Actually, it’s not much of a legacy. It’s a not-very-interesting history. The foreign community of Merida was founded primarily (with notable exceptions) by drunks, misfits and criminals. Fortunately, things have changed.
Who becomes an expat? I’m not talking about the normal human beings who set up residence in other countries because their employers send them there. I’m talking about those of us who make a decision to uproot ourselves, leave our friends and families and all that’s familiar, and relocate, either alone or with a family or partner, to a foreign culture. From this discussion, I’m also eliminating people who have roots in the new country, or have married into roots there.
When I first started coming to Merida about 25 years ago, there were very few foreigners here. The American Consulate held First Friday gatherings for the American community in the consulate, then located on the Paseo Montejo. There was a big room, some tacky chairs, hard fluorescent lighting, and an open bar. There were never more than 20 people there, and they were all there for the free booze, myself included. We’d drink and sit around complaining about how often the electricity went off, or how easy it was to trip on the unfilled holes in the sidewalks. Poor us.
Then, there was the gathering place in Parque Hidalgo, commonly known as “The Umbrellas.” On any given day, there would be about ten gringos/gringas sitting there, starting at about 9 a.m., drinking beer and smoking. Mostly, they were older, unmarried men, some gay and some straight. And mostly they were disconnected people, disenchanted with life, and content to drink away their final years in quiet quasi companionship with like-minded people. We were all running away from something. We hadn’t come to create a new life so much as to get away from the old one.
These were the Pre-NAFTA days, in fact long before. We had no McDonalds or Costco. There was no common use of the internet or email. English language TV didn’t exist here and grocery shopping was an adventure. The wealthier, less eccentric (or should we say adventurous) Americans and Canadians found this place much too primitive. My mom came down to visit me in my house in the late 80′s and was very troubled because there were no toilet seats.
When northamericans came to Mexico (and this is true today with tourists, at least), they felt that it was a place where they could let loose and do all the outrageous things they could never get away with at home. They treated Merida like a cesspool. They had a fantasy that Mexico supported distasteful, rude and illegal behaviors, when in fact, quite the opposite was (and is) true. We had a steady stream of American fugitives here, and occasionally the FBI would quietly snatch one or the other of them up and we’d never see them again. One of my friends had been involved with one of these guys and after he disappeared, she visited him several times at a federal prison in the US.
Houses could be had for very little in the 80s and into the 90s. I bought my colonial in 1988 for $11,000 USD. But in the 90s, Real Estate Agents made their appearance. Merida began to be a trendy place to live and the Agents helped shoot the prices through the roof, so to speak. In their search for houses to sell, Agents knocked on the doors of family homes, asking whether they’d consider selling. This did not engender goodwill, but many Meridianos did cash in, collecting enough money to make them secure for life.
The foreigners have restored hundreds of houses downtown. Where in the 80s, Merida looked sort of like Havana – worn and dirty, now it is charming. The City of Merida launched a program to revitalize the facades of downtown buildings, so the total effect is about a 100% improvement.
The early gay foreign male population here, which was substantial, was known for wild parties, some of which included the presence of prepubescent boys. Some of the boys were “borrowed” from local orphanages. I remember early in my time here going to the house party given by an American man, a doctor who had lost his license. I looked around the crowded, dimly lit room and saw about a dozen very quiet Maya boys, about eight years old. I wondered what the heck they were doing at an adult party, when suddenly I understood.
A lot of the straight men went through as many women and girls as their creaky bodies would allow, especially the old codgers. One guy worked so hard at it, he had to have a penile implant (and ended up marrying his young nurse). Some of the gringa women couldn’t keep their eyes (or hands) off those darling dark-eyed Maya boys and men who treated them like fair goddesses. Alcohol was cheap. There were constant parties, revolving among the houses in Gringo Gulch, the area near the present day Merida English Library.
One guy used to regularly wander to the Plaza at night, drunk and naked. The police were nice to him. they bundled him up and took him home. But some foreigners behaved so badly, they were deported. The local police seemed to put up with a certain level of gringo lunacy, but when people crossed the line, they were disappeared.
