Stateside Puerto Ricans, who responded to island protests, are still vigilant

“It didn’t matter where we were standing in the world,” Ricky Flores of New York said. “There was something happening in Puerto Rico and Puerto Ricans responded.”
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Protesters gather outside the government mansion La Fortaleza in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on Aug. 7, 2019, calling for the removal of the island's newly sworn-in governor.Dennis M. Rivera Pichardo / AP

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By Rashika Jaipuriar

When protesters in Puerto Rico started the #RickyRenuncia movement, the diaspora was quick to answer the call to action.

“For us, it’s something historic,” said Edil Sepúlveda, 34, an attorney and co-founder of Boricuas Unidos en la Diáspora, a group that seeks to harness the clout of the Puerto Ricans who live in the mainland United States. “I don’t think we have ever seen this level of passion.”

He said he just “couldn’t sleep" after reports about the intensifying mass protests in Puerto Rico, where hundreds of thousands of people were demanding that Ricardo Rosselló step down as governor over scandals involving leaked polemic chats and corruption investigations.

Sepúlveda was one of many Puerto Ricans who booked a flight to the epicenter of the action in anticipation of the biggest protest in Puerto Rico's history.

“All my family’s there, and we have a very big love for everything that is Puerto Rico,” Sepúlveda, who lives in Washington, D.C., said. “So, for me, it’s so important to be there when they need it the most … [and] just to connect with them on the ground.”

It felt different on the ground in San Juan, he recalled, not only because more than half a million people took to the streets to protest but also because of the inclusivity of the protests.

The demonstrations were largely organic, with young people and protesters of all socioeconomic classes on the front lines, staying up all night in front of the governor’s mansion for two weeks. Some even came up with creative ways to protest, from kayaks and paddleboard rallies to yoga sessions and dance parties.

More than 1,600 miles away, in New York City, that same energy reverberated to poet and translator Ricardo Maldonado.

“It’s been empowering and really moving to see that they’ve made space for every background and every form of artistic expression, too,” he said. “I have been part of several protests, but nothing like this. This is the one that felt authentically Puerto Rican.”

Maldonado, who captured a viral video of protesters at New York City's Grand Central Station on July 22, says the diaspora in New York City was able to turn its frustration and anger into empowerment, by singing and dancing and being together.

“I felt compelled to take out my phone because I wanted my family and my friends and people on the island, as well as those who were not at Grand Central … to know that they were not alone,” he said.

His video has now surpassed 1.8 million views.

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Sister protests, like the one Maldonado attended, emerged in several other cities too: Chicago, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., Miami — similar to the diasporic outpouring of help after Hurricane Maria, according to Bronx-bred photographer Ricky Flores, 58, who photographed #RickyRenuncia demonstrations in New York City’s Union Square.

“It didn’t matter where we were standing in the world,” Flores said. “There was something happening in Puerto Rico and Puerto Ricans responded.”

That immediate response comes from an unwavering sense of belonging and pride, say stateside Puerto Ricans.

Maldonado, for example, has lived in the United States for about 15 years. But all that time hasn’t taken him away from being involved in what takes place on the island. He keeps in touch with family and friends and reads news about Puerto Rico on a daily basis.

“I feel like it is my responsibility as a Puerto Rican to keep that information close to me and to seek it out,” Maldonado said, adding that he checks his social media hourly since the protest.

“In fact, my phone runs out of battery, I would say, halfway through the day,” he added.

The role of the diaspora has helped Puerto Rico’s collective voice grow louder. The number of people of Puerto Rican heritage in the U.S., more than 5 million, has outnumbered the 3.2 million living on the island.

Almost everyone in Puerto Rico has someone in the United States, according to Shariana Ferrer-Núñez, 30, an organizer at the Colectiva Feminista en Construcción, a feminist organization in Puerto Rico that has been at the forefront of mass protests.

“Puerto Ricans in the diaspora have been fundamental in order for us, people living here in mainland Puerto Rico, in order to get the word out,” Ferrer-Núñez said.

In addition to flooding the streets in the U.S., the diaspora also takes action by showing up on Capitol Hill, since that’s where the fate of the U.S. territory is often decided.

Federal laws such as Promesa, which imposed an unelected oversight board to oversee the island's finances in the wake of their financial crisis, and Hurricane Maria recovery efforts are some of the pressing issues currently affecting people in Puerto Rico.

“Here in Washington, D.C., is … where you can make a real impact,” Sepúlveda, whose organization advocates for Puerto Rican issues from the United States, said. “And what we’re doing from here is basically giving political power to the organizations on the ground in Puerto Rico [and] connecting them to Congress.”

Protests have decreased significantly since Rosselló officially resigned last Friday and named veteran politician Pedro Pierluisi as his successor.

Pierluisi was quickly ousted after the Puerto Rican Supreme Court ruled that the way he became governor was unconstitutional.

Puerto Rico's Justice Secretary Wanda Vázquez was sworn in as governor Wednesday, becoming the third person in a week to occupy the position.

But there are questions for some Puerto Ricans about Vázquez's previous positions and the fact that she is seen as part of the embattled Rosselló administration, so some are already gearing up to protest her governorship Friday afternoon in front of the governor's mansion in Old San Juan.

“People don’t want her because she’s part of the [Rosselló] administration … so people don’t trust her,” Sepúlveda said. “The protests and the fight are going to continue.”

In the mainland, Maldonado says, Puerto Ricans are ready to hit the streets again. He said he would join protests in New York City once they are announced.

“We’re all working very hard to make sure that Puerto Rico becomes more fair, more equitable, and treated with respect,” Maldonado said. “I want us to be seen.”

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