‘I wish I was there’ — Puerto Ricans in North Philly keeping a close eye on island protests

Jose Rolon of North Philadelphia grew up in Puerto Rico. Though he's been living in the U.S. for more than 40 years, he's keeping an eye on protests on the island. (Ximena Conde/WHYY)

Jose Rolon of North Philadelphia grew up in Puerto Rico. Though he's been living in the U.S. for more than 40 years, he's keeping an eye on protests on the island. (Ximena Conde/WHYY)

Charito Morales, a community organizer with the Philadelphia-Camden Boricua Committee, said she wants Ricardo Rosselló — the governor of Puerto Rico — to resign. 

Critics have accused the Rosselló administration — which has been embroiled in scandal — of handling Hurricane Maria recovery poorly.

Last week, two former top administration officials were arrested for their involvement in a conspiracy to steer millions in federal funds to politically-connected contractors. 

This week, hundreds of pages of messages published by Puerto Rico’s Center for Investigative Journalism show Rossello and close aides having homophobic and sexist conversations.

The result has been several days of protests on the island calling for the governor to step down. 

Rosselló has apologized for the messages but said he won’t resign.

“I wish I was there with my team in the island of Puerto Rico,” said Morales who helped organize a small solidarity rally this week at Providence Center, a nonprofit based in Fairhill.  

Something different

Corruption scandals are not new to the island, but Morales said the arrests of Julia Keleher, former secretary of the Puerto Rico Department of Education, and Ángela Ávila-Marrero, head of the health insurance administration cut deeper than past betrayals. 

The officials are accused of directing more than $15 million in federal funds to contractors with political connections.

Keleher’s alleged fraud, hits a nerve with Morales, in part because Keleher is a Philly native and a woman, but mostly because of who she was in charge of overseeing.

 “I get so mad she played with our children’s future, that’s unfair,” she said.

Keleher, who closed more than 260 public schools during her tenure despite parent and teacher objections, broke a special trust, Morales said.

“We want to make sure she’s held accountable for what she did,” she said, adding that she wants Keleher to “payback” misused funds.

 Norris Square resident Miriam Martinez’ anger is equally fueled by the corruption she feels has gone unchecked in the Rosselló administration and by what he said in those messages.   

“A person with values and discipline doesn’t treat women, the way [Rosselló] did, like garbage,” she said. “He’s the son of a woman too.” 

Martinez said she’s showing protesters her support through her Facebook posts and hopes for a peaceful end to the situation. 

“The Puerto Rican people have to do something to get him out,” Martinez said.

Still, it’s more complicated for others.  

Abraham Cruz doesn’t like the content of Rosselló’s messages either. He was especially hurt when he read there was a joke made about Hurricane Maria deaths. He said his wife’s brother-in-law died of health complications after the storm — an estimated 3,000 others did too.

But Cruz worries that protests might not be the way to recall the governor.

Concerns about safety

 Though most photos and videos from Puerto Rico show protesters marching peacefully this week, people woke up Thursday morning to images of citizens clashing with police.  

Protesters threw fireworks at police and the authorities responded with tear gas and rubber bullets. 

“I know they’re mad, they’re angry, but they should do it in a different way, you know, by the law,” Cruz said. 

Abraham Cruz is watching the protests in Puerto Rico and said he’s horrified by the content of the governor’s leaked messages, but he worries about protester safety and damage to local property. (Ximena Conde/WHYY)

He believes Rosselló has done a good job as governor and worries about who will replace him.  

Jose Rolon didn’t feel strongly for or against Rosselló, or any previous island leader because “none of them have done the right things.” 

But seeing images of trash cans ablaze in San Juan raised alarms with him too.

 “The one who does the least is the one who is hurt the most,” said Rolon who worries about fatalities. 

Morales, the woman organizing rallies in Philly, doesn’t like that protests have become increasingly tense, but she said people have hit a breaking point.

“It’s necessary to do what we’re doing right now to make him resign and have a just government,” she said.

Another protest is slated at the Providence Center for Saturday morning.

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