Feb 15, 2017

Divorces, Slaves and Lauburus – Mérida ’s Lesser Known Past

The voyage of discovery lies
not in finding new landscapes,
but in having new eyes.

Marcel Proust

Went to an art gallery before our trip to Mérida . 
Photographer is Maira Tulia Perez Bocanegra. 
We see this around our neighborhood, people parking their car or moto inside their homes. 
No true garages.  Vehicles on very shiny floors.
In preparation for our visit to Mérida I read as much as I could about ‘La Ciudad Blanca’ (The White City), ‘Paris of the West’ or traditionally the ‘Mayan City of Ichcaanziho’ later shortened to ‘T’ho’ (Place of five hills or temples).  Based on its past, some historians consider Mérida the oldest continually-occupied city in the Americas leading to much to see, learn, and experience.

Mérida is called ‘The White City’ because it was mostly built of light colored limestone taken from the five pyramids and temples that were already there when the Europeans arrived and today proud residents say it is because its narrow streets are cleaned twice a day.  Millions of stones were moved a second time to become new structures.

One of the beautiful 'homes' on Montejo
Mérida shares the name ‘Paris of the West’ with eight other cities but in this case, it is probably due to its Parisian-style boulevard flanked by giant old trees and majestic colonial manors, some very elaborately adorned as well as its thriving culture.  The newly rich had a love of anything European and asked French architects to build them what were called ‘wedding cake’ houses that were several stories tall, mostly pastel colors with columns, gargoyles, and covered with various ornaments. 

It just as well could have been called ‘Madrid of the West’ for Spanish influences abound too.  Many buildings are decorated with filigreed wrought iron railings reminiscent of old Spain; beautifully carved tall cedar wooden doors; marble and mosaic floors; walled gardens; ornate balconies and fountains.  One also notices the influence of the Franciscans, who insisted on ‘an urban structure of narrow streets as a remembrance of old Castilian and Andalucian towns in whose memory they were constructed.'

Even the bishop’s carriage was an inadequate copy of the one the pope in Rome used at the time…  Mérida is a paradox of the strong cultures that have influenced it over 500 years.

We are so often reminded just how concerned people are when we tell them we safely travel in what they consider dangerous Mexico.  Mérida however, even for these concerned folks, is considered one of the safest major cities in Mexico.  This area has a very low crime rate and the locals claim that fact as another possible reason to call it ‘The White City’.

Mérida was going to be like Campeche, a walled city.  To that end, ten city gates were built and only three of them remain standing today.  By the time they had built these gates, the need to wall the city off from pirates was no longer necessary. 

The city boasts the third largest historic center behind Mexico City and Havana, Cuba.  The Central Plaza is always bustling with people and events such as serenades, dances, music, theater, juggling, etc.  In its many parks, you can find ‘confidenciales’ or the Yucatán’s signature S-shape chairs where couples can court each-other the old fashion way.  Serenades have been happening once a week for over 40 years and are an attraction many people like to witness!
Central Plaza, Mérida sign and three white 'confidenciales’ chairs

Traditional dances, colorful dresses, bright, cheerful and very energetic
Nikki and I on a special Yucatán courting chair
Nikki and Mike on a Yucatán courting chair
Although not the oldest building in Mérida, the Cathedral of San Idelfonso (1556-1598) is the oldest cathedral in the Americas.  It is also made of the limestone that once shaped one of the five centrally located Mayan pyramids or temples.  Maya slaves re-built Mérida under the ‘guidance’ of Spaniards.
Cathedral de Idelfonso.  Organ above.

Christ of Unity, about 25 feet tall.  Not on ornate cathedral

Casa de Montejo (1542) is the oldest large edifice seen around the Central Plaza.  It was the home of the conqueror of Yucatán (who also conquered Campeche in 1540), Francisco de Montejo el Mozo (the son).
Casa de Montejo. Ornate windows

One of the major influences in Mérida ’s history came from the henequén plant (agave sisalana – a look-alike to the blue agave from which tequila is made) which was used to make sisal (ropes) up until the early 1950’s when nylon and other stronger and cheaper similar products were invented.  Henequén rope became largely known as sisal or sisal hemp because it was exported from the port of Sisal in the Yucatán. 
Rows of sisal plant

Sisal was also referred to as, you guessed it, ‘Green Gold’.  Cash-rich sisal made many nearly-instant millionaires as well as slaves.  For a brief period, around the turn of the 20th century, Mérida was said to house more millionaires than any other city in the world. The result of this concentration of wealth can still be seen today in the intricate architecture, the high degree of education many locals have attained, and the vast culture.  An American chef who studies the Yucatán food said that Mérida has the most PhD’s per capita of any city that size in Mexico.  I cannot back up that claim but there is probably a kernel of truth to it.

Dried sisal, ready to make into ropes

Mérida and the state of Yucatán have traditionally been isolated from the rest of the country by geography, creating a unique culture. The conquistadors found the Mayan culture to be extremely resilient, and their attempts to eliminate Mayan tradition, religion, and culture, thankfully for us today, had only moderate success.  Sixty percent of people living here have Mayan roots.

Mérida is a very welcoming and nostalgic city.  It is the focal point of the entire Yucatán peninsula and has twice been named ‘Cultural Capital of the Americas’, in 2000 and 2017 respectively.

Now let’s back up for a little lesser known history.

The idea to create a travel destination in the Yucatán started around 1920 and originated in Mérida.  Cancún was not going to be on the map for at least another 50 years.  The airline of the time was called ‘Papaya Voladora’ or Flying Papaya.  One very entrepreneurial lawyer came up with the idea of Divorce Tourism’.  Supposedly it was very difficult for Americans to obtain a divorce in those days.  They had the choice of going to Reno or Paris where it took a long time and cost a lot of money or come to Mérida where everything could be done in 30 days! 
In the 1920’s, Paris converted into Reno and divorce became popular in the City of Light.  This new divorce haven was only for the traveling elite.  It became so prominent that it was soon called divorce mill and started raising legal eyebrows.  In Reno one had to prove six-month residency, while in Paris it could be a bit shorter but costing upwards of $10,000 (in those days!) with travel, accommodation and legal fees.

This is where Mérida comes into play (Maybe another reason it was called the Paris of the West).  Not only did you only need to prove one month residency, it was cheaper, and only one of the party needed to be present.  Many wives had a huge surprise awaiting them when their husbands returned to the US with divorce papers in hand.  The divorce tourism only lasted from 1920 to 1923 at which point the Mexican government changed the rules requiring both parties be present.  A third of people looking to divorce came from NY where rules were very strict, and 80% were men.
Carrying the Green Gold

Another part of history relating to Mérida involves slavery.  The production of sisal was a booming business in the early 1900’s and there were not enough people to help with the work so Koreans were enticed to come work in the beautiful Yucatán.  In 1905 misleading ads promising great work conditions and benefits attracted 1,033 Koreans to Mérida.  Little did they know the horrible conditions they would be facing.  Several tried to escape but their country didn’t want them back and other nearby countries had even worse working conditions so the Koreans endured for quite a while.  Today there are about 11,000 descendants of the original Koreans in the Yucatán and about 30,000 in the Los Angeles, USA area.  A pediatric hospital has been built in Mérida with money from Korea and a small museum tells the tales of this unfortunate period for Koreans.
And for the ‘pièce de résistance’, Basques were much more heavily involved in discovering the Yucatán than history has ever dared to say.  There is an excellent article (in three parts) by Byron Augustin that explains this in details so I will only give you the highlights.
Under Malta you will find the Lauburu

Mr. Augustin’s research was spurred by seeing an intriguing symbol, later found to be the Lauburu, in many locations around the Yucatán.  His search led him to the Basques who were very instrumental in the discovery of the New World.  I had also noticed these symbols and was curious, leading me to finding these articles.

At least 17 Basques were with Columbus when he came to this side of the world.  Of course, there were many trips over the years but from 1520-1580, 80% of the crew were Basques, that number went to 50% between 1580 and 1610 and 100% from 1615 to 1682!

The Basques dominated commercial businesses, import/export trade, military, church, and ranching.  They were the second largest group to immigrate here after the Spaniards who were mostly from the Canary Islands.  The famous Uxmal Resort was founded by Basques.

The Lauburu is a 12,000-15,000-year-old Basque cross-like symbol akin to the Swastika before the Nazis turned that positive symbol of harmony, good luck and life into what we know today.  No one knows its exact meaning.  Opinions vary widely.  From faces to waves and everything in between.
Many people in the Yucatán and the rest of Mexico and Latin America have Basque blood running through their veins.  Of the most famous you may recognize the following:
  • Francisco Goya
  • Eva Peron Duarte
  • Che Guevara
  • Luis Echevarria
  • Alvarez Augusto
  • Pinochet Ugarte
  • Placido Domingo
The reason this part of history seems ‘forgotten’ is that most people think of Basques as Spaniards which the Basques would be vehemently against.  The history of Mérida and its surroundings needs to be looked at through new eyes. 
While we visited Mérida, other than the Korean Museum, no mention was made of the Basques and of Divorce Tourism - - - so I thought I’d mention these here...
On a side notes to our sailor friends out there, the Basques invented the rudder in the 12th century. 
Hope that our friends aboard Abracadabra enjoy the part of this post relating to the Basques since they just came back from visiting that area.  I thought of you while writing this.
Sources:  Michelle Benavides, Byron Augustin and Yucatán Living
Our AirBnB had many quirky things around
Many travel by bikes here.

1 comment:

  1. MarieFrance: I enjoyed this interesting post about the Basques very much! Another one of your thoughtful and beautiful posts. I have had it and the related links on my "to read" list for some time, but between the constant boat-based lack of electricity and limited WiFi and the limitations of my tablet (all very boring and frustrating) I have not had a chance to complete it until now. Thanks! This is a great incentive to return to Basque Country and search for lauburu! Or perhaps we will see them in Newfoundland when we search for the Parks Canada site of the sunken Basque whaling ship? Molly (and Bryce)


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