Last month, as endless sheets of rain crashed down on New York City’s pavements, viewers across the nation were anticipating the opening night of the Democratic National Convention. But in the lower district of Manhattan, a small group of Puertorriqueños and their supporters were denouncing the 118th anniversary of the US invasion of Puerto Rico and rallying for its independence.
Protesters were also supporting the release of political prisoner Oscar Lopez, a Puerto Rican nationalist, who was physically represented by a life-sized laminated photo better equipped for the rain than most.
The island is in an uncertain predicament. Neither country nor state, it is an indisputable US territory. Puerto Ricans’ limited control over their own political and financial decisions was recently underscored by PROMESA, the debt restructuring bill signed into law this summer, which gave a seven-member fiscal oversight board appointed by US the power to supersede the Puerto Rican government for an indefinite period of time.
This bureaucratic limbo has undoubtedly shaped the political opinions and electoral decisions of many Puertorriqueños living in New York City.
I caught up with several young activists at the rally, which ended early due to the inclement weather, to hear about their identity, the tension between individual versus national independence, and their vital role in this ongoing political struggle. Here’s what they had to say about their subversive electoral actions, the island’s plight, and their hopes for Puerto Rico.
Some interviews have been translated from Spanish to English. All photos taken by Raquel Salazar.
Eliana Alvarez, 24, born and raised in NYC.
“My great grandparents settled in Williamsburg, Brooklyn in the 20s and 30s. They were actually forced because of the poverty in Puerto Rico. My great grandfather was Rafael de Leon and worked really closely with Lolita Lebrón for independence in Puerto Rico. I’m third generation and a lot of us are still activists who are trying to become our own country.”
Richard Lopez Rodriguez, 31, born in New York and raised in Puerto Rico.
“I’m originally a Puerto Rican nationalist, we don’t really get into election games or anything like that, because we believe that you can not have a democracy in a colony. If the process for independence keeps moving forward [I’d move back]… I’d be the first one. I’d definitely be the first one. One of my personal projects is going back. I left when Fortuño’s government was there and I came here to New York to do more international work so the world would know what our situation is like. And now I think it’s time to go back. It’s sad that the US government is trying to steal the island from us Puerto Ricans. That’s one of the things Puerto Ricans have done throughout generations. We fled out [of the country] when we’re supposed to flood in. That’s the Puerto Rico that I believe in and that’s the Puerto Rico that day by day I live to construct.”
Timothy Robledo, 28, born and raised in New York
“Hillary supported PROMESA, I don’t support the Democratic party, I don’t support the United States or the political system period because it’s not for me. It was created when my people were still on the island, so that, every legislation that’s in any book, doesn’t pertain to me and my people. Al fin del dia, que se jodan. That’s not my election. That email [leak] that came out today from the DNC. What are we, taco bowls? That’s what they referred to us as? So how are they any different than the Republicans? How are they any different than Trump? If you refer to me as a taco bowl, fuck all of you, I’m not voting.”
Keila Fontánez La Salle, 25, born and raised in San Juan, living in NYC for 4 ½ years.
“I’m actually moving back home on Sunday. I’m moving in with a farming project on some land that belongs to our family. With the same idea of going back and helping out and being part of the community that I worry so much about here. I decided it’s time to channel the energy that I put into New York into a place that I actually adore and love and the people I love the most. So yeah, I move Sunday!”
Andrés Rodriguez, 29, born and raised in San Juan, living in NYC for 4 years
“We are not talking about a left or right movement. This is a movement from the bottom up, from the oppressed to the oppressors. We need Puerto Rican unity, we need solidarity. We need alliance from other current movements [#BlackLivesMatter], they too are colonized inside the empire. Everything we are talking about here, coño, let’s put it into practice!”