Happy Birthday to Mérida!

On 6 January México celebrates día de los tres reyes (Epiphany, or the Twelfth Day of Christmas, in English).  In many parts of México día de los tres reyes, rather than Christmas, is observed as the traditional holiday for the exchange of gifts, as it commemorates the visit of the Magi. 

Here in Mérida, 6 January also marks the date cited for the city’s founding, in 1542.  Happy #482, Mérida!  (Of course, there was a Maya settlement here for a l-o-o-o-ng time before that, but since we don’t have any specific dates associated with that ancient pueblo, already in a state of ruins by the time the Spaniards arrived, perhaps we can use the occasion of 6 January to celebrate that heritage as well.)

In México the traditional song sung for birthday celebrations is “Las Mañanitas”, with a provenance even longer than the founding of the City of Mérida itself. 

The tune used for “Las Mañanitas”, in ¾ meter and usually sung in a moderate andante tempo, originated in Spain in the Middle Ages, specifically from the music of Sephardic Jews who lived in the Iberian Peninsula since the times of the Roman Empire.  The melodies and themes of this Jewish musical tradition were combined with Spanish lyric poetry, giving rise to the romanza genre.

This form of music arrived in Mexico with colonists, and was used as an instrument of evangelization by the Spanish: many versions of the song make reference to biblical figures, including King David.  The tune was passed down through the generations, for occasions that varied over time.  In the years during and after the Independence of México, popular rallying songs emerged: mañanitas (good morning songs, of which the Hill Sisters’ “Happy Birthday to You,” originally titled “Good Morning to You,” is another version); leave-takings; anniversaries, or corridos – even tributes dedicated to those who were slated for execution.  It has been recorded that Miguel Hidalgo, regarded in México as the Father of the Nation, received a song tribute of this type.

The lyrics for “Las Mañanitas” vary from region to region in Mexico, but recently discovered documents support that the composer Alfonso Esparza Oteo, born in Aguascalientes, penned the arrangement that is best known today. 

Oteo’s lyrics were cemented as the definitive version of the song when it was sung by screen star Pedro Infante in the 1948 film Nosotros los Pobres, a huge box office hit which spawned two sequels.  

History and Legacy

Infante, sometimes styled as, “Pedro the Immortal,” or, “The Immortal Idol,” tragically disproved his immortality right here in Mérida nine years after the theatrical release of Nosotros los Pobres

On the morning of 15 April, 1957, Infante departed Mérida for Mexico City piloting an American-made B-24 Liberator, a World War II bomber that was considered obsolete for military deployment but still useful in civilian applications.  The aeroplane belonged to the TAMSA company, of which Infante was a partner. 

Shortly after takeoff the aircraft crashed at the intersection of Calle 54 and Calle 87, killing Infante and four others.  Infante was only 39 years old at the time of his death.  His body was identified by a metal plate in his head that had been surgically implanted to repair his skull after another crash that he barely survived in 1949. 

His funeral in Mexico City two days later was attended by 300,000 mourners, and he is still regarded as one of the greatest film stars and singers that México has ever produced. 

Here in Mérida there are no fewer than four sites dedicated to el Ídolo de México, including an equestrian statue located at Calle 62 and Calle 91.  The statue, dedicated on 12 February, 1976, serves as a testament to Pedro Infante’s enduring popularity: it was forged from thousands of bronze keys donated by his fans.