SAH Blog


  • Antigua: La vida de las ruinas

    By
     |
    Sep 2, 2014
    “The most weirdly beautiful ruins in the world are found amid the jungles of Guatemala.”
    - Edgar Lee Hewett, Head of the Department of Anthropology and Archaeology, University of Southern California, qtd. in Ransome Sutton, “What’s New in Science: Weirdly Beautiful Ruins,” Los Angeles Times November 26, 1933: G19

     “Do not smile at the degraded vestiges of a past civilization that we meet in Central America.  They are living tombs of a wrecked national intelligence which has succumbed to the rapacity and worse proclivities of relentless and unmerciful conquerors.”
    - Ferd C. Valentine, U.S. Surgeon – Urologist, “People and Places in Guatemala,” Manhattan 1 no. 6 (June 1883): 424


    There is life among ruins. Antigua is the perfect place for a case study on preservation – the methods of conservation, local governance, and international partnerships. There is much to be learned from this small Central American city, designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979.

    As the above quotes indicate, there is also an abundance of mystery in the crumbling edifices for those who delight in “ruin porn” à la Detroit post-industrial decline or post-Katrina New Orleans.  Art critics often point to the long history of deriving aesthetic pleasure from gazing upon remnants of a bygone era. There is an irony or depravity, however, in appreciating the vestiges of a colonial past (this is true of the post-industrial and post-disaster pasts as well, for different yet occasionally parallel reasons). The colonial past is marked with oppression, forced assimilation, and denial of indigenous rights, belief systems, and customs. 


    [Figure 1.  View of the church of El Carmen after 1874 earthquake, Antigua 
    1875.  Eadweard Muybridge.  Canadian Centre for Architecture.]


    [Figure 2.  El Carmen Market and Ruins 2014.]

    Antigua has been a destination for wanderlusts and adventurers since the late 19th century. Even photographers Eadweard Muybridge and Arnold Genthe documented the collapsed structures of the former capital of the Kingdom of Guatemala in 1875 and sometime between 1899 and 1926, respectively. The overall tone of the earliest North American accounts of Antigua that I found in the pages of publications such as the Manhattan and Outing, an Illustrated Monthly Magazine of Recreation is one of wonder and intoxication with the ruins, and condescension to the large Mayan population that even today resides in pueblos on the periphery of the city.[1]


    [Figure 3.  Cloister of La Merced monastery,
    between 1899 and 1926.  Arnold Genthe.  Library of Congress.]


    [Figure 4.  Cloister of La Merced before a wedding 2014.]

    Hernán Cortés assigned Spanish conquistador Pedro de Alvarado the task of “conquering and settling” the Kingdom of Guatemala in 1523. This kingdom included parts of modern-day Belize, Chiapas (southern Mexico), Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua. The first capital of the Kingdom of Guatemala was founded in 1524 at the indigenous Cakchiquel Maya city of Iximché, however, the Cakchiquel resisted Spanish domination, and the Spaniards relocated their capital in 1527 to the vicinity of present-day Ciudad Vieja on the side of Volcán de Agua. The second capital site suffered losses due to a major landslide in 1541, and in 1543 the Spaniards moved further down into the Panchoy Valley and established the third site for the Muy Leal y Muy Noble Ciudad de Santiago de los Caballeros de Guatemala, or the "Very Loyal and Very Noble City of Saint James of the Knights of Guatemala," now known as Antigua. Here the capital remained and flourished through countless earthquakes until 1773, when the Santa Marta earthquake leveled the city. The earthquake of 1773 led to the relocation the capital once again in 1776, this time to its current location 45 km northeast, now known as Guatemala City.  Residents of Antigua were reluctant to abandon their city, and some remained despite efforts by the Spanish colonial government to force them to the new location.

