When I interviewed them last summer, Betty Peña and her daughter Eliza came to meet me with some avocados they brought from Caguas, where they live. They were shiny and ripe in the basket, a gift for the office full of people that were advocating for them. Betty is a schoolteacher and a member of the union, so when there was a demonstration at the Capitolio on June 30, 2010 about the right of the people to observe the legislature in action, she took her daughter to learn a lesson in democracy. Unfortunately that day Betty and her daughter became front page news because they were beaten and teargassed by the Puerto Rico police, which has subsequently been denounced by a Department of Justice report that was released in September of last year. I wrote about this issue in an article I have linked to here.
Betty had deeply felt ideas about the people of Puerto Rico. “Work is, I would say it is an important ingredient for us to have emotional health. And they know it, they know it’s true, but it doesn’t matter to them. We could be a miracle. We are Puerto Ricans but we could be very rich. My brothers came from the U.S. and said we went to the grocery store and said how is it possible that here we have products from Costa Rica, from Nicaragua, the DR and nothing from here? With so much land we have here, with so many people without work? And then the government doesn’t know that? Because the government isn’t interested in us doing anything for them to have their posts and continue to do whatever they want. Why don’t they see that we’re in bad shape? Because they’re the ones that have us in bad shape. They’re only looking to satisfy their particular interests. So we, I tell my children ‘if you don’t work, you don’t eat.’ Because work is dignity. And we Puerto Ricans are dignified people, working people.”
Eliza, who last year entered her first semester at the University of Puerto Rico (she wants to study accounting), was completely in awe of her mother, and felt strongly about following in her footsteps. “I’m 18 years old. I’ve lived in Caguas for as long as I can remember, since I was born and so since I was a child I’ve always adhered to the value of having love for my country, for the land, for the flag of Puerto Rico. We lived two years, from when I was 9-10, we lived two years in Arroyo, and there she told me a lot about how she lived, what she did to eat, how she went to school, that she had to get muddy and take off her shoes to get there. When she got home she could eat an orange with pride because she picked it from that little orange tree. When we were in Caguas, she woke up early every day to go out and harvest things. And I’m like mom, you always get up early, you can’t stop, you’re always picking fruit, mom, please. And she’s like, it’s something that you feel, and I’m like I understand because when I got to pick fruit and you’re under that sun, and then you realize that, look, I got a meal because today I harvested, I worked the area where there is vegetation, and it’s that passion of knowing that you’re tending your land, that you’re taking care of your country, that you’re contributing to the environment, and she always told me that no one can tell me different.”
The government waited almost a year after the Capitolio incident to “ease out” José Figueroa Sancha, the superintendent of police ultimately responsible for the beating of Peña and many others, and in his place named an older man, Emilio Díaz Colón, who many have called incompetent. Now there are rumors that Díaz Colón is to be replaced, but by whom, and when? Is there no sense of urgency from a government facing serious repercussions from the DOJ and an island wide crisis over drug trafficking and criminal violence?
The next few weeks might bring answers.