The first time I was tear-gassed, my arms were raised, palms facing the growing police force in front of me. The sun was setting, something Puerto Ricans have learned means bed time for the Constitution. It became a running, albeit unfunny, joke about the ability of police to violate our right to protest after dark.
As the police advanced across the cobblestone streets of Old San Juan, shielded by the darkness and their riot gear, I wondered how they could turn against us like we were the enemy. After all, we were there to force the ousting of our disgraced Gov. Ricardo Rosselló. His ineptitude and inhumanity in dealing with Hurricanes Irma and María contributed to the storm’s devastation, which included thousands of deaths of Puerto Ricans and left our archipelago in shambles. Yet it felt like the police were there to defend Rosselló: beating their batons against the bodies of peaceful protesters, shooting rubber bullets at close range, pepper spraying masses, and hurling tear gas canisters into crowds of people.
Political elites and the media often shun protestors for not employing the so-called “proper methods” for change, such as voting or calling their representatives. But it’s difficult for impacted communities — who are often made up of Black people, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) — to work within a system anchored by predatory capitalism, colonialism, and imperialism.
For us, the system fails us every time — and not because it is broken. The system works exactly as intended, in favor of rich, white lives, and in resentment of everyone else.
In the weeks leading up to Rosselló’s resignation, Puerto Ricans protested for our right to remove a leader who did not value our lives. When Rosselló finally left office in August 2019, it was an act of justice.
But we can’t stop there. After all, Hurricanes Irma and María and their aftermath weren’t the product of just one man.
For decades, Puerto Rico has lived under the thumb of colonial rule and the callousness of local political elites like Rosselló who treat Puerto Ricans as second-class citizens — or worse. Whether it’s the federal government limiting Puerto Rico’s voice in policies that affect them directly or Rosselló texting jokes about all the dead bodies piling up on the archipelago after hurricanes Irma and María, it’s clear that those in power won’t face the problems they’ve helped create and benefited from unless they’re forced to. This was true in the Rosselló corruption scandal, and it’s true for the climate crisis.
Growing up in Puerto Rico, I carried with me the constant knowledge that my adored archipelago is unlikely to survive our climate-changed world, with the coming years of flooding, erosion, and hurricanes battering my archipelago. When I was 8 years old, I learned how carbon emissions raise global temperatures, causing icebergs to melt and sea levels to rise. Though no one ever said it, there was an unspoken understanding of what happens to small bodies of land surrounded by water when water levels rise too much. And when that body of land is inhabited by People of Color like me, the situation is even more precarious for the archipelago’s inhabitants.
I was too young to recognize the full effects of the climate crisis and environmental racism on my archipelago, but I was old enough to worry. Hurricanes Irma and María replaced that angst with a personal encounter with the climate crisis that forced me to face Puerto Rico’s worsening situation.
After Hurricanes Irma and María hit, I remember going back to school before there was running water and power in my home, doing homework under candlelight after showering with a bucket. In many ways, I was lucky. Many children missed on average 78 days of school, and many had no school to return to. Meanwhile, my friends and family struggled to eat and access necessary medications. Our survival was on the line, and we had no choice but to go into the streets.
In 2019, Puerto Ricans joined millions of people around the world to call attention to the climate crisis. Known as the Global Climate Strike, the event was led by young people, and it centered around their experience as the first generation to come of age when the climate crisis’ impacts are undeniable. But for many Puerto Ricans, we did not yearn for a livable future. Instead, we demanded a livable present as one of the first victims of the climate crisis.
As marginalized youth, we should not have to be on the front lines. It is not our job to put ourselves at risk to save people. We are kids. Yet, we have no other choice. We either dedicate ourselves to creating systemic change and helping our communities, or we resign ourselves to live the unbearable current reality.
So how do young people like me keep going, especially when the world around us is burning?
First, we must build power and confidence in ourselves by recognizing that we’re standing on the shoulders of those who have come before us. When I read about my elders and about the justice communities who have been doing this work so long, I see that I’m not alone in this struggle. And who am I to say our elders were wrong? No one; I am no one to say that.
Second, while we’re working to abolish the system, we have to do what we can to reduce the harm within it. That’s why I’m going to school to be an environmental lawyer. My goal as a lawyer is to minimize harm, but my goal as a human is to remove the system that normalized that harm in the first place. These goals coexist in the fact that ultimately their intention is to make life less hellish for marginalized communities.
Third, to summarize the words of Black revolutionary and poet Angela Davis: We have to believe that we can transform the world drastically, and we have to believe that all the time.
Despite what others may say, protest is no easy way out. Rage is not easy. Systematic asphyxiation of the body and soul brings out these powerful, overwhelming emotions, and it is easy to feel defeated or nihilistic. (I know I’m guilty of bursting into tears because of how stubbornly unmovable the state seems to be.)
But together, in community and allegiance, we can abolish the system that has ripped millions of lives from us. Disrupting and upsetting the system is how we will change the world. If the people protest loud enough, those who don’t want to listen, must.
Isabel Valentín is a 17-year-old climate activist from Viejo San Juan, Puerto Rico, who serves as logistics director for U.S. Youth Climate Strike. As part of Earthjustice’s Lit project, we are sharing the perspectives of justice advocates outside Earthjustice who are working to solve the climate crisis.
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