In Puerto Rico, beauty is not hard to find. But you must search where nobody looks, you must see what nobody minds.
That’s how I found Jwan Perez’s artistic work, looking where nobody minds.
He lives in the Cerro Calero neighborhood in the northwestern coastal city of Aguadilla. Cerro Calero, also known as Villa Lobos or wolf village, is a poor neighborhood, invisible to the government and to most passers-by even though it is only steps from the government building. It was among the last to have its electricity restored, and Perez and his father, artist Billy Joe Perez, still haven’t been able to fix the roof of their home.
But that might change soon. I stumbled upon the murals that Jwan and his father created at the entrance of this community while looking for a parking space on my way to a nearby boxing gym. There is beauty in the images that the father-and-son artistic duo have created. I saw greater art in their family’s character and their unrelenting desire to overcome adversity.
I featured Jwan in a story that was published in the Los Angeles Times in February. Jay Grant and the other organizers of the Sawdust Art Festival in Laguna Beach, Calif., read the story and decided to offer the 20-year-old Jwan Perez the opportunity of a lifetime.
The festival flew Jwan to present his work in Laguna Beach for the whole summer. Organizers built a booth for Jwan and provided room and board for the duration of the summer festival so that Jwan could save the proceeds from his art and use the money to help his family.
“Our goal with this is to help somebody in distress,” Grant told the Los Angeles Times in a follow-up story when the festival started in June. “We want to encourage him, his family and community. We will do everything we can to let him know there are people who care.”
Sawdust Festival also paid for fellow Puerto Rican artist Jenny Cruz to join Jwan briefly during the first days of the festival. Jwan’s work has been well-received in California and he is on his way to raising the $5,000 he needs to fix his home in Aguadilla.
On Aug. 12, the festival highlighted Jwan’s work during its Benevolence Fund Auction. Upon his return to Puerto Rico, both Jwan and Cruz, will be exhibiting their work at the Ponce Art Museum, one of the most prestigious on the island. More important, Jwan has grown as an artist and he will take that knowledge back to teach other young talents in Puerto Rico the way of the arts.
It’s a path that is opening for him day by day with its diverse challenges. But his art will always remind me to search for beauty in those places where others forget to look.