Lawrence Puerto Ricans support governor's ouster 

COURTESY PHOTO Magdalena Lebron, 69, and her daughter, Zenaida Fernandez Quiles, 53, are longtime Lawrence residents now living in Puerto Rico, where massive protests to get the governor to resign were underway Monday.

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — If they weren't on the ground in Old San Juan Monday, part of a massive protest, people in Puerto Rico were glued to television, radio and social media reports there, a former Lawrence resident said. 

"If you are walking down the street all you can hear are the TVs on the same channel," said Zenaida Fernandez Quiles, who lives in the central mountains on the Caribbean island with her mother, Magdalena Lebron. 

They live roughly 45 minutes away from the protest, which was expected to attract a million people Monday. Still, they remained engaged and involved, she said. 

"The storm came and the vultures took advantage. They put a foot to the throat of their own people. They spit in the face of their own people when they were down," said Quiles, who moved from Lawrence to Puerto Rico in September 2018 after numerous decades stateside.

The biggest protest ever seen in the history of the U.S. territory was held Monday, with irate islanders pledging to drive Gov. Ricardo Rosselló from office.

"The people of Puerto Rico deserve better. Honestly, he was elected by the people and those same people want him out. He violated their trust," said Lawrence firefighter Juan Manny Gonzalez, a Puerto Rican native. 

Lawrence Mayor Daniel Rivera, who is also partly of Puerto Rican descent, urged Rossello to resign and allow for "peaceful transformation." 

"Although there is a lot of turmoil, there is opportunity. ... Clearly it's a boiling point, but at the end of the day this is an opportunity for Puerto Rico to get back on its feet," Rivera said. 

Sunday a Puerto Rican Heritage Parade and Festival was held in downtown Lawrence. A group of young people were present and held signs asking for Rossello's resignation.

"It's definitely what Puerto Ricans in Lawrence are talking about," said Rivera. 

'You have to resign'

Protesters took over one of the island’s busiest highways to press demands for the resignation of Rosselló over an obscenity-laced leaked online chat the governor had with allies, as well as federal corruption charges leveled against his administration.

The demonstration in the capital of San Juan came a day after Rosselló announced that he would not quit, but sought to calm the unrest by promising not to seek re-election or continue as head of his pro-statehood political party. That only further angered his critics, who have mounted street demonstrations for more than a week.

The territory’s largest newspaper, El Nuevo Dia, added to the pressure with a front-page headline reading: “Governor, it’s time to listen to the people: You have to resign.”

Puerto Rico measures 100 miles long by 35 miles wide and is home to 3.5 million people.

The 889 pages of chat on the encrypted app Telegram between the governor and 11 close allies and members of his administration, all men, showed the governor and his advisers insulting women and mocking constituents, including the victims of Hurricane Maria in September 2017.

William Pagan of Lawrence, who has family in Jayuya, just returned from a vacation in Puerto Rico. Also a Lawrence firefighter, Pagan organized a large relief effort for his native island for months after Hurricane Maria. 

"If he doesn't resign, it's going to get bad," said Pagan of Rossello. "It all comes down to the those comments he made. ... People were trying to believe in him but those comments came out and they lost all confidence. 

"They want somebody they can trust in there," Pagan said. 

Gonzalez said he has many family members still living on the island who "deserve better." 

"They are sending a strong message for governors to come," Gonzalez said of the protestors. 

'People have had enough'

Quiles, the former Lawrence resident, said both physical and psychological damage in Puerto Rico remains ripe after Hurricane Maria.

She broke into tears as she recalled the story of one of her father's co-workers — a woman who committed suicide after the hurricane "because she had to feed her kids dog food."

Those who died in the hurricane or from related diseases and ailments were not adequately cared for or tracked by the government, she said.

"People had to bury relatives in their yards with their own hands," she said.  

Donations from the United States mainland were not properly distributed and truckloads of water were later found unopened 30 minutes away from where residents posted a large "SOS" looking for fresh water, she said. 

Quiles said the island's three main political parties have all collapsed temporarily with residents joining together for Rosello's ouster. Businesses are also participating, giving employees the days off to protest, including Pepsi and Coca Cola, two rivals with manufacturing plants in Puerto Rico. 

"Even they are protesting together," said Quiles. 

She said she was not living in Puerto Rico when Hurricane Maria hit, but rather came a year later largely for health reasons. She has seen "residents fended for themselves and cared for each other." 

The release of Rosello's online chat was a breaking point. 

"There is pain and a lot of rage and people have basically had enough," Quiles said. "This is the middle of the story. The end has yet to be written." 

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report. 

Follow staff reporter Jill Harmacinski on Twitter @EagleTribJill.