San Juan’s Iconic La Perla Neighborhood Defies Trump
Battered by disasters natural and man-made, this ebullient Puerto Rico area refuses to give up or give in.
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico—Just above the tumbling Caribbean surf in the San Juan neighborhood of La Perla, Antonio Rosario Fernández sips a beer after a day’s work and watches the sun begin its slow descent into the sea.
“We are in survival mode, here,” says Rosario, a 44-year-old salsa band leader sitting in a makeshift bar in what was once a home that was largely destroyed by Hurricane Maria last September. “This place was abandoned, with no light, no water and very little information, for a long time and there are still a lot of houses where people can’t live.”
One year after Hurricane Maria battered Puerto Rico and caused an estimated 2,975 deaths, this iconic neighborhood, nestled along a narrow band of land between the walls of the Castillo San Cristóbal and the ocean, is clawing its way back.
Its story says a lot about where Puerto Rico finds itself today.
First settled at the tail-end of the 19th century on the site of what was then a slaughterhouse, La Perla was initially home to many descendants of former slaves and poor arrivals from the countryside. Over the years, the neighborhood’s distinctive homes—first mere wooden shacks and now mainly concrete structures painted ebullient colors—became one of the iconic images of Puerto Rico.
The neighborhood was celebrated in a 1978 salsa song by Ismael Rivera, who praised the neighborhood’s “noble citizens” who “earn their bread with sweat” and whose “youth dream of tomorrow.” In 2009, the band Calle 13, whose members, like Rivera, did not themselves hail from the neighborhood, released their own song “La Perla” in collaboration with the Panamanian salsero Rubén Blades. Its hard-edged lyrics and joyful music capture something of the neighborhood’s never-say-die spirit. Perhaps most famously, the quarter served as the setting for the video of the song “Despacito,” by Puerto Rican singer Luis Fonsi and reggaeton artist Daddy Yankee.
Despite its cultural heft, after Maria, the residents of La Perla felt largely abandoned by the federal and local governments, so residents had to pitch in and help one another.
“All of our community—adults, children, young people—had to come together to clean up after the storm,” says Sonia Viruet, 62, who has lived her whole live in the neighborhood. “We had aid from private agencies and artists like Luis Fonsi, but we didn’t get a lot of help from the federal government, the island government or the mayor’s office.”
According to Vivuet and other residents, people living in La Perla whose homes have been totally or partially destroyed have received sums as little as $1,000 to rebuild them from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which has been criticised for its slow and inefficient response to the hurricane.
A Department of Homeland Security document released earlier this week appeared to show that the Trump administration had siphoned off $10 million of FEMA’s funding and redirected it towards U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), an agency currently under fire for its role in separating hundreds of immigrant children from their families.
A FEMA spokesperson told The Daily Beast that Privacy Act restrictions prevented them from releasing information specific to the neighborhood, but that more than $65 million has been approved for the municipality of San Juan under FEMA’s Individuals and Households Program.
While residents are furious at the feds, they are also unhappy with local leaders like San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz, whose offices are in the Viejo San Juan (Old San Juan) neighborhood next to La Perla. Cruz gained international fame for strongly criticizing Trump’s callous indifference to the storm’s human cost, which he reaffirmed this week by lying about the storm’s death toll, and the federal government’s response to Hurricane Maria, Back home, however, some see her as having been largely absent since, politicking and appearing with Democratic Party luminaries on the mainland.
“The government gave us nothing, not the federal government nor the municipal government,” says La Perla resident Irma Navarez Gonzalez, 56. “The military helped us when they were here, but the government, in general, we haven’t really seen them.”
Cruz’s office did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
The island’s internal politics—with some like Governor Ricardo Rosselló’s party favoring full statehood for the island, and others favoring a continuation of its current Commonwealth status and still others favoring independence—may go part of the way to explain the atmosphere of mutual recrimination. In the most recent plebiscite on the issue, held last year, 97 percent voted for statehood, but only 23 percent of eligible voters participated, a historic low for such a vote.
One issue that is particularly galling, say residents, is the federally appointed Financial Oversight and Management Board (FOMB), which was established in 2016 to combat the island’s $70 billion debt. The FOMB has the power to unilaterally impose austerity measures on the island and has consistently pushed for secrecy to the point of being reprimanded by federal judges for failing to comply with the island’s local disclosure requirements.
“We are getting deeper into the colonial relationship and they’re not solving that lack of democracy,” says Juan Ruiz-Robles, a 31-year-old vacation rental property manager who lives in Old San Juan and helped set up a soup kitchen in La Perla after the storm. “Nobody voted for [the FOMB], it’s completely undemocratic.”
La Perla may be struggling, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t money to be made in today’s Puerto Rico. A few hundred yards away, in Old San Juan, where cruise ships began docking only three months after the storm, the streets have been restored to something resembling their former glory, with gaggles of tourists passing in front of its ornate colonial building and dining in its varied restaurants.
The incentives for mainlanders to do business in Puerto Rico are substantial: Puerto Rico imposes no federal personal income taxes mor a capital gains tax and has tax incentives extremely favorable to U.S. businesses. This past summer, Gov. Rosselló signed a bill to privatize the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) , the island’s power company and one of the largest public utilities in the United States. He also actively courted the tech sector as a way to bring investment to the island.
After the storm, a wave of investors and entrepreneurs with links to the cryptocurrency industry arrived in Puerto Rico from the mainland, their most visible representative being Brock Pierce, an eccentric former child actor who became a multimillionaire via the industry. As they rented out palatial buildings in Old San Juan and started speaking of how they were going to transform the island, ambitions that seemed to go beyond mere investing, this new form of capitalism seemed reminiscent to some of the old form of colonialism. The pushback was intense.
“We are infested with these people who think they are coming to save the primitive people of Puerto Rico who can’t get it together,” says Gabrielle Perez, 27, who works as a shop assistant in one of the stores selling trinkets to tourists in Old San Juan. “How dare you? It hurts, it’s insulting. They want this garden and they see us as the weeds.”
For their part, the new flock on investors insist they come in peace.
"I'm aware that the crypto community came down here without a well thought-out game plan," says Adam Krim, Acting Executive Director of the Restart One Foundation, which describes itself as a non-profit organization supporting the redevelopment of Puerto Rico and which was largely seed-funded by Pierce. "Nonetheless, they came down with the proper intention. We’re in the process of building that trust, which is going to take time.”
But in a country whose present was almost erased by a monstrous storm and whose past is so often badly understood by the mainland, nearby La Perla remains stubbornly, emphatically Puerto Rican.
For years, investors and developers have looked upon La Perla’s enviable seaside location and salivated with plans about how to redevelop the place. But its residents have remained planted where they are, through good times and bad.
On a recent night, people sat in a little park beneath the colonial castle’s walls, laughing and talking as the sound of crashing waves echoed nearby. The strains of salsa and reggaeton weaved through the palm fronds of the moonlit trees.
“This kind of life…” said Juan Ruiz-Robles, the property manager who helped run the soup kitchen after the storm, as he took in the scene. “This is a kind of resistance.”