SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — Hundreds of thousands of people occupied San Juan's biggest highway on Monday demanding the resignation of Gov. Ricardo Rosselló, in the island's largest demonstration in recent history.
“We don’t want him,” said María Mercedes Perieria Dávila, who attended the demonstration dressed in the Puerto Rican flag. “The people are screaming today for him to leave. Nobody wants him. Puerto Rico is yelling!”
Not even heavy rain showers discouraged protesters like Pereira Dávila, as crowds blasted music while chanting "Ricky, renuncia!" ("Ricky, resign!").
The "March of the People," as it's being called, has paralyzed the San Juan metropolitan area and the nerve center of the island's main shopping, banking and commercial districts.
More than 500,000 people participated in the march, Jardany Díaz Salgado, a geographer who studied aerial images of the protest, told El Nuevo Día, Puerto Rico's main newspaper.
The protest stretched into Monday night, and police shot tear gas at hundreds outside the governor's mansion late in the evening.
When Daria Montañez, 20, and her friend, Andre Girona, 23, turned on the television Monday morning and saw the hundreds of thousands of people on San Juan’s biggest highway — they were inspired to take action.
“We’re not doing anything here, we’ve got to get out of the house,” Montañez’s twin sister, Aria, said.
The three stood in front of the Fortaleza governor’s residence Monday night — among roughly 500 protesters — and said they'll be protesting until the governor steps down.
“He is like a dictator,” Daria Montañez said, “stealing our health and education.”
The three college students said that next year, when they graduate, they’ll be leaving the island in order to pursue jobs they say aren’t available here, in large part, because of their government’s corruption.
Estefanía Lugardo, 25, spent more than 10 hours protesting Monday, starting her day at Hiram Bithorn Stadium along with a quarter-million other people.
By nightfall, she was still protesting with friends and defiantly stated, “we’re not backing down."
“It’s insulting he’s calling women a whore,” Lugardo said, “it’s insulting because I’m part of the LBGTQ community.”
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The national strike, or "Paro Nacional" in Spanish, came a day after Rosselló announced on Facebook that he would not step down as governor despite days of protests calling for him to do so, after almost 900 pages of leaked private chats set off a scandal on the island.
The chats revealed profanity-laced, misogynistic and homophobic comments as well as barbed and cynical remarks about different topics, including jokes about deaths following Hurricane María in 2017.
"This is so much more than the chat. There has been rampant corruption and we need a chance and we need the governor to resign," said Ivonne Márquez, who drove more than an hour from Humacao to attend the massive protest with friends.
As protests continue, the president of Puerto Rico’s House of Representatives, Carlos Méndez Núñez — who is from the same pro-statehood party as the governor — is expected to receive a report from three appointed lawyers in the coming days, outlining whether an impeachment process can be initiated.
The investigation would look into whether the contents of the leaked private chats between the governor and some of his current and former officials as well as close associates show any possible conflicts of interest or law violations.
Puerto Rico House Rep. Dennis Márquez already introduced a resolution to initiate impeachment proceedings against Rosselló, outlining 18 possible crimes that stem from the leaked chats.
Many businesses closed Monday in anticipation of the crowds, including Plaza Las Américas, one of the Caribbean's largest malls.
Students, teachers, a community of hearing-impaired people, young professionals, truck drivers, children, people in wheelchairs and families were part of the sea of people who have already occupied main highways in Puerto Rico, carrying signs and chanting "Ricky, renuncia!" ("Ricky, resign!").
A group of medical students attending the rally said they’re protesting because people are unable to get basic medical services in hospitals because the "government is so corrupt" and the money needed to meet the needs of the people "go straight into politicians' pockets."
Both island and federal authorities are conducting investigations into allegations of corruption and conflicts of interest in the Rosselló administration.
In the last 10 days, hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans have taken to the streets of the U.S. territory's capital as well as in other towns demanding Rosselló's ouster in an impressive show of discontent on an island of about 3.2 million people.
Puerto Rican artists Ricky Martin and René Pérez Joglar, known as Residente, joined the march on Monday, days after rallying thousands in an earlier protest.
"We are more and we are not afraid," Martin said to a drenched crowd of people after heavy rains. "Even though you insist in acting like a dictator, the people will continue to demand for your resignation because, in Puerto Rico, we don't follow dictators. Ricky resign!"
Other Puerto Rican celebrities attending the protests are former MLB baseball player Carlos Delgado, Olympic medalist Jaime Espinal, actress Karla Monroig and former boxing champion Félix "Tito" Trinidad, as well as musicians like Daddy Yankee, Bad Bunny, Ednita Nazario, Kany García, Pedro Capó, Guaynaa and Olga Tañón.
Melissa Mark-Viverito, former New York City Council speaker and interim president of Latino Victory, which promotes Latinos for higher office, said that what’s happening in Puerto Rico “is not sustainable.”
“I can’t imagine a scenario where the governor can go knock on Washington’s door and effectively move any agenda for Puerto Rico forward,” Mark-Viverito told Telemundo Puerto Rico in Spanish. “The people can’t suffer the consequences of a corrupt administration.”
Rosselló had characterized Mark-Viverito as a “whore” in the chats.
Rep. Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz., chair of the House Natural Resources Committee, which oversees Puerto Rican affairs in Congress, echoed Viverito's words, saying that Rosselló's refusal to resign does "not create the necessary space in Washington to advance necessary measures that benefit the residents of Puerto Rico."
“The residents of Puerto Rico are using their power and holding their elected officials accountable for this alleged corruption and shameful behavior,” he said in a statement. “This is an opportunity for the federal government to work closely with municipalities and Puerto Rico’s civil society to achieve meaningful reconstruction."
Many of the protesters are committed to staying at it until the governor exits — even if protesting doesn't come naturally to them.
“I’m not the one who attends protests,” said Juan Jimenez, 21, who marched on Monday.
But Jimenez, a law student at Duke University, said he felt compelled when the public read Rosselló’s messages.
“Our voice and our actual spirit of wanting to bring about a better country isn’t being accurately represented,” he said.
In an interview on Fox News Channel on Monday Rosselló defended his decision to stay as governor, arguing that "there's another effort that needs to move forward, which is the battling of corruption." It was pointed out to Rosselló, however, that members of his administration have been arrested on corruption charges and that's one of the reason islanders say he should go.
On Monday, President Donald Trump spoke to reporters and falsely claimed again that the island had received $92 billion of post-hurricane aid but that it had been squandered by the “corrupt” and “incompetent” leadership.
"The people of Puerto Rico like me and they should because no one has given them what I give them," Trump said. But according to federal data, Puerto Rico has received less than $14 billion of the $42.5 billion allocated to the island, which incurred damages of about $90 billion.
Nicole Acevedo reported from New York, and Gabe Gutierrez and Annie Rose Ramos from San Juan.
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