Friday, March 16, 2012

NW Yucatan Part 2: The Plateresque facade of Casa de Montejo and the murals of the Palacio Gobierno

Statue of a Maya warrior on the facade of Casa de Montejo. Notice the feathered head dress and the animal skin cape over the figure's shoulder. With one hand the warrior holds up the lintel, and with the other he holds what may be a corn plant. Figures like this are found on each side of the four windows in the wall to the right of the main entrance. In Part 1 of this series, I gave you a brief look at Mérida's Casa de Montejo along with some of the history of the family dynasty started by the conquistador Francisco Montejo in the early 16th Century. This week we will take a closer look at the remarkable Plateresque facade that adorns the front of this magnificent house. Plateresque is a combination of Gothic, Moorish, and early Renaissance styles. The Casa de Montejo possesses what may be the most outstanding example of this style in the Americas.  In addition to the Montejo house, we will visit the interior of the Palacio Gobierno, or Governor's Palace, which occupies half of the north side of the Plaza Grande and faces the Casa de Montejo on the south side. The walls of the Palacio's interior are lined with huge murals detailing the history of Yucatan.

Casa de Montejo and its Plateresque facade

Main entrance of Casa de Montejo. The high facade looms above the buildings on either side. Inside the doorway is a courtyard garden surrounded on two sides by a museum. At the far end of the courtyard is the door to a bank. The museum rooms are filled with furniture, paintings, and other items typical of what would have been found in the 19th Century mansion of a very wealthy family. Because the museum does not allow photographs, I cannot show you those areas, but if you visit Mérida, you should definitely plan a stop at Casa de Montejo to see the facade and tour the interior. There is no entrance fee, but you have to leave your bag or backpack with the guard.

A balcony, flanked by grim, 16th Century soliders, extends over the street. From this vantage point, Francisco Montejo's son, knicknamed el Mozo (the boy), could address a crowd, review a parade, or simply view the activities of the Plaza Grande. El Mozo was the Montejo who finally succeeded in conquering Yucatan and who both founded Mérida and built this Casa. While its ornateness is remarkable, to me the most intriguing aspect of the facade is its message of political/military dominance. This message becomes readily apparent as we take a closer look at the details.

Two Spanish soldiers, hardy but brutal, flank either side of the balcony. The one above scowls as he surveys the area for possible threats. He is dressed in the armor of the day, and carries a large halberd (a pike topped with a small axe) and a long sword. With these steel implements, he was impervious to the obsidian-tipped arrows and other weapons of the Maya. His weapons were capable of easily slicing through the cotton and leather armor indigenous warriors typically wore. Consequently, a relatively small group of Spanish soldiers could usually--but not always--defeat a much larger contingent of Maya. However, with the addition of horses and firearms--neither of which the Maya possessed--and their undeniable skill and bravery, the Spanish became irresistible. That's the military message. The political message lies under the soldiers' feet.

The basis of Spanish rule was naked force. While the Spanish conquistadors and their successors skillfully used the Catholic religion as the ideological justification for their actions, in the end, their ability to prevail often came down to sheer military power. The message delivered by these shrieking heads, crushed under the iron boots of the conquistador, says it all: "we rule, we will always rule, and you will obey!" That el Mozo chose to decorate the front entrance of his great mansion this way tells us much about the outlook and temperament of those early conquistadors. That his successors chose to leave the decorations in place for 500 years says a lot about their attitudes.

A fur-covered barbarian carrying a knobby club stands below each soldier. These figures, which are significantly smaller than the Spaniards towering above, have been the subject of much architectural discussion. The features and facial hair appear to be European, and similar figures are found on the facade of the College of St. Gregory in Vallodolid, Spain, where Montejo el Mozo was born. However it is possible that, in this context, they represent the Maya allies whose support allowed the conquistadors to ultimately prevail. Certainly the Spanish saw their allies as lesser, more primitive beings, even if they were essential. Note the rather unhappy-looking cherub face on the edge of the platform on which the barbarian figure stands.