    Antigua Today

    “Mention Antigua, Guatemala, to those who have been there and you'll probably end up mesmerized as they rave about its churches, volcanoes, restaurants, and cobblestone streets. Mention Antigua to those who return to its splendor year after year and you'll no doubt be brought into their world of enchantment as they describe learning a new language, coming to appreciate a different culture, and expanding from one's comfort zone in the perfect place to volunteer.”[2]

    Modern Antigua and its environs survive through a mixed economy of coffee production, tourism attributed to the proliferation of Spanish schools and its ruins, and its popularity as a destination-wedding site. I often heard employees at museums, cultural sites, stores, and even the police respond to my queries and thanks with “Estamos aquí para servirle,” which may be a common response in the country, but was one that I thought might be tied to the tourism/service industry.  There is also a sizable expat population, a topic that then-anthropology doctoral candidate Joshua Levy covered in his dissertation at the University of California, Berkeley. “Expats are walking contradictions,” Levy stated, “stumbling down the cobblestone streets of a hometown that has always been for foreigners.”[3]

    There is a seemingly understood wealth disparity between the urban and rural (mainly indigenous) populations. Many of the indigenous people come to Antigua to sell their wares then travel back home. There are countless non-profits attached to Antiguan business that have created a relationship with the indigenous population in the vicinity – anything from a restaurant to a yoga studio to a Spanish school in Antigua will probably have a volunteer program located in a nearby pueblo.

    While in Antigua I visited Niños de Guatemala, a well-run NGO in Ciudad Vieja, Guatemala. They offer primary education to the poorest segments of children in Ciudad Vieja.  These are children who live in close proximity to livestock – roosters, mules, etc.  They probably don’t have running water or electricity. Most of their homes – constructed of discarded materials – have dirt floors.  I was on the tour entitled “Experience Guatemala.” I met people who were volunteering for weeks at a time to support the mission of the organization. I learned so much – so much in fact, that my heart was broken.


    [Figure 5. Worst section of housing in Ciudad Vieja.  Some Niños de Guatemala students come from this neighborhood.]

    In Antigua it seems that volunteering as a tourist is the norm.  In fact, it is a stark contrast to my time in Mexico where tourism was all about relaxation and pampering the guest (at least in the Yucatán). Another North American visiting Antigua asked me in a rather relaxed conversation, “So are you here to volunteer?” It was an innocent enough question. “No, I’m here to study architecture.” My answer didn’t feel sufficient in this context. It felt like vanity. For the first time this trip I felt that in order to legitimize my presence I should physically contribute to the larger community in some way. All the English language magazines like Qué Pasa and Revue include a significant amount of information about non-profits and NGOs operating in the country. Even what one would consider a more traditional cultural tour, like the outstanding ones offered by Elizabeth Bell at Antigua Tours includes information about how your money helps sustain the culture and heritage of the town in very beneficial ways.  

    Preservation and the Realities of the Everyday

    By the time of the 1773 disaster numerous religious orders such as Franciscans, Dominicans, and Mercedarians had already created their respective convent and church complexes, and a number of educational institutions were established in the city as well. The remnants of those religious institutions are the backbone of the architectural tourism industry in Antigua. If you tire of visiting churches and convents on an architectural tour, then Antigua is probably not the place for you. What is particularly gratifying about this collection of sites, however, is the fact that they represent a very unique version of Spanish baroque known as “earthquake squat.” Additionally, each site is treated in a manner specific to its condition and current use. You might ask, “What use does the site of an architectural ruin have today?” The main cathedral of Antigua, San Jose Cathedral, is still very much a working religious institution, as are the churches of San Francisco and La Merced. Iglesia Beatas de Belen on the southeast edge of the city operates both as a church and as a school. The convent of Santo Domingo has been converted to a boutique hotel, and includes in its expansive grounds two art galleries, several museums, and archaeological sites such as the crypts. These architectural sites juggle being both functioning structures and ruined playgrounds for locals and tourists alike.


    [Figure 6. Nave of Santo Domingo set for a wedding.]

    Alternatively, the church and convent of Santa Clara is no longer a functioning religious institution, but is a much visited tourist destination. Sites like Santa Clara, Las Capuchinas, and San Francisco offer some interpretation for the visitor, while others such as San Jerónimo and La Recolección offer little to none. What the latter locations offer instead is the space for magic and imagination. The allure of the unknown and place to create your own story. These sites act as public parks for locals, places for lovers to cuddle under trees, and for family explorations. 


    [Figure 7. Is it architectural vanity? Selfie with immense La Recolección ruins in the background.]

    For instance, my time at La Recolección was spent dancing my gaze along the jagged edges of the ruins, not necessarily trying to make sense of what I was seeing. My artist heart rejoiced in the chaos. I wanted very much to sit, draw, and paint, but the heat told me to keep moving. I did have the opportunity to sit and indulge in the ruins of Las Capuchinas. I spent most of my time trying to depict the materiality, the mixture, and the mess of the tower for the novices (a fascinating complex). My dreamy watercolor impression seems most accurate to me. I feel that I should have left my depiction one of an impression rather than trying so hard to put in the details with Prismacolors. As an academic, it is difficult to interpret and validate my impressions. As an artist, it felt “right.”


