Saturday, March 31, 2012

NW Yucatan Part 3: Sunday Fiesta at Mérida's Plaza Grande

Embroidered hipil, one of the many gorgeous textile creations at the Sunday Fiesta. Every Sunday, Mérida throws a giant fiesta in and around its Plaza Grande. Music, food, indigenous dance performances, street artists, and the innumerable craft booths can keep you entertained all day and well into the night. The city also shuts down several blocks of Calle 62, heading north from the Plaza, and several other streets in the area, to creat pedestrian-only zones. Local restaurants set up their tables and chairs right in the street. Every block or so you will find a band or other musical group providing free entertainment. Anyone planning to visit Mérida should include a Sunday, if at all possible.

A grandmother, her daughter, and grand-daughter browse the booths. The abuela (grandmother) wears the traditional indigenous dress called a terno de gala. We saw women wearing them all over the city. At first I thought they were "dress-up" clothes for Sunday, or perhaps something to be worn for the tourist's sake. Soon, we discovered that this dress is the day-to-day outfit of a very large number of women here. Even women sitting on a dusty curb selling fruit out of rickety wooden boxes wore these dresses. How they kept them so sparkling clean was a mystery to us.

A jeweler works on a new creation while he displays his wares. Some of the pieces were stunning. Much of this jewelry is quite similar to what is displayed in the local archaeology museum. Maya craftsmanship has continued down through the generations for thousands of years. Although some of these wares were a bit on the expensive side in Mexican terms, a foreign tourist might find them a bargain compared to prices at home.

Typical textile booth. Here you could buy embroidered bags, rebozos (shawls), blouses, table cloths, and many other items, all hand-made. There were two concentric pathways around the Plaza each lined on both sides with booths. In fact, there were so many that I kept losing track of where I found items I might like to buy. It's a good idea to make a full circuit of all the booths before you make any purchases, because you may find something nicer and/or cheaper a bit further on. I finally resorted to writing down the location of the booths I wanted to revisit, otherwise I'd go nuts trying to remember where they were.

We encountered quite a number of foreign shoppers. The two girls on the right were probably German or Dutch from their speech. We encountered a large number of Europeans in Mérida, and a fair number of Canadians, but very few people from the United States. I guess all the negative propaganda has frightened many of my compatriots into staying home, or at least out of Mexico. Even when they come, they tend to congregate in Cancun or one of the other "tourist bubbles" that are to Mexico as Disneyland is to real life. Too bad, they don't have any idea what they are missing. I periodically get comments on my blog from Americans who tell me they would love to visit the places I show, but are afraid to venture south of the border. They tell me they have resigned themselves to experiencing Mexico vicariously through my blog. This is flattering to me, but it ain't the same as being here, folks!

Belts, belts, and more belts. The vivid and wildly contrasting colors you find in Mexico's textiles, and its art work in general, might seem a bit jolting if encountered in the US or Canada. Taken out of context, they can be somewhat eyepopping. However, when you live here, or visit extensively, you begin to realize that these are the colors that appear naturally, all around you. Particularly in the temperate or tropical areas of Mexico, flowers and other plants are constantly blossoming, with different species bursting into color during different times of the year. In addition, where I live, bougainvillea blooms year round and you can find several different colors of flowers on the same plant. It was strange at first, but all this seems quite natural now.

Two Maya women stroll among the booths. The overall design of their ternos de galas is the same, but the details of the embroidery differ significantly. The painstaking work of embroidery takes about 6 months for a single dress, and each is an individual masterpiece. When the Spanish arrived in the 16th Century, they found a Maya civilizations with highly developed crafts produced by skilled artisans. One of these crafts was the weaving of cotton blankets, often beautifully decorated with feathers. Following the lead of the native lords, the Spanish demanded these blankets as part of the tribute they collected from towns and cities they conquered. Over time, Franciscan friars taught the indigenous weavers Spanish techniques and one eventual result was the terno de gala.

An especially beautiful example of a terno de gala. The garment gets its name "terno" from the fact that there are three parts to it. According to the Mérida Tourism Department, "the first one, known as the 'jubon' is a wide, flat, richly embroidered square flounce that is attached to the neckline of the second piece, the hipil. The latter is a white knee-high square dress, with embroideries and a lace-trimmed hemline. The third part, called 'fustan', is a long, straight waist-slip, which is worn under the hipil and is also embroidered and lace trimmed. All the embroideries are done using a technique known as cross-stitch." Often the terno will be complemented by a rebozo called "Santa Maria", referring to the village where they are made. The wearer matches the rebozo color to complement the terno.

A closeup of the beautiful embroidery. Embroidery in Yucantan goes far back into the pre-hispanic era. Some pieces have even been discovered at the bottom of Chichen Itza's sacred sacrificial cenote (well). The ancients used a stitching technique called chuy cab, or satin-stitch. This method is still used, along with the xocbil chuy, or cross-stitch, and another called xmanikte. There are many other stitching techniques used in addition to these, and they are passed down from mother to daughter.

Having a booming good time. This rather jolly-looking fellow thoroughly enjoyed having his photo taken. His female companion seems a bit more skeptical. He was part of a Maya drum circle that set up shop in the middle of an empty but normally traffic-clogged street.  I love having a live "sound-track" to my life, so I nearly always contribute to street musicians. They work hard for their money and usually give good performances. This particular group played hand-made drums not unlike those used by their pre-hispanic ancestors.

