Some might say I walked a 5k yesterday. And I did, maybe it was even more than 5K, but I purposely didn’t wear my Garmin because it was not about the exercise.
What really happened was that I joined over 500,000 Puerto Ricans (roughly 15% of the entire population of the island) in a massive protest to oust governor Ricky Roselló following the arrest of multiple high-ranking officials of his administration by the FBI on corruption charges and the leak of a ‘private’ chat in which him and 12 other males -cabinet members and lobbyists- revealed everything from homophobic/misogynist jokes to schemes to profit privately from public funds and hurricane aid.
Let me confess something: I had never publicly protested anything in my life before this week. And I bet that at least 400,000 of the other march attendees were in the same situation.
And no, posting in social media – something I often do to help raise awareness – does not really count as protesting in my opinion.
Ironically, this massive demonstration originated organically in social media. Exclusively in social media. There was no one in charge of organizing it or setting up infrastructure to support it. It was simply an almost anonymous call to show up at a certain place and time.
The loosely delineated plan was to take over San Juan’s main highway and march between theramps of the 2 major intersecting avenues. This route was not coordinated with police, permits were not issued or even requested, port-a-potties were not setup along the way, water stations would not be provided in the 102F heat.
There would be no public/mass transportation and overflow parking lots would not beopen. The shopping malls around the convocationpoint stated that they would close their doors during the march, taking awayprecious parking space and desperately needed services.
Everyone would be on their own.
I flipped-flopped on whether I would attend or not. But when Ricky announced Sunday evening that he was resigning from his post as party president and giving up on his bid for re-election in 2020 while intending to serve his full term as governor, my blood boiled over. (I mean, really? WTF. The entire island protests and he limits damage control to the PARTY!?!?!?).
That’s how I came to be tying my ‘good’ running shoes, shouldering my loaded backpack and applying copious amounts of sunscreen at 5:00am on a Monday morning in which the island came into a standstill. The hours that followed were some of the most transformative of my life.
Close to 9:00am a CNN reporter approached me and requested a few words. She asked why I was there, and I responded. Then she asked why I was personally motivated to attend, what this protest meant to me. I stammered; this was not something I had given much thought to.
People started showing up in masse and I passed the time reading the very creative and witty signs they carried. For each thousand posters referring to corruption and the imposition of the Fiscal Oversight Board there were a hundred others depicting injustice experienced in the aftermath of Hurricane María.
I looked around me as we began to march in the scorching heat: parents with kids, older couples, multigenerational families, young adults, and teenagers. There were big groups, small groups, and even a few solo protesters like me. I looked closer and I saw a cross section ofour society: poor, middle class, and the very well-heeled people all meshed together.
This was no one’s demonstration, it was everyone’s. No one was on their own. Wewere all in this together.
And then it dawned on me. This was not just a protest. At least not only a protest. For many of us walking shoulder to shoulder in the sweltering heat, this was a funeral procession.
Although this protest marked indeed the death of Ricky Roselló’s political career (and hopefullythose of his cohorts as well) and signaled the demise of countless schemes of unabashed corruption, the true significance of this march went deeper than that. Much deeper.
Over the 19months since the hurricane struck, we had been so busy trying to rebuild our lives from the few remains left, that we had not had a chance to look around and see the state of our country.All our collective energy had gone into surviving. We were spent from fighting FEMA for meager compensation or private insurance companies which refused to pay for damage or loss of income. People everywhere were exhausted from trying to salvage dying business, stores or restaurants. Families tried to recover from the heartbreak of having their loved ones forced to leave the island, or worse yet, still trying to get their bodies back from the overfilled morgues so that they could be laid to rest.
Until a few months ago were still in the first stage of grief: denial. Then came the arrests and the 899 pages of callousness were leaked to the public.
PuertoRicans have a long and undeniable history of looking the other way when confronted with corruption. We tend to mind our business and not mess with other’s windfalls; just in case some goodies fall our way.
For decades we have meekly allowed these vultures to feed their insatiable hunger for money while the people settle for meager crumbs. I believe that we were getting ready to fight that and that this ‘revolution’ would have happened anyway. But not quite just yet.
With the release of the chat content, insult was added to injury. We read how these bastards-in-charge had joked around while our people died. They connived to profit. They withheld aid on purpose until it could be turned into a photo op or someone in their gang could get a few extra bucks out of it. They are undeniably guilty of intentional wrongdoing.
What we read tore open the wounds in our hearts but also injected steel into our spines. We moved on to the second stage of grief: anger.
We heard the call to war and raised our voicesin readiness. But before we could start, we had to first lay our dead to rest.
And this protest was exactly that: the collective funeral we never held for everything lost during -and after- the storm.
I honestly (and perhaps naively) don’t blame Ricky and his government for the deaths of those that perished during the onslaught of Hurricane María or maybe even in the first 48 hours. It was a disaster without precedence.
But I do hold him and his circle of vultures personally responsible for each life unnecessarily lost in the weeks and months that followed. These scumbags need to be held accountable for the people that died dehydrating in the heat, the ones who could not access dialysis facilities, the ones who could not get life-depending medication for weeks, the ones sickened by drinking tainted river water in desperation, the ones ransacked by infections contracted in unsanitary hospitals left for days without power.
So now, after much thought, here is what should have been my answer to the reporter: ‘I march because I can; because I am able to. I march because I demand integrity from myself and from those who lead our country. I march for the hundreds that died during the hurricane and who cannot raise their voice in protest any longer. I march for the thousands indirectly murdered in the aftermath -but murdered nonetheless- that cannot speak their truth from the grave. I march because I am now awakened and will not stand idly by when confronted with injustice and corruption. I march because today is the day when we finally retake our country.’
I don’t know where this transformational process will collectively lead us or how it will end. The next stage of grief is bargaining. I’m sure that there will inevitably be some of that before we can get out of this governmental crisis. But now that we have found our moral compass and political will, Puerto Ricans will not meekly accept just what we are given.
I, for one, demand integrity.
Spiritual Athlete Stella @ The Spiritual Gym / Stella’s Spoon