Reimagining Freedom In Puerto Rico

Meet four Puerto Rican organizers working to build a new future for the island amidst political and economic anguish.

Photographer Arianna Cuesta
July 07, 2017
Reimagining Freedom In Puerto Rico Left to right: Luz, Mari, Itzaira, and Jocelyn  


San Juan in June seems hotter than a typical Caribbean summer. For months, schools, businesses, and houses in the Puerto Rican capital have rumbled with political frustration, but now, amid the heatwave, people have taken to the streets. Several times a week, they gather to protest, surrounded by clues to the cause of their unrest: graffiti with phrases like “ENOUGH, 1493-2017” and “fire to the imperial oppressor,” wheatpaste posters denouncing sexual molesters in politics, and vandalized pro-statehood propaganda. These messages stain walls across the city, symbols of rage as well as governmental negligence. In the metro areas, people who grew up comfortably now face hunger, homelessness, and dramatic changes to healthcare and education. In more rural areas, whole spans of highway and towns have seen local businesses shut up shop en masse in the past year; only chains of Walmarts and luxury hotels are left standing.

Although always in flux, Puerto Rico’s economy drastically changed in July 2016, when then-President Obama imposed an economic oversight board — locally known as the Junta del Control Fiscal — on the island to restructure its $123 billion unaudited debt. In the year since the oversight board was introduced, everyday life in Puerto Rico has been turned upside down. People have experienced cuts to pensions, the lowering of the minimum wage, a drastic rise in electricity and water costs, the closing of public schools, and the privatization of public services and land — all while 46% of the population lives below the U.S. poverty line. On a day-to-day level, people from all political parties are distraught at their government while economists predict intense long-term repercussions, including the vanishing of the middle class.

Like the water protectors at Standing Rock, these conditions have given Puerto Ricans no other option than to organize in opposition to a colonially appointed government. University of Puerto Rico students have been amongst the groups to respond the most actively to the Junta, as they could potentially face devastating cuts to their public education budget. In March, they voted to strike and, for two months, focused their efforts on creating an organizing space within a university garden, where many lived, worked, grew food, and fostered alternative learning environments alongside professors. During this time, students, along with many other protesters across Puerto Rico, faced intensifying state surveillance and police brutality.


While things have reached a fever pitch this past month, organizers will tell you Puerto Rico’s anguish is ongoing and recycled. Its dire situation is a consequence of the unique position of the island. Originally colonized by Spain with the arrival of Christopher Columbus in 1493, the island was conquered and re-colonized by the United States in 1898. In 1917, President Wilson gave Puerto Ricans U.S. citizenship and one month later, Puerto Rican men were amongst the first people to be drafted to World War I. In May, The Intercept reported that Puerto Rico is struggling through a decade-old recession — the fallout from cycles of extractive phases: sugar cultivation, a tax haven for manufacturing and pharmaceutical companies, and land for the U.S. military.

To find out more about Puerto Rico’s resistant movements, The FADER spoke to four women who are active in various aspects of the everyday struggle against the colonial oversight board. They talked about what they’re doing to reimagine their country and why.


Spokesperson for the activist group JORNADA: SE ACABARON LAS PROMESAS

Reimagining Freedom In Puerto Rico

Puerto Rico has an expansive history of resistance and fighting movements, but they were completely destroyed by the state, so the resistance movements of this country stayed for years within niches — particularly unions and students. They tried to play within the rules of the state. If there was going to be a march, they’d ask for permission; they coordinated everything with the police. The past 40 years that’s been the norm with the country’s resistance, but when PROMESA [the U.S.-imposed Puerto Rico Oversight Management, and Economic Stability Act] started with these conservative actions, we declared that negotiation with the state isn’t enough. We have a government that doesn’t listen and the only way to generate this type of expression is in the streets.

LA JORNADA distinguishes itself with militant activities — that means road blocks, building blocks, and interruptions in events that have to do with La Junta or the government. [That] sometimes implicates a level of firmness, but the primary violence comes from the state who’s pushing us to the streets. The question we should be asking is what is happening when a person is ready to go to jail? What’s happening that they’re ready to surrender their freedom and security? The answer is easy— the state isn’t giving another way out. There isn’t work, they’ve taken away benefits, and wages are reduced. We have a state that doesn’t listen. When we offer a critique the state’s response is that we don’t have the right to complain. And the government is afraid because economic situation is going to get worst in the next few months.

“The question we should be asking is what is happening when a person is ready to go to jail? The answer is easy— the state isn’t giving another way out.” —Jocelyn


Although we are living in a country with a deep crisis, it is also developing a new movement. We have had the opportunity to see this movement all across the island, from agriculturalists and small businesses that are proposing a new economy and a new country outside of the colony. “Independence” has to be rooted in those projects. If we want to grow a successful movement, we need to create a huge front and have a new economic proposal to effectively respond to the Junta and reclaim our independence. If you go to Peñuelas, you see peers fighting against the deposit of toxic ashes [in a local landfill]. In Playuelas they’re fighting against the construction of new hotels. We have collaborators from the Colectiva Feminista en Construcción, Movimiento Niñ Negrón, and the student movement. We are trying to connect the fights, give them unity and coherence to be able construct a national movement that proposes something new within a framework of independence.

This is part of the process of interconnection. When JORNADA talks about independence, it’s not only a political independence. It is also a social and cultural independence. We can’t get free if we maintain the same level of consumption that we have right now. We can’t advocate for independence to continue the same inequality where there are very rich, powerful people and disadvantaged people. We need to advocate for an independence that allows us to create another economic model — not capitalist — because this is destroying our economy, our planet and the people.


