On May 3 at 3pm, hundreds of feminists of different genders and ages gathered at the intersection of Calle de la Resistencia and Calle del Cristo in colonial Old San Juan. Puerto Rico was reeling from the recent femicides of Andrea Ruiz and Keishla Rodriguez at the hands of their intimate partners, and the Black feminist organization La Colectiva Feminista en Construcción had convened a march. Masked participants carried signs with messages such as “Vivas y libres” (alive and free), “Estoy harta = Ni una más” (I’m fed up, not one more), and “Queremos vivir en paz, no descansar” (We want to live in peace, not rest).
As the sun began to set, the demonstrators remained in front of La Fortaleza, the governor’s mansion. With chants of “De aquí no nos vamos/esta noche nos quedamos” (We’re not leaving/we’re staying the night), the plantón, or sit-in, began. By 7:30pm, there was still a large crowd banging pots rhythmically with tambourines, facing the line of police guarding the colonial bastion. Tents were set up to house those spending the night, and a tarp nearby provided shelter to others. In the early hours of May 4, Zoan Tanis Dávila, spokesperson of La Cole, read a statement that demanded accountability from Governor Pedro Pierluisi and his administration. The day marked 100 days since Pierluisi had declared a state of emergency to address the crisis of femicides and gender violence in the archipelago, where a woman is killed every seven days. La Cole, along with other feminist organizations demanded: “Where is the state of emergency?”
After the femicides of Andrea Ruiz and Keishla Rodriguez, collective rage and indignation engulfed the feminist movement. Activists condemned the media’s sensationalizing of the cases, and in the case of Andrea—and many other women and femmes—the failure of the criminal justice system to protect her. Two judges in the Caguas court had denied Andrea’s petition for a restraining order against the man that took her life.
La Cole has been at the forefront of direct action demanding that the government declare a state of emergency to address the femicides. In 2018, La Cole held a plantón in front of La Fortaleza, demanding that former Governor Ricardo Rosselló implement a state of emergency. He did no such thing, and neither did his successor, Wanda Vázquez Garced. Vázquez Garced instead declared a weaker state of national alert that ordered government agencies to prioritize prevention, protection, and security services for all women. However, La Cole denounced that this measure did little to concretely address the state of emergency.
The May 3 plantón kicked off a series of protests all around the archipelago coordinated by La Cole. Although the government formed a committee to implement the state of emergency, there have been no notable action steps, as Melody Fonseca explains to me in this interview. Fonseca is a member of La Cole, as well as assistant professor of Political Science at the University of Puerto Rico, Río Piedras and researcher at the Institute of Caribbean Studies.
I interviewed Fonseca, 35, along with two collaborators of La Cole, Thalia Fajardo Crespo and Verónica del Carmen Figueroa Huertas, who organized demonstrations in the towns of Mayaguez and Caguas, respectively. For Fajardo Crespo, 27, a doctoral student in physical education and recreational therapist, this was her first time organizing a demonstration. She is a resident of the town of Hormigueros, located on the Western coast of the main island. Figueroa Huertas, 26, a former student movement activist and leader known for her participation in the 2017 student strike at the University of Puerto Rico, was a core member of La Cole in 2018-19 and remains a collaborator of the organization. She is originally from Caguas, although she currently lives in San Juan. Our exchanges have been edited for length and clarity.
Aurora Santiago Ortiz: What steps has the government taken to implement the state of emergency?
Melody Fonseca: It doesn’t seem like a state of emergency has been declared in Puerto Rico to address gender violence. We’re not seeing massive educational campaigns to address the issue. We’re not seeing any streamlining of the restraining order process or in the way data or statistics regarding gender violence is collected. There is also a lack of transparency and communication about what steps the government appointed committee is taking to address the issue.
The series of protests were meant to demand that the state and its institution—the executive, department of state, police headquarters, and the municipalities—[take action], and [to] hold them accountable. That is part of our role as a political organization, to hold these institutions accountable for their lack of transparency and implementation of the state of emergency.
ASO: Who is the most affected by the state of emergency?
