Despite Violent Turn, New Yorkers Show Support for University of Puerto Rico Student Demonstrations

Giovanni Roberto Caez, a student activist at the University of Puerto Rico

Giovanni Roberto Caez, a student activist at the University of Puerto Rico, on a visit to New York City. (Photo: Von Diaz)

For almost an entire year, student protests have rocked the University of Puerto Rico. The demonstrations that began on April 21, 2010 are in opposition to fee increases and the elimination of certain merit-based fee waivers at the university. The conflict, known as much for mobilizing Puerto Rican citizens as for violence, police brutality and property destruction, has exposed deep tensions on the island as the first Republican governor since 1969 implements austerity measures.

The students involved in the year-long standoff are often represented as vandals and aggressive troublemakers by the Puerto Rican government and media. While a minority of students were violent and destroyed property, many others have used art, multimedia, and nonviolent protest techniques to bring attention to educational concerns as well as broader social and economic issues in Puerto Rico.

But on March 7 a group of students left their largely non-violent stance and attacked the university’s interim Chancellor Dr. Ana Guadalupe, pulling her hair, hitting her with plastic bottles, and spraying her with water and Gatorade, and attacking her car. She was on campus reportedly to discuss the $800 tuition increase that has been at the center of the protests since December. Security Chief Jorge Rodríguez was also attacked.

The events of March 7th shifted the tone of the demonstrations. Video footage of the attack on Chancellor Guadalupe looks like an angry mob of violent youth relentlessly attacking a scared woman as she tried to exit a building. Leaders of the movement are now faced with taking a stand on this action, which could divide the student body. Even before the attack, the New York Times reported that not all UPR students want the strike to continue.

The attack on Guadalupe follows a number of incidents where police and security guards have used violent tactics against University of Puerto Rico (UPR) students. Dozens of photos and videos show students being choked, their faces pressed to the ground, with sometimes 4 or 5 people working on a single student, pulling their ears or pressing down on their neck in order to arrest them. Often times, the students being aggressively handled by security officers were sitting, their arms locked with other protesters. There have also been accusations of sexual violence against female students.

The protests have resonated in the U.S., particularly within the Puerto Rican community. Human and civil rights organizations including the American Civil Liberties Union and Amnesty International have publicly denounced the government and police response to the student demonstrations, and Congressman Luis Gutierrez recently made an impassioned plea on the floor of the House to call attention to the attacks on students.  In a move that revealed divisions within the Puerto Rican community, the following day, Puerto Rico’s official representative in Congress, Resident Commissioner Pedro Pierluisi, angrily lashed out against Guttierez for overstepping his bounds.

UPR student activist Arturo Otlahu Rios speaking to an audience in New York City

UPR student activist Arturo Otlahu Rios speaking to an audience in New York City at the Julia de Burgos Latino Cultural Center. (Photo: Von Diaz)

In the middle of the controversy about the attack on the chancellor, student demonstrators spoke at multiple events in New York City last week to raise awareness about their struggle.  On Thursday, a panel of student activists from UPR spoke at New York University, underscoring how their movement is connected to larger economic, political and social issues that they say have had a direct impact on their education.

“The University of Puerto Rico is a microcosm of the island. What’s happening on the island is happening at UPR,” said UPR student Arturo Atlahu.

Puerto Rico has been in an economic recession for the past five years, exacerbated by the U.S. recession. In the summer of 2009, Governor Luis Fortuño initiated austerity measures to help the government stay afloat, which included laying off 30,000 public sector employees. The administration of UPR claims the new $800 fee for students is needed to address a deficit caused by these budget cuts, but many students say they cannot afford the fees.

The students speaking at NYU told how they have been producing visual, musical, installation and performance art. UPR student Pedro Manuel Lugo described a performance involving dozens of students wearing only red, white and blue paint—the colors of the Puerto Rican flag—following a large skull as it moved through city streets. In another performance, students dressed as clowns in police uniforms and stood in front of police barricades. Student Lourdes Santiago Negron talked about Radio Huelga, a radio station started by UPR students during the April 2010 strike to provide news and information about demonstrations and serve as a platform for discussion.

