Merida Montejo House
Relive the lavish lifestyle of the Spanish conquerors of Yucatán in this delightful house-museum.
Montejo house has three elements to focus on: the exterior façade, the interior residence and the temporary art exhibition space. Entry is free.
I find the façade fascinating and it’s worth looking at it closely. I have seen it a few times during my visits to Mérida, as you can't miss the house. It sits on the main plaza. The interior is simply elegant. There are four rooms: the office-library, living room, bedroom, and dining room. The art exhibition (two rooms) is always a bonus and it allows us to see more of the premises. There is a small pretty courtyard and two long verandas with archways. One wing of the building is Banamex Bank (The National Bank of Mexico) because they restored the house in the 1980s.
So let's start with a simple question. Whose house is it?
The PeopLe: The Montejo 'dynasty'
One of the first houses built in colonial Mérida (between 1542 and 1549), la Casa de Montejo stands as a testament to the political ambitions of one colonial governor. It can only be understood in the context of the political and social unrest of the time. The political messages behind the façade are connected to Francisco de Montejo from Salamanca who was in the service of Hernán Cortés. Before coming to New Spain, he was married to Ana De Leon Alcocer and they had a son, Francisco de Montejo y León, nicknamed Francisco the Younger (El Mozo).
Authority was bestowed upon Francisco Montejo by King Charles V through his appointment as 'adelantado' in 1526. His absolute authority in Yucatán came with the right to distribute housing plots, and encomiendas (large land estates) and to appoint local public officers. From 1531–1535 he tried unsuccessfully to conquer western Yucatán. During that time, here in Yucatán, he married Beatríz Álvarez de Herrera.
It is not clear to me how this was possible as he already had a wife back home in Sevilla (who apparently did not die till 1565). Genealogy sources (such as www.geni.com) claim that he had (simultaneously) two wives. I suppose he had a lot of freedom along with his authority here in Yucatán. On the other hand, I found a source that claims that Francesco was his illegitimate son. I can only assume that he also had Indian concubines. Young Indian women held in encomiendas by the Montejos found themselves victims of an organised prostitution ring (they forced the local women to serve as prostitutes and concubines of the Spanish conquerors).
In any case, Montejo brought his son to New Spain and placed him as a page of Hernán Cortés. In 1527 El Mozo was legitimised by decree of Emperor Charles V. The son collaborated with his father in the second entry to the Mayan lands. In 1533 Montejo received a royal decree giving him permission to conquer Honduras. This put him in conflict with Pedro de Alvarado, who had received a similar decree in 1532 (and who conquered Honduras in 1536). Montejo, without support in New Spain, had no choice but to give up his Honduran claim in exchange for the Governorship of Chiapas, in 1539.
In the meantime, his son was busy conquering Yucatán and he founded the cities of Campeche in 1541 and Mérida in 1542. His father decided to commission the Montejo house at that time. However, he was not present in Mérida between 1542 and 1546 (he was in Guatemala). In other words, it was his son, Francisco de Montejo the Younger, who actually built the house (well, the Maya did, in reality).
The conquest of Yucatán was completed by 1546. In that year, the elder Montejo assumed the title of Governor and Captain General of Yucatán from his son. He moved into the house with his wife, Beatriz Álvarez de Herrera in that year (although it wasn't completed till 1549). The house became the Montejo house for a few generations.
However, by 1550 complaints about Montejo the Elder were piling up: the brutality in treatment of the Indians and the practice of blatant nepotism (he gave more than 75% of the lands to relatives and friends and had placed Yucatán under the jurisdiction of the Confines, presided over by his son-in-law).
In the end Montejo was subjected to a lawsuit brought by the Franciscan order. He was found guilty. Ruined, he moved to Spain in the hope of appeal at Court but he died shortly after (in 1553), disillusioned and in poverty.
So while most sources name this house as the House of Francisco Montejo the Younger, the sign on the house (on the pediment between two lions) says that it is the House of Francisco de Montejo Adelandato (the Elder), dated 1549. I think of it as a family house, the Montejo House (rather than Montejo's house). Both father and son had a role in the life of this house. It is sad to realise that the house that the founder of Mérida built for his father could only be enjoyed by him for a very brief moment as he had to go to the Spanish Court to answer the charges.
The FOCUS: the façade
When I stood outside the house for the first time, I did not know what to think. A lot of busts, sculptures, reliefs. A lot of Renaissance and Gothic motifs. And Hercules in sheepskin!
Later I learnt that it was built in plateresque style, in other words, the ornate relief used by silversmiths. You can find the same style in the façade of the University of Salamanca and other buildings in Spain. The lower façade, surrounding the doorway, has elegant columns with grooves and pilasters. The inner panels are carved with medallions of sculpted heads.
Two busts above the doorway are possibly portraits of Francisco the Elder and his wife, Beatríz. She was the financier of Montejo’s colonisation and through marriage provided Montejo the nobility desired for a governor. In the bust she is crowned and he (to her left) is dressed as a warrior, with an armoured breastplate and a helmet. Under them there are two smaller busts: those of his son, Francisco the Younger, and his step-sister Catalina. The busts seem grotesque to me. Or are they just eroded?
