In October 2018, 20 students worked with Internews and National Geographic Photo Camp to create photo stories and essays from four locations in Puerto Rico, a little more than a year after Hurricane Maria. 

This work examines the oft-misunderstood neighborhood of La Perla, situated outside of Old San Juan’s protective walls. Students strove to document the balance between the daily challenges that have plagued the colorful community for generations and the optimistic, hardworking spirit that runs through the neighborhood.

Student Essay: May the Pearl always be shining

From the radiance that flowed from the coast arises her name, La Perla. In ancient times, sailors associated this radiance with the white of the pearls of the sea. In our times, it is distinguished by the colorfulness of its houses, the arts that adorn their walls and by being the scene of the song “Despacito.”

After the passage of Hurricane Maria, hundreds of inhabitants of the neighborhood that sits outside Old San Juan’s protective walls and adjacent to the Atlantic Ocean, emigrated to the United States, leaving the community with less than three hundred residents.  After the nefarious winds of September 20, 2017, some of the La Perla structures were left in ruins.

The chords of “Despacito” changed to “se fue la casa con to” (the house blew away), as expressed Tito, who currently lives in an apartment provided by the municipality.   

Juan Concepción, better known as “Coco,” 79, describes the hurricane experience, with his eyes watering, as “fatal; it’s the only time I’ve cried so much…” The hurricane has been the biggest thing he has ever seen in his life, likening it to an “animal.”

“I saw him, I cried, and I’m still crying. Thank God we are alive,” he said, adding that the community also “cried a lot; we cried all night.”

They did not wait for government aid to arrive. They themselves razed rubble and cleaned up the streets. They wiped their tears, joined forces, and went out to help the community and give encouragement to those who needed it.

The help of Puerto Rican artists and other organizations soon arrived. After three weeks, an electric brigade arrived to gave them back light, and as a token of gratitude, they made the workers a Puerto Rican dinner. 

Now more than a year after the passage of the hurricane, we visited the community. Lourdes, vice president of the La Perla Community Board, welcomed us with a warm smile. She was very enthusiastic in telling the stories that guard the walls that divide the neighborhood from the rest of the capital city.

She showed the Head Start building and proudly expressed that it was the first one that opened in Puerto Rico. The neighborhood has a medical facility, pharmacy, two community gardens, a bakery, bars, restaurants, an open-air free “bookstore,” and a boxing gym.

Sonia, who is passionate about reading, decided to share her books for the benefit of the community created the open-air bookstore.  “Those who read don’t steal and those who steal don’t read,” she said, pointing out that she doesn’t feel the need to be watching the area all of the time. With the sound of the waves and with the air in company, anyone is welcome to sit down enjoy reading. 

Don Tito, who lives in the eastern boundary of the neighborhood and has a striking panoramic view from where his second story once stood, was very moved by the visit of a group of workers who will be reconstructing his home thanks to Luis Fonsi, the “Despacito” singer.

The colorful community is unique: they emphasize unity, values, and humility. For years they have tried to eliminate the stigma of evil that surrounds them. La Perla is known as one of Puerto Rico’s “most dangerous” neighborhoods because of the high incidence of violent crimes in the 1960s and 1970s.

Yashira Gonzalez, president of the La Perla Community Board, assures that there is peace in the surrounding area and even the members of the community board offer tours to educate people and break stereotypes. “We are doing the tours in order to open the doors for people to come and get to know the community and see that it is not what is said…,” reaffirms the president. 

For this purpose, the project La Perla “Pinta Su Futuro” (The Pearl Paints Its Future) was also carried out, which sought to revive the infrastructure through painting. Artists from all over the world also use the walls as canvas to express their art. Residents welcome visitors with open arms and are not shy about starting a conversation and presenting their neighborhood with great pride.

In just minutes we gained the affection and respect of those who received us. Although they live marginalized, they maintain a humanitarian attitude and are very grateful for what they have. They still live in hope of recovering what was lost.

The Pearl of the North rises and with force. Hurricane Maria cleansed the stigma of evil and gave way for its true colors to shine.

There is no more mistrust or evil.

You feel an air that seasons your skin with the salt of the sea.

Poem: This is La Perla
Author: Paola Carrasquillo Arroyo

Red zone, violent, dangerous.
Tied to prejudices she says: “enough”.
says: “no more”.

How is it possible to find so much beauty in one place?

And it is that… the sea slides through your skin,
the wind caresses your lips,
the sunrise toasts your shoulders and the sunset paints your cheeks
but that’s not enough for me.

Your soul is a labyrinth,
I feel like I’m hallucinating.
because I get lost in your colors.

You are the neighborhood
inhabited by independent people.
Beings full of history, of life
who fight day by day for what they want together with smiles… difficult to forget.

Spirit of struggle,
Strong against the winds,
in the face of the hurricane,
in the face of injustice,
before whatever comes.

This is all you are,
this is you,
this is La Perla.