Cementerio General – Mérida

As we drove toward Plaza Mayor, we slowly passed through a vast cemetery, the oldest Cementerio General. If you like moseying through old cemeteries, this one is a particular treasure. It is the largest and oldest in Mérida and is graced with a few spectacular headstones and mausoleums of wealthy Hacienda owners, historic figures, groups of musicians, hemp workers, a complete gamut of the locals, albeit deceased locals.

Rotonda de los Hombres Ilustre, including Governor Felipe Carillo Puerte – Cementerio General – Mérida

One intriguing surprise was the grave of an intrepid American woman, Alma Reed, who had a love affair with Governor Felipe Carillo Puerte. He, a Socialist, doing much to reform and improve the lives of the Mayan hemp workers, was assassinated with some of his brothers and Socialist colleagues. At a corner in the Cemetario is the Rotonda de los Hombres Ilustre  (rotunda of illustrious men), where you will find his remains. You will also see the wall against which he was executed by a firing squad in 1924, a bright yellow monument in the cemetery. Alma was a writer for several New York and San Francisco newspapers and was in San Francisco buying her wedding dress when the Governor was assassinated. Crushed by the death of her lover and fiancé, she asked to be buried near him. Her grave is across the street from his, lovers still separated by a wide boulevard. Her story is quite unique, I encourage you to  find her history online or in the several books published about her life. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alma_Reed

American Alma Reed Headstone – Cementerio General – Mérida

Rosa Benet, gazing at her husband, Alvaro Medina Rodriguez, Cementerio General – Mérida

Rosa Benet, gazing at her husband, Alvaro Medina Rodriguez, Cementerio General – Mérida 1905

Humberto, my guide, led me to another remarkable mausoleum, a shrine to a wealthy Hacienda patron. An enormous full size bed, layered with rippled linen sheets of hand carved marble, is elevated about five feet off the ground. Standing alongside the bed is a elegantly dressed woman, Rosa Benet, gently lifting the corner of the sheet to gaze at her husband, Alvaro Medina Rodriguez, who passed away while she was at a gala. The story is that he had persuaded her to go and enjoy the evening, she protested, but went and missed saying a last goodbye to her beloved husband. The work was an Imitation of the work of Mexican sculptor Almo Strenta.

The Cementerio mimics community life, the wide main avenue is lined by the houses/mausoleums of the wealthy, the casta divina families. Many historic people are buried here, and its memorials are built in Greek, Gothic or French neoclassic styles, often from stone or granite brought from Europe by local wealthy families. They range from classically beautiful to over-the-top displays of wealth, and deeper in the back you will find simple but colorful houses of the dead, all filled with restos – remains.

If you walk deeper into the Cementerio, under the enormous shade trees, you will also discover more modest houses for the deceased, small tomb-houses that seemed to be devoted to just one person. On closer inspection, you will see stacks of osarios, boxes full of bones. The bones of generations, buried one on top of the other. In a family-owned plot, the most recent body will be buried in the ground. That usually involves digging up the old bones from previous generations and adding new family members. The little houses, built by the living for the dead relatives, are kept for visiting purposes. Simple replicas of houses, some are very colorfully painted, others remain white, bleached by years of blazing sun; some have windows or doors and are topped by angels or crosses and inside each house, may be a small memento of the deceased. The living place these trinkets to honor their ancestors, you may see statues of saints, candles or bits of flowers and plants.

Every year, the Day of the Dead, or Dia de los Muertos, is celebrated Oct. 31 through Nov. 2 throughout Mexico, in the Yucatán it’s called Hanal Pixán, Mayan for “food of the souls.”

Once, historically held at the beginning of summer, Day of the Dead was moved to coincide with the Christian festivals following the Spanish colonization of Mexico in the 16th Century. On Oct. 31, All Hallows Eve, children make a children’s altar to invite the angelitos – children to visit. Nov. 1 is All Saints Day, and the adult spirits are invoked and invited. Nov. 2 is All Souls Day, when families go to the cemetery to decorate the graves and tombs of their relatives. The holiday and celebration has evolved over the years and is a complex celebration of the deceased relatives and a celebration of life.

Cementerio General – Mérida

Look skyward to view the many cherubs or angels, many missing wings or body parts, spirits guarding the families from above.

