La Perla is a township that’s situated outside of the city walls of Old San Juan in Puerto Rico.
All photos by Sye Williams
Outside the walls means exactly that. As in there’s a small slice of land between the city and the Atlantic, and that’s La Perla. Originally La Perla was the home of the slaughterhouse, cemeteries, and former slaves and homeless non-white servants, because at the time these unspeakables were prohibited from residing inside the city walls. The area’s history is drenched in poverty and hardship, but surf, skate, and art culture is beginning to give the little town, a little hope. A movement in La Perla headed by artist/skateboarder/community activist Chemi Rosado-Seijo (the artist famous for having a studio full of skate ramps in Old San Juan) is attempting to take back the identity of La Perla, and rid the settlement of its stigma.
Chemi and his friends found an old abandoned swimming pool, right next to the ocean in La Perla, and turned it into a skateable bowl. Roberto ‘Boly’ Cortez, a veteran of the San Juan surf and skate scene, has been surfing and skating since the 70s, and he’s one of the guys who helped Chemi convert the pool. “In the late 90s there was not much tradition to skateboarding here on the island of Puerto Rico,” says Roberto. “So I surfed a lot. When I was surfing with Miguel Pellot, he told me about this skate ramps in Old San Juan inside an artists building on the third floor. That’s when I meet Chemi and Pitire. They took me down to La Perla. Where I met the local surfers. “
Not wanting to exclude anyone, the guys fill the pool with water at the weekends, weather permitting, so that the local kids can swim. Roberto explains that the idea for the pool was borne out of watching how the infamous Burnside park in Portland was made on VHS. “That was 11 years ago, and it took us a year to build it,” says Roberto. “After losing a bet about how fast we could build it, we worked night and day, sometimes all the way through to the morning. Other times we had to abandon it for a few weeks to do other work, to get money to go back and continue. In March 2006 the bowl was inaugurated with a big fiesta, where we celebrated the first concrete skateboarding pool on the island. Nowadays the bowl is a international canvas for skateboarders, grafiteros (graffiti artists), movies and commercials. It’s a beautiful pool in front of the Atlantic,” he says brimming with pride.
Another of the things that Chemi’s set up in La Perla is the annual kite festival. “In 2013 after winning the Creative Capital Grant, I presented the La Perla community the idea of doing a portrait of the community in the form of a kite festival,” explains Chemi. “The idea was for the local people to make kites, and then fly all of them at the same time from the houses in the community, so that a reflection of the barrio, known as ‘El Hoyo,’ (the hole) could fly over the old walls and up into the sky. It’s transformed into a once-a-year cultural event, and it’s given positive recognition to the community, and also has brought attention to traditional kite making.” In a community that’s long been shunned by the rest of the city, the visibility of the kites above the walls is an important, and rather clever, way of reminding Old San Juan that there’s a community living just outside their walls.