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Public History Day Four - Merida

On June 3, we were based in Merida at the Hotel Caribe, which is one block from the principal downtown square called Plaza de Armas or La Plaza Grande. We began the day with a tour of the city. Our guide, Raul Garcia, told us that Merida was the capital and largest city in the Mexican state of Yucatan. It was built on top of a large Mayan city, and currently has a population of roughly one million. We then traveled by van to the Monument to the Fatherland, which was constructed by Romulo Rozo Pena (1899-1964) along Merida’s Paseo de Montejo in 1956. The monument features critical events from Mexican history and includes handmade depictions of dozens of figures from Mexico’s past. From the monument, we traveled to one of the University of Yucatan’s downtown buildings (where our guide Raul attended school). The university’s library and radio station are located there now.

We then visited Plaza de Armas and took in four key Merida sites. The first, the Cathedral of Merida, was built on the ruins of the Mayan site of Ichcansiho (Tiho for short) and served as home to the bishops of Yucatan. Designed by Juan Miguel de Aguero and situated on the east side of the plaza, the cathedral was begun in 1568 and completed thirty years later. It is the oldest cathedral on the mainland of North or South America, and, with Santo Domingo de Guzman on the island of Hispaniola, is one of only two Roman Catholic cathedrals completed in the New World during the 16th century. The church features sculptures of saints Peter and Paul on either side of the entrance doors, and offers a spectacular interior space that still impresses to this day. The cathedral must have had a profound impact on the indigenous Mayan population at the time of its construction.

The second site we visited, the Montejo House, sat on the south side of the square. Francisco de Montejo the younger, the son of the Spanish conquistador who conquered the Yucatan, founded Merida in 1542. He named the city for the famous town of Merida in Spain, and built his house on the square in 1549. The home remained in Montejo hands until the 1970s, when Banamex bank purchased and restored it. Today, the home is a museum with a half-dozen rooms featuring furniture and artwork primarily from the nineteenth century. The entrance to the home offers an elaborately carved facade depicting a Spaniard in full military garb standing on the heads of defeated Mayan warriors. That the Montejos elected to depict themselves in such a light certainly says a great deal about the political, cultural, and economic situation in colonial Mexico.

We briefly took in a third site – Merida’s town hall on the west side of the square – before moving to the Governor’s Palace, the fourth and final site on our tour. Built in the late 17th century (and restored in 1934), the Governor’s Palace is situated on the north side of the square. Admission is free and it features more than two dozen murals by Fernando Castro Pancheco (1918-2013). Here, Dr. Heath interpreted his favorite Pancheco mural for us; it depicts a man (humanity or the Maya people) being born from corn. Other murals in the collection offer depictions of the Spanish conquest, Diego de Landa, the Mexican Revolution, and the production of henequen.

Following a quick lunch, I returned to my room for the remainder of the day because Brant was feeling ill. Dr. Heath and the students attended a reenactment of the Mesoamerican Ball game on the downtown square. Unfortunately, the display was not historically accurate – the players bounced a flaming rubber ball around like a volleyball – but everyone said that they had a good time.

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