Becoming Cuenca

Love for Their City

Jul 10, 2022

In my book “Una Nueva Vida – A New Life,” I have an entire chapter dedicated to what Cuencanos think. It is something I think no North American or European has included in their books, posts, and publications.

It’s human nature to experience events, conversations, and information seeking through your own lens, which can be inherently narrow. Listening from multiple perspectives makes you a more complete person, and it opens up a world that you may have never considered or known about.

Many times, you will discover one’s love for their home, their compassion for what is important to them. It is that human element that can give you a full picture.

To me, finding new angles on anything is more than interesting. It is enlightening. Without a base level of understanding and respect for another’s opinion or perspective, you might miss out on some invaluable input. Having that information leads to better decision making. Obviously, that includes the possibility of moving to Cuenca.

That is one reason I am writing articles for the online English-speaking newspaper, CuencaHighLife. It is a very popular small newspaper for expats in Cuenca and people looking to move to three degrees south.

By writing articles about life in Cuenca, I get to meet interesting people. And I always learn something new about my hometown. The American writer, historian, and philosopher Will Durant has it right when he said, “Knowledge is the eye of desire and can become the pilot of the soul.”

That soul was nurtured the other day when I interviewed my good friend Andrés Zambrano. He owns and runs one of the top-two restaurants in Cuenca: La Guarida (“The Guard”).

This is according to TripAdvisor, the world’s largest travel guidance platform, with more than 887 million reviews and opinions of nearly 8 million businesses. The travel website provides reviews from real people and other information.

Andrés grew up in the barrio (neighborhood), Convención del 45. The barrio, which is about 24 blocks, and on the west side of Cuenca was one of three entrances to the city in the 19th century and early-20th century. The other two were El Volcán (on the southeast side of the city) and El Vecino (the northeastern part of the city).

The barrio has a rich history that became obscured with a great decline four decades ago. “In the 1980s, it was dangerous neighborhood,” said Andrés. “It had a very bad reputation.”

“Not many Ecuadorians are visiting due to the stigma,” my friend told me. “Some Cuencanos still think that only an idiot would pass through the neighborhood based on how bad this area used to be.”

Now Andrés is helping the Phoenix rise from the ashes.

This is where the “Love for Their City” comes in. As the legendary radio broadcaster Paul Harvey would do, I need to tell the “rest of the story.”

We need to set Mr. Peabody’s Wayback Machine to the 1800s. I know that Mr. Peabody was more accurate for young Sherman’s and his history adventures, but there is no specific year… just a time period.

In the late 19th century, many travelers would rest in this barrio before proceeding into the city as it had taken three to four days to haul their goods from Guayaquil. It was a long and difficult walk as it started at 13 feet / 4 meters above sea level in Guayaquil and went through the Cajas mountains, with ranges in elevation from 10,170 feet / 3,100 meters to 14,600 feet / 4,450 meters above sea level.

Trust me… When I first arrived in Ecuador, Joanna and I stopped at Tres Cruces to take in the scenery. I was so excited to be at this high mountain pass that forms the Continental divide between the Pacific Ocean and the Atlantic Ocean at an elevation of 13,651 feet / 4,161 meters above sea level. Like an idiot, I raced around to get photos of it all.

It took little time for me to be lightheaded and winded. I was experiencing what those travelers went through in the 1800s. The only difference was that those travelers were hauling goods from Guayaquil to Cuenca via Tres Cruces, and I was clicking away with my camera.

The owner and chef at La Guarida has his restaurant in his childhood home, located on what was the very western edge of the city and Convención del 45. “People would rest here before going to El Centro as it could take a couple of hours to walk with their goods for two kilometers,” Andrés said.

Ecuador’s first Catholic church was built by Spanish conquistadors in 1534, in Riobamba (160 miles / 260 km. north of Cuenca). My Cuencano friend told me the three original entrances to Cuenca all had Catholic churches very close to where people entered. For Convención del 45, it is Iglesia Católica Corazón de Jesús, on Calle Gran Colombia. The photo above is of a vehicle with a bouquet for a wedding at that church. In the 1800s and to the 1930s, mass in these churches were held only in Latin.

“Before entering Cuenca, you had to purify yourself and ask for forgiveness,” said Andrés.

That was due to the numerous brothels near the now-closed Cuartel Cayambe. The soldiers at that Ecuadorian military barracks were the brothels’ biggest clients. Travelers from Guayaquil took advantage of the numerous bordellos before entering Cuenca.

Another native of Convención del 45 is 84-year-old Master Ceramicist Eduardo Segovia. He is a master at his craft and is world renowned. Working with clay and paints as well as other materials comes so naturally to this talented artist.

The barrio looked totally different when he was a child. There were trees everywhere, and a river flowed through what is now the Tranvía (tram) line on Calle Mariscal Lamar.

“Segovia would swim in that river,” said Andrés. “There used to be a lot of rivers in the area when Segovia was young. One of those rivers helped supply power to the mill.”

The mill he is referring to is Los Molinos del Batan, which is now Le Moulin Restaurante. Located on what is now Ave. 12 de Abril and on the south side of the Tomebamba River, it was a flour mill for making wheat and rye into flour. Andrés says the mill is almost as old as the city.

Segovia has never left his beloved neighborhood. He is still full of energy and excitement and shows no signs of slowing down. It is very apparent that art is not only his profession, but also his passion.

His work is very popular. It is currently being honored with a huge display at the City Museum. “I think his artwork is very popular because it is very affordable to everyone,” said Andrés. “Segovia exhibits all the activities of a great man. He has a huge heart.”

That “huge heart” has spilled over into the neighborhood. Spearheaded by Andrés, murals with Segovia’s imprint are being painted throughout Convención del 45. Twelve murals have already been completed.

“The murals are a celebration of his life. It is an honor for him,” said Andrés. “Segovia is imprinting his memories with the colors of the barrio. He wants to keep the memories alive. His works represent the past as well as the future.”

Segovia wants to show his legacy through the murals to show his love of the neighborhood. “I am very emotional about it as my health is declining,” Segovia told me in early-July. “But the murals are helping me to be motivated to produce more pieces of art.”

In mid-June, Segovia got a pacemaker. “He rested for two three days,” said Andrés. “That’s it! Maestro started producing more pieces of art. In less than three weeks, he has made four dozen new pieces.” Andrés adds Segovia truly wants to finish his lifetime’s work.

This project to rejuvenate the barrio started three years ago when the neighborhood elected Andrés as its association’s president. “I was elected president to get the murals done. Since then, I talked numerous times to the Arts Department with the City of Cuenca,” said Segovia. “It was important for us to get the city’s help to make it bigger and grander.”

“It is very significant to me that people care for what I am doing. I greatly appreciate the support,” Andrés told me. “I want Convención del 45 to be known as the best place in Cuenca. It is tough as there are so many great places in the city.”

The city just approved the project and provided Convención del 45 $1,700 to complete the murals. Even with approval from the city, there were some who were hesitant to give approval to the murals. “Some neighbors were adamantly against it,” said Andrés. “Now, they are begging for more murals.”

As you have read in my previous posts, Cuenca is considered “The Arts Capital of Ecuador.” It is why Andrés had no troubles finding six of the city’s best young artists to be involved in projecting Segovia’s lifelong works onto the walls of Convención del 45.

Andrés describes Segovia’s art as eclectic with a clash between Pre-Columbian and Joan Miró i Ferrà, the 20th century Spanish ceramicist, painter, and sculptor from Barcelona. He was one of the pioneers of what was called surrealism, specifically its most “childish” side.

“Segovia is very colorful,” said Andrés. “He is not afraid at all at using strong colors.” It is evident in the photo above of a light rain falling at a completed mural at the neighborhood’s public high school.

The murals are not an exact replica of Segovia’s works. “The Maestro has given me some liberty to adjust the murals,” said Andrés. “There are places where things are sticking out or the walls are not perfect, so we have to tweak the artwork.”

The love of the neighborhood is now focusing on Unidad Educativa Victor Gerardo Aguilar. The public high school has been physically in decline for years.

That has already changed with the students painting the exterior walls white, ridding them of graffiti and swear words. The first Segovia mural has already been painted on one of the school’s walls.

“It is important for the 1,000 students at the high school to be wowed by the murals,” said Zambrano. “Now we want to do a 25 square meters mural for a tall exterior wall of one of the high school buildings.” Andrés is talking about a mural that would be 270 square feet and painted by the very talented Jonathan Mosquera. Think about how huge that is. We are talking something that is 16 feet by 16 feet. This huge mural would be visible for all to see from the street.

Convención del 45 is looking for donations to make this huge dream a reality in the near future. And, not surprising, it won’t take much. “We only need $700 to make this a reality,” said Andrés. “What a bargain! For such a small price, we can have a grand mural memorializing Segovia and his works.”

Mahatma Gandhi said, “Where there is love there is life.” The love for Segovia by Andrés almost did not happen. He laughs when he tells the story of how they met.

“Segovia came to a concert at my restaurant four years ago, and people came up to me to say Eduardo was in the house,” Andrés said. The two met and made an appointment for Andrés to visit Segovia’s home and art studio that is less than two blocks from the restaurant.

“I walked in and saw the artwork and said to myself that this is not the work of Eduardo,” said Andrés. “I thought I was going to the studio of the city’s famous ceramicist, Eduardo Vega.”

Andrés laughs today at his ignorance four years ago. “How did I not know who he was? I was in the neighborhood for ten years and did not know he existed,” Andrés said. “When I entered his studio for the first time, I saw a world I had never seen before. I fell in love with the man.”

That love is so strong that Andrés calls Segovia his grandfather. Their love for each other is like family.

But that is not surprising in Cuenca. Family is very important to Cuencanos. There is a strong bond between them that one does not see that often in the United States. You will see what I mean when you become friends with Cuencanos.

What has been accomplished in a short period of time by the love of Andrés has turned everything around for this historic barrio.

“I’ve seen a change in the attitude of the neighborhood because of the murals. They are now proud of where they live,” said Zambrano. “I am glad we can honor this humble and talented man with this public artwork. We need to cherish and love the art of Ecuadorians”

I have asked my good friend to make a map of where all the murals are located for you and everyone else to enjoy when visiting this barrio Andrés loves. It will help for all to enjoy El Amor of Cuenca, Ecuador.

And now you know… the rest of the story.

Good day!

(Sorry… I could not pass that up.)

A lot more information on life in Cuenca can be found in my book, “Una Nueva Vida – A New Life.” Some say it is the most thorough book out there concerning moving to and living in this beautiful city.

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Salud, mi amigos.

Una Nueva Vida – A New Life

- by Stephen Vargha

There are over 80 professional-quality photos shot by me to give you a clear ‘picture’ about life in this historic mountain city.