And for those that get hungry... Calle 60, along the east side of the Plaza, was lined on both sides with food booths. Inexpensive and delicious traditional Mexican food can be obtained here, if you want a break from the more spendy formal restaurants. Such street food is usually safe to eat, especially when it is cooked. Of course, it is always possible to pick up a bug, but you're not in Kansas anymore, are you? Still, even in Kansas, people occasionally get sick from restaurant food.

A local orchestra belts out a tune for a troupe of jarana dancers. Jarana in Spanish means "racket" or "noisy party". However, in Yucatan it refers to a local dance that is rooted in both European and Maya traditions. Generally, a jarana orchestra, called a changara will have 2 clarinets, 2 trumpets, 2 trombones, a "güiro" or dry gourd with slits tapped with a stick, and a set of tropical kettledrums called timbales. Everyone, musician or dancer, is dressed in an immaculate white outfit with touches of color from kerchiefs or embroidery. The music is very upbeat and much more harmonious than the jarana name implies. The Sunday Fiesta performances always draw a big crowd and it was a bit difficult to find a spot to get good photos, so I had to be creative.

Jarana dancers are paired off into couples dressed in traditional clothing. While many of the women still wear these dresses on a daily basis, the men have mostly adopted more modern clothes for daily wear. Notice that the men all have their right pant-leg rolled up almost to the knee. I'm not sure, but this might have something to do with making the dance steps easier. Traditional clothing like this is known as traje de mestizo. 

The dancers have to be athletic because their performances may be quite lengthy. It is not only the dancers who must possess stamina. Most of the instruments in the changara come in pairs. If a musician becomes tired, his partner can keep going. These dancers regularly perform  for the big Sunday Fiesta and sometimes on Thursday evenings. However, many local people perform the jarana during fiestas related to their villages' patron saints' days. 

Steppin' out. The dance steps are vigorous and intricate and vary from dance to dance. The performers whirled about, sometimes face-to-face, sometimes side-by-side. If a couple is particularly outstanding, the other troupe members may form a circle around them as they dance to the sound of the timbales. There are two kinds of jarana, one to a 6/8 beat and the other to 3/4. The 6/8 jarana resembles a tap dance called a zapateado. This has its origins both in ancient Spanish Andalusia and in the local mestizo music called sones. The 3/4 jarana was developed later and more resembles a waltz originating from the folk tunes of Spanish Aragon. In Mexico, this cultural blending is called sincretismo.

And then, there's always the Purple Angel of Death. Mimes in outrageous costumes are very popular in Mexico. This angel of death didn't seem very scary to the little girl, whose parents wanted to take her photo with the apparition. I've seen motionless mimes in cowboy outfits painted gold from head to toe. In another case, I ran into a futuristic Special Forces trooper who could trigger a mechanical sound effect so that every move seemed like it was by a mechanical robot. Quite an imaginative bunch, these Mexicans.

This completes Part 3 of my Mérida series. Next week we'll visit the great flocks of Pink Flamingos that congregate at the Celestún Lagoon on the Gulf Coast of Yucatan and, afterwards, take a boat ride through the thick mangrove swamps full of alligators and other creatures. I always encourage comments and/or corrections. If you'd like to do so, please use the Comments section below, or email me directly.

If you leave a question in the Comments section, PLEASE leave your email address so I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim

Friday, March 16, 2012

NW Yucatan Part 2: The Plateresque facade of Casa de Montejo and the murals of the Palacio Gobierno

Statue of a Maya warrior on the facade of Casa de Montejo. Notice the feathered head dress and the animal skin cape over the figure's shoulder. With one hand the warrior holds up the lintel, and with the other he holds what may be a corn plant. Figures like this are found on each side of the four windows in the wall to the right of the main entrance. In Part 1 of this series, I gave you a brief look at Mérida's Casa de Montejo along with some of the history of the family dynasty started by the conquistador Francisco Montejo in the early 16th Century. This week we will take a closer look at the remarkable Plateresque facade that adorns the front of this magnificent house. Plateresque is a combination of Gothic, Moorish, and early Renaissance styles. The Casa de Montejo possesses what may be the most outstanding example of this style in the Americas.  In addition to the Montejo house, we will visit the interior of the Palacio Gobierno, or Governor's Palace, which occupies half of the north side of the Plaza Grande and faces the Casa de Montejo on the south side. The walls of the Palacio's interior are lined with huge murals detailing the history of Yucatan.

Casa de Montejo and its Plateresque facade

Main entrance of Casa de Montejo. The high facade looms above the buildings on either side. Inside the doorway is a courtyard garden surrounded on two sides by a museum. At the far end of the courtyard is the door to a bank. The museum rooms are filled with furniture, paintings, and other items typical of what would have been found in the 19th Century mansion of a very wealthy family. Because the museum does not allow photographs, I cannot show you those areas, but if you visit Mérida, you should definitely plan a stop at Casa de Montejo to see the facade and tour the interior. There is no entrance fee, but you have to leave your bag or backpack with the guard.

A balcony, flanked by grim, 16th Century soliders, extends over the street. From this vantage point, Francisco Montejo's son, knicknamed el Mozo (the boy), could address a crowd, review a parade, or simply view the activities of the Plaza Grande. El Mozo was the Montejo who finally succeeded in conquering Yucatan and who both founded Mérida and built this Casa. While its ornateness is remarkable, to me the most intriguing aspect of the facade is its message of political/military dominance. This message becomes readily apparent as we take a closer look at the details.

