Two things happened that brought worldwide attention to the island of Puerto Rico last week. First, a general strike that had gone almost completely ignored by news organizations in the United States suddenly became the news of the day (until it was overshadowed by the Balloon Boy hoax) thanks to all the reporting happening through Twitter and Facebook. Second, the biggest hip-hop star from Puerto Rico, Calle 13’s René “El Residente” Pérez, took a few seconds as host of the MTV Latino Awards to call Luis Fortuño, the island’s governor, a “son of a whore.”
To understand what’s going on in Puerto Rico I could take you as far back as the day in 1898, when my great-grandfather, Simón Mejil, walked out to Guánica Bay to witness General Miles invade Puerto Rico. Then again, I could take you to 1952, when the island became officially a “free associated state” of the United States. Or I could take you even closer, to the 1990s, when the United States decided to retire all federal tax exemption privileges U.S. corporations enjoyed in the island prompting the bleeding of jobs and the 15 percent unemployment rate. But I really think the paro can be attributed to an egg—or as we Puerto Ricans call it, “el huevazo.”
First, a bit of background: Former Gov. Aníbal Acevedo Vilá had very little political capital left by 2008. When he won in 2004, he was certified by the courts after a slew of lawsuits tried to throw out his slim margin. Four years of hostilities with the assembly reached their peak with the 2008 government shutdown. Last, capitalizing on that bad faith, the opposition party brought trumped–up corruption charges against him just in time for the elections. The charges were used mercilessly against him throughout the campaign. Acevedo Vilá, a Democrat, was found innocent, but he nevertheless lost the elections to Luis Fortuño, his Republican opponent.
Fortuño won by a massive margin. He had pledge during his campaign to never let a shutdown happen or allow any massive layoffs. In the United States, for a Republican to make such campaign promises seems like an oxymoron. It’s understandable in an island where the single largest employer is the government.
This is where the egg comes in.
Just as Muntazer al-Zaidi became a hero to Iraqis for the single act of throwing a shoe in the general direction of George Bush, Roberto García has become an everyday hero to many Puerto Ricans for lobbing an egg at Fortuño. Yet “el huevazo” became emblematic of those marching: García was a disgruntled former government employee who had also campaigned for the very man who was stabbing him in the back with a pink slip.
The egg toss symbolizes the single most fundamental shift in Puerto Rican history and politics: “Take no prisioners” viral communications is stripping the island’s elite of their power. Days before the general strike, Fortuño had threatened organizers the Patriot Act, pledging to arrest them under “terrorist threat” charges. Every single major government official went on a media blitz to downplay the strike. Yet el huevazo is a meme or international proportions.
The people behind the strike knew it; particularly the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). Their massive support shows how they’re becoming one of the biggest political forces in the U.S. and Puerto Rico. Their understanding of new media and digital technologies has been at the core of their stratey of turning every single union effort into a successful viral campaign. Thanks to their online outreach work, I was alerted to the #ParoPR broadcasting on Twitter. I became part of a whole communications chain that had union worker, random citizens, independent reporters and ex-pats spreading the word about this important political event.
Which brings us to the “hijo de puta” moment by René of Calle 13.
That moment is beyond epic. It’s the first time in Puerto Rican history that we have a pop-culture superstar go out to bat so forcefully on an international platform. And his action is another example of another alternative media platform working against the power players in the island. René not only worked the MTV Latino Awards and the subsequent backlash. He also used Twitter to maximize the momentum.