Another curious vignette on the facade above the front door. Above, another barbarian figure strains like Atlas to support a pillar that leads up to the base of the balcony. Like the other barbarians shown, he wears furs but is naked from the waist up. Around the base of the balcony, a collection of horned cherub faces appear to howl in anguish. And, of course, all this supports the platform on which el Mozo and his successors would have stood, striking the posture of proud arrogance typical of the Spanish colonial rulers.

One of four tall windows along the front of the Casa. Each window is framed by two indigenous figures, one male (right) and the other female (left). They support a lintel that contains a shield with the Montejo coat-of-arms. On top of the shield is a Spanish war helmet, and below it on either side, a sword leans against it. The windows are appropriately grand in scale, as you can see by the local woman who is walking underneath this one.

Statue of a female Maya. Like the male seen in the first photo of this posting, she wears a feathered head dress. Her hair is braided and her buxom figure is partially covered by a cloth toga. In her right hand she carries a wreath, not unlike the laurel wreaths that Roman emperors wore. Perhaps she waits to place it on the head of el Mozo? Oddly, none of the figures framing the windows were carved with legs. Instead, the upper trunks of each are mounted on wedge-shaped columns, each decorated by a series of rings of decreasing size.

Murals of the Palacio Gobierno

Interior courtyard of the Palacio Gobierno, facing out the front door. While the original Palacio Gobierno was built in the colonial period, this Neo-classical version was built in 1892. The building has two floors which surround the square of the courtyard. Around the circumference are covered walkways with the typical arched portales supported by graceful columns. While the lower floor has a single great mural (out of sight here), the upper has a whole series of them on each wall. As you can see here, I took some of these shots at night.

Facing the front entrance across the courtyard is a grand staircase leading to the 2nd floor. Directly behind me, as I took the photo, was a large mural. There were two more, one on the wall on either side. I have yet to find such a grand staircase in a Mexican public building that is not decorated with murals by great artists celebrating aspects of Mexico's past.

The first Maya emerging from an ear of maiz. This is the mural that was behind me at the head of the staircase. This and the other murals seen below were painted by Fernando Castro Pacheco, a noted Mexican muralist. The emerging Maya is flanked by the Hero Twins, figures from Maya mythology. Maiz, or corn, was enormously important to the Maya and other Mesoamerican civilizations, and figures heavily in their religion, art, and architecture. The cultivation of maiz was probably first practiced in the Puebla area. It then spread throughout Mesoamerica, including the Maya areas, and even as far north as New England in the US.

View from the second floor balcony. A mural of two of Mexico's greatest heros can be seen on the far wall. Behind this wall is the magnificent Salon, the walls of which are also covered with huge murals.

Murals of the Salon

Each of the walls of the Salon has a set of huge murals by Pacheco. The Salon is used as a conference and display room and is truly magnificent. Each of the murals tells a story about the struggle of the Maya against oppression by the Spanish and their Mexican successors. Over the centuries, those struggles often ended tragically for the Maya.

The execution of Jacinto Canek. The price for losing an indigenous revolt was always been high in Nueva Hispaña and its successor, Mexico. Even so, there were numerous Maya revolts in the centuries that followed Francisco Montejo el Mozo's initial victory over them in 1549. One 18th Century revolt was led by Jacinto Canek, a Maya educated by the Franciscans. Addressing his people in 1761, Canek said "I have traveled through all the province and have inspected all the villages and, carefully considering the usefulness the Spanish subjugation has brought to us, I have not found a single thing but painful and inexorable servitude. The demand for tribute is not appeased by the poverty that locks up our comrades as in a jail, nor is the thirst for our blood satisfied by the continuous whippings that bite and tear our bodies to pieces." The people rallied and his revolt found initial success, but Spanish arms defeated them, as they had done so many times before. The Spanish hanged 8 of his supporters and applied 200 lashes and the loss of an ear to 200 more. Jacinto Canek himself was brought to Mérida's Grand Plaza. As the governor watched approvingly from the balcony of Casa de Montejo, Canek was burned with red-hot irons, then pulled into quarters by horses, and finally his remains were burned and the ashes thrown to the winds. It is hard to kill an idea, however, and his name became a rallying cry for the rebels of the Caste War 90 years later.

A Maya hacienda worker stuggles under a huge load of sisal. The picture above expresses the weight of oppression the Maya have experienced for most of the 500 years since the Montejos arrived on the scene. For its first 300 years under the Spanish and then the new Mexican government, Yucatan remained somewhat of an economic backwater, producing food crops, livestock and cotton. Maya communal lands were seized and given as haciendas to either the Church or to Spanish noblemen. The Maya were forced to work under the colonial encomienda system of tribute labor, or its successor, the hacienda system which employed debt slavery. Every effort was made to extinguish their native religion and culture.  For thousands of years before the Spanish arrived, the Maya had extracted the sisal fibre from the stiff, spiky leaves of the agave plant in order to make rope, sandals, mats and other goods. This fibre is also called henequen and the two words are used interchangeably. Until the mid-19th Century, there was little commercial value in it. Suddenly, a huge new market opened for Yucatan's humble sisal.

The Sisal Cutter's Hands. The rough calloused hands symbolize those of the Maya who, in ancient times, raised amazing pyramids and palaces. Now, the hands are shown bleeding from the agave spines of the plant that produced the sisal fibre. While there were some sisal plantations in Yucatan in the 18th and early 19th Centuries, the market was very small. Then, Cyrus McCormick invented a machine to harvest grain in the US. To bundle the cut grain stalks, the harvester required a strong, smooth twine resistant to rot and insect damage. Sisal was ideal. McCormick's company, later called International Harvester, turned to Yucatan to fulfill its needs, setting off a tremendous boom. The relationship of International Harvester to Yucatan somewhat resembled that of the United Fruit Company to Guatemala. In both cases, a giant US corporation almost completely dominated the local economy--and to a considerable degree the politics--of the area. In both cases a tiny number of plantation owners became fabulously wealthy while serving the interests of a foreign corporation. Finally, in both cases, the Maya were enslaved to feed the insatiable profit-lust of the plantation owners and their foreign sponsors.

One way to solve a labor shortage. The sisal boom was so intense, and the possible profits so huge, that hacienda owners turned to direct slavery to solve their labor shortage. The already-subjugated Maya were simply not enough. Between 1848 and 1861 they imported Cuban slaves, but after Benito Juarez's victory in the Reform Wars, he suppressed the trade. Eventually, the hacendados (hacienda owners) found another solution. In the last part of the 19th Century, the Mexican Government finally succeeded in subduing the Yaquis of the Sierra Madre Occidental area of Chihuahua in northwest Mexico. They were the last remnants of the free and independent Chichimec nomads who had harassed the Spanish from the 16th Century on, and the ancient Mesoamerican civilizations for many centuries before them. The government of dictator Porfirio Diaz didn't want to leave them in Chihuahua where they might revolt again. Hearing the hacendados' complaints of continuing labor shortages, Diaz ordered the Yaquis to be rounded up en masse--men, women, and children--and shipped by rail to Yucatan to work on the sisal haciendas. As many as 15,000 Yaquis--half their population--were deported into sisal slavery in the early years of the 20th Century.

The Caste War (1847-1901). The greatest and longest-lasting Maya revolt was known as the Caste War. The name relates to the rigid social structure, or caste system, of colonial Nueva Hispaña. The caste system continued in Yucatan even after independence from Spain. The Maya rose against the Yucatecos--those of European background--who were at the top of this system. The revolt was rooted in the continuing seizure of Maya communal lands by Yucateco hacienda owners greedy to exploit the growing boom in sisal, and heavy taxation by the Yucateco-run government. The Caste War came within a hair's breadth of driving the Yucatecos completely out of the whole Peninsula. They held out in the cities of Mérida and Campeche and things looked bleak. The governor wrote up orders for the evacuation of the whole Yucateco population from both cities, but sufficient paper could not be found to print them. In the meantime, the Maya had noticed that the flying ants had arrived, signaling the time to plant crops. Knowing their families would starve if they didn't, they left the rebel army in droves and the siege was lifted. The war then dragged on for decades. For a time Great Britain recognized the Maya-controlled area as an independent state. The British had a commercial interest in trade between British Honduras (modern Belize) and the Maya state. In the end, however, the British recognized they had a greater interest in the commercial and industrial development of Mexico under Porfirio Diaz. They cut off relations with the Maya state and closed the British Honduras border. In 1901, the Mexican army seized control of the Maya capital of Chan Santa Cruz and claimed victory. While this is considered the official end of the Caste War, guerilla activity continued off and on until the last known skirmish in 1933, a full 85 years after war began. However, in 1901, the Yucatecos thought they had arrived in--for them--The Promised Land. The money from their sisal haciendas rolled in like a tidal wave . For nine more years they lived the good life while the Maya and their mestizo bretheren toiled in servitude.

