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THE FIRST AMERICAN CAPITAL OF CULTURE Merida - T’Hó (Yucatan, Mexico) - A landscape
of identity Book your hotel in Mexiko online.
Article by María Teresa
Mézquita Méndez and Josep Ligorred
on the left: View
of the cathedral of Merida, the first cathedral in the Americas built
inland and the best example of the religious architecture of Yucatan. The
cathedral dates back to the beginning of the sixteenth century and is
located on the main square, Plaza Grande, of Merida.
For the first
time in history, a city in one of the 35 countries in America has received the
annual designation of American Capital of Culture, an initiative that counts
with the full support and collaboration of the Organization of the American
States.This designation is to be a
tool for the greater understanding and cohesion of the American People and the
projection of the American culture to the rest of the world.Merida will hold the designation of American Capital of Culture for the
full year 2000.
low-level flying over the flatness of the Yucatan Peninsula, in tropical
south-east Mexico and heart of the American Continent, one glimpses a sea of
green.It is the land of ancient
Mayan gods: Kin, the god of the sun,
and Chac, the god of the rain.As soon as one disembarks at the international airport of Merida, one is
ungulfed by the warm air of this land between the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of
Mexico and the perfumes of spices and of tropical fruits and flowers.
known as the “white city” due to the whiteness that covered the façades of
its buildings.It is an old
city with a great autochthonous population and deep in cultural roots.It is the cosmopolitan city of the Mayab,
the Mayan world and holds a strategic point of entry into the Continent of deep
America, and Latin America.
short of flowing rivers, there exist rich subterranean streams that slowly
dissolve lime rocks forming caverns and subterranean galleries.Sometimes in their bowels water accumulates forming deposits of water at
great depths known as “cenotes”, word that originated from the Mayan tz’ono’ot.These wells are opened at the surface but hidden in the interior of the
Merida is the
tenth oldest city in Mexico.Its
history is before pre-Hispanic times when the Mayan town of T’Hó,
also known as Ichcaanzihó or land of the great “sihoes”, was established
around 1240 by the Indian chief itza
on the right: The Seven Dolls’ House, Mayan Observatory, was named upon the seven figures
found in its interior. The temple, built at the beginning of the Late Classic
period in Dzibilchaltún, within the Municipality of Merida, was used to
register the movements of the Sun.
the Spaniards arrived at Yucatan around the middle of the sixteenth
century there was but little activity there, thus they only found the
remains of the old Mayan city.The
6th of January 1542 was a historic day when Don Francisco de
Montejo y Leon, known as “El Mozo” founded the new city of Merida upon
the ruins of T’Hó.It is said
that one of his soldiers by the name of Francisco de Almaraz suggested the
name of Merida when remembering the Roman ruins of Spain’ Merida, the
Augusta of Roman Spain.
then established city was designed with the use of a cord as a measuring tool.The streets are straight and with square angles according to the
conventional Hispanic model, centered by a Place d’Armes and surrounded by the
main public buildings that included the Cathedral, the first one built in
America.The base of the building
materials used by a few of the Spanish settlers were the ruins and debris of
Mayan T’Ho. We can today appreciate
that kind of construction in some of the historical buildings in the City.Side
by side to those building, settlers constructed houses using mud and straw and
roofed with thatch giving a rural and rustic appearance to primitive Merida.
together with Yucatan became independent on September 15, 1821.At that time Merida lived an epoch of peculiar splendor due to the demand
of century-plant, or “green gold”.In
late nineteenth century, the old “haciendas” devoted their efforts to the
cultivation of sugar cane, maize, and cattle ranching. Then they discovered the
potential of the agave, known as “henequen” as a prime fiber ideal to
produce a resistant and versatile natural fiber.The exploitation of agave brought richness and economical splendor to
Yucatan.During the last years of
the nineteenth century and the early years of the twentieth century saw a
notorious growth of the city, becoming rather European and leaving behind the
dusty and neglected buildings and seeing the construction of luxurious mansions,
religious buildings and other constructions that even today reflect theglory and ostentation of that time.
agave time passed, life in Merida returned to its provincial tranquillity.
Slowly Merida grew as a small and picturesque city without its desires of
In the middle
of its half a millennium and in the threshold of the twenty-first century,
Merida continues to vigorously grow. If on one side the city conserves its
traces and tendencies, on the other one sees modern construction, new business
buildings, convention centers, hotels, and large avenues and an urban sprawl
converting the city as one of the most important of the Country.
about 800.000 inhabitants, Merida maintains a horizontal sprawl; construction
does not go over two stories high, and the majority of houses have a large
patio.Because the terrain is flat, the streets are numbered and it is easy to
find directions.However, in the historic
center in the street corners there are plaques with drawings and the name of the
borough, per example, “la iguana”, “el sol”, “el oso”, “las dos
caras”, or “el boxeador".The name of the corner is often the reference for people: the bus leaves
from the corner of “venadito”, or a person lives near “cocoyal”.
preserves the characteristics of each district.The
center is austere and serene and of a colonial flavor.Outside the limits of the historical center is the beginning of large
avenues, as the “Avenida Colon” or the “Paseo de Montejo” with French
style mansions of the nineteenth century, giving to the city a senorial and
distinguished character.One of the
mansions is the palace Canton, which treasures a complete art collection of the
ancient Mayas. In suburban north, east, and west one is faced with large
majestic hotels, residential districts, large commercial centers, movie houses,
exhibition galleries, shopping malls, and the convention center “Siglo XXI”.Towards Progreso out in about 30 kilometers, there are equestrian clubs,
a large golf club, and a modern industrial park.
“Paseo de Montejo” there is a recently constructed monument that deserves
special attention, the “Monumento a la Patria”, a notable stone sculpture of
large proportions and the best work ofthe
sculptor Romulo Rozo.The work,
inaugurated in 1956 includes the shields of the States of the Republic and the
image of important personalities of the Mexican history.
heart of the city one can find the “Plaza Grande” or “Plaza de Armas”,
and around this square there are five of the most important buildings in Merida.
The “Catedral de San Ildefonso” built between 1561 and 1598, the “Casa de
Montejo” built between 1543 and 1549 by the founder of Merida Don Fransico de
Montejo “El Mozo” with a precious façade, the only jewel of the civil
plateresque architecture in existence today in Mexico, the “Palacio Municipal”
rising above the ruins of ancient T’howhich underwent alterations dating back to 1928, the “Palacio del
Gobierno de Yucatan”, of evident neoclassical lines treasuring a collection of
murals done by Yucatan’s painter Fernando Castro Pacheco, and finally the old
“Palacio Arzobispal”, today the museum of contemporary art.In one of the corners of “Plaza Grande” one can find the “Olimpo”,
a most modern cultural center that offers daily exhibitions, conferences,
concerts, theatrical shows, gatherings, and a planetarium ready to be open to
from the heart of the city there is an old colonial building, headquarters of
the “Universidad Autonoma de Yucatan”, built in 1711, as well as the elegant
and modern “Teatro Jose Peon Contreras” built in 1908, abandoned during the
70’s and re-inaugurated in 1981.
the main attractive features of Merida is its central location becoming the
starting point to visit the Caribbean beaches. From the Port of Progreso to
luxurious Cancun, the huts of Tulum, the ruins of Uxmal, Mayapan, Chichen Itza
the largest and most important Mayan city of the Mayan Peninsula which
mythological name signifies “ the city of the witches of water”, the
colonial cities of Valladolid, Campeche the refuge of pirates and the paradise
of fishermen, the Franciscan convents of Izamal, Mani, the sanctuary of
flamencos of Celestun, or the Reserve of the Biosfera of Sian Ka’an.
the Municipality of Merida and less than fifteen minutes from the city one can
find Dzibilchaltun, a pre-historic Spanish town that means “place where there
are writings on the stones”, or “where there are writings on the flat stones”.This Mayan center that existed from the year 500 AC to the year 1500 BC
is one of the oldest in the Mayan zone.Prominent
monuments such as the ”Casa de las Siete Muñecas” where every equinox,
March 21st and September 21st it can be experienced the equinoctial phenomenon
of the rising of the sun through the gates of the monument.
the peaceful character of the Meridan is far from knowing him. Joyful, serene,
and hospitable, the local inhabitant of the city has no need to be remembered ofthe importance ofa warm
welcome and a good treatment to the visitors, who return to their places
satisfied of the great hospitality received from the inhabitants of the city.
today wear the hipil, the typical
mestizo dress embroidered with vivid colors.Many men including young ones wear the guayabera, a shirt of Caribbean flavor made of flax and cotton,
common in the countries of Central-America and the Caribbean. Due
primarily of the mixture of Spanish and Mayan, although there were immigrants
from China, Korea and Lebanon, the Yucatanians are a good example of the
American mestizo.The hybrid characteristics of their faces leave no doubt of the Mayan and
In Merida, as well as
in all Yucatan and Mexico, Spanish is spoken.However in small villages around the city where many houses still have
walls of stone or build with logs and mud, covered with thatch, people continue
to use the Mayan language, situation that occasionally happens among shopkeepers
in the markets.In the everyday
conversation one can detect the use of some Mayan words that enrich the language
giving it character and grace.
The gastronomy of Yucatan is rich, varied, and well seasoned, not only of great
taste but attractive to see.It is the
homage to the racial heritage as in the typical dishes there are traces of the
indigenous past with ingredients that today have adopted the elegance ofthe flavors of Europe and the Caribbean, thus the menu is peculiar,
varied and full of flavor.
Fruits such as the custard-apple, the plum, or the guayaba are enjoyed by today’s
inhabitants as our ancestors did, deserve special mention.
It is by the
sea that one can relish its flavors: the “ceviche”, the rich “tikinxik”
of sea bass or the “esmedregal” seasoned with “achiote” and accompanied
with greens, the beer, the red peppers, the chiles “xcatic” or “gueros”,
and bitter orange. There are
appetizing cocktails of prawns, large oysters, “chivita” snails, squib and
calamar. The best known of these is the “return to life” that contains
a large number of ingredients and really “elevates the dead”.
Photograph on the right:
Canton Palace, a splendid mansion of Merida’s nineteenth century houses,
today, one of the most important museums of
ancient Maya in the world.
convenient to go to any bar at noon and taste the ”tapas” better known as
“botanas”. Patrons will offer with the beer all kinds of tapas for your
enjoyment.In all of the Peninsula
there are the rich “antojitos” such as the “panuchos” that are omelets
of “ollejo” stuffed with black dried beans accompanied with lettuce, tomato,
chicken and “jalapeno” peppers.The
“papadzules” which main ingredient is the pumpkin seed are delightful, so
are the “taquitos” of maize that include small pieces of chopped hard boiled
egg and pumpkin sauce and “chiltomate".
best example of mestizo food is stuffed cheese, a whole Dutch cheese filled with
finely ground pork meat and dressed with olives and capers.The “poc-chuc” is an elegantly piece of pork. cooked on a hot plate
accompanied with tomato and red onion also cooked on the hot plate.Tradition dictates that this dish be served with black beans.There is no need to introducethe
famous“cochinita pibil” served
in tacos, rich with smooth ground pork meat and wrapped in banana leaves, baked
for several hours in its classical fashion – hot embers, underground- in a
special container.It is seasoned
with chopped onion and bitter orange juice and grounded chile pepper.
And not to be
ignored there are nutritious and flavorful meals based on poultry, like the lima
soup consisting of a broth with chunks of chicken breast, accompanied with
stripes of fried omelets and a slice of lime that gives to the soup a special
flavor.All these epicurean
delights can be accompanied with the rich habanero chile “santo y seña”.
A few words
about dessert.On one side there
are the old homely recipes of fruits in syrup like “papaya”, “ciricote”,
“nancen"; on the other the typical sweets as “zapotitos”, the
“melocha of honey and egg” and the “piñonatas of coco and seeds”, and
finally the European influences with exquisite versions of international
confectionery such as the almond sweets, heaven’s tarts, vanilla ice-cream or
“mantecato”, all these accompanied with a shot of “xtabentun” anisette.
Merida is in
a festive mood for all year 2000.The
city has embraced the choice of the American Capital of Culture with pride.The city offers to the visitor cultural events on a permanent basis, free
entertainment and numerous activities; it is the festive city of choice, urbane
entertainment in its extreme expression every day all days without impairing the
good and logical functioning of a normal city.
Monday to Sunday at all times and for all public, the theaters and stages,
places and galleries offer countless spectacles and events, free in most cases,
from folk music to international, classical jazz dance, contemporaneous and
classical theater, juvenile concerts, conferences, parades, book fairs,
exhibitions from international artists, sporting events, religious outings,
literary and artistic competitions, book reviews and other special events
related to the designation of American Capital of Culture Year 2000.Merida will reach the milestone of 3000 thousand cultural
events by the end of this year crowning in its urban history a permanent
food-print of its selection as the American Capital of Culture.
Grande” is a merry place every Sunday night, there one can purchase artisan
articles, presents, and taste typical dishes.There is music and the people stroll in the streets that have been closed
to traffic.The troubadours look
for a romantically in love person to take him home and chant melodies and love
songs to his/her fiancé(e).Typical
are the serenades every Thursday in “Plaza de Santa Lucia” asthe Yucatanians are captivated by love songs.Yucatan is a place with excellent musicians, composers, and singers:
Armando Manzanero is the best known today.
Merida is a
city with a great cultural patrimony regardless that a great part of its
pre-Hispanic, colonial, and modern architecture has been lost due to lack of
protection and fiscal responsibility.Merida
was and is the Capital for the Mayab and for all of the American Continent, a
great place with a special landscape and a true identity.
To the modern
Mayan the city continues to be the prestigious T’ho, and at the same time for
the white descendants, Merida continues to hold its colonial pride.It is a rich and lively city with exotic enchantment and deep contrasts,
it is the white, green, and blue city, it is the city that attracts and steals
your heart constantly, it is the AMERICAN CAPITAL OF CULTURE YEAR 2000. - Book your hotel in Mexiko online.