Every Tuesday at the Villa Victoria housing development in the South End, volunteers dole out big bundles of food to poor neighbors at $2 a bag. But these days it’s not the food that’s at the top of people’s minds — it’s the political crisis unfolding at breakneck speed in their native Puerto Rico.
Miguelina de Jesus is originally from Rio Grande, Puerto Rico. The 83-year-old matriarch of four generations at Villa Victoria, she says she never attended a protest before local Boricuas, or Puerto Ricans, started organizing demonstrations in front of Boston City Hall.
“We’ve never had anything like what we’re seeing now,” she said in Spanish. "It’s been a disaster in Puerto Rico. All the governments have been bad, but not like the one in power now.”
For two weeks, hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans have taken to the streets in San Juan, calling for the resignation of the U.S. territory's embattled governor, Ricardo Rosselló. The demonstrations followed the disclosure of chats between Rosselló and several top lieutenants that revealed comments widely condemned as sexist, homophobic and ridiculing of Hurricane Maria victims.
Puerto Ricans are as politically diverse as the rest of America. Most notably, they’re divided over whether to become a state, a country or continue with their colonial status. But one thing they seem to agree on now is that the governor’s time has come.
"I know about everything that’s happening over there and it’s bad,” de Jesus said. "Because the governors that come in make promises, but then when they rise, they forget about the people on the bottom.”
Jose Pacheco also lives at Villa Victoria and has been to several of the Boston protests. Pacheco said he’s been thrilled by the action on the island, especially on Monday, when an ocean of people flooded the streets of San Juan — including pop stars like Ricky Martin.
He said he hasn't seen so much unity among Puerto Ricans since the struggle against the U.S. military presence in Vieques, which ended in the removal of military installations on the island.
"The people have said, 'enough already,'" Pacheco said. "It’s an 'enough already' that goes beyond the governor. It’s an 'enough already' for any governor who comes along. It’s an 'enough already' for all the people who suffered during the hurricane.”
Ivys Fernandez, one of the organizers of the Boston protests, says the demonstrations shouldn’t stop with the resignation of Rosselló. She said she wants protests to zero in on the fiscal control board, called La Junta. The board is appointed by the U.S. Congress and oversees Puerto Rico’s finances, which have been in shambles for years.
"Because it's not about ousting Rosselló, we really need to work on ousting the Junta — which is extremely difficult when you have a government that is corrupt and ... the bigger problem is the whole thing with Puerto Rico's debt," she said.
Pedro Reina Pérez is a historian who teaches at the University of Puerto Rico and is living in Boston. Considering the pages of Puerto Rico’s history, Reina Pérez said the island has never experienced protests of this magnitude. He calls it the result of years of bad government — not least of all in response to the hurricanes of 2017 that left thousands dead and millions in the dark.
"I would say that we could use the word hurricane to refer not only to Hurricane Maria, who evidently devastated the island, but also other hurricanes like the fiscal management and control board, the corruption, the government's bankruptcy,” Reina said. "These were all hurricanes that tore the very fabric of Puerto Rico.”
This segment aired on July 24, 2019.