By Stephen Vargha
La Guarida is a cultural center and a restaurant. Located on the western end of Cuenca’s historic district, it is the heartbeat of the Barrio Convención Del 45, the neighborhood where Ecuador’s 1845 constitution was drafted.
Andrés Zambrano, owner of La Guarida on Calle Mariscal Lamar, wants to add something new to the neighborhood.
“If you have a wall and you live in the Barrio Convención Del 45, you’re invited to dream with me. Murals wouldn’t cost you anything except to share the dream,” Andrés explains.
Zambrano is talking about how to make the neighborhood a gateway to Cuenca once again. At one time, the city limits ended basically where La Guarida stands today. He thinks that La Guarida is helping the Phoenix rise from the ashes.
Art is nothing new to the neighborhood. In addition to its constitutional significance in the 19th century, Barrio Convención Del 45 was known as a neighborhood of potters and ceramicists for most of the 20th century.
“People are now coming back to the neighborhood again. Not many Ecuadorians are visiting due to the stigma,” says Zambrano. “Some Cuencanos still think that only an idiot would pass through the neighborhood based on how bad and dangerous this area used to be.”
The 38-year-old restaurant owner is modest about what he has done to improve the image of the barrio. Zambrano says that modern development –midrise condominiums — just to the west of the neighborhood has made things better.
La Guarida’s recent honor of being ranked the number-one restaurant in Cuenca by Tripadvisor also helps the barrio. Tripadvisor is the world’s largest travel guidance platform, with more than 887 million reviews and opinions of nearly 8 million businesses. La Guarida recently passed Le Petit Jardin to be the best-rated restaurant in Cuenca.
“It is very significant to me that people care for what I am doing. I greatly appreciate the support,” says Zambrano. “I want to be known as the best restaurant in Cuenca. It is tough as there are so many great places in the city.”
Maybe what separates La Guarida from the rest is the excellent food being paired with movies and live musical performances. “No one showed up for our first film but now we are about to present our 300th,” says Zambrano.
Besides movies, La Guarida also presents live music and Zambrano is such a huge supporter of the arts that he does not take a cut of the admission charge. All the money collected goes straight to the musicians. “Everyone benefits! It supports the artists,” he says.
He is using La Guarida and its arts and food reputation to become a bridge to the culture of the city, especially his neighborhood. Zambrano became president of his neighborhood association and is now pushing forward with a bold and artistic plan for murals.
“It costs nothing to dream. Dream of beautifying my neighborhood with the works of my friend, the great ceramista Eduardo Segovia. Dream to rejuvenate old walls with murals,” says Zambrano. “I dream to make dreams come true.”
Segovia is a master at his craft and is world renowned. Working with clay and paints comes naturally to this 82-year-old Cuenca native. He is 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 love of art spills over into the neighborhood.
“The maestro wanted to do something special for the city,” Zambrano says. “We want to put murals throughout the neighborhood and make it a destination. We want to make it pretty and positive.”
So far, Zambrano has met resistance from the City of Cuenca since permission is needed to paint the murals in the historic neighborhood. He has met with the vice-mayor and several city officials but has received no final response.
“The cost of the murals is zero dollars to the city! In Guayaquil, the city spent close to $500,000. It was anywhere from $3,000 to $19,000 on a single mural for neighborhood murals,” says Zambrano. “We are trying to get this done as a neighborhood. The maestro is willing to donate his designs for the murals.”
Money is still needed to fund the proposed art and beautification project. His neighbor, Cuenca Salmon, is already supporting the wall painting plan. The goal is to only use private money.
Zambrano claims that murals appeal to everyone. He thinks it will make the neighborhood look ‘put together’. “People love murals! They respect an area with murals. There is little trash where murals are.”
He thinks that the city’s reluctance to allow the murals is based on perception. Zambrano feels that the city only wants folkloric work and that Segovia’s work falls outside of that definition.
“They do not understand Segovia’s artwork since it is based on oral tradition,” an exasperated Zambrano states. “I have to do the city’s part to have the maestro honored and his work to be shown.”
It is why this Saturday, La Guarida will have an invitation-only grand opening of a gallery to exhibit Segovia’s works and to offer it to the public. “The maestro has a huge following. If we didn’t make the event invitation-only, the crowd would be too big!”
Smaller works by Segovia will be on display, and there will be seven murals by the maestro throughout the restaurant. One could say that the beautiful renovated historic building is dedicated to the famous artist.
Starting on Monday, everyone can visit the showroom. It will be open Monday through Friday from 9am to noon. Zambrano says that the gallery is a warm-up for the maestro’s July 23rd birthday.
Segovia is proud of his city and obviously, his neighborhood too. Zambrano wants to elevate his hometown to a higher level with the murals. “We can show the world how wonderful the his works are,” Zambrano says. “He is that valuable.”
Zambrano hopes to show the city a couple of the maestro’s murals and convince them that allowing them is the right thing to do. He wants the city involved and is willing for it to take credit for the project.
To the city, he says: “It’s free! Come and cut the ribbon and take the credit. Let’s do it!”
La Guarida, Calle Mariscal Lamar 22.23 y Luis Pauta R., Cuenca, +593 7-282-4161, Facebook
Photos by Stephen Vargha