Thursday, October 2, 2014

San Luis Potosí Part 4: The lovely & lively Plaza del Carmen

A large bronze fountain forms the centrepiece of the Plaza del Carmen. This lovely plaza lies two blocks east of Plaza de Armas on Calle Manuel José Othón. The first of those two blocks is another of San Luis Potosí's delightful walking streets. Behind the fountain, lit by the fading sunset, stands a former colonial mansion and federal building which is now the Museo Nacional de la Máscara (National Mask Museum). In this posting, I will show you the main features of the plaza, including some of the best of San Luis' colonial and 19th Century architecture. However, the plaza is not only about beautiful buildings. It is also one of the liveliest and most entertaining places in the city, as you will soon see. To view a Google map of the plaza area, click here.

The pink cantera of the Templo del Carmen and the Teatro de la Paz glow in the late sunlight. Between them, obscured by the trees, stands the Museo del Virreinato (the Viceroyalty Museum). It was once the Carmelite convent attached to the Templo. Now, it contains a large collection of fascinating artefacts from the city's colonial past. Together, the three structures form the east side of Plaza del Carmen. Two future posts will focus on the Templo and the contents of the Museo.

The clear notes of a flute wafted through the plaza as we strolled around. Like most street musicians, this one plays for tips which can be deposited in the cloth cap on the ground between his feet. He is probably a music student attending one of San Luis' several universities.

Commerical buildings form the north and west side of the broad plaza. In the center of the background you can see the multi-story Villa Carmela restaurant. Although we never ate there, it looked like a good spot to enjoy lunch while viewing the activities occurring below.

The central fountain (seen previously) is supported by four gaping-mouthed bronze fish. Despite much Googling, I could initially find little information on this fountain. Finally, I thought of Lori Jones owner of the Operatour Potosina, a tour agency we used during our visit. Lori is an excellent, English-speaking tour guide and I emailed her for information. She asked around and reported back that the sculpture was done by Joaquin Arias Méndez (1913-2013), a famous Mexican sculptor. He is also responsible for a sculpture in the plaza's Teatro de la Paz as well as many others around Mexico, including the famous Minerva statue in Guadalajara. The fountain was inaugurated in August 25, 1973, when the plaza was remodeled.

Near the fountain, we encountered this rather spooky-looking figure. The statue is called "El Cofrade" (the Friar). It commemorates the Procession of Silence, the most important annual civic event in San Luis Potosí. Every Semana Santa (Easter Week), the procession gathers in this plaza and then winds through the streets of the city. Participants include many of the Catholic brotherhoods dressed in special costumes, some of which include the pointed hoods seen above. The multitude moves in complete silence in order to respect the solemnity of the occasion. Among the many other groups participating are the bullfighters. They come to honor their special patron, Nuestra Señora de la Soledad (Our Lady of Solitude). The tradition of a silent Easter procession was introduced very early in the colonial period by the Carmelite Order of Mexico City. However, San Luis' procession was not organised until 1954. At that time, a bullfighter named Fermin Rivera and a Carmelite priest named Nicolás de San José put together the first event here. The Procession of Silence is considered part of the cultural heritage of San Luis Potosí and draws 160,000 visitors to the city from all over the world.

A group of young students expresses a less solemn attitude. Gather some students, hold up a camera, and they never fail to adopt the most outrageous poses they can think up, given a moment's notice. Boisterous friendliness seems to be an attribute of youngsters like this all over Mexico, and perhaps worldwide.

Templo del Carmen is one of the finest examples of Churrigueresque Baroque in San Luis. The construction of church and convent was begun in 1747. The church was officially blessed in 1764, although the tower was not completed until 1768. Unfortunately, many of the great art works it once contained have been lost or destroyed. During more than a century of conflict between the beginning of the War of Independence in 1810 and the end of the Revolution in 1921, much of value was lost to Mexico. However, in 1936, the Templo del Carmen was declared a national monument.

Clowns entertain a group of students in front of the Museo del Virreinato. I have rarely visited a city in Mexico without encountering at least one clown. Usually there are whole troupes of them. These two had the "happy" and "sad" routine down pat. When I took this shot, the clown on the right had just spotted me. The sly grin on this face did not bode well.

The "sad" clown tests his blade as he looks me over like a butcher considers a piglet. As a foreigner with a camera, I often become a target for clown humour, so I try to remain discreetly in the background lest I be drawn into the act. Discretion being the better part of valour, I moved off across the plaza.

The Teatro de la Paz stands next door to the Museo del Virreinato. The Teatro is clearly a product of the late 19th Century Porfirato. The Neo-classical facade, with its stately Corinthian-capped pillars, is typical of the great theatres constructed all over the nation during that period. The Porfirato is named for President Porfirio Diaz, Mexico's dictator from 1876 to 1911. The first stones were laid in 1889, under the direction of architect José Noriega, and the building was completed in 1894. The Teatro can seat 1450 people and is decorated throughout with sculptures. The dome is covered with Belgian bronze.

Again, a group of students cavorts while I take their picture. This was a different group on a different day, but the attitude was almost identical. I began to suspect there might be an instruction booklet for students: "This is how you act when a strange-looking foreigner points his camera at you." Both the kids and I had a lot of fun with it.

Directly across from the Teatro stands the Museo Nacional de la Máscara. The Mask Museum occupies the southwest corner of the plaza. The building was constructed in 1897 as a mansion for a wealthy miner and landowner named Marti. Even without the museum, the building would be worth visiting because it is an architectural jewel. In later years, the Marti mansion was taken over by the federal government to house various agencies. Finally, in 1982, it became the Museo Nacional de la Máscara. The museum houses approximately 25,000 masks, largely from the Victor José Moya collection. Most of the masks were  created by Mexico's various indigenous groups, but some are from other parts of the world. Wandering through the many rooms of this museum takes you through a world that ranges from nightmarish to hilarious.

Monumento al Padre sits on a bench at the side of the Mask Museum. The Monument to the Father has a simple theme, showing a man playing with his young son and daughter. A pair of brothers, Joel and Mario Cuevas, sculpted this affecting work. It was inaugurated in 2008 and a plaque beside it reads:

"Only a parent possesses the necessary art of being able to inspire in their children respect, love, and friendship, all at the same time."

Restaurante Nicolle is another that sits above the plaza. The west side of the plaza is filled with commercial establishments like this second floor restaurant, as well as the internet cafe and artisan shop below it. There is something to be said for an open-air restaurant high above a street. If this were a sidewalk cafe, the heavy traffic, noise, and fumes would create an unpleasant ambiance.

A tall, colourful catrina decorates the roof of still another restaurant. The Plaza del Carmen is a lot of fun to visit, as you have seen. The architecture is gorgeous and varied, the museums are full of fascinating exhibits, and people-watching opportunities are plentiful. Just watch out that you don't get roped into a clown's act.

This completes Part 4 of my San Luis Potosí series. In my next two postings, we'll take a look at the Virreinato and Máscara museums. I hope you have enjoyed this post and, if so, please feel free to comment or ask questions. You can do so either by using the Comments section below or by emailing me directly.

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

Hasta luego, Jim


  1. This was fun reading, Jim. Thanks. I especially enjoyed looking at the student pictures and wondering, like you, what they think they're doing with those gestures. Goofing with a gringo, I guess...and I wonder about those clowns.

  2. Your blog and the exceptional photos you share are so enjoyable. It is a fascinating look at a people and culture most of us NOB really have no true perception of. Thank you!


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