#RickyRenuncia: My experience in a post-Rossello Puerto Rico

September 11, 2019 — by Anouk Yeh

A few weeks ago, I traveled to San Juan, Puerto Rico, to serve as a delegate for the 2019 International Congress of Youth Voices, a gathering of 130 youth writers and activists from around the globe. 

Puerto Rico is a territory of the United States, meaning that it’s governed under U.S. federal law, but doesn’t have any representation in the U.S. Congress. 

Upon arrival, the first thing I noticed was Puerto Rico’s picturesque scenery — the island was littered with palm trees and bordered by miles of smooth white sand beaches that stretched into the horizon. Although it was evident that the island was still recovering from Hurricane María in 2017, at first glance, Puerto Rico seemed like a placid island that was exclusively peaceful and harmonious. That assumption was far from the truth — the Congress of Youth Voices would be convening during one of the most politically  fraught times in Puerto Rican history.

Half a month earlier, reporters for Puerto Rico’s Center for Investigative Journalism made national headlines when they leaked a series of highly controversial text messages sent between Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello and his inner circle of advisors. The leaked messages contained highly sexist and homophobic remarks attacking San Juan mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz, former New York City councilwoman Melissa Mark Viverito and Latin pop artist Ricky Martin and mocked the deceased victims of the 2017 Hurricane Maria. Further, it confirmed many Puerto Ricans’ suspicions corruption in Rossello’s government.  

The scandal, dubbed “Telegram Gate,”  led to the birth of the #RickyRenuncia movement, where thousands of Puerto Rican citizens took to the streets demanding Rossello’s resignation. Although he was initially adamant about staying in office, Rosello eventually relented to public pressure. He announced his resignation on July 24, and formally stepped down on Aug. 2.

On the first night of the Congress, we had dinner with a group of activists on the forefront of the #RickyRenuncia movement. One of them was Nicole Curet, a Puerto Rican native who worked to organize the protests in front of Rossello’s mansion.  

Curet spoke about the significance of the movement, explaining that unlike many of the previous protests that Puerto Rico had seen, #RickyRenuncia was one of the only nonpartisan citizen-conceived movements. 

In addition, she heavily emphasised the role that recurring government neglect of the island played in unseating the governor. Suppressed anger from decades of colonization, occupation and neglect of the island have long simmered and threatened to surface, Rossello’s leaked chat messages simply served as the catalyst.

Curet’s message would serve as an unofficial thesis for the rest of the Congress. All ensuing activists and speakers would confirm the large role that the federal neglect of Puerto Rico played in fueling #RickyRenuncia — that turmoil had been brewing on the island long before any texts had ever been sent. Although I listened attentively to each guest who spoke to the Congress, I never fully grasped the gravity of the negligence of Puerto Rico until the last day.

On the final day of the Congress, we were dispersed among local towns on the outskirts of San Juan to help clean up the residual damage from Hurricane Maria. The group I was assigned to worked to restore unincorporated wetland that had been left in disarray after the hurricane. 

There, we met a woman who recounted how Puerto Rico was virtually abandoned by the federal government post-Maria. In her town, the Federal Emergency Management Agency had arrived an entire month after the hurricane with nothing more than boxes of “nutritional sustenance,” bags of potato chips in disguise, in tow. She reaffirmed that the anger and resentment stemming from Maria was a large underlying factor that fueled the ousting of Rossello.

Another group of delegates was assigned to clean up houses that were damaged by the hurricane. There, the group met an elderly couple that had been stuck in a debris-filled house for over two years due to the lack of aid or compensation they received from the federal government.

Speaking with the different members of the community made me realize the full gravity of Rossello’s resignation. On an island that had been hardened by years of federal neglect and decades of colonization, citizen movements like #RickyRenuncia virtually never succeeded. For Puerto Ricans, Rossello’s resignation didn’t just signify a denouncement of a single corrupt leader. It began the denunciation of a whole era of neglect on the island. 

Although it’s been several weeks since Rossello has stepped down, protests throughout Puerto Rico have continued. Although the original goal of #RickyRenuncia was to simply unseat the governor, the movement accomplished something bigger: It catalyzed the use and recognition of citizen voice in Puerto Rico.

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