A barrio is not a city. It's a neighborhood. It's not necessarily a bad, depressed, ghetto neighborhood, it's just a neighborhood. That's what barrio means. This is a diverse place. There are a few really nice houses, and a few not-so-nice ones.
Proper cities in Puerto Rico have a town center that always has an open plaza and a Catholic church. Barrios don't. There might be 10,000 people living in the same area, but it's not a city. There's a highway on the edge of it that has a few bakeries, gas stations, cafes, and other small shops, but other than that it's just houses and people - in the case of this one, packed in between the highway and the sea.
From what I hear, a lot of the barrios sprung up around factories or farms. This side of the island used to produce a lot of sugar cane for rum. The Puerto Rican sugar cane industry isn't what it once was. But they still make a lot of rum here. There's a Don Q factory down the road where they distill it, and it is one of the most awfulest smells you can imagine. A long time ago, everyone lived in the barrio right by the place they worked. But now, all of their descendants are living in the same places long after the factories and farms are gone.
I can't begin to guess what they all do for a living today. I know a lot of them commute to a "proper" city nearby, like Juana Diaz or Ponce. I heard rumors of a guy who makes the daily 90+ minute commute to San Juan. There are fisherman, I know that much because I see them standing out by the highway holding their daily catch in a plastic bag for passers by. You know, "for your consideration." I've heard the story of one of the bakeries, that they started making bread in their house and selling it under an umbrella by the road. They made money, invested it in their panaderia and now it's a successful, family business. One that has really, really good fried chicken.
On the whole, this is not a wealthy place. People here may never leave. Literally, some of them might stay here their whole life without making the 20 minute drive down the road into the big city. Barrio people are different from city people in the same way that back in the States, country folks are different from city folks. They live "out there." They might not get out much.
This was demonstrated to me last week when we took the youth group from John's church in the barrio to a talent show at a big church in Ponce. The scene there was much like any bigger church with a healthy youth group - lots of people, a few apparent cliques, many kids dressed to impress. They dress better than me, but I'm far enough removed from high school not to see that as a threat. We sat down, and all the barrio kids huddled together, hunched over, buddied-up. There were seven kids in six seats, with a seventh chair open right next to them. They were safer together.
Theresa had to point this out to me, otherwise I might not have noticed. I asked what the big deal was, and she told me they saw themselves as different. They were uncool barrio kids. It's kinda like putting yourself in that country bumpkin category. Like showing up to a club in overalls and a flannel shirt. (And what's wrong with that?)
Like I said, I didn't immediately notice the difference. I still ignorantly slap a very general Puerto Rican label on everyone here. But the barrio kids - they stayed isolated, safe like that. Clearly, there are some differences. I don't get all of them. But they're there.
We drive a van through the barrio to pick up kids for Club on Wednesday night. This drive takes us to two points where drugs are regularly exchanged. Beautiful spots, owned by dealers, right on the sea, right by these kids' houses. More often than not, they pass it off right in front of us.
How can you grow up in that and not have it affect you? I often wonder - how many of these kids are going to make it? And what is "making it," anyway? Not dealing drugs? Getting out of the barrio, as if it's a place you need to escape? Economic success? Becoming a pastor or missionary? I don't know the answer to that.
If you can't know if they'll "make it," maybe there's no sense in asking the question. Maybe you just show up everyday and let God do what he does.