped down on July 24th, 2019. The Summer Uprising left an indelible mark on Puerto Rican protest politics, as an unprecedented range of sectors took to the street. Groups not usually seen at the forefront of political protests were front and center demanding the resignation of Rosselló – such as queer, trans, and nonbinary folks. One of the organizations actively involved in the protests was La Colectiva Feminista en Construcción (La Cole).
Active since 2013, La Cole is a black feminist political organization mainly based in San Juan, Puerto Rico. In their Manifesta, La Cole positions itself as explicitly intersectional – where oppression is understood as interconnected and the struggle for liberation is interdependent and collective. La Cole draws from black feminist thinkers in the US, such as Angela Davis, Bell Hooks, Barbara Smith, and Demita Frasier (the latter are members of The Combahee River Collective.) Currently, they have five core members, yet work with other feminists groups and organizations coordinating marches, rallies, and demonstrations.
Since its founding, La Cole has been a presence in the Puerto Rican public sphere. They have held numerous campaigns to raise awareness for issues such as abortion access, that affects cis and trans women and femmes. On numerous occasions, the Puerto Rican legislature has tried to introduce a law that places strict time limits (a 48 hour waiting period) on when a women is able to get an abortion. The law has not been enacted – facing resistance from legal scholars and feminists, including La Cole.
In May 2017, Shariana, one of the founders of La Cole, confronted the former mayor of the town Guaynabo, Hector O’Neill, at a restaurant in San Juan. O’Neill is accused of sexually assaulting multiple women while in office, including his employees. He resigned from office on June 5, 2017 amidst the allegations, which included lascivious acts and ethics code violations. On December 20th, 2019 the appellate court dropped the lascivious acts charge, yet other charges remain and if convicted, he can be sentenced up to 25 years in prison. The continuous public pressure that La Cole exerted to remove O’Neill from office turned them into a visible force that has the ability to instigate protests outside any particular political organization.
La Cole has also been denouncing the alarming rate of femicides in Puerto Rico for years. On November 23rd, 2018, they organized a “plantón,” or sit-in, in front of the Governor’s mansion that lasted three days. The organization demanded that a State of Emergency be declared to address gender violence in Puerto Rico and drafted an Executive Order for Governor Ricardo Rosselló to sign. The order would have mandated that government agencies form coalitions with feminist organizations; establish educational campaigns to raise awareness about gender violence; implement a curriculum with a gender perspective in schools (which was been rejected by Ricardo Rosselló’s adminstration); recognize diverse families in terms of sexual orientation and composition; introduce professional development for teachers; create a special division within the police department to process and deal with crimes related to gender violence; and enforce training for police officers investigating instances of gender violence. (The complete list can be accessed here).
Yet Ricardo Rosselló refused to meet with members of La Cole. When Rosselló’s successor, Wanda Vázquez, took office after Rosselló’s resignation, she also refused to declare a State of Emergency, even though femicides are still pervasive (studies reveal 266 reported femicides between 2014 and 2018).
Instead, Vázquez created a Gender Violence Advisory Committee, which La Cole argues is insufficient to deal with the emergency. The Governor also met with members of La Cole and other feminist groups to discuss a plan to address gender violence in Puerto Rico. In a report made available on Facebook, La Cole mentions that there would be a subsequent meeting in December to discuss the document. No such meeting has occurred and since November 2018, members of La Cole have met on six occasions with government administrators to pass a State of Emergency. On November 25th, 2019 La Cole organized a march on the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women along with other feminists. Hundreds marched from the financial district to the Governor’s Mansion to demand that action be taken to deal with the ongoing crisis.
La Cole views gender violence within larger structures of violence that the state is complicit in – either through inaction – such as police brutality, or the imposition of austerity measures that aggravate the already high rate of poverty in Puerto Rico. Black and trans women, queer femmes and women also bear the brunt of the archipelago’s fiscal collapse due in large part to Puerto Rico’s debt. Coloniality is a gendered issue, demonstrated by the apparent disposability of cis and trans women in Puerto Rico. Although gender violence is nothing new, the activist discourses around feminist issues are shifting towards the acknowledgment of antiblackness and transphobia in Puerto Rican society.
Which brings us back to the Summer Uprising. To be clear, the ousting of Ricardo Rosselló was not the product of one group. It was the result of a critical mass – of organized groups and individuals fed up with politics as usual. La Cole was present during the protests, and after Rosselló resigned they continued to call for the auditing of the archipelago’s debt as well as the end of privatization of public services and the removal of the Fiscal Control Board in Puerto Rico.
On July 22nd more than half a million people marched, including La Cole’s members, calling on Rosselló to resign. Although this political momentum has slowed down, the importance of La Cole cannot be underestimated. The collective has been crucial in setting the foundation for the infrastructures of resistance that have paved the way for others to join and fundamentally shift the political terrain of Puerto Rico. Their platform is explicitly anticolonial and embodies a decolonial praxis that tears at the imperial hegemonic seams, with radical hope that another world is possible. This other world is being forged as we speak, connected to the feminist struggles of other countries such as Chile and Argentina – as Audre Lorde said, “[t]here is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives."