This Week in Puerto Rico: Earthquakes, Federal Hate Crimes and COVID’s Class of 2020

May 8, 2020
4:11 PM

A police officer, wearing s protective face mask as a precaution against the spread of the new coronavirus, removes debris caused by a 5.4-magnitude earthquake, in Ponce, Puerto Rico, Saturday, May 2, 2020. The quake hit near southern Puerto Rico, jolting many from their beds on an island where some people still remain in shelters from previous quakes earlier this year. (AP Photo/Carlos Giusti)

SAN JUAN — Once again, the news cycle in Puerto Rico continues to spin during the middle of a global pandemic. Here are some of this past week’s top headlines:

5.4 Earthquake Rocks Island’s Already Weakened South

Puerto Ricans were woken up by a jolt last Saturday morning as a 5.4 magnitude earthquake hit the southern part of the island.

Minutes later, another earthquake of 4.6 magnitude hit the same region. Both quakes had an epicenter approximately nine miles south of Peñuelas and 10 to 12 miles south of Ponce. Governor Wanda Vázquez stated on Twitter that after communicating with the Interim Director of Puerto Rico’s Seismic Network (PRSN), the earthquakes were aftershocks of the earthquake sequence that hit the southern region in late December and early January.


Residents in the south of Puerto Rico have consistently been feeling aftershocks since January, but the magnitude of Saturday’s quake caught all by surprise. People who were shopping saw items fly off the shelves from the sheer strength of the earthquake. One of the videos showed dozens of broken bottles and a large puddle of red wine, with the manager’s voice lamenting “Perdimos mucho licor”. (We lost a lot of liquor.)

Currently, no casualties or physical injuries have been reported, but buildings that were already weak as a result of the quakes in January have seen significant damage.

Twitter user @MaximoSPQR posted this video showing the damage of the Museum of the Ponce Massacre, the original location of the aforementioned tragedy that now serves to honor victims and showcase documents and pictures of the Puerto Rican Nationalist movement.

The building had sustained minor damage to its structure back in January, but the earthquake destroyed half of the structure’s roof, with the collapse taking  half of its balcony as well.

Telemundo meteorologist Zamira Mendoza reposted a video showing an alarming amount of dust from a rockslide caused by the earthquakes on the roads near Peñuelas and Guayanilla.

Peñuelas mayor Gregory Gonsález Souchet confirmed that there was debris on the Puerto Rico Highway 385 and advised his residents to be prepared for the potential of ensuing rockslides.


Even though Guánica mayor Santos Seda Nazario criticized the Financial Oversight & Management Board for not approving a $50 million project that would subsequently jumpstart projects to help those affected by Saturday’s earthquake, the Board denied that they had received a project and that they had actually extended until May 1 to access funds from the Emergency Fund.

Federal Charges for Trans Hate Crimes

Two men were arrested in conjunction with the hate crime that left two transgender women dead in Humacao in late April.

Serena Angelique Velázquez Ramos, 32, and Layla Peláez, 21, were found dead in a burning car in Humacao on April 22. Thanks to a Snapchat posted by the women the night before their murders, the FBI and local police force were able to find the alleged perpetrators, Juan Carlos Pagán Bonillam, 21, and Sean Díaz de León, 19.

According to a May 3 press release from the Department of Justice, the alleged perpetrators justified the homicides because they felt tricked after finding out that the women were transgender. They were charged on May 1 in federal district court with charges of carjacking and with using and carrying a firearm during and in relation to a crime of violence in relation with the death of two transgender women. Each of the charges is eligible for the death penalty or life in prison.

“I want to take the opportunity to send a message to the members of the LGBTQIA+ community. We’ve heard your claims, and the FBI understands your pain,” Rafael Riviere, FBI Director of the Puerto Rico branch, stated in the press release. “We are with you and we are fighting with you, because Puerto Rico is for everyone.”

COVID’s Class of 2020

Though the pandemic has forced all schools on the island to transition to online learning, high school seniors from the metro San Juan area continued their annual traditions for their final day of classes. Pictures of senior classes from Academia del Perpetuo Socorro, Colegio San Ignacio and Colegio Puertorriqueño de Niñas (CPN) went viral on Facebook and Twitter, with many users calling out the students and their parents for being negligent and insensitive of the current situation.

The original post of Perpetuo’s Class of 2020 went viral on Facebook for pictures showing the students running on the Isla Verde beach, with claims of having a police escort. The local government’s current stay-at-home order prohibits beach visits. Those found violating the order are subject to a $5,000 fine or six months of jail time.

A Twitter post showed members the San Ignacio and CPN senior classes for not practicing adequate social distance, wearing their senior rings on top of gloves and even customizing their cloth masks, as is the case of CPN.

Many called out the students and parents for making a poor choice in the time of a global pandemic. Despite the criticism, others defended the situation, saying that these students were just continuing their annual traditions due to the stay at home orders and wanted one last good-bye.

