Mérida has a rich Maya civilization history that predates the arrival of the Spanish by centuries. The city was built on the site of the ancient Maya city of T’hó, one of the oldest, continually-occupied cities in the Americas.
In 1542, Spanish conquerors founded and named the city Mérida after a Spanish city. In the early years, the Spanish established convents throughout the city to replace the indigenous culture with Christianity. By the end of the 16th century, much of the Maya culture and many of the Maya people were destroyed.
To build the city, the Spanish used many of the carved Maya stones to construct their colonial buildings, including many buildings found today in the historic center of the city, including the main cathedral. Limestone is predominately white, which gave rise to Mérida’s nickname: White City. Mérida was a walled city until the mid-19th century, built primarily to protect against periodic revolts by the indigenous Maya people.
After Mexico gained its independence from Spain in 1821, Yucatán became part of the Independent Mexican Empire in 1824. Mexico’s President Antonio López de Santa Anna refused to recognize Yucatán’s independence from Mexico until the Yucatán army defeated Mexican forces in 1843. An agreement was reached with Mexico at that time to solidify their ties and establish self-rule for Yucatán.
At the beginning of the Mexican-American War in 1846, Yucatán declared its neutrality. But in an effort to suppress revolts, Yucatán recognized Mexico’s authority and rejoined the Mexican Empire.
By the late 19th century, Mérida began prospering from the production of henequén, an agave plant species native to southern Mexico and Guatemala. The production of henequén also brought Korean migrants to the area to work on local plantations. Growers became wealthy and built large homes primarily out of the local white limestone that still can be seen on Mérida’s Paseo de Montejo. Many of these homes are now office buildings.
Mérida has one of the largest historic districts in the Americas. Only Mexico City and Havana, Cuba have larger historical centers. The city is currently undergoing a minor renaissance as more and more people – many of them expats – are restoring the old colonial buildings in the center of the city.
Today, Mérida is a thriving city of over 1 million people. It is the cultural and financial capital of the Yucatán Peninsula and often hosts international events. About 60 percent of Mérida’s population is of Maya heritage. The city also has many residents of Spanish, French and British ethnicity, making it one of the most ethnically diverse large cities in Mexico.