POOR IS IN THE EYE OF THE BEHOLDER
Like the impulse of life itself, this
Puerto Rican slum resists becoming
bland or posh, the Tribune's Michael...
September 1, 1998
LA PERLA, Puerto Rico -- Thirty-two
years ago, University of Illinois
anthropologist Oscar Lewis made this slum
famous or infamous, depending on your
point of view, in his controversial work
about poverty among Puerto Ricans.
In "La Vida: A Puertan Rican Family in the
Culture of Poverty--San Juan and New
York," Lewis wrote of a Puerto Rican
family, headed by a matriarch who had
been a prostitute and was living with her
sixth husband in La Perla. She had children
by two of the husbands.
The book follows a daughter and son in
New York City and two other daughters in
La Perla, one of whom also becomes a
prostitute. The five major characters had a
total of 20 marriages.
"The people in this book, like most of the
other Puerto Rican slum dwellers I have
studied, show a great zest for life, especially
for sex, and a need for excitement, new
experiences and adventures," Lewis wrote,
generating protests from many Puerto
"Theirs is an expressive style of life. They
value acting out more than thinking out,
self-expression more than self-constraint,
pleasure more than productivity, spending
more than saving, personal loyalty more
than impersonal justice. They are fun-loving
and enjoy parties, dancing and music. They
cannot be alone; they have an almost
insatiable need for sociability and
The 1966 book's depiction of Puerto
Ricans, particularly women as prostitutes,
was denounced as stereotypical and
offensive, but the U.S. literary establishment
awarded it the National Book Award for
non-fiction in 1967.
Lewis, who died in 1970, changed the
name of the slum to La Esmeralda (the
emerald), though experts say he was really
writing about La Perla (the pearl).
"It was very controversial here in Puerto
Rico because the study seems to many
people to be defamatory, especially
regarding the honor of Puerto Rican
women," said professor David Hernandez,
chairman of the sociology and anthropology
departments at the University of Puerto
On a recent afternoon, Jorge Sepulveda,
50, a La Perla resident, and his friend
Angelo Valentin insisted on luring me away
from one assignment and giving me a tour of
the slum. Sepulveda, an electrician's
assistant who carried pliers and other tools
in his back pocket, lives in a $150-a-month
shack. Valentin, 46, an athletic, bald man
who almost always wears shorts, is a
referee in Puerto Rico's professional
basketball league and a part-time
"You are in a different world now,"
Sepulveda said. "You are not in San Juan.
This is the poorest of the poor, but the most
beautiful. Here we keep traditions alive, like
killing a pig and taking the guts out and
roasting it over an open fire, like they did
hundreds of years ago."
La Perla offers arguably the most
breathtaking view of the El Morro castle at
the tip of Old San Juan. In the foreground
are magnificent white statues of angels in the
Cemetery of St. Mary Magdalene of Pazzis,
which opened in 1814.
"This is my beautiful La Perla. I love La
Perla with all my heart, soul and spirit,"
"There was a guy named Oscar Lewis,"
Valentin said contemptuously, "and he
wrote a book called `La Vida.' He wrote
how dirty and how disgraceful the people
were in La Perla."
As in Lewis' time, the slum remains a
dangerous place of drug dealing, murders
and fugitives' hideouts--not unlike some of
Chicago's neighborhoods. Still, it is home to
a Head Start center, a medical clinic, a
senior citizen center, some bars, a
basketball court and an abandoned
government community center.
Near the seawall, an abstract mural painted
last year includes a panel that Valentin
described as the Santeria deity of Yemaya,
goddess of the sea, supporting Puerto Rico
on her back.
The slum is home to the shortstop of Puerto
Rico's 1996 Olympic softball team, Aida
Miranda, 39. She happily allowed us into
her home, a sparse, ramshackle cube of a
structure. My tour guides teased her about
showing me a gold medal--the team, along
with The Netherlands', had the worst
record, losing all but one of seven games,
according to the U.S. Olympic Committee.
Still, she proudly showed me a poster of her
and two Olympic teammates, one that is
also framed and autographed in a nearby
From a tourist's viewpoint, the slum begs
Covering about 15 square blocks, the
ghetto rests along the Atlantic Ocean
between El Morro and the San Cristobal
fort, both National Historic Sites. One of
San Cristobal's garitas, a circular sentry
deck that is a national symbol, looks upon
La Perla. Old San Juan is next door.
But developers are unwelcome.
"It won't be developed. The people won't
allow it. Since 1938, the government has
been trying to develop it, and they still
haven't," Valentin said.