14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Generation Y, San Juan, Puerto Rico, 27 July 2019 — “He had to go and he left.” With these words the taxi driver welcomes me. No name or details are necessary, because in the streets of Puerto Rico everyone knows who he’s talking about. While driving through San Juan, the driver tells me how “people tossed out” Governor Ricardo Rosselló after days of protests, in which outrage and reggaeton shook hands.
At a traffic light, the driver, in his 50s, hits the steering wheel with gnarled hands as if it were Ricky’s face. “He didn’t want to leave, but he had to step down,” he insists. Along with his two children, the driver spent every night of last week around La Fortaleza, the official residence of the Puerto Rican governor. “I carried a flag, but in black and white, without colors, because here we are still in mourning,” he says.
While he tells me the details of the nights of protest, we pass through several blocks where balcony after balcony and door after door display the flag with the blue triangle and red stripes one after another. A banner so similar to the Cuban flag that in my fantasies of the recently arrived, I imagine being in Havana the day after a change of government.
This confusion of realities haunts me as the car heads towards old San Juan. So when the driver says “people joined together and it didn’t matter if you were an artist or a mechanic, rich or poor, everyone was together,” I fantasize about some workers who drop their picks and shovels on the railroad line to shout in chorus with novelists and troubadours in front of Havana’s Plaza of the Revolution.
The image lasts in my head for a second before I return to Puerto Rico.
Hurricane Maria is an open wound that crosses the Island. “My brother lost everything and had to move from the town where he lived, spent a year and a half without electricity,” says the taxi driver. Interposing some words in English: baby, expensive, dealer, food… a linguistic mix that I hear everywhere in this free state associated with the United States.
Evening falls, headlines around the world point to this place where in the plazas twerking people celebrate the first day without Ricky, the beginning of a new stage, filled with questions. In one of those places, where popular joy, alcohol and hip movements mix, is Alder, a musician who plays the piano and the clarinet. He also dances, but with some care.
“I had sciatica problems last year and I don’t want to be in a wheelchair again but I couldn’t miss this,” he tells me as he glugs down a bottle of a craft beer made by friends. “These are not gone, they remained after the crisis and the hurricane, they are still here,” he says, pointing to the label “one hundred percent Puerto Rican.” Every time he tries to twerk he puts a hand on his waist, “to not do it too hard,” he says.
Beside him, a family has come with two darling and barking mutts, collected from the shelters where they left them when they fled from the hurricane to their families in the United States, who took them in that fateful September 2017. The winds and rains took then more than 4,600 lives, according to a study by Harvard University.
“It was hard because we had to go back to our origins, learn to do things that we hadn’t done for years,” says Nata, a Puerto Rican who has come out to celebrate with her two rescued pets. “There were people here who didn’t know how to live without air conditioning, without their cell phones or without electricity and ‘Maria’ forced us to learn from scratch,” she recalls.
“After that, the telephones did not work so people were in the street. In the villages they had to improvise common pots to feed themselves and the citizenry had to organize themselves to deal with the disaster,” she says. “This all started with ‘Maria’. Without what happened to us two years ago people would not have ended up mobilizing as they have done now, they would not have ended up uniting.”
The tipping point was the recent leak of a chat of almost 900 pages in which Rosselló shared with his close collaborators, his “brothers”, as he called them, hundreds, thousands, of opinions, comments and public policy issues. Sexual jokes and misogynistic jokes also dot the extensive exchange in the Telegram app that ended up sinking his Government.
But the rejection was incubated long before. “This is a rich boy, he doesn’t know what’s going on down here,” says a very thin man on the outskirts of a club that has been closed for more than a year. “He is the son of former Governor Pedro Rosselló González, so he has always had a good life without difficulties,” he explains and heads to a place where, on a rickety sofa, several drug addicts have a peaceful space to inject.
The musicians have been protagonists of the social movement that brought down Rosselló. The voices of Bad Bunny, Residente and Ricky Martin act as a soundtrack to social dissatisfaction and, at the bus stops, young people with wireless speakers blast their rhymes. You can go from one side of the city to the other completing the songs with the snippets that emerge from cars, windows and the voices of Puerto Ricans themselves.
Several phrases call for independence, for taking advantage of the situation to “go beyond and end the colony,” as a young man demands outside a small house near La Puerta de Alto del Cabro bar, a traditional site that has managed to survive despite the onslaught of the big chains. But it is the rejection of Rosselló, the villain of the day, which everyone seems to share.
