History of Mérida, The Center of the Yucatan

Learn about the rich history of Mérida which was named after a town in Extremadura, Spain, Mérida (Augusta Emérita in Latin), capital of the state of Yucatán, was founded on January 6, 1542 by Francisco de Montejo y Léon “el Mozo” (the Younger/the Boy). He was the son of Francisco de Montejo “el Adelantado” (the Older), who 15 years earlier was forced to leave Chichén Itzá due to pressure from the indigenous Maya. The younger de Montejo bided his time and launched a second invasion from the city of Campeche (which he had founded in 1540). By the mid-1500s, much of Yucatán had become part of Spain’s colonies. Unlike most other colonies, however, Mérida was controlled directly from Spain and not from Mexico City, which helps explain the Yucatán’s distinctive culture and political identity.

From Mayan Beginnings to Walled City

Mérida stands on what was once T’hó, a major Maya city that was also referred to as Ichkanzihóo or Ichcaanzihó, which means City of Five Hills, most likely due to its pyramids. The ancient stones of T’ho were appropriated by the Spanish to build churches and buildings, and many of these colonial structures can still be found in the city’s centro histórico. Throughout its colonial history, Mérida was a walled city, a necessity at the time since the indigenous Maya greatly resented the Spanish colonial presence. You will still see some of these old city gates, but the city today has long grown beyond the confines of its old walls.

Wealth From Henequén

Henequén, an agave plant species from which fiber is produced, shaped Mérida’s fortunes for several decades in the 1800s and 1900s. The area surrounding the city was given over to henequén farms and the region flourished from its production – so much so that Mérida was believed to have the biggest population of millionaires out of all the cities in the world, if only for a short while. The wealth created resulted in something of a building boom and the many mansions that march along Paseo de Montejo today date back to this period of affluence. Most of these homes, while no longer residential, have been restored and are now being used to house offices and commercial establishments. Interestingly, it was also during this time that the first Korean immigration to Mexico occurred. In 1905, Koreans came to Mérida to work in henequen plantations.

Mérida today remains the cultural and economic center of the Yucatán and has the distinction of being home to one of the largest centro histórico districts in the Americas.