One thing that strikes you about Mérida is how people express their individualism – quite often through their brightly coloured, sometime garish, sometimes ostentatious houses. The houses in the tightly packed inner-city barrios are largely the same height, but it’s the width and depth of the buildings that differentiates: some of them are really quite sprawling, with huge gardens and luxurious pools – not that you’d ever know from the street, as their often distressed exteriors conceal lavishly exotic interiors. I’ve posted before of snatched glimpses of a lush garden courtyard, a beautiful tiled floor, a fountain sparkling in the sunshine, but these are rare insights into Mérida ‘behind closed doors’. Our casa is a case in point – a shabby yellow exterior with peeling paint and dusty wooden doors. You’d walk straight past without a thought, but inside tells a whole other story.
Of course many houses are more modest, but still the desire for self-expression shines through, with planes of clashing bold colour, vivid murals and quirky little features on every street, including the iconic (now faded) red and white plaques which back in the day simplified street navigation (earlier residents found grid coordinates sometimes confusing – join the club) by giving each corner in the old centre of Mérida its own unique name, depicted by an image, ‘The Soldiers’, ‘Red Riding Hood’, ‘The Hill’ being just as a few examples. There are hundreds of these plaques all over the city, some of them truly fascinating.
And then there’s the self-important individualism of Paseo de Montejo, the grandest boulevard in Mérida, named after Francisco de Montejo, the Spanish conquistador who founded the city in 1542. Built between 1888 and 1904 as a result of the boom in the Yucatan henequen (Green Gold Sisal) industry, the avenue drew inspiration from the elegant French boulevards of the time, and is lined with the Neo-Classical and Belle Epoque mansions of the super-rich henequen barons. Most of the ones remaining today are home to banks, hotels and local government whilst a few have been restored as museums to preserve their former grandeur.
There’s a wide median strip running the length of the boulevard with roundabouts sporting bronze statutes of famous (and infamous) dignitaries and governors. But it’s the grandiosely named Glorieta Monumento A Los Conquistadores y Fundadores de la Blanca Mérida (Glorieta Monument to the Conquerors and Founders of White Mérida) at the very start of Paseo de Montejo that, understandably, gets a pretty negative reaction from locals, particularly the Maya who still live in the Yucatan. (By the way, just to clarify, the reference to ‘White Mérida’ appears to refer to the colonial use of white limestone and paint in constructing the new city on top of the ancient Mayan city of T’Hó and not some triumphant racist statement as first feared).
This particular statue, along with a few others along Paseo de Montejo, is regularly vandalised and daubed with coloured anti-colonial slogans and (fake) bloodied handprints representing the blood of those killed by the Spanish. I took the picture that shows the statue covered in paint a year ago. It’s since been cleaned up, but just this week was once again attacked. There’s a growing movement here to have this symbol of colonialism removed once and for all.
But it’s not just anti-colonial protestors who have left their mark on Mérida. For two years in a row, protestors, to mark International Women’s Day, have comprehensively vandalised the city’s buildings, pavements, walls, monuments, statues and even the Cathedral with coloured spray paint, much to the distress of locals crossing themselves and shaking their heads as they pass their churches in the aftermath. We were here exactly a year ago and some of the damage from then has been repaired, but elsewhere, particularly the statues along Paseo de Montejo have not been cleaned. The barriers erected to protect them were simply torn down by the protestors (under cover of darkness) and fresh graffiti applied. It’s quite the eyesore!
I have to say, I’m very sympathetic to this issue. This action brings real attention to Mexico’s national crisis of violence against women and the call for abortion rights, but it’s a sad and sorry state of affairs when to be heard requires harming this beautiful city in such a destructive and highly visual way.
The grandly imposing Monumento a la Patria by Colombian sculptor, Rómulo Rozo, which tells the story of the Yucatan people, has also been vandalised – to a lesser degree this year due to the barricades erected. But it makes you wonder if some of the vandals didn’t quite know what point they were trying to make.
Restoration is planned and is happening, but it’s a massive job, and I fear these issues won’t be going away anytime soon and that, as fast as they are cleaned up, these monuments will be vandalised again.
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How sad to hear that political anger has boiled over into such needless destruction of beauty.
Stay clear of rampant demonstrators bearing paint tins and brushes. I would hate to see either of you defaced 😱
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