The sidewalks in Old San Juan are just big enough for two people to walk side by side.
The pale pink, yellow and blue apartment buildings that line the cobblestone streets are decorated with wrought-iron balconies and tropical flowered window boxes. Native birds hop from lamppost to lamppost.
But, further down the street, the picturesque setting begins to fade, and reminders of the extraordinary protests that made headlines around the world this month become apparent.
Windows are covered over with plywood, obscenities are spray painted along the walls, and the face of former Gov. Ricardo Rosselló, who resigned July 24, is plastered at every turn.
The protests, among the largest ever seen on this island, erupted after a series of disrespectful, homophobic and misogynists comments shared by the governor with his inner circle were published by Puerto Rico’s nonprofit Centro de Periodismo Investigativo (Center for Investigative Journalism) earlier in July.
The release catalyzed the simmering resentment among Puerto Ricans over their government’s endemic corruption, and its continuing failure to address the needs of victims of Hurricane Maria, which devastated the island in September, 2017. The hurricane victims were among the targets of the sneering comments in the 900 pages of texts made public.
It was a social media-fueled campaign, much like the similar mass protests that fueled—and continue to fuel—the giant street demonstrations in Hong Kong in protest over alleged moves by the local government to give mainland China greater control. But unlike Hong Kong, there have been few reported incidents of police or protester violence.
Social media provided much of the impetus for Puerto Rico’s demonstrations. One of the most popular phrases, repeated in graffiti across San Juan, the capital, was the trending colloquial hashtag, “#RickyRenunica!” —a call for the Governor’s resignation.
For many Puerto Ricans, Rosselló’s image has become a symbol of everything they feel is wrong with their current government, led by the New Progressive Party (PNP).
On Wednesday night into Thursday morning, a prerecorded video of Rosselló announcing his resignation was released, and the protests quickly transformed into celebrations.
Around midday last Thursday, Puerto Rican police could still be found on almost every street corner. They wore bulletproof vests and carried stun-guns on their belts.
But according to most reports, no excessive force was used on that day against the demonstrators—who soon became celebrants with news of the governor’s resignation.
You could hear the honking and cheering before even making it close to the official concrete barricade, a block away from the blue and white colonial facade of the governor’s mansion.
At some point during the past two weeks of protests, Cristo’s street sign was covered, and it now read, “Calle del Corrupto,” meaning Street of the Corrupt. Further down, Fortaleza’s sign now read, “Calle de la Resistencia” which translates to Street of the Resistance.
People overflowed the sidewalks and excitedly waved Puerto Rico’s flag. Drivers slowed down as they turned the corner to allow the car’s passengers to take photos and many others stood by the concrete barricade, waiting to have their picture taken. Children of all ages were celebrating with their families, even toddlers in strollers clapped with flags in hand.
The sounds of the car horns and whistles were deafening, yet the high energy was infectious.
As a small rain shower blew through, some sought the cover of local bars, but many stayed to celebrate.
In the heat of the early evening, the crowd at the intersection continued to grow rapidly. Cars were no longer allowed through the neighboring streets, so the only way through was on foot.
Homemade signs and t-shirts offered the best barometer of the island’s new political climate.
One woman’s shirt read, “Vengo de una raza brava!” (I come from a brave race!) while her young son next to her donned a Guy Fawkes mask, commonly worn by members of the Anonymous protest movement.
A small group of men and women dressed in almost all black quickly became the center of attention as they got the crowd to clap and chant to the people’s unofficial anthem, shouting, “Yo Soy Boricua, Pa’que tu lo sepas!” (I am Puerto Rican, so that you know!)
As the crowd got fired up, Gay Pride flags and Puerto Rican flags printed in black and white to symbolize mourning and resistance, were waved.
Then, the final chant that would ring through the streets of Old San Juan throughout the rest of the night was sung, to the rhythmic beat of people beating on cooking pots—a form of protest that first emerged in similar popular protests elsewhere in Latin America.
The chants first called for Rosselló’s resignation, but they changed their target as soon as the governor announced he had stepped down.
“Dónde está Wanda? Wanda no está aqui; Wanda está vendiendo lo que queda del país!” (Where is Wanda? Wanda is not here. Wanda is selling what is left of the country!”)
That referred to the state’s Attorney General, Wanda Vásquez, who was next in the line of succession to take over from the governor (after the Secretary of State Luis G. Ribera Marin, one of the participants in the scandalous group chat, resigned July 13).
Vásquez decided she didn’t want the job. It’s not hard to figure out why. Vasquez was already a target of the protesters, for failing to investigate hurricane relief funds that allegedly had gone missing.
Residents had already taken to Twitter to circulate their new hashtag, #WandaRenuncia, citing her failure to address gender violence issues and ethical complaints filed against her by the Office of the Independent Special Prosecutor.
A side street’s wall read, “Wanda, no calientes la silla,” (Wanda, don’t warm the seat [of power].)”
Above that, an ominous message to Thomas Rivera Schatz, the acting Chair of the New Progressive Party of Puerto Rico said, “Schatz, ahora vamos por ti.” (Schatz, now we go for you.)
While it may seem like the protesters are getting what they originally asked for, many believe the fight is still far from over. It is still unclear who will step into power after August 2 when Rosselló leaves.
Moreover, many believe real change won’t occur until the current New Progressive Party is out of power completely.
Andrea Cipriano is a TCR news intern. She spent the week of July 21-28 in San Juan, PR.
See a Gallery of More Photos Here by Andrea Cipriano