I like it, and hope it’s infectious.
Mérida has one of the largest centro historico districts in the Americas (surpassed only by Mexico City and Havana, Cuba). Large and small colonial homes line the city streets to this day, in various states of disrepair and renovation; the historical center of Mérida is currently undergoing a minor renaissance as more and more people are moving into the old buildings and reviving their former glory.
As the state and regional capital, Mérida is a cultural center, featuring multiple museums, art galleries, restaurants, movie theatres and shops. Mérida retains an abundance of beautiful colonial buildings and is a vibrant cultural center with music and dancing playing an important part in day-to-day life. At the same it is a modern city boasting a comprehensive range of shopping malls, auto dealerships, top quality hotels, restaurants and leisure facilities. The famous avenue, Paseo de Montejo, is lined with original sculpture.
After an overnight bus ride, we arrived in Merida, the capital and largest city of the Mexican state of Yucatán . My first impression of this Spanish Colonial town was awe. It reminded me so much of Spain, a country I spent three months in during my early 20s. I didn’t know this side of Mexico, only knew what we’ve seen on our trip so far plus the burned memory of my many trips to Tijuana or Baja California and this was very, very different.
- Miro in Merida
We arrived on a Sunday morning and after walking the few blocks from the bus station to the main square, we were greeted by a public performance of folkloria dancers. They weren’t like the ones I was used to seeing on Olvera Street in Los Angeles, they were somehow more authentic and larger than life. Cyndi explained to me that Merida was Mexico’s center for culture and dancing was a huge part of the tradition of arts here. We sat in the park and watched the dances in their colorful costumes, all deeply committed to the steps their feet were making and the corresponding emotions shown on their faces like exaggerated caricature drawings. I found myself mesmerized by all the colors and mass amount of energy in each movement. Miro was so patient with me as I couldn’t pull myself from their performance.
Cyndi explained how the different regions of Mexico all had their unique step or style of music or manner of dancing that made each dancer identify with their regional heritage. As I watched the dances I clearly recognized the Spanish flamenco roots but something else struck me. I saw dance steps that reflected the movements farmers made, or field workers, or what I imagine to be those of “peasants”. I could see the unique cultural identity expressed through the art of their movement and costumes, but I am struck with the thought that the base of the movement, the flamenco roots weren’t the Mexican people’s own. This art form was brought from their conquerors, their oppressors. They were dancing the movements that has become their own and there is no apparent separation between the oppressors and the oppressed, the conquerors and the conquered. It was one graceful movement, merging all, including the dancer and the dance.
Eventually Miro and Cyndi pulled me away from the dancers (and my thoughts) and we set out to meet our couchsurfing host, one of the ambassadors of Merida. Our evening involved dinner at a local restaurant and a tour of the modern side of Merida.
The next morning we retreated back to the historical district to explore the city. The buildings surrounding the park were built in the 18th and 19 centuries. The facades were adorned with life size carvings depicting the Spanish conquistadors triumphantly standing on the severed heads of indigenous. Brutal, I thought. There were plaques commemorating the capture of this city. There were murals portraying the violence that took place between the Spaniards and the Indigenous, here, in this location, bloody battles fought, many lives lost. AND I just read on Wikipedia, that carved Maya stones from ancient T’ho were widely used to build the Spanish colonial buildings surround the park. Talk about insult to injury.
This was just a given. Violence woven into the fabric of this culture, but somehow made OK through the expression of art. It was apparent in the frescoes, the carvings and sculptures and even in the dance.
Art reflecting life.
Another thing struck me. The people here were different than the people we’ve encountered in Cozumel, Cancun or Playa. In Merida, the culture seemed more authentic, more “Mexican”. I don’t know exactly what that means, and my experience of world cultures in their native lands are mostly within Europe. I am not a green traveler, but I am new to Mexico and will be new to Central America.
For those of you reading this that know me, you will know of my history of human rights activism. You will know my views on social reform and my belief that we are all one is something I live by. You will know that I almost changed my last name to “humanity” instead of “liberty” (which turned into “Liberti”). For those of you that don’t please know that my observations here are coming from a conscious choice to see people authentically and with equality. My unconscious beliefs are those handed down through a country that believes in inequality and entitlement, at the cost of other human beings. As I share my thoughts here, I can clearly see the conflict between these two beliefs.
Back to Merida. My impressions of the people here are difficult for me to articulate, but I feel a greater honesty in their presence. This sounds abstract, but coming from California, I am more apt to experience superficiality on a daily basis. Here there is none of that. There is the feeling of simplicity, but again that may just be internal tricks of contrast and comparison making the most of my perception.
I see poverty.
I also see pride.
I don’t see a class system here, at least on the streets.
I see genuine attachment to life, to being in the moment.
I see little Mayan girls selling friendship bracelets, their job, but still connected to be a child.
I see a man selling roasted nuts on the street corner and handing out smiles with each bag.
I see families playing together in the park without an apparent worry about their SUV’s or their overdue visa bill.
I see teen age couples holding hands, lost in each others touch, not noticing the world around them.
What is this unspoken quality that this city has? Why can’t I put my finger on it? From all outer appearances, they seem content. How is that so?