The cathedral in Merida, Mexico is the oldest church in the Americas.

A labyrinth of concrete, some crumbling, some intact. Facades painted pink, periwinkle or warm orange. Black wrought-iron gates and railings. Oiled hardwood doors. Narrow sidewalks. Cars speeding along thin streets. Centuries old buildings standing silently bragging, like elders, with the assurance that only comes from having seen several lifetimes. This is a place called Merida, Mexico. 

The ancient Maya people of the Yucatan peninsula built massive structures for sport and religion here more than a thousand years ago. They had their own calendar and written language. But when the Spanish conquistadors arrived in the 16th century, they brought Catholicism and erected the large cathedral in the grand plaza in the center of Merida. It stands over the site of much more ancient Mayan structures. In fact, its constructed with stones from the Mayan buildings. So are the colonial houses and buildings that radiate out from the plaza. 

Three centuries later, at the end of the 19th century, wars and innovation brought sudden wealth and growth to the Yucatan again, in the form of string. That’s right, twine. The Mayans had long before used a variety of agave plant called henequen to make rope fiber called sisal. They wove it into hammocks, clothes, and hats. The Spanish decided it was also good rope for their ships. But mid-19th century hacienda owners began growing the plants in earnest. They brought in newly invented machines to strip the leaves and dry the fibers. The demand was so great that it spawned dozens of sisal millionaires. Millionaires! From string!

Henequen plants still being cultivated outside Merida, Mexico.
The fibers from the henequen plant’s leaves are dried to make strong fibers for rope and other textiles.

The wealthy elite built large mansions all along the wide boulevards of Merida. They built schools and hospitals, paved streets, and installed sewage systems. And when the string industry succumbed to politics, revolution, war, other suppliers around the world, and the invention of synthetic fibers, these stately homes and most of the haciendas where sisal was produced were abandoned and fell into disrepair. Some lasted into the middle of the 20th century. Many became hotels. Some became businesses or government offices in this city that is the capital of the Mexican state of Yucatan. Some are now part of the newest industry in Merida—tourism.

We toured the Casa Gemelas, an impressive mansion built from string money back in the day. This house just opened a few months ago for tourists to peek inside the palace. The awkward young man who was our guide said the place was at one time host to Jacqueline Kennedy and Princess Grace. He said to google it. 

At the end of our (overpriced) tour, our guide whispered for us to lean in closer. That was a little awkward. But when Ron and I obliged, along with men from Guadalajara and New Jersey, he told us in hushed tones that the owner of the house had just walked by. He discreetly pointed out an older woman as she was leaving through the back gate. Our small group had no idea what to make of that. It was like seeing Lord Grantham from Downton Abbey, skulking around the back of the manor house, embarrassed to have been forced to become a tourist attraction for financial solvency.

A view from our backyard in Merida, where we have our own pair of henequen, or “green gold” plants.

I doubt the Mayans who roam the streets of Merida hawking colorful embroideries feel this discomfort. They’re just trying to make a buck. And the Mayan calendar knew a thousand years ago that history repeats itself. Sometimes you’re conquered, sometimes you’re on top. And while string may make a bunch of people rich for a while, it’s power actually lies in the sturdy tie it makes to fasten around whatever you need held fast. 

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