Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 8th November, 2015
For many Roman Catholics as well as journalists like myself who covered the tumultuous political and religious conflicts in Latin America in the 1980s, the name Puebla has great resonance. The Catholic Bishops’ Conference in Puebla in 1979 raised many issues linked to what was known as Liberation Theology, espoused by several leading clerics in Brazil and Central America. All too often, the Catholic Church had been on the side of the right-wing dictators and the moneyed élites who ruled most of Latin America in those days and not enough on the side of the poor. Of course, a lot of water has gone under the bridge since then and most of the right-wing dictatorships are but a fading memory. Paradoxically, the most oppressive regimes these days tend to be on the left, including Venezuela, Nicaragua and that old chestnut Cuba. Anyway, Puebla has meanwhile grown into a city of five million souls, but I was delighted to see on a day trip there today that the centre has preserved most of its colonial architecture, complete with remarkable exterior tile work, and the city has a delightfully provincial atmosphere compared with that of Mexico City. There are, of course, churches galore, of which the most sumptuous is the Templo de Santo Domingo, whose golden chapel under a giant cupola is breath/taking, if distinctly disconcerting for someone of my Quaker tastes.
But Puebla is also a city of museums, including the fascinating collection of 19th century interior decoration at the Museo Bello and a remarkable 17th century library on the first floor of the Casa de Cultura, containing thousands of rare old theological texts, not least relating to the Jewish Old Testament and its Christian interpretation. It was interesting to see that all of the churches we passed had plenty of people inside, but the real place to catch the population of Puebla, especially at the weekend, is the Zócalo, or main square, dominated by the cathedral but surounded on the other three sides by cafés and shaded galleries. This afternoon there was street theatre, several small musical bands, people in costume as everything from a clown to Tutankhamun, vendors selling helium balloons and candy as well as hordes of small children with their parents, in a joyous, celebratory mass.