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date: 21 August 2017

Caste Wars in Yucatán

Summary and Keywords

The Caste Wars of the Yucatán tore apart the peninsula between 1847 and 1901. While the violence was not constant throughout the more than five decades between the start and conclusion of the war itself, the threat of rebel hostilities was ever present. Scholars have debated the origins of the war for many decades, with most recent academic treatments focusing on heavy tax burdens, poor working conditions for Yucatán’s peasantry, and the loss of land that occurred during the second half of the century. Tensions between political leaders exacerbated relations with the Mayas in particular and the peasantry more generally. The emergence of the breakaway state of Chan Santa Cruz, in the southeastern part of Yucatán, allowed rebel forces to coalesce between 1850 and the early 1870s. Here, a “Speaking Cross” oracle gave direction to the rebellious Mayas, who crushed their enemies and exacted revenge against those who would not support their cause. The emergence of Porfirio Díaz as President of Mexico in 1876 led to a gradual “reconquest” of the areas held by the cruzob, or “people of the Cross.” By 1901, the Mexican military ended the Caste Wars, though violent episodes still marred Yucatán until the early 1930s.

Keywords: indigenous rebellions, history of Mexico 1810–1910, Mayas, history of Yucatán

The Caste War of the Yucatán erupted in 1847 in the midst of an atmosphere of intense political chaos, internal turmoil, perpetually empty treasuries, and a sharp divergence between economic classes. Mexico, newly independent from Spain, struggled to find its political and economic identity, and by the middle of the century had experienced loss of territory, invasions by foreign powers, coups, and conflicts with provincial leaders. In many ways, Yucatán exemplified the larger problems impacting Mexico as a whole, particularly after the late 1830s. But in other ways, Yucatán’s history was unique. Between 1847 and 1901, Maya peasants, along with some non-indigenous supporters, clashed with the Yucatecan government and Mexican forces, in defense of lands, against onerous tax burdens, and in support of local autonomy. Superficially, the Caste War appeared to be a racially charged conflict (owing to the Spanish term for ethnic distinctions), pitching “traditionally minded” Mayas versus their European-descended masters; in reality, the war was much more complicated, nuanced, and multi-causal.

Background of the Conflict and Yucatecan Socioeconomic Organization

Much of Mexico roiled with civil and political conflict during the two decades following independence from Spain, which occurred in 1821. With the establishment of the Republic of Mexico in 1823 (and Yucatán’s incorporation into the infant nation), national and state constitutions guided the political elite. The creation of constitutional codes did little to dampen the spirits of partisans, who argued bitterly about states’ rights, equality, and the power of the Catholic Church. The Yucatecan political elites were not immune to such internal bickering, despite the fact that there was a vast geographical and cultural distance from the center of Mexico City. As military coups swept leaders from power in Mexico City between 1823 and 1847, the political apparatus based in Mérida remained, for the most part, relatively stable, though periods of political chaos occurred. Such strife, which commonly spilled out into the countryside and drew in many elements of society in other parts of Mexico, mostly “confined itself to factions of the urban elite” prior to the outbreak of the war.1 By 1838, however, whatever peace may have existed on the surface of Yucatecan society soon boiled over, setting the stage for decades of violent conflict.

Yucatecan politicos looked to the interior of Mexico with increasing dismay as the 1830s wore on. Conflict with Texas in 1835 meant that the Mexican army needed men for the cause, and men conscripted from all parts of the country, including Yucatán. This created a labor shortage on the peninsula, exacerbating the already suffering economy. For their part, the Mayas resented such measures, and those who could fled impressment. Mexico’s political troubles and tensions in Yucatán created the conditions ripe for rebellion by 1839, but such an uprising did not come from the Mayas at that point. In May of that year, Santiago Imán, a wealthy landholder from Tizimín, launched a federalist revolt. This maneuver, while short lived and ultimately a failure, succeeded in winning Yucatán’s brief independence from Mexico, and stirring a sense of resistance among Imán’s indigenous soldiers.2

Though brief, Imán’s revolt against centralist authorities reflected a widespread anger at the traditional centers of power. His army, composed of soldiers from all walks of life, included “mestizos, deserters . . . and above all, Maya peasants,” whom Imán had promised relief from heavy church tax obligations; he also claimed to oppose “the overseas use of state troops,” an enticing proposal for his soldiers. From Tizimín, Imán and his band of peasant soldiers swept through the countryside, striking fear among inhabitants, resulting in the capture of Valladolid (capital of the region) and Campeche, an important port city. By 1840, however, the rebellion faltered; Imán had little appetite for the political machinations of leadership, his peasant soldiers returned home to farm, and elites in Mérida set about reestablishing order in the wake of tremendous violence. Politicians thus set about creating a Yucatán that worked more or less in concert with the rest of Mexico, but with particular attention paid to the needs of their region. While Imán’s revolt marked a failure for federalism at that moment in time, it created a recipe for political violence that would sweep through the region by the close of the 1840s.3

