One of the more abstract ways to learn about the history of the Maya civilization and the city of Mérida is through the collection of murals by internationally known artist Fernando Castro Pacheco, which are on permanent display at the Governor’s Palace in the city’s main plaza.
In a strictly technical sense, some of the 31 enormous works are not true murals because they were not painted directly onto the surface of the walls. However, Castro Pacheco followed in the tradition of other great Mexican muralistas in his belief that art is meant for the public to enjoy and not just for private collectors.
Born in Mérida in 1918, Castro Pacheco began his formal training at the Mérida School of Fine Arts at the age of 15. Six years later he completed his first engravings in wood and linoleum, and shortly thereafter helped to found La Escuela Libre de Las Artes Plásticas de Yucatán.
In 1943, Castro Pacheco moved to Mexico City and began participating in national and international exhibits. He was later named director of the Esmeralda Normal School for Painting and Sculpture.
Upon returning to Mérida in 1973, he began the 26 murals that are featured in the History Room at the Governor’s Palace, his largest work yet. The final five murals of the collection, which are featured in the building’s courtyard, were completed in 1975. One of his greatest honors, the Yucatán Museum of Contemporary Art dedicated a room to Castro Pacheco in 1994. When you enter the Governor’s Palace, the first painting you will see is a two-part mural that begins on the west wall of the courtyard. Titled Social Evolution of Man in Yucatán, the mural highlights the Golden Age of the Maya with images of men hunting and fishing, constructing temples and worshipping the gods. The scene closes with a representation of Chilam Balam, the Maya priest who predicted the arrival of white men who would ride horses, carry firearms and bring a new cross. While the continuation of the story, located on the eastern wall, moves into the slavery and cruelty that followed the arrival of the Spanish, it is not entirely negative. Friar Bartolome de Las Casas, whose writings denounced the inhumane treatment of Indians, is honored as a hero next to symbols of liberation like broken chains. The piece ends with images of the great Caste War in the Yucatán and the onset of national revolution.
Heading up to the second floor you will encounter the staircase murals, a series of three scenes that reflect the Mesoamerican perception of the world with the five regions of east, south, west, north and center. The wall to the left of the landing represents the west, which the Maya saw as a symbol of death, the tomb of the sun and source of bad winds. Among the shadowy colors appear images of the jaguar, death, demons, war, hunger and evil priests. The middle wall encompasses north, center and south and tells the story of creation with man emerging from an ear of corn – a vibrant burst of yellow color against an otherwise gloomy backdrop. The right wall shows the east, the direction in which the sun is reborn each day and the rains from Chaac come to fertilize the earth and bring harvest.
In the second floor corridor, there are several paintings of regional icons like Salvador Alvarado, once a state governor who introduced several social reforms, and Felipe Carrillo Puerto and Lázaro Cárdenas, who worked for agrarian reform. Two paintings pay tribute to the physical labor and struggle of the Yucatán people. Both Man on Foot and The Sisal Cutter’s Hands show the character of the indigenous people, testifying to their hard work and achievements. Another mural, Mexico’s Eternal Struggle uses the theme of the national flag to demonstrate the battle between good and evil as represented by the eagle and the serpent. As its accompanying plaque suggests, the country’s history is filled with such duality. War and violence were often necessary to liberate the country from corruption, exploitation and poverty. The final design of the Mexican flag was decided by President Venustiano Carranza in 1916 and features an eagle perched on a cactus, devouring a serpent. This image not only embodies victory for the people, but relates to Aztec mythology and the founding of the empire’s capital, Tenochtitlán.
Inside the History Room, also on the second floor, there are numerous paintings dedicated to the region and its key players. There is a portrait of Francisco de Montejo, the Spanish commander who, along with his son and nephew, conquered the area and founded Mérida in 1542. Another important featured figure is Fray Diego de Landa, who both destroyed and preserved historical records of the Maya by burning their writings and later publishing accounts of what he had seen. There are also renderings of Gonzalo Guerrero, the Spaniard credited with being the father of the first mestizo, and the gory execution of Jacinto Canek, who, as punishment for leading a rebellion against the colonial power in 1761, was drawn and quartered in Mérida’s main plaza in front of the Montejo house. Other paintings feature innovations like the printing press and Spanish weapons, while others detail lesser-known stories like those of English pirates.
In the large room facing the plaza there are several murals along the long wall. The three central murals were all painted in 1974. The central image is called Venta de Indios, and depicts the sale of Indians to Cuban slave traders which began in 1849, during the Caste War. The government excused this activity with the explanation that the jails were so full of prisoners, which cost money to maintain, that the only logical thing to do was sell some of them as slaves. Unfortunately, they began selling women and children, too. Finally, the disgraceful practice was stopped by President Juárez.
The image to its right is called Guerra de Castas, depicting the 50 year Caste War which took 300,000 lives. Many theories exist about the reasons for this war, but it probably has its roots in the buildup of hatred by the Maya toward the whites who exploited them.
The painting to the left of the central painting is called El Henequén. While the Maya had used henequén for rope for many years, the Spanish conquerors largely ignored it until the first third of the 19th century when they began to cultivate it. It reached its peak as a staple product a hundred years later.
Below The Conquest there is an engraved plaque that reads: “The Maya refused the Western intrusion during twenty years. Later, their culture conquered the conqueror,” – an interesting thought to ponder as you travel the Yucatán. And while upstairs, take advantage of the large windows, which offer one of the best views of the city’s cathedral.
This collection of murals – all of them beautiful, most of them tragic – is one of Mérida’s greatest treasures and should not be missed. Allow yourself at least an hour to meander through the building, although it will not take you nearly that long to fall in love with one of Castro Pacheco’s candid works. While the building stays open late into the evening, it is best to view the murals in daylight. The Governor’s Palace is located on the corner of Calles 60 and 61, on the north side of the Plaza Grande, and admission is free.
Editor’s note: Fernando Castro Pacheco, one of the greatest artists of Yucatán, died on Aug. 8, 2013, leaving a tremendous legacy for future generations. At Museo Macay, where they have a permanent exhibit salon with his name, key pieces of his work are displayed. They have also created a virtual memorial to honor his life, his legacy, and the many ways in which he and his works have influenced others: http://macay.org/fernando-castro-pacheco
The Governor’s Palace
Corner of Calles 60 and 61, Centro
Admission is free.