Photojournalist at Claridad newspaper

Reimagining Freedom In Puerto Rico

Puerto Rico has a lot of setbacks when it comes to communication. You see people with iPhones, computers, and internet connection here in the metro area but when you go to the rest of the island — small towns to the south and the west — you see people who don’t have access to the same media as we do. They get educated with traditional modes of communication — TV, radio, and newspaper — and here the larger media outlets have always had an obvious bias, favoring the political party in power.

What I want with my work is for people to see reality with their own eyes. Even Puerto Ricans don’t always understand the reality of what’s happening here. For example [on May 1], there was a national protest — a national strike full of people. There were so many people, you couldn’t walk. The police presence was on another level and yet, regardless of all of that, the media made it seem like it was a failure. Yesterday during the plebiscite [a government poll asking citizens if they want the island to become a state, be independent, or stay in the same “common wealth” position], many of the news outlets said that statehood won by 97%. They all reported it like that, yet none of them said that from the 100% of registered voters, only 22% went to vote.

“We’re going through something real. We’re in a dictatorship. People are hurt, and every time there’s an action in the street I see more people, and more new faces.” —Mari


We’re going through something real. We’re in a dictatorship. People are hurt, and every time there’s an action in the street I see more people, and more new faces. That motivates me because I see people and I see this desire, like, You’re not going to fuck with me, you’re not going to fuck with my island. The first of May I had never seen so many people on the street.

I don’t want the social movements in Puerto Rico to be defined by people from the Independentista party [left-leaning party advocating for the independence of Puerto Rico]. I don’t think that any of these parties today in 2017 work. I think that to have a free Puerto Rico, before focusing on the literal status — independence, statehood, etc. — you need to focus on educating the people so that we understand what it means to be free. Puerto Rico is a country that isn’t ready to confront misogyny, racism, and classism. It doesn’t matter what happens on the governmental or sociopolitical level until you start with the mentality of the people. That’s part of my work. I want people to see the reality — not what they want us to see.


Speaker for the Student Movement at University of Puerto Rico, Río Piedras

Reimagining Freedom In Puerto Rico

This is a public university [and it is also] one of the entities in Puerto Rico that receives the most money from the United States. When the Junta del Control Fiscal started to create plans to restructure the debt, it saw this huge amount of money and without knowing exactly what these funds were, it decided to cut them.

This isn’t the first time the university was attacked, but it’s the first time in history that they propose a type of budget cut that would kill the public system in this country as we know it, which has been a place where poor people can study. The Junta proposed to cut 70% of funds that the UPR receives, first saying [they would cut] 450 million dollars and then 520 million. When you evaluate these cuts, from the 11 UPR campuses, only three — Río Piedras, Mayaguez and Ciencia Médica— would have the ability to stay open and the rest of the schools will have to close their doors.

“A free Puerto Rico means a Puerto Rico with opportunities. It’s going to be hard but beginnings are always hard, and Puerto Ricans are Puerto Ricans — we have the capacity to govern ourselves and choose our own future.” —Itzaira


In March, we had an assembly in which we decided to have a temporary pause from classes, and on April 6, [all UPR campuses] started an indefinite strike. We came up with the legal projects that would save 500 million dollars that they wanted to take away and we worked on a campaign to investigate the public debt. Through this campaign we realized that a lot of the people who caused the debt are the ones who are part of the Junta del Control Fiscal, including Carlos Garcia and José Ramón González.

Right now Puerto Rico is in a dictatorial situation — in a situation in which our government doesn’t have power, and with the little power it has, it is not supporting the people. Right now with the situation that Puerto Rico is in, it’s not easy for me to see a future for myself — so imagine for those who come after me. A free Puerto Rico means a Puerto Rico with opportunities. It’s going to be hard but beginnings are always hard, and Puerto Ricans are Puerto Ricans — we have the capacity to govern ourselves and choose our own future.


Owner of small business, Cosecha Mia

Reimagining Freedom In Puerto Rico

Five months ago I created this space, Cosecha Mía, dedicated to support local farmers to have a space to sell their products that are accessible for people to buy. The fresh products I sell are all grown here in Puerto Rico. I find growers who don’t use pesticides, use small seeds, and are not selling at the supermarket. The majority of the products here come from the north and west side of Puerto Rico. Because the travel from more rural areas is hard, if growers make the trip all the way to San Juan I won’t turn them away.

This is totally a project of resistance. Puerto Rico is a country that only consumes 5-10% of what we produce. People have this mentality that everything that you see in the supermarket is the best and that what comes from outside is better than what is grown here. Since we’re a colonial island that’s the way we’ve been taught to think. Puerto Rico was never free, it was passed from Spain to the United States, so we have this mentality that we have few products and what is bigger is better — we don’t understand the power we have as an island.

“There needs to be long-term education around decolonization so that the people can understand. We should have classes starting in kindergarten about what it means to be decolonized. To be free means changing everything.” —Luz


Over everything we have to recognize that we need to support our own products to be sustainable and that will allow us to see a new market. It can translate financially for us. It’s all a question of supporting and prioritizing our agriculturalists. In Puerto Rico, there’s land but there aren’t farmers. My generation — people who are 30-40 years old — went to the university to get an education. Our parents wanted us to get a better education and have a better life and now this generation doesn’t know how to farm.

Puerto Rico doesn’t have the education or system to be free. We aren’t sustainable — we’ve always lived supported by someone else. I think it’s possible but there needs to be long-term education around decolonization so that the people can understand. Before we get out of this relationship we should have classes starting in kindergarten about what it means to be decolonized and we need to have a government plan for how to decolonize. To be free means changing everything, including our money, and it’s a long-term process of understanding that we should have already started.


Reimagining Freedom In Puerto Rico