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Rejecting Politics of Fear, Marginalized Puerto Ricans Led the Uprising

Marginalized Puerto Ricans created a new visual language of protest to demand systemic change.

The De Puntas por Puerto Rico group poses in front of the Puerto Rico governor's mansion.

On July 17, 2019, a massive protest of approximately 100,000 people convened in San Juan’s historic center to call for the immediate resignation of Puerto Rican Gov. Ricardo Rosselló. A few days later, more than 500,000 people went on a national strike concentrated along one of the main highways of the San Juan metropolitan area.

Mainland and international media have covered the reasons behind this massive display of outrage and frustration against a governor that, through a Telegram chat leaked by the Centro de Periodismo Investigativo (the Center for Investigative Journalism in Puerto Rico), displayed misogynistic, homophobic, violent and classist attitudes.

But little has been said about the performative nature of the protests and the powerful images that were produced in the days leading to the resignation of the governor. One could argue that these visuals helped sustain the ever-growing indignation and the willingness for people to keep protesting and demanding radical change. The importance of these images lies in their capacity to embolden new transformative and political narratives.

The Power of the Image

Some of the images produced and shared from this uprising have been instrumental for sustaining the clamor needed for the governor to resign from office. If the performative can be related to bodily actions and artistic decisions that can communicate and instill change, then these protesters have created an entirely new field of visual language that mostly got its cues from certain marginalized sectors of Puerto Rican society.

What is special about a lot of the participants, and the images captured of them, is that they did not follow traditional heteronormative or alpha-heroic ideals. They included groups like La Colectiva Feminista en Construcción, which had been protesting against patriarchy and violence against women outside of the governor’s mansion in November 2018; and the LGBTQ+ community, which has been especially vocal.

These and other groups had been directly or indirectly alluded to in the Telegram chat. The day Rosselló finally decided to resign on July 24, a perreo combativo — the form of dance usually associated with reggaeton, turned into a new means to protest — had been convened in Old San Juan. Most of the images captured were of queer individuals or women who had decided to perform the provocative body movements in the front steps of the island’s main cathedral.

Yet another example of these untraditional heroes comes from what is now being called a “cavalry charge” of approximately 10,000 motorcycles led by a man called el Rey Charlie. This only adds to the unorthodox narrative being constructed during this uprising. The grand nature of these images, and the order in which things have unraveled, has made it feel like history is being written in present terms. Multiple memes have made fun of this dynamic, suggesting that future Puerto Rican history books will talk about el Rey Charlie and other participants as the heroes of this political revolution.

Still, the symbolic prowess of these images have been, at times, momentarily undermined when other visuals brought back memories of the fear inherited from a centuries-old colonial framework where nationalist, pro-independence or socialist movements were portrayed as dangerous (and later persecuted), and where communism during the Cold War period was said to be right around the corner. This fear is the reason why the recurring student protests of the last 50 years, associated with leftist and radical politics, do not sit well with large parts of the Puerto Rican population.

In the case of the current uprising, the removal from flag posts or burning of U.S. flags, episodes of protester violence and damage to private property are but a few examples of images that have always instilled mass fear. On the other hand, classist, patriarchal, misogynist and homophobic conduct, unfortunately common in Puerto Rico, are so intangible in nature that they did not, until now, tend to cause the same indignation.

The visuals that capture these violent verbal behaviors are now abundant. Screenshots or quotes from the governor’s Telegram chat utilized in memes or written in graffiti on the walls of buildings in Old San Juan have become the alternate images undermining the counter-narrative of fear. Moreover, diverse and queer participants’ performances and references to popular culture have created a new cathartic visual code. These new images have proved so powerful that they could not be as easily displaced.

The Performative Image

Several well-known artists and musicians joined in the calls for Rosselló’s resignation. A few notable examples have been renowned pop singers Ricky Martin, Ileana Cabra and her brother Residente, and Bad Bunny. What makes their involvement important is how, for example, the governor himself insulted Martin, a gay artist, in the Telegram chat. Bad Bunny is also key, since he has written lyrics that touch on inclusion and diversity, and has called out patriarchal or abusive behaviors in some of his music videos. He also coined, in a song released the day of the national strike, a term for the island’s youth: the yo no me dejo generation (the “I won’t let you” generation).

Finally, Residente, a well-known Puerto Rican rapper, called former Republican Gov. Luis Fortuño a “son of a bitch” during student led anti-austerity protests in 2010. Residente quickly faced indignation from certain groups for the language he used. Of course, in that case, the former governor, although not exempt from controversy and unethical behaviors, did not have an 889-page chat leaked in which he was discovered using derogatory language toward marginalized groups and political adversaries.

Still, “well-behaved” politicians like Fortuño who abide by certain accepted social norms have been able to get away with highly unscrupulous practices, even corruption. While Puerto Rico’s uprising has been largely driven by the leaked chat that unraveled an elite dynamic of hate and illicit behavior, we must go beyond this if a more radical transformation of the current political system is to take place.