    [Figure 8. Las Capuchinas Pt. 1: Water color.]


    [Figure 9. Las Capuchinas Pt. 2:  Water color plus Prismacolor.]

    So how does one begin to understand the interworking of these preservation decisions that highlight certain structures and leave others to serve only as romantic backdrops to the action of their visitors? I searched to find contemporary research that addressed these issues. I found one master’s thesis on La Recolección written in the last ten years.[4] Elizabeth Bell regularly publishes short yet concise articles about the heritage preservation of Antigua in local publications.[5] Websites that cover contemporary architecture trends lacked any information on Antigua (part of this is due, of course, to strict regulations against new building in the city). The bulk of detailed original architectural research on the city was conducted in the 1950s and 1960s.

    A Few Unanswered Questions

    Why is Antigua an overlooked subject in preservation case studies? There seems to be a great wealth to discuss regarding seismic activity and building for earthquakes and volcanoes/mountains with the threat of edifice collapse?

    The city was inscribed in the World Heritage List in 1979 – at a high point of international attention to the Guatemalan Civil War. Was the inscription of the city somehow related to this humanitarian crisis and the understood danger to the culture and built environment of Guatemala? 

    Who studies Guatemalan culture, both the built environment and intangible heritage? While in Yucatán, Mexico, I found archaeologists took up the charge of studying Mayan life and ruins in the region. Guatemala seems to fall under the purview of geographers and anthropologists – why the dearth of architectural historians/preservationists and related literature?

    Is the lack of study a result of the civil war?

    What happens when we privilege the narrative of the colonial past over the indigenous past and present? Are the Cakchiquel natives benefiting from the preservation of these romantic ruins?

    Finally, do architecture and preservation as professional fields have a social responsibility?

    We often find our most endangered sites and cultural landscapes in regions that have suffered from disinvestment, natural disaster, and war. We, as architectural historians, preservationists, architects, conservationists, historians, anthropologists, geographers, professionals in our respective and often overlapping fields, begin to list sites as important and worthy of preservation.  We cite their universal qualities, their authenticity, and their contribution to knowledge about the world at large as evidence of their significance. We often create revenue streams and training/conversation opportunities through such campaigns. But do we build social equity through the stories that are told, the jobs that are created, and the revenue from marketed tourism? What of Antigua as a UNESCO World Heritage Site? Does it mean the same thing for the Ladino and Cakchiquel populations? There is emerging research and literature that takes up some of these concerns, but none I have found address Antigua specifically.[6] There is life in the ruins, but there is a cultural and economic disparity between the former Spanish colonial capital and contemporary Guatemalan context that surrounds it. 


    [Figure 10. This image, taken between 1899 and 1926, could easily be captured in Antigua today. An indigenous woman selling wares in Parque Central.  Arnold Genthe.  Library of Congress.]

    Recommended reading:

    Elizabeth Bell, Antigua Guatemala: The City and Its Heritage (La Antigua Guatemala: Antigua Tours, 1999)

    George F. Guillemin, “The Ancient Cakchiquel of Iximché,” Expedition 9 no. 2 (Winter 1967): 22-35

    José María Magaña Juárez, “La Arquitectura Monumental de La Antigua Guatemala,” Apuntes 24 no. 1 (2011): 92-105

    W. George Lovell, “‘Not a City But a World’: Seville and the Indies,” Geographical Review 90 no. 1/2 (January/April 2001): 239-251

    W. George Lovell, “Surviving Conquest: The Maya of Guatemala in Historical Perspective,” Latin American Research Review 23 no. 2 (January 1, 1988): 25-57

    Sidney D. Markman, “The Architecture of Colonial Antigua, Guatemala, 1543-1773,” Archaeology 4 no. 4 (December 1951): 204-212

    Sidney D. Markman, “Las Capuchinas: An Eighteenth-Century Convent in Antigua, Guatemala,” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 20 no. 1 (March 1961): 27-33

    Sidney D. Markman, “Santa Cruz, Antigua, Guatemala, and the Spanish Colonial Architecture of Central America,” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 15 no. 1, Spanish Empire Issue (March 1956): 12-19

