The Urban Matrix: Mérida
A white spot in the jungle
WHENEVER I FLY INTO MÉRIDA, I become hypnotized gazing out the window, silently spinning adventure tales as we first sail high above turquoise waters and narrow spits of sandbar interspersed with marshes, then seemingly endlessly above countless miles of flat green jungle so dense that from above it looks like moss. Occasionally you can spot a clearing traced with ancient stones, occasionally the peak of a pyramid – or were those visions just part of my Indiana Jones fantasies?
Eventually, however, you unquestionably see long, thin, straight white strips that cut through the moss – roads that connect all the tiny pueblos and haciendas to Mérida as they have for hundreds of years, as they once connected Maya royal cities, an enormous commercial/religious spider web, with Mérida poised just off-center like a giant white spider maintaining its vigil.
Many of those white lines were there in ancient times – expansive roads that served as modes of communication and trade between and among the ritual cities. These thoroughfares – known in Mayan as sak beh (or “white road”) – were paved with white limestone, plentiful in the region and also light reflective, useful for night journeys. The sak beh have led some scholars to formulate one of the many theories to explain Mérida’s nickname, “The White City” – chanted proudly as it is at every public function: Mérida, La Blanca!
Pondering the spider web of roads that all seem to converge at a single point you begin to realize Mérida’s central place of importance in the peninsula, in the heritage of the Maya, even in the history of Mexico.
Before the conquest, long before Europeans were even aware that there were regal cities far overseas to the west, the Maya city called Noh Cah Ti Hoo or "The Great City of T’Hó" (eventually shortened to just T’Hó) was one of the four principal regional capitals of ancient times. Along with Izamál, Chichén Itzá and Uxmal, T’Hó stands out in importance beyond the more than 1600 archaeological sites registered in the state of Yucatán.
We can only imagine what this royal city must have looked like, but most certainly it was constructed in a fashion similar to the other capitals of the region – vast complexes of ritual temples and pyramids, surrounded by residential and government buildings – and chisled from the same white limestone. During Classic Maya times, these buildings would have been painted in bright colors, much as homes in Mérida are painted today; perhaps they would have seemed garish to our eyes. But by the arrival of the Spaniards, virtually all the Maya cities lay in ruin, and had been that way for enough centuries that their colorful surfaces had long since been bleached by the harsh environment, leaving only the white limestone. Another clue to Mérida’s nickname?
The ancient Maya buildings of T’Hó obviously created a powerful impression on the conquering Europeans. According to Fray Diego de Landa – the16th century Franciscan monk who has been both maligned for destroying the invaluable Mayan manuscripts that documented their history, and credited for recording in vivid detail the lives and scenes he witnessed during the conquest – the white limestone buildings of T’Hó reached an awesome height and had a “strangeness and grandness” that perhaps, like the vortex of that giant white spider web, lured the Spaniards from Castilla, Andalucía and Extremadura to come closer, stay, and populate a city here.
The Spaniard Francisco de Montejo founded the colonial capital of the region on January 6, 1542. He renamed the new city Mérida after the capital city of Extremadura in Spain, which the conquistadores felt bore a strong resemblance to their new home. That city – a major holding of the Roman Empire and formerly known as Emerita Augusta – was characterized by a contemporary urban plan pockmarked by dramatic Roman ruins at every turn. The Maya ruins must have seemed as dramatic to them.
But the majesty of T’Hó was to meet the same fate as Izamál, and two decades earlier Tenochtitlán in what is now Mexico City, scavenged by the conquerers who recycled its stones in the construction of their own ritual, residential and government buildings. In fact, the former main plaza of T’Hó is now Mérida’s main square, or Plaza Principal in Spanish, and it is still framed by many of the first buildings constructed during that violent epoch. In the same year he founded Mérida, Montejo built his own palatial residence on the south side of the plaza, and by 1556, construction of the massive Catedral de San Idelfonso – the oldest cathedral on the American continent – had begun. Walk through the cathedral and you will be treading on a foundation of stones wrested from the ancient city of T’Hó.
