- From 1847 until the early 1900s, the Caste War of the Yucatán
made it impossible for a light-skinned person to walk into the
eastern Yucatán or the territory of Quintana Roo and come out
alive. Only indigenous Maya
could safely roam here; any Spanish or Mestizo would be killed
on sight. What caused the fierceness of this Maya uprising which
lasted over half a century?
No single element alone instigated the rebellion, but as in
most revolutions, a long dominated underclass was finally pushed
to its limit by an overbearing uberclass that had performed
intolerable deeds. These included changing the status of public
lands which the Maya used for farming, breaking contracts, and
enforcing cruel and unfair work conditions on the local peasants.
Added to this was the timing of Mexico's successful break with
Spain, which led to numerous changes in the Yucatecan government,
including arming the Maya to help fight the Mexican war against
the United States in Texas. For the first time ever, the Maya
were allowed to own guns.
As a bit of background, Spanish invaders battled 19 years
to conquer the Maya in the Yucatán Peninsula. Unlike the Aztecs
in central Mexico who succumbed to Cortez in less than two years,
the Mayans were not easily overtaken. But by 1700, a once robust
Maya population had fallen to 150,000 due to disease, displacement
and famine. As peace reclaimed the area, however, the Yucatán
Peninsula's combined population of Maya, Mestizo and Spanish
ballooned to a whopping 580,000 by 1845. More people on Yucatán
soil meant more food was needed, and thus began the battle for
The history of the caste war, not unlike Mexico's dramatic
history, is complicated to say the least. After Mexico gained
its independence from Spain in 1821, the Yucatán, a former territory,
joined the Mexican Union. But by 1839, the Yucatecan elites
chafed under federal authority and revolted against the new
government, severing ties to Mexico, and enlisting the services
of the Maya, offering promises of land, along with freedom from
taxes, according to Terry Rugeley, author of Yucatán's Mayan
Peasantry and the Origins of the Caste War.
The Yucatán generals armed the Maya, and with their help,
the revolution was a success.
But a few years later, the new Yucatán government made sweeping
changes, including the suppression of monasteries separating church
and state, and adopting new land and property rights, which included
a clause allowing former public lands to be cultivated and sold.
Over the next seven years, Rugeley states, several hundred thousand
acres of land once used by Mayan peasants was taken from them
and transferred into the ownership of the colonial and church
elite, who felt the uncultivated lands were barely used by the
Maya. To the Maya, however, forest land was sacred and far from
vacant, as it housed the deities of the wild places and the guardians
of the corn, and to the Maya, corn was the divine food, Rugeley
So not only were ancient lands stolen from the Maya but the
promise of deeded land for combat duty was reneged on and never
awarded them. The elimination of church taxes, another pledge,
was also ignored, leaving the Mayans embittered. By 1843, Yucatán
had waffled again and rejoined the Mexican Union, but retained
these newer land laws as well as division of church and state
that had been set up during the interim government.
With the church on its own and receiving no state funding,
the clergy imposed hefty fees, called obventions, on the indigenous
Maya when performing marriages or baptisms. The Maya became
easy targets for recouping the church's lost income.
At the same time, water rights protection was removed and
cenotes (limestone sinkholes that served as reservoirs to the
dry, often bleak landscape) which had supplied an area's water
for centuries suddenly became private property. On a parched
peninsula, things were changing rapidly.
With independence from Spain just two decades earlier, the Yucatán
was reeling from loss of trade with Europe. As one-time key exporter
for goods like cattle, timber, salt and cotton, it had been replaced
as a trade partner by Argentina and Belize.
With the failure of old money-making exports, the Yucatán
needed a new cash crop. Enter henequen, an agave plant, raised
for fiber that could be manufactured into rope. An overseas
market soon developed and in 1833, the first commercial henequen
plantation was founded.
Local landowners slowly converted their rural farms to suit
this new crop, named green gold, and as the adaptation took
time, cattle and corn crops were not immediately affected, leaving
the land issue status quo, and imposing no drastic changes to
the Mayan lifestyle. But by 1845, henequen became the major
export crop of the Yucatán, and a port city named Sisal was
developed near Merida to handle all overseas shipments of the
Sugar cane, too, began its reign when other traditional crops
and exports were phased out after Mexico's split with Spain.
And with cane's lofty payback, a 700 percent annual profit guaranteed
by the second year's production, this high maintenance crop
became popular with the hacendados, or landowners, according
to Nelson Reed, author of The Caste War of Yucatán. Two things
were needed to expedite this new moneymaker: Land and labor.