The relationships between Yucatán’s Maya residents and its mestizo and Creole population always had been complex, and by the middle of the 1800s, the centuries of coexistence forged an interesting, multiethnic society. Maya towns, around the time of independence, were mixed in terms of ethnic makeup, with inhabitants who were Afro-Mexican and European in descent. Such intermixing, then, helps debunk the idea that the Mayas had little interaction with the outside world.4 In fact, many Mayas were upwardly mobile in social and economic terms, demonstrating that those who chose to participate in Yucatecan society did so actively. This is not to suggest that cultural divisions were nonexistent, but it is important to note that segregation was not as hard and fast as previously believed.5

Not only were the Mayas an intrinsic part of Yucatecan society, as opposed to distinct from it, but the upper classes had to consider them when creating laws governing the state. Maya agricultural labor supported the entire population, produced other necessary goods, and in at least one instance served as moneylenders to their non-indigenous neighbors. Alienating a significant portion of the population, then, could provoke serious retribution. Instead, Hispanic leaders throughout Yucatán relied on batabs, Maya leaders who served as middlemen between their Maya villagers and church and secular authorities. The batabs collected taxes, and helped in recruitment measures for the state, but also served as the voice of the people, and “villagers expected their batab to intervene when labor drafts became too heavy, when . . . taxes became unpayable, or when local property rights required verification.” In exchange, the batabs were exempt from paying taxes themselves, and protested vigorously when these freedoms were threatened.6

Because of the importance of the Maya peasantry to the larger Yucatecan economy, their needs did concern lawmakers in Mérida. By the early to-mid-1830s, a few years prior to the revolt led by Imán, politicians tried to curb abuses against peasant lands by limiting how large haciendas could grow. For instance, individuals were prohibited from transacting land purchases of more than 1,000 square mecates (one mecate is roughly 400 square meters), and any new properties needed to be at least one league from an existing hacienda. This would in theory prevent latifundia, the amassing of truly enormous properties by individuals or families. It also acknowledged the importance of peasant farming to the larger economy, and protecting their lands from “either surveying or the sale.”7

However, land laws were often a mixed bag, potentially protecting the indigenous peoples on the one hand, and despoiling them of their land on the other. Such uneven application and treatment of landholding issues provided impetus for conflict between Mayas in small, rural villages and political elites in Mérida. Between 1830 and 1842, “land tenure laws . . . led to the privatization of at least 8,000 hectares of communal lands to non-Maya owners. Maya villages land could be denounced in order to encourage colonization of eastern and southern Yucatán.”8 Maya reactions to such laws were mixed, preventing a united front that may have been able to withstand some of the harsher measures. Combined with an expanding population, and loss or division of lands, Maya peasants watched as their territory disappeared.

By the end of the 1840s, heavier tax burdens, shrinking land bases, and a decline in local autonomy, coupled with the violence that had become more commonplace in rural towns and villages in the wake of the Imán revolt, created a simmering cauldron of instability. Land became increasingly privatized while simultaneously peasants became more active, realizing “that their participation had become central to local and even national political successes.” Whether or not circumstances forced Mayas to react, they were part of the political apparatus on the 1840s. Caudillos intent on exerting their influence promised Mayas relief from taxes, and in this way were able to raise militias that could sway the outcomes of elections, and violently so. Using their authority as local powerbrokers, Maya elites called upon their peasant followers and entered the political fray, which lasted from 1839 to 1840, and which subsequently unleashed decades of conflict, violence, and death.9

Causes of the War

While there is no simple explanation and no single cause for the start of rebellion that swept Yucatán between 1847 and 1901, a few pieces of evidence emerge that point to triggering factors; these dynamics made rebellion possible in Yucatán. Based on documentary evidence from the period, the payment of taxes was a principle concern of rebel leaders. These men also desired local autonomy, something which increasingly slipped away from them during the 1830s and 1840s. Personal correspondence between Jacinto Pat and Cecilio Chi attest to hated taxes and a push for “liberating the Indians from the payment of contributions,” and fear of political retribution from Yucatecan military officers. Another letter, from Pat to Modesto Méndez, who was the principal politician of the Petén region of Yucatán, reiterates Maya desires to be freed from tax obligations. As Chi saw it, he and his allies were “prepared to wade through fire and blood to liberate” themselves from the payment of any sort of taxes. Thus from contemporary documentation, one of the main causes of the rebellion, at least at its inception, becomes more pronounced. The Mayas, straining under the weight of an economy that they were a part of, but could not control, fought fiercely to eliminate taxation, which made their economic struggles even more burdensome.10

