I had never heard of the Afro-descendent community called Loíza until I was invited to attend the 15th annual Soros Justice Fellowship Conference in San Juan, Puerto Rico this past July. I attended this year’s conference as a staff member of the Criminal Justice Fund at the Open Society Foundations. The fellowship program, which began in 1997 awards fellowships to grassroots organizers, investigative journalists, lawyers, and policy advocates to undertake projects designed to promote criminal justice reform in the United States.
Every year, Soros Fellowship staff design off-site field visits with advocacy organizations to learn about emerging issues in criminal justice reform, particularly those that may impact the host city. This year, I accompanied a group of ten fellows to meet with community leaders in the town of Loíza on the Northeast coast, just outside of San Juan. Some of the fellows included Robert Rooks, executive director of the California Hawaii NAACP; Jacinta Gonzalez, lead organizer for the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice Congress of Day Laborers; Tonya McClary, supervising attorney at the Orleans Public Defenders Office; and Manuel Criollo, director of organizing for the Labor Community Strategy Center in Los Angeles.
Josué Gonzalez, senior staff attorney for the ACLU of Puerto Rico, led us on the site visit to Loíza and gave us a brief history of the town while we traveled there by bus. During the trip, I learned that Loíza was founded by runaway slaves in the 1600s. Apparently, the colonial government of Puerto Rico sent the former slaves there by a decree from Spain. The Spanish wanted the former slaves to help defend the island from British invaders. Since its founding, Loíza has been the heart of Afro-Puerto Rican culture. With just over 10,000 households and a population of 30,060, 64 percent of Loiza’s residents are black, according to 2010 Census data.
The ride to Loíza was both picturesque yet telling. On one side of the coastal road, local residents enjoyed the simplicity of a coastline without mass tourism and hotel-packed beaches. Children frolicked in the water and adults sun bathed, taking time to enjoy a local holiday. A series of modest and even dilapidated residences dotted the other side of the road. They were a far cry from the colorful and beautifully designed colonial-style buildings in the heart of old San Juan.
When we arrived in Loíza, Josué led us to the Center for Culture, Education and Business, where we met with board members of the Comité Pro-Desarrollo de Villa Cañona, a group of the town’s elected community leaders. During a lengthy discussion, Rafael Rivera, the board’s president, told us about the struggles of a local community that has been plagued by poverty and violence. Forty-five percent of the community is estimated to live below the poverty line. The situation is worse for children. Fifty-five percent of children under 18 years of age live in poverty.
Police abuse is a persistent problem. Island of Impunity: Puerto Rico’s Outlaw Police Force, a recent report by the ACLU, documents the human rights abuses that occur at the hands of the police. Black residents often face targeted police abuse more than other groups - and Loíza’s residents are no exception. One local advocate who attended the meeting told us how she and her son were targeted by the police for her outspoken activism. They were both tasered without justification, she said.
The “cementerio de los jóvenes” in Loíza has become a symbol for gun violence that plagues the community. We heard stories of senseless murders of young adults - too often for petty reasons. The roots of the violence, we were told, stem from systemic poverty and a lack of mentorship and educational opportunities.
Despite the challenges facing residents of Loíza, our conversation with local leaders was buoyed by a sense of optimism captured in the way they talked about the future. The elected community leaders seemed confident that they were paving a way to bring needed attention to an under-resourced and traditionally marginalized municipality. The group talked about the progress they had made in reducing gun violence by implementing a program similar to Boston’s Operation Ceasefire. Rafael also noted that the community board helped squatter communities gain legal rights to land.
As we ended our conversation, the board members offered us cool drinks and snacks. We accepted them with gratitude. I left Loíza with an enriched perspective on Puerto Rico’s history and culture - and great respect for the work of dedicated advocates fighting for the betterment of their community.