The ’90s were formative years in Puerto Rico. In 1992, Canada, Mexico, and the United States signed the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which sought to eliminate tariffs in agricultural, manufacturing, and various labor services. At the time, Puerto Rico’s economy was growing thanks in part to low wages. With NAFTA in place, however, the unincorporated U.S. territory lost its advantage, allowing the U.S. to make use of even lower wages in Mexico.
Around the same time, in the clubs of San Juan, Black and Brown Boricuas were forming a new people’s movement. A derivative of hip-hop, Jamaican dancehall, and salsa, Puerto Rican reggaeton was born.
In 1993, “progressive” party governor Pedro Rosselló introduced Mano Dura, or a war on crime. His administration marketed the program as a revolution, and a necessary fight against street violence waged by criminals, often in gangs, who supposedly corrupted public housing institutions.
Behind the curtain, the government was waging a separate war against these public housing institutions, with Rosselló moving to privatize living areas despite residents gaining no particular benefit from private ownership. However, in the wake of NAFTA, agendas needed to be pushed.
At the behest of Rosselló, Puerto Rico deployed the National Guard under the guise of “emergency.” The police and military carried out 82 raids. Police violence, especially and specifically against Puerto Ricans of color, reached new heights, a trend that remains pungent to this day.
What else remains? Up until August 2, the Rosselló surname endured in the governor’s office, a familial institution some compared to the Kennedys. Enter Telegramgate, a scandal revealing Pedro’s son, Ricky Rosselló, who made many indefensible comments in private with his gubernatorial compadres about Puerto Rican celebrities, politicians and even Hurricane Maria victims. Puerto Ricans took to the streets. Joining them en las calles was a cultural touchstone that’s endured more strongly than anything from P.R.’s ’90s: el reggaetón.
The genre not only became the commonwealth’s underground heartbeat but a musical landscape of rebellion. Records like a young Ivy Queen’s “Somos Raperos Pero No Somos Delicuentes” and Eddie Dee’s “Señor Oficial” took aim at police brutality and systemic prejudice. In 1995, in response to the genre’s increasing popularity, Puerto Rican officials raided record stores. Puerto Rico’s elite did not welcome El perreo. However, it still arrived.
Twenty-six years later, in 2019, Puerto Rico’s protests of Ricky Rosselló are being fueled in part by reggaeton. A re-posted tweet by Eduardo Cepeda—possibly the genre’s leading English-language journalist—shows a massive assemblage of protestors celebrating the resignation of Rosselló in the streets, singing and dancing to Bad Bunny’s “Callaita.” And what of Bad Bunny himself? He was there, protesting with his people.
Reggaeton’s most prominent artists, including the aforementioned conejo malo, took aim at the country’s elite with their public speech and public records. Notably, Bad Bunny, Residente, and iLe released what is best described as a Rosselló diss track entitled “Afilando los Cuchillos” (“Sharpening the Knives”). Residente, a long-time activist who has often infused sociopolitical themes into his popular tracks with the group Calle 13, made friends with Bad Bunny two years ago and has since developed a strong friendship with the young performer.
Reggaetoneros are rappers. They are often Black men and women, born within poverty, fighting implicitly or explicitly against neoliberal systems of government that violate people of color by necessity.
In Mano Dura, the privatization of property, and the utilization of police brutality and military force to oppress Puerto Rico’s people of color, Puerto Rico’s history parallels that of the United States’. Much like the “war on crime” in Puerto Rico, the “war on drugs” in the United States served to plunder the nation’s Black and Brown population—many of whom are institutionalized in conditions of poverty due to systemic racism. Today, public housing continuously becomes privatized, and low-money communities see many of their residents displaced.
Much of what is happening to Black America today is happening in Puerto Rico, not unlike every other nation with histories of colonialism and present-day class oppression. Hip-hop is an art form that was created by Black Americans first as an underground haven, and then as a way to create career opportunities and wealth. Often, it is used to rebel against social norms and oppression. One thousand, six hundred and sixteen miles south of New York City, the people of Puerto Rico see reggaeton much the same.
In some ways, reggaeton is hip-hop; in some ways, not—much like how in some ways, Puerto Ricans are Americans, and in some ways, they are not. What’s important, however, is not if reggaeton and hip-hop are one the same, but instead how connected the genres, and the people that propel them, have become.
These connections do not solely extend to hip-hop music. Chef Santana Caress Benitez, who starred as Lourdes’ Lulu’ Blackmon in Spike Lee’s T.V. spinoff of She’s Gotta Have It, looks to help the Puerto Rican people with La Clinica de Comida, a free food project in Puerto Rico.
“It’s a free community food program modeled directly after the Black Panthers’ People’s Free Food Program,” she tells me over the phone. “It incorporates acupuncture and free community meals; mostly fully healthy, mostly vegan, but also in the same Caribbean style of cooking that Puerto Ricans are used to.”
Puerto Rico’s issues are far from over. As illustrated by many, including Bad Bunny on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, more than two years later, the devastation of Hurricane Maria is still felt by its residents, and their economy is still in disarray. Earlier this month, Pedro Pierluisi, Rosselló's secretary of state, was sworn in as his gubernatorial replacement—and then replaced again by Wanda Vázquez after the Supreme Court ruled Pierluisi’s induction unconstitutional. Vázquez is seen as another controversial figure, and protests have ensued once again. True liberation remains a dream.
“Puerto Rico’s still a colony,” Benitez tells me. “Our imports and exports are fully controlled, and the austerity measures, the debt they haven’t audited... I mean it’s just a mess. I’m living there now in hopes to repatriate and counteract what is happening.”
As the commonwealth clamors with questions, its public figures must remain indebted to its survival and reparation. They must reflect on their revolutionary ancestry, from the Black Panther Party to reggaetoneros who rebelled in the ’90s and build off of their legacy. So far, they’re doing precisely that.
Miky Woodz, a popular Latin trap artist from Villa Carolina, recently released a song called “Señor Oficial,” an interpolation/modern-day reimagining of the 2002 Eddie Dee track. “Yo canto trap, eso no es na’,” Miky Woodz raps; “Yo solo canto rap pues fue lo que quise,” said Eddie Dee. As Eddie’s pitched-down, sampled voice echoes in the track’s opener, the legacy feels passed down from one generation of rebels to another.
In the words of Bad Bunny, “Baby, la vida es un ciclo.”