New residents in Merida often ask me how Yucatan has changed since I came to live here in 1976. And the first thing that always comes to mind is the way Merida’s physical spaces used to be laid out. Soon after I met my husband, Jorge, he took me to meet his parents, Don Humberto Rosado-Espinola and Doña Bertha Baeza-Delgado. They lived on Calle 56, between Calles 57 and 59. Their home was much like that of the other middle-class families who lived right downtown. But now, 45 years later, I can only think of a few properties that are still arranged like the home where Jorge grew up.
I am from western Canada, and at the time of my move to Merida, the longest-standing buildings in my hometown of Vancouver were barely one hundred years old. I felt awed when Jorge told me that his family’s home in El Centro dated back to the sixteenth century. And in fact, it appears on the first maps of the colonial city.
Solid stone and mortar walls soared six-meters up to meet the high ceilings that were held aloft by wooden beams. The house had been modified at some point during the mid-twentieth century and a large window facing the street was added. This allowed light and air to enter the cavernous space, and a couple of constantly-oscillating ceiling fans kept a breeze moving 24-7. Doña Bertha’s pride-and-joy were the twin crystal chandeliers that illuminated the whole interior.
When Jorge’s father bought the house in the 1950s, he had a divider built half-way up the facing walls, thus making two practical rooms out of the front part. It was fashionable for the lady of the house to have her own bedroom, and my mother-in-law’s occupied the newly-created one on the left-hand side. She could look out the window and see her sons coming and going. She used to say that no one could fool her about what time they arrived home.
Along with hooks for multiple hammocks, Doña Bertha had a king-size bed, covered with many puffy pillows and a pale blue satin quilt that spread out beneath a filmy white, lace-trimmed mosquito net. Never before had I seen such an enormous bed in anyone’s house. I couldn’t look at it without thinking of the Gulf of Mexico covered by billowy clouds. A handsome red mahogany armoire, a dressing table with a bevelled circular mirror, and a cabinet for her custom-made dainty shoes completed the furnishings. Portraits of the many cherished grandchildren lined the walls, and a statue of Our Lady of Sorrows brooded in the far corner.
To the right of the divider stood the proud sala (the living room). The front-and-center feature was la consola (a combination black & white TV and high-fi) My father-in-law showed me his collection of Frank Sinatra, and Big Band music, stored carefully beside his Asimil language-learning records. Don Humberto studied English, French, and Russian by that method. My husband used them to learn English, French and German. The room’s furniture included a green velvet-upholstered sofa and two matching armchairs, an enormous gilt mirror, and a marble-topped coffee table, covered with bric-a-brac that my mother in law collected. Sadly most of the figurines had been dropped a time or two by inquisitive grandchildren. The repair jobs with a glue called, Resistol-5,000, left bright yellow seams where the damage had been done.
The dining room with its sideboard and table for eight, lay on the other side of a Moorish-style arch, another architectural addition from the 1950s. Often there were three or four shifts of Rosados and assorted relatives taking turns, and fully enjoying, the amazing meal prepared by my mother-in-law. She had a justified reputation as a fine cook and the whole clan vied for an invitation to eat with her at holiday times. Doña Bertha also owned a glass vitrine with a porcelain dinner service and green crystal-ware for 16 persons, but this collection never graced the table. It was decorative, and not used even once!
On the other side of the dining room, three bedrooms and a bathroom were built down the length of the property, all the way to the kitchen. They had connecting doors and were also accessible from the garden. Full length windows drew in the fresh night air that kept Don Humberto and the five Rosado boys comfortable and cool in their pastel-colored cotton hammocks. Trees – three avocado, two sour orange, one lemon and an achiote – soared to the sky from the narrow strip of vegetation. Peeking out from between the trunks and among the stepping stones, there were roses, hibiscus, climbing vines of all kinds, and other ornamental plants that Don Humberto loved.
The kitchen, laundry room and the maid’s room filled the remaining space at the back of the property. No room to hang up the clothes to dry at ground level – no, for that we had to climb a metal ladder made from railroad ties – to the roof, where row upon row of lines were strung. Believe me, getting all the way up there with a wicker basket full of wet laundry, balanced on one hip and the opposite hand clutching the railing, was the labor of titans.
Just outside Doña Bertha’s efficient kitchen, grew a fig tree – its boughs laden with fruit all year round. When I asked her how that skinny tree prospered, she pointed at her kitchen table and told me that fig trees only do well when they are planted close by a source of gossip. I nodded solemnly and hoped that stories about me did not garner too much attention.
Yes, I was naïve – of course they all talked about me – I was a never-ending source of unfamiliar comportment. And for Yucatecans, not behaving in the conventional manner produces a stupefied combination of wonder, confusion, outrage, threat and yes – a bit of envy. Propriety and predictability were the pillars that peninsular society depended on.
Some years after my father-in-law passed away, Jorge bought the family home from Doña Bertha, and it is now part of the college he and I founded in 1990. The spacious rooms have new uses and few people remember how they once looked. Nonetheless, from time to time, my mind’s eye travels backwards with nostalgia, and I get a glimpse of “the way we were”.