Editor’s Note: Sandra Guzmán (@mssandraguzman) is a Puerto Rico-born EMMY award winning journalist and author of the women’s empowerment book, The New Latina’s Bible. She is a producer and lead interviewer in the film, “Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am,” a biographical documentary about the Nobel Prize winning legendary African American writer, Toni Morrison, now in theaters. The views expressed here are hers. Read more opinion on CNN.
Puerto Rican women warned us. They have been alerting us for years that there is a crisis of violence against women on the island. After Hurricane Maria, the crisis became an emergency. Nonprofits that provide services to survivors of domestic violence reported a surge in requests for help.
Despite the outcry from women, little to nothing was done at the highest levels of government. And now, Governor Ricardo Rossello’s leaked chats – nearly 900 pages in all, published by Puerto Rico’s Center for Investigative Journalism — show him, the governor of this country where women are living in crisis, calling women whores and encouraging violence against women elected officials. This is the tipping point for many islanders but especially for the women.
Now, many women say, they understand why their calls have been ignored: the macho culture of Rosello and his boys. Two male members of Rossello’s Cabinet who also participated in the chats have resigned in the wake of the scandal, but the governor – who has apologized for some of his comments, saying they were a way to blow off steam after a day’s hard work – said he will remain.
Women on the island are furious. We all should be. This is a crisis that has been allowed to fester at the expense of the lives of women and children. Rossello must resign.
According to an ACLU report, Puerto Rico has the highest per capita rate in the world of women over 14 killed by their partners, a number the organization describes as disturbing and climbing. Researchers found that governmental agencies fail to follow protocols, respond, record and investigate crimes of rape and sexual assault. And of the 20,000 domestic violence cases reported to police annually, the ACLU report citing a government office found that only a fraction, 500, result in conviction.
They have been ignored.
“Just yesterday two more women were killed, and one of them, an 18-year-old, was pregnant,” Vilma Gonzalez told me over the phone on Wednesday. Gonzalez, a mother of a 24-year-old daughter, was on her way to the march in San Juan to join hundreds of thousands who are calling on the governor to step down. She is the executive director of Paz Para la Mujer (Peace for Women), a 30-year-old organization that helps victims of domestic violence, and has worked for the organization for 17 years.
“He and his administration don’t take women seriously they think we are all whores. He must step down,” she said.
The governor’s private chats were homophobic and crass — he made fun of obese people, poverty-shamed a neighbor whose shack was destroyed by the hurricane. He also made fun of the dead. And Rossello showed his disturbing misogyny. In one exchange, Rossello’s chief fiscal officer says he is “salivating to shoot” San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz and Rossello’s response was: “You’d be doing me a grand favor.” In another, Rossello calls former Speaker of New York City Council Melissa Mark-Viverito a whore who should be beaten up. Words are a window into a mindset and also into an administration’s culture. Rossello’s private chats with a group of male staffers demonstrate just how deeply the personal is political in what some (myself included) call the oldest colony of the USA.
According to the Puerto Rico Governor’s Office on Women (Oficina de la Procuradora de las Mujeres), the number of women killed by an intimate partner nearly doubled from 14 in 2017 to 26 in 2018. And the women saw it coming.
“We warned the administration that there was going to be a rise in violence after the hurricane. After a catastrophic event, we know trends. But our warnings have fallen on deaf ears,” Gonzalez fumed.
Paz Para la Mujer and Seguimiento de Casos, an organization run by a group of retired social workers, are keeping tabs on the murders because women activists don’t trust official numbers. They comb news reports and gather numbers from women advocates all over the island. Since the start of 2019, 19 women have been murdered, nine of them by an intimate partner, including a 13-year old girl whose 19-year old boyfriend poured gasoline on her and set her on fire.
Colectiva Feminista en Construcción (Feminist Collective in Construction) is among the leading groups calling attention to gender violence on the island. The collective has been leading sit-ins in different parts of the island and in front of the governor’s mansion—La Fortaleza. For three days in November 2018, the women held posters with grim statistics. They banged on drums. They chanted. They held vigils. They sang. They yelled. They continue to protest.
“Women are living in abhorrent crisis every single day,” bristled Vanessa Contreras, one of the leaders of Colectiva Feminista who have been actively protesting and demanding action by Rossello.
“He did not come out to ask why we’re so concerned, why we are so angry,” said Gonzalez, who joined the Colectiva Feminsita sit-ins.
Advocates like Gonzalez and Colectiva Feminista say Rossello’s words are an offensive reminder of a dark reality too many women are facing.
“The language that the governor expressed in the intimacy with his friends is the same language that we hear from aggressors,” Gonzalez said. “I am so furious. We can’t allow this violence to be normalized.”
Gonzalez and Contreras said that they and thousands of women who advocate on behalf of women will continue to protest every day until Rossello resigns. But they won’t stop when he resigns. They will keep pressure on his replacement until the government declares a state of emergency about the epidemic of violence against women. They are also calling for the cancellation of billions of dollars of debt. They want the Financial Oversight and Management Board of Puerto Rico, known on the island as the Junta (the Congressional board that oversees the debt and that has been implementing austerity measures, including closing schools and cutbacks on basic services) to stop imposing more painful cutbacks, some of which target programs that help women.
Calling for a state of emergency, women advocates say, will bring seriousness to the issue of gender violence and direct government funds toward programs to help. They want the issue of violence to be handled holistically—tackling a culture of machismo everywhere from schools to government agencies, to law enforcement.
Puerto Rican women have endured dehumanizing violence for a long time. In the mid-20th century, for instance, island women were forced to undergo sterilization and the contraceptive pill was tested in a Puerto Rico housing project. They were the first human guinea pigs to have endured OxyContin tests. A Los Angeles Times investigation on the opioid crisis found that in the 1989 a group of unsuspecting Puerto Rican women recuperating from abdominal and gynecological surgery were given opioids to test the efficacy of the narcotics, the same drugs which have caused devastation all over the USA.
“Basta ya!” Gonzalez said as we finished our conversation, which translates to enough is enough. “We will not be killed, sexually assaulted, tested on, beat, and raped any more.”