Monday, October 10, 2011

Puebla Part 6: Rambling 'round the Centro Historico

This ornate window caught my attention while wandering the Centro Historico. Carole and I spent a considerable part of our time in Puebla just wandering the streets. The Centro Historico of Puebla is huge, one of the biggest I have encountered in Mexico. Every street contains something of interest, sometimes large, sometimes tiny. The window above is actually quite small, but is surrounded by a gorgeous frame of sculpted stone. The photographic environment was such that I could have closed my eyes, pointed my camera randomly in any direction and would probably have captured an interesting shot. Carole had to exercise a great deal of patience, because getting me from Point A to Point B often took considerable time.

The Talavera Tradition

Talavera tile covers this lovely 17th Century building. I noticed this place while visiting Parque Paseo Bravo on the western outskirts of the Centro Historico. It stands on the corner of Avenida Reforma and Avenida 11 Norte. In addition to the tile work, the white framing of the doors, windows and other trimmings are beautifully sculpted. Lacy, wrought-iron balconies join the corner windows on each floor.

Talavera containing blue pigments was considered the finest quality. Above, talavera azulejos (tiles) cover the lower half of the outside of this building. While indigenous people in Mesoamerica had produced exquisite pottery for thousands of years before the Spanish arrived, they were unfamiliar with the potter's wheel or the use of tin glazing to coat their products. Shortly after the founding of Puebla in 1531, the Dominican friars of Santo Domingo church sent for expert Spanish potters to train the local people. The potters came from Talavera de la Reina, hence the name. Thus began the Puebla's famous talavera poblana, for which the city is famous worldwide. After their arrival, the potters created a guild that set work standards. Pottery containing blue pigment was given the highest standard of Fine, because the pigment used was very expensive. Other grades were Semi-fine, and Daily Use. The guild required each piece produced to be signed by the creator, and that anyone desiring to become a master potter had to take an examination held annually.

Colonial-era design on Puebla's federal building. This two-story building fills the block just south of the Cathedral. The building was once used for Church-run schools. Talavera is used in both  repetitive abstract designs, like that seen in the previous photo, or to create paintings-in-tile like that seen above. The talavera style draws on the pottery traditions of the Arabs, who dominated Spain for 700 years until just before the discovery of the Americas. Other traditions that contributed include Italian techniques developed in the 1300s, and those of the Spanish potters of Talavera de la Reina. Chinese influence came from pottery imported by the Manila galleons into New Spain. Finally, pulling it all together, was the anciently-developed artistry of Mexico's indigenous people.

Mexican doorways are often eye-catching 

Entry to Museo Jose Luis Bello y Zetina. Although this museum was closed when we happened by, I could not resist a shot of its eye-catching doorway. Surrounded by deep-red walls, the doorway is framed by beautiful talavera tiles. The door itself is of richly colored wood panels. This doorway, called the Pilgrim's Portal, used to be part of the exuberantly baroque Santo Domingo church. The museum contains collections of colonial and Mexican artists of the 17th, 18th, and 19th Centuries.

An unexpected subject in my photo. While I was setting up for a shot of this beautifully carved door, a small boy suddenly darted across the street and took up the position you see. Anyone wanting to be included in my photo that bad gets an opportunity to do so. He was the son of a street musician. Such musicians often use their children to collect money from passersby as they play. You can see the collection cup in the boy's right hand. He adds just the right element of human interest and provides a scale to judge the size of the door. Notice the large lions-head knockers on each door, and the ancient paving stones of the sidewalk.

Another beautiful door detail. I could have done a whole posting just on Puebla's doors and their fascinating details. This was part of a double door on the front of a colonial mansion. There was a matching figure of a young boy on the other door, looking a bit like Tom Sawyer. I wondered if the girl above is Becky. I was charmed by the innocent face, long curling hair and the detailed ruffles on the neckline of her blouse. Here you have the work of a master carver.

