The beauty and horror of La Perla in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico

‘Serene’ describes the extraordinary ocean view, the consistent blue extending out into the uninterrupted horizon. La Perla is located right on the shoreline, directly under the walls of El Morro, an old and famous Spanish fortress. It sits right in the tourist hotspot of Old San Juan, its ocean view, restaurant proximity, and surrounding monuments making for the perfect beach resort real estate.

La Perla, however, is more of a slum. Tour guides warn against the apprehension towards outsiders and publicity of La Perla’s residents, and most visitors prefer to peer in from above the walls rather than venture inside. Stories of drugs, thieves, violence dominate the narrative on La Perla, which starkly contrasts with the well maintained historical monuments that encroach it.

Beneath that superficiality lies a much deeper story of government corruption and gentrification, exemplifying the oppression of native Puerto Ricans in the island’s tourist areas. In 2010, the government proposed an urban renewal plan, promising to revamp San Juan. It detailed new hotels, water taxis, rail service, safer neighborhoods.

To residents of La Perla, this plan was yet another attempt to rob their heritage and generational wealth. The U.S. federal governments owns the walls of El Morro and forbids construction within 30 feet of them. These types of regulations have stranded La Perla in a precarious and desperate position, always one policy vote away from utter loss.

Soon after the enactment of the urban renewal plan, the police raided the community. The government indicted over 100 residents on gun and drug charges, zeroing in on a man named Jorge Gómez González.

González, known as Cara de Truck, was the community’s go-to. He lobbied at city hall, he bought groceries, he fixed collapsed roofs. After all that, he worked a night shift as a crane operator. The case against La Perla’s residents was named United States of America v. Jorge Gómez González.

Cara de Truck was ultimately sentenced to 30 years in federal prison for alleged drug dealing. The ruling also required the defendants, which comprised a large part of La Perla’s population, to pay $20 million or the same value in property.

No one in a slum has a spare $20 million sitting around, so the government’s attempt at a land grab became crystal clear. La Perla is just one extreme instance of government corruption on an island with a population of more than 3 million. As elsewhere in the U.S., money wins, and Puerto Rico’s natives are losing their homes and identity because of it.




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Together in Our Diversity

Together in Our Diversity

2023 Global Scholars Cohort Member. Global connections, computer science, and ping-pong enthusiast.