They do not feel represented by the political class, they don´t know about the economic bonanza and for years, they have seen how their predecessors leave the island in search of better opportunities.
At the same time, they are engaged in social causes – such as environmental protection and gender equity – they are digital natives they simply didn´t know the world without the Internet and are better prepared to understand and take advantage of future innovations.
They are known as Generation Z or "Centennials." According to the Pew Research Center, they were born between 1997 and 2012, so they are not older than 22. And in the recent demonstrations against Ricardo Rosselló for moral and administrative corruption scandals surrounding his administration, they had an active and outstanding participation.
“Every human being makes mistakes, but what the now-former governor did was wrong. And it wasn't just the offensive language (in the Telegram chat). He and his aides made fun of the people. We deserve better. Puerto Rico deserves a change, and it is not a matter of colors or political parties, but about doing things right. This is our country and we had to go out to defend it,” said Minnelly Angueira Martínez, 18, a native of Comerío and who participated in many of the protests that for 12 consecutive days were held in Old San Juan, particularly in front of La Fortaleza.
It was Angueira Martínez’s first time in this kind of democratic expression. The young woman, who has began her bachelor's degree in Theater at the Sacred Heart University this month, felt she had to be there. She did it for her, for her parents, her friends and for future generations.
“I had to participate. It had to be part of the change I want for Puerto Rico and it was wonderful. It was a dynamic that I had never seen but I am sure we will continue to see, not only to protest against a government, but against so many other things that are also important and need to be improved, but go unnoticed, such as child and women abuse and environmental damage,” she said.
Kuyaguaribo López Correa, 18, is from Barranquitas and also participated in the demonstrations. Like many in Puerto Rico, he was offended by Rosselló and his collaborators’ offensive messages. But his main reason for protesting is the budget cut to the University of Puerto Rico (UPR), which by 2022 would reach 60 percent compared to the current budget.
López Correa joined the UPR at the age of 12 and recently completed a bachelor's degree in History of the Americas and Journalism and began a master's degree in Business Administration.
“Ricardo Rosselló’s administration did not address any claim or defended the UPR. Led by a secretary (of Education, Julia Keleher) who was arrested and charged at the federal level with corruption, his administration closed more than 400 public schools ”he said.
“I participated in the national strike, the demonstration at the (local) Capitol and someday I also went to Old San Juan. I saw all sectors participating, but from 4:00 p.m. to midnight you most saw young people demonstrating in front of La Fortaleza. For everyone in Puerto Rico, this was an opportunity to understand that democracy doesn’t just mean going to vote every four years, but that there are other ways to demand that rulers listen to their people. It was a learning process for everyone,” he added.
Who are the "Centennials?”
The most recent official census data is from 2017. According to the Puerto Rico Community Survey of the U.S. Census Bureau, there were 657,809 Centennials on the island that year, that is 19.7 percent of the island´s population.
They were 338,094 men and 319,715 women. 42.5 percent were between 15 and 20 years old. 75.5 percent lived with their parents and 12.3 percent with their grandparents.
For anthropologist, sociologist and demographer Vivianna de Jesús Monge, it´s a striking fact that, in 2017, 66.9 percent of Puerto Rican “Centennials” studied in public schools or universities. She thinks this may happen because when the recession began in 2006, the older members of Generation Z were only 9 years old and their parents would have made economic adjustments, such as changing them from private to public schools, due to the crisis.
De Jesús Monge estimated that the "Centennials" who participated in the protests against Rosselló lived – or still live –instability in their homes because of the recession. Their grandparents may be "Baby Boomers," born between 1946 and 1964, and they might have heard them talk about social changes and less reliable governments. Or, they have Generation X family members, born between 1965 and 1980, and who are basically disappointed in everything out there. "That combination has made them think, reflect more, and they have decided to participate," she said.
In 2017, 0.2 percent or 1,186 “Centennials” had completed a bachelor´s degree in agriculture, education, arts, nursing and business management, and administration.
“These concentrations show that this is a sensitive generation willing to contribute to society. Taking care of people, providing services and caring for the environment denotes sensitivity,” said De Jesús Monge.
On the other hand, according to the survey, 54.3 percent of the “Centennials” lived below the poverty level, 9.6 percent had some physical or mental disability, and 4.4 percent lacked medical coverage. "That is worrying becausewe are talking about minors, whose health could be neglected because they would have difficulty preventing and treating diseases," she warned.
“They are not Millenials”
Alexis Santos, a demographer at Pennsylvania State University, argued that Generation Z and “Millenials”- born between 1981 and 1996- are different in many ways.
“One of the most important differences is changes that happened during their lives. For example, ‘Millennials’ experienced first-hand the change from ‘dial-up’ to high-speed internet or wireless and cell phones. Generation Z has grown with technological change as a constant. Change is a constant in their lives,” Santos said.
He added that Puerto Rican "Centennials" have grown up watching “Millennials” leaving the island due to the economic crisis, they were affected by school closures and now have difficulty studying at the UPR due to the increase in tuition fees.
