At yesterday’s protests in Puerto Rico calling for the resignation of Governor Wanda Vázquez Garced, especially in San Juan, some protestors wore T-shirts or carried signs that read “Odio a Thomas Rivera Schatz.” Here’s why.
Saturday night, fans of Puerto Rico’s Orquesta el Macabeo rallied behind the salsa outfit as news spread on social media that their previously announced appearance at this weekend’s Fiestas de la Calle San Sebastián – a 50-year running celebration of local culture – was suddenly canceled. Event promoters would not allow the band to perform because of a member’s T-shirt bearing the message “Odio a Thomas Rivera Schatz” (“I Hate Thomas Rivera Schatz”), the band claimed via social media.
Rivera Schatz is president of Puerto Rico’s senate, and since his election more than a decade ago has become a prominent figure among the pro-statehood and overwhelmingly religious conservative members of the New Progressive Party (Partido Nuevo Progresista, or PNP) political party, to which current Governor Wanda Vázquez Garced also belongs.
As the band was transported away from the fest by bus, frontman Luis De La Rosa posted a video on Instagram: “They censored us,” he told viewers, “and they canceled our presentation.” De La Rosa also emphasized that the entire band supports the message trumpeter Horacio Alcaraz wore.
The tagged photo section on the official Instagram account for Rivera Schatz was soon bombarded with hundreds of posts of the “Odio a Thomas Rivera Schatz” graphic Alcaraz wore. By Sunday the afternoon, however, all of those posts were cleared out; presumably, his account settings were changed to prevent tagged photos.
Puerto Rico is still trembling from a series of earthquakes radiating from the southern coast from Dec. 28 onward. Earthquakes and aftershocks shake the land hourly. About 7,000 people in and around towns like Ponce, Guyanilla and Guánica, too frightened inside their visibly damaged or potentially unsound homes, are currently sleeping in outdoor shelters and encampments. Wide tracts of these areas are without electricity, and some are without water service.
“If Thomas Rivera Schatz isn’t going to be censored for calling the people of Puerto Rico stupid, then why censor an artist who is exercising their right to free speech by wearing a shirt that probably a lot of people identify with?”
Yesterday, however, another kind of calamity hit when Lorenzo Delgado went live on Facebook from a warehouse in Ponce discovered to be stocked with supplies – from MREs to diapers to bottled water – much of it dated 2017, and presumably intended for survivors of Hurricane Maria. Citizens overtook the warehouse, dusting off blue FEMA tarps, hygeine products and more as they organized to distribute items among a crowd that had gathered. The news went viral, fast.
It was only last week, however, that Rivera Schatz, publicly called Puerto Ricans who don’t trust the government to effectively help those affected by the earthquakes “stupid.”
Enraged Puerto Ricans have related the “secret warehouse” of unallocated aid to government corruption, incompetence and even conscious genocide; an estimated 4,465 Puerto Ricans, many of whom might have needed those supplies, died in the months-long crisis after the storm. Reports have since revealed that across the island, there are several more similarly untouched aid-filled warehouses.
Activists called for a National Strike yesterday, beginning with a concentration at the Governor’s mansion followed by a 5 p.m. march to the Capitol Building. Hundreds of protestors participated. Additional protests were held on the west coast, the southern town of Ponce, the island of Vieques and other areas throughout Puerto Rico.
De La Rosa told Remezcla last night by phone that while nothing about the anti-Rivera Schatz statement last night was planned, Orquesta el Macabeo has always used music as “a vehicle for delivering political messages, a message of protest against the situation for people living in Puerto Rico.”
“If Thomas Rivera Schatz isn’t going to be censored for calling the people of Puerto Rico stupid,” De La Rosa asks, “then why censor an artist who is exercising their right to free speech by wearing a shirt that probably a lot of people identify with?”
It was about an hour and a half before their 12:30 a.m. slot when they were informed by Ivonne Class, a member of the festival’s production team, that they would neither be paid nor take the stage. (Remezcla has reached out to Class for comment but has received no response.)
First, however, someone else from the team – De La Rosa wasn’t sure of his full name – took Alcaraz aside, away from the group. It wasn’t until they noticed the trumpeter’s obvious frustration, his voice getting louder, that they realized something was wrong. De La Rosa called the initial approach one of “intimidation,” noting that the group’s manager should have been first addressed.
When other members joined Alcaraz, De La Rosa said, “[The representative] said he can’t go onstage with the T-shirt he’s wearing, and that they could give him a shirt to change into. We said we’re not going to do that… that is censorship, and we don’t agree with it.”
Class returned later to reiterate, but did not explicitly ask the band to leave, so Orquesta el Macabeo stayed in the artists area, hoping to fulfill the requirements of a contract signed in advance. When Class ultimately requested the group’s exit, municipal police were involved in their escorting to artist transport.
De La Rosa is especially concerned because the organizers of SanSe, as the fest is locally called, are a company contracted by San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz Soto, he says. Last March Yulín announced her candidacy for this year’s gubernatorial election. If this kind of censorship is allowed now, De La Rosa wonders, then how might suppression manifest on a larger scale?
“It makes me very sad to think it could happen, but it can happen,” he says. “If she becomes the governor of Puerto Rico and continues working with people [like this], then they could censor artists and people in other ways, in other mediums, or limit the access to information that doesn’t correspond to what they think.”
The ACLU of Puerto Rico has released a statement denouncing censorship of social media posts regarding the supply warehouses (Lorenzo Delgado’s Facebook page was allegedly temporarily shut down on Saturday), as well as the cancelation of Orquesta el Macabeo’s performance.
De La Rosa says the band has a meeting with an ACLU representative today.
Additional protests are also scheduled today in San Juan and other municipalities of Puerto Rico.