Just before 6:00 p.m. on Tuesday, January 21, 2020, protesters started gathering outside of the Governor’s residence, La Fortaleza, in Viejo San Juan to demand the resignation of Governor Wanda Vázquez. The second night of a new wave of demonstrations against the government’s mishandling of post-disaster recovery kicked off with manifestantes marching up-and-down Calle de la Resistencia, proudly raising a chorus of flags– both the black-and-white resistance as well as the sky-blue Puerto Rican flags, and those for transgender and LGBT pride– to the rhythm of protest chants, whistles and tambourines, and the familiar music of cacerolazo protests (the iconic banging of metal pots and pans).
I arrived at the protest by Uber, getting to know the driver as we rode from Santurce to La Fortaleza. She was from Ponce, a city along the southern coast of the main island that was, at the time, being hit by several 5-magnitude earthquakes and their subsequent tremors. She shared with me her reaction to the first earthquake– how afraid she was, how she quickly scooped up her pets and took shelter in the bathroom. She continued to explain how her community was impacted, not just physically, but psychologically; anxiety and nerves were growing ripe throughout the neighborhood, with folks not knowing if it was safe to sleep indoors or what to expect next. Contrasting this with Hurricane María, she said “a hurricane comes and it goes– but earthquakes… you don’t know when the next one will come.” One thing was for sure though– the people of Puerto Rico had learned they could not count on their government.
As I joined the protest in solidarity that evening, I was captured by street art’s integral presence in the demonstration. The graffiti highlighted in these two photos caught my attention almost immediately for their poetic presentation of the protest’s themes.
The first image depicts the “Gobierno Culpable” (guilty/ culpable government) as a skull and crossbones bleeding money like a grim piggy-bank over a cemetary of skulls, offering a few interpretations. Firstly, the street art invites us into an indictment of the government as a necropolis. While visually similar, the presence and absence of the crossbones presents an important distinction between the singular skull (the government) and the many skulls (el pueblo) because of the connotation of a skull-and-crossbones; one is deadly while the others are dead.
Another reading that incorporates the portrayal of money offers yet more interpretations. The depiction of government money landing not on the skulls of the people, but instead retreating further out of the picture suggests the people’s inability to access public funds, demonstrating the violent link between neoliberal austerity measures and public health. Instead of investing in public resources that could save lives (especially in a post-María Puerto Rico) this money may instead be retreating to the private coffers of debt-collectors, U.S. corporations capitalizing on tax loopholes, or to private companies corruptly awarded no-bid infrastructure contracts.
The repeated use of gobierno culpable, as captured by the second image, undeniably casts post-María fatalities as political deaths. This second image also introduces us to another concept with the other drawing in the background, that of a black-and-white Puerto Rican flag with the caption “el sur no duerme porque tiembla / el gobierno tampoco por la resistencia.” Roughly translating to “the south doesn’t sleep because it trembles / neither does the government due to the resistance,” this slogan references and relates the month-long earthquakes devastating the southern coast of Puerto Rico with the revived protest against the government’s (mis)handling of the disaster. This phrase also cleverly plays with multiple meanings of the word tremble: while the south literally trembles from earthquakes, the government “trembles” in a suggested state of fear at the tremendous political force of the people mobilizing en masse.
And it should. The protest is the legacy of those from the previous summer which successfully ousted Governor Ricardo Rosselló. The chanting of “solo el pueblo salva al pueblo” that rang throughout the night was both a denunciation of the neoliberal and colonial government blamed for 4,645 deaths after Hurricane María as well as a rallying cry for something new and reliable: a democracy of and for the people.