“If you look through this glass, their participation in the demonstrations against Rosselló was quite logical. Everything converged in the demonstrations. They don’t want to leave Puerto Rico, they want a better future and opportunities, but they have also seen that, if things don’t improve, they would have to make the same decision many others have already made. It is necessary to study what specific events they have experienced and that, perhaps, shape their behavior and claims for space and to be part of the solution,” he said.
Fernando Tormos Aponte, who studies social movements, a visiting scholar at Johns Hopkins University and a Postdoctoral fellow at the University of Maryland, said the Generation Z movement in Puerto Rico is part of a global phenomenon.
“In other countries, this is the generation that has jumped out onto the streets to demand that their leaders deal with climate change or legislation to address gun violence. In Puerto Rico, it is a generation living the effects of the public policies that several local and federal administrations have implemented, such as curbing education opportunities,” he said.
According to Tormos Aponte, Puerto Rican “Centennials” “only know about austerity,” as they were born one year after the elimination of Section 936 of the U.S. Internal Revenue Code, which provided tax incentives.
“But it is a generation that watches and wonders, for example, how in the same place where urban trains and megaprojects are built – like the 'Choliseo' – they cannot keep schools or hospitals open,” and how negligent actions ended up killing victims of Hurricane María. “It is no surprise, then, that amid the institutional crisis, this generation took the streets and social media,” he said.
Precisely, a peculiarity of the demonstrations against Rosselló, including the national strike, is that they were called spontaneously through social media, and Generation Z “is ultra-connected,” said Anitza María Cox, director of Analysis and Social Policy at Estudios Tecnicos.
The most recent study on the Internet on the island, published in May by the Sales and Marketing Executives Association (SME), revealed that the incidence of use among young people aged 12 to 17 is 100 percent, while in those between 18 to 24 years old reaches 96 percent.
The study also found that 98 percent of people aged 12 to 17 use cell phones, a figure that rises to 100 percent in those between 18 to 24 years old.
As for social media, Instagram tops the list among those between 12 to 17, followed by Facebook, Snapchat, YouTube and Twitter. For those aged 18-24, the favorite one is Facebook, followed by Instagram, YouTube, Snapchat and Twitter.
"The main activities are watching photos and videos, and those between 18 and 24 years old also read news and chat or send messages to friends," said Cox, who described "Centennials" as a curious generation with a high sense of justice and respect for diversity.
"This has a lot to do with the fact that they have grown up in a technological environment that opens doors for them and puts them in touch with what is different, with what is new, with what the other," she added.
Meanwhile, Andrés Claudio, general manager at Hearts & Science Puerto Rico, said that media agencies like his are closely watching changes and generational trends to offer services.
“Unlike other generations that depend on more personalized human relationships, these young people were born with technology in hand and social media is part of their spontaneous social world. That impacts brands and the market, but also the social part. We have seen how artists and politicians have made an effective use of social media, turning them into an instrument to move people's awareness,” he said.
In that line, Claudio and Tormos Aponte highlighted the role of artists such as Ricky Martin, René Pérez and Bad Bunny, who used their social media to summon their followers to the protests against Rosselló.
“People – of all ages – mobilized because they are their fans and because it is part of their daily communication. Today, in social media there is a phenomenon of cohesive communities, where people share common themes, and that is important because people support each other and amplify each other’s messages, creating multiple communities around them,” said Claudio, affirming that, in the context of the demonstrations, cohesive communities worked.
What can we expect?
They agree that, after their outstanding participation in the summer of 2019, Puerto Rican “Centennials” will be more present in the discussion of key issues.
"They know they have to do more with less, and this is expressed with greater maturity and awareness on how to integrate into society and how to contribute with their decisions," Claudio said.
“This generation is teaching us how to live democracy on a day-to-day basis. It is a generation that will continue to engage and will open new scenarios, particularly to discuss new ideas and approaches to government management,” Cox said.
Meanwhile, Tormos Aponte said that as a result of its activism, Generation Z is more empowered, and this should be reflected in public policy decisions to improve the quality of life on the island.
“If the Millennial generation serves as an example, I would expect more comprehensive and impactful social change efforts. This generation has participated in one of the most important historical moments for Puerto Rico and has been like a school, like tactical training and political substance. In a matter of weeks, these young people were tasked with learning about the Constitution, its limitations and realizing that democracy also happens in the streets and not just when people vote,” he said.
Tormos Aponte compared the current situation with the UPR strike in 2010, led by “Millennials” and from which “many parallel efforts” arose, such as the Feminist Collective in Construction and the Centers of Mutual Support, among others.
Reviewing her participation in the demonstrations, Angueira Martínez evoked a conversation she had with her mother and which, she assures, will be her north from now on. "My mom told me: ‘Forgive me because I could have left you something better in this country." And I replied: ‘Mom, don’t worry, it's up to me to fix it and it doesn't weigh me down. It's my turn and I'm not going to regret this, because I know I can make the change. My generation gave and will give a lot to talk about,” she said.