Unlike today, we barely knew there were police in Merida in the mid-80s. You rarely saw one, probably because they weren’t needed. The police of those days were little guys in dowdy brown uniforms who made minimum wage, were completely for sale, and totally deferential. If I got stopped for a supposed infraction, all I had to do was cry and say my husband was going to be very angry at me. That was it.
There were several crazy old American men who lived in remote villages, drinking and doing whatever. Twenty-five years ago, those villages were truly isolated compared to now, and local Mayas didn’t know quite what to make of these guys. Being an accepting group, they tolerated them, brought them food in exchange for cash, and did their best to ignore them. I visited a guy once in Dzan, who had invented some kind of cooling and rain channeling system that he thought would revolutionize houses here. It didn’t work very well, though.
A Cuban American from New York, Jose Bosch, was a brilliant man and a terrible artist. All his paintings looked like orgasms, which he professed not to realize. And they were scary, awful orgasms in violent colors. He also sculpted very badly in cement. Giant abstract installations which he mounted all over his house and patio. Although he claimed not to be gay, he decided to build a gay bath-house which took off like a ball of fire, so to speak. Although Jose died some years ago, his bizarrely decorated bath-house has outlived him. It’s located across from a Mormon church downtown. Not sure, but I think it’s the one called “Bananas.” It’s the site of a gruesome murder in a book I’m working on called Rotten Fruit.
My friend Gina P was another colorful figure. In her 70s, she dressed like a teenager and had a body that almost went with it. She wore flamboyant make-up and loved a good party. She had an eye for the gentlemen, and was intermittently off with one or the other. I was sad when she died in Florida in the early 90s.
Local residents pretty much thought we were nuts, a fairly accurate assessment. It was later, when more balanced foreigners started coming here, that numerous friendships and affiliations with the people of Yucatan began to take shape. Can you blame them for holding back?
In the 80s, there was no symphony, no theater that we knew of, and only two or three (unpleasant) movie houses. Poor us. Few gringos ventured out of the city.
There were a few notable exceptions. One guy, Tom Parks, was passionate about air plants and biked into the countryside regularly to collect them. He had hundreds in his home and knew them all by their Latin names. He kept them all going for many years. Tom had a keen, scientific mind and a drive to understand the flowers and fauna of this place.
Another guy, a retired advertising man from NYC, developed a love for abandoned haciendas and begged rides from those of us with cars for his regular jaunts to some of the least accessible ones. He photographed every hacienda in the State and developed large black and white images which were shown here and in Campeche (at the University). His name was Bill Ebbetts, and I owe to him my dawning realization of how fabulous it was to visit the hundreds of historic places in our back yard. If he were alive today, he would shudder at how badly some of the haciendas have been restored.
Several of us began going on regular forays to remote ruins, mostly on dirt roads. We visited villages where no gringo had ever been. We sat outside huts and ate eggs, frijoles, and home-made tortillas. They ground their own corn back then which made a far better tortilla. Even then, there were always cokes. Unrefrigerated. When we revisited a pueblo, we brought used clothing, school supplies, toothbrushes, and other things we collected from people in the US when we went home. In one of the villages, there was a child with spina bifida who spent most of his time in a hammock or dragging himself through the dirt of his compound. My friend Lorenzo Polanco built him a cart with wheels which could be pulled by other people or manipulated by him. I remember one woman cooking eggs over her open fire in a frying pan that had a large hole in it. She was expert at sloshing the eggs around without spilling a drop.
The self-appointed doyenne of Gringo Gulch was Marilyn Smith, a difficult woman who liked to spread fictitious and horrible stories about people she didn’t like. (I’ll try to stop saying bad things about her now.) Marilyn’s legacy was that she left her house on Calle 53 to the fledgling Merida English Library. Some said she did that to avoid leaving anything to her children. Quien sabes?
In the summers, archaeologists working at digs near here, would come to Merida with their families. A lot of them stayed at the Hotel Caribe, also a destination hotel for teachers and academics with summers off. You could meet a lot of interesting people sitting in Hidalgo Park in the summer, in front of the Caribe. I met my friend Bruce Dahlin there, the lead archaeologist at ChunChucMil. Bruce came here with his family every summer for years. He’d worked at El Mirador, in Guatemala, and used to tell us stories about it, his eyes shining.