    Alfred Neumeyer, “The Indian Contribution to Architectural Decoration in Spanish Colonial America,” Art Bulletin 30 no. 2 (June 1, 1948): 104-121

    Ruben E. Reina, Annette B. Weiner, and Edward O’Flaherty, “Ethnohistory and Archaeology in Colonial Antigua, Guatemala,” Expedition 12 no. 2 (Winter 1970): 18-30

    Robert C. Smith, “Colonial Towns of Spanish and Portuguese America,” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 14 no. 4, Town Planning Issue (December 1955): 3-12

    Susan Migden Socolow and Lyman L. Johnson, “Urbanization in Colonial Latin

    America,” Journal of Urban History 8 no. 1 (November 1, 1981): 27-59

    John J. Swetnam, “Interaction Between Urban and Rural Residents in a Guatemalan Marketplace,” Urban Anthropology 7 no. 2 (Summer 1978): 137-153

    Stephen Webre, “Water and Society in a Spanish American City: Santiago de Guatemala, 1555-1773,” Hispanic American Historical Review 70 no. 1 (February 1990): 57-84



    [1] See Ferd C. Valentine, “People and Places in Guatemala,” Manhattan 1 no. 6 (June 1883): 424.  The Manhattan was a short-lived illustrated literary magazine; Arthur M. Beaupre, “Antigua, Guatemala, and Its Ruins,” Outing, an Illustrated Monthly Magazine of Recreation 35 no. 1 (October 1899): 50; “Antigua Colonial Ruins Perennial Travel Lure,” Daily Boston Globe April 13, 1952: A18.

    [2] Bonnie Lynn, “Antigua, Guatemala: Break Out of Your Comfort Zone,” World & I 26 no. 9 (September 2011): 5.

    [3] Joshua Wolfe Levy, “The Making of the Gringo World: Expatriates in La Antigua Guatemala,” (PhD diss., University of California Berkeley, 2007), 7.

    [4] Ana Beatriz del Rosario Linares Muñoz,“Ruin Revival in Antigua Guatemala The Interpretation, Integration and Adaptive Reuse of a Fallen Eighteenth Century Masterpiece,” (Master’s thesis, Columbia University 2007).

    [5] See Elizabeth Bell, “Antigua Guatemala celebrates its 34th anniversary UNESCO World Heritage Site” Revue October 1, 2013 http://www.revuemag.com/2013/10/antigua-guatemala-celebrates-its-34th-anniversary-unesco-world-heritage-site/ and “Antigua Over the Years,” Revue March 1, 2014 http://www.revuemag.com/2014/03/antigua-over-the-years/

    [6] See Michelle Fawcett, “The Market for Ethics: Culture and the Neoliberal Turn at UNESCO,” (PhD diss., New York University, 2009); Ian Hodder, “Cultural Heritage Rights: From Ownership and Descent to Justice and Well-being,” Anthropological Quarterly 83 no. 4 (Fall 2010): 861-882; and Jason Ryan and Sari Silvanto “World Heritage Sites: The Purposes and Politics of Destination Branding,” Journal of Travel & Tourism Marketing 27 (2010): 533–545.

    Go comment!
  • In the Yucatán, Land of Kukulkan

    By
    H. Allen Brooks Fellow Amber N. Wiley
     |
    Aug 11, 2014
    THOSE WHO BUILD HOUSES AND TEMPLES

    Essential
    to count the haab years or katun’oob
    that have passed since
    the great powerful men
    raised the walls of the ancient cities
    that we see now
    here in the province of the plains,
    all these cities scattered
    on the earth
    here and there, on high hills.
    Here in the cities, we try to give
    meaning to what we see today in the skies
    and what we know;
    for day to day
    at midday
    we see in the skies
    the signs told to us by
    the ancient people of this land,
    the ancient people of these villages
    here on our earth.
    Let us purify our hearts
    so at nightfall,
    and at midnight,
    from horizon to zenith
    we may read the face of the sky.
      HUA PAAGH’OOB YETEL PPUZ(OOB)