 

 

 

 

Haciendas Foundation of the Maya World – Folk Art

Besides the fine dining, glamorous hotel properties and cocktail sipping one might see if you follow my rambling trails on Instagram or Facebook, you will also see photos of locals or crafts people I meet along the way. I love chatting with those involved or working within these foundations – people who make a significant difference in local lives. People who provide job skills and aid in creating sustainable occupations.

One such fine organization was presented to me in Mérida, Mexico. When you visit Mérida, we will organize your private guiding with an esteemed local firm who has secured the most knowledgeable guides and supports several local non-profits. Part of my process is to hand select our guiding teams, assuring the absolute best guides for our clients. We  don’t look at an extensive list provided by a large travel association to ‘vet’ our guides and local teams, I prefer a more personal relationship with our local representatives.

As you may know, many original Haciendas have been restored as hotel properties or as private stay. I had the opportunity to explore a few and stayed at one hotel hacienda property – I am dying to return to Mérida and see more of these converted ancient haciendas.

In 2002, the devastating Hurricane Isidore slammed into the states of Yucatán and Campeche, leaving a path of devastation in its path. In these two states there are many rural Maya communities that were severely affected by this hurricane. As a result of witnessing the ruins and destruction caused to these communities, Grupo Plan, a corporation that owns a number of haciendas in the Yucatán, started the project La Fundación de las Haciendas del Mundo Maya, AC ( The Haciendas Foundation of the Maya World). The same founder, a successful businessman and his wife founded an exclusive travel firm, employing esteemed guides, specializing in the Yucatan, whom we  specifically work with for our client visits.

From the sisal workshop: Mother and daughter. Daughter works in the business development side

Friday morning, Pedro Gamboa collected me for the visit to the artisan workshops nearby the Hacienda Temozon Sur. What an electric morning with these charming and talented women. They challenged me to make one of the sisal turtles…from handling the rough uncombed sisal to intricate weaving and assembly. By nature, I am competitive and I sadly must admit, I failed at this delicate craft. The story was the same, each one had introduced a friend to the native craft – the objects may be travel trinkets, but the sisal history is an integral story of the Mayan heritage. I asked them what they liked the most – one said: the money, it is all mine, not my husbands’! She giggled and blushed; these traditional women did not work outside the home and some faced resistance from their spouses. I asked what do you with your money? I pay for my children and grandchildren’s education. I’m not certain she saw the tears well up in my eyes, it was so heartwarming to see a flourishing project and meet these enterprising successful women. The foundation works directly with the women in the villages and are seeing that when women are empowered with education and skills, entire families benefit – and when families benefit, the entire village benefits. 

Through various programs, the foundation is working with 177 artisans in 14 villages that surround the haciendas they own.

From the sisal workshop: Eluteria Chan and Fani Be

We visited the sisal workshop and the carved horn workshop where Cecilia Ek took slices of a horn, pounded them, drew and cut intricate patterns into the tough horn, remarkable – she has won many awards for her work. We also visited a seamstress and a tortilla business. It was the hottest month of May, but the broad smiles of these proud women in the sweltering tortilla bakery told the story – independence, success and a better life for them and their families. These are a few of the highlights of my recent travels.

From the carved horn workshop: Cecilia Ek

Tortilla Shop- Several generations of ladies.

The local guiding team we selected also works in collaboration with the hotel and private haciendas, they provided my introduction to these village of women working on their exceptional crafts. The features of the foundation, besides teaching these women useful skills, set up working villages near the hotel haciendas where the women work and sell their goods. They have also established a path with retailers for the craft goods. The non-profit organization was created with the idea of assisting these rural Maya communities escape poverty as they try to change their ways and adapt to the 21st century.

The Haciendas Foundation was founded as a unique union between the tourism project developed by the group (Grupo Plan) that specializes in innovative tourist developments (the hacienda hotels) and the Maya communities where the haciendas are located.

I once spent much time in Kenya with a small non-profit who taught teen girls how to run a business – it was a solid lesson in the theory: if you teach a woman or a girl a skill, she is more likely than a man to share these skills with other girls – like tossing a pebble into a pond, the ripple effect. When I met the local women in the workshops near Hacienda Temozon Sur, this lesson was repeated to me by the workers – each one introduced a friend, mother or sister to this organization. Success creates success.

Transformation is on the rise in the villages where the program has been put into practice – lives are changing for the better. Such positive changes seem infectious in each community!

From the carved horn workshop by Cecilia Ek

When you purchase one of these products you are helping a family end the vicious cycle of poverty.

Donations and more details can be found at: www.haciendasmundomaya.com