MF: As a Kilómetro Cero report noted, data on gender violence is so sparse, it is impossible to cross-reference data for variables such as income and race. But we don’t need the statistics to know that gender violence is always exerted upon brutalized, hypersexualized, and dehumanized bodies. In Puerto Rico, those racial and gender dynamics are much more violent towards Black and poor women, and manifest in a lack of resources and support to address gender violence, but also the lack of seriousness they experience when going to the police to file a report or restraining order.
The lack of data to cross-reference constitutes violence against Black and poor women. Even with the declaration of a state of emergency and public policy, many issues are excluded because they are not treated with the specificity they deserve. We need education with a gender perspective that is transversal and intersectional to develop more specific proposals.
ASO: When did the series of protests begin and what specific institutions were impacted?
MF: We began on Monday, May 3 with the feminist plantón and camped in front of La Fortaleza and ended on Friday, May 7. As a result of the call to action, the PARE (the gender violence Prevention, Support, Rescue, and Education) committee called an emergency meeting, and Governor Pierluisi released a statement acknowledging that in effect, the state of emergency had to be implemented.
Wednesday, May 5, we held a demonstration in front of the Justice Department. We were told that the Justice Secretary wanted to meet with Shariana [Ferrer Núñez] and Zoan [Dávila], spokespeople for La Cole. However, one thing that we were adamant about during the week of protests was that we were not holding closed door meetings with any public officials. If the Justice Secretary wanted to meet with La Colectiva, he had to come down because the meeting was not with La Cole, but with all those that were convened that day. We wanted to know what he was doing as attorney general to ensure that prosecutors and their staff address gender violence cases correspondingly. In that exchange, we demanded concrete action steps the next day that he accepted. One of these steps was to immediately begin designing mandatory gender perspective workshops for prosecutors and Justice Department personnel in order to work with survivors of gender violence.
On Thursday, May 6, we went to the PR Police Bureau Headquarters and a similar dynamic occurred. The Police Chief came down to talk to us but the exchange with him was more violent. We wanted to know what the police have been doing to address the state of emergency, what changes are happening internally to better deal with calls reporting gender violence, and how they are addressing the issue of gender violence within the police force. The Police Chief had a sort of “All Lives Matter” discourse that was also violent and placed the burden on women to help the police.
Since that was his approach, the possibility of concretizing actionable steps was null. When we challenged the accuracy of what he said, and that it reproduced that same violence that we want to eradicate, he got angry and left. The only point he agreed to was to expedite the processes, whatever that means.
The next phase was on Friday, May 7, when the sal pa fuera (go all out) happened in different towns. This campaign was interesting because La Cole put out a call for autonomous organizing, so comrades not formally part of La Cole or participating in other organizations took part. We prepared an organizing kit with a checklist, protest chants, and general guidelines. We also urged those organizing the demonstrations to find out the specific context of each municipality—for example, if there are ordinances that specifically address gender violence—in preparation for the demonstration. Thirty-nine demonstrations were organized in different municipalities all over the archipelago, most of them simultaneously. The common demand was: “Where is the state of emergency?”
ASO: Thalia, what led you to organize the May 7 demonstration in Mayaguez?
Thalia Fajardo Crespo: It was a pressure cooker that exploded. I knew we were going to do something in the west coast because I knew comrades were already organizing in the area. After La Colectiva held a large demonstration, we began meeting to coordinate from our own localities, and I became the point person in Mayaguez. It was a special moment because we were able to collaborate with others such as las Alacenas Feministas, and Siempre Vivas, who joined the protests. About 50 people attended the demonstration. One comrade provided the tent, the other the sound system, and I set up an area so that the kids that attended the demonstration could paint and express themselves.
The first thing the police asked us was if we had a permit. We were prepared for this kind of encounter and knew that we didn’t need one. When we tried to hang up signage in city hall, the police told us we could not because they were blocking the entrance. We held the signs in the main entrance. More police arrived, including state police, as well as the press. We then moved to the town square, where we had an altar for the dead and poured red ink in the fountain. The municipal employees came and were upset and told us they had to clean up the fountain. There were children, mothers, and very few men.