    Tz’u lam kaa[bet]
    u ppizil u xociil ua hayppel haab ua katum
    kin maan[aac]
    le u kinil uay te cahobaa leil
    h nucuuch chaac uincoob
    laitiob liiz u pa[ak] leil
    u uchben cahob
    helah c’ilic
    uay Peten H’Chakan,
    tu lacal lail cahoob ttittanoob
    yook lum
    uay helah
    taan c’ilic ttuuch
    men ttuuch yokol canal uitzoob.
    Lail eu talziic
    tu uay t cahoob c tz’iic
    u thanilbaal [baal] lail c’iliic hela
    baax c ohelma;
    tumen zazammal
    ci ilic t c chumuuc caan
    u chiculil bax alan ton
    tumen h uuchben uincoob
    uay t cabale,
    uay t lume.
    Ti c tz’iic u hahil c ool
    u tial caa paactac
    xocic u ba[al] yan t yiich
    lai caan yo[co]l akab bay tu c chum
    tu chumu[c] beyua tun chimil
    tan canza.

    Ancient Mayan poem from “The Songs of Dzitbalche.”  English translation and Mayan text from John Curl in Bilingual Review 26.2/3 (May 2001-Dec 2002).

    Mayan heritage in the Yucatán Peninsula is a living heritage. Mayan languages are living languages. It is because of this that I have titled this month’s blog post, “In the Yucatán, Land of Kukulkan.” Kukulkan is the Mayan feathered-serpent god, an equivalent to the Aztecs’ Quetzalcoatl. It is Kukulkan who is said to descend the stairs at Chichén Itzá on the spring and autumn equinoxes. In many ways, ancient and living Mayan cultures are omnipresent in the everyday aspects of life on the peninsula. The murals by Fernando Castro Pacheco in the Palacio de Gobierno in Mérida, as well as the exhibits in Palacio Cantón, which houses the Museo Regional de Antropología Yucatán, and in the Gran Museo del Mundo Maya all reinforce this impression. I took guided tours of Tulum, Coba, and Chichén Itzá and in both instances (I toured Tulum and Coba on one day) my tour guides referred to the ancient Mayans as their ancestors. This strengthened the idea that the inhabitants of the Yucatán today are of the same lineage of the ancient peoples of yesteryear, and that through storytelling, preservation, and contemporary custom, these bonds remain strong. One tour guide described how the Mayan calendar was cyclical, rotating and progressing along a trajectory, but always returning to its point of origin. An exhibit at Palacio Cantón entitled “To’on: Maayáa’onil Le K’iino’oba’” which is translated to “Mayas Contemporáneos” in Spanish and “The Maya of Today” in English opens with this idea:

    Maya life has always been – and continues to be – cyclical. This is a constant we could also say is part of human history, but in the case of Maya culture, it forms part of thinking that is anchored to a past, and connected to a future, that creates a present, living cycle of myth.[1]

    The “To’on” exhibit, while aesthetically and spatially disappointing, was a conceptual and thematic feat. Each section of the installation mixed traditional proverbs with images of contemporary Mayan culture, illuminating how and why the wisdom of ancestors transcends time.


    To’on exhibit board that discusses the tradition of building a house


    Image from To’on exhibit showing house building method


    Thatched roof house seen in stone carvings at Uxmal

    Climate and Geography

    One of the best advantages of traveling to various architectural sites is getting first-hand knowledge of differences in climate, geography, and natural resources available to the people who live and build in various regions. The tropical climate of the Yucatán was a stark contrast to mountainous Mexico City. The verdant Mayan jungle provided copious (and much needed) shade at sites like Coba and Uxmal. Tulum sits on the periphery of a dense forest of trees, high and mighty on a rocky cliff overlooking the Caribbean Sea. 


    Temple of the Wind at Tulum

    Cenotes, sinkholes that are abundant on the peninsula, offer fresh water to adventurous tourists and locals alike. These cenotes, naturally filtered through the earth, were sources of fresh water even for the ancient Maya. In some cases, cenotes were also used as places of sacrifice, like at Chichén Itzá.


    Tourists swimming in Cenote Ik Kil

    Ancient Mayans had access to both fresh water and salt water, and the latter was a source of sustenance for various sites since farming was not an option.  Sea salt was a staple trading commodity for the Mayans. Farming was difficult for Mayans because the ground consisted of limestone that rendered the land infertile. The solubility of the limestone partially accounted for the landscape of cenotes. The limestone was also a major construction material for important Mayan buildings and temples.