Balconies abounded in Puebla

Virtually every building contains second-story balconies. We found this colonial building on Calle 4 Oriente, on the eastern outskirts of the Centro Historico. It appeared to be undergoing restoration. The large double wooden door in the center is a carriage entrance to the central courtyard of the home. Religious and other important processions were a regular part of life in colonial times, and the wealthy occupants of this mansion could view them from above, safely and without mixing among the common people.

Neo-classical style building contains a round balcony. While I enjoy the wild, almost psychedelic baroque style, I am more partial to the simple lines of the 18th Century's neo-classic, seen above. It seems as if the architectural style of each era is a reaction to previous styles. Notice the false columns on either side of the door and framing the overall window segment. I couldn't tell from this distance whether the green of the balcony was paint or the patina of aged bronze.

French doors open onto another balcony. It was difficult to photograph the etching in the window glass, due to the light reflections at that time of day. The green of this balcony is clearly paint. The color nicely sets off the wood behind it. This window is part of a building called Casa de la Reina (House of the Queen), owned by the Benemérita Universidad Autónomo de Puebla (BUAP), the large autonomous university that sprawls through Puebla. It was founded by the Jesuits in early colonial times, but is now state-owned. The word autonomous means that it controls its own curriculum. There is tremendous competition among prospective students, because graduation can be a ticket to a prosperous middle class life.

Random oddities from colonial to space age

History according to graffiti artists. We stopped to take a breather at Parque Guiterre de Cetina, located on the corner of Calle 5 de Mayo and Calle 12 Oriente. It is another of those charming little "vest-pocket" parks one finds all over Puebla. Several long panels were formed by the walls of the building beside the park. They became the canvas for one or more very talented graffiti artists. The theme was the clash between indigenous civilizations and the invading Spanish. Above, a warrior/noble is framed by two creatures holding immense symbolic power in ancient Mesoamerica: the jaguar and the eagle. These two animals were the totems of the two most important warrior societies of the Toltec Empire and the Itza Maya people of Chichen Itza. The fellow above seems a bit apprehensive at the approach of the huge jaguar behind him. Or maybe he's just waiting for a bus.

Old technology, but still in use. I glanced in the open storefront of Artes Gráficas Escalante, a local print shop, and stopped dead in my tracks when I saw this old machine. It is probably from the mid-19th century, and appears to be hand-operated. Clearly it was still in use, probably for special orders requiring only a small printing run. Just down the street was a cyber-cafe with modern laptops. I love the juxtaposition of the old and the modern in Mexico.

Stone decoration on an otherwise undistinguished building. Clearly the original owner, probably a 17th Century merchant, was wealthy enough to commission this stone work for his Puebla mansion. Today, it decorates a humdrum modern business.

Another group desiring photographic inclusion. While I was snapping away on busy Calle 5 de Mayo, one of the principal pedestrian-only streets, this family passed by. The father jokingly suggested that I photograph them. He was a bit astonished when I immediately agreed, but I couldn't resist. They were such a cheerful and friendly group, and I like to have plenty of "people shots" to leaven among the ones of beautiful, but lifeless, buildings and statuary.

The Virgin of Guadalupe keeps watch over busy streets.  The Virgin of Guadalupe is the patron of Mexico, and particularly of its indigenous people and the poor. She has both religious and political significance, having been adopted by the insurgents of 1810 as their symbol in the War of Independence. Where she is displayed in churches, the Virgin of Guadalupe is often bracketed by Mexican flags. Above, she is made from, and framed by, the inevitable talavera.

Old-fashioned news kiosk. Selling newspapers and magazines, kiosks like this are found all over the Centro Historico. The decorative elements found on them indicate that they are probably still-functioning relics of the 19th Century. In Mexico, if something works, they don't discard it for whatever is the fad-of-the-week as is unfortunately done so often north-of-the-border. If the old function no longer applies, they find a new one. Thus, the best of the past is preserved, and areas like the Centro Historico avoid architectural horrors like strip malls and other modern "improvements".

