The “Formerly-White” City

This is in answer to Malcolms’ question on the previous post and since it is something I always write, perhaps I should elaborate on it a little.

All (OK 95% of) the tourist information out there always (94%) refers to Merida as the ‘white city’. Does anyone ever question this; wonder why? There are several versions or theories as to why Merida got its’ reputation as ‘la ciudad blanca‘.

The first; that Merida was so devoid of garbage that its’ inhabitants dubbed it white, as in clean. If you have lived here for any length of time, this is clearly a joke, as a large majority of Meridas’ present inhabitants could care less about the cleanliness of their city. In any city in Mexico you will see people sweeping garbage, leaves etc from their sidewalks… onto the streets and Merida is no exception. One of the most infuriating sights you can witness in Merida is seeing the electric window on a brand new Lincoln smoothly sliding down and from which a hand emerges that carelessly tosses a plastic bag or bottle into the street. Believe me, these are the same people that would never do this when traveling in Houston or Miami.

So, that is one theory behind the ‘white city’ moniker. Meridanos may have been careful about keeping their city clean, but this is no longer true, unfortunately. So “formerly-white” would be more appropriate.

Another theory: the inhabitants of the city wore white. White guayaberas, white pants, white shoes for the caballeros and white dresses and hipiles for the ladies. This theory I can actually believe in to a degree; there are one or two dapper gentlemen with carefully gelled hair that frequent the historic centro and they wear all white. However, this is a bygone tradition and, as in the case of the ‘clean city’ no longer justified; therefore, “formerly-white”.

I took a Yucatan history course over a few months (once a week) with historian and teacher Jorge Vargas at the Rogers’ Hall school and would highly recommend it to anyone who has any interest in history at all. Jorge makes history come alive and his specialty is debunking a lot of common myths and beliefs about Yucatecan history that are taken for granted by most folks. Somehow through my interest in politics and the past, and I think it was during these classes, I learned that the walls around the old Merida (you can see pieces of them here and there) were there not only for defense, but also to keep out the ‘Indian’ riff raff. Among the Indians (Mayans) the city of Merida became known as the ‘white city’ because Indians were not allowed into the city alone; if they had to be there, they were to be accompanied by a white person. Again, another theory and no longer the case, as you can see in the first 5 minutes after entering the city. Formerly white again.

Does this help to explain my continuing use of the term?

5 thoughts on “The “Formerly-White” City

  1. I have another theory… The name was given because a long time ago, the walls (albarradas) were painted in white thus creating the so called "white city" name.

    But, not too many albarradas out and about anymore so, again, you'r term seems correct again 🙂

  2. William, your comment about the history class may be one of the best explanations. In my readings of old accounts of Merida, I've come across numerous mentions of "indios" not being allowed to use sidewalks, not being allowed here or there, pretty much "not being allowed" period.

    The city was the full-time home (as opposed to summer home for haciendas) of the Spanish (white) conquerers. Even though they promptly began mixing races, the Spanish military, businessmen and religious men all thought strictly of "them" and "us" and never the twain should cross… at least publicly, in the daytime, outside the bedroom. !

  3. I always thought it was because of the huge amounts of limestone here, and the fact that the city is, well, white. At least from the air, via satellite pictures. I will admit that your theories are much more interesting, however. 😉

  4. Hola

    Siempre me he sabido por libros de historia regional que Mérida era conocida como la ciudad blanca porque antiguamente la mayoria de las casas eran pintadas de blanco.

  5. There's also something to be said about the appearance of the original pyramids ("hills" according to the Spaniard, Montejo).

    The pyramids were of white-appearing stone – limestone – that stood out from the lush undergrowth and jungle. The conquistadores were of the Roman ruins in the Spanish city of Merida. (ta-da!) So, even if they called the pyramids hills, at least they recognized that the pyramids were ruins of another civilization.

    Interestingly, the Spanish were too superstitious to camp upon the broad tops of the "hills" upon their arrival "in town." They preferred the low land in between. But, they were not shy about tearing down the pyramids for homes. It was practically their first action.

    The zocalo was a platform that is pretty much in place with a different appearance. To the west, where the Ayuntamiento stands, was a pyramid, one of the biggest. This was the first the Spanish dug into – for the house of the Montejos and the Cathedral.

    Later, friars constructed a fortress-like church and grounds — San Francisco, I think — on the top of a pyramid where the markets now stand.

    It's a real shame all that was torn down. Merida would have had an equivalent attraction as Izamal's great convent, perched upon a partially deconstructed pyramid.

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