Puerto Rico Sees Cultural Revival

Story and photos by Alicia Kennedy

Alicia Kennedy is an impassioned food & travel writer based in Brooklyn and loves sharing everything from recipes to fascinating conversations from interesting people. To learn more, check out her blog, and follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

From bookstore owners to bread makers, working people are redefining the culture.

In the ‘60s and ‘70s, the Santurce area of San Juan was a hub for cultural discussion. Shopping malls came in and dispersed the local businesses in the ‘80s, and the artistic center of the city shifted out to Río Piedras, near the university. But in the last few years, it has returned. One of the people responsible is Samuel Medina, who runs Libros AC, a publishing house and independent bookstore.

Medina began his career by publishing a literary magazine in 2007, and books soon followed. When Borders went out of business in 2011, he started planning the store, which opened in 2012 and has since expanded twice. A partner runs the bistro half, creating a space where people come to work and talk — reinvigorating the neighborhood’s lost salon past. “We’re seeing a resurgence of readers, and they’re just trying to grab the latest book,” he says. “Everyone who comes around is trying to participate in this new life in Santurce.”

The new literary life in the neighborhood is defined by the success of Libros AC’s 2010 release, “Mundo Cruel,” by local bookstore employee Luis Negrón, a bookseller for 25 years. During this time, he wrote stories but never had anything published, that is until this first collection — now translated into English and published across Latin America and Europe. It’s hilarious, and cutting with touching stories taking place almost entirely in Santurce. When it first came out, Negron told me, “I didn’t even have a passport.” Then he handed me the newly arrived Slovenian edition.

Santurce has allowed him to live an artist’s dream life, where he can do the projects he wants — mainly theater right now — and live simply. “People find a place here. Everything keeps changing with all these young people, especially artists moving in, but the community that was already here is comfortable,” he says.

Sofia Maldonado is one of the artists redefining public space on the island. After spending eight years in New York City and receiving her MFA from Pratt, she returned to Puerto Rico at the end of 2014. It’s here where she’s been able to explore the reinvention of abandoned buildings using abstraction and color. She created a large piece called Kalaña, funded by the government of Caguas, a city in the center of the island that has caused a very real shift. “The owner of the building wanted to transform it into storage spaces, and then after the project he thought he could do something more creative with it,” she told me. “If you can do that with him, you can do that with a bunch of others.”

A smaller piece called Kalaña II lives at Universidad del Sagrado Corazón in Santurce. Now people want to book the area for parties.

Though she hadn’t intended to stay on the island, she says “moving to PR has been very healthy, and I’m kind of taking advantage of that. Even though we have an economic crisis, there are a lot of creative people coming back, and there are people who stayed and have been starting businesses and building a little economy.”

The dedication to this little economy is not just taking place in San Juan, either. If you drive out to the surfing towns on the west coast, you’ll find more Puerto Ricans carving out spaces they want to see.

In Aguadilla, Levain Artisan Breads began five years ago at a local farmers market; now the husband-and-wife team, Jo Rodríguez and Joy Madera, are the premier wholesale bread suppliers on the island. (Pacheco uses their bread at La Jaquita Baya.) Their small bakery space serves locals, surfers, people stationed at U.S. bases and a new population of Germans working at a local Lufthansa hub. Baker Rodriguez was an accountant who got obsessed with bread making and went to study at the French Culinary Institute. When he returned, most locals weren’t accustomed to European-style breads, but now it’s become so successful that he needs a new space just for wholesale operations.

In nearby Isabela, Wilson Davalos opened the beautifully designed CLMDO in 2014, where he serves small Mediterranean-inspired plates in a former grocery store. He returned to Puerto Rico when print photography jobs started drying up in New York. His true goal is to be a restaurateur rather than a chef, and he’s on his way with the imminent opening of his next restaurant, Julia’s, located in the town’s plaza. It will be more upscale but still rustic, proving fine dining can happen anywhere on the island.

Regardless of the economic challenges the government is facing, Puerto Ricans who have stayed or returned from abroad are creating their country anew for themselves. As a tourist, it is possible to experience this… where artists, designers and writers savor and share the local flavors of their home in all its forms.

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