Hacienda Ochil, now a muesum and restaurant located in Abala, Yucatan, still has its original rail tracks, one used to transport henequenfrom the estate. Photo from Casa Yucatan
The New Hacienda and Casa Yucatan
The New Hacienda and Casa Yucatan
The New Hacienda (Gibb Smith, Publisher) by Joe P. Carr and Karen Witynski is, at first glance, a competent photo-journalistic documentary of the hacienda restoration movement which has swept across Mexico during the last two decades. It takes the reader on a colorful cyclical journey to some of the once prominent, once abandoned, but now restored and again prominent haciendas which grace Mexico's countryside. These newly transformed colonial estates form a key part of Spanish-Mexican architectural heritage, and are a testament to its vitality and eternal appeal.
The New Hacienda has more than 140 color plates and goes well with a cup of java and a coffee table, whether they be Maxwell House and Ikea or Starbuck's Mexico blend and a colonial mesita purchased from an old widow in Aguascalientes. It is an excellent piece of reference material for those who want their homes to look just like a new hacienda, and may be the quintessential book for people interested in knowing more about the authors interpretation of Mexican country style. Mexico's federal government even considered the book so vanguard and representative of the nation's culture for a foreign publication that it awarded Carr and Witynski the Pluma de Plata in April, 2000.
If Carr and Witynski set out to write a vibrant storybook about dilapidated old haciendas that have been transformed into NAFTA-era resorts, country homes and modern-day working haciendas, they did a commendable job with The New Hacienda. But behind the photographs and hidden amongst the lines of lofty text, The New Hacienda tells more than fairy tale discoveries of abandoned haciendas in exotic Yucatan jungles. As the authors say, there are many lessons to be learned from the homes that belong to a previous age, but what lessons do the restoration of old haciendas and The New Hacienda teach us?
Behind the lines
After a closer look at The New Hacienda, a stuffy air of pretension wafts out of the 159-page book's interior. The writing is verbose, often unclear and occasionally condescending, especially when referring to Mexico's indigenous peoples. After a few chapters, readers south of the border might even begin to wonder exactly which country The New Hacienda is talking about.
This is not to say that the subject matter is not Mexican (with the exception of one chapter on hacienda influence in the United States, The New Hacienda focuses strictly on Mexican haciendas), but the hacienda restoration movement is documented from a fanciful north-of-Mexico point of view.
Haciendas were built over a span of four centuries, beginning shortly after the arrival of the Spaniards in 1521. By the turn of the 19th century more than 8,000 haciendas had been enumerated. The first haciendas were owned by prominent members of New Spain's society, and were constructed and worked on by indigenous people on land that was previously theirs.
The hacienda, for many, represents an era when slave labor was essentially institutionalized in Mexico: as decades passed, haciendas remained under the control of the same cacique families while generation after generation of peons remained bound to the estates, usually by debt. By 1934 the caste system had been categorically abolished and many, but not all, haciendas were abandoned.
As Carr and Witynski point out, the word hacienda comes from the Spanish verb, hacer, to do or make, and means a profit-making or income-producing enterprise, and many big profits were turned by rich Spaniards at the cost of peasant workers during the four centuries of the old hacienda.
Carr and Witynski say, the restoration movement is focused on rediscovering Mexico's traditional building techniques and the architectural elements that impart soul to a structure, but if the movement was merely happening for the sake of preservation, it is unlikely it would be happening at all.
Considering the capitalistic trajectory of many restored haciendas, are the new haciendas really new, or are they just a 21st century manifestation of the same money-making ventures which profit from lax labor laws? To generalize and say the preservationists have created myriad benefits for the people and landscape of Mexico's surrounding communities with the restoration movement is inaccurate.
Thankfully, not all of the estates featured in The New Hacienda are simple money-making ventures. One of the handful of Mexican-owned haciendas visited in the book is that of renowned Oaxacan artist Rodolfo Morales, whose cultural foundation dedicates its resources to the environment, preservation of popular arts and traditions, and the restoration of old buildings. Since 1990, Morales foundation has restored numerous sites and converted them into community oriented learning centers, museums, libraries and workshops.
Renovation projects like those of Morales contrast sharply with the other projects featured in the publication, whose proprietors seem content with bringing renewed momentum to the teaching of the arts of construction to local youths or employing Mayan Indians in the creation of garden gates, fences, furniture, accent and even full-sized bamboo structures for export to the United States or to adorn new haciendas in Mexico.
The New Hacienda portrays the restoration of old haciendas as a movement initiated largely by foreign interest and investment. Certainly this is the case when looking at the number of American-owned haciendas highlighted in the book. From a simple preservationist's point of view, it is interesting to note that foreigners may be doing more than Mexicans are to protect (albeit through alteration in many cases) this aspect of the country's architectural heritage.
Return to fantasy land
Casa Yucatán (Gibbs Smith, 2003), released earlier this year, is the fifth production from the Witynski and Carr Mexican Design series mold, and is but a mild variation on The New Hacienda. Echoing all & that which has come before, to use one of my favorite lines from the new book. The theme, the writing, and the photography though technically, an improvement are basically the same. Casa Yucatán has all the necessary elements to be the perfect clone of its predecessors.
Despite both books shortcomings, Witynski and Carr do deserve accolades for playing an active role in Mexico's old building restoration movement, which, they report, has spread from the walled-off jungle world of The New Hacienda to the cities of the Yucatán. However, Casa Yucatan left me yearning for a more detailed report on the extent to which the restoration movement has spread and the benefits it has provided to the common man and his cities.
If the new hacienda movement is more than just a passing fad, there is hope that many haciendas will not deteriorate to the point of no return. Mexican architectural heritage laws prohibit old buildings from being demolished, but unfortunately do not offer governments or private investors incentives to not let the buildings fall down due to natural causes. As such, much of the nation's architectural heritage is crumbling away. With luck, the restoration movement will spread to other abandoned architectural treasures, and will be undertaken for the sake of preservation and community interest, rather than solely for the all-mighty buck.