Frank Rivera Martinez has lived in Kissimmee for 19 years, but on Monday, he marched alongside thousands of demonstrators in a massive protest through the streets of San Juan in Puerto Rico.
Rivera-Martinez said he’s never felt so proud to be Puerto Rican.
“Everyone was together as one voice,” he said. “My heart was swollen with pride.”
Rivera-Martinez, a U.S. Navy veteran, departed Florida June 20 to visit his sister in Bayamón, Puerto Rico and help repair a family home still damaged by Hurricane Maria.
He describes his arrival as being in the right place at the right time. The Osceola County resident landed days before one of the biggest political controversies in the island’s history.
Protesters in San Juan – and the U.S. mainland – are calling for Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló’s resignation after a scandal that broke July 13 exposed chat messages he sent to his inner circle. The nearly 900-page leak revealed profane and offensive language used by top political officials to insult women, gay people and even those killed during Hurricane Maria.
Outrage has spurred a movement called “Ricky Renuncia,” or “Ricky Resign” in Spanish.
Rivera-Martinez remembered cutting the lawn at his parent’s house when he heard on the radio that two top political figures, Julia Keleher and Ángela Ávila-Marrero, had been arrested by the FBI for allegedly steering millions of dollars of government work to favored businesses.
“When it happened, in a way I was glad,” Rivera-Martinez said. “Because it opened the eyes of Puerto Rico.”
Being in the heart of the shocking news as it developed drove Rivera-Martinez to participate in the march through San Juan on Monday, where upward of half a million people are estimated to have attended. It stirred a feeling of civic duty, said Rivera-Martinez, a push that he had to get involved and do something.
As Rivera-Martinez marched and celebrated in Puerto Rico, groups across the mainland staged simultaneous demonstrations in solidarity.
Hispanic activism groups like Alianza For Progress and the Puerto Rican Leadership Council rallied members across the community, including outside 3 Sisters Speakeasy on Broadway in Kissimmee.
Alex Barrio, political director of Alianza For Progress, said local rallies are forming each week organically and at the grassroots level.
“People with ties to the island want to lend their voices and show support,” said Barrio, a 2020 candidate for State House District 43 in Osceola County. “All the local organizations around here are working and collaborating to make these events happen.”
A town hall meeting at 9161 Narcoossee Rin, Lake Nona, is scheduled tonight at 6 p.m. to help solidify organizer efforts and answer questions about what’s going on – and would could come next.
Barrio is Cuban, not Puerto Rican, but he sees protests on the commonwealth as a breaking point after years of political corruption, financial distress and growing mistrust in government.
“People think this is about Rosselló’s chat messages but it isn’t,” Barrio said. “The chats were like a fuse, but this was a ticking time bomb.”
What comes next?
Central Florida resident Jochy Cora-Santiago organized a protest with a group called Borisquad at Lake Eola in Orlando Monday night.
Cora-Santiago, a member of Osceola Young Democrats, said he wants to be on the island with his people right now - a sentiment felt by many in the Puerto Rican community.
But the opportunity to share his native culture at Lake Eola – complete with song, dance and plenty of Puerto Rican flag-waving - filled him with pride.
“It says a lot when a whole territory is standing against corruption the way Puerto Rico is right now,” Cora-Santiago said. “People there have suffered at the hands of politicians for so long.”
Cora-Santiago, a public school teacher, is excited to see what comes next for his native island. He is also nervous.
“It’s incredible to see this happening, but it’s a little scary, too,” Cora-Santiago said. “We want change, but there’s still a lot of questions that need to be answered.”
In a brief video posted July 21, Rosselló said he would not resign – or seek re-election in 2020. The governor defended himself against a potential impeachment process, which is now being explored by the Puerto Rican legislature.