In December of 2018, I wrote “Dear women on the U.S. mainland: Please support our sisters in Puerto Rico,” crying out for mainland women’s groups to aid Puerto Rican women in their struggle to end gendered violence and femicide on the island.
That was post-Hurricane Maria, but before COVID-19. The situation on the island has not gotten better; it has gotten worse, exacerbated by the pandemic.
For the last few days, it has been in the news again, as the newly elected governor of Puerto Rico, Pedro Pierluisi, has declared a state of emergency over gendered violence. It’s something women’s groups on the island have been fighting for years.
Syra Ortiz-Blanes, a Puerto Rican journalist reporting for the Miami Herald, details the reactions of women on the island to the governor’s proclamation.
Local activists have fought for the designation for years, noting an uptick in femicides and the lack of an effective police response. They hailed the order as an important step in improving government accountability.
But many are also cautious after years of disappointment on an island that has struggled to provide residents with even basic necessities like electricity in the aftermath of devastating natural disasters. And observers note that success will hinge not just on policy but a larger cultural shift.
“As long as you have such high levels of tolerance for gender-based violence, even the best legislation is not going to be perfect, because it is not going to be enforced,” said Amalia Alarcón, a leader with Plan International, a humanitarian organization that advocates for improving the lives of girls.
The story in Primera Hora shows a picture of one of the latest victims—nurse Angie Noemí González Santos, a mother of three daughters, who was strangled by her partner of 13 years, Roberto Félix Rodríguez Díaz. Her funeral was held on Jan. 26.
Puerto Rican journalist Andrea González-Ramírez has been reporting in English on this issue, for several years. She wrote about the crisis in 2018, post-Maria.
The crises created by Hurricane Maria only exacerbated the existing crisis of gendered violence.
“These women were in crisis and couldn’t reach out to the authorities. There were times where our team would try to figure out who would take in the victims or how could we relocate them because their abuser was already harassing them and could show up at any time,” Pizarro Quiles, who has led the intervention and prevention nonprofit for two decades, said. “It was complicated, but we were able to help our survivors without putting them in dangerous situations.”
ESCAPE, which offers prevention and intervention services for domestic violence and children’s abuse cases in several areas of the island, saw a 62% increase in requests for survivor-related services and a 47% surge in requests for preventive and education resources. Other organizations offering services for survivors reported similar surges
. “We also witnessed the intensity of the violence after Maria through the hits women received, where and which type, the aggression towards children,” she said. “The trauma of the storm and the current economic situation are bound to be triggers for more violence.”
González-Ramírez has continued to address the issue, writing an in-depth, ongoing story in June 2020, which she is recirculating now, in the wake of Pierluisi’s declaration.
Please take some time to read the whole thing.
The night before Suliani Calderón Nieves was murdered, she drove to her mother’s house in Bayamón, Puerto Rico, to drop off her two kids. The 38-year-old health care worker had begun rediscovering her freedom after a contentious divorce and was headed to an event in town, where she was going to read a poem she had written. As she was leaving the house, her mother, Sonia Nieves, took a moment to admire her daughter’s long black hair, signature red lipstick, and bright smile. “You look very beautiful today,” her mother said. “Yo sé que estoy bien buena,” Suliani cheekily responded. “I know I’m hot.”
When Suliani returned to pick up her kids on the evening of May 17, 2018, the lightness was gone. Her ex-husband, José Vega Nieves, had shown up unannounced at the end of the reading, one of the many times he would harass her following the end of their tumultuous 16-year relationship. Angry, Suliani fought with him over WhatsApp messages, but her mom encouraged her to drop it. In the heated exchange, Suliani threatened to call the police on him.
That night, after she returned to her home with her children, Suliani logged into Facebook and posted another poem. “La vida te golpea… Life hits you, you think you learn the lesson and it hits you again. When the river of misery leaves its channel, it never returns to its current. The stones are painful episodes, more if you get used to their stumbling, you will only allow more sorrows. No one owns our life, and I just want to live it.”
Suliani was shot the next morning, by her ex-husband, in front of their children. Vega Nieves then killed himself.
The day after González-Ramírez published Suliani’s story, she discussed domestic violence on the island with CBS News.
Tiffany Rivera, writing for AL DÍA, covered yet another devastating murder, this time of a trans man.
Samuel Edmund Damian Valentin, a young transgender man, and student at Atlantic University College in Guaynabo, Puerto Rico, was found murdered in the middle of highway PR-181 in Trujillo Alto in Carolina, Puerto Rico on Jan. 9.
His body was discovered by a woman who inadvertently hit it while she drove on the highway. When she pulled over to examine what she hit, she made a gruesome discovery. Valentin’s body was reported to have at least five bullet wounds, according to WAPA.
His body was originally reported as being that of a woman, but family and friends confirmed to reporters that he was in fact, a trans man. Unfortunately, Valentin’s murder is the seventh transgender murder on the island in the span of a year.
Rivera interviewed LGBTQ activist Pedro Julio Serrano, founder and executive director of PuertoRicoParaTod@s for her story. Serrano has been outspoken about the need to ensure that Pierluisi’s emergency declaration addresses homophobia and transphobia.
Activists on the island continue to fight back, staging actions calling attention to the ongoing crisis.
Puerto Rican journalist Raquel Reichard, described one of the protests on the island for HipLatina.
Outside a judicial center in Ponce, Puerto Rico, Deddie Almodovar Ojeda’s body lays face down on the concrete, baking under the Caribbean sun. A white sheet covers her motionless body. The staged crime scene captures the attention of those passing by on the busy street; some park their cars to take photos. Inside the courthouse, the trial of Juan Luis Cornier Torres, a local graffiti artist charged in the murder of Deddie’s late sister Valerie Ann Almodóvar Ojeda, was supposed to commence. Instead, a hearing is taking place to postpone the trial until January 21, 2021 — the fifth delay since the brutal murder of the young actress on December 17, 2018. Deddie’s artistic protest makes the crisis of gender violence in Puerto Rico visible and denounces what many consider a government unwilling to protect its women and girls and ill-equipped to bring their killers to justice.
Activists on the island are finding many creative ways to engage and educate. Here’s one example: “Confronta tu machismo y ¡cambia ya!” (That’s “Confront your machismo and change now!” in English.
The shadow is the metaphor of the machismo, a learned behavior imposed by patriarchal society.
This piece directed by Carla Cavina, from Taller Cinemático, for the feminist journalism outlet of Puerto Rico Todas (todaspr.com) focuses on toxic masculinity that idealizes conquest, possession and control expressed through everyday microaggressions that, many times, go unnoticed. It points to empathy as the axis of the necessary change when the individual recognizes his own machismo.
You can help by directly supporting activist organizations on the island, and domestic violence shelters, by contacting your elected officials, by following reporters who are covering Puerto Rico, and sharing their reporting.