The Artisans and History of the Yucatan

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by Eva Wieland, Arts Editorial Assistant

Twelve hours after finishing my last semester exam, I found myself totally removed from the past semester’s worries in the 90-degree heat of Merida, Mexico.

Having dreamed of visiting the Mayan ruins for years, my family and I finally chose to visit Merida for winter break because of its rich culture and proximity to the ancient grounds.

With this opportunity, my family and I made multiple day trips to various archeological sites surrounding the city, including Dzibilchaltun and the world famous Chitzen Itza. Chitzen Itza often ranks as one of the seven wonders of the world. Because of the recognition, the site was overflowing with tourists from all around the world. The primitively built and designed structures have survived for viewing in this modern age largely because the climate is perfect for maintenance. The stone carvings and images directly link visitors to art created during the Mesopotamia era over 2,000 years ago. At the lesser known sites, my brothers and I climbed on many of the huge pyramids and step like structures, discovering paths inside and around the ruins while walking in the steps of ancient civilizations. The carvings that adorn the stone architecture depict scenes from the past including worships, people, skulls and animals. These carvings pass down stories, culture and instruction while also serving as signs of power and sustenance to visitors. Artistic expression lives on through the stone medium.

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In downtown Merida we walked to the Sunday market of local artisans on the inner square. Locals and visitors alike crowd the square to socialize and peruse the shops set up by  vendors selling art, jewelry and crafts. We walked the lively streets, enjoying ice cream and exploring the pieces of art that serve as the heart of Yucatan culture. Atop little wooden tables and thick woven rugs laid all sorts of hand carved figures and trinkets, as well as bright beaded jewelry and wool knit clothing, hats and fabrics.

One of the most popular pieces I noticed being sold and worn by women is called a terno de gala. The beautiful dresses are crisp white and hand embroidered with colorful floral designs. The elaborate pieces appeared at first to be nice Sunday clothes but after talking to locals and spending the next week exploring the city, I learned they are part of many Yucatan women’s daily wardrobes.

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Although the most representative art is made with techniques that stem from Mayan culture and is sold by the local vendors, there is also a modern art scene within the city of Merida. To my surprise, Merida has the largest contemporary art presence in the Yucatan state, with multiple small galleries and the Museo Fernando García Ponce-Macay. The spectacular museum, which goes by MACAY, resides in a downtown historical building. With the mission to expose visitors to a wide array of international and national modern and contemporary art, every three months it renews all 45 exhibits of over 2000 pieces. While this is impressive, what sets MACAY apart is its dedication to education, spreading artistic awareness to over 22,000 children every year.   

The Yucatan is one of the most culturally rich regions in the world. Its people, traditions, foods and art stem directly from the Mayan people. Different from the rest of Mexico, the Yucatan is a unique cultural gem. If you ever get the chance to travel to the peninsula of Mexico, skip the Cancun beach resort and spend time soaking up the sun and ancient art of Merida.

Photo Credit: 1, 2, 3

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