Two Spanish soldiers, hardy but brutal, flank either side of the balcony. The one above scowls as he surveys the area for possible threats. He is dressed in the armor of the day, and carries a large halberd (a pike topped with a small axe) and a long sword. With these steel implements, he was impervious to the obsidian-tipped arrows and other weapons of the Maya. His weapons were capable of easily slicing through the cotton and leather armor indigenous warriors typically wore. Consequently, a relatively small group of Spanish soldiers could usually--but not always--defeat a much larger contingent of Maya. However, with the addition of horses and firearms--neither of which the Maya possessed--and their undeniable skill and bravery, the Spanish became irresistible. That's the military message. The political message lies under the soldiers' feet.

The basis of Spanish rule was naked force. While the Spanish conquistadors and their successors skillfully used the Catholic religion as the ideological justification for their actions, in the end, their ability to prevail often came down to sheer military power. The message delivered by these shrieking heads, crushed under the iron boots of the conquistador, says it all: "we rule, we will always rule, and you will obey!" That el Mozo chose to decorate the front entrance of his great mansion this way tells us much about the outlook and temperament of those early conquistadors. That his successors chose to leave the decorations in place for 500 years says a lot about their attitudes.

A fur-covered barbarian carrying a knobby club stands below each soldier. These figures, which are significantly smaller than the Spaniards towering above, have been the subject of much architectural discussion. The features and facial hair appear to be European, and similar figures are found on the facade of the College of St. Gregory in Vallodolid, Spain, where Montejo el Mozo was born. However it is possible that, in this context, they represent the Maya allies whose support allowed the conquistadors to ultimately prevail. Certainly the Spanish saw their allies as lesser, more primitive beings, even if they were essential. Note the rather unhappy-looking cherub face on the edge of the platform on which the barbarian figure stands.

Another curious vignette on the facade above the front door. Above, another barbarian figure strains like Atlas to support a pillar that leads up to the base of the balcony. Like the other barbarians shown, he wears furs but is naked from the waist up. Around the base of the balcony, a collection of horned cherub faces appear to howl in anguish. And, of course, all this supports the platform on which el Mozo and his successors would have stood, striking the posture of proud arrogance typical of the Spanish colonial rulers.

One of four tall windows along the front of the Casa. Each window is framed by two indigenous figures, one male (right) and the other female (left). They support a lintel that contains a shield with the Montejo coat-of-arms. On top of the shield is a Spanish war helmet, and below it on either side, a sword leans against it. The windows are appropriately grand in scale, as you can see by the local woman who is walking underneath this one.

Statue of a female Maya. Like the male seen in the first photo of this posting, she wears a feathered head dress. Her hair is braided and her buxom figure is partially covered by a cloth toga. In her right hand she carries a wreath, not unlike the laurel wreaths that Roman emperors wore. Perhaps she waits to place it on the head of el Mozo? Oddly, none of the figures framing the windows were carved with legs. Instead, the upper trunks of each are mounted on wedge-shaped columns, each decorated by a series of rings of decreasing size.

Murals of the Palacio Gobierno

Interior courtyard of the Palacio Gobierno, facing out the front door. While the original Palacio Gobierno was built in the colonial period, this Neo-classical version was built in 1892. The building has two floors which surround the square of the courtyard. Around the circumference are covered walkways with the typical arched portales supported by graceful columns. While the lower floor has a single great mural (out of sight here), the upper has a whole series of them on each wall. As you can see here, I took some of these shots at night.

Facing the front entrance across the courtyard is a grand staircase leading to the 2nd floor. Directly behind me, as I took the photo, was a large mural. There were two more, one on the wall on either side. I have yet to find such a grand staircase in a Mexican public building that is not decorated with murals by great artists celebrating aspects of Mexico's past.

The first Maya emerging from an ear of maiz. This is the mural that was behind me at the head of the staircase. This and the other murals seen below were painted by Fernando Castro Pacheco, a noted Mexican muralist. The emerging Maya is flanked by the Hero Twins, figures from Maya mythology. Maiz, or corn, was enormously important to the Maya and other Mesoamerican civilizations, and figures heavily in their religion, art, and architecture. The cultivation of maiz was probably first practiced in the Puebla area. It then spread throughout Mesoamerica, including the Maya areas, and even as far north as New England in the US.

View from the second floor balcony. A mural of two of Mexico's greatest heros can be seen on the far wall. Behind this wall is the magnificent Salon, the walls of which are also covered with huge murals.

Murals of the Salon

Each of the walls of the Salon has a set of huge murals by Pacheco. The Salon is used as a conference and display room and is truly magnificent. Each of the murals tells a story about the struggle of the Maya against oppression by the Spanish and their Mexican successors. Over the centuries, those struggles often ended tragically for the Maya.