Taxation was not the singular cause of the war. Demographics and labor certainly contributed to the conflict, and in this way, we can see how Yucatán is different from most of the rest of Mexico. Again, litigation over the course of two decades provides a spark. Indigenous peoples had participated in local politics since at least the early 19th century, having a say in local governance. While “indigenous service on the councils was limited, indigenous voting in their election was not.”11 Adult males, regardless of ethnic background, could vote in elections, but it was understood that corrupt politicians could (and did) buy Maya votes. In theory, indigenous participation in the electoral process was an important part of Yucatecan politics, but gradually by 1850, “the Yucatecan government passed a series of laws that disenfranchised the peninsula’s Maya inhabitants.”12 This was accomplished mostly by introducing literacy laws, but regardless of the processes by which Mayas lost the right to vote, such measures only exacerbated tensions between the Maya and non-Maya inhabitants of the peninsula.

The Caste War, 1847–1850

Though the war itself began at the end of July, tensions had been rising throughout the spring and spiked at the beginning of the summer. During this period, Manuel Antonio Ay conspired to revolt against the government. Ay was a local batab from the town of Chichimilá, and his plans for rebellion seem to have been a response to the execution of the leader of Tabí and some villagers by a Yucatecan general. Prior to 1847, batabs typically were protected, even when conflicts erupted. That unspoken rule ended with the events at Tabí, and Ay’s conspiracy was discovered by authorities. Ay’s goals remain unknown, but the “premature exposure suddenly forced events out of control,” leading to the start of the Caste War. For his part in the conspiracy, officials from the eastern part of the peninsula executed Ay and set the military upon would-be rebels.13

The rebellion exploded on July 30, 1847, when Cecilio Chi and his supporters swept into the small town of Tepich, deep in the jungle of what is now the state of Quintana Roo, killing its white residents (all the while apparently shouting “death to the whites,” according to some reports.) From Tepich, Chi and his sometime-ally Jacinto Pat headed for Mérida, Chi in control of forces moving through the center part of the region, Pat controlling the region south of the towns of Tepich and Tihosuco, and Florentino Chan commanding rebels from around Valladolid. As the rebel armies moved northwest toward Mérida, their movement began to crumble before it really had a chance to begin.14

Something to consider with the Caste War is the fact that conflict was not continuous. In fact, shortly after tensions boiled over in 1847, the situation calmed down for several months. Though there is no concrete evidence to explain why this is, history provides some clues: the fighters who supported Pat, Chi, and others were peasant farmers. Since pre-conquest times, farming and war were two parts of the annual cycle. Perhaps lulls in violence can be explained through necessity, that farmers needed to plow their fields to ensure good harvests later in the year. At any rate, such stoppages in the war occurred throughout the remainder of the 19th century, lending eerie senses of calm whenever hostilities ceased temporarily.15

The war erupted and spread from eastern towns westward. Contrary to previous beliefs, Maya and peasant communities in the north and west of the peninsula had sustained more regular contact with their non-indigenous neighbors, and over time they learned to “accept incrementally greater impositions by Creoles.” Such was not the case in the eastern forests, from Valladolid south to the Río Hondo, which served as the border between Mexico and British Honduras (modern-day Belize). While contact, trade, and business dealings between Mayas and non-Mayas certainly occurred, and somewhat regularly, the “radical communities were . . . not the farthest nor the closest to cities . . . they were close enough for trade, but far enough to avoid scrutiny.” The more oppressed Mayas did not rebel, at least according to existing evidence.16

A complicating factor for Caste War fighters was a lack of unity, which is something of a hallmark of peasant rebellions. Chi and Pat jockeyed for overall leadership of the mixed-race bands of soldiers under their command. Because of the decentralized nature of rural life in Yucatán, in which local loyalties were of utmost importance, it was difficult to establish a unifying agenda among leaders of the various rebel forces fighting against the political apparatus. By April 1848, Pat sued for peace, igniting a serious conflict with Chi; under threats from Chi and some of his own forces, Pat recanted his overtures. Chi then restarted his assaults on local municipalities, attacking the town of Maní, about 100 kilometers southwest of Mérida. There would be no peace, and elites in the capital quickly realized that there was no singular leader with whom to negotiate.17

