Thursday, March 18, 2010

Anthropology: Urban Vestiges

I really enjoy looking at architecture and the bits and pieces of cities that inform us about the past. It is easy to overlook sometimes that although evidence of the past may change form or context, it is still with us. Matter and space do not disappear; it's the arrangement that evolves.

I recall peering out a seventh-floor window of the Mendenhall Apartments in downtown Juneau, Alaska, where I lived, on and off, for many years. One day in the 90's I noticed, high on a building nearby, on a side now hidden from street level by more recent construction, a peeling, antique-style black painted sign for the San Francisco Bakery. The bakery was still there under another name when I was young, but the San Francisco logo was probably out of use before I was born. From the style of the lettering I guessed the sign was likely from the pre-World War One era. I did a little checking. The business opened in 1914. Bingo! What I noticed was possibly an original sign, long ignored and unnoticed, that continued nevertheless publicizing an enterprise, now closed for decades, that was selling bread when my grandparents were children. Although the ovens are now next door and the old bakery space is a dining room, the bakery tradition is continued in the same place after almost 100 years, now operated by the Silverbow Inn.

I also remember a multi-colored, billboard-sized 1937 Chevrolet ad painted on the side of an old brick building along Alaskan Way in downtown Seattle, which was visible from my earliest memory until the wall was altered or demolished maybe 15 years ago. I miss that sign. It was a little piece of history, forgotten and unappreciated, that spoke to me from the past. It is these kinds of experiences that have fed my interest in the detective work of discovering details about the past from the vestiges that survive, often unappreciated or uninterpreted, today.

Mèrida, where I have lived for the past few years abounds in these kinds of clues. And since it is a very old place, having been a thriving Mayan city before the arrival of the Spanish in the 1500's, the vestiges of the past are varied and fascinating. I started thinking about all this some time ago when I began passing over the above advertising message, fired on tiles set in the sidewalk. It's placed like a welcome mat in front of the doorway to an abandoned building a few blocks down the street from my house.

The corner building, whose unadorned architecture and location indicate that it's quite possibly a true colonial-era structure, apparently once was a pharmacy that sold, "Roberina, 5 centavos, cures headache, toothache, rheumatism, colds." I wonder if Roberina was a patent medicine, or perhaps as a friend suggested, something made in Mèrida of local herbs. That is very possible. There is a vast treasury of traditional medicines used by the Yucatecan people, even today.

On my way to take the pictures above, I passed by this plaque on a building that stands at the corner of Calle 57 and Calle 70, not far from home and almost at Parque Santiago.

These plaques are to be found at intersections all over the historical center of Mèrida. In days when only clergy and the wealthier classes were literate, the rest of the people needed a way to navigate and find things around the city. Many of the important intersections were named after landmarks, objects or animals, and if necessary signs or sculptures picturing the identifying names were installed at the crossings. I live nearest the corner of "Los Cuatro Vientos," The Four Winds. Also nearby is the corner of "Dos Soldados," Two Soldiers. The Robelina ad and abandoned pharmacy is at "El Cardenal," The Cardinal. That plaque is visible in the photo of the building (above).

El Coliseo, The Colisseum, was the original bull ring of Mèrida, situated at this intersection which still bears its name. I figured out where the structure was located after seeing this sign. I noticed that, in a neighborhood that consists of very old buildings, there are two blocks, near this intersection, of much more modern architecture. When El Coliseo was torn down and replaced by a new structure in a different location several decades ago, houses and businesses were built in its place. So, although the original structure no longer stands (what a shame), its shadow remains still, for those who are willing to see it. A large and beautiful painting of El Coliseo, by the Yucatecan painter Mario Trejo Castro, hangs in the cafe La Flor de Santiago, on Calle 70 just around the corner from the plaque and a stone's throw from the site of the old bull ring. La Flor is a venerable establishment dating from the 1920's. I suspect in the old days that many of the conversations echoing off the cafe's walls were uttered by customers stopping in for refreshment either before or after going to a corrida at El Coliseo.

There are many more, often more ancient vestiges apparent to a person walking observantly around this city, and I plan to write more about them. However, this week I am going to end with evidence of a modern
corporation that did business in Mèrida, and was practically a household word in the United States through the middle of the last century. The above logo, incorporated into metalwork above the unused side door of a well-known downtown building, now a hotel, provides a clue. What was the name of the business, and what did they sell? To the person who first posts the correct answer below in the comments section of this blog, a free lunch for two at El Principe Tutul Xiu, one of the finer Yucatecan-food restaurants in Mèrida. Or, if the winner prefers and provides the transportation, I'll buy at the original location of this same restaurant which serves delicious poc chuc and other fine traditional dishes in the pueblo of Manì, Yucatàn, a place also rich in fascinating clues to the past.


  1. What is "Studebaker", Alex?

    Mmm poc-chuc. My favorite Yucatecan dish!


  2. Looks like we have a winner. The building in question, now the Hotel Trinidad Galeria on Calle 60, was the Mèrida Studebaker dealership. The original building was heavily modified in the 30's or 40's in a modernistic, art deco-influenced style. The plate-glass showroom windows are still intact, and the stylized Studebaker "S" still adorns a side door.

    Studebaker started out in the United States as a wagon builder, and its cars and trucks were known for their durability and reliability as well as their sometimes odd style. Apparently they were good sellers in Yucatàn. There are still a few Studebaker pickup trucks on the road around here.

    One poc chuc lunch coming up.

  3. I forgot to add that I recognized the Studebaker insignia at the Trinidad because I drove a lime-green 1955 Studebaker Commander V-8 two-door sedan in high school. It had that same "S" design on the front grille.

  4. Marc, this is just such fun. I'm supposed to be working (disposing of that stuff I mentioned earlier), but here I am cruising the streets of Merida. One of the visions I have had of my life post-ha-ha-american-dream is of catching the combi into Merida in the mornings, spending time with the old men in the Zocalo, feeding the pigeons, exploring the city. Can't wait, truly. btw, I do share your appreciation of old signs.

  5. Hi, I'm from Merida, since I was a kid my grandmother used to say: "Roberina is a good medicine, is very antique" I had 5 or 6 years old. Now I'm 45. What I want to mean is even for my grandmother the sign you have a picture was old! So, that sign of Roberina is close to 100 years old, I assume. I located two of them, one nearly destroyed on the 57 street with 48 street. The other one is in very good shape located at 70 Street with 65 Street. I like to share this with you. Also I have a picture of the good shape sing of Roberina.


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