Genesis, Zorimar and Rafael were talking on Cristo Street before darting off towards the San Sebastián Street. They were fleeing from a stampede that was unleashed in Old San Juan after the Puerto Rico police launched tear gas.
“This is disrespectful, the government is behaving like a dictatorship,” shouted Rafael Figueroa as he ran up the street. He’s 18, an economics student at the University of Puerto Rico (UPR), Mayagüez campus, and traveled to Old San Juan to demand Gov. Ricardo Rosselló’s resignation.
Genesis Suriel, 19, studies biology at the UPR in Ponce, as does her friend her friend Zorimar Rodríguez, 20. They came in a bus with 45 other young people from the south and west of the island.
“We arrived here, the group broke up and about 20 minutes after they threw the first round of gases. This can’t end here, because the Governor thinks that if he clings to his post, people will forget, and this is different. It’s a future that was taken from us before we were born. It’s a future they have been destroying,” said Rafael while catching his breath on a corner on Cristo Street while fireworks exploded.
At the protest of Monday, July 15, which gathered thousands of people around La Fortaleza, there were many young faces.
Some were covered with wrestling masks, others with anti-gas masks, while others used latex masks decorated with sequins, metal spikes or shiny stones. But it was evident that among the group that resisted the police’s attacks until the end, and most fiercely, was a majority of young people in their twenties.
During the strikes of 2010 and 2011, that took place at the University of Puerto Rico in Rio Piedras, many of them would have been between 9 and 13 years old. Perhaps they remember some of those demonstrations against the tuition hikes and as one of the most massive in the last decade and the first to take advantage of the internet and social networks to the fullest. They are the first generation to be born with that technology. Unlike Millennials, they don’t have a before and after the internet, they were born with networks and cyberspace.
The first governor they must remember is Luis Fortuño, known for the UPR tuition hike, Law 7 for the dismissal of thousands of public employees and for the gas pipeline, known as the “Gasoducto.” Or, perhaps they may have experienced the shared government of Aníbal Acevedo-Vilá, who was accused by the U.S. Department of Justice of 19 charges involving campaign financing corruption.
They did not witness the arrests for corruption of more than 40 public officials during the administration of Pedro Rosselló, father of the current incumbent who hangs by a thread in La Fortaleza. They would have barely been between two and four years old when they arrested Víctor Fajardo, then secretary of the Department of Education who in 2001 was accused of diverting $4.3 million also under Rosselló Sr.’s administration.
A few days ago, they witnessed the appearance of former Secretary of Education Julia Keleher before a federal jury, charged for money laundering during the current administration.
In the first elections where they could have voted, Ricardo Rosselló won, and today they’re showing that they know they can fire him.
They are from the era of Donald Trump in the White House, the rise of the international extreme right, the climate crisis, the economic crisis, the Fiscal Control Board, the shutdown of public schools, the Government’s bankruptcy, the Capitol’s ghost employees, the deaths of Maria, mass migration, vulture funds and cryptocurrency speculators.
Researcher at the Pew Research Center, which studies generational trends in the United States, call it the “Generation Z” or “Gen Z.” It is a Post-Millennial generation that groups those who were born between 1997 and 2012.
But the reality exceeds the categories. On the street, people are not segregated according to their date of birth. In practice, they cross paths, mix, fight among themselves and share experiences.
You don’t fool us anymore
and take advice from corrupt people.
Take the fuck off and go far away
and say welcome to
the generation of I will not allow it.
That’s what Bad Bunny sings.
The song summarizes in five minutes the fury that erupted after the Center for Investigative Journalism published 889 pages of the Telegram chat in which it is demonstrated that the governor was entertained, during working hours, doing partisan political work through messages that reveal the authoritarian, macho, sexist and homophobic character of Rossello and his most intimate group of collaborators.
“Fanaticism has fallen. Fanatics are still out there with the little flags, but the people have risen more. Why? Because they failed us; they failed us and this is beyond that chat, this is about the stealing of $15 million from the Department of Education, this is about the aid that was never delivered, about the people who died because of María. This is a lack of respect toward the people and the people get tired. There has been government after government of theft, robbery, theft,” Rafael said.
Zorimar joined the conversation and said, “people are tired and need to rise up to end this corruption.”
“That they had the nerve to make fun of those same negative things that they themselves have created for the people, is really a huge lack of respect. And even though I am not Puerto Rican, I feel offended. I am Dominican and I’ve been living here for six years. And I really feel offended, and although this is not my country, I feel that I can do something,” said Genesis.
Business as usual
At 8 p.m., in the Red Monkey bar on Cruz Street, a group of about 30 foreign investors or aspiring investors are gathered for their Criptomonday. In these talks, they discuss ideas and success stories about investments with bitcoin digital currency and Blockchain technology, in an interview format.
The atmosphere is like a club and at the same time a night time television program, but there are no cameras. The audience listens sitting at the bar, on chairs or on a sofa and asks the guests questions. Every time the noise of the protests around them interrupts them, the moderator says through the microphone “wait, commercial break.” If it’s music such as when the song “Qué bonita bandera” was heard, he dances a little and continues with the interview.