    Ancient Maya

    While on the peninsula I was able to visit Tulum, Coba, Chichén Itzá, and Uxmal. Uxmal is the only site I did not visit with a guide. I visited Tulum and Coba on the same day and enjoyed the opportunity to visit both sites, although Coba captured my imagination the most. It is a lesser-visited site than Tulum, but its situation in the midst of a dense jungle gives a feeling of greater integration into the landscape. There were moments when I didn’t see another human being in the complex, thanks to the thick curtain of trees. Additionally, the combination of partially restored and unrestored sites in Coba illustrated the amount of work and research involved in the reconstruction process. Traces of the reconstruction process were also evident at Chichén Itzá, where the Castillo was only partially reconstructed on certain sides.


    El Castillo at Chichén Itzá

    Central to my understanding of these sites and their evolution are the numerous, detailed Frederick Catherwood lithographs and the large scale, deeply intoxicating photography of Armando Salas Portugal. While most architectural historians may be familiar with Portugal’s images of Luis Barragán’s work, his documentation of Mayan sites is both so very poetic and scientific at the same time, evoking the inextricable relationship that the Mayan sites had with their surrounding landscapes.

    Querida Mérida

    I was immediately enamored of Mérida upon arrival. There is a vitality of life there that is truly exceptional. This city of about a million people shuts down major thoroughfares on a weekly basis for free street festivals, concerts, dancing, interactive shows, vendors, pedestrianism, and biking. I walked into something exciting provided by the city, without even trying several days in a row. 


    Songs in front of Catedral Mérida

    I walked and walked and walked in el centro in Mérida upon arrival. The architectural mix – Spanish colonial, Italianate, Art Deco – was colorful and vibrant. The focal point of the centro, Catedral Mérida (San Ildefonso), took my breath away. I decided then and there that I preferred this austere design to the excess of the baroque cathedral in Mexico City. The interior space of Catedral Mérida embodied the type of gravitas that the ancient Romans would have appreciated. This cathedral, like its counterpart in Mexico City, was built on the site of one of the most important pre-Hispanic edifices in the city, using the stones of former Mayan temples to build the foundation and walls.


    Interior of Catedral Mérida

    The legacy of Spaniards in the Yucatán is a bit more celebrated than it is in Mexico City. This is evident in the detailed attention paid to the restoration and maintenance of Museo Casa Montejo. Additionally, a major corridor in Mérida is named after the Spanish conquistador family Montejo, a surprising development since most of the Spanish colonial history I saw in Mexico City was restrained in comparison to the celebration of figures of Mexican revolution and independence. The Paseo de Montejo, mainly developed during the Porfirian era, is advertised in guidebooks as Mérida’s Champs-Élysées, portraying the grand aspirations of this peninsular city. Along Paseo de Montejo one can find testaments to the richness of Mérida’s past. The Palacio Cantón, already mentioned herein, was the house of Francisco Cantón Rosado, governor of the state of Yucatán from 1898 to 1902.


    Palacio Cantón

    So much about Mérida reminded me of New Orleans. The color palette of the buildings, the colonial past, the tight, grid-like layout of the historic center. Even the tropical climate and the insects that came with it. I arrived in Mérida during the rainy season, and one day I saw the streets of Mérida flood in a manner all too familiar to me after living three years in New Orleans. I was completely astounded. As it turned out, the kinship that I felt existed between the two cities was not a figment of my imagination, and in fact was felt amongst officials of the two cities as well. Mérida and New Orleans have been sister cities since 1990. The New Orleans airport offered direct flights to Mérida via Pan American World Airways as early as the mid-1940s, and in 2009 New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin and Mérida Cesar Bojorquez Zapata renewed their sister cities agreement. Anna Hartnell, scholar of contemporary literature, who organized a 2013 conference entitled “After Katrina: Transnational Perspectives on the Futures of the Gulf South” in which I participated, described the relationship between Mérida and New Orleans as such:

    Mérida, like Port au Prince, is architecturally reminiscent of New Orleans and, in turn, Havana. It boasts a high percentage of indigenous peoples – some say about 60% – who are proud of their distinctive culture and cuisine, eager to preserve their practices against a seemingly encroaching dominant Mexican culture. The culture here contrasts with that of New Orleans in marked ways, but the city’s embattled status, and the sense of abandonment that stalks some of the beautiful Spanish and French colonial buildings at the city’s core – despite the fact that Mérida, unlike New Orleans, is often promoted as a social and economic success story – is a reminder of the fact that so much of what seems to be unique to New Orleans are cultural traditions shared not just with the rest of the US but with its Latin and Caribbean neighbours.[2]

    The vibrant palette of architecture, the vivacity of life in the street, and the quirkiness of the city of Mérida truly is a testament to a “culture of feeling” that transcends national borders and is created between age-old trade routes and regional connections. 


