by Rev. Rebecca Seegers
This trip was planned as a continuation of last year’s Fossil Free Walk to General Assembly in St. Louis. It was dreamed during that walk, came into fruition over the months following. The idea as I understood it was to see Puerto Rico and the work that is being done post-Maria, particularly in the areas in which environmental sustainability is being lived out with an eye to support for fossil fuel divestment in the PC(USA). A sort of “walk” around the island as a promise, a prayer, and a presentiment of what might be possible elsewhere as well. We even talked about a hashtag to use as we tweeted and IG’d and Facebooked, using social media to tell our story through #PResbyteriansWalk4Change.
We were to arrive throughout the day Sunday, and Monday we had plans to go to Proyeto Enlace, an NGO that connects San Juan neighborhoods with the San Juan Bay Estuary. Then the world changed. On July 13th, over 800 pages of chat room conversations were shared by the Centro de Periodismo Investigativo in which Governor Ricardo Rosselló made misogynistic, homophobic, fat-shaming comments, and the roof blew off. Daily protest marches were occurring with a huge percentage of the population showing up. An enormous one was planned for Monday, July 22nd, our first full day. So after months of planning and reading and listening to blogs and watching videos about Puerto Rico’s history and the current situation, we decided to walk in solidarity with the Puerto Rican people.
I rose early on Monday morning, made a pot of strong coffee, and prepared for the day. Sunscreen: check. Sunglasses: check. Good walking shoes: check. Water bottle: check. Hat (borrowed from AmyBeth): check. Lunch: oh, no! Didn’t remember and didn’t have time to make it, so I threw a granola bar in my back pocket and off we went.
We gathered at Iglesia Presbiteriana en Hato Ray, and then walked toward the starting point, the Plaza de Americas, a mall which is both a testament to the capitalism the protests were against and the family who owns it. As we walked, a trickle of people became a river, so that by the time we were under the overpass by our entry ramp, we were surrounded. While we walked the cloverleaf up to the highway, our group joked that the only Ricky we wanted to see was Ricky Martin.
We began to march the route, framed by people in all their variety. A man being pushed by a younger woman in a wheelchair. A girl on stilts dressed in the Puerto Rican flag. A young woman banging a dented pot with a sticker proclaiming it just bought that morning. Another dressed all in black with her face made up like a skull and 4,645 painted on her midriff. A man decked out as Rosselló in effigy. Placards in Spanish both hilarious and poignant. The Puerto Rican flag in the red, white, and the royal blue of American colonialism; the red, white, and original pastel blue; and black and white of universal grief. Chants that we tried to understand and join: “Ricky! Renuncia!” (Ricky! Resign!) and “Somos Más y No Tenemos Miedo” (We are more and we are not afraid.”) Notwithstanding the undergirding pain, a festival spirit was in the air, with noise and music and chants filling it.
The sun beat down and we walked and we walked and we walked. A sense simultaneously joyful yet dignified walked with us. Eventually, we walked off a ramp, wound under and around, then back up and onward in the opposite direction. We were hot and tired and footsore, but we continued to walk. We stopped to eat our sandwiches or in my case, a melted granola bar. We watched people walk by us. An older couple under a huge umbrella emblazoned with the Puerto Rican flag. Members of the teachers’ union. Tons of young people dressed in black T-shirts adorned with “Somos Puerto Rico!” and “Resistencia!” and other relevant slogans. We bought cold water and walked some more. People lined the highway and the overpasses. The opposite side of the highway from which we had come was filled with a sea of people walking toward us; our side was a sea of people walking before us. Our faithful leader, Michelle, stopped us to point out a truck on the opposite side with “local celebrities” waving the Puerto Rican flag – and there in it at the front among them, waving one in the LGBTQIA colors was RICKY MARTIN!!! It was magnificent.
We walked and walked and walked the rest of the way back to the exit ramp, down it and to the church, the crowd dispersing their separate ways around us. We arrived at Iglesia Presbiteriana and sat in glorious air conditioning with Gatorade and iced tea to debrief while a drenching afternoon rain poured down.
Later that evening, we listened to a presentation on the history that brought Puerto Rico to its current state, particularly with the debt crisis and American policies that have exacerbated it. We learned about ridiculous laws like the Jones-Shafroth Act in 1917 that gave Puerto Ricans “statutory citizenship” just in time to draft them for WWI. Or the Jones Act of 1920, also known as the Merchant Marine Act, which dictates Puerto Ricans can only purchase products brought to the island on American ships. So if they want a product from a nearby island, it has to travel all the way to Miami, disembark onto an American ship in order to return to Puerto Rico. Or even worse, Bayer aspirin, which is produced in Puerto Rico, is shipped to Morristown, NJ, where it is packaged and then shipped back to be sold at a greater cost. So Ricky Rosselló and his chat room bad behavior weren’t so much the point of the protests, but the proverbial straw that breaks the camel’s back.
Afterward, I asked someone their opinion on independence v. statehood and the answer I received was not what I expected. I was told, “We’re not ready for either. We need to get our house in order before we make that decision. But once our house is in order, the thing that is important to me is not that we become a state or gain our independence or anything else. The important thing is that whatever we do, we Puerto Ricans get to choose.”
This is something that has hit me very deeply. That these beautiful vibrant joyous people who live on this incredible island should be treated as the human beings that they are. The Puerto Rican people deserve the right to self-determination. “Somos Más y No Tenemos Meido” indeed.
Addendum: Since this article was written, Ricardo Rosello has resigned as of August 2nd. Whatever is next for Puerto Rico, I pray that it leads to a better future that is designed and defined by those who live here.
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