Public Anthropologies

By Carlos G. García-Quijano and Hilda Lloréns

On July 13, 2019, multitudinous and multisectoral protests in Puerto Rico formed around demands for Governor Ricardo Rosselló’s resignation. Two weeks later, on July 24, 2019, Rosselló gave in to the pressure from virtually all sectors of Puerto Rican society and resigned. These unprecedented events in the island’s history, also known as “the 2019 Puerto Rican Revolution,” are widely agreed to constitute a watershed moment (Bonilla 2019; Lebrón 2019).

Although discontent with Rosselló’s administration and the political ruling class in Puerto Rico had been long simmering, the event that precipitated the protests was the “leaking” of a series of online chats between Rosselló and a close group of collaborators. In these chats, Rosselló and his inner circle made profane jokes about political opponents; made fun of the poor, including their own political supporters; and threatened violence toward opponents, among other things. It is widely agreed that the leaked chats, also known as #RickyLeaks and #TelegramGate, are the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back, after repeated violations of public trust and corruption by this and previous governments (Morales 2019).

Translation: The Junta and Ricky, the two wings of one vulture. (Photograph by Hilda Lloréns)


As anthropologists who study Puerto Rican culture, we consider that the content of the chat itself is no ordinary straw that broke the camel’s back, but that it represents an unpardonable violation of Puerto Rican core cultural values of respeto, compasión, and humildad (respect, compassion, and humility). A widely perceived violation of Puerto Rican core cultural values was at the very heart of the anger felt toward the governor and his chat “bros.”

Core cultural values (Hsu 1971; Smolicz 1987) are a fundamental component of a group’s culture. They act as identifying values that are symbolic of the group and its membership (Hsu 1971), and their rejection entails the threat of exclusion, often permanent, from the group. In other words, violation and disregard of core cultural values can be punishable with the gravest of social sanctions. The rejection of violators tends to be universal, often overshadowing other divisions within a society (Smolicz 1987). These values unify people across social groups. Group members are also expected to visibly reject violators of core cultural values; neutrality is not an option.

Anthropologists, historians, and others have described how serious protests, riots, revolts, and other multitudinous expressions of outrage are often not motivated by purely economic or political causes but rather are spurred on by the perceived violation of basic notions of justice, fairness, decorum, or morality, as well as by violations of beliefs and cultural concepts held sacred by a social group (Götz 2015; Moore 1987; Scott 1976; Thompson 1971). Even if not named explicitly, notions of widely shared core cultural values figure prominently in these accounts of social outrage. For example, historian E. P. Thompson (1971) famously attributed a series of food riots in nineteenth-century England to perceived violations of basic values of fair access to unadulterated food, as understood in the “moral economy” of working-class crowds.

In Puerto Rico’s case, the violation of these widely shared core cultural values of respeto, compasión, and humildad was one of the reasons for the universality of the protests demanding Rosselló’s resignation, known at the time as the #RickyRenunciaYa (#RickyResignAlready) movement. Rejection of the governor and his inner cabinet brought together people from all walks of life, from multimillionaire pop megastars like Ricky Martin to the working-class biker-club leader El Rey Charlie. Governor Rosselló was democratically elected by a narrow majority in 2016, but even his former political supporters deserted him (Rodríguez Medina 2019). This is remarkable in the context of Puerto Rican politics, where political party loyalties tend to be strong and lasting, forming part of the sense of identity of individuals and even entire families.

The swift and wide-ranging expressions of outrage made manifest in Puerto Rico, its diaspora, and on social media attest to just to how deeply the chat’s contents cut into an open social wound. Because the governor and his chatmates violated the core value of compassion, they were not deemed to be deserving of receiving “el perdón del pueblo” (the people’s forgiveness). This is remarkable in a culture in which the compassionate act of forgiving “those who have trespassed against us”—exemplified in the well-known and often-recited Catholic Lord’s Prayer—is a commonly used figured of speech functioning to maintain interpersonal and social harmony.