The narrow streets and massive buildings of this New World Mérida were built to resemble those of the ancient pueblos of Andalucía and Extremadura, themselves vestiges of a Roman past as well as Islamic occupation. Many of the earliest colonial buildings constructed in Mérida have preserved this original aspect, including Roman-style colonnades as well as Moorish arches and other embellishments.
However, as impressive as the new capital was, as powerful a hold on the region as was cinched by the conquering Europeans, the steadfast Maya people were not so easily eliminated. Their language was a strong glue that held their culture and beliefs intact, an adhesive that continues unmitigated to the present day. While it took only two years for the Spaniards to conquer central Mexico, largely due to the political rivalries inherent in the literally hundreds of splintered linguistic groups of the region, it took over 10 years for them to conquer Maya territories, and in many ways the Maya resistance has never diminished.
Wey yano’one, or “we are here” is a phrase borrowed from the sacred Mayan cosmic bible, the Popul Vuh, and still resonates as a slogan that can be seen on posters, billboards and T-shirts all over town. The Maya will tell you they were never conquered and their cultures never destroyed.
Stroll down any street in The White City and this reality quickly dawns. The riot of the 21st century is evident everywhere in the oldest part of town, known as Centro Histórico, from tacky shops that sell pirated CDs and DVDs, to storefronts devoted to selling anything and everything plastic.
And perhaps ironically, against this modern backdrop you will recognize their ancient features: the clerks, the managers, the shoppers, the passersby, the bus driver letting out another hundred people into the throngs – an overwhelming percentage of them are Maya, or at least of Maya stock, with their broad faces, arched noses, and their distinctive and musical names. Pool. Cool. Poot. Uc. Chan. Canul. Canek. And many of these – even young men and women if from the pueblo – will be wearing the traditional clothes of the Yucatec Maya: women in the white cotton shift with fanciful floral embroidery at the neck and hem, known as the huipil; men in white guayabera and pants, with a white straw hat. They are not wearing these “costumes” to impress you. They are wearing them for a multitude of reasons known only to them: it is what is available in their pueblo; it is what their parents and grandparents wore; it is what their friends and family wear; it is inexpensive; their aunt sewed it for them; and yes because it affords them a sense of cultural identity and pride and continuity to a shared past.
And yes, their white clothing is one more theory of how Mérida got its nickname, “The White City.” But it is not the one I subscribe to. The most credible theory is certainly not the prettiest one. In his monumental opus The Caste War of Yucatán, Nelson A. Reed, a revered scholar and archaeologist, posits that the name originated during the bloody and horrific Guerra de las Castas that marred the peninsula for decades. What started off as a rebellion to end taxation without representation in which wealthy Yucatecan landowners were being charged exorbitant impuestos, or taxes, from far-away Mexico City, eventually sucked in ancient feuds and grievances between the hacendados and their Maya workers, and finally even rivalries between fathers and sons. At one point, the Maya insurgents had quite literally cornered the Spanish gentry in Mérida, which became their stronghold and sanctuary for several years during the half-century strife. To the Maya, Mérida had become a prison for the white Europeans, and the Maya were the prison guards. Say it with a snarl, and you will see how different Mérida La Blanca now sounds.
The Caste War is a bitter bit of history that still makes locals shiver. It is even difficult to imagine that it ever happened, as one drives slowly through the tranquil pueblos and watches laughing kids playing in the streets, chasing turkeys, selling bags of oranges. The divisions are still there: after all, I’m in the air-conditioned comfort of my car; they are barefoot in the dusty road. And what's more, I am part of a new phenomenon, a new conquista: the “gentrification” of Mérida by gringos and other foreigners who have relocated here in recent years to enjoy its beauties and hopefully to be accepted as part of the community. But in spite of our intrinsic separateness, among my many Maya friends, never have I ever heard an expression of envy for what I may have beyond their ken. I cannot say for certain what they are thinking and feeling deep inside, but if I carefully, impartially listen to and parse the words and stories they frame, of far greater importance to them seems to be their sense of connection: to their ancestors, to their families, to their religion and city and state, to nature, to their history and heritage – a connection not unlike the ancient sak beh. The enduring foundation of Mérida La Blanca – “The White City” – always has been and always will be the beautiful brown of the Maya people.
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