In “Trailblazers of Puerto Rico: Meet the Entrepreneur Building Micro-Businesses in La Perla,” Melissa Jun Rowley (Forbes) writes about Lorel Cubano Santiago, founder of the non-profit Old San Juan Heritage Foundation and the and community-owned gallery Colectivo PerlArte.
“Faith is what brought me here, faith and perseverance,” says Lorel Cubano Santiago, as I sit across from her in a charming art gallery overlooking the Atlantic Ocean in La Perla, Puerto Rico, a historic area located outside the city wall of Old San Juan. While the neighborhood is viewed by some as ripe for real estate development, some see it as taboo. What Lorel sees is its potential to thrive.
Known for decades as being one of the most marginalized neighborhoods on the island, La Perla was established in the 19th century, providing grounds for a slaughterhouse and housing slaves that were required to live outside the city.
While this community of 300+ individuals has a long way to go with regard to building and supporting its own local businesses, community leaders like Lorel are lighting a new path for La Perla residents. Through the Old San Juan Heritage Foundation, a nonprofit she launched in 2017 to provide tour guide training for the people of La Perla and Puerta de Tierra, another low-income community nearby, she’s creating micro-enterprises, and providing small business skills training and art workshops to aspiring entrepreneurs one concept at a time.
You Gotta Have Faith
Not only have faith and perseverance gotten Lorel to where she is today as a community activist in La Perla, they’ve been her bedrock as a multiple sclerosis survivor.
In 2008, after being given a vaccine that caused a secondary effect of MS—against her doctor’s recommendation—she chose not to undergo beta interferon treatment because of its debilitating side effects.
When asked about this part of her history Lorel reflected: “Before that I was going to conquer the world. I didn’t think I needed anybody. I was very bratty, and I was blind for a month and a half. I forgot how to talk. Through the experience, I’ve learned patience. I’ve learned to listen.”
Rebranding and Betting On Art
Originally from Manati, Puerto Rico, Lorel started her career in tourism taking visitors from Disney cruise ships to the plaza in Old San Juan to meet the famous Ponce de Léon family. After deciding she wanted to ensure she could hire locals in need of jobs, she moved to La Perla and opened her foundation. However, circumstances forced her to press pause.
“We were going to start the initiative with the workshops and education, and move forward with the project, but Maria came and it was complete devastation for about a year and a half—two years in tourism,” she shares.
After Hurricane Maria tore through the island, Lorel opened a community kitchen and fed 400 people daily for about five months.
“And there it went, all my budget,” she says. “And I was like, “Oh, where am I going now? What can I do?’ And then a couple of the neighbors came to me and said, ‘Lorel, we are all artists and there’s a lot of art here in La Perla. Why don’t we bet on our art?”
Lorel currently offers art workshops every Friday in the community-based and community-owned gallery, Colectivo PerlArte, one of the micro-enterprise she’s launched in La Perla.
“I’m betting on art because creative education brings out the best in human beings,” she shares. “Creativity should be a priority as it promotes mental health, a huge problem on the island since Hurricane Maria and the recent earthquakes.”
Now that tourism has picked up in La Perla, thanks to Luis Fonsi’s and Daddy Yankee’s smash-hit “Despacito,” the most-streamed song of all time, a La Perla rebrand is taking off, and Lorel is resuming her tourism training, alongside running the gallery, a musical group, and a dining space, where local chefs cook for visitors. Her hope is that she inspires her neighbors to open their own independent businesses. They would be in good company. Lorel fondly referenced a bakery down the street from where she lives, a speakeasy bar on the other side of the neighborhood, and Sonia’s Bacalaítos, which are “famous on Sundays.”
“I wish for La Perla to open three or four more artisan galleries around the neighborhood and more little coffee shops,” says Lorel. “And I see it. It’s the future. It’s coming. If this community is not gentrified and it thrives, it could be a model that could be reproduced in other communities that are marginalized, and we have a lot of those communities on the island and the mainland.”
Yes, we do. And yes, it’s possible for them to thrive.
[Above, photo by Herman Rodríguez: Lorel Cubano Santiago, founder of Old San Juan Heritage Foundation and Colectivo PerlArte]