The Yellow City

Statue of Diego de Landa Facing the Church of San Antonio de Padua

On my recent trip to Yucatán, I enjoyed staying in smaller towns such as Izamal, each of which seems to have some unique claim to fame. In the case of Izamal, it was the deep yellow color that characterized most of the structures in town. There are a number of reasons for this, but I like the story my guide to the Church of San Antonio de Padua told me: “It’s the color of corn—and we Maya believe that man was created from corn.”

Visible throughout the town are the ruins of ancient Maya structures, particularly the Pyramid of Kinich Kakmo, which is visible from the church:

The Pyramid of Kinich Kakmo Seen from the Church

The church at Izamal is notable for the large size of its footprint, supposedly the second biggest in all of Christendom after St. Peter’s in Rome—and also for two church figures associated with the town. The first is the Franciscan Diego de Landa who is both infamous and famous: the former because as Bishop of Yucatán, he ordered the burning of all the Maya codices as heretical, the latter for writing a book which attempted to atone for his crime by writing Relación de las cosas de Yucatán, which helped scholars of our times understand how to read Maya glyphs.

The other figure who stepped into Izamal’s history is Pope John Paul II, who, during his travels, visited Izamal in August 1993 and served Mass there to a crowd numbering in the tens of thousands. According to an article in the Los Angeles Times:

About 3,000 representatives of indigenous groups of the Americas gathered here to meet with the Pope at a 16th-Century Franciscan sanctuary erected atop a Mayan temple to the sun god. By the Vatican’s count, there are 52 million native peoples in Latin America–26 million in Mexico alone.

“Unfortunately, it must be noted that the richness of your cultures has not been duly appreciated. Neither have their rights been respected as peoples and as communities,” John Paul said. “Sin has also cast its shadow on America in the destruction of not a few of your artistic and cultural creations, and in the violence of which you have so often been the object.”

In a 28-minute speech under a merciless tropical sun that wilted his retinue, John Paul singled out some of those communities by name: Guarani, Quechua, Aymara, Nahuatl, Mixtec. And some farther north as well: Apache, Inuit.

The Church of San Antonio de Padua

I spent only one night in Izamal, though I could have spent several days. At the local mercado, a certain Señor Gordo sold two venison tacos with a cold Coke for a grand total of 25 Pesos, about $1.25.