Chicago Tribune
September 1, 1998


                   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,"
                   Sepulveda said.

                   "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
                   for redevelopment.

                   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.