Cranking away, an organ grinder entertains passersby. I aways tip the many street musicians I encounter in Mexico. It's a hard way to make a living. People can, and often do, partake of their product with out paying. They provide a sound-track to my experiences here, so I always contribute something to enable them to continue.

Revolutionary hero Emiliano Zapata, relegated to an obscure nook. The bust of Zapata was placed here as part of the Dia del Campesino Mexicano (Day of the Mexican Farm Worker). At the instigation of the League of Rural Communities and the Farmworkers Unions, the State Congress celebrated farmworkers in 1982. During the Revolution, Emiliano Zapata--more than any other figure--led the struggle for social and economic justice by the rural poor and the indigenous people . Although he was assassinated before he could complete his revolution, he is still revered, and the modern Zapatista Movement in Chiapas State is named for him. The powers-that-be made certain that his bust was placed in an obsure and non-descript spot that I only found by accident. He was never popular with the political leaders whose main aim was wealth and power for themselves.

A cannon frames a smirking cat. This little detail was an oddity among oddities. By the look of the tile work, the construction is very old. The barrel of the cannon is actually a pipe to drain off rain water from the flat roof. Part of the left-hand wheel of the cannon appears to have broken off. Under the cannon, a cat smirks at pedestrians below, while smothering a laugh at their modern antics. There were several similar rain pipe decorations along the front of the building. One could strain one's neck taking in all the little details like this, found in all directions.

An extraterrestrial greeting. You never know what is likely to be found around the next corner. Mexicans have a superb sense of the absurd, and express it whenever possible. Above, a spaceman/robot attempts to attract the interest of passersby in the products of the furniture store behind him. He obliged me with a wave when I asked for a photo. The young woman in the background kindly stopped to avoid interfering with my photo but couldn't resist a grin at the scene.

Ancient Egyptian waitress. I found this 1920s art deco painting adorning a tavern on a side street. With the discovery of Tutankhamun's tomb in 1922, all things Egyptian became popular in many places, including Mexico.

Restaurant hostess displays her China Poblana costume. In the 18th Century, the China Poblana style became very popular in Mexico, and a symbol, like talavera, of Puebla. The term literally means Chinese Pueblan, but the woman who possessed this name in the 17th Century was actually from India. Mirra was born of a noble family but abducted by Portuguese pirates as a child. She escaped and sought refuge with Jesuit priests and converted to Catholicism, taking the name Caterina de San Juan. She was again abducted, by the same pirates, and sold into slavery in Manila. The Viceroy of Mexico had commissioned a Manila treasure galleon captain to bring him back a beautiful slave, and Caterina was chosen. However, the captain was greedy and sold her for 10 times the Viceroy's price to a wealthy family in Puebla. They raised her kindly and she was freed upon her owner's death. She ultimately came to live with the Jesuits in Puebla, finally passing away in 1688. Before she died, she became revered as a holy woman. It was her colorful Indian saris that triggered this style of dress in Mexico. The China Poblana consists of a white but colorfully sequined and embroidered blouse, and a skirt called a castor, also beaded and sequined. It was often worn with a shawl looped over the elbows. Caterina de San Juan is buried in the Sacristy of the Jesuit Temple in Puebla.

This completes Part 6 of my series on Puebla. Next, we will visit Cholula, a small city just outside Puebla that is the site of a great pre-hispanic city and the largest pyramid (by volume) in the world. I always appreciate feedback. If you would like to comment, please do so in the Comments section below or email me directly.

If you leave a question in the Comments section, PLEASE leave your email address so I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim


  1. Jim, the quality of your research, writing and photography conitinue to amaze and delight me. Thank you for your efforts.

  2. Jim, Your work is just magnificent! I was just thinking of a huge coffee table book and how you could get it done. Then I could buy it and have your super work forever. Keep on keeping on, Julie Ressler,Pres. Wilmette Arts Guild

  3. Great pics Jim...haven't been to Puebla in some time, need to get back there, one of my favorite places...


If your comment involves a question, please leave your email address so I can answer you. Thanks, Jim