Accompanied by some of Puerto Rico's most famous performers, thousands of people marched to the governor's residence in San Juan on Wednesday chanting demands for Gov. Ricardo Rosselló to resign after the leak of online chats that show him making misogynistic slurs and mocking his constituents.
The crowd ranged from teenagers to retirees, with some waving the island's flag printed in black and gray rather than red, white and blue to symbolize their discontent with a government they call corrupt and unresponsive to its people. Musicians Ricky Martin, Residente and Bad Bunny marched and addressed the crowd.
Police erected concrete barricades and shop owners covered store windows with metal sheeting or plywood as if a hurricane were coming. The multicolored umbrellas that form a photogenic awning over the street in front of the governor's mansion were taken down.
U.S. & World
The turnout filled several city blocks in colonial Old San Juan but appeared to fall short of the many tens of thousands that some Rosselló opponents had predicted. Many older protesters went home before nightfall as chanting young people filled Old San Juan's Totem Plaza and the first few blocks leading up to the 16th century fortress where the governor resides.
Karla Villalón has three elementary-age children and an 81-year-old grandmother. Her kids have been uprooted twice in two years when first one school, then another, was closed by budget cuts under Rosselló. Her grandmother, a retired teacher, is anguished over the possibility of losing her pension in future rounds of cutbacks.
Villalón was outraged when Rosselló's former education secretary was arrested and accused of steering millions in improper contracts to politically connected contractors. Then hundreds of pages of online chats between Rosselló and members of his administration leaked, revealing the men mocking women, the disabled and victims of Hurricane Maria.
Villalón has had enough.
"It's the final straw," the homemaker said before the march. "My kids' classrooms have mold in them. ... There's just so much outrage that's been building over time."
That feeling rippled across Puerto Rico, where many are angry over what they see as neglect by Washington and the U.S. territory's own government.
The island is mired in crises. It is struggling to emerge from a debt-driven financial failure and a more than decade-long recession. It needs federal funding to help recover from Hurricane Maria, the 2017 storm that devastated the island's electrical system and a months-long failure to provide care to the elderly and medically vulnerable.
The outrage erupted after Rosselló's former secretary of education and five other people were arrested on charges of steering federal money to unqualified, politically connected contractors.
Freelance music producer Ise Sonja, 28, said he took to the streets Wednesday because he is fed up with corruption and government ineptitude. "(Hurricane) Maria woke the people up — it outraged us as a people."
Carlos Vargas-Ramos, a researcher at the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College-CUNY, told NBC Latino that the governor's scandal has pushed people "from all walks of life" to act and take to the streets.
"It seems unprecedented," Vargas-Ramos said.
Since the storm, hundreds of schools have been closed to save money and a wide range of social services and pensions are being cut back, or are under threat.
Prominent Puerto Ricans on the U.S. mainland raised their voices in the call for Rosselló to resign.
Actor Lin-Manuel Miranda led about 200 protesters at a rally in New York's Union Square on Wednesday. The group waved Puerto Rican flags amid drumbeats, chanting in Spanish: "Long live free Puerto Rico!"
"Puerto Ricans are so numb to politics in America and we get lies from the Trump administration," Miranda said. But the alleged corruption surrounding the governor of the U.S. territory "is the last straw and Puerto Ricans are standing up against it."
Also making an appearance at the Union Square rally was former NYC Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, who was the target of one of Rosselló's sexist remarks. She said that an apology from him is not enough, and he needs to step down.
In Puerto Rico, a few protesters threw fireworks towards police officers just before midnight Wednesday. The officers then returned fire with what appeared to be tear gas, and dispersed the crowd with pellet guns.
Singer Ricky Martin said in a video message posted online: "Puerto Rico has suffered so much and we can't deal with the cynicism of these leaders anymore. Enough already. Enough already."
Martin flew to Puerto Rico to march along with other Latin music stars from the island, including singer-producer Benito A. Martínez Ocasio, known as Bad Bunny, and rapper René Pérez, known as Residente, who released a song online Wednesday calling people to the streets.
"This is coming out early so you can eat it for breakfast," Residente raps on the song, "Sharpening the knives." ''Fury is the only political party that unites us."
In comments to The Associated Press shortly before the protest was to start, he said, "The anger is so great that for the first time I'm seeing Puerto Rico rise up and take to the streets."
In Boston, Red Sox manager Alex Cora, who is from Puerto Rico, told reporters that he hopes Rosselló resigns within the next hours or days.
"I know it's hard to do — but at the same time, as a whole, we're very upset and very mad at everything that is going on," Cora said. "I'm with my people back home."
Associated Press writer Ken Powtak contributed to this report.