Shirley Rivera is the Founder and President of the Ateístas de Puerto Rico. The intent is to learn about Puerto Rican atheism and culture, as an educational series. Here we talk about the status of Puerto Rico regarding the United States of America and more.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: Let us start on the issues of clarification, the clarification of the status of Puerto Rico. For one, some will think of Puerto Rico as a state. Others will think of it as a territory. Still others, they see Puerto Rico as a colony. What is it, and why?
Shirley Rivera: Puerto Rico is legally called a Commonwealth of the United States but acts as a colony. The name is “a US territory,” but when you see in the practice, in the day-by-day, how the law works, how the service works, how the elections work; you can see it is a colony.
It has been called a US territory since they get us after the war with Spain. That is how we get the name for the United States of America. After that, they make elections, years later. That is when they make Puerto Rico as a Commonwealth.
The first governor for Puerto Rico, he was military. When they took us, it was a military governor. It was a couple of military governors. Until finally, the people make a protest and then they finally get a governor.
The first governor, he was not Puerto Rican. We have a long story after we get the position for Spain. After the war, we have been in the possession of the United States until today. You can see in the politics how we cannot vote for the president.
That is one of them, and how we cannot buy supplies or food from other countries. Everything has to come through the United States. A boat for making entry to our port and bringing stuff to us. We cannot buy directly from Mexico.
We cannot buy directly from Cuba. We cannot buy directly from Brazil. We cannot buy directly from Spain. Everything has to stop first in the United States and then sell it to us.
Jacobsen: How is religion influential in political and social life in Puerto Rico?
Rivera: Right now, religion makes the laws. You can see the legislators and the senators making laws based on religious laws, abortion. Who opposes abortion? Only the Christians because that is what they say.
The Bible does not say anything about abortion. They mention nothing in the Bible about abortion, but in their minds: God is the only one who creates a life and takes a life. So in their minds, that is the reason to oppose abortion.
You can see, currently, the legislator passing a bill similar to Alabama and Missouri, where for you to have an abortion, you have to do it before six weeks. Most women do not know they are pregnant until after six weeks, so they are doing it so nobody can do it. You can see how influential they are.
I remember the past elections. The priest for the church made a list to the candidates. They post those papers in the church. They told the people, “These are the candidates you have to vote for. These are the people you need to vote for.” They gave it to the people who they have to vote for.
Probably the religion, the churches, we think they pay for campaigns. It is no way, how they endorse a candidate so openly and they do not care. They openly sponsor them. That is the one who won.
It is improbable, how it is possible a candidate is miserable but all the churches support him because he makes an agreement with them they will pass the laws they want. It was obvious in these past elections.
It is funny because the candidate that we have, he is conservative, but he is a doctor. He signed an agreement with one of the big organizations for evangelicals and protestants on the island. One of those, he will take him off the gender perspective education, abortion, and religious freedom.
But the “religious freedom,” it was more for allowing people to deny care or deny services to gay people. After the elections, these people in the organizations, in public, on camera, in a press conference, make a sign if he won, he is going to pass all those bills. You can see. Those bills are in, right now.
The gay people protest. The atheist people protest. Everybody protests but nothing happened because the majority of them are Christians, so nothing will happen. This is one of the recent things that happened with abortion. They passed the bill. Nobody can do anything.
They know nobody will talk. You can see it is a big influence. If you are a Christian, you can win the election. If you are a Christian, you get support from the people because in their minds. God put you there. God wanted you to be there.
No matter if you are a shit person, God put you there, so we have to vote for you. Now, you can see how miserable the island is, more than it was. Definitely, religion has an influence on politics, in the US and in Puerto Rico.
Jacobsen: You remain prominent in the media in Puerto Rico. You go into debates. You talk on the news. You were an anchor for a bit. What are some common tropes about secular people that you come across in the midst of debates or conversations on live air?
Rivera: When I was in the media, I was openly an atheist, I remember. I do the debates in particular. It was not part of my channel. I was working for Telemundo. I was making debates for Univision. I was a commentator on Univision.
Always, they have a panel where they discuss topics for debate. I was the atheist side. They have a religious person. Also, they have a person they put there. On TV, the secular community has a “before” and “after,” honestly. I bring discussions about gender perspective education.
I bring discussions about prostitutes, too, because we have that in Puerto Rico and nobody talks about it. We have prostitution in Puerto Rico and not in a bad way. A good way. I was bringing the topic in a neutral way, so we can understand. We criminalize the prostitutes there.
That is what we do. We put them in jail. At the same time, I was bringing all of those stereotypes about that profession. Even if you would not it, that is a profession for them. They make money with that and people pay for that service.
Religion was the one making a stereotype of that. “That is not the right way. That is not what a woman has to do. A woman cannot do that.” But nobody criminalizes the people who pay for them. I was bringing that topic, too, I remember. There was a big discussion about it for weeks.
And the gender perspective too, about the schools because in Puerto Rico, when you are in middle school or high school, we have home economics. They teach girls how to do sewing, how to cook. The boys attend a class where they can build key chains.