I asked one of the participants how he thought the country’s political situation, the protests and the corruption and chat scandal that had broken out the previous week could affect investments in crypto-currency. He said he didn’t know.
“I honestly don’t know. I don’t know what’s happening. Last week I was at the pool with my family, so I don’t have any information to give my opinion,” he replied in English, drinking beer and sweating after his presentation.
Despite virtually having no government in office and the protests, those who benefit from laws like 20 and 22 for foreign investors and the Opportunity Zones, that exempt them from paying taxes, say they continue to operate normally.
Business as usual, as hotel investor and developer Keith St. Clair said in a recent interview. The government’s mantra has been “Open for business,” while in recent days, in the middle of the crisis, La Fortaleza has tried to project an image of “normality” with Rosselló signing laws and appointing cabinet members.
Also keeping up with their work agendas are the Fiscal Control Board and hedge funds, who last week continued negotiations to claim the repayment of the debt, as shown in the court file.
Jobs are at risk, there is a rise in homelessness and poverty, and gender violence and murders persist.
A slogan heard in front of the Fortaleza indicates the expectations of some in the citizen mobilizations: “Ricky resign! And take the Fiscal Board with you!”.
On the first Monday of demonstrations, the tear gas did not succeed in dispersing even those who were initiating the ritual of the protests.
Katherine Lugo, 22, a business administration graduate of the Inter American University, was on the corner of Cristo Street.
“I’m here because I think we all deserve the same thing, a safe home, a full fridge, tranquility. I believe that we deserve the best and that you don’t have to have an elected party to be able to want the best for your country. I’m from Colombia and I have lived here for several years. I have seen, for so long, I think since forever, how we’ve been blue and red. And we have seen that there has been no progress in any sense of the word. And I think that’s enough to be here. The lies, the corruption, the problems. I think it’s really good that the people have finally come together, after so long, that something has happened that has forced us to be here, we have to be here,” said Katherine.
Although early on many people talked with excitement about Bad Bunny’s possible arrival and looked forward to the appearance of Rey Charlie and his motorized entourage, this massive demonstration was not called by any leader, party or organization. Everyone here demands the Governor’s resignation, and yet the “I won’t allow it” generation has no hope on any of the possible substitutes.
The lack of leadership and massive call to action by civil society organizations gives way to the movement of crowds that, while following the same goal, organize and mobilize in a fragmented, organic and unpredictable manner.
This time, Rey Charlie summoned the bikers through social networks, while a meme prompts anyone who identifies with the sarcasm of the montage of images and words. The union calls its members to march behind a sign.
And three guys journey from Cayey to San Juan.
One is Joel Elvin Reyes, 17, the other Edward Jonel Rivera, 18, and Giancarlos Martín, “a mere 19 years old,” as he says, although the diminutive does not correspond to his height and his robust body.
Joel Elvin studies computer engineering at the Ana G. Méndez University Gurabo campus, and says he is here “doing the only thing we can do, which is to confront the higher-ups so he can see that there’s strength in unity. We met in a house, everybody finished their daily routine and we came to support the cause.”
Giancarlos studies Communications at the same school and says that he saw calls for the demonstration on the Snapchat, WhatsApp and Instagram applications.
“This is not partisan. Obviously, we need a leader and that leader has to show that he can handle Puerto Rico and whatever comes. If he can’t, then he should fuck off. There are so many Puerto Ricans who throw shade at young people. And who’s here? Young people,” said Giancarlos.
It’s the first time they come to a protest. And the three say they will continue to rally until Rosselló leaves the government.
In the sky, a police helicopter hovers above, as everybody flips their middle fingers.
This is also Kimberly Rivera’s first protest. She is 23 years old, from Vega Baja and studied sonography at the UMET in Bayamón. In the last elections she voted for independent candidate Alexandra Lúgaro, who finished third.
“I feel she has the ability and the mind. Of all of them, she’s the one you always see speaking clearly on social media. I feel identified with her,” said Kimberly, who was accompanying two girlfriends and a guy who seemed to be her same age.
“Look at this, who’s here, who’s fighting for the injustices that are happening right now? My father’s not here, my mother’s not here, my grandmother is not here. They don’t want to be here. Many really believe it’s a waste of time, because they think that we’re not going to get anything done with this. I got here and said, ‘Damn, there are no adult people here’’. Young people are the ones who want to do something [about] this, fix it; they’re the ones who want to see change. Because right now our grandparents don’t. My grandmother: PNP (New Progressive Party). Just for a color? Do you understand what I mean? You can’t be controlled by that. You cannot put our future in the hands of a color…,” Kimberly said before running down Cristo Street fleeing tear gas and another stampede.
There were several that night. Until after 2:00 a.m., when protests ended with the burning of several orange drones in front of the La Mallorca coffee shop.
The lack of hope in any potential substitute the “I won’t allow it” generation has shown there is a common understanding that, although the immediate claim is Rosselló’s ouster, things will not really change if there is no deep transformation of the social structure.
The new generation of protesters have been initiated in massive demonstrations with a reference of one the strongest and most popular mobilizations in recent history. This will be their starting point for when they have to demand accountability from those who intend to lead the island from now on.