The execution of Jacinto Canek. The price for losing an indigenous revolt was always been high in Nueva Hispaña and its successor, Mexico. Even so, there were numerous Maya revolts in the centuries that followed Francisco Montejo el Mozo's initial victory over them in 1549. One 18th Century revolt was led by Jacinto Canek, a Maya educated by the Franciscans. Addressing his people in 1761, Canek said "I have traveled through all the province and have inspected all the villages and, carefully considering the usefulness the Spanish subjugation has brought to us, I have not found a single thing but painful and inexorable servitude. The demand for tribute is not appeased by the poverty that locks up our comrades as in a jail, nor is the thirst for our blood satisfied by the continuous whippings that bite and tear our bodies to pieces." The people rallied and his revolt found initial success, but Spanish arms defeated them, as they had done so many times before. The Spanish hanged 8 of his supporters and applied 200 lashes and the loss of an ear to 200 more. Jacinto Canek himself was brought to Mérida's Grand Plaza. As the governor watched approvingly from the balcony of Casa de Montejo, Canek was burned with red-hot irons, then pulled into quarters by horses, and finally his remains were burned and the ashes thrown to the winds. It is hard to kill an idea, however, and his name became a rallying cry for the rebels of the Caste War 90 years later.

A Maya hacienda worker stuggles under a huge load of sisal. The picture above expresses the weight of oppression the Maya have experienced for most of the 500 years since the Montejos arrived on the scene. For its first 300 years under the Spanish and then the new Mexican government, Yucatan remained somewhat of an economic backwater, producing food crops, livestock and cotton. Maya communal lands were seized and given as haciendas to either the Church or to Spanish noblemen. The Maya were forced to work under the colonial encomienda system of tribute labor, or its successor, the hacienda system which employed debt slavery. Every effort was made to extinguish their native religion and culture.  For thousands of years before the Spanish arrived, the Maya had extracted the sisal fibre from the stiff, spiky leaves of the agave plant in order to make rope, sandals, mats and other goods. This fibre is also called henequen and the two words are used interchangeably. Until the mid-19th Century, there was little commercial value in it. Suddenly, a huge new market opened for Yucatan's humble sisal.

The Sisal Cutter's Hands. The rough calloused hands symbolize those of the Maya who, in ancient times, raised amazing pyramids and palaces. Now, the hands are shown bleeding from the agave spines of the plant that produced the sisal fibre. While there were some sisal plantations in Yucatan in the 18th and early 19th Centuries, the market was very small. Then, Cyrus McCormick invented a machine to harvest grain in the US. To bundle the cut grain stalks, the harvester required a strong, smooth twine resistant to rot and insect damage. Sisal was ideal. McCormick's company, later called International Harvester, turned to Yucatan to fulfill its needs, setting off a tremendous boom. The relationship of International Harvester to Yucatan somewhat resembled that of the United Fruit Company to Guatemala. In both cases, a giant US corporation almost completely dominated the local economy--and to a considerable degree the politics--of the area. In both cases a tiny number of plantation owners became fabulously wealthy while serving the interests of a foreign corporation. Finally, in both cases, the Maya were enslaved to feed the insatiable profit-lust of the plantation owners and their foreign sponsors.

One way to solve a labor shortage. The sisal boom was so intense, and the possible profits so huge, that hacienda owners turned to direct slavery to solve their labor shortage. The already-subjugated Maya were simply not enough. Between 1848 and 1861 they imported Cuban slaves, but after Benito Juarez's victory in the Reform Wars, he suppressed the trade. Eventually, the hacendados (hacienda owners) found another solution. In the last part of the 19th Century, the Mexican Government finally succeeded in subduing the Yaquis of the Sierra Madre Occidental area of Chihuahua in northwest Mexico. They were the last remnants of the free and independent Chichimec nomads who had harassed the Spanish from the 16th Century on, and the ancient Mesoamerican civilizations for many centuries before them. The government of dictator Porfirio Diaz didn't want to leave them in Chihuahua where they might revolt again. Hearing the hacendados' complaints of continuing labor shortages, Diaz ordered the Yaquis to be rounded up en masse--men, women, and children--and shipped by rail to Yucatan to work on the sisal haciendas. As many as 15,000 Yaquis--half their population--were deported into sisal slavery in the early years of the 20th Century.

The Caste War (1847-1901). The greatest and longest-lasting Maya revolt was known as the Caste War. The name relates to the rigid social structure, or caste system, of colonial Nueva Hispaña. The caste system continued in Yucatan even after independence from Spain. The Maya rose against the Yucatecos--those of European background--who were at the top of this system. The revolt was rooted in the continuing seizure of Maya communal lands by Yucateco hacienda owners greedy to exploit the growing boom in sisal, and heavy taxation by the Yucateco-run government. The Caste War came within a hair's breadth of driving the Yucatecos completely out of the whole Peninsula. They held out in the cities of Mérida and Campeche and things looked bleak. The governor wrote up orders for the evacuation of the whole Yucateco population from both cities, but sufficient paper could not be found to print them. In the meantime, the Maya had noticed that the flying ants had arrived, signaling the time to plant crops. Knowing their families would starve if they didn't, they left the rebel army in droves and the siege was lifted. The war then dragged on for decades. For a time Great Britain recognized the Maya-controlled area as an independent state. The British had a commercial interest in trade between British Honduras (modern Belize) and the Maya state. In the end, however, the British recognized they had a greater interest in the commercial and industrial development of Mexico under Porfirio Diaz. They cut off relations with the Maya state and closed the British Honduras border. In 1901, the Mexican army seized control of the Maya capital of Chan Santa Cruz and claimed victory. While this is considered the official end of the Caste War, guerilla activity continued off and on until the last known skirmish in 1933, a full 85 years after war began. However, in 1901, the Yucatecos thought they had arrived in--for them--The Promised Land. The money from their sisal haciendas rolled in like a tidal wave . For nine more years they lived the good life while the Maya and their mestizo bretheren toiled in servitude.

Murals of the courtyard balcony

General Salvador Alvarado (1888-1924), "Liberator of the Maya slaves". In 1910, revolution broke out in various areas of Mexico, including Yucatan. In 1915, following a period of turmoil, General Salvador Alvarado was appointed by the national revolutionary government to be Governor of Yucatan. Alvarado was originally from Sinaloa and so was an outsider with no local vested interests when he hit town. He was a revolutionary, however, and horrified by the conditions he found. He was particularly angered by how the Yucateco elite profited at the expense of the Maya.  During his term of 1915-1917, he instituted many important reforms including land redistribution, and worker's and women's rights. General Alvarado used military courts as a device to extend justice to common people and women. He also took a dim view of the role of the Catholic Church in supporting and profiting from the rule of Porfirio Diaz. As a result, he evicted the Bishop from his Palacio next to the Cathedral, and stabled the horses of his troops in the Cathedral itself. He is viewed as one of Yucatan's  three greatest social reformers. The beneficial effects of his reforms on the lives of the Maya resulted in a significant period of peace. As a result, he is viewed as "the one true liberator of the Maya slaves."

Two more social reformers. Felipe Carrillo Puerto (1872-1924) was born in Yucatan and was partly Maya. He served as Governor of Yucatan from 1922-24. Carillo Puerto was a socialist and favored land reform, women's rights, and the rights of the Maya people. His enemies called him "The Red Dragon with the Eyes of Jade." He conducted a passionate romance with a female journalist from San Francisco in the United States named Alma Reed, resulting in a famous song called "Peregrina." In 1924, he was betrayed and arrested by counter-revolutionaries, along with 3 of his brothers and 8 other friends. All were shot. Another of Yucatan's great reformers was President Lazaro Cardenas (1895-1970). A former revolutionary general, Cardenas is probably best known for his 1938 expropriation of Mexico's oil industry, until then owned by foreign interests. However, he was also very active in land reform and the creation of ejidos, or land cooperatives. In 1936, Cardenas expropriated the sisal haciendas of Yucatan, and redistributed the land to the Maya who had long worked it for little or no compensation. For finally breaking the power of the hacendados, and returning the land to the Maya from whom it had often been illegally seized, President Lazaro Cardenas is considered the third of Yucatan's great heros.

This completes Part 2 of my Northwest Yucatan series. Next, we will visit Mérida's Sunday Market, an extravaganza of crafts, music, and dance held weekly in the Plaza Grande. I always appreciate feedback. If you would like to comment, please do so in the Comments section below, or email me directly.

If you leave a question in the Comments section, PLEASE leave your email address so I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim

Sunday, March 11, 2012

NW Yucatan Part 1: Mérida, the "White City"

The walls of the Catedral de San Ildefonso and the Ateneo Peninsular glow a soft white in the dusk. Carole and I paid our second visit to Mérida in January of 2012. Our first visit had been for a brief 2 days during our 2010 journey through Southern Mexico with Caravan Tours. That experience convinced us to return this year for a more in-depth look. Mérida is situated in the northwest corner of the Yucatan Peninsula and is the capital of the Mexican state of Yucatan. With a population of more than 970,000, Mérida is the largest city on the whole Peninsula, which includes Campeche and Quintana Roo States as well as Yucatan. The Peninsula has a pre-hispanic history going back thousands of years. The area was visited by Spanish expeditions in 1517 and 1518, both of which were driven off by fierce Maya resistance. This was prior to Hernán Cortés' landing on the mainland of what would become Nueva España in 1519. The Maya's hot reception was an indication of the fierce resistance to come when the Spanish conquistadors later attempted to subdue them. In fact, the Maya outlasted every other Mesoamerican civilization the Spanish encountered. Their last outpost, the city of Tayasal in Guatemala, did not fall until 1697. This was a full 175 years after the Aztecs surrendered. Maya culture has shown amazing resilience in the face of the most brutal treatment by the Spanish authorities and their Mexican successors. Today, Mexico has begun to recognize the value of its wonderful Maya heritage.  The government is encouraging various aspects of Maya culture including art, dance, food, music and language, and showcases its great Maya ruins. Much of this was proudly on display in Mérida when we visited. For a Google map of northwest Yucatan and Mérida, click here.


Mérida rests on the ancient foundations of its Maya predecessor. Above you can see a scale model of the Maya city of T'ho, known as "the city of 5 hills" in a reference to its 5 pyramids. The ancient Maya architects used the Peninsula's abundant white limestone as their primary building material for pyramids, temples, and palaces. As was their usual practice, the Spanish dismantled the Maya buildings at T'ho and used the white stones to build their cathedral and many other structures. Thus Mérida came by its nickname: "The White City". Ancient T'ho was laid out in concentric circles, with the center containing the religious and administrative complex seen above. Immediately around it were the homes of the nobility. Surrounding that ring were the homes of the commoners. (Scale model from the Museo de la Ciudad)

Urn recovered from the site of ancient T'ho. The reassembled stone urn is carved with relief designs around its circumference. Visible above are two very loose-limbed dancers, frolicking at an ancient fiesta. According to the writings of Bishop Diego de Landa, who wrote "Relation about the Things of Yucatan" shortly after the Conquest, there were 3 great edifices in T'ho. A structure called Pocobtok (Knife of Flint) was located where the Convent of San Francisco now stands. Another stood to the east of Mérida's main plaza and was called H'chumca'an (Center of the Sky). The third was dedicated to the Maya god Baklum Cha'an (Phallus of the Earth in Plain Sight). The Catedral de San Ildefonso now stands over the Phallus of the Earth. The conquistador Francisco de Montejo stayed for a year in the Baklum Cha'an complex after conquering T'ho. (From Museo de la Ciudad)

Maya grave from T'ho. Funerary rituals were very important to the pre-hispanic Maya. They believed the dead still experienced sensations, feelings, and needs. Accordingly, they carefully placed various objects around the body to help the dead person on his way through Xilbalba (the Underworld). Often bowls placed in crypts would have a hole punched in them, as a way to "kill" the pottery. If the person was a noble, priest, or royalty, a group of their servants might be killed and placed in the crypt so that they could continue to attend their master in the afterlife. In the 500 years since the Conquest, ancient T'ho has completely disappeared under Mérida. However, at the time the Spanish arrived, the city was still populated and functioning. This makes Mérida one of the oldest continuously occupied cities in the Western Hemisphere. (From Museo de la Ciudad)

Mérida's Plaza Grande, as it looks today. The view above is from the northeast to the southwest. In the center is the Jardin, or plaza garden. All the streets in the Centro Historico are numbered, whether they run north-south or east-west. The street running from the bottom left on a slight diagonal to the right is Calle 61. The street running from the bottom center to the upper left corner of the photo is Calle 60. Where they cross, two important buildings stand on adjacent corners. The one with the double steeples on Calle 60 is the Catedral de San Ildefonso. On the corner of Calle 61, facing the Jardin, is the Palacio Gobierno, or Governor's Palace. It is the headquarters of the State of Yucatan. The street that crosses diagonally from top center to the center of the right side of the photo is Calle 62. In the middle of this block is the Palacio Municipal, or City Hall, with a single bell tower. The fourth side of the plaza is Calle 63. In the center of this block stands the Casa de Montejo, built by one of the original conquistadors. It possesses a spectacular facade that is unique in Latin America. Both Calle 61 and 62 have long, covered walkways bounded by the arches and pillars called portales. For a walking-tour map of the Centro Historico area, including the plaza, click here. (Scale model from Museo de la Ciudad)

Catedral de San Ildefonso

Catedral de San Ildefonso is the oldest cathedral in Mexico. Construction began in 1561 and was completed in 1598. The temple to the Maya god Baklum Cha'an lies beneath the church and materials from the Maya structure were used to built San Ildefonso. The Catedral was named after Ildefonsus, a Visigoth whose Germanic name was Hildefuns. The Visigoth barbarians sacked Rome in 410 AD and eventually overran much of the Western Roman Empire, including Spain. In 589 AD, they converted to Christianity, and by 657 Ildefonso had become Bishop of Toledo. His writings made him a potent force among Spanish Christians for centuries, eventually leading to his canonization. To honor him, Yucatan's colonial church authorities gave his name to their new cathedral. The Visigoths themselves were not so fortunate. In 712 AD, their king and many leading men were killed by invading Moors from North Africa. The Moorish Muslims ruled Spain for the next 700 years, until they were finally defeated and expelled by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabela. These are the same two who financed Christopher Columbus' voyages of discovery which eventually led to the conquest of Yucatan.

The left tower of the Catedral and its great coat-of-arms. King Phillip II of Spain ordered the building of the Catedral and awarded it a coat-of-arms.  Phillip was the same Spanish king who ordered his Armada (naval fleet) to sail to England and invade the domain of Queen Elizabeth I. The Armada was defeated by English sailors led by Sir Francis Drake, and most of the Spanish fleet later sank in a great storm. Drake was a ferocious pirate and plunderer who--with the connivance of Queen Elizabeth--had raided many Spanish New World settlements, including some in Yucatan. His actions helped trigger the launching of the Armada on its ill-fated voyage. They also brought about the fortification of many Spanish settlements including the Yucatan Peninsula city of Campeche. Drake has been dead for almost 400 years, but those massive fortifications can still be seen today.

Interior of Catedral de San Ildefonso with its massive crucifix. The Cristo de la Unidad is the largest indoor crucifix in the world, standing 7.62 meters (25 ft.) tall. It was commissioned by the Church to try to solidify a sense of unity between the Maya and the Catholicism. The cathedral was built in a mixture of styles, including Moorish, Renaissance, and Baroque. Its chief architects during 37 years of construction were Pedro de Aulestia and Miguel de Auguero. The cathedral in Mexico City was also built by Auguero, but at a later time. In addition to the crucifix, there are two other notable features in the interior. One is a painting above a doorway depicting the Maya ruler Titul-Kiú, meeting with conquistador Francisco de Montejo el Mozo. These two allies defeated other Maya who were resisting the Conquest. Such alliances were typical of the Spanish divide-and-conquer strategy. Titul-Kiú converted to Christianity and his descendants still live in Mérida. The Catedral's other interesting feature is a Maya woodcarving of Christ. The wood for the statue was taken from a tree that the Maya saw burning all night without being destroyed, leading them to believe it was sacred. The carving was originally kept in a church at Ichmul which later burned down. However, the statue survived intact except for some blisters. It was removed to the Catedral in 1645 and is now kept in a nook called the Chapel of the Christ of the Blisters.

View toward the entrance of the Catedral showing the organ pipes. The church interior is very impressive. Beautiful limestone columns rise to support Moorish arches high above. The church seems a bit austere today because it was sacked during the Mexican Revolution. In 1915, General Salvador Alvarado was appointed Governor of Yucatan by the revolutionary government in Mexico City. He is famed today because of the many social reforms he implemented to help the Maya and other ordinary people. However, because the Church had provided political support for the ousted dictator Porfirio Diaz, General Alvarado ordered the sacking of the Catedral. He even went so far as to use it as a stable for his horses. In 1924, he was murdered in Chiapas, possibly in retaliation for his social reforms. Since that period was the prelude to the Cristero War between the revolutionary government and Catholic fanatics, it could also be that Alvarado was an early victim of that conflict.

Intriguing statue in a wooden retablo. A retablo is a large wooden structure, often found behind altars or at the back of side-chapels. The wood is often carved and gilded, and there are niches for religious paintings and sculptures as you can see above. This particular niche contains a tableau I found unusual. Christ hangs from a cross which is gently supported by much larger figure who appears to represent God. I have seen many statues, paintings, and other representations of saints, the Virgin, and Jesus Christ in Mexican churches. However, God, seems to be a very remote figure in Mexican Catholicism, and I can't recall ever seeing another painting or statue of him. The saints, the various Virgins, and Christ are felt to be intermediaries to whom one can appeal for intercession with God. Rarely does God appear directly, as in the statue above.

Offerings of thanks drape a saint. This is one of the more charming practices that I have encountered in various Catholic churches in Mexico and Guatemala. The faithful pray to a saint for help in a personal matter. If the prayer is answered, a ribbon is marked with some brief statement of thanks for the favor granted. The ribbon is then left draped over the saint's arms, or around his neck. I have seen similar offerings draped around a statue of the Virgin of Guadalupe in a tiny niche deep in the mountains overlooking Ajijic. In Santiago, Guatemala, people who have safely returned from the US leave expensive designer scarves around the necks of statues of their saints.

Anteneo Peninsular

The Museum of Contemporary Art glows under floodlights. The museum is sometimes called "Macay" for short. Like many colonial religious buildings in Mexico, this one experienced a turbulent history and has been used for a variety of purposes. Construction began in 1573 under Bishop Diego de Landa, mentioned earlier in this posting. The building process lasted  into the period of Bishop Gonzalo de Salazar (1608-1663). The building functioned as the Bishop's residence and administrative center for the next 250 years. The Macay sits adjacent to the Catedral on the south side, filling up the rest of the block. Retail stores occupy most of the ground floor. Beyond its construction dates, little is known of the early history of this structure, because the records were lost during a violent episode in 1705. Alonso Valverde was the Franciscan head of the Convent of San Francisco. He apparently displeased Bishop Pedro de los Rios de la Madrid, who imprisoned him in this palace. In the attempt to rescue Valverde, his supporters destroyed the early records. In the 1850s, the palace was deemed to be State property under the Reform Laws of Benito Juarez. However, not much actually changed and the Bishop continued to reside in palace into the 20th Century. Then, in 1915, General Salvador Alvarado arrived.

Ateneo Peninsular is the name on a crest adorning the top of the building. General Alvarado promptly evicted the Bishop and quartered his troops in the palace for several weeks. In June of 1915, the military formally took possession and began renovations that led to the building's present appearance. The name Ateneo Peninsular seems to have come from a literary society that used the building for a period after Alvarado's troops pulled out. At some point they installed the crest with their name. Then various state and federal agencies used some of the space for offices. In the 1930s, the military again took over the building as its headquarters for the area. By the 1980s, the Ateneo Peninsular was virtually abandoned. Finally, in the early 1990s, the Yucatan State government renovated the building yet again, and re-opened it 1994 as the Museum of Contemporary Art, or Macay.

La Casa de Montejo 

A home for conquerers. La Casa de Montejo (Montejo House) was built by Francisco de Montejo el Mozo in 1549, seven years after he completed the conquest of western Yucatan. There were actually three conquistadors named Francisco de Montejo: the father (el Adelanto), the son (el Mozo), and the nephew (el Sobrino). Together, they participated in the conquest of the Aztecs under Hernán Cortés. After that, el Adelanto won permission from King Carlos I of Spain to conquer Yucatan. He had previously participated in the unsuccessful Grijalva expedition to Yucatan in 1517, so he had some sense of the ferocity of the Maya. In 1527-28 he attempted to invade the Caribbean coast from the east, but was driven off. He then switched to a western approach from Tabasco, where his son el Moza played a key role in putting down resistance from 1528-31. From Tabasco, el Adelanto launched his assault on Yucatan in 1531. This new campaign lasted until el Adelanto was driven out in 1535. It turned out that the Maya were a very different kettle of fish than the Aztecs. Cortés conquered the Aztecs in a relatively short time by capturing their capital at Tenochtitlán and overthrowing Emperor Moctezuma. The Maya had never been part of a unified empire and were very decentralized. This required the Spanish to conquer them piecemeal, one small city at a time. It was brutal, bloody, and dangerous work in the heat and humidity of Yucatan. In the end, el Adelanto's troops deserted and he fell back to Tabasco in defeat.

Montejo family coat-of-arms decorates the facade over the main door. It fell to el Adelanto's son, el Mozo, to complete the conquest of Yucatan. He reinitiated the fight in 1537 and, in the process, founded the city of Campeche (capital of the modern State of Campeche) in 1540. Using Maya allies, he finally subdued western Yucantan in 1542, and established his capital in the ancient city of T'ho. El Mozo named it Mérida, after a city in Spain whose buildings were also of white limestone. Montejo laid out his new city with the Plaza Grande as the center. He assigned the whole south block of the plaza to himself so he could build the great house that we see today. Ultimately, Francisco de Montejo el Mozo moved to Guatemala where he died in 1565. However, descendants of the Montejo family lived in the house well into the 20th Century.

The Plateresque architectural style of Casa de Montejo is the finest in Mexico. The house built by el Mozo was constructed in the Plateresque style and is considered its most outstanding example not only in Mexico but in the Western Hemisphere. Plateresque developed in the 14th and 15th Centuries in Spain and is a mixture of Gothic, Moorish, and early Renaissance. In a following posting, I will show you details of the amazing facade of the Casa de Montejo, and we'll also take a peek inside. Today, the Casa is a museum housing a number of rooms filled with fine examples of 18th and 19th Century furnishings. Unfortunately, photographs of these rooms are not allowed, so my interior shots were limited.

Palacio Municipal

The Palacio Municipal sits in the middle of its block. You are viewing the Palacio Municipal from the southwest corner of the Plaza Grande, looking north up Calle 62. The Palacio is the red building with the clock tower. The yellow building in the foreground is another fine old colonial home that has been restored and filled with shops. There are many similar restorations in the Centro Historico, but much remains to be done.

The Palacio Municipal is a two story building lined with graceful portales on both floors. The site of the Palacio was originally occupied by one of the five pyramids of T'ho. The first Palacio was built between 1734-1736 during the period of Don Santiago Aguirre. Up until then, the Ayuntamiento (City Council) needed to meet in Aguirre's store next to the Palacio Gobierno (Govenor's Palace) on the north side of the plaza. Once their new building was complete, the councilors moved in and began conducting business, much of which seemed to involve Palacio renovations over the next couple of centuries. These included two renovations in the 19th Century and six in the 20th Century. The white building at the end of the block is the Centro Cultural Olimpo, which contains a theatre, a planetarium, and space for exhibits and conferences. Every Tuesday evening, Olimpo sponsors a free concert which includes traditional Mexican songs and dances. The gleaming white building was inaugurated in 1999.

The Palacio's clock tower lights up at dusk. Lacy palms of the Plaza Grande nicely frame the graceful old tower. The tower has quite a history in itself. The original clock tower was built in 1870-72. It was replaced by another, grander one in 1919. Less than ten years later, in 1928, the tower was replaced again, along with renovations to the facade of the building. These final changes give the Palacio the appearance it has today. Unfortunately, the clock no longer functions and its bells are silent.

North side of Plaza Grande

Calle 61 was pleasingly free of traffic on the Sunday I took this photo. Mérida is a very busy, fast-paced city and the streets are usually full of careening traffic. On Sundays, however, the city government shuts down several of the streets around the Plaza Grande so that strollers can enjoy street vendors, dance and musical performances, and the general relief from dodging cars and buses. The green building in the right foreground is the Palacio Gobierno, or Governor's Palace, the seat of the Yucatan State Government. In a following posting, we'll visit this Palacio to see the huge murals contained within its interior courtyard and salons. As you can probably tell from the blue skies and fluffy white clouds in many of these photos, the weather in January was gorgeous. I recommend visiting this time of year, as the summers can be oppressive.

More portales and second-story wrought-iron balconies. These portales are on Calle 61, just to the west of the Palacio Gobierno.There are tables under this walkway where you can order some of the excellent local coffee, or enjoy an ice cream, or even a full meal. Upstairs is a bar/restaurant where some of the tables sit on the little balconies overlooking the street. They provide an excellent vantage point to take in some of the action below. I took some of my photos of the Plaza Grande activities while sitting at one of these balcony tables. While I was at my balcony table, small children gathered on the sidewalk below and begged me to drop a peso or two so they could buy ice cream. I obliged, of course.

Bathed in the golden afternoon sunlight, horse-drawn carriages wait for customers. You are looking east on Calle 61, just across the street from the Palacio Gobierno. To the right, out of sight in the photo, is the Catedral de San Ildefonso. We tried a variety of ways to see the sights of Mérida. These included double-decker tour buses, taxis, walking, and riding one of these carriages. In a later posting, when we take a look at the grand avenue called Paseo de Montejo, we'll do it from the seat of a  carriage. As you will see, the carriage ride was a tour not for the faint of heart.

Mérida attracts tourists from all over the world. These two young women appear to be from the Middle East. I saw them several times around town and they seemed to be with a group of young Europeans students, perhaps from one of the universities frequented by the children of well-to-do Middle Eastern families. The number and variety of foreign tourists was striking. A great many of them, especially at our hotel, were from European countries like Germany, France, Spain, and Belgium.

Keeping a watchful eye. These cops seem ready for anything. They wear body armor, and the beefy guy on the left is fondling an Uzi submachine gun as he talks on his radio. There was a pretty substantial police presence in Mérida, although not all of them were as combat-ready as these appear to be. Actually, Yucatan is one of the safest areas of Mexico, with very little of the drug cartel violence seen in some other areas. These guys seem determined that it should remain that way.

This completes Part 1 of my Northwest Yucatan series. I hope you enjoyed it. I always enjoy comments and if you'd like to leave one, please do so in the Comments section below or email me directly. Also, feel free to send a link to my blog to family and friends if you'd like.

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Hasta luego, Jim