Civil Code Vote to Move Forward Monday

Puerto Rico’s Senate is continuing forward with its vote on the amendments to the Puerto Rico Civil Code on Monday May 8, even though the final draft has not yet made public or that no public hearings about the amendments have been called. The document has been going back and forth between the House and the Senate since November 2019. Its last attempt at a vote in early March was postponed until further notice so that Gov. Vázquez could review the document and submit recommendations.

Since the amendment’s inception, many LGBTQIA+ and feminist activist groups have slammed the legislation’s authors for intentionally using vague language to push pro-life, transphobic and mysognist policies in one of Puerto Rico’s most important legal documents.

One of the proposed amendments to the Code prohibits changes to a person’s gender identification on their birth certificate from the one they were assigned at birth.

“It places these people in a situation of second or third-class citizenship,“ said Osvaldo Burgos, spokesperson for the Comité Amplio para la Búsqueda de Equidad (CABE), an LGBTQIA+ advocacy group on the island.  “Because their identity documents are not just identity documents, they’re documents that allow them to travel, work, have dignity within their everyday lives.”

Alejandra-Marie Figueroa, an activist and communications manager at Taller Salud, is concerned with the legislation’s vague wording on recognizing the “nasciturus,” a judicial term for a fetus from its conception until its birth. She recognized that clarifications had been made by the authors, but still doubted the proposed legislation.

“If that’s the only the only amendment that they’re willing to admit, it’s still conserving the amendments on restricting LGBTQIA+ rights,” Figueroa told Latino Rebels. “It has a piece on restricting the state housing law, among other environmental and public property rights that are also very concerning.”

Currently, Figueroa is leading Taller Salud’s social media accounts in asking Puerto Ricans to call their senators and telling them to delay the vote until there can be public hearings and the final draft is made public.

“At the end of the day, we shouldn’t have to wait and see when it comes to people’s rights and people’s livelihood. We know in Puerto Rico, how things move, it could be life or death,” Figueroa said.

Puerto Rico’s #MeToo

On April 23, one tweet by user @_rmbm_ created a domino effect like no other within the feeds of Puerto Rican Twitter users.

“Stop buying and modeling for Pauwii [Swimwear], a lot of people know what’s going on but no one’s talking about it, and staying silent is not an option.”

Pauwii Swimwear launched in 2018 and started as an online store, advertising through various social media platforms. This earned them popularity within teens and young women online, leading to their merchandise being distributed by local swimwear retailers.

Whether it was through the original thread or an anonymous message to another account, the aforementioned tweet inspired dozens of young women to share how Julius Ortiz, the brand’s owner and distributor, assaulted and harassed many of them —some of whom were minors— at photo shoots for the brand or under the guise of taking measurements for garments.

Alicia Blanco, who was the public face of Pauwii Swimwear, spoke out a day later and denounced Ortiz with videos posted to her Twitter account. In her videos, she stated she had cut ties with the brand and stood with the victims.

“I did my best to not leave this person in a position of power, and I think people saw that,” Blanco said in a phone interview this week with Latino Rebels. Though she understands she was perceived as an owner of the brand, Blanco was only hired as an independent contractor for the company. “I helped a lot with the brand and its growth, but at the end of the day I was working on my free time from my university, so I truly wasn’t there day-to-day to see this type of behavior.”

“This is not about me, I’ve been getting a lot of attention for doing something right but in reality, I just wanted to break [the] silence, and give all these girls that were speaking up the microphone,” Blanco added.

She also noted that there were details she could not disclose due to the ongoing investigations by local and federal authorities.

The claims against Ortiz have led other women to share their own stories of sexual assault and harassment, calling out their aggressors on social media, whether through their own accounts or through accounts that have published victims testimonies sent to their direct messages.  While some threads focused on businessmen with similar allegations of abuse of power like Ortiz, others posted testimonies from everyday abusers.

A Twitter user by the handle @Arleensita was one of the many accounts that posted a large thread of tweets of the anonymous testimonies that she had received through direct message, some including pictures of the accused men and their social media handles. The thread was deleted as of late after the owner of the account received multiple threats of legal action.

Rocío Cuesta, a university student whose poem about her sexual abuse went viral last October, understood why these women were taking to social media first instead of the proper authorities.

“I think people trust social media much more than authority figures, especially more than the police,” Cuesta told Latino Rebels, while discussing how local authorities have a bad track record when it comes to sexual assault victims and handling their cases. “It helps more talking to somebody on the internet that you don’t know because you know they’ve gone through similar things so you don’t have to worry about judgment, worry about victim-blaming. You can just talk to someone and you know they’ll understand.”


Isabella Philippi Cámara is a freelance journalist who has worked for GFR Media, and is currently a rising senior in university studying communications. You can find her on Twitter @iphilippicamara