Above the doorway a bowed figure (Hercules?) holds up the second floor balcony. The confusing thing is that he is wearing sheepskin. The Montejo coat of arms (with the important Herrera’s paternal and maternal arms in the upper right) is carved above the window. There are stylised vines with fruit and giant figures of Spanish halberdiers along the entire upper level. These were specialised guards protecting the monarchs and regional courts so they served as symbols of Montejo’s political position. They stand on human heads, popularly thought to be Mayan Indians but on reflection, they are more likely heads of heretics, as this was a European façade tradition of the time. I wonder what the defeated Maya thought of it. Next to them are men in sheepskin (again!) and clubs. Once again, at first sight one thinks it could be the defeated indigenous Maya but heretic motifs are often found in Spanish façades. It seems logical that the imagery is European, designed to emphasise military power at the critical times of the conquest.
The Mystery: Who lived in this house?
So did the son, Francisco Montejo the Younger, live in this house?
The short answer is yes, he lived in the house that he built. When Francisco the Elder died, he apparently left the property to his widow (and first wife), Andrea del Castillo, who decided that the estate could not be alienated and transferred it to his descendants, i.e. their son Francisco Montejo the Younger. Such inheritance happened afterwards to all the descendants of the Montejos. Apparently, the property remained until 1832 in the ownership of the family.
So what was the role of Francisco Montejo the Younger in Yucatán? In 1527, at the age of 26, he sailed with his father to Cozumel, launching the first military campaign of the conquest of Yucatán. In 1530 he became the leader of the campaign in Tabasco; in 1533 he established himself at Chichén Itzá (and then lost there in a battle again). In 1540 he left Tabasco to accompany his father on a new attempt at the conquest of Yucatán. The conquest was not easy (the Maya did not give up easily). In the end he succeeded because of the help of Tutul Xiu, a ruler from Maní. This was related to the civil war between two Maya dynasties, the Cocom (from Mayapán) and Tutul Xiu. In the late 1540s Tutul Xiu was heavily beaten and formed an alliance with the Spaniards (while the Cocom Maya of Sotuta became enemies of the European colonisers). The submission of Tutul Xiu to Spain and conversion to Christianity had repercussions throughout the peninsula, as it encouraged the lords of the western peninsula to accept Spanish rule.
Interestingly, there were no Spanish sculptors in Mérida at the time and it is just possible that the stone carvers of the allied Xius used the same techniques as in Uxmal, a Xiu city. You can see the elaborate façade work in the House of the Nuns in Uxmal and compare it with the splendid façade of the Casa de Montejo.
In 1542 El Mozo founded the city of Mérida, on the territory of the Maya city of T'Hó. It was a standard practice of the colonisers to destroy the religious and administrative centres of the Maya cities and build their own buildings of power in their place. It is estimated that about 300 to 400 Maya were used to construct the Montejo mansion from the stones of T'Hó pyramids and temples. He lived in the Montejo house with his wife Doña Andrea del Castillo and their son Juan Montejo and daughters Francisca, Beatríz and Andrea. After El Mozo's death in 1565 (in Guatemala) his wife continued to live in the house.
In 1839 the house was bought by Simón Peón y Peón and his son José María Peón Losa inherited it. In 1914 it was inherited by María Eduviges Peón y Peón and her husband Manuel de Arrigunaga y Gutiérrez. Needless to say, the building has undergone many changes throughout time.
Don't miss: The interior residence
You will not find the information about the life of the Montejos at the house. I added it here because I believe it helps to understand this residence. But you can enjoy the beautiful furniture and decorations, get the feel of the house and imagine how it would have been in the 16th century.
When I walked in, I thought I had walked into a manor house in England. While the façade keeps the features of the 16th century, the interior has undergone many changes. In the 19th century Mérida architecture was influenced by the European style called Victorian, which refers to Queen Victoria, who ruled England from 1837 to 1901. Casa de Montejo was no exception. Decorative styles of Victorian times prevailed, including the neo-Greek, neo-Gothic and neo-Rococo. Somehow this mixture sits in harmony in this house.
The second half of the 19th century saw the quest for exotic objects, such as Arab-style tables, bronze busts with African or Asian features, textiles from India.
As a result of all these influences, you can find in the library room a Chinese vase from the Qing dynasty, in the dining room a sturdy table with Victorian chairs, a Victorian sideboard, silver-plated candleholders from England in neo-Rococo style with flower motifs, porcelain tableware from Bavaria, Limoges and England and China, candelabra from France, a German damask tablecloth, a pitcher from Italy and blue pottery from Puebla (Mexico).
At the time of my visit, the Museum also had a temporary exhibition called Indumentaria y Moda (Clothing and Fashion) by Beatriz Russek. Irrelevant, but it was nice to see more of the premises that were once a home to such a powerful family.
How to get there:
The museum is open Tuesday to Saturday from 10am to 7pm and on Sundays from 10am to 2pm. Entry is free and the house is air-conditioned (nice to just pop in and cool down from the heat in the city).
It is situated on the main plaza, Plaza Grande (Calle 63 x 60 y 62).