The narrow streets of La Perla in Old San Juan are empty on this steamy Friday of May. In “la Placita” -the heart of the community- three neighbors sit undisturbed, talking and discussing the latest news.
Suddenly, a recognizable tune breaks the morning stillness.
A couple of tourists, in shorts and beaming smiles, treks into the neighborhood playing music on an iPhone. “Deja que te diga cosas al oído...” (Let me whisper words into your ear...).
It’s Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee’s mega-hit “Despacito”. The song’s video, which features La Perla and the popular bar La Factoría, is the most-watched YouTube video in history with over six billion views to date.
“Music and history brought us here,” Javier Zuleta and Laura Brokaw confessed, a Spaniard and an American who had met at La Factoría two days earlier. “Music is the mirror of life”.
The scene is common to locals. Since the release of the video two years ago, the sensuous melody has brought a new kind of fame to a neighborhood once considered a high crime area and now is notorious for its musical heritage.
Every day, tourists from all over the world roam around this barrio searching for the locations flashed in the video. Men and women stand on the rocks facing the Atlantic ocean where Fonsi sang his infectious song, walk the promenade where former Miss Universe Zuleyka Rivera strolled seductively, and take pictures of the plaza where men played dominoes, but on this morning talk about the news.
The place is so intriguing that a few hours after they landed on the island, Jair Trujillo and Naty Vega also marched into La Perla at the rhythm of “Despacito”. The couple from Ecuador vacationed on the island for two reasons: reggaeton and stunning beaches. Literally.
Luis Almenárez, Daniel Pérez, and David Hernández, three Venezuelans living in Florida, took a taxi from the airport straight to La Perla, an iconic neighborhood of vividly painted houses that was initially home to many descendants of former slaves and poor arrivals from the countryside. While a group of high schoolers chose the place for their field trip.
But for others, the journey begins in “La Vergüenza” (Shame), a bar on Norzagaray St. at the neighborhood’s entryway. Here, tourists asking for directions are greeted by the bartender -turned into an incidental tourist guide- Juan López.
“Before I send them off, I take the time to explain a little about the neighborhood and its history,” he told THE WEEKLY JOURNAL.
Not too far, in La Factoría a small stream of visitors still ask for the spot where Fonsi and Rivera dirty danced. “At first, a lot of people walked in asking for ‘Despacito’, but now the interest is winding down and we don’t get as many curious,” the owner Juan Pablo said.
A Chance to Shine
While some have criticized the invasion of outsiders, the community rejects its fame as an expression of slum tourism. The notoriety, some residents argued, gives them a sense of pride and an opportunity to tell their story.
“It helps the businesses and the recognition makes the community proud,” Joe Medina, a musician that made this barrio his home two decades ago, responded.
But he is quick to point out that La Perla is more than “Despacito”. It was setting of movies like “Runner Runner” with Ben Affleck and Justin Timberlake and “El Cantante” (The Singer) with Marc Anthony and Jennifer López, among others. Decades before the song became an anthem of sorts for the community, artists Ismael Rivera, Calle 13 and Ruben Blades celebrated its people and the neighborhood’s combative spirit.
“I like it a lot because we are on the map,” Medina said.
Elisa Santiago agrees.
“La Perla is unique. We were the first barrio,” Santiago affirmed. “This is an opportunity to fall in love with and understand La Perla.”