Ever since I can remember I have been traveling to Puerto Rico. My dad, 100% Puerto Rican, loved taking my mom and I back to his favorite place at least once a year. Since he passed away, my family and I have continued visiting our special place, our home away from home, annually.
As many times as we’ve been to PR, we’ve never truly ventured around San Juan before, except for Old San Juan. Old San Juan is a dreamy area compared to the rest of San Juan – which I would call the “real world”. Old San Juan is a delicate rainbow in the heart of Puerto Rico’s capital city. Narrow cobblestone streets are filled with brightly painted homes – turquoise, rose, lavender, lime, tangerine. Mosaic tiles decorate entry ways, open courtyards house terra-cotta pots with sprawling greenery. Restaurants play traditional music, tourists shop in Spanish boutiques, vendors sell piraguas (shaved ice with flavored syrup… pretty much a Puerto Rican snowcone). It is gorgeous in every way possible. However, the rest of Puerto Rico is not like this – just as all of America is not like New York City, for example.
During our most recent trip this past May, my family and I flew into San Juan for a quick weekend getaway. San Juan is made up of many different neighborhoods – like any city, some nicer than others. On a muggy, cloudy day we called up a family friend, Jonathan, who lives in San Juan and asked him to take us around.
Jonathan took us to Santurce – the neighborhood in San Juan where he is from. Jonathan was born and raised in Santurce; he has lived there his entire life. Almost entirely opposite than Old San Juan, the streets of Santurce are not lined with chic, miniature hotels and blue-gray cobblestone roads. The streets of Santurce, at least from what I gathered, were filled with run-down homes and apartment buildings. There were shops and groceries – some open, some closed. There were stray dogs wandering aimlessly. Music, dance, and laughter were not nearly as prominent as they had been only an hour or two earlier in Old San Juan, where people crowded the streets. In Santurce, I saw no one.
Although, despite the quiet, the garbage dumps, and abandoned markets there was something incredible about the lonely streets of Santurce – something the famous streets of Old San Juan do not have at all… street art. Jonathan had mentioned in the car ride over that we were in for a great surprise – he knows I study art in school and thought it would be something I’d love to see. Boy, was he right.
We parked the car near his mom’s hair salon and began walking. Murals ranged in size, seeming to grow as the buildings grew larger and larger. Every flat surface was covered by a painting of some sort. Saying that each street had at least ten murals on it might not being doing the truth any justice. It took nearly an hour to roam around 7 or so blocks. Jonathan always seemed so proud of his neighborhood, telling us how much he loved it. Now I knew why. There was always something beautiful to see, no matter which way you looked. Literally.
Jonathan told us a bit about the artists – some of them he knew, some he didn’t. One mural was done by Puerto Rico’s most famous tattoo artist. Another worked on pieces that demonstrated political issues, using street art as an outlet for himself and as a form of communication for his followers/fans. The street artists of Santurce give the people of the neighborhood something to look forward to each and every morning. Who knows when the next new mural might appear? One day you’re walking to your car and are greeting by gnomes on the sidewalk. The next week, on that same walk to your car, you might be greeted by mermaids.
Jonathan told us Santurce was beginning to get all sorts of recognition for its artwork. Santurce is known as an art district and is welcomed in arts festivals. Websites offer photos of murals and give information/bios about the artists themselves.
Walking the streets of Santurce was just as thrilling as walking through any fancy art museum or gallery. I might have loved it even more, to be honest. To express oneself artistically in such an open and public way takes confidence in which I greatly admire. My day in Santurce was gloomy, but it rewarded me in such bright and brilliant ways.