ASO: Did anyone in city hall meet with you?
TFC: No one came to talk to us, even though they were there.
ASO: Verónica, tell us about the demonstration in Caguas.
Verónica Figueroa Huertas: Everything happened very quickly. I was part of the organizing committee that had contact with folks in different municipalities. Even though I was born and raised in Caguas, I haven't lived there in a while, which produced mixed feelings about whether or not to coordinate a demonstration, but I know a lot of folks doing grassroots work there. Urbe Apie, the Caguas Mutual Aid Center, and the Community Kitchens are groups doing organizing work in the urban hub of Caguas. Various organizations held a demonstration Thursday, May 6, before La Cole had convened protests. That demonstration was highly attended, but we decided to do [another] one anyway because folks wanted Caguas to join the national call to action. During Thursday’s protest we passed out flyers that listed our main demands. About 25-30 people attended Friday’s protest.
ASO: Did the mayor come out to talk to you?
VFH: He did not because he had another commitment. A representative from the Caguas Office of Women’s Services (Oficina de la Mujer) came out and talked to us. They provide reports and direct services, but they don’t have a gender violence prevention campaign and the rep explained that this was due to lack of funding. I was more interested in what still needs to be done because in the case of Andrea, two judges denied issuing a restraining order, and she was later killed by her ex-partner.
The [Oficina de la Mujer] representative agreed to five of our demands, two of which have been met. One was calling for a public statement by the mayor of Caguas calling for the release of the recordings and documentation of the hearings where Ruiz requested a restraining order against her ex-partner, Miguel Ocasio Santiago. And he did. They also made good on our demand that the municipal government make available statistics on gender violence in the city. They are available on the municipality’s website. Another point that the mayor’s rep agreed to verbally was that the mayor publish a letter to the governor demanding that the funds allocated to address the state of emergency be expedited. We also scheduled a follow up meeting during the first week of June to address the remaining three demands.
The educational campaign is the main demand, and it’s doable since they already have one around Covid-19 prevention. We also got the mayor’s rep to agree to adapt a Senate Bill that codifies street harassment as a criminal offense as a municipal ordinance.
I think gender violence will continue to increase. The more feminists take to the streets, there will be confrontations in the domestic sphere, aggressors will become emboldened, and women empowered. Cases will rise. It doesn’t end with these demonstrations.
ASO: Looking ahead, what are the ultimate goals of these protests and what gives you hope to continue doing this work?
TFC: We are going to continue organizing to reach other spaces, such as the mall, to bring the message. The goal is to destroy the patriarchy. Live in peace. Short term, to implement the state of emergency.
VFH: I think that La Colectiva Feminista en Construcción is and will continue to be a key organization in the country’s struggle because it is foregrounding antiracist discourse. This is something that maybe other organizations do in their study circles, or in passing, but not as an issue to be incorporated in the struggle and in everyday life. I think more and more young people, particularly women and femmes, will become part of these activist spaces.
MF: Looking ahead, there are various phases. The most immediate is that the state understand the organized feminist political struggle in Puerto Rico, particularly from La Colectiva, is one of constant demand for accountability. Even if the state of emergency is implemented, we will continue to organize.
I think that, post-state of emergency, [the horizon] has to do with work anchored in communities, towards a society that articulates itself from an abolitionist praxis and perspective. We know this is complicated because, in the context of Keishla and Andrea, there is a push towards punitive governance, where the full weight of the law has to be applied, including the death penalty for Felix Verdejo [Keishla’s presumed killer]. How do we manage that rage and indignation and re-channel them as something liberatory against systems of oppression, not in a way that reinforces those systems?
Aurora Santiago Ortiz is a Social Justice Education scholar. Her scholarship focuses on social inequities, particularly at the intersections of race, gender, and colonialism in Puerto Rico, the US, and Latin America. She holds a PhD from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, a Juris Doctor from the University of Puerto Rico’s School of Law, and a BFA in Film and TV from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts.