Saturday, July 7, 2012

NW Yucatan Part 16: Mérida's Barrio de la Mejorada and Museum of Popular Arts

A colorful alebrije hisses at passersby in the Museo del Arte Popular. Alebrijes were invented by Mexico City artist Pedro Linares López in 1936. When he was 30 years old, he got very sick to the point of delirium, and in his wild hallucinations, he saw these creatures crying out "alebrije, alebrije!" When he returned to consciousness, he gave that name to the fanciful little beings he began to create from cardboard and paper. This one was displayed at the Museum of Popular Art. The museum is one of the main attractions of Barrio del la Mejorada, which is located a few blocks to the east of the Plaza Grande in Mérida. After our visit to the ruins at Dzibilchaltún, we continued to explore the neighborhoods of the Centro Historico. The history of the Mejorada barrio (neighborhood) goes back to the earliest colonial times. The area has undergone numerous transformations over the centuries, from a posh residential section for the colonial elite, to an industrial neighborhood, and back to a residential area with a strong foreign presence.

La Plaza Mejorada

This fine old mansion occupies most of the south side of the Plaza Mejorada. The Plaza is the heart of Barrio de la Mejorada. It is bordered on the south by this freshly refurbished mansion. On the southeast corner is a Franciscan church, and the Museo del Arte Popular sits on the northwest corner. Like the one above, many of the formerly crumbling but still beautiful old buildings are undergoing restoration. In 1562, barely 20 years after the Conquest of Yucatan, the first hospital in Mérida was constructed in Barrio de la Mejorada, and about 120 years later a Franciscan Convent was built adjacent to the church. Both the hospital and the convent were used for multiple purposes over the following centuries. Several other significant historical structures stand along nearby streets. The Arco de los Dragones, is an arch similar to the one already seen in Part 11 of this series. The arches were built by General Juan José de la Bárcenas in 1690 as a way of creating a separation between the neighborhoods around the Plaza Grande, occupied by the colonial elite, and the surrounding Maya and mestizo barrios. The word dragones doesn't refer to creatures like the alebrije shown in the first photo of this posting. It is instead the Spanish term for  heavy cavalry ("dragoons" in English) used by armies from the 16th through the early 20th Centuries. The term originated with the the French firearm called a "dragon" that was carried by mounted troops. The arch stands next to the old cuartel, or barracks used by those dragones.

Monument to Los Niños Heroes in the center of Plaza Mejorada. The "boy heroes" were six young military cadets who died in 1847 defending the Mexican Military Academy atop Chapultepec hill in Mexico City.  The school's cadets, aged 10 to 16, fiercely resisted the invading U.S. troops under General Winfield Scott. The cadets were ordered by their commander to retreat, but they refused and fought to the death. One of them, rather than allow his nation's flag to be captured, wrapped himself in it and leaped to his death from the precipice upon which the military school perched. Unlike that of the cadets, the behavior of leaders on both the Mexican and U.S. sides was something less than honorable. The Mexican American War was deliberately provoked by U.S. President James K. Polk. In order to allow for the expansion of slavery, he was eager to seize the Mexican territories which now comprise the Southwest U.S. states and California. Many U.S. citizens at the time were outraged at Polk's blatant war of aggression. These included a young member of Congress named Abraham Lincoln, who gave a speech on the floor of Congress strongly contesting the lies upon which the war was based.  On the Mexican side, General Antonio Lopez de Santa Ana totally mismanaged the war and, as a consequence, Mexico lost almost half of its territory to the U.S. 

Iglesia de la Mejorada

Iglesia de la Mejorada is also called Iglesia de la Orden. This was because the church, finished in 1640, added a convento (monastery) of the Franciscan Order in 1688. The church is built in the Romanesque style, which originated in the beginning of the European Dark Ages. Typical of this style are high, thick walls without buttresses. As seen above, small, comparatively irregular pieces of stone are used in construction, and they are heavily embedded with mortar. Romanesque windows are narrow and comparatively few in number.

The church has two campanarios, or bell towers. Each of the campanarios has three bells of varying sizes, with room for a fourth at the top. The bells are still rung by means of long ropes draped down the side of the building. The Franciscan convento adjacent to the church underwent various changes over the centuries, becoming a hospital, a prison for women, and a soldier's barracks. It became the University of Yucatan's School of Architecture in 1983. 

The single nave of the church has several chapels extending out on either side. The rounded arches of the nave and side chapels are another distinct feature of the Romanesque style. The term nave ("ship" in Spanish) may be the origin of the word "navy." When you look up at the ceiling of a church like this, you have the illusion of looking at the interior ribs of the hull of a ship. Notice the spare furnishings, another aspect of Romanesque style.

A small but elaborate retablo stands behind the altar. Enshrined in the retablo are the figures of Nuestra Señora del Carmen and the baby Jesus. Del Carmen is yet another name by which the church is known. There are many versions of the Virgin Mary within Catholicism and the formal name of this one is Nuestra Señora del Monte Carmelo, referring to Mt. Carmel in the Holy Land. In Spain, she is closely associated with the Spanish Armada (navy) and is the patron of the military in Argentina, Perú, and Chile. It is possible that the choice of this particular version of the Virgin for the Iglesia de la Mejorada is related to the nearby Cuartel de los Dragones.

