SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — To a passerby, the Iglesia San Mateo de Cangrejos, a pastel-peach Catholic church in the middle of San Juan’s Santurce neighborhood, might look like any other house of prayer. A simple white cross crowns the building. It sits quietly most of the day on its residential corner, coming alive at Mass time, when congregants trickle in and out. Stained glass and potted palms frame its large wooden doors.
Like a sentinel, the church has witnessed the evolution of its community from atop a hill. Santurce, once a settlement in the wilderness founded in the 18th century by free Black people — many lured from nearby islands by Spanish edicts that granted them freedom — is now a densely populated, urban district at the heart of battles over gentrification and displacement.
Much of the community has become unrecognizable for native santurcinos, many who prefer to call themselves cangrejeros, after the community’s original name, San Mateo de Cangrejos. Yet the church, like Santurce did in its origins, continues to provide physical shelter and spiritual refuge for Afro-Caribbean people who come to Puerto Rico seeking freedom from their circumstances and better living conditions.