The Caste War, the Church of the Speaking Cross, and the Cruzob
by Jeanine Kitchel
Living in the land of the Maya today, one takes for granted
the solemn undercurrent of a revered, majestic culture that
built pyramids, developed the concept of zero, and for centuries,
quietly held their ground against Spanish invaders when their
Aztec cousins had succumbed to The Conquest in a heartbeat.
While sunbathing on gorgeous white sand beaches, snorkeling
off the Great Meso-American Reef, or enjoying Mexico's laidback
hospitality, it's easy to forget to whom we owe allegiance on
Quintana Roo's spectacular coast. But just beneath the surface
of this postcard perfect existence lies a Yucatán tale that
isn't talked about much but has set the tone for most of the
past century: the Caste War of the Yucatán.
When cultures collide as they did in Mexico, history requires
a winner and a loser. But in Quintana Roo after the Caste War
of the Yucatán, which began in 1847 and ended with a half-hearted
truce as recently as 1935, it's difficult to determine who won
the battle and which side lost the war.
From 1847 until the late 1930s, the Caste War made it impossible
for a light-skinned person to walk into the eastern Yucatán
or the territory of Quintana Roo and come out alive. This was
a place where only indigenous Maya could safely roam. All white
men were killed on sight. What caused the fierceness of this
Maya uprising which lasted well 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 ruling class that performed intolerable
deeds. Indentured servitude, land grabbing, and water rights
were but a few issues that pushed the Maya into full fledged
The history of the Caste War, not unlike Mexico's dramatic history,
is complicated to say the least. Mexico's successful break with
Spain led to changes in the Yucatán government, including arming
the Maya to help fight the Mexican war against the U.S. in Texas.
Mayan numbers were needed to assure victory. Armed with rifles
and machetes, this tactic soon backfired in Valladolid, the
most elitist and race conscious city in the Yucatán.
After a decade of skirmishes, in 1847, when the newly armed
Mayans heard one of their leaders had been put to death by firing
squad, a long simmering rebellion broke out into full-fledged
battle. The Maya rose up and marched on Valladolid, hacking
85 people to death by machete, burning, raping and pillaging.
MERIDA PREPARES TO EVACUATE
Merida braced itself, sure to be the next staging ground for
what was fast becoming a race war. In retaliation for the Valladolid
massacre, the Yucatecans descended on the ranch of a Mayan leader
and raped a 12-year old Indian girl. With this affront, eight
Maya tribes joined forces and drove the entire elite white population
of Yucatán to Merida, burning houses and pillaging as they went.
So fierce was the slaughter, all non-Maya prepared to evacuate
Merida and the peninsula by boat.
But just as the Mayan tribes approached Merida, sure of victory,
fate intervened when great clouds of winged ants appeared in
the sky. With this first sign of rain coming, the Maya knew
it was time to begin planting. They laid down their machetes
against the pleadings of their chiefs, and headed home to their
milpas (cornfields). 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'd planted
in hidden fields, they kept fighting, relying on guerrilla tactics
to preserve the only life they knew. Throughout all this, the
Maya were pushed to the eastern and southern regions of the
Yucatán and Quintana Roo, as far south as Bacalar. Mexico slowly
gained control over the Yucatán, but the rebel Maya held firmly
onto Quintana Roo, using the pueblo of Chan Santa Cruz (present
day Felipe Carrillo Puerto) as their base.
Tired from years of struggle, the Maya regained confidence
from an unlikely source: a talking cross found deep in the jungle
near a cenote. Revolutionary Jose Maria Barrera, driven from
his Yucatán pueblo, led his band of people to an uninhabited
forest and to a small cenote called Lom Ha (Cleft Spring). There
he discovered a cross carved into a tree. The cross bore a resemblance
to the Maya tree of life, La Ceiba, and a new religion formed
around it, the cult of the speaking cross, centered in the Tulum
Barrera, a mestizo, said the cross transmitted a message which
was later given as a sermon by Juan de la Cruz (of the Cross),
a man trained to lead religious services in the absence of a
Mayan priest. Barrera also used a ventriloquist, Manuel Nahuat,
as the mouthpiece of the cross, and through this directed the
Maya in their war effort, urging them to take up arms against
the Mexican government, assuring the people of the cross they
would attain victory.
From this speaking cross a community evolved -- Chan Santa Cruz
(Little Holy Cross)-- and its inhabitants came to be called
Cruzob, or followers of the cross. By chance, the cross bore
three elements sacred to the Maya: the Ceiba tree, the cenote,
and a cave. The cross was found growing on the roots of a Ceiba,
the Maya tree of life, which sprung from a cave (caves were
sacred spots to the Maya), by a cenote, which the Maya believed
was the place where the rain gods lived, making it easy for
the Maya to accept this supernatural phenomenon.
VOICE OF THE GODS
It was really not a stretch for Mayans to believe the cross
spoke to them. In the Chilam Balam, an ancient Maya text, priests
were described as hearing voices from the gods. So, even this
aspect of mysticism fell into acceptable myth for the Maya.
To the Chan Santa Cruz, the voice of God came from that cross
in that tree. To the Cruzob, the cross was inspired by a shamanic
ventriloquist -- the man speaking to them through the cross
was God's chattel, a mouthpiece of the gods. A shaman. The Cruzob
believed this tree and this cross were connected underground,
100 kilometers from Lom Ha cenote to Xocen -- the center of
the world -- from where the first speaking cross came.
Four crosses are said to exist at counter points -- tips of
the cross--more or less marking the boundaries of the Cruzob
Maya. The religion is still practiced in these four sacred shrine
villages -- X-Cacal Guardia, Chancah Veracruz, Chumpon and Tulum
-- whose geographic positions roughly describe the territory
of the Cruzob Maya. In 1935, the Chan Santa Cruz from these
last holdout villages signed a treaty of sorts which allowed
the rest of Mexico to rule them. The jungle-wise Maya had kept
the Mexican government at bay for 50 years.
More information on the Caste War of the Yucatán and the Church
of the Speaking Cross can be found in Nelson Reed's classic,
The Caste War of Yucatn, and in Macduff Everton's excellent
The Modern Maya, A Culture in Transition. Or just look around
and realize the newly founded Riviera Maya is but a shell for
a more mysterious land of an ancient, respected people who have
had an ongoing conversation with the gods and the universe for
more than a millenium.