In Dorado, you just have to drop by to meet the mayor

It is like a dozen other country towns scattered across the green expanse of Puerto Rico, and yet in at least two ways Dorado is different. For one thing there are the murals, and for another there is the energetic and accessible mayor, Alfonso Lopez Chaar. Together they tell a story.

Mr. Lopez Chaar, whom everyone calls Papino, is indeed so energetic I barely caught up with him on a visit to Dorado and environs, 20 miles west of San Juan on Puerto Rico's north coast. The murals I could not help catching up with, for they beckoned loudly and colorfully from the roadside on my first pass through town en route from the airport to the coastal resort of Dorado Beach, which on that weekend in December was celebrating its 25th anniversary.

When I awoke the next morning to the uncharacteristic patter of rainfall and realized the hotel beaches and tennis courts would be off limits for a spell, I decided to explore the town of murals, a few miles inland. That's when I first heard about the mayor. ''You must meet Papino,'' said Betsy at the Dorado Beach front desk. When I said I preferred not to go through official channels, she insisted and called the mayor's office. ''He is at a funeral,'' she reported, ''but he will see you in his office at 11. You will not be sorry.''

At its center, Dorado has the tidy layout of most other rural Puerto Rican towns. On the three sides of the main square are a chalk-white mayor's office emblazoned ALCALDIA, a yellowish school building, and a church with pale pink walls and a three-bell tower.

What distinguishes Dorado, aside from the dense green pastureland and bluish mountain ranges that surround it, are its many murals - some representational, others abstract, but all big and bold. They cover the walls of a housing development on one end of town and decorate the sides of shops and cafes along the main street.

Dorado, it turns out, is a town that values art of all kinds, and the focal point for this activity is an airy Spanish colonial building called Casa del Rey , a few hundred yards from the plaza.

As I mounted the steps of the informal cultural center, a husky, bearded man in a Colorado T-shirt, fatigues, and combat boots was finishing an impromptu tour of Casa del Rey for half a dozen visitors. ''They were American tourists,'' said Rafael Rivera Garcia when the group had left. ''They walked in and met the mayor this morning and he sent them to us.'' Mr. Rivera Garcia, who presides over the center - a series of galleries built around an inner courtyard - then traced Dorado's and his own artistic history.

''Ten years ago I was teaching fine arts at the university in San Juan and sending students out on the streets to paint, as part of an 'Art for the People' program. One day I got a call from the mayor of Dorado. I could tell he was a dynamic man. He said, 'I'm Papino and I have a plan.' He was worried that with all the wealthy people moving to the Dorado area and commuting to San Juan, the town would lose its flavor and become a new Dorado. So he got me to come out with my students and paint the murals on the housing development.''

In time the mayor also got Rivera Garcia to take over the cultural center. Today Casa del Rey is home to such painters as Taly Rivera, whose murals are signed ''TALY.'' It is a training ground for young Dorado artists who paint public murals in the barrios as their final exam.

''Visitors are welcome here, though it really isn't a museum,'' Rivera Garcia said as we moved from one gallery to the next. ''The mayor comes here often and sometimes I have to chase him out so we can get to work. He even joins us on the streets to paint the murals.''

Suddenly I remembered my appointment at the mayor's office, but a phone call determined that he was out. ''He's probably on the street,'' Rivera Garcia said. ''Papino mingles with the people who don't even know his real name; they always use his nickname.''

When I finally caught up with the mayor it was at an outdoor gala celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Dorado Beach Hotel: 1,000 people, mostly Puerto Ricans, making the rounds of an endless buffet under the stars. Papino is mustached, handsome, and ready to smile. Of the recent campaign to paint murals in the barrios, he said to me: ''When you put art in a museum you lose out. A museum is one place for one class of people.'' As for his easy accessibility to his constituency, he said: ''I receive people in my office on Monday and Wednesday. Sometimes they come with deep problems, sometimes not. My real office is in the street.''

The mayor has important attachments to Dorado Beach. He was a cashier at the hotel in the 1960s when he met his future wife, a visitor from Boston. Dorado Beach and the neighboring Cerromar Beach Hotel employ 1,500 island people, many from the town of Dorado.

I think that for all its assets - splendid crescent beaches, tennis and golf programs, and thick exotic foliage - Dorado Beach's chief blessing is its staff, friendly but not fawning, efficient but never officious. Of course another blessing is the nearness of the town of Dorado, which one doesn't necessarily have to save for a rainy day.

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