What 20th-century Meridanos left behind

Did a generation of families make a mistake by abandoning the Centro?

Two similar houses sit side by side, one with a newer facade, the other without. Photo: Lee Steele
Photo: Lee Steele / Yucatán Magazine

Beginning in the early 1970s, many of Mérida’s families left their homes in the center of town and moved into spanking new ranch-style houses, located in modern developments, primarily in the northern sections of the city.

Only the grandparents and even-older relatives had not grown weary of their colonial homes’ faded glory, cracked plaster, faulty wiring, leaky plumbing, and the old-fashioned wicker furniture. They shook their heads when young couples claimed their hammocks smelled of mold. “A vigorous scrubbing by the laundress would completely restore the freshness,” they claimed. But no, they had their own ideas and by the 1980s, downtown Merida looked like a ghost town featuring block after block of padlocked buildings. Without the population living nearby, many shops closed. A bleak, bleak, bleak panorama indeed.

The new suburban dwellers slept in beds — no more creaking forth and back, suspended in a hammock from two S-shaped hooks cemented deep into the meter-thick walls of cavernous, dark bedrooms — AC units hummed where louvered shutters once opened up to the world outside. Swimming pools were surrounded by manicured gardens. Life had changed for Yucatecans.

But for the better? Postage-stamp-sized lots and uniform architecture soon lost their charm and the next trend was to build mammoth residences on land where sisal crops once grew. Urban sprawl increased the need for more roads and more cars, boosting exactly what the population sought to lower. The heat index rose steadily. The new generation asked their parents why they’d ever left those spacious high-ceilinged homes. H-m-m-m-m, maybe we should move back into town?

When the family lawyers were consulted about just who now owned the ancestral homes, many a junior found himself the victim of what he considered to be fraud. Who had snatched away his birthright? The old properties now belonged to people who had migrated from other Mexican states (huaches) and foreigners too (gringos). These usurpers had restored the derelict properties into showpieces – and what’s more – thriving restaurants, boutiques, and galleries had sprung up all around. Buying back the houses was impossible. Land values in El Centro were now the highest in the city. How had this happened?

Actually, it is the tale that more than two cities could tell. Almost everywhere, dominant cultural groups periodically shift and alter the face of their environment. How can Merida’s populace encourage positive growth and discourage unmitigated noise, traffic and congestion?                                                                                                       

Joanna van der Gracht de Rosado

Joanna van der Gracht de Rosado is a writer, artist and educator from British Columbia, Canada. She has lived in Merida, Yucatan, since 1976, where she co-founded the TTT school and raised two children. Joanna blogs at Changes In Our Lives.