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Thursday, May 26, 2022

Why expats like to play ‘Name That House!’

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Ralf Hollmann
Ralf Hollmann is the author of The Modern Yucatán Dictionary and owner of Lawson’s Original Yucatán Excursions. Raised in Canada, Hollmann has lived in Yucatán with his Mérida-born wife for 30 years. 
Some of us can’t resist christening our homes with a charming name.

Name That House! 

It’s not a quiz show — it’s a phenomenon that occurs a lot in Mérida, and perhaps other cities in Latin America as well, where expats have fixed up their dream retirement home and as the final touch on their restoration place a plaque on the wall next to the entryway that says “Casa Flores” or some such thing.

What is it about expats and naming their houses? I reached out and asked a few. One of them asked me if I had named my house, to which I replied that no, it hadn’t even crossed my mind that a house could be assigned a clever moniker. The question also made me realize that my work in tourism and continuous visits to Mérida’s Centro to pick up guests had made me aware of this curious custom.

A brief look at two streets alone, calles 52 and 54 which run north and south through Mérida’s Centro, provide a few excellent examples:

 •   Casa Flor de Mayo (named after the flower frangipani-plumeria rubra probably found or planted in the garden)

•   Casa Tatich (Tatich is the Mayan name for the leader or main man)

•   Casa Chelita (a chela is a blonde person of the female persuasion and the “ita” diminutive)

•   Casa Linda del Pozo (pretty house of the well)

•   Casa Ana (Ana’s house, plain and simple)

•   Casa Chukum (chukum is a tree and its bark is used to waterproof walls, cisterns, pools)

Bookshop owner and long-time Yucatán Today editor Juanita Stein, who has been living in the Yucatán for decades, said she wasn’t sure. “Maybe it’s a carryover from the beach house idea — a lot of people name their beach houses both here and along the coasts in North America.”

Another well-known local magazine editor and publisher, who restored and renovated after coming to Mérida from Connecticut, owns a house that he has called Casa Nana. I asked if his house back in the U.S. had a name and he stated, “No! That would be pretentious!”

There seems to be a special kind of affection reserved for a newly acquired, repaired, and restored home in a new country. That and the learning of a new language, a new culture, and how much to pay a housekeeper without upsetting the local economies makes for the perfect storm.

And while I have only seen this in Mérida, conflicting reports indicate that this happens — and doesn’t happen, depending on whom you ask — in San Miguel, Ajijic, and other places where expats move. Oaxaca? The greater consensus seems to suggest that, given real estate prices, not so much. No one wants to call attention to themselves there. This is assuming that the reason to name a house is to call attention to oneself, which I don’t think is exactly it.

Longtime Mérida resident Steven Fry, a veritable fountain of knowledge regarding everything from local history to the correct mask to wear during a pandemic, gave what I thought was a very plausible reason. He posits that people moving to Mérida to start a new life are reinventing themselves. This rebirth is announced to all with their new digs being christened by something relevant, whether it is simply the color of the house or something more meaningful. A new place, new friends, new community with so many of the imprisoning expectations of others removed.

And so the pink house becomes a whimsical Casa Rosada and the bright yellow Casa del Sol is more philosophical: it’s all about the sun, sunshine, a new day, a sparkling new beginning.

All this got me thinking: what about the reverse? What happens when Mexicans move to Canada, say. They also are buying a house that perhaps doesn’t need quite as much restoring (if any) or repairs as the ones being bought in Mérida. They also need to navigate a new culture, learn the nuances of a new language and come to the realization that they can no longer afford to have a maid wait on them hand and foot. Why do they not feel the urge to come up with a name and have it engraved on a plaque to be positioned next to the front door for all to see? Are they not as sentimentally motivated? They are, after all, also starting something new.

And while it is hard to imagine walking down a leafy residential street in Peoria or Toronto and seeing Blue House (on a blue house) or Bear House (where a bear came onto the building renovation site and ate one of the contractors), here in sunny Mérida, coming across a green house with a ceramic plaque called Casa Verde would not warrant even a second glance.

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