Murals of the courtyard balcony

General Salvador Alvarado (1888-1924), "Liberator of the Maya slaves". In 1910, revolution broke out in various areas of Mexico, including Yucatan. In 1915, following a period of turmoil, General Salvador Alvarado was appointed by the national revolutionary government to be Governor of Yucatan. Alvarado was originally from Sinaloa and so was an outsider with no local vested interests when he hit town. He was a revolutionary, however, and horrified by the conditions he found. He was particularly angered by how the Yucateco elite profited at the expense of the Maya.  During his term of 1915-1917, he instituted many important reforms including land redistribution, and worker's and women's rights. General Alvarado used military courts as a device to extend justice to common people and women. He also took a dim view of the role of the Catholic Church in supporting and profiting from the rule of Porfirio Diaz. As a result, he evicted the Bishop from his Palacio next to the Cathedral, and stabled the horses of his troops in the Cathedral itself. He is viewed as one of Yucatan's  three greatest social reformers. The beneficial effects of his reforms on the lives of the Maya resulted in a significant period of peace. As a result, he is viewed as "the one true liberator of the Maya slaves."

Two more social reformers. Felipe Carrillo Puerto (1872-1924) was born in Yucatan and was partly Maya. He served as Governor of Yucatan from 1922-24. Carillo Puerto was a socialist and favored land reform, women's rights, and the rights of the Maya people. His enemies called him "The Red Dragon with the Eyes of Jade." He conducted a passionate romance with a female journalist from San Francisco in the United States named Alma Reed, resulting in a famous song called "Peregrina." In 1924, he was betrayed and arrested by counter-revolutionaries, along with 3 of his brothers and 8 other friends. All were shot. Another of Yucatan's great reformers was President Lazaro Cardenas (1895-1970). A former revolutionary general, Cardenas is probably best known for his 1938 expropriation of Mexico's oil industry, until then owned by foreign interests. However, he was also very active in land reform and the creation of ejidos, or land cooperatives. In 1936, Cardenas expropriated the sisal haciendas of Yucatan, and redistributed the land to the Maya who had long worked it for little or no compensation. For finally breaking the power of the hacendados, and returning the land to the Maya from whom it had often been illegally seized, President Lazaro Cardenas is considered the third of Yucatan's great heros.

This completes Part 2 of my Northwest Yucatan series. Next, we will visit Mérida's Sunday Market, an extravaganza of crafts, music, and dance held weekly in the Plaza Grande. I always appreciate feedback. If you would like to comment, please do so in the Comments section below, or email me directly.

If you leave a question in the Comments section, PLEASE leave your email address so I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim


  1. Thanks Jim, for all the detail and research you put in to your posts, they are truly amazing.

    The murals in the Governer's Palace are one of my absolute favorite things, they are such an amazing pictorial history of the region - I get goosies every time I go in to view them. I really think a picture book should be made of them, and your descriptives would be fabulous.

  2. Hi Jim & Carol,

    Pat & I were in Cancun & Chi Chiniza (sp?) However, how did we miss Merida???

    See you in June.

    Pat and Sandy Butler
    Mision del Lago #26

  3. my kids have learned more from your posts here than an entire year in secundaria (on yucateca history). Thank you!

  4. Did you by any chance learn anything on the different coats of arms on the shields over the windows on the Casa de Montejo? Was there today and took photos and upon closer examination realized they were different!


If your comment involves a question, please leave your email address so I can answer you. Thanks, Jim