Whether you’re passing through or fortunate enough to call Mérida your home, you’ve likely seen a considerable number of buildings dedicated to preserving these lands’ memory. A great example is Palacio de Gobierno, a pistachio-green sentinel firmly anchored to the pavement of Calle 61, facing the city’s central park. You can’t help but notice it.
Palacio de Gobierno is a beauty in its own right, but today we won’t discuss its architecture; instead, we’ll delve into the pictorial treasure it houses: “Historia de Yucatán”, or History of Yucatán by Yucatecan muralist painter Fernando Castro Pacheco.
This collection, created between 1971 and 1975, consists of 27 oil paintings on galvanized metal sheets that depict some of the most significant aspects of identity and social consolidation in Yucatán; due to their size (and spirit), they’re considered murals despite not being painted directly on the walls. Each mural is impactful as a work of art, but they can be appreciated even more when you understand the history they represent. Here, we’ll provide some context for each one.
Upon entering Palacio de Gobierno, you will be greeted by a central courtyard from where you can observe, in 360 degrees, the paintings that adorn the palace corridors: two on the ground floor and six on the upper floor.
Ground floor: “Evolución Social del Hombre en Yucatán” (Social Evolution of Men in Yucatán)
The two “murals” located on the ground floor are the largest you’ll find at this venue. Titled “Evolución Social del Hombre en Yucatán”, they depict various images of the history of the Maya people: from their era of splendor and freedom to modern times, including the arrival of colonizers and the subsequent liberation of the people.
The first mural, located on your right as you walk in from the street, focuses on the era of pre-Hispanic Maya splendor. It shows men hunting and fishing, building temples, and worshiping their gods. This same mural features the Maya priest Chilam Balam, who predicted the arrival of white men riding horses, carrying weapons, and bringing a new cross.
The second part, on the left side, illustrates what happened from the encounter with the Old World onwards, especially the brutality and violence of Spanish dominance. However, it also highlights the role of Fray Bartolomé de las Casas as a defender of the indigenous Americans, amidst broken chains symbolizing the liberation of the people. This same painting also includes images of the Maya Social War or the Caste War, and the beginning of the Mexican Revolution.
The staircase murals: The Maya worldview
As you approach the upper floor, you’ll be able to better appreciate what are known as the “staircase murals,” which depict a beautiful part of the Maya worldview.
According to the sacred book of the Popol Vuh, humans were created from maize. In the central painting, we see humanity coming to life: as described by poet Alfredo Barrera Vásquez, “a large ear of corn, held by the generous hand of the south, displays its kernels; from it, a man emerges as if waking up from his slumber.” The “generous hand of the south” refers to one of the Bacabs, the four deities that support each corner of the sky, each associated with a different color; the south is represented by yellow. It’s no wonder that the intense yellow in the central painting facing the stairs stands out among the prevailing black and white colors. Right there, the white Bacab holds the constellation of the Big Dipper, both associated with the north.
On your right, you’ll find the auspicious red Bacab, symbolizing the East and the joy of the sun that rises anew each day. On your left, the ominous black Bacab is accompanied by a jaguar, representing the West, where the sun dies and shadows and danger are born.
The upper floor hallways: México and Yucatán
Once upstairs, if you decide to continue your path to the right, “La lucha eterna de México” (The Eternal Struggle of México) will greet you after a few steps. This painting represents one of humanity’s oldest struggles: the battle between good and evil. For México, these elements are represented, respectively, by the eagle and the serpent that make up our national emblem.
However, if your feet take you to the left, you’ll see the solemn face of General Salvador Alvarado; the Governor of Yucatán from 1915 to 1918 is still known today as one of the liberators of the Maya people, as he implemented the principles of the Mexican Revolution in Yucatán.
Finally, the three works that frame the entrances to the Salón de la Historia (Hall of History), where the rest of the collection is displayed, are: “El hombre en marcha” (The Marching Man), “Las manos del cortador del henequén” (The Hands of the Henequén Cutter), and “Reforma agraria” (Agrarian Reform). The first two embody the feet and hands of the Maya people, those who work the milpa (fields) and the sisal fiber, and who understand the hardships of agricultural labor.
The last painting depicts the faces of one of the most passionate defenders of the Maya people, Yucatecan Governor Felipe Carrillo Puerto, and Mexican President Lázaro Cárdenas, who was responsible for the nationalization of the oil industry and the distribution of land to Maya farmers.
The Hall of History
The Hall of History is, in itself, a beautiful place to visit, thanks to its views of the Plaza Grande and its surroundings. It’s from its balconies that the constitutional governor of Yucatán commemorates the “Grito de Dolores” call to arms during the celebration of México’s Independence Day.
There are 17 “murals” within the Hall of History, all created between 1972 and 1974. On the north wall (the one behind you as you enter the room), you’ll see five murals; the east and west walls each display one, and the south wall (where the balconies are located) showcases ten. Together, these works will take you on a journey through the history of Yucatán from the arrival of the Spanish to the restoration of the Republic in 1867.
Each mural is impactful as a work of art, but they can be appreciated even more when you understand the history they represent. Here, we’ll provide some context for each one.
Note: The paintings are not presented as a chronological tour of Yucatán’s history; for the purposes of this guide, we’ll list them as they are exhibited. Stand facing the north wall (with your back to the Plaza Grande) and move to the last painting on the right side.
La Conquista (The Conquest)
“La Conquista” depicts the violence of the struggle between the Maya and the conquistadors. The Spanish began to arrive in Yucatán in 1511; from the first contact on, the Maya distrusted the newcomers and fiercely fought to repel them for over 180 years: the last Maya stronghold surrendered to the Spaniards in 1697.
