Mérida Quinta Montes Molina
A look into the lives of two oligarchs of Mérida.
This stately historic 20th century mansion is representative of the President Porfirio Díaz era. Although privately owned, it is a museum now.
I came here with a group of friends in December 2018. I arranged a private tour for us as it was on Saturday afternoon when the museum is normally closed. On arrival we spotted a group of musicians preparing for a private event, in the outdoor pavilion with its slim columns. Inside we admired original European furniture used by the owners of the house, Carrara marble floors, precious Baccarat and Murano crystal chandeliers, chime clocks, Art Deco pieces and a lot of porcelain.
Throughout the visit, I kept thinking about the original owners and what it must have been like to be a rich oligarch in Mérida, just 100 years ago. To understand the story of the house, we need to look closer at their lives.
The PeopLe: The oligarchs
The house had two owners, rich businessmen, both of foreign origin. Don Aurelio Portuondo Barceló built the house in 1902 and sold it a decade later to the Spanish henequén landowner Don Avelino Montes Linaje. They both married local girls and they both fled to Cuba, escaping the complex political scene of the Mexican Revolution.
The story starts at the end of the 19th century when Yucatán witnessed a boom in the henequén industry. There were about 50 rich families who owned over one thousand haciendas across the peninsula. They all grew the green agave from which they produced sisal fibre and exported it to the world (from the port of Sisal after which the fibre got its name). Sisal made them millionaires and that is why they called henequén the 'green gold' of Yucatán. The haciendados all lived in Mérida and built lavish houses for themselves on the new avenue of Paseo de Montejo.
The first owner was Don Aurelio Portuondo Barceló, a Cuban landowner and oligarch. He graduated as a lawyer but became a renowned businessman in Cuba, working at the head of the Ministry of Finance there (in 1922). In 1934 he was the Cuban negotiator with the United States in the conversations that led to the signing of the Treaty of Commercial Reciprocity.
He visited Mérida at the time of the henequén boom at the beginning of the 20th century. Here he fell in love with Josefa de Regil Casares, married her and stayed in the city. With friends and relatives, he organised a company to build the beautiful Peón Contreras Theatre, and during that time, the same engineers and architects designed and built his house, the Quinta, in 1902. He called the house Villa Beatriz in memory of their firstborn daughter, who died a few years after birth. Altogether Don Aurelio and Josefa had six children and the Portuondo family lived in the house for some years until the outbreak of the Mexican Revolution, when he decided to emigrate to Cuba with all his children. In 1915 he sold his home to the family of Don Avelino Montes Linaje.
Don Avelino was also a prominent businessman, landowner and banker of Spanish origin (born in Laredo). He arrived in Mexico at a young age, settling in Yucatán to work in the consortium that belonged to Olegario Molina (he was later governor of the state). Molina was the most conspicuous character of the so-called Casta Divina, a term used to designate the Yucatec oligarchy, the group of henequén landowners, who controlled the economy of the state of Yucatán at that time. Four years later, in 1890, Don Avelino married María Molina Figueroa, the daughter of Olegario Molina. They had seven children.
Don Avelino continued to work as administrator of his father-in-law's business and was soon appointed a counselor of Banco Yucateco, which began operations in 1890. He was also president of the Henequen Trade Union of Yucatán. Once his father-in-law left the governship of Yucatán, and was appointed minister in the government of Porfirio Díaz, the business changed its name to Avelino Montes Sociedad en Comandita and it took over the function of regulating the export prices of henequén fibre. The monopoly formed by Avelino Montes and his partners led to the economic collapse of a large number of small merchants and landowners in Yucatán, to the point that the situation led in 1910 to a rebellion against the central power of the Montes Group. The political movement was called morenismo, headed by lawyer and politician Delio Moreno Cantón. This was at the time of the Mexican Revolution as a national movement, against the dictatorship known as the Porfiriato (Porfirio Díaz exercised power in the country from 1876 to 1911). Yucatán at that time had a particular model of social organisation that had developed because of its isolated geography, the regional economy of the henequén haciendas and the historical circumstances of the so-called Caste War of Yucatán, the revolt of native Maya people against the population of European descent.
The man who changed Yucatán was General Salvador Alvarado. He served in the Mexican military during the revolution and arrived in Mérida in 1915 and became its governor. One of his first actions was to address the situation of the Maya peasants and liberate them from serfdom, prohibiting their confinement, retention of their children, whipping and other corporal punishment. He cancelled their indenture debts with the landowners, defined maximum hours and minimum pay. His vision was to change the feudal hacienda system into a capitalist system converting the peones into true proletarian workers. He also passed laws making education mandatory, secular and free. In this context, the Montes group and the father-in-law were dissolved as the oligarchic group, and stripped of economic and political power, and Avelino Montes took refuge in Cuba, where his father-in-law had also gone into exile after the fall of Porfirio Díaz (in 1911).
