In 1984, Alice and I visited Mérida. Then, the people called it La Ciudad Blanca, The White City. In addition to the whitewashed buildings, many residents wore white. Most men wore loose-fitting pleated white shirts, guayaberas, white trousers and fine woven straw hats from the nearby town of Becal. Women wore white dresses with heavy embroidery and bright-colored floral patterns. The city appeared clean and prosperous.
What we didn’t realize then was we were witnessing the very end of the Henequén Era in the Yucatán.
In the 1950s, nylon rope began to take the place of rope made from the natural fibers of the henequén and sisal plants. By 1984, the last viable commercial harvest of these crops had taken place in the Yucatán. The henequén industry which created enormous wealth-producing plantations using slave-like company store labor was over. The natural fiber rope market collapsed, and DuPont with its new synthetic products ruled. Only narrow specialty markets for these natural fibers survive today.
When we returned to Mérida in 2012, we found a different city. Nikes, t-shirts with designer names and jeans were the standard dress. We only saw traditional dress around the main square, the Zócalo, displayed there for tourists.
Departing from Mérida in 1984, we took a bus and rode all day to Belize passing through many huge henequén plantations. These are difficult to locate today. Many are abandoned, overgrown—reclaimed by Mother Nature.
Henequén, (Agave fourcroydes ), and Sisal, (Agave sisalana), were the two principal plants used for fiber production. Henequén was used for coarse-fiber production—lines for ships, riggings, string, sacks and rugs. Sisal is a close relative to henequén but considered a finer fiber often blended with cotton. I purchased a guayabera and a hammock, hamaca, in Mérida. Both were soft cotton/sisal blends.
The henequén and sisal plants appear as rosettes of sword-shaped leaves. These they harvested in bundles and then stripped them lengthwise, yielding long stiff fibers which twisted together made twine, rope, mattress ticking or coarse clothing.
The names henequén and sisal may refer to either the plant or the fiber. Additional name confusion comes from the Mexican port of Sisal, which shipped much of the fiber product during its heyday. Shippers labeled both henequén and sisal shipped from Sisal as Sisal—indicating the port of embarkation. As a result, many people referred to all fiber products from the port as sisal.
Although now grown in many parts of the world, both henequén and sisal are indigenous to the Yucatán.
While in Mérida in 2012, we visited some of the remaining vestiges of the henequén plantations. One of the most beautiful was Yaxcopoil.
Entrance to Hacienda Nohchakan, another henequén plantation we visited
In the late 19th century, the henequén industry grew to unprecedented power in the Yucatán. The export of henequén products made many local families rich. That wealth is still evident in much of the architecture of the colonial city of Mérida and in the more than one-hundred-and-fifty henequén haciendas spread throughout the Yucatán Peninsula. The henequén industry provided many years of financial autonomy to the isolated Yucatán.
At the height of the Henequén Era (1850-1984, interrupted by the Mexican Revolution), Mérida was one of the richest cities in the world.
Since the henequén collapse, many of the workers from the more remote plantations have moved into Mérida, and since 1984 the city has grown from around a half a million to well over a million people. Today, it is dependent on tourism as its primary economic engine.