For example, visuals of el Rey Charlie riding with his cavalry were so powerful that one could be forgiven for thinking that the revolution was going to take place by motorcycle. This speaks to two things about the recent uprising: First, symbolically, it speaks to the speed of it. People felt change happening by the minute, almost instantaneously, and that only drove a desire for more revolutionary politics. Second, it speaks to the popular nature of the uprising and the epic narrative that has accompanied it. Large conglomerations of racecars and motorcycles are usually associated with marginalized sectors of Puerto Rico. To see el Rey Charlie as a heroic figure is truly unorthodox but very promising. More figures like him will be what’s needed for a truly inclusive social and political transformation.

Further, el Rey Charlie is and acts as a performance artist. On multiple occasions, he had the power to gather thousands of motorcyclists via social media to join the protests late at night, when people were tired or disillusioned by the police’s violent attacks. He energized them and the viewers watching at home.

On July 17, during the same time that the protests were occurring in front of the governor’s mansion, and almost until dawn, el Rey Charlie’s motorcycle caravan drove by multiple public housing projects in the metropolitan area. This motorized cavalry, and the performative image that was produced by it, had started out that evening in Cantera, another marginalized sector of San Juan.

This proved to be a very potent symbol, since previous images of political activists have generally been associated with educated elites or university students. More importantly, the fact that this caravan was recognizing the often-forgotten populations of public housing in Puerto Rico can be seen as redemptive.

Rosselló’s father, former Gov. Pedro Rosselló, who governed the island throughout most of the 1990s, had put in practice the Mano Dura Contra el Crimen program (Operation Centurion). This highly problematic policy saw the National Guard occupy a large number of public housing projects, and later fence-off these populations by installing gates and fences around them. To think that these populations are now the primary actors in their own stories and images is of momentous significance.

Lastly, how these visuals have been captured has proved just as significant. Aerials captured by helicopters have shown streams of headlights appearing like a comet speeding through the streets of San Juan. On the ground and televised by a popular local television channel, reporter Kefren Velázquez rode on the back of a motorcycle with a microphone and a cameraperson, interviewing some of the participants and narrating the events as they transpired.

This goes to show how traditional forms of media have had to improvise and creatively adjust to the new dynamics of this performative image. More importantly, it produced an incredible visual that got viewers closer to the caravan riders, giving them a sense of humanity and a face showing the same disgust and outrage toward the governor. Disparate groups have come together for the same cause.

The Multiplied Image

The island’s new revolutionary image has also been emboldened by social media. Similar to other recent uprisings around the world, protests have co-opted online platforms in order to deliver instantaneous broadcasts of what is happening on the ground. For example, Facebook Live has provided multiple angles and feeds from users during the uprising, countering more normative narratives questioning the behavior or claims of protesters.

During the late hours, violent clashes have occurred between police and protesters, and the heavy-handedness of the police has been captured by these live feeds. This has effectively countered the narrative used in the past in which protesters have been seen as the sole instigators. Now, in a perverse and reversed Carpeteo (what the files kept on political radicals during the last century were popularly called), the images that were being instantaneously created produced a digital record of police violence while simultaneously scouting for police infiltrators.

This image also requires a new type of journalistic figure. Mariana Nogales Molinelli and Alvin R. Cuoto de Jesús of Brigada Legal Solidaria are great examples of this. Lawyers, photographers and activists, they had the capacity to capture images while narrating, and at the same time, call out injustices to the rights of the protesters live when they occurred. This new multidisciplinary figure is required for the utilization and deployment of the island’s new image and its role in revolutionary politics.

“We Are More, and We Have No Fear”

During most of the protests, the most overheard chant was “Somos más, y no tenemos miedo” (“We are more, and we have no fear”): a resounding statement that is also a product of the adversity Puerto Ricans faced in the aftermath of Hurricane María that required immense resiliency from large parts of the island’s population.

Unfortunately, and precisely because of the need to prioritize basic needs and human survival, this also produced a sense of apathy toward politicians’ behavior. But with the recent leak, that sentiment has now been transformed into forceful resistance and fearlessness that has proved effective against any practice of “politics as usual.” To make fun of the 4,645 dead in María’s wake, and with recent allegations of mismanagement of the funds raised by the charity Unidos por Puerto Rico, a political uprising was the only sensible path forward.

Historically, meta-narratives and images of fear have helped sustain the island’s colonial condition — fear that was instigated by the federal and local governing bodies toward pro-independence and socialist movements of the 20th century, fear of communism during the Cold War, and fear and doubt toward free determination and self-governance. This was all done in order for the governing elite to remain in power — until now.

Protests on the island continue. Most recently, even an impromptu stand-up comedy show was performed in front of the governor’s mansion. Undoubtedly, the creative nature of the uprising continues, but the clamor is now shifting toward a call for more radical transformation of the political, economic and socio-cultural framework that operates in Puerto Rico. This will be a long and uphill battle. More performative actions and images are sure to be deployed, quelling any leftover fear of the past.

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