How Misogyny and #TelegramGate Led to the Protests in Puerto Rico

Calls for the governor to resign point to a larger crisis of corruption

Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty

TThousands of protestors have taken to the streets of Puerto Rico for the past week in what has been an unprecedented act of mobilization. These mass demonstrations in the archipelago and the global diaspora are calling for the governor of Puerto Rico, Ricardo Rosselló, to resign, spurred by a number of recent events.

The protests are embedded within a larger fight against a crisis of corruption that has enveloped the archipelago. Former Education Secretary Julia Keleher and former Health Insurance Administration executive director Angela Avila-Marrero were among those arrested and charged with multiple counts of conspiracy to commit fraud, electronic fraud, money laundering, and conspiracy to launder money.

On July 10, excerpts leaked of a telegram chat, of which the Governor of Puerto Rico was a member. In the transcript that took place in late 2018 to early 2019, members of Rosselló’s cabinet, aides, and advisors exchanged sexist comments about women politicians, including calling former New York City Council member, Melissa Mark-Viverito, a “puta” (whore) and suggesting she be physically attacked.

The chat demonstrated a consistent pattern of sexism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, fat shaming, and anti-Black racism against the people of Puerto Rico.

Four days later, 889 pages of the chat were released by the Center for Investigative Journalism in Puerto Rico, where the public laid eyes on privileged discussions regarding public policy aired out in the chat, potentially incurring in criminal behavior. Among the 12 chat members were lobbyist Elías Fernando Sánchez; now former Secretary of State Luis Rivera Marin, who resigned amid what is referred to as #Telegramgate; and Christian Sobrino, who also resigned from his positions as Puerto Rico’s CFO, Governor representative in the Fiscal Control Board, and his four other advisory and executive positions in the government.

The messages also used memes and pictures to deride politicians and other public figures. A picture of an opposition senator, one chat member said “20 years ago, and 7 men less.” A male journalist was referred to as a “cocksucker,” while the image of a man called a “jíbaro,” or peasant, by chat members was substituted by a person wearing a “Mama Inés” costume, considered a mammy figure in Puerto Rican culture. In a picture of Rosselló talking with one of his followers, he comments that his looking thin is an optical illusion, fat shaming the person in the photo. One chat member used the word “Lady” in quotation marks when referencing a well-known lawyer who identifies as a lesbian.

TThe chat pulled back the veil of the governor and his administration’s private perception of many of their constituents. It demonstrated a consistent pattern of sexism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, fat shaming, and anti-Black racism against the people of Puerto Rico. Members of the chat showed their contempt and disregard for the poor and those that died in Hurricane Maria’s wake, especially in the midst of heightened austerity measures due to the archipelago’s fiscal collapse. Puerto Rico has accrued an estimated debt of $124 billion, now managed by a federally imposed Fiscal Control Board, mandated by the U.S. Congress.

These messages also signaled the systemic racism, classism, homophobia, and misogyny that are absent from the Puerto Rican mainstream discussion but ever-present in the social fabric. These forms of institutionalized oppression go hand in hand with Puerto Rico’s colonial status as politically dispossessed and its people second class U.S. citizens who cannot vote in the presidential election. Current austerity measures imposed by the Fiscal Control Board have resulted in budget cuts in education, health, and services such as electricity. These cuts have affected the most marginalized in Puerto Rico: Black, female, trans, and poor populations.

The most marginalized are resisting and creating spaces for another kind of Puerto Rico. Many have been resisting for years, but many more have joined the struggle.

Puerto Rico’s colonial status, first under Spanish Rule in 1493, then under the U.S. occupation since 1898, has placed Puerto Rico in an economic, social, and political subordination that permeates all institutions at a systemic level. Case in point is the way Puerto Rico has used policing and the militarization of police to quell any political dissent, particularly from the pro-independence movement and university students that have a long-established track record of resistance to neoliberal policies such as tuition hikes, through the striking mechanism. In Loíza, a town with a majority Black Puerto Rican population that were descendants of enslaved Africans, police repression was particularly acute. State repression through policing and public policies predates Ricardo Rosselló’s administration including, unsurprisingly, during the tenure of former governor Pedro Rosselló (Ricardo’s father). Pedro Rosselló’s administration was also tainted with corrupt officials, including then Secretary of Education, Victor Fajardo. Fajardo served a 14 year federal and state prison sentence for corruption.

Feminist activist groups, such as La Colectiva Feminista en Construcción, have been calling attention to the ways in which colonialism, the debt, and austerity are intersectional issues, with women and femmes affected the most. Poverty and gender violence are mutually worsened by the lack of access to education with a gender perspective and services and resources that support both the perpetrators and survivors of violence. In 2018 alone, there were 31 femicides, at least 23 of these by their partners or ex-partners, and in 2019 to date, seven women have been killed, victims of intimate partner violence. Among the victims was a 13-year-old girl. A Yauco woman died at the hands of her partner, who took his own life immediately after. Just the other day, a mother and her pregnant daughter were killed in the town of San Germán. It is suspected that the murder was motivated by intimate partner violence. None of the victims came from affluent backgrounds.

OnOn July 17, an estimated 100,000 to 300,000 protestors filled the streets of Old San Juan, a fortressed city dating back to Spanish colonial rule. Chants of “We are more, and we’re not scared” could be heard from the protestors. The police department of Puerto Rico is currently under reform by the U.S. Department of Justice because of its past history of police brutality. During the past week, a riot squad has thrown tear gas and pepper spray at the protestors and press, unprovoked. Yet this week marks a tipping point in Puerto Rico because people know they have nothing to lose, because the government has cut their pensions, closed more than 400 schools with plans to privatize through charter schools, and taken away labor rights of workers, among other injuries. Motorcycle enthusiast Rey Charlie led a 3,000-motorcycle procession of mostly Black and working class Puerto Ricans towards the protest, stopping in public housing projects to rally and pick up supporters.

These protests were unprecedented, not only because of their size, but those who came out to demand the resignation of Rosselló came from a plurality of identities — young, old, cis, trans, queer, femme — a struggle at the intersections of everyone the governor and his squad condescended. The most marginalized are resisting and creating spaces for another kind of Puerto Rico. Many have been resisting for years, but many more have joined the struggle. These protests embody a new wave of anti-colonial activism and liberatory possibilities in Puerto Rico.

The Puerto Rican Revolutionary anthem begins with “Despierta borinqueño, que han dado la señal” (Wake up, borinqueño, the signal has been given). If nothing else, we have all awakened from our colonial slumber and have shown what we can do once the signal has been given. And we are just getting started.

Social Justice Education Ph.D. candidate studying radical pedagogies and social movements in Puerto Rico, the Caribbean, and Latin America. She/her/ella.