The Centro was designed for peaceful living, cantinas and all

Who's the real enemy in Merida’s historic center, night clubs owners or sleepless residents? A quick look at history provides clues.

Photo: Sipse archive
Photo: Andrew Nedimyer

El Dzalbay, one of Merida’s popular bars, was shut down last week for playing music at a volume that exceeds the law. Reactions definitely came from two different mindsets.

Some of Merida’s citizenry are saying that the Centro should not be zoned residential, and those who live there should either put up with the noise or move to the suburbs. They want the downtown core to be a vibrant venue with loud entertainment that can be enjoyed by all.

The other camp reminds them that the Centro has always been a combination of residential and commercial. They claim they are not against bars and clubs; they agree that these add character to the Centro. But with regards to loud music, the law is clear and everyone should comply.

It seems like there is little compromise from either side, but perhaps looking back a few years will help everyone to understand the evolution of entertainment in Merida’s Centro.

In the 1970s, Merida’s population was approximately 240,000. My in-laws lived on Calle 56 between 57 and 59; many other Yucatecan families also had homes right downtown. During the week, starting at around 7 a.m., the Centro was a busy place — shopping, school, work — and yes there was lots of noise from cars, music, hawkers, etc. But at midday everything shut down tight. Lunch and siesta were sacred; no one went out between 1 and 4 p.m. It was considered rude to even telephone someone during this “restorative period.” From 5 to 8 o’clock, there were a few more hours of commercial activity, but by 8:30, everyone was home. For a while in the evenings, families would sit outside their houses to catch the breeze; sometimes the boys kicked a soccer ball around. When an occasional car drove by, the adults would yell at the kids to stop their game and let it pass.

On Saturday afternoons, all business activity came to a halt; families often went to the park or to visit family members. Sunday was the day for Mass; absolutely no businesses opened except the small stalls in the market that sold typical fare like panuchos and cochinita. After church, a lot of families went to the grandparent’s house for a BIG lunch. Sometimes they went on an outing to Parque Centenario or El Parque de las Américas. Or they went to the movies. During Easter vacation and in the summer months, families who could afford to moved to Progreso for up to two months of play on the beach and eating fried fish.

The cantinas (Dzalbayused to be one of them) were the drinking places; these opened during the sacred siesta time and were patronised only by men. Sometimes there would be a trio or a lone guitarist but no loud music. After all, the families were resting. Usually the men would go home after a few drinks, but some stayed for after-hours heavy drinking (bottles of hard booze in the middle of the table, usually gambling too.) This happened behind closed doors though; trusted waiters and taxi drivers made sure their special clients got home safely.

Also popular were the neighbourhood salones familiares where women and children could go. These featured comedians (like Cholo) and usually a five-piece dance band with a vocalist. The ambiance was light, drinks were light. the botana was heavy and abundant. By 5, almost everyone had toddled home to sleep a late siesta.

Otherwise, unless it was a holiday season, there was little entertainment except in the hotels. Yucatecans didn’t really understand the concept ofentertainment, nor did they need it. Merida was definitely tranquila, and people liked it that way.

By the end of the 1970s, though, everything was changing. Families started moving out of downtown to the new colonias (México, Campestre, Jardines, Pinos, etc.). Unable to sell their Centro properties, the owners locked them up and walked away. The old places deteriorated quickly, and in the 1980s and early 1990s, entire blocks of decaying unpainted buildings were common. In fact, my mother-in-law was the very last resident to leave her house on Calle 56. Neighbourhoods in Centro core, like La Ermita, San Sebastian, Santa Ana and Santiago, maintained a fair-sized portion of the traditional population.

In the mid 1980s, foreigners “discovered” Merida, and they bought many of the derelict properties in the Centro and surrounding neighbourhoods. They restored and refurbished them; Merida’s Centro started to look good again. These new owners were not old fuddy-duddies; they enjoyed an active social life, attended city-sponsored events, ate in local restaurants, etc. And they got along well with the neighbours who’d not ever left their old homes.

Merida’s Centro continued to attract more residents (foreign and from other states in Mexico) and a few new businesses and restaurants also started up. The Peon Contreras Theatre and other public buildings were reopened by the municipal and state governments; entertainment programs like Mérida en Domingo and Ponte Chula Méridawere established. A few of the restaurants and bars had live entertainment, but most of that was concentrated on Paseo and Prolongación Montejo. The Centro had become a fun place, but it was not raucous.

As Merida’s attractions became more widely spread amongst foreign baby-boomers, the city became known as a trendy place to retire. And now, best guess is that approximately 20% of the downtown buildings are owned by this demographic group. Merida is also coaxing younger foreigners and a dynamic group of young people from other places in Mexico. The Yucatecan sons and daughters have also become much more worldly than their parents, and they too want “more to do” in Merida.

Investors and the beer companies saw the potential of the tired old bars and other buildings, and a slew of new entertainment venues opened. Although it began earlier, the Centro club scene has mushroomed in the past five years. Many of the really popular places were down-and-out dives until new owners gave them a makeover. These premises were never meant to hold a large crowd so those who frequent them spill out through their open doors and into the street.

Unfortunately so does the loud music and raw language. One evening I was having dinner with some friends who live near one of these bars. Despite the AC and closed widows, the reggaeton coming into the house was loud; I can’t imagine what it must have sounded like in the bar itself. I nearly spilled my glass of wine when I heard an amplified, inebriated female voice shrieking…

“Oye Buey … P _ t _ Madre … Que Chi_g_n!“

“What does that mean?” my friends asked me. “We hear some of those words a lot.”

I thought for a moment to consider my reply. “Let’s just say that if my Yucatecan mother-in-law heard that girl, she would have fainted.”

They got the point. Ah yes, the escalation of traffic, music, behaviour and idioms that are far from “traditional” has not been gentle. And this is partly why the established residents and businesses are unhappy.

Many who defend the clubs blame the resident international community for making the sort of complaint that closed Dzalbay, and they feel that “old retired gringos” have no business living in El Centro. It needs to be pointed out that there has been a lot of opposition from traditional nationals as well.

One guy commented on Facebook, “They (the foreign residents) belong in a nursing home or should move to the suburbs.” This intolerance smacks of ageism and xenophobia, and that won’t get us anywhere.

The value of the renovated and furnished homes is somewhere between 2 and 4 million pesos. Of course some are worth less and some more, but I don’t know a single international resident who could just pack up and “move to the suburbs.”

I am also pained to say that I don’t see either group showing much consideration for those who have lived here “forever.” The traditional Yucatecan families have seen their way of life trampled. This does not make them happy. Believe me.

The rest of the downtown population are fairly new residents who have come to Merida from other states in Mexico. Many of them are here because they fear more earthquakes like those that devastated Mexico City in 1985 and 2017. Some can no longer tolerate life in the huge cities they come from; and a portion are escaping from the violence in their native states. This group typically lives and/or runs a small business on the property they bought in Merida’s Centro. They too are distressed when they see aggressiveness. They don’t want to Merida to become like the cities they left.

Really, there are a variety of measures that would resolve this conflict:

  1. Respect the law and turn down the volume. Later in life you’ll be glad you did. I know this from experience; my 67-year-old ears do not hear well, partly because I’ve listened to a lot of loud rock over the years.
  2. Soundproofing is the other option; but it is costly and the club doors must be kept closed, resulting in higher AC costs.
  3. The easiest solution by far, is for everyone to put on their big-boy / big-girl pants and make an effort to have consideration for one another. Older people understand that younger generations want to have fun, and I don’t believe they want to be antagonistic. But when bar owners are condescending toward the residents’ legitimate claims, noses get twisted out of joint.

Merida is the city where we have all chosen to live; we are lucky to be here. But right now, if we want our safe and magical place to stay this way, it seems we have some work to do.

Joanna van der Gracht de Rosado is a local writer and business owner who blogs at Changes In Our Lives.

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