    #pajaroscallejeros

    I found Mérida to be a surprisingly small town, given its metropolitan population of about one million people. On my last day in the city a friend of mine, who spent a month in Mérida this summer, asked me if I knew the secret behind the bird stencil graffiti all over the historic center. I told her I did not. I went on to ask my bed and breakfast hostess, who immediately pointed me to the artist Guillermo S. Quintana. As I prepared to catch a bus to Cancun, the city from whence my flight to Guatemala would depart, Guillermo walked into my bed and breakfast to introduce himself. My hostess had called and invited him over for some coffee and to speak to me briefly about his work, “#pajaroscallejeros.” Quintana considers his pieces to be urban interventions (a term that is a staple of current architecture school lexicon), adding another dimension to the everyday experience of the street. He has moved into a different phase of work, #pajaroscableados, stuffed cloth bird silhouettes hanging from electrical wires (much like sneakers in an urban neighborhood in the United States). While I did not have the opportunity to talk about his work in an in-depth manner, I do look forward to seeing how he progresses in leaving a unique imprint on the city. The ease with which I was introduced to Quintana, his willingness to stop by for coffee on a busy day, and the open dialogue about his work is the type of situation I could easily imagine happening in New Orleans as well.

    Logistics + Tackling Technology

    My time in the peninsula was partially spent doing the tangible work of this fellowship – organizing and editing my photographs from Mexico City to upload to SAHARA and brainstorming on how to organize my first SAH Blog post – would it be extremely academic, theoretical, logistical, reflective or all of the above? There’s really no blueprint to this thing, which is both freeing and decidedly challenging. So I went with option e.) All of the above

    As you are aware, I included in my previous blog a list of recommended readings that I was able to access online – academic journal articles that would supplement and illuminate the things I was learning on the road. Toting books would be too cumbersome for the many miles I was traveling. I have decided to continue including recommended readings that have helped me understand the many things I have seen and experienced.

    I have been introduced to a variety of gadgets over the last few months with which to document and navigate this journey. The first two that I learned in preparation for the trip were Google Maps and Adobe Photoshop Lightroom. I admit I was late for the bus on both of those tools. Adobe has useful tutorials on getting started with the Lightroom software, so I spent an evening getting the basics down. Lightroom is a fantastic way to batch edit the many photographs I take, and even allows me to edit the metadata attached to each image as well. Google Maps allows me to list all the sites I visited over the course of the year. The H. Allen Brooks Travelling Fellowship map is updated to include sites visited in and around Mexico City and the Yucatán Peninsula.


    H. Allen Brooks Travelling Fellowship Google Maps

    While on the road in Mexico a designer/curator and fellow former New Orleanian, Sergio H. Padilla, introduced me to the Galileo app for my iPhone. Galileo is an offline vector map that gathers information from various sources including Open Street Map, a community-driven wiki map. The map includes places of interest such as historic buildings, museums, coffee shops, restaurants, markets, etc. Padilla kept my Mexico City itinerary current in the twenty-first century with recent architectural projects, so we were able to find our way to various sites in Mexico City, including the Jumex and Soumaya museums. I have used Galileo consistently throughout my journey; the Mexico map I downloaded was invaluable for both Mexico City and the Yucatán Peninsula. 

    I am writing this from Guatemala, the second country I visit on this trip – I look forward to sharing more about this country – its architecture, urbanism, and culture – next month!

    H. Allen Brooks Travelling Fellowship Google Map

    Recommended reading:

    Wendy Ashmore and Jeremy A. Sabloff, “Spatial Orders in Maya Civic Plans,” Latin American Antiquity 13 no. 2 (June 2002): 201-215

    O. Hugo Benavides, “Working/Touring the Past: Latin American Identity and the Political Frustration of Heritage,” International Journal of Historical Archaeology 17 (2013): 245-260

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    1 “Cyclical Time and the Bipartite World,” To’on: Maayáa’onil Le K’iino’oba’ Exhibit, Palacio Cantón.

    2 Anna Hartnell, “After Katrina: Transnational Perspectives on the Futures of the Gulf South,” http://blogs.bbk.ac.uk/afterkatrina/2013/12/

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