Due to this, forest land became a coveted item and although
it had been deemed "land owned by all" under Spanish rule, with
a new Mexican government, this land could be cultivated and
sold. The Mayans would be allowed to lease it back from the
government, but then they would be subject to taxation on the
land they used. Few Mayans had the resources to do this.
Regarding labor, at the time of Mexico's independence, the
Maya were declared free, but hacendados decided that 'the custom
of the land' would continue, meaning the Mayan would remain
in servitude to his master. The ancient hacendados had grown
accustomed to a class of native serfs; they came with the property
and could not leave nor marry without the master's consent.
And by creating a 'company store' debt system, the Maya could
never repay the hacendado, meaning he would stay on indefinitely
in serfdom. This well-suited the need for intensive labor in
the sugar cane and henequen fields.
Great social changes were taking place on the Yucatán Peninsula.
Prior to Mexico's secession from Spain, the Maya had been forbidden
to serve in the army or to own military weapons. But with changing
times and governments, Mayan numbers were needed to assure victory
in whatever present battle was being fought, both on the peninsula
Three times the Maya were recruited and armed with rifles
and machetes, and the third time it backfired. In 1847, after
hearing of the death by firing squad to one of their leaders,
Maya troops marched on Valladolid , the most elitist and separatist
city in Yucatán, and macheted 85 people, avenging old wrongs.
Mutilated bodies were carried triumphantly through the streets.
With this news, a wave of dread hit Merida, the economic axis
of the peninsula, as it was sure to be the next staging ground
for what was now becoming a race war.
"The Maya were recognizing their true enemy, the white man,"
Reed states in The Caste War of Yucatán. "There was a debt to
be paid and it was paid with the machete -- for the robbery
of their land, for imposed slavery, for whippings, for impiety
to God and the forest, and for the severed ears of their grandfathers."
In retaliation for the Valladolid massacre, the Yucatecans
descended on the ranch of one of the Maya leaders, raping a
12-year old Indio girl. With this affront, eight Maya tribes
joined forces and drove the entire elite population of the Yucatán
to Merida, burning towns and pillaging as they went. So fierce
was the threat of slaughter, all non-Maya prepared to evacuate
Merida and the peninsula, leaving both entirely in Maya hands.
But just as the Maya approached Merida, sure of victory, fate
intervened when great clouds of winged ants appeared in the
sky. With this first sign of coming rain, the Maya knew it was
time to begin planting. They laid down their machetes and headed
for home and their corn fields, in spite of pressure from their
chiefs. Now it was time to plant corn. A thing as simple and
ancient as that.
In 1848, the Yucatecans staged a comeback, killed Mayan leaders
and reunified. But as the Mayans harvested corn they had planted
in hidden fields, they kept fighting. Hunkering down, they attacked
Yucatecan villages, burned huts, murdered any white man they
encountered, with no thought of giving up. They relied on guerilla
war tactics and fought to preserve the only life they knew.
Through all this, they were pushed to the eastern and southern
regions of Yucatán and Quintana Roo, as far south as Bacalar.
Mexico slowly gained control over the Yucatán, but the rebels
held firmly onto Quintana Roo, using the pueblo of Chan Santa
Cruz (present day Felipe Carrillo Puerto) as their base.
Eventually a peace treaty was signed, but the Chan Santa Cruz
Indians still remained hostile. Although the caste war officially
ended in 1855, more or less from lack of interest by those in
power in Merida, the struggle which had killed 247,000 would continue
well into the 20th century, and involve a bizarre cult named The
Speaking Cross, organized by the Chan Santa Cruz Indians who were
to remain hostile for decades. Only when the chicle boom hit Quintana
Roo in 1915 did their hostility weaken. The Wrigley Company sent
in chicleros, chicle collectors, to gather the resin from the
sapodilla tree which was used for chewing gum.
At first the chicleros were killed by the Chan Santa Cruz,
or robbed of their equipment. But in time, a new Mayan leader
took over, General May, who recognized deals could be made with
the chicle companies, and slowly an end came to the old system
of killing any white man who walked into the territory. Progress
was on the way, and in the depths of the forests of Quintana
Roo, even the Chan Santa Cruz Indians heard the call.
When 1915 ushered in the Mexican Revolution, General Salvador
Alvarado was sent from Mexico City to restore order to the Yucatán,
Mexico's most prosperous state, due to the henequen boom.
That September, the final decree ending the caste war came,
riding in on the coat tails of the Mexican Revolution. Topping
his list of reforms, General Alvarado canceled all 'debt labor'
which freed 60,000 Maya and their families, after 350 years
of slavery. The Revolution had arrived, and with it, the caste
war of the Yucatán ended after 60 years of revolt by a people
who fought fiercely to preserve their way of life.