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Living Portraits of Puebla’s Past

Painters work in and around their small studios in the Artists Quarter.The gorgeous recent weather in Puebla gives visitors and residents alike a perfect excuse to stroll through the city’s Artists Quarter, or barrio del artista. This one-block area of 6 Norte street, once part of a bustling Colonial-era market, today houses painters’ studios, exhibition halls, and cafes.

The idea for converting the old marketplace into an artsy neighborhood came about in the mid-20th century. Maestro José Márquez Figueroa, while teaching an open-air class at the site, asked his graduating students where they planned to paint in the future. When they couldn’t say, he told them the answer was right in front of them — and challenged them to ask the government for permission to use the old marketplace. “Your homework,” the maestro reportedly said, “is to convince the authorities to give you these spaces to create a Bohemian neighborhood like in other big cities.”

After some persistence, the group — now known as the Unión de Artes Plásticas — scored a meeting with the governor, who liked the concept so much that he convinced the city’s mayor to get onboard, too. The first barrio art show was held in 1941. Nearly 15 years later, the government turned the neighborhood over to the union, which made more improvements. In 1962, a new upstairs gallery opened with an exhibition of major Mexican painters, including Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, David Siqueiros, and Rufino Tamayo.

Dozens of artists now paint in the barrio del artista, where visitors can observe masters and their students at work and, of course, buy finished pieces.

Maestro Maglorio Moreno Hernandez — who the union describes as “the master of masters in the Artistic Quarter” — works in studios 14 and 15. His colorful oil paintings celebrate Puebla’s history, each one capturing an actual place and often a lost moment in time, such as the view of the Popocatepétl volcano from a nearby garden before the Convention Center was built. “It’s a romantic way of preserving the past,” he said recently, while showing a few of them off.

Beyond painting, the union hosts music, poetry, folk dancing, theater, and other cultural events, mostly in the plaza in front of Café del Artista. This is where writer and director José Recek Saade once staged theatrical productions; he is honored, alongside poet María Sánchez Robredo and barrio founder/painter Márquez, with a bronze bust. A commemorative plaque recognizes musicians Rafael Hernandez Marín and Bernardo San Cristóbal, who penned the beloved and well-covered anthem “Qué chula es Puebla,” which translates to “How Pretty Is Puebla?” To find the answer, all you have to do is look around.

Barrio del Artista, 6 Norte street (between 4 and 6 Oriente), Colonia Centro.

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