One side chapel contained a shrine to a martyr of the Cristero War. Jesuit priest José Ramón Miguel Agustín Pro Juárez was executed in 1927 without trial or evidence by the government of President Plutarco Elias Calles. From the earliest days of the Conquest through the Revolution of 1910, the Mexican Catholic Church hierarchy, with a few exceptions, gave the society's elite groups strong support as they  dominated and repressed the general population. Many church institutions themselves owned haciendas where the peones were treated little better than slaves. As a result, the Church earned the bitter resentment of those who waged and won the Revolution. The Constitution of 1917 severely cut back the rights and privileges of the Church in society. President Calles attempted to enforce the Constitution, but did it with an extremely heavy hand, setting off the Cristero War of 1926-1929. This was an uprising of Cathoics whose battle cry was "Viva Cristo Rey!" The picture above was painted from a photograph taken of Father Miguel Pro at the time of his execution. Calles widely publicized the photo as a way to intimidate the Cristeros, but it had the opposite effect. Sixty years later, in 1988, Miguel Pro was beatified by Pope John Paul II.  

Museo del Artes Populares

An exquisite example of a terno de gala, Yucatan's traditional dress. The Museo del Arte Popular is located on the northwest corner of the Plaza de la Mejorada in an old colonial house called Casa Molina. It is open Tuesday through Sunday. Popular arts are supported and encouraged all over Mexico. They are the product of local artists and crafts people who use techniques that often go back to colonial or even pre-hispanic times. The dress above is called a "terno" because there are three parts to it: the jubon, the hipil, and the fustan. The jubon is a wide, flat, square founce attached to the neckline of the second piece. The hipil extends from the neck to the knees. The fustan is a long, straight skirt. All three parts are heavily embroidered using the cross-stiching technique and hemmed with lace. Many women in Mérida wear a version of the terno for day-to-day activities, including cooking tortillas and selling vegetables on the street.

Mustachioed revolutionary rides a painted pottery horse into battle. The piece, called Revolucionario, is by Alejandro Lorenzo Pantaleón and was created in 2010 to commemorate the Bicentennial of the War of Independence and the Centennial of the Revolution. Many of the pieces displayed when we visited had a similar theme. The sculpture was moulded from clay and painted with natural earth colors before being hand-burnished. The sculptor comes from San Agustín Oapan, Guerrero State.

Enough to drive you buggy. This remarkable pot comes adorned with an incredible array of butterflies and other crawly critters. Unfortunately, I found no identifying information about the potter.

Detail of the butterfly pot. The pot itself is beautifully made and painted, but the number, variety, and detail of the various insects swarming over its surface is mind-boggling. Each of these little critters was individually made and hand-painted before being attached to the pot's surface.

Columbus' ship "Pinto", made from silver thread. From hull to mast tip, this piece of silver jewelry stands about 7.62 cm (3 in.) tall. Silver thread is artfully woven to make the hull and sails, while the masts and bowsprit are made with small silver tubes. This was one of the more unusual pieces in the collection.

Inlaid wooden chest carries a patriotic theme. In Spanish, a chest like this is called a baúl. The artist was Silvano Aguirre Tejeda of Jalostotitlán in Jalisco State. The baúl is made from beautifully polished and varnished wood. In the center, below the knob, is the Mexican national emblem: an eagle sitting on nopal cactus while eating a snake. This is a symbol adopted from the Méxica (Aztec) origin myth.

Drat! The cats are drinking from the toilets again! As I strolled by this room, which I initially took for a baño (restroom), I was startled to find two nearly full-size jaguars, caught in mid-drink. This perfectly captures the odd-ball sense of humor so often found in Mexican art. The jaguars weren't real, of course, and neither was the baño, but they were enough to stop me in mid-stride. Jaguars have been powerful symbols in Mexico for more than 3000 years, since the time of the early Olmecs.

Riding the mermaid ship. The more I examined this little sculpture, the more interesting elements I discovered. There is, of course, the mermaid who forms the body of the boat. Then there are the figures inside, one of whom is pulling mightily on the oars. At the stern is a small female figure who appears to be part of the rudder. Finally, there are two male figures wearing crowns, one on either side small rowboats. I have no idea what any of this means, but it was fascinating. 

The King of Canines. As a dog-lover, I especially liked this little fellow standing with proud alertness wearing his orange crown. Again, I was bemused by the question: "what in the world is this about?"

Charro catrino and his bony catrina girlfriend. Catrina dolls are very popular in Mexico, especially around the time of the Days of the Dead (November 1-2). They were popularized by José Guadalupe Posada, a late 19th Century cartoonist. He liked to lampoon the social pretensions of the Mexican upper classes of his day by showing them as stylishly-dressed skeletons. Posada's conception got a further boost from work of muralist Diego Rivera in the 1930s. Today, you can find catrinas in every sort of situation, from housewives washing the dishes, to golf quartets, to rock bands. The one above is a bit more traditional, showing a handsome (but a bit thin) charro, with a pretty lady on the back of his skeletal horse.

This completes Part 16 of my NW Yucatan series. Next week, we'll go to a neighborhood west of the Plaza Grande to look at Las Monjas, a 16th Century convento, along with some quirky photos from various part of the city. In the weeks after that, we will set off into the vast jungles of central Yucatan to follow the Puuc Route and visit some remote but very beautiful Maya ruins. If you'd like to make a comment on this or any other posting on my blog, please do so in the Comments section below or email me directly.

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Hasta luego, Jim

1 comment:

  1. HI Jim, a friend of mine, Dennis McCann lives on the shore of Lake Chapala, which he says (he called today) is very low. The full size jaguars are very cool. Incidentally I was asking Dennis today if he could find a ceramic full size jaguar for me. Maybe he could contact the artist who did the cat. If I had your tel number you two could get in touch. Dennis has lived in that area for man years. He loves it there. There are a large number of Xpats in his area. Thanks much ...Gary Dunham tel 253 862 7300 email


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