They can build a rocket ship. They can bring cool stuff but the girls go to a cooking class. When I was little, personally, I was denied to go to the class. I did not want to go cook. The reason I couldn’t attend that class was because I was a girl. I brought up that topic. Nothing happened.
In the end, I attended the class. My mom made a big fight. She said, “My girl does not want to go cooking. She wants to go to this one.” But the next year, they made me take the cooking one, anyways [Laughing]. I couldn’t graduate if I did not get the cooking class [Laughing].
It was with that inside me, when I have the opportunity to be an activist and debate. I bring that up. I was living with that inside me. It is not only my case. Of girls going through that too, even today, I bring that topic of the roles.
We tell the girls what they have to do because they are a girl. We tell the boys what they have to do because they are a boy. If a young girl wants to play basketball, you go, “Somebody will look at you weird because, ‘A girl playing basketball.’” Or if you were a boy and you want to play with Barbies, “You cannot because you are a boy. Boys cannot play with Barbies.”
I bring that topic, too. people, even Christians, understand. They were like, “What? You are right. That is true. My boy plays. He is not gay because he plays with Barbie.” I was, “Nobody is gay because you play with Barbies.” It is ridiculous.
Rivera: That is why I say, “before” and “after” means an end and a beginning. Nobody else has brought those topics before. Never. It is a stupid topic, probably, but that is the only way you can enter into the people’s minds and pull them to think.
I do not know tell to them, “Hey, God does not exist. It is fake. He is not real.” Then, if they bring the topic, I can tell them and let them know in their minds how religion creates stereotypes. We do not have any reason and any purpose, any root. It is somebody invented it. Everybody takes it like that. Who invented boys who play with Barbie are gay? Who invented that? Who in the world thinks because a boy plays with an object that has hair and boobies is gay?
When you bring that to them, they start thinking about it.
Jacobsen: With your description of it, the playing with a doll or an object with hair and boobies. One might draw the opposite conclusion as to what is asserted, the fact that they are gay. One might assume not.
Rivera: [Laughing] I do not know. When I was a teenager, I played with boys and people can tell, “She is a tomboy.” I remember I go into class. I was the only girl there. I enjoyed it. Everybody helped me to do everything but at the same time.
You could see how they were thinking I wasn’t capable to do stuff. I remember I enjoyed basketball. I enjoyed stuff that usually was for boys. I love video games. I played video games, Super Nintendo, Playstation 1 and all that stuff.
They are usually for boys but I am not a boy. When you go with three girls, we are three sisters. We want to do that, and why not? My parents did not deny me to do that but I see other families, or people saying to my family, “She plays too much with boys. Maybe.”
But I use high heels. I use a purse. That is good because that helped me in my development. I was always doing sports. Also, I danced ballet and played basketball and volleyball. I was pretty good in volleyball. That was my favourite sport when I was in middle school. That hasn’t changed me. People do not understand that. They are thinking.
I have my daughter and my son. They both play video games. That is what they do. That does not mean that is for boys or girls. They can play it. I do not care. But people do not see it that. If you see a boy on the floor playing Barbie with the sister, the dad will take him off the Barbie. I have seen that before.
I was working, a long time ago, in a school-aged program. I had a club for doing jewellery. When we did jewellery, the parents, when they pick up the kids and they see their boys playing with a necklace, you see how they open their eyes. “Why is he playing with jewellery,” or, “Why is he doing a necklace,” or “Why is he doing a bracelet?”
Because in their mind, it is roles. They have roles already assigned. If he is a boy, then he cannot have jewellery, or they cannot have a bracelet, or they cannot have earrings. But I open my eyes they do to me, and I was, “What? He is doing for his mom. He is doing for his sister.”
The child feels proud about it. It is not because he is making bracelet it is because he is gay. He is going to wear a bracelet. No. We have to open our minds. He is doing a bracelet for his mom. Or if he wants to wear it, it is too. What is the problem?
This is a hard daily war about gender perspective and the roles and all that stuff. This is a daily war. It is funny because when I see it day by day; this is every day. This is in our minds. I was reading an article this morning, about how in New York, they will put changing tables in the men’s restrooms because they are thinking now, “2019, men can change diapers too.”
How in the world it is possible 2019, somebody finally realizing dads are hanging out with the kids too? They need a changing table in the restrooms. Usually, we have changing tables only in the female’s restrooms.
You can see how quietly, the roles are still there, even if we say, “Women’s rights. Female’s rights. Man’s rights. Everybody’s rights.” No. Even in the simple thing, in the little thing, we still have those roles assigned.
Why in the world, in 2019, we still have changing tables only in the female’s restrooms? Because the government who approves the sanitation, in every business, or schools, or jobs, never think about that males change diapers too. That is how you can see how deep is that mindset, or patriarchy, or they want to call that. That is the reality.
Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Shirley.
Rivera: Thank you. Take care.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. He authored/co-authored some e-books, free or low-cost. If you want to contact Scott: Scott.D.Jacobsen@Gmail.com.
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