Alder waited all Wednesday afternoon for Ricky to leave. In the musical studio where he recorded some songs, they stuffed themselves with popcorn, drinks and patience to celebrate the governor’s departure. After seven o’clock in the evening their supplies had run out and “the bastard still did not resign,” he recalls. It was like watching the end of a movie that goes on and on without the credits appearing.
An hour later, they decided to go to the outskirts of La Fortaleza. “It may take time but tonight he’s going, no matter what,” said Adler. In the early morning, he ended up on the bench of a drunk and happy park as if he had been part of the “liberating command” that removed the governor from his post. There was no one on the street who did not feel part of that group as well. They did not need balaclavas or machine guns, they did it with shouts.
Exhaustion and so many impressions mix up everything in my head. I grew up hearing about the two wings, that it is only together that the islands can take flight. Dawn arrives, and on the other “half of the bird” just a few hours remain before Cuba’s official 26th of July event.
Here, Puerto Ricans exercise their civic force against power, and there, Cubans attend the liturgy of immobility, the worn out ceremony of “continuity,” the motto most repeated by Cuban president Miguel Díaz-Canel to prolong what has already lasted too long. Here they talk and unite, there we shut up and fear. On the same morning, San Juan is a party and Havana a tomb.
Harry drives an Uber for ten hours a day, his real estate business was ruined by the hurricane. Every person I meet has a before and after ‘Maria’. Just mentioning that name makes people emotional, exploding in an avalanche of anecdotes. “I should have left, because a brother of mine who lives in New York was going to help me get settled there, but I didn’t want to leave my parents alone,” he says.
Skeptical about Roselló’s departure, Harry is one of the few who has not gone to demonstrate or celebrate after the governor’s resignation. “It doesn’t matter, a corrupt one leaves and another arrives,” he says. “Whoever comes will also steal,” he says categorically as we head for Ocean Park in Santurce. A black cloth whips loudly back and forth on a flagpole. “Ricky resign,” it says in huge white letters.
The vehicle turns the corner, passes a Walgreens pharmacy, a McDonald’s and a KFC. Throughout the neighborhood, local businesses try to maintain themselves in the presence of large firms that “sell cheaper and cheaper,” Harry tells me. “Young people prefer to eat a hamburger over a fricasé,” he laments.
Harry has been very worried since Wednesday, when Rosselló announced that he was leaving. “I live from tourism and the people who come here to do business. If they see us as an unstable or unsafe country, they won’t come,” he calculates. He proposes a trip to and from the beach for a good price, but then immediately realizes that I come from an Island; “ah … true you also have enough sun over there,” he says.
I arrive at Río Piedras, where time seems to have stopped. The once populous boulevard is now a street with few businesses and abandoned buildings. A store displays its Made in China merchandise on the sidewalk. Walking, I come across a cart that sells honey, lemon and ginger. I need them because my throat is sore from the Havana rain and the Puerto Rican revelry. I take advantage of the shade and approach the merchant.
“This was full of life before,” he says. Several cats come out of the abandoned house behind me. One, black as night, rubs against my legs to get me to give him something to eat. I cross the street and buy a corn fritter from a woman who has her little post at the entrance to a cafeteria. A recorded voice constantly repeats the list of sales “today only.”
In Río Piedras, near the University of Puerto Rico, people got tired of waiting. A coffee seller evokes the 1996 gas explosion in the Humberto Vidal store that left 33 dead and an indelible mark in the memory of the community. “Afterwards everything went from bad to worse,” he tells me and gives me a cup with a strong and bitter liquid that makes my eyes cross. “We didn’t have to fire a shot and Ricky left,” he boasts.
If it weren’t for a few details of the accent and because the coffee has no hint of roasted peas, I would think I was conversing with any Cuban in a town in the interior of the country. He smooths his hair with hand, raises his index finger and predicts that “already Puerto Ricans are not the same as before, now we know we are strong, that we must respect ourselves.”
Across the street, a Colombian underwear store exhibits bras with lace. “So Cuban,” says the man. I make a move to leave because I suspect that he will repeat stereotypes about my island, the other wing, a wing with its own wounds. I sense that he will recite to me “the conquests of the Revolution,” but I am wrong. “You don’t have this,” he emphasizes with a hint of superiority. “At least we have started along the road.”
I turn to give the cat something to eat but it is gone. The building where it came from smells of abandonment, of that humidity that is encrusted in the walls when people stop inhabiting a place. A nearby graffiti demands that Ricky step down and in the corner a tattered flag beats against a balcony. I squint my eyes and my tiredness or the heat make me see blue stripes instead of red stripes next to a triangle, blood red.