For 40 years, the reproductive justice organization Taller Salud has been providing direct services to Puerto Rican survivors of gender-based violence and intimate partner violence. Founded in 1979, Taller Salud is the longest running feminist organization on the island. Located in the predominantly Afro-Puerto Rican municipality of Loíza, the organization began in response to the Puerto Rican Pill Trials when an American scientist and biologist identified low-income Puerto Rican women as guinea pigs for testing what would become the birth control pill.
Today, the work that Taller Salud does is multifaceted, focusing on comprehensive health initiatives, leadership programs, direct services, and restorative justice. The organization—much like all of Puerto Rico—is also struggling to respond to overwhelming injustices. In 2017, hurricanes decimated the island and killed thousands of people, the effects of which are still being felt. More recently, Puerto Rico has moved to re-open, even as the number of COVID-19-related hospitalizations are on the rise and testing and healthcare infrastructure remain incredibly limited.
And then there’s the rewritten civil code.
While Americans grapple with the disjointed news that on Friday, the Trump administration wiped out healthcare discrimination protections for all trans people in the United States and on Monday, the Supreme Court reached a landmark decision holding that federal law prohibits employment discrimination against LGBTQ+ workers, Puerto Rico Gov. Wanda Vázquez signed a new civil code into law intended to “reflect modern society.” But according to advocates, the new civil code, updated for the first time since the 1930s, is a “historical setback” that attacks access to abortion and LGBTQ+ rights.
Over the course of several weeks, Prism spoke to Taller Salud’s Alexandra-Marie Figueroa Miranda about the political climate in Puerto Rico, the pandemic, and the rewritten civil code. Our conversations have been combined, edited, and condensed.
Tina Vasquez: I have a lot of questions about the new civil code set to go into effect in November, but I want to start with Gov. Wanda Vázquez. It is my understanding she had the power to delay the ratification process for the new civil code, but that’s not what she chose to do. What do you want people to know about her and how she has operated?
Alexandra-Marie Figueroa Miranda: I want to try to be objective in answering this, but it’s very hard to be emotionally divorced from my response because Wanda Vázquez was one of the many politicians responsible for the deaths of 5,000 people after Hurricane Maria. She lies to the public regularly and she knew of multiple warehouses stocked full of food and water that would have helped people trying to survive in Puerto Rico, trying to survive all of these emergencies we’ve been hit with, and she did nothing about it. So I can’t just sit here and say Wanda Vázquez is just another political player. Her history has shown disdain and disregard for not only human rights, but for the people of Puerto Rico. Her management has been negligent.
Vasquez: Has this been reflected in her approach to COVID-19?
Figueroa Miranda: She bragged a lot about how Puerto Rico was one of the first jurisdictions in the United States to implement strict lockdown orders, but what she doesn’t say is that the lockdown hasn’t been accompanied by contact tracing, mass testing, or social protections to ensure that people would survive the pandemic. She actually refused to allow school cafeterias to continue providing food to children. Families have literally gone hungry. There was also a fraud scandal because millions of dollars were allocated for coronavirus testing that never materialized.
I could go on and on, but the final thing I’ll say is that [coronavirus] funds were just never dispersed on an island where most people live in poverty. You had to apply for the aid online, in a country where many people don’t have access to computers or have much digital literacy. So sometimes the work that we do sounds really basic—like recently when we spent time in a low-income community in San Juan passing out lunches and dinners to families in need. But it’s also a really effective way to help people.
Vasquez: And in the midst of all of this disaster, here comes the civil code.
Figueroa Miranda: In the middle of dealing with negligence, corruption, and this blatant willingness to let our people die, they bring up the civil code. It’s really draining and we struggle a lot with the question: What do we focus our energy on? Do we focus on the corruption, on the fact that there’s still not enough testing? Do we focus on all of the issues with our privatized healthcare system and the total lack of access to health care? What should we, as Puerto Ricans, focus on today while we are also struggling with our own personal survival?
Vasquez: And the civil code became something that Taller Salud decided to focus on because of the obvious ramifications it has for the work you do as a reproductive justice organization. But was it also kind of like adding insult to injury that there was no civic participation around the bill and it was signed into law by a governor who wasn’t even elected by the people?
