When I was called last summer with the proposal to organize a concert at San Pedro Church in Cholul in January, I wasn’t sure I wanted to accept. But when I learned that I could work with excellent musicians from the Yucatán Symphony and it would be a benefit concert to help EducaTE Yucatán, I could hardly decline. As I would learn, however, there are many challenges and joys in Cholul, Mexico.
EducaTE Yucatán provides tutoring, after-school sports and arts programs and free school supplies to underprivileged children in the town of Cholul. On the back wall of a basketball court, facing the main plaza and the church, is a large mural the children have been painting with the help of local artists. It’s a great way to keep children occupied, give them a sense of accomplishment and self-worth, and to avoid gangs which are too often the main diversion for school age children.
The town of Cholul is part of greater Mérida, even though it is outside the perferico, the ring road that facilitates travel around this increasingly sprawling city. Because of Cholul’s proximity to the best hospitals and most stylish malls in Mérida, developers with deep pockets have sunk their hooks into Cholul. Most of the available land is now being turned into private gated communities for wealthy Yucatecans and expats.
This makes life more difficult for local people, especially as families grow and more and more people are crammed into small houses with no room to expand, and land and building costs remain out of reach. We are told that it is common to see five hammocks with an entire family sleeping in one room. Imagine how challenging this is for young children, especially considering the limitations of the public school system and the exorbitant expense of private schooling. EducaTE has a significant clientele.
The churches of Yucatán lack the effusive detail of churches in most of Mexico. Architects here were not impervious to Baroque extravagance, but the churches were heavily pillaged and their ornamentation expropriated during the revolution more than a century ago, a struggle that was intensified in the aftermath of Yucatán’s Caste War and the ensuing social upheavals.
Even Mérida’s imposing cathedral, the oldest on the continent, is devoid of a central choir enclosure such as one finds in Oaxaca, Puebla or Mexico City, and the elaborate altarpieces that once directed the eye down such a vast space are now distant memories.
The church of San Pedro Apostol in Cholul is one of the oldest in the area. The current building was constructed in the 16th century, replacing an even older Franciscan structure. Originally the church was covered in brightly colored frescoes, a technique where paint is mixed with plaster, but a technique that is hardly durable in the Yucatán’s humidity.
Eventually the murals were too difficult to maintain and were plastered over. Well over a century later, INAH conducted a restoration that removed the plaster and retained as much of the original painting as possible, making San Pedro a truly unique building. The colorful frescoes bring life to a simple and severe traditional layout, though they exhibit a rather primitive artistic technique. Couple this with cheaply executed renovations made to implement the norms of the Second Vatican Council, and the quirky color of fluorescent light bulbs, which is all a poor, small town parish can afford, and the result is rather surrealistic.
Arriving promptly at the church, obviously not on Yucatecan time, we waited over an hour for the sexton to bring keys to open the massive doors. Threatening skies and high winds made me apprehensive moving my fragile harpsichord, and tuning it in the church was accompanied by the distraction of parishioners reciting the rosary!
But the concert was a great success. There was a full and appreciative house and a choir of children who benefit from EducaTE Yucatán programs sang as the centerpiece of the program. Their infectious smiles and angelic voices could soften the most intractable of hearts. Their director clearly knew what she was doing. How fortunate to have so many dedicated people working with these children, and what an honor to be part of their fund-raising efforts!
At the reception following the concert we met some people who have owned a home in Cholul for decades, and who recently retired here after living abroad. They are trying to re-establish on their property native species of fruit trees that are nearly extinct, thanks to the incursion of foreign species that do not play well with others.
The heritage of Yucatán, it seems, is under threat on many fronts, and as is the case in most of Mexico, the challenges just keep coming, but the joys can be sublime.