Despite the description of these non-violent approaches, the attack on Chancellor Guadalupe loomed over the event at NYU.  Giovanni Roberto Caez, a 28-year-old UPR student pursuing a degree in education, responded for the group. He described the event sarcastically as an “expression of love,” and said, “She deserved that and more.”

Roberto, one of the leaders of the movement, also said he was happy the incident occurred because it would bring about more debate.

For the most part, the crowd at NYU responded sympathetically to the students. Angelo Falcon, President of the National Institute of Latino Policy, said Puerto Rican New Yorkers are generally supportive of the student movement and have a lot of national pride in the UPR.

“Mostly what I see is that people are concerned about the institution. UPR is a place that is known for demonstrations—there’s a tradition of that. So why is the administration cracking down? People can tell there’s something wrong there,” Falcon surmised.

Falcon, who has written extensively on Puerto Rican politics, has been surprised to see so many in New York’s Puerto Rican community embrace this issue. “Usually, they are only interested in basic issues of survival, housing and poverty. It’s fascinating to see that interesting reaction and mobilization here. I think people think there’s much at stake,” he said.

The following evening people of different ages and backgrounds came together at a solidarity event for the student movement at the Julia de Burgos Latino Cultural Center in New York City’s El Barrio neighborhood.  The group included artists, music performers, poets, activists, teachers, and even a group of nine-year olds.

Ana Lopez, professor of humanities at Hostos Community College in New York and a human rights advocate, came to the event because she said she agrees efforts to ensure access to education for low-income students. She also applauded their social organizing efforts.

“I think that the method of struggle they have shown is a model for all of us to follow,” Lopez said.

UPR alum David Ortiz Albuquerque is supportive of the student protesters

UPR alum David Ortiz Albuquerque is supportive of the student protesters. (Photo: Von Diaz)

David Ortiz Albuquerque, a Harlem resident, is a UPR graduate who moved to New York from Puerto Rico 20 years ago, and one who empathized with the students.

“When I went to UPR, I was on a full scholarship. I believe that the plan proposed by the UPR administration and the government is a plan to exclude poor students. I think they are trying to create an elite education system, and this is not just. The children of the working class have the right to go to the best school in Puerto Rico,” Ortiz said.

Olga Sanabria Davila, who works with a committee for Puerto Rico at the United Nations, also attended the event.

“I think it’s extremely important to support the students in PR. They are at the forefront of maintaining public higher education in Puerto Rico, and also access to the students who are lower income. The other reason I’m here is because of the repression they’ve suffered,” Sanabria said.

Supporters at the two events were reluctant to address the incident with Chancellor Guadalupe.   “There’s a multitude of responses from our community,” Bronx resident Benjamin Ramos said, who expressed his own support for the students’ education struggle.

Making their case to the large Puerto Rican immigrant community in New York, the UPR students said success would be tied to broadening their base of support.

“We have bigger fights ahead. We need to organize, discuss how we’re going to do that fight, and make more tactical alliances with sectors of the working class and other social movements in Puerto Rico,” said Caez, the student leader.

Von Diaz is a Feet in Two Worlds LGBT reporting fellow.  Her work, and the work of other Fi2W fellows, is supported by the New York Community Trust and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation with additional support from the Mertz Gilmore Foundation.

AboutVon Diaz
Von Diaz is a writer and radio producer based in New York City. She is a self-taught cook who explores Puerto Rican food, culture, and identity through memoir and multimedia. Her work has been featured on NPR, American Public Media, StoryCorps, WNYC, PRI’s The World, BuzzFeed, Colorlines, and Feet in 2 Worlds. Von has an M.A. in journalism and Latin American and Caribbean studies from New York University. A graduate of Agnes Scott College, she earned a B.A. in Women’s Studies and focused her research on women in Latin America. She is a currently a producer at StoryCorps, and previously worked in community advocacy and communications for nonprofits focused on women, children, art, and Latino culture.