Portrait of a Young Painter
Pepe Zúñiga in Mexico City, 1943–1972
I first met
Pepe José Zúñiga in 2001. Friends introduced me
to him as a distinguished painter with a fascinating background—from
childhood he had lived in the Colonia Guerrero, a popular barrio in cen-
tral Mexico City of legendary fame for its music and dance, its nightlife,
its color, its violence and violations. For many, the Colonia Guerrero was
a nostalgic site, a reminder of popular artistic effervescence, of romantic
intimacy, and of gritty solidarity from the 1930s into the 1950s. To live
there still, as Pepe does, was proof of the strength of his roots in this bar-
rio of tenements (vecindades) that had housed so many migrants pouring
into Mexico City in those decades. He cut a commanding figure with his
thick shock of white hair. He exuded an air of achievement and confi-
dence: he was certainly comfortable in his skin.
My friends told me he had been director of the La Esmeralda, the
school of painting and sculpture established by Diego Rivera, Frida
Kahlo, and Antonio M. Ruíz in 1943 as a popular, more flexible alternative
to the Academia de San Carlos. He told me of the wonderful years he had
spent in Paris in the 1970s on a French government scholarship and in the
1980s completing his master’s thesis at the École des Artes Decoratifs. I
went to his exhibits and visited his studio in the vecindad on Soto Street—
walking up two flights of uneven cement stairs, dodging hanging laundry
and barking dogs. Painted canvases, piles of books and albums and old lp
records covered his studio’s tables and the creaking floor of faded wood.
On the walls hung paintings, photos of French cathedrals, James Dean,
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