Monday, November 29, 2010

big house on the prairie

When I lived in Britain in the 70s, I regularly visited the island's great houses.

Blenheim Palace.  Woburn Abbey.  Castle Howard.

Vast ancestral estates  that fell on tough times, starting in the early 1900s when Parliament discovered it could levy heavy taxes on the landed aristocracy without sparking a blue blood revolution.

The owners of those estates were property rich, but income poor.  When the Vanderbilts and Astors ran low on rich American daughters to barter off to paupered dukes, the British came up with an elegant solution.  Give up your homes to the National Trust, you coroneted folk, and we will let you live in them.

On one condition.  You must allow the hoi polloi to wander your once-private halls.

Being as common as they come, I took great pleasure in slumming amongst the peers.

Imagine my surprise when I discovered Mexico offers something similar.  Well, similar to the extent that there are great houses.  But, no English civility here.  Most of the owners were either booted out or shot about 100 years ago -- during Mexico's recently-celebrated Revolution.

Mexico, like most of Latin America, inherited a feudal property system from its Spanish overlords.  Like most of the European continent, all Spanish property belonged to the monarch.  The king allowed nobles to "own" vast estates in turn for service to the crown.  The notion of Spanish yeoman farmers was as foreign as common tongue Bibles in the home.

When Spain conquered Mexico, the conquistadores were pleased to discover a large Indian population to use as labor and huge tracts of arable land to further the interests of Their Catholic Majesties.  Slave labor and wide tracts of land were well-suited to the Spanish hacienda system.

Like most things Mexican, the hacienda system began with Hernán Cortés.  Carlos I granted Cortés the title of Marques des Valle Oaxaca -- along with an estate the size of a Mexican state and the power of life and death over every inhabitant of his estate.  A system not unlike plantations in the American south.

But each hacienda had two things in common: serfs and lots of land.  That combination was one of the driving forces behind the 1910-1920 Revolution -- and the breakup of haciendas in favor of communal ejidos.

That revolution was violent.  As a result many of the great houses were destroyed.  But a few remain.

You can find one of the largest just 20 miles southwest of Mérida: Hacienda Yaxcopoil.

And that is exactly what Islagringo and I did.  Found it.

It is hard to imagine exactly what the friends of Don Donaciano García Rejón Mazó felt in the 19th century as their carriages drove through the impressive gates of the hacienda.  I do know we were impressed -- arriving in our not-so-majestic Atos.

The exterior of the gray stone main house inspires as much awe as some of the minor palaces in the forests around St. Petersburg.  And just as decrepit.

But the house retains some of its ability to impress,  It has the same remnants of beauty found in aging silent screen stars.  In this case, the size alone is enough to ensure attention is paid.

It is no longer a home.  Instead, it is a preserved (but unrenovated) museum.  A museum with many of the house's original furnishings -- all within easy touch.

Chairs invite tourist caresses.  As if longing to be of service to human behinds. 

And then there are the surprises.  A foot stool that hides a chamber pot.  Or a dining room flower centerpiece that turns into individual ash trays. 

That old continental hedonist, Napoleon III, would have felt at home here.  (Wait a second.  He tried that.  Didn't quite work out.)

Despite the size of the house, it is easy to imagine the don and his family living lives of relative luxury in its rooms.  While the peones slaved at spinning henequen into pesos.

It is hard to believe that a mere plant could form the basis of the hacienda's great wealth.  But the Spanish Empire needed rope and twine.  And the Yucatan met the need.

The hacienda was more than fancy digs with two cool swimming pools.  It was a working farm and factory.  22,000 acres (34 square miles) of henequen.  All of it grown and processed on the property.

The family that purchased Hacienda Yaxcopoil in 1864 managed to avoid the ultimate excess of the Revolution -- being on the wrong side of a firing squad.  They kept their lives.  But not most of their property.

The Constitution of 1917 outlawed the hacienda system.  Hacidena Yaxcopoil was reduced to 3 per-cent of its original size -- but continued to operate as a henequen factory until 1984.

As a side note -- if you want a piece of history that spans the Mayan Empire, the Spanish Empire, and the Mexican Republic, step right up.  Hacienda Yaxcopoil is for sale. 

I have no idea what the asking price is.  But I am certain of one thing: if you have to ask, you probably can't afford it.

As for me, this visit makes me interested in tracking down other great houses.  Before real estate development finishes up the job that the Revolution started.


Islagringo said...

I shouldn't read your accounts until after I finish mine. You are intimidating me!

Anonymous said...

I am happy to see you are in back in Mexico. You seem to be happy there.


Tancho said...

Can I place an order for the "Haciendas of Mexico" by Steve Cotton An autographed copy of course?

No you have a purpose, a mission a reason......

Steve Cotton said...

Islagringo -- I suspect we will both add our own personal touches to the shared experience.

Horst -- It is good to be back -- even though I enjoyed my stay in the States.

Tancho -- I will leave the missions to the politicians and other conquerors.

Michael Dickson said...

Steve, there are no plantations in the American South. There once were.

When I attended a language school in Morelia almost 11 years ago, I was put up by a local family descended from hacienda owners. What remained of the hacienda was about 80 miles east of Morelia. It was a getaway spot for them. They still owned it. They took me there one day. It was very interesting but nothing on the scale of this place you describe.

Larry Prater said...

Maybe you can visit the state of Morelos some day. We have several ex-haciendas that are now hotels and restaurants, they are pretty before they they are restored but even prettier afterwards.

Steve Cotton said...

Felipe -- But, sir, plantations still exist preserved in amber just as the haciendas are. It would be fun to visit one of the not-so-grand houses still be used as a family getaway.

Steve Cotton said...

Larry -- Morelos is certainly a possibility on my visit list. It is good to see you on the comment page, again.