Figueroa Miranda: Yeah, that’s a large part of the anger. We wanted Ricardo Rosselló out because obviously that man was not fit for the job, but we didn’t want [Vázquez] either. What we really wanted was a special election so that we could have a say in who represented us. But we’re stuck with Wanda and she has proven over and over again that she does not represent our interests.
Vasquez: It’s worth noting that the rewritten civil code has been a long time coming.
Figueroa Miranda: Absolutely. This has really been in the works for 20 years and it’s undergone so many changes over the last two years that even the people who’ve participated in the process have given it a hard no. Even the most conservative voices have said there is no rush. We’ve waited 20 years, what does it matter if it takes a little longer? Why not wait until we get out of the woods with COVID and we can have public hearings and evaluate what we have and decide if we want to implement it?
Vasquez: Working for a reproductive justice organization, what do you find most troubling about the code?
Figueroa Miranda: I believe the new civil code has been written to be purposefully confusing or misleading, especially as it relates to abortion. It can be interpreted as both favorable of abortion and favorable of restricting abortion access. [Ed note: The updated language “recognizes an unborn child’s ‘condition as a person,’ adding that it’s ‘considered born for all the effects that are favorable to him or her,’” NBC reported. The civil code now also states that the rights recognized to the “unborn child” are subject to it being “born alive and in no way undermine the constitutional rights of the pregnant woman to make decisions about her pregnancy.”] This is a really big problem. The civil code could now be interpreted in many ways, depending on someone’s personal preference. So what happens? What does this mean for people who want to access abortion, will they have to go to court? Why would we not make the law as clear as possible? We feel on edge. It’s like a ticking time bomb. We’re waiting for everything to go horribly wrong. And this is just the part of the code that’s about abortion.
Vasquez: Talk to me about that because within the new civil code there are also serious ramifications for LGBTQ+ people, but especially trans people. The new civil code says “no amendments to the sex a person was born with can be authorized in the original birth certificate,” adding that a court is the only entity with the power to “make an annotation next to the original sex designation” if a person wants to change the designation after birth. But the code also says “nothing here established detracts from the process already in place,” which is a reference to the 15-year legal battle that trans people won in federal court that as of 2018, allowed them to correct their birth certificates to reflect their gender identities.
Figueroa Miranda: It’s very much like the complicated information around abortion. It’s really confusing and I honestly can’t tell you how it’s going to play out. My understanding is that the new civil code doesn’t totally eliminate a person’s ability to change their gender identity on their birth certificate, but it makes it much harder by adding a layer of additional, unnecessary steps.
It’s a slap in the face to the trans community that is already having such a hard time here in Puerto Rico, like they are everywhere else in the world. [Ed. note: At the time of publication, the Human Rights Campaign has reported that at least five trans people have been murdered in Puerto Rico since April.] We also need to talk about how these complications put people in more danger. If you have to hand over your license or other paperwork and the gender you were assigned at birth is not the same as your gender identity, we’re putting people in a situation where they can experience a hate crime. There are so many layers and levels of danger that are either completely being disregarded or just totally ignored.
Vasquez: When we first spoke back in May, I remember talking to you about how the world watched as Puerto Ricans took to the streets and successfully ousted Gov. Ricardo Rosselló and how that kind of on-the-ground mobilization wouldn’t be possible for the civil code because of COVID-19. Fast forward and for weeks, people have been taking to the streets as part of the Movement for Black Lives. Are protests now happening in Puerto Rico?
Figueroa Miranda: People here are angry and mobilizing to express their anger at the approval of the code, as well as to condemn Wanda Vázquez’s lies when signing the bill into law. Separate from that, La Colectiva Feministaorganized a very well-attended rally in support of Black lives in Puerto Rico. Toward the end, it was taken over by white “allies” who made themselves the center of the protest, attempting to invisibilize the efforts of Black women organizers. Media outlets asked baiting questions and attempted to group the protest as a Black Lives Matter/civil code protest, but the call was very specifically about Black lives. Black Lives Matter rallies and civil code mobilizations here are different, and they need to be treated as such.