San Juan, La Perla, and Hurricane Maria

Puerto Rico is a marvelous Caribbean island in the south-east of the United States of which is a territory since 1899. Consequently, despite Puerto Rico is not a state of the United States, it is part of its Commonwealth and it is subject to certain federal rules, including those related to disasters response. The intent of this post is not discussing the issues related to the emergency management at the time of Hurricane Maria – for that, I am working on a research project that it will be hopefully publishing in a near future. Instead, here, I want to talk about the astonishing city of San Juan that I have recently visited and how Hurricane Maria has re-shaped the everyday life of some of the city’s residents.

I spent a few days in San Juan while participating to the Southern Political Science Association (SPSA) Annual Meeting. I had the opportunity to present the preliminary findings of my research project – the one that I mentioned above – while also getting in touch with people working in the field of emergency management. Besides the conference experience, I thought that since I was in Puerto Rico, I could’ve used some time to visit the city and see with my own eyes what Hurricane Maria meant for its community.

First, let me tell you that the city of San Juan reminded me the beautiful coastal cities of Italy from where I am originally from. Plenty of colors and with the always-present sea breeze, San Juan is a vibrant city where people get together in bars, restaurants, beautiful beaches, and art centers. Art galleries and community centers are very common in San Juan, especially the Old Town where it is impossible not to immerge in a variety of arts and crafts stores (if you are around, I recommend to go to Mundo Taino, a small store with artisan products whose name recalls the Tainos, the indigenous population of Puerto Rico). Two massive castles, belonging to the Spanish domination era, Castillo San Felipe del Morro and Castillo of San Cristobal, define the shape of the Old Town, providing their visitors with amazing views over the ocean.

View from Castillo San Felipe del Morro | Old San Juan, Puerto Rico

From Castillo San Felipe del Morro, which is located in the north-western part of the Old Town, it is possible to enjoy a wonderful glimpse over the city and the neighborhood of La Perla. For who doesn’t know, La Perla is a coastal neighborhood located in the north of the Old Town right below the historical city walls. If the location sounds cool, I invite you to think about one thing: is the fact that La Perla is located right below the historical city walls indicative? The answer is: yes. La Perla has nothing to do with the rest of the city of San Juan. First of all, it is located in a position which makes it clearly separated from the rest of the city. Indeed, the entrances to La Perla are either stairs or underpasses. Second, if in San Juan is almost impossible to think about the impact of Hurricane Maria, instead it is when you look at La Perla. The amount of damages at La Perla are clearly visible by even just walk through the broad-walk. La Perla is a neighborhood where the marginalized community of San Juan lives. The number of houses without roofs and amount of debris are a clear depiction of how Hurricane Maria has differently impacted different parts of the city, and consequently, different communities whose social status is quite different. Third, La Perla’s location makes it even prone to disasters since it faces the ocean and many houses are build just a few feet from the sea.

La Perla seen by the broad-walk above the historical city walls | San Juan, Puerto Rico

Despite La Perla has been severely damaged by Hurricane Maria, its residents have rolled up their sleeves and move forward. If it is true that there is so much to do, I did see people going and coming back from work, children playing around, and people conducting their ordinary life even if in such vulnerable condition. Of course, the everyday life of people living in La Perla is likely to be quite different than those of people living just a few feet away. However, what I have seen is a city full of energy, hope, and will to get over the devastation of the Hurricane. When will it happen? I do not know, and maybe it is hard to respond to this answer also for the people living in San Juan. What is for sure, it is that Hurricane Maria did not turn off the vitality and joy of Puerto Ricans – despite when I was there, several earthquakes affected the south of the island and were felt in San Juan as well.

I think that as a researcher, having had the chance to go to Puerto Rico while working on my research paper made a dramatic difference. Not only professionally, but also personally. The boost and motivation I found while in San Juan, especially while walking through the broad-walk facing La Perla, is what I hope to put into my research. The welcoming atmosphere and meaningful conversations in Puerto Rico will always be among my greatest memories. Gracias Puerto Rico!

Sara Belligoni

Header image © Sara Belligoni