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Urban Art Festival Highlights Neighborhood in Puerto Rico

[Links are to Spanish-language pages unless otherwise noted.]

The fourth annual urban art festival known as Santurce es Ley (Santurce is Law), an event during which visual, performance, and musical artists come together to create street art in the midst of the Santurce neighborhood, was held during the weekend of April 5-7.

Over the last several decades, what was once among the most important urban centers in Puerto Rico—a bustling cultural and commercial hub—gradually deteriorated into one of the most run-down neighbourhoods in the capital city of San Juan. Empty buildings abound; sidewalks are in disrepair; and even a cursory glance reveals profound social inequality.

In recent years, efforts have been made to revitalize Santurce, perhaps the most well known being the arteSanturce alliance of cultural institutions. But these efforts, which include everything from community-wide outdoor activities to commercial, cultural, and real estate projects are for the most part centered on one of Santurce's main arteries, Ponce de León Avenue. Moreover, the negative side of these developments has been gentrification, and the relocation and elimination of entire communities.

Santurce es Ley is the brainchild of artist Alexis Busquet [en]. This year's focal point was Calle Cerra (Cerra Street), a street that played a pivotal role in the history of Puerto Rico's music industry. Today Calle Cerra is home to many members of the Dominican community, who are very marginalized in the country. During the weekend-long event, it became Puerto Rico's mecca for murals. Below are some of the pictures I took as I walked along the Calle Cerra in the days following the festival.

Colectivo Fibra

Artistic installation by Colectivo Camiseta (La CoCa).

Sin agricultura, no hay comida

The topic of agriculture echoed throughout this year's celebration of Santurce es Ley.

Huerto urbano en la Calle Cerra.

An urban farm on Calle Cerra.

Mural en el huerto urbano creado para esta edición de Santurce es Ley.

A mural in the urban farm created for this year's festival.

Además de tener un mural atractivo, este espacio abandonado ahora cuenta con un vivero de plantas, algo bastante inesperado cuando lo descubrí.

In addition to an eye-catching mural, this abandoned space now boasts a plant nursery, something I had not expected to find.

Colectivo Basta

This mural, one of the urban exhibit's most impressive, seems to be a metaphor for Puerto Rican capitalism. By Colectivo Basta.

Otro mural interesantísimo en la Calle Cerra.

Another interesting mural on Calle Cerra.

Un detalle de la fachada de un edificio con el símbolo de Santurce. (Antiguamente, Santurce se llamó San Mateo de Cangrejos.)

Detail of the facade of a building with the symbol of Santurce.  (Historically, Santurce was known as San Mateo de Cangrejos, the Spanish word for crabs.)

Despite the favourable reception of the Santurce art festival, it also received critiques. One of the strongest arguments was that people who live in the area do not participate in the artistic activities and are not represented, the majority being immigrants from the Dominican Republic. Daniel Nina, writing in El Post Antillano, says the following:

Tendríamos que pensar esta convocatoria de Santurce es Ley como un proceso a democratizar. Me pregunto, para la quinta edición en el 2014, ¿cuántos de los artistas serán dominicanos, de ahí mismo, de la comunidad de la pobreza y la desesperanza? A los organizadores les pedimos que tomen nota. Inventen un Santurce es Ley que sea representativo de la diversidad cultural de la región, y no exclusivo de unos afortunados que por razón de ser intocables, invaden comunidades a su predilección.

We should think about Santurce es Ley as an opportunity for greater democratization. I wonder about the fifth edition in 2014; how many of the artists will be Dominican, from right there, from a community of poverty and despair? We ask that the organizers take note. Put together a Santurce es Ley that is representative of the cultural diversity of the region and not just of the fortunate few who, because they are considered beyond reproach, take over communities at will.

The organizers responded to the criticism on Facebook. The gauntlet has been thrown, but we will have to wait until next year's festival to see whether the organizers are willing to take it up. You can see more photographs of the murals painted during the festival here and here.

All photos were taken by the author.

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