Max, a man in his 70s who was the court jester of the gay community, lived with his mom on Calle 66. He and I were friends. One day he came to my house and announced that he was in love with a woman! He really was. They got married at Santa Lucia church. The rest of the gay male community was outraged and some of them attended the wedding wearing leather pants with the butt cut out. Sorry to have missed that.
One of my all-time favorite characters was Richard, a tall skinny American from Detroit. A self-confessed drug runner, he flitted in and out of town for years. When he wanted to lay low, he managed after-hour gambling clubs in downtown Detroit. He was in San Cristobal managing a bar when Marcos and his jolly band walked in, and he helped them sack a pharmacy. Richard liked to go to Havana for short stays and “hole up in a hotel with two or three women and all the coke I could use.” He came back refreshed. Later on, he skippered a boat that went up and down the east coast of the US and down into Central America, presumably running drugs. That was the peaceful era of drug trade. His boat was called A Further Adventure.
A mysterious man named William sporadically occupied two rooms on the top floor of the Caribe. He looked like a wild man and lived in a Maya village near Tulum. He spoke fluent Maya and spent much time drinking booze out of paper-bag covered bottles, poolside on the third floor of the hotel, usually with several employees. Before I bought my house, the third floor of the Caribe was my home too, so William and I had a pleasant nodding acquaintance.
My friend Louis reminds me, and of course he’s right, that there were constructive northamericans here even before the dissolute folks arrived. JoAnne Andrews, founder of Pronatura Yucatan, came here in the 60s with her husband Will Andrews, the archaeologist who worked on Dzibilchaltun. JoAnne developed a solid expertise in the plants of the area, and became prominent in her own right. Their lovely old home occupies an entire city block and is a nature refuge. Their home was and continues to be a mecca for intellectuals from all over the world.
Sarah S., a gentle grey-haired woman from New York, settled alone in Chixulub Puerto, for some reason. At that time, she was probably the only foreigner there. Struck by the poverty of the villagers, she taught a bunch of women how to make cloth dolls, which they sold in the market. And she did it without learning a word of Spanish. People absolutely adored Sarah. Me included.
The English-speaking International Women’s Club has always done constructive things for the community (and does even more so now). As more balanced people started to come here, most of the women joined the club, which was very helpful for them in orienting themselves. The IWC continues to sponsor selected local girls for university scholarships, teach English and volunteer in schools and orphanages.
There were probably other cool people here back then, but in the 80s I didn’t know them. We Centro dwellers were limited by our lack of language skills and the tiny group that comprised our society. Poor, poor us.
Things started to change around 1990. Some of us had sobered up and some reasonable people began moving here. We started to see people who actually contributed to Merida, rather than leaching off of it. Adventurers, artists, the intellectually curious, and people with something to offer the local communities started to trickle in. It was the beginning of the revitalization of the Centro and of the northamerican image.
Sadly, the 1990s also brought more organized setups for pedophilia. The internet brought many travelers here, responding to direct solicitations and ads such as “Rent-A-Boy” on Merida websites. As of now, authorities are seriously investigating offendors.
Also in the 90s, Brazos Abiertos was formed. Their primary purpose of this foreigner-run organization, as written on their IRS filing was to support the OASIS AIDS shelter near Merida. More recently, this has resulted in a scandal. BA was a Texas-incoporated non-profit that raised thousands of dollars here, but the money did not reach OASIS, nor was it used to open a clinic, as promised. OASIS, run by a Catholic priest, received a pittance from BA and the clinic never happened at all. BA held grand, glittery fundraising events without benefit of proper permission to act as a non-profit here and when Mexican agencies began questioning the two prinicpals, they bolted, leaving the Yucateco doctor they had hired high and dry. The money is unaccounted for.
Overall, things have definately evolved. Apparently there are 5,000 foreigners living in this beautiful, cultured city of almost a million. Most of us are law abiding and constructive and some aren’t, just like like anyone and anywhere else.
All my photos from that era were taken with film cameras. Lastima.
In memory of the fabulous and outrageous Gina Pappalardo. A good friend and a good soul.
These are my personal memories and not necessarily representative of anything else. Many of these people and places are chronicled in my book, Madrugada, which I will publish online soon.