Pocket Protest: A Social Media Movement Helps Turn Puerto Rico's Power Back On
This Friday, Dec. 15, is the day Puerto Rico’s governor pledged to have all the island’s electric power restored. That’s not going to happen – but some Puerto Ricans have gotten power back after their long, long night in the dark.
This is a story about an effort that many of them say helped get it back – Puerto Ricans like Yamillette Bernier.
“After Maria, I was 60 days without light,” says Bernier, a teacher and single mother in Caguas, in the Caribbean island's interior.
In November, Bernier was starting her third month after Hurricane Maria without any electricity because she couldn’t afford a generator. Bernier called those days miserable for her and her two kids, one of whom has asthma and sometimes needs electricity for a respirator.
“I was just trying to survive with my flashlight," Bernier recalls. "Everything was hot, and we couldn’t sleep. We were mosquito food. It was very difficult.”
Adding insult to injury: Each night Bernier looked across the street and saw a functioning electrical substation. With lights on.
“I said, 'This doesn’t make sense,' " she says.
It didn’t seem logical. But Bernier’s street was part of a bolsillo – a “pocket.” Bolsillos are common inside Puerto Rico’s decrepit power grid. They’re areas the island’s Electric Energy Authority – AEE, – seems to have forgotten about.
Bernier tried to get through to the power authority to point this out, but with no luck. Then one day, while out on the highway getting a Smartphone signal, she noticed a Facebook and Twitter page called Adopta un Bolsillo – Adopt a Pocket. It was an Internet forum for bolsillo sufferers just like her.
“I took a picture, and I put it on the page,” she says.
When I get $5, I don't buy a beer, a cigarette. I don't buy anything. I buy spray paint. The government, they watch my pages. –Cheo Santiago
Once the picture of her dark street next to the lit substation hit that page, it got results. The next day someone spray-painted bright arrows on Bernier’s street indicating her benighted pocket. A passing AEE crew saw it – and in a few days Bernier’s power was restored.
So who spray-painted Bernier’s block? The same guy who started Adopta un Bolsillo, a Caguas plumber named Cheo Santiago.
“I like social media," Santiago told me during a recent visit to Miami. "You can make pressure.”
Adopta un Bolsillo enthusiasts like Bernier say Santiago is running one of Puerto Rico’s most effective social media movements in the wake of Hurricanes Irma and Maria – and for Santiago it's become a passionate pastime.
“This is my hobby," he says. "When I get $5, I don’t buy a beer, a cigarette. I don’t buy anything. I buy spray paint. And everybody says, 'Hey, that’s good, that’s good.' On Facebook, I got 18,000 people who like the page and follow.”
TURNING ON LIGHT BULBS
This isn’t Santiago’s first social media foray. Six years ago he started Adopta un Hoyo – Adopt a Pothole – to call attention to Puerto Rico’s awful road conditions.
Many Adopta un Bolsillo followers say it’s turned light bulbs back on in their houses – and in their heads -- about how to make the U.S. territory’s dysfunctional government more responsive.
"I think it's already starting to change the way the AEE does things," says Jaime Rivera, a Caguas barber and single father.
Rivera says a crew restored his pocket’s power after AEE officials saw the spray paint from a helicopter.
As a result, Adopta un Bolsillo's mission is resonating across the island. In the eastern city of Rio Grande, teacher Nadgie de Jesús says she’s expecting her power back any day now after posting her pocket problem on Santiago's pages.
“Puerto Ricans are tired of this runaround,” said De Jesús, pointing out she believes Adopta un Bolsillo's growing popularity in her city recently helped get the mayor to lean on the AEE.
“I wasn’t a social media user before, but I am now.”
Adopta un Bolsillo devotees in cities like Rio Grande often spray-paint phrases like No Hay Luz! There’s No Light! But many say they don’t have to do that so much anymore: AEE workers themselves now watch Santiago’s page. Or are at least aware of it – as Bernier found out when she told them she posted her neighborhood’s picture on Adopta un Bolsillo:
“They were like, 'Oh my God, no, please no!' ”
WLRN reached out repeatedly but unsuccessfully to Puerto Rico's power authority for comment. But the AEE’s new director, Justo González, did say recently that eliminating bolsillos is one of his priorities.
Santiago, meanwhile, hopes other social media efforts like his will spring up now to push reform at the AEE (also known by its English acronym PREPA).
“The government, they watch my pages," says Santiago. "I like it if anyone copies my idea.”
But for now, Santiago is just happy that when he returned to Puerto Rico two weeks ago he found power restored to his own pocket in Caguas.