Friday, July 13, 2012

NW Yucatan Part 17: Las Monjas and random scenes around Mérida

"Can I take your order, please?" We encountered this cheerful little guy at a restaurant along the north side of the Plaza Grande in Mérida. In the first part of this posting, we'll take a stroll through Las Monjas, a 16th Century nunnery a few blocks to the west of the Plaza. I will follow that with a random group of photos that don't seem to fit anywhere but with each other. I have commented often in the past about the typically off-beat Mexican sense of humor that I enjoy so much. The monkey-waiter above is a good example.

Las Monjas

Las Monjas as it looked in 1867. The name monjas means "nuns." The convent originally occupied an entire city block and was a self-contained complex. Within the convent walls were a church, residential areas for 40 nuns, courtyards, gardens, and food production areas. What remains today is the church and a couple of courtyards on the southeast corner of the quadrangle at the intersection of Calles 63 and 64, about 1 1/2 blocks west of the Plaza Grande. For a map showing the location of Las Monjas and its relation to the Plaza Grande, click here.

This gate guards the central courtyard inside the entrance on Calle 64. Such iron gates are unfortunately necessary, but Mexican ironworkers can often make them seem like works of art in their own right. At first, as we peeked through the grill, we thought Las Monjas was closed. Then, a very nice woman appeared and offered us a tour of the premises. Fortunately our Spanish abilities are improving, because our guide spoke only a few words of English. 

The long, rectangular, central courtyard ends with this cross. To the right, an arched doorway leads to another courtyard. However, the area we visited was the main church on the left side. The Gothic-style complex was built in during the 16th and 17th Centuries. The tower above the church was completed in 1633. Las Monjas functioned as a convent for nuns of the Order of the Conception until it was closed in 1863. The nuns were cloistered, meaning that they took vows that forbade contact with the outside world

This old bell was part of a small garden tableau in the central courtyard. The bell was cast in 1591. It had been removed from Las Monjas after the closure in 1863. However, the bell was eventually acquired by Tomas Alfonso and Carlos Martin Vázquez who donated back to Las Monjas, according to an adjacent sign. 

The main nave of the church. In the years after 1863, the convent was evacuated and the property used for a variety of purposes. These changes occurred in the context of the Reform Laws of Benito Juarez, aimed at limiting the power of the Church in society. At that time, the convent at Las Monjas owned 24 properties in Merida with a combined worth of 8,725 pesos, a very substantial sum. Most of the city block once occupied by the nunnery was sold off after the closure. Finally, in 1920, the Templo de Nuestra Señora de la Consolación (originally founded within Las Monjas in 1633) was reopened as a parish church. Another part of the former convent is now occupied by the Casa de la Cultura del Mayab, which sponsors Maya art and artists. In addition, the Cultural Institute of Yucatan offers artistic workshops for children and there is a school offering theater and dance classes. Visible on a pew at the lower right of the photo is my new Yucatan straw hat.

An iron grille separates the cloistered from the public areas of the church. The nuns did not share the pews with the general public during mass, but sat behind this iron grille at the back of the nave. The penalty of violating the cloister restrictions was excommunication, either for a person entering the area without permission, or a nun leaving it. In the early days, there were only three legitimate reasons to leave a cloister: fire, leprosy, and contagious disease. Cloister restrictions tended to be significantly more severe for nuns than for monks.

Behind the cloister grille. During Mass, the nuns would sit in this area while listening through the iron grille.The pillars appear to be original 16th Century stonework. Notice the two rectangular panels at the lower right of the photo.

Wall burials for prominent relatives of the nuns were sometimes allowed.  Above is one of several panels that were set in the walls at the back of the cloistered area of the church. The inscription, in somewhat archaic Spanish, reads "Burial of Juan de Aguilar and his heirs. He was from the city of (undecipherable) and neighbor of the first conquistadors of these provinces." There is no date, but given the reference to conquistador neighbors, Juan de Aguilar probably lived and died in the 16th Century. Many thanks to Gladys in Chile who emailed me this translation.

