Seven days and 24 picaduras (mosquito bites) later, I have fallen completely in love with El Centro, the main happening place in Mérida, Mexico.
Mérida has a culture of its own, symbolized by the white fabric and embroidered flowers of vibrant colors that make up the traditional dress. El Centro is kind of the downtown equivalent of Mérida, but instead of consisting of tall flashy buildings it features a spacious plaza and several street vendors and tienditas (shops) alongside where you can buy clothes and food, rent cars or un paseo by horse-drawn carriage — lo que quieras.
I have decided that if I ever move to México I want to live in El Centro and run a tiendita on the corner, decked out in beautiful Meridan flowers.
“The economic standard of living in Mérida is very low when you compare it to that of San Diego, but it says nothing about the beauty of the city and its friendly inhabitants”
Every single day without fail there is some event of cultural significance that takes place in El Centro, free of charge. Sometimes it’s a vaquería dance where the performers balance trays of beer and shot glasses on their heads, and other times it’s a light show projected onto the front wall of the cathedral. According to the locals, a chunk of taxpayer money goes toward keeping these events free of charge and open to the public to preserve the cultural heritage of this magnificent city. This is also why zoos here are either free or cost 1 peso or something ridiculously affordable.
The zoning laws in San Diego also do not apply the same way in Mérida, where it is possible — and common — to see a shop next to a house next to another shop, with advertisements running along the side continuously. It appears to be typical to have a maid if you make enough for a house, and the houses here are just plain gorgeous. One family had a particularly large house with a garage in the front yard that doubled as a space for a fiesta.
The economic standard of living in Mérida is very low when you compare it to that of San Diego, but it says nothing about the beauty of the city and its friendly inhabitants. A good number of people are channeled into niche professions such as selling hammocks, blouses, mariachi songs, peanuts, chicharrones, bracelets, headbands, caricature drawings — anything to ganar dinero to make a living.
Here the street vendors are very accomplished in what they do and there is very much a culture of picking yourself up by the bootstraps, working tirelessly to support your family.
I have gotten very good at saying “no” because of the frequency of meddling when I am trying to simply enjoy a nieve at Colón’s Ice Cream. My favorite street vendor sells abanicos, the delicately painted fans so crucial for survival in Mérida’s merciless humidity. This vendor whips out an abanico and starts tossing it about skilfully. I have attempted many a time to compete with him but have to cut it short when I accidentally throw my abanico into someone’s backside instead.
Needless to say, I have mad respect for these street vendors.
I have gained a reputation with my study abroad program compañeros as the one who loves to shop — perhaps compulsively — so I now have a wide collection of vividly flowery one-size-fits-all (apparently) no-refunds clothing. I’ve also been dying to finally make it back to Nina Ferré to buy that gorgeous yellow quinceañera dress I’ve been obsessing over for almost a week. In my defense, my only hope for when I have to say adiós to Mérida is to bring home a myriad of wearable momentos (dresses, blouses, headbands, earrings, chanclas, the like).
I cannot say though that I don’t want to come back to San Diego; on the contrary, I am excited to return to explore the differences between these two cultures and to find the cultural gems that exist in my own hometown.
Jennifer Laird is a fifth-year transfer Spanish and speech, language and hearing sciences double major. She is studying this summer at Marista University in Merida, Mexico.