‘I went to San Juan once, but I stayed in the tourist district, so I didn’t get to see the real San Juan, you know?’
Most of the conversations that I have with people about my hometown begin this way. And they often end awkwardly — after I tell the person in question that the ‘really touristy area’ of San Juan is in fact where I grew up. And that it is as real to me as any other place on Earth.
Condado is a neighborhood wedged between two very different districts of San Juan (the capital city of the Caribbean island of Puerto Rico). To one side is Santurce, a sprawling zone that was once a fugitive settlement of escaped slaves from Caribbean islands under English, Dutch and Danish control. To the other side is Viejo San Juan, a picturesque UNESCO World Heritage Site that is heralded by some as the most beautiful and eclectic district in San Juan, and scorned by others as a sort of ‘Disney World’ that has evolved to suit a tourist’s imaginary.
Condado is unlike both Santurce and Viejo San Juan. Since the nineteenth century, its landscape has changed dramatically. No longer is it the spot that the island’s elites choose for their vacation homes, as was the case a century and a half ago. It is now the location of choice for a number of new people, and new interests.
In the winter, tourists (mostly from the United States) flee to one of many large hotels (all of which are part of multi-national chains) that dot Condado’s coastlines. Diaspores from countries as diverse as Argentina, Japan, Turkey, Cuba and Italy have established restaurants in the neighborhood, and have become as organic a part of the landscape as anyone else. And posh boutiques with names like ‘Vanity’ and ‘Glam’ sell clothing and jewelry at prices that never seemed reasonable to me, my family, or my friends.
As a child and early teenager, I would study the styles on display at the boutiques, spend hours reading in hotel lobbies, and listen to global sounds — from tango to flamenco to 1960s rock & roll — as they spilled out onto the streets. I learned the fine art of enjoying all this, and never spending a penny.
Living in an apartment right on the border between Condado and Santurce, I was permitted to contemplate Condado from a distance. Over time I realized that my experience of the neighborhood bore little resemblance to that of the people who crossed oceans to visit, and the people who crossed the autopista (highway) from elsewhere in San Juan for a swanky night out.
For me, Condado has been the place where I have practiced the art of living in crucial ways.
In Condado, I learned how to cope with materialism through humor and detachment. I learned the importance of treating the Earth with absolute respect — and I grew to understand the ways in which the excesses of the tourism industry and the excesses of local elites are linked.
And I learned how to reflect upon, and celebrate, the mystery and caprice of time. That a place can be transient for some, and constant for others, continues to fill me with a sense of awe.
So yes, Condado is indeed a tourist district. But it is also deeply rooted in its own complicated politics, and its own landscape. I am humbled to its contradictions, and its beauties.