The content of the leaked chat shows repeated violations of respect for women, the poor, and the dead, among others. The core value of respeto (respect) is about recognizing that other people have intrinsic value and showing proper courtesy and decorum in dealings with others, irrespective of socioeconomic standing. Respeto is widely violated in the chat. For instance, the participants made offhand comments about the dead, referred to backlogged corpses in the coroner’s office as fodder for crows, called women “putas” (whores), and joked that a “tweet would suffice” when a known radio host died rather than bestowing the honor of lowering the flag in his memory. They also made repeated misogynistic jokes, made crude jokes about a rival party’s senator sexual orientation, showed contempt for the death of leftist leader Carlos Gallisá (to which they referred as a “loss for demagoguery”), made jokes about flying flags at only quarter mast, and made fun of singer Ricky Martin’s sexual orientation. Finally, they referred to wishes to rid the island of Puerto Ricans.

The core value of exhibiting compassion and sympathy is about respecting the vulnerable and those in no position to defend themselves, such as the poor or downtrodden, the elderly, children, and those who are sick or have disabilities. Again, in the chat, Rosselló fat-shames a young man who is also a working-class community organizer from his own party and clearly an earnest supporter, engages in widespread name-calling to political opponents and even allies, makes fun of a police labor leader with alopecia (callously comparing him to King Kong’s “pale balls”), and refers to people who complain about faulty transportation (a public ferry service) as being crazy. He similarly refers to a woman publicly decrying not getting government welfare benefits as crazy, pejoratively labeling her as “cuponera” (a classist label for someone who receives food stamps), and slanders her as an addict. Rosselló also writes that Puerto Rican’s genes make them prone to insanity.

The core values of humildad (humility) and vergüenza (roughly translatable as “not being shameless”) are key in determining whether a person is likable and deemed as having a good character. Arrogance and shamelessness are widely shunned, particularly when individuals boast about money, hereditary wealth, connections, invulnerability due to social status, and thinking that they are better than others. Not listening to consejos (advice), acting as a “know-it-all,” and being cabeza dura (hard-headed) are also seen as traits of those lacking in vergüenza y humildad. The overall air of superiority of the chat participants—who are also known to belong to the elite ruling class of the island—repeatedly calling people crazy or weak-minded, and characterizing their complaints or viewpoints as mierda (shit), has been branded not only as disrespectful but also as arrogant.

It is important to point out that this treatment of Puerto Rican core cultural values is not meant to glorify, essentialize, or romanticize Puerto Rican values. For example, corruption by politicians and petty stealing by regular people tend to be widely tolerated or ignored on the island. Social sanctions for stealing tend to be light and usually happen only when people are clearly caught stealing. In this context, there is a difference between “illegal behavior” (i.e., political corruption, stealing, nepotism, discrimination) and behavior that violates core cultural values. Some illegal behaviors are tolerated, sometimes even encouraged, particularly if they are used as weapons against political opponents. But violation of core cultural values will attract widespread rejection. Differences in core cultural values might help explain why some offenses by government figures—for example, making fun of the cognitively disabled—might be merely objectionable in some cultural contexts but contribute to widespread rebellion in others. To us, it is clear that Ricardo Rosselló’s contempt for the core cultural values that Puerto Ricans hold dear led to his widespread rejection and eventual ousting. His refusal to resign, which was met online with the hashtag #RickyDictador (#RickyDictator), has been widely read as a confirmation of his shamelessness, arrogance, and continued disrespect for the wishes of the people of Puerto Rico.


An earlier version of this article was published in Latino Rebels on July 23, 2019.


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García-Quijano, Carlos G., and Hilda Lloréns. 2019. “Using the Anthropological Concept of ‘Core Cultural Values’ to Understand the Puerto Rican 2019 Summer Protests.” American Anthropologist website, October 29.

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