On the death of Don Avelino, his daughter Josefina Montes Molina inherited the residence and in memory of her parents she kept it unchanged over the years.
The descendants of Don Avelino managed to further preserve everything as it was 100 years ago and they opened the house to the public in 2003 as a museum and also for social and cultural events.
The FOCUS: The Living quarters
Stepping into the tall wide hall, you will immediately see that dining, living and sleeping spaces are all centred around the main foyer. All the rooms are interconnected by interior doors.
All the rooms have impressive furniture. For me two rooms stood out: the Music Room and the Cane Room.
The Music Room was the social hub of the house. It was also their living room. The daughters of Don Avelino took singing, guitar and poetry lessons here and when the family had guests, they played the piano for them.
The Cane Room was used by the men of the family. The room is named after the cane rack sitting by the corner, with a collection of canes made from different materials and styles such as tortoise-shell and a concealed rifle-cane.There are also hats: Panama, straw, boater and top hats, cigar boxes, riding hoods and other family memorabilia. Among them there is a chessboard with black and white figures. Apparently the dark figures represented for the family the local indigenous people, while the white ones were the Spanish white descendants.
There are various bedrooms in the house. Don Avelino's bedroom was originally the dining room. He transformed it so that he could get the cool breeze through the northern door. He also had a terrace and a stairway outside his room to take morning walks in the garden full of fruit trees and flowers, for his daily exercise. His bathroom was the first one that was built in the house.
The Mystery: The Servants’ Life
While I learnt a lot about the owners of the house during our visit, less is known about the servants who lived downstairs. The servants' quarters are large as they take up the entire lower floor.
I can only assume that the servants were likely Maya women. During the colonial period a large number of weavers, flour grinders, wet nurses and maids were brought into the city for a few weeks at a time. They sought personal service in colonial houses. Many stayed on as long-term servants. According to Matthew Restall some eventually became independent city dwellers. In such cases, in leaving her cah (Maya community) a Maya woman would have acquired official status as a nonresident of a república indígena, and was excluded from tribute obligations to the Spanish.
Permanent servants were reliable and sometimes the gratitude of the Spanish employers improved their position in society, if they were given a house or a land lot by their employer. Such women were also at the forefront of contact between the colonists and the colonised. Toward the end of the colonisation period an increasing hispanisation took place in Mérida and women were an integral part of that change. A lot of Maya took Spanish apellidos (surnames) and a lot of mestizos were born as a result of ethnic mixing.
A number of chores had to be done on a daily basis, as can be seen from the basement floor. Here there is a large kitchen, a purely utilitarian space (not used for entertainment), a larder for storing food and a laundry where washing took place. They had to bring the water in manually, with buckets from the outdoor well.
Interestingly, only one bell was used by the masters upstairs and we were told by our guide that the owners had to pull the string a different number of times, to indicate in which room they expected service. We could see only one bedroom in the servants’ quarters and apparently the house caretaker lived there until three years ago (when she died). The room could have been shared by a number of servants but it is difficult to judge from that room what number of servants actually lived in the house. It is possible that the gardener and other servants would be coming to the house from their own quarters somewhere else in Mérida. I would expect the cook and the maids to have lived in the house though.
Don't miss: The Garden Space
Do walk around the house a little bit, to get the feel of the garden and its outdoor space. There is a nice calabash tree (Crescentia cujete) by the entrance, for example. The tree shares its common name with that of the vine calabash, or bottle gourd. The fruit, called Jícara, Bule, Tecomate, Guaje, Morro or Huacal in Mexico, when dried, is used to make small vessels for serving or drinking.
The street itself, Paseo de Montejo, is worth the walk. The street is named after Francisco de Montejo, the Spanish conqueror who founded the city in 1542. The street is lined with interesting colonial houses, such as Cantón Palace. It was built by General Francisco Cantón Rosado, who owned a number of haciendas and railroads in Yucatán. Today the palace houses the Regional Anthropology Museum of Yucatán. Casa Gemelas, the twin houses, are still privately owned. They look similar but are actually not identical. They were built a decade apart and purchased by two different families. They are distinguished by their wrought iron gates and balconies.
At the base of Paseo Montejo, near the Casas Gemelas, Mérida comes alive with artists, entertainment, and dancing at the Noche Mexicana, Mexican Evening, on Saturday nights. There is a colonial romance to this street during the evening. The avenue is closed to traffic on Sunday mornings for Mérida’s Sunday walk and ride day designed specifically for families and visitors.
How to get there:
The House-Museum is on the avenue Paseo de Montejo, No 469.