Op-Ed: Puerto Ricans Turn to Cacerolas When Their Voices Have Been Silenced or Ignored

Protesters demonstrate against Ricardo Rossello, the Governor of Puerto Rico, near a police barricade set up along a street leading to the governor's mansion on July 20, 2019 in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico. Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

In the last couple of days, social media outlets have named Cacerola Girl a national hero. In a video gone viral, the young, unidentified woman furiously hits a cacerola while screaming at policemen. When confronted by the officers, Cacerola Girl continues to hit her pot and chants: “Me tienen miedo será. Porque es un mamao. Es un mamao.” The food receptacle – Cacerola Girl’s protest instrument – has been a protagonist in many other manifestations in Puerto Rico. Like her, protesters across the island who demand Governor Roselló’s resignation have banged on ollas since Friday, July 12. Perhaps, some are using the same cookware that they used to demand justice in the nearly two years since Hurricane María hit Puerto Rico.

According to food studies scholar Melissa Fuster, cacerolazos date back to the December 1971 “Marcha de las cacerolas vacías,” which was organized by Chilean women as a response to food scarcity during the Salvador Allende administration. This form of protest, known as food riots, may have been sparked by food scarcity and increase in cost of staple foods, such as wheat flour, rice, and in some cases, meat. But in the decades since, they have come to be the sound of resistance.

The Colectiva Feminista en Construcción organized the first cacerolazo against Governor Roselló. The event, scheduled for July 17, turned into a national protest, with renowned supporters Bad Bunny, Residente, and Ricky Martin joining demonstrators, who didn’t leave their cacerolas at home. The protest gained international recognition. Since then, people have continued to bang their pots every day at 8 p.m. to further express their disapproval of Rosselló.

Puerto Rico’s cacerolazos are about reprimanding the local and federal governments, particularly the governor’s actions in the aftermath of Hurricane María. While Roselló publicly showed support for the people, his private messages revealed the opposite. Centro de Periodismo Investigativo recently released a trove of messages from the governor and his administration. There, Roselló didn’t seem as concerned for Puerto Ricans as they struggled after the storm.

Two years later, Puerto Ricans are still dealing with the effects of the storm, so when they saw Roselló’s disregard for just about every group on the island, they were enraged and once again turned to their cacerolas. The cacerolazos then represent the water load found in Ceiba, the immobility of thousands of Puerto Ricans in the weeks after the hurricane, as well as the hunger due to the scarcity of food. It’s not a stretch to say that the cacerolazos are still a protest of the hungered bodies of the Puerto Rican people. As the government continues putting the needs of the people on the backburner, they have emptied their pots, as well as their bodies.

In the weeks following the storm, a great number of women-led grassroot initiatives emerged, with some holding ollas comunes as both an immediate response to feeding families who did not have food and as nurturing practice that could help heal the wounds caused by the hurricane. And just as important, they became tools of political action, particularly in the hands of the women who fed their communities. This is exactly what’s playing out today. It is what echoes through the streets when protesters bang their empty cacerolas. Even before the storm, cacerolas have been tools for combating oppression.

So when Cacerola Girl stood in front of police, with her one-person cacerolazo, she was taking part in a long tradition of rebellion. And the sounds produced by the banging of metal became a sensorial invasion, disrupting those who left them without water, food, and an honorable government. When protesters were asked why they brought their cacerolas with them, they told Remezcla, “pa’ hacer más ruido.” They’re motivated to bang their pots because they want to be heard. They want their stories to be told. They’re using cacerolas as an extension of their voices, in an island where people feel they have been silenced or ignored.

Journalist Laura M. Olivieri contributed reporting.