Mérida’s founder, Francisco de Montejo, had accompanied Cortés in the 1519-1521 Spanish conquest of the Aztecs in Mexico. As a result, in 1526, the Spanish crown gave Montejo a royal warrant to conquer the Yucatan Peninsula.
The city of Mérida was founded in 1542 on the site of the Mayan city T’Hó. To add insult to injury Montejo’s conquering forces used the stone of the Mayan buildings, and forced indigenous labour, to erect the Plaza Mayor (now the Plaza Grande) and Montejo’s own grand home, which was completed in 1549. Members of the Montejo family lived in the casa for almost 300 years, until 1839 when it was sold to another family who lived there until selling it to the cultural foundation of the National Bank of Mexico. The ground floor is now a small museum, art exhibition gallery, and bank offices. Admission to the museum and galleries is free.
Every Wednesday night, the city of Merida presents the history of Casa de Montejo via a sound and light show projected onto its façade. It begins with a detailed explanation of each of the decorative elements, along with the story they tell of a man who saw in his own exploits an equivalency with the great labours of Hercules, and a mission to bring civilization and European religion to the Maya.
After the explanation of the symbolism in the architecture, there was a brief interlude of colours and patterns projected onto the casa.
Then the evening got really interesting, as the music of drums swelled and a Mayan warrior appeared in front of the casa, calling Montejo to come out and answer for his actions while “conquering” the indigenous people. The ensuing conversation between the Mayan and Francisco de Montejo highlighted the hubris of the Spaniards, as Montejo maintains that there was “nothing” here before the Spaniards brought culture and religion, and the Mayan points out the ways in which the Spaniards disrupted the indigenous civilizations. It’s really interesting to see over and over in the historic reenactments and presentations here an acknowledgement that while the current culture is deeply appreciated, it was built on top of a much more ancient one that also had great value.
The acknowledgment is reinforced by the presence of about 6 million Mayans currently living in Mexico, the largest group of whom are about 300,000 Yucatecs.
The Casa de Montejo is one of the smaller museums in the city, but wS definitely worth visiting.