Conflicts between rebel leaders were one thing, but disunity among the rest of the Maya population was another. It is tempting to take overarching ethnic labels, like Maya, and ascribe an ethnic unity to all. Nevertheless, the Mayas, like other Mexican indigenous groups, understand their identity in local, not general, terms. For this reason, when examining the Caste War, it is important to note that not all batabs (or Mayas, for that matter) supported the war. As noted previously, support was greatest in eastern towns, while those in the west, with greater contact with the Mérida political and economic establishment, remained neutral, or in some cases joined government forces and were given the title of “hidalgo” by the government in Mérida. These Mayas identified themselves with the hacienda on which they worked as opposed to members of a village, at least according to one scholar.18

Throughout 1848 and 1849, Mayas, led by Pat, Chi, and Pec, controlled a significant part of Yucatán. But poor planning, a lack of unifying motive for war, conflicts between leaders, and a constant struggle to obtain supplies caused the movement to stagnate before it really got started. The violent deaths of Pat and Chi by the end of 1849 left the movement floundering; leadership then passed on to others, including Zacarías May, and eventually Venancio Puc, and mestizos like Bonifacio Novelo and José María Barrera, two men who understood the Mayas’ complaints against the government. But these men, and others like them, could not suppress the movement of the Yucatecan forces.

By 1850–1851, the Yucatecan government in Mérida went on the offensive, initially led by General Rómulo Díaz de la Vega. De la Vega, originally from Mexico City, launched an assault on the southeastern regions of Yucatán, successfully capturing Chichanhá during the spring of 1852 and sweeping down to the Río Hondo, which was probably the area of greatest rebel resistance. The government had also devised a strategy to cut off support for the rebellions. Former rebel fighters who wanted to establish peace with the government could do so, creating what became known as pacífico villages. These small towns comprised Mayas who laid down their arms (in theory), military deserters, and some immigrants from Central America, sued for peace with the Yucatecan government in exchange for the very things that the rebels coveted: a release from tax obligations and the ability to government themselves. The first attempt at the creation of such a settlement occurred in 1850, and from there, the concept grew. By1853, nearly all of the territory that the rebels had gained was retaken by the state. Assistance from the United States, Cuba, and the central government in Mexico (from which Yucatán had briefly been independent), in addition to peace efforts with former fighters, had helped turn the tide against the rebels.19

Foreign support proved crucial during the early years of the war. According to one historian, after the Mexican-American War subsided in 1848, Yucatecan officials solicited help directly from Commodore Matthew Perry, but without acquiring his support. Nevertheless, the 13th Regiment from the U.S. Army accepted an offer from the Yucatecan government in which soldiers would fight rebellious Mayas in exchange for $8 per month and a parcel of land once the region was pacified. Spain sent weapons; however, Cuba’s proposition was the most interesting (and terrible) of all. By the end of the 1840s, Cuba, needing more workers for sugar plantations, accepted vanquished rebel Mayas to augment their enslaved African and Afro-Cuban labor force; Yucatán sold its Maya prisoners into slavery.20 This terrible episode in modern Yucatecan history is memorialized in a haunting mural in the Palacio de Gobierno of Mérida.

The Speaking Cross

Despite the government’s steady and victorious marches across the peninsula, which helped regain lost territories, the misfortunes that befell Maya caste warriors early on would eventually reverse. At some point around 1850 (it is impossible to date with certainty), the Speaking Cross oracle helped “to rally the Maya rebels” from defeats that they faced between 1849 and 1853. Success was not immediate, and the cult that developed guided the war for the next several decades. Centered at the town of Chan Santa Cruz (“Little Holy Cross,” now the city of Felipe Carrillo Puerto; see map), Maya rebels established a breakaway state, and a particular sort of syncretic religion developed there from 1850 onward; the Cross determined Maya actions, and the Mayas obeyed its commands. Mayas who adhered to this belief system became known as the cruzob, or people of the Cross. Believing the Cross to be the voice of God, the cruzob planned their community and military actions from the town dedicated to the Cross, which spoke through human oracles. From the capital of Chan Santa Cruz, the cruzob controlled an area of the Caribbean coast between Tulum and Bacalar. After 1850, rebels living in this breakaway stronghold engaged in guerrilla warfare against anