Bienvenidos a Los Dos: Yucatan: A Culinary Expedition

About Chef David Sterling
The Yucatecan Market
History and transformation
NO VISIT TO MÉRIDA IS COMPLETE without seeing the sprawling, colorful central market. In its present incarnation, the market is a tangled maze of alleys and warrens that is virtually impossible to pinpoint on a map. Does it begin on Calle 54? Calle 65? The fact is, it started centuries ago under a giant spreading tree, and now stretches for blocks, extending and evolving, demolishing and renewing itself as needs and opportunities present themselves.

Visit any pueblo in Yucatán and you will see how the ancient Maya market of T’Hó must have been. Women and men arrive from outlying areas each morning with baskets or crates full of freshly-picked produce or newly-slain animals. They find a spot on a step or sidewalk, spread out a blanket, and suddenly – it’s a market.

In colonial Mérida, the favored spots of the Maya merchants were typically under the portales or colonnades of the municipal building in the Plaza Principal. Every morning peasants with their beasts of burden would arrive from the countryside and set up shop, often on the property of Spanish gentry. By the 18th century, this activity had become a nuisance and so a new market was built on Calle 56 between 65 and 67, on the esplanade of the Ciudadela de San Benito. This master work was ordered in 1770 by the newly arrived Brigadier José Merino Cevallos, governor of Yucatán, whose not-so-charitable motivation was to clean up his own neighborhood. He ordered the building of five new portales, only one of which was built – the Portal de Granos, dedicated primarily to the warehousing and sale of maize, beans, squash seeds and other grains. With its 33 arches along the front, and two on the sides, the façade of Portal de Granos is the largest in Mérida, measuring 117.84 meters, making it even longer than the Municipal Palace.

To contend with Mérida’s growing population, extensions of the market were built over the decades. One of the most popular of these was Lucas de Gálvez, named after the legendary 18th century assassinated governor and captain general of Yucatán. Construction of the eponymous market was started in 1883 and was inaugurated on Independence Day, 16 September, 1887. In those early days, it had a thatched roof, three galleries with 553 stalls, and a windmill for drawing water. It went through two demolitions and rebuilding until the third and final incarnation was inaugurated in 1949. When it first opened, it boasted a surface area of 3000 square meters (32,300 square feet) with some 200 vendors. Now it claims 14,500 square meters (over 156,000 square feet) with almost 2,000 vendors selling everything from tins for crematory remains to fruits, vegetables, kitchen equipment, toys and potions for "white magic".
Lucas de Gálvez still stands today, located at the intersection of Calle 67 and 54, and receives over 100,000 visitors daily. Among its proprietors are Lebanese descendants, rural folk who speak only Mayan, and entrepreneurs who started their businesses here and now have branches in large, modern shopping malls. The occupants of the market are subject to all the mores and prejudices that inflict society at large, such that hierarchies and castes still prevail in which the bottom rungs are occupied by messenger boys and homeless people asking for caridad.
The market never sleeps: cleaning crews finish by 3:00am, and the food stalls that served them throughout the night close, too, just as various merchants are arriving to start the next day. From 5:00am until about 8:00am, some 8000 people take shortcuts through the market, on their way to work or school. Some of them stop to buy a banana or a sandwich. Then slowly, other merchants arrive, and everyone is open and the market bustling with business by 9:00am. It is a rhythm, a pulse, that continues seven days a week, 365 days a year, not even stopping to catch a breath at Christmas or New Year, when, naturally, even more sales are to be made.
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