Nevertheless, in Yucatán, as in the rest of México, both cultures eventually became intricately intertwined. This is referred to by the plaque beneath this painting, which reads “The Maya resisted Western intrusion for twenty years. Then, their culture conquered the conqueror.”
Guerra de Castas (The Caste War)
“A Maya social revolution that began in 1847 and dissolved into historical resentment without political peace or armistice.“
México’s independence was achieved in 1821, after 11 years of conflict. By then, Yucatán, which had been a relatively independent Captaincy, desired to maintain its autonomy while being part of the new Mexican State; from then on, for 20 years, the relationship between the governments was rocky, leading Yucatán to declare its independence from México first in 1841 and then in 1846.
Throughout this time, the Maya indigenous people of Yucatán were constantly enlisted to fight against the Mexican army as part of their obligations as “employees” of hacienda owners. In 1847, led by leaders Jacinto Pat and Cecilio Chi, the indigenous people rose up in a social war that would result in more than a quarter of a million deaths and would eventually force Yucatán to return to the Mexican Republic.
Venta de indios (Sale of Indigenous People)
“From 1848 to 1861, Yucatecan politicians engaged in this inhumane trade with Cuban slaveholders. Juárez puts an end to it.”
Although slavery was abolished in México in 1810, the reality was that the Maya indigenous people were not free; they worked under difficult conditions, with their rights even further restricted through unpayable (and hereditary) debts they incurred with their own “employers”. These debts were one of the excuses used to sell entire families, whose members were transported to Cuba as slaves. Although the practice was illegal, it was an open secret in Yucatecan society; it ended with a decree by President Benito Juárez that specifically prohibited the extraction of the Maya people from Mexican territory.
“Native plant of Yucatán used by the Maya. It generated an industry and a culture since the mid-19th century.“
El triunfo de la República (Triumph of the Republic)
“Cepeda Peraza takes the city of Mérida, June 16, 1867.“
Between 1855 and 1863, the enactment of the Reform Laws in México limited the power that the Church held over the country’s life. These laws divided the country between liberals (who supported these reforms) and conservatives (who saw them as a threat to their way of life). The conservatives, with the support of Napoleon III (who sought to turn México into a French protectorate), decided to establish a new Mexican empire, led by a European Catholic ruler. This responsibility fell to Archduke Maximilian of Austria, who became Emperor Maximilian I of México.
The government of Maximilian I developed in parallel with that of Benito Juárez, and Mérida was one of the cities besieged during the struggle between the two sides. After 56 days, and a month after the capture of Maximilian I in 1867, the imperialists surrendered to General Manuel Cepeda Peraza. On June 16, he took the city of Mérida with an army composed of both Creoles and Maya, while the Caste War raged on beyond the city.
De la vida colonial: el suplicio de Jacinto Canek (From Colonial Life: Jacinto Canek’s Anguish)
On November 19, 1761, near Sotuta, in Cisteil (pronounced Kistay-eel), Jacinto Uc de los Santos addressed the people gathered in the church atrium after a celebration. Uc, who had changed his surname to Canek in honor of the Itzá rulers, had traveled across the Peninsula and concluded that the only thing the Spaniards had brought to the Maya people was slavery.
The uprising was short-lived. Less than a month later, Jacinto Canek and his associates were apprehended, tortured, and publicly executed; the ordeal of the Maya leader is depicted in this artwork. The punishment for this rebellion extended to every inhabitant of Cisteil, which was razed and completely burned down by the colonial army, and then covered in salt to prevent anything from growing there again.
Instruments of domination
- Nachi Cocom: Chief of Sotuta, symbolizes indomitable Maya resistance
- Gonzalo Guerrero, father of the first Mexican mestizos in the chieftaincy of Chetumal
- Franciscos de Montejo Adelantado, Son and Nephew, subdue the Maya in 20 years and project a vast Castilian viceroyalty with its capital in Ixcanzihó [sic], where they found Mérida in 1542
- Fray Diego de Landa. Stern inquisitor, benevolent bishop, and fundamental historian in the second half of the 16th century
- Bishop Juan Gómez de Parada. Declares the abolition of slavery in the first quarter of the 18th century
- Drought, pestilence, and hunger left long-lasting uncertainty in the people
- English pirates attack the coasts in the 17th and 18th centuries and occupy Belize
- Lucas de Gálvez. Governor and Captain General from 1789 to 1792, progressive road builder
- Printing Press. Don Manuel López Constante brings the first one from Havana
Vicente María Velásquez ignites independence with the Sanjuanista movement
Vicente María Velásquez was a Yucatecan priest who, before the outbreak of the Mexican War of Independence, advocated for better living conditions for the Maya indigenous people. On the terrace of the church under his charge, the Church of San Juan (Calle 64 x 67-A y 69-A), he began to gather with other liberal minds seeking to incorporate Enlightenment ideals into Yucatán’s political life. This led to the formation of the Society of Sanjuanistas, which fought for freedom of expression and managed to reduce the fees that were charged to the Maya for receiving the sacraments.
As you can see, these paintings not only stand out as key pieces in the Mexican muralist movement. They are works of art that preserve memory and, therefore, the soul of the people, capable of conveying all the emotions associated with some of the most notable moments in the history of the state; some filled with pride, others with shame. Don’t miss the opportunity to see them for yourself.
Palacio de Gobierno del Estado de Yucatán
Calle 60 S/N x 61 y 59, Centro
By Lizzy B. and Alicia Navarrete
Photography by Yucatán Today for use in Yucatán Today.
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