The word most frequently used to describe the barrio of La Perla (“The Pearl”) in Old San Juan is “slum”, though oftentimes it is tempered with the backhanded compliment “the prettiest slum in the world”. It is beautiful in its own way. It has an enviable view of the ocean and of the forts of Old San Juan, as well as direct access to the lovely Viejo San Juan Cemetery and a beach where residents go surfing. The houses, while rundown, are colorful and picturesque, stacked as they are in tiers along the side of the cliff on the outside of the city’s wall. This location–outside the city’s wall–is telling.
One of the first things you learn when you start researching a trip to San Juan, Puerto Rico, is to avoid La Perla. It is known as a hotbed of crime, murders, and drug dealing. Everyone warns you about it, both online and offline. I’m sure half of those delivering the warning don’t know a thing about it, they’re just repeating what they’ve been told.
It didn’t take much for me to heed the warnings. As a solo female traveler, I am very aware of my own vulnerabilities when traveling to a new place. I have no desire to put myself in unnecessary danger. Especially when the locals tell you that the neighborhood is controlled by the drug dealers and that even the police don’t go there. Yet, I went as close as I could. I snuck as many glimpses of it as I could from the walls of El Morro and San Cristobal. I walked up to the entrance, without actually stepping foot within its boundaries. It fascinated me. What is it about wanting to go where common sense tells you not to?
Perhaps it was the paradox of the beauty of the area known as a “slum” that fascinated me. Last year, Calle 13 produced a video for their song “La Perla” that I found very appealing. I don’t know enough Spanish to know what the lyrics say, but it seemed to me they were trying to point out the “other” La Perla, the one most people don’t talk about when they warn you not to go there. The one made up of everyday average people eking out an existence and just trying to live their lives. How do those people feel, knowing the reputation their neighborhood has? How does a child overcome the stigma of having grown up in La Perla?
I know what 99.9% of all people who don’t live in La Perla think of it. What do the people who live there think? What are their lives like if it’s true that the drug dealers control the barrio? What do they think of this reputation they have? I wish I could hear their stories.