Random Street Scenes

"Step right up and give it a try!" We encountered these young clowns on Calle 60, north of the Plaza Grande, chatting with a hostess at a local eatery. Mexicans love clowns, and we have run into them along the streets of just about every city we have visited. It seems to be a good way for a young student to have fun while making a little money.

This plaque is embedded in the wall at a corner along the old Camino Real. The location is the corner of Calles 64 and 75, south of the Plaza Grande. While almost all of the streets in the Centro Historico are numbered now, they used to possess names and many of the names can be found on plaques like this. I haven't been able determine the origin of the name (which means "the Harem").  However, it clearly depicts a canopy under which a cross-legged male figure sits on a pillow, fanned by two girls wearing veils. Perhaps this was once the "red-light district?"

Young students relaxing in Parque Maternidad. This quintet of young lovelies obligingly posed for me. From their matching t-shirts, they all appear to go to the same school. Their postures and smiles exemplify the easy-going friendliness we encountered in Mérida.

Street music in front of Casa de Montejo. A young musician strums a tune while waiting to see who will drop some dinero into his cap. Since I appreciate a live sound track to my life, I always contribute to street musicians.

The old re-emerges as the new. This is an example of the restoration work underway all over the Centro Historico. The difference between the restored structure and the dingy buildings that bracket it is startling. Mérida still has far more of the dingy than the new, but work is proceeding and someday the city may achieve the beauty of its glory days at the beginning of the 20th Century.

A quiet afternoon under the shade of the portales. A small coffee house set up tables on the walkway next a book store on Calle 61, along the northern edge of the Plaza Grande. Corridors like this, separated from plazas by a line of arches, were mandated by King Phillip II of Spain in the 17th Century. He wanted to promote commerce in the colony, and rightly thought the covered areas would protect itinerate merchants and their customers from both rain and hot sun. As a consequence, virtually every plaza in Mexico possesses an area like this.

Get your pigs' heads here (and every other part but the squeal). The carneceria (butcher's area) in the Mercado contained every kind of meat you might desire, and a few you might not. The Mercado is offers a wide variety of food and other products. It is located on Calle 65, between Calles 54 and 56, to the southeast of the Plaza Grande.

Another example of odd-ball Mexican humor. I encountered this display while walking along Calle 63 between Hotel Dolores Alba and the Plaza Grande. Vigorously peddling a bicycle is a man-sized robotic jaguar dressed in a Santa suit. The sight of this cheerfully peddling critter stopped me in my tracks which, I suppose, was the idea.

Another kind of wheeled vehicle. This fellow nearly ran me down when I stepped into the street. In fairness, he was watching for the kamikaze buses that hurtle down Mérida's streets. I snapped a quick shot, but didn't realize until I looked at it much later that the vehicle is actually a wheelchair tricycle, operated by hand rather than foot. For a guy confined to a wheelchair, he got around pretty well.

"Willkommen" the sign beckons, while a German monk offers a tankard of beer. The sign perplexed me at first, until I remembered that the Mexican beer industry was started by expatriate Germans who arrived in the mid-19th Century. Until then, pulque, a mildly alcohoic drink made from the maguey plant, was the drink of choice for the Mexican working classes. By 1918, there were 36 different brewing companies. However, there are now only two companies, Modelo and FEMSA, that control 90% of the market.

Young love, one of life's universals. This pair was oblivious to the world, including me with my telephoto camera. Mérida is a city for lovers.

This completes Part 17 of my NW Yucatan series. Next week, we'll probe the mysterious depths of the Loltún cave, inhabited from paleolithic times down to the Caste War of the 1840s. That will begin a journey following the Puuc Route to visit several stunning Maya ruins and a cacao finca. I hope you have enjoyed this posting. If you'd like to provide feedback, please use 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 comment:

  1. Thank you so much for your postings re the Yucatan area. I'm unable to travel there again due to health reasons so I'm traveling vicariously and enjoying your blog.


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