The Parks of Mérida

I just returned from a vacation in Spain and it was interesting to see the roots of Mexico’s colonial culture, and note how it has been integrated here but with distinctively Mexican values. One of the most striking aspects is the difference in public spaces. Spain has many wonderful large public parks. Madrid has the Buen Retiro, Barcelona its Ramblas and Montjuic, and Valencia the magnificent sequence of parks that cuts through the entire town in the riverbed of the now diverted Turia river. But these feel less local, less a part of community life than do the parks of Mérida.

The most visible and most famous park is undeniably the Plaza Grande, sitting atop the ancient core of Mérida. Surrounded by the Casa Montejo, best preserved Renaissance façade in Mexico, the oldest cathedral on the American continent, and its companion, the former bishop’s palace, now a contemporary art museum, the former governor’s palace with its murals by Fernando Castro Pacheco, city hall with its iconic bell tower, and the Olimpo Cultural Center, the Plaza Grande is alive with activity most of the week, a must see for every tourist.

Colonia Garcia Ginerés has its grand Parque de las Americas with unique Mayan-inspired architecture – a library, impressive pools and fountains, a large band shell, and monuments to each nation of the Americas. To the west of downtown is Parque Centennario, built for the centennial of Mexican Independence. It includes one of Mérida’s two zoos, with free admission year-round.

In Yucatán’s capital, every barrio of the historic center and every colonia outside of Centro has a park at its core. Most of these surround or adjoin Catholic churches. Many feature basketball courts or baseball diamonds. Several sit beside mercados. Only one that I know of includes all of these features. It is my favorite, and it is only one half-block from my house. Named for Miguel Alemán, president of Mexico from 1946-1952, Parque Alemán, is one of the most active in the city.

The park’s perimeter is a paved path where hundreds of walkers and joggers start their day while fruit and juice vendors set up booths alongside in the shade of majestic acacia and flamboyant trees. The large plaza on the east side of the park is bounded by monuments and fountains, and hosts zumba and tai-chi classes sponsored by the city weekday mornings and exercise classes in the evening. As the sun rises, city cleaners pick up debris from the previous evening. By ten o’clock the park is all but abandoned as the heat of the day sets in.

But as the sun drops, pushcarts arrive to sell marquisitas, waffle cones filled with cheese and cajeta that are a peculiarly Mexican treat, and ears of corn slathered in butter and chili. A bounce house materializes in the midst of the park. Along the south end of the plaza telescopes appear, and easels with paper for children to paint, and toy electric cars.

The western half of the park includes an elaborate track for skaters and skateboarders, a green area where people walk their dogs and children initiate soccer skirmishes, two playgrounds for younger children, and a permanent carnival area with merry-go-round and other rides. Older folk sit on benches lining the paths and exchange gossip. It is a family-oriented environment. The sight of so many children laughing and playing can bring a smile to the saddest or most hardened heart!

Since I moved here, the park has hosted trova, cumbia, mariachi, jazz, rock and Broadway concerts, talent contests, children’s theater, jobs fairs, the annual kennel club dog show, organic foods and entrepreneurial expos and political rallies.

South of the park sits the Church of the Sacred Heart, an unremarkable structure that could as easily have been an airplane hangar. The sides of the church open to the elements without barriers, effortlessly facilitating overflow crowds at Easter and Christmas.

Beside the church stands a modern supermarket, floral shop, hardware store, veterinarian, four restaurants and the mercado itself, with fruit and vegetable stalls, spice shop, cheese, egg, meat, poultry and fish vendors, bakery, tortilleria, optician, frame shop, pet store, newsstands, toy store, etc.
So complete are the offerings that many older residents have never owned a car and rarely need public transportation to venture beyond the boundaries of the colonia.

Another park is currently under construction. Gran Parque La Plancha, billed as a “new lungs” for the city, will convert the abandoned railroad yards into a central park of twenty hectares, a welcome addition to a city that has long cemented over green space indiscriminately. The former railroad station has already been converted to an art school. Subsidiary buildings will become museums.

It will take several years to complete, but in a city that seems unstoppable, should one doubt that it will become a reality?

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