Postcard from Merida, Mexico: A house that henequin built

Texas farmers’ need for a digestible binding material for bales of hay tossed to cattle gave rise to incredible wealth in the Yucatan, a boom that lasted from 1880 to 1915. Operating under the favorable conditions for the wealthy to further enrich themselves, aristocrats in Mexico were able to take advantage of a native plant – henequen – and cheap native labor to bankroll a lavish lifestyle built upon production of the requisite fiber. In 1914, more than one-million bales of henequen were exported from the Yucatan.

John McClelland writing for MexConnect explains the demise of the industry in 1915:

A general from the new government rode into Merida with the intent of implementing land reforms by breaking up the hacienda system. Productivity dropped dramatically and the price of henequen fibre for export rose 400%. The Americans were unwilling to pay this price and promptly found an alternative source of fibre in Brazil. The industry went into steep decline and by 1950 the countryside was littered with abandoned henequen haciendas.

Prior to that abrupt halt, the Yucatan had become the wealthiest state in the country. Those profiting expressed their success by the erection of European-style homes fashionable during the Porfiriato period along a wide boulevard in Merida – Paseo de Montejo. Now known as La Quinta Montes Molina, the house spotlighted in this post was built by a wealthy Cuban on property gifted to him by his father-in-law upon his wedding. The family later returned to Cuba, and the house was purchased by Avelino Montes Linaje, originally from Spain, who married a daughter of the Governor of Yucatan. Their daughter Josefina inherited the house in 1956, and she maintains it as a house museum and elegant venue for special events. When returning to Merida, Josefina still stays in her bedroom in the house.

McClelland writes of a recent resurrection of some former henequen haciendas:

Today, with renewed interest in natural fibres and the high cost of petroleum, henequen is enjoying resurgence. A very few of the old haciendas have been restored to their former glory. The 100 year old equipment is operational again and pounding out henequen fibre. As an intentional time warp, the employees dress and work just as their great grandfathers resulting in old industry revival and a new industry as tourists flock to see history replayed.

MexConnect

4 thoughts on “Postcard from Merida, Mexico: A house that henequin built”

    1. Lili – Wish I was confident in my memory of Josefina’s age, but I don’t wish to risk offending her by adding years to it. I think she is of an age, though, where a woman no longer denies it but is proud to proclaim it – about the same age as your mother, which makes her visits seem even more endearing. Take care.

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  1. I’ve always heard the henequen economy collapsed because of the invention of nylon. I’m a bit suspicious of the land reform claim – my impression is that the ejido system isn’t as developed in Yucatan as in central Mexico, but I could be wrong.

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    1. James – I must admit not to have conducted extensive research, which is why I quoted the source. Governor Salvador Alvarado’s reforms were based on more of a capitalist model, providing the Mayan workers wages to inspire them to work harder. Perhaps the initial fall of exports was due more to increased competition from other countries which began cultivating it? Don’t think I should wade any deeper into this, given my tourist-level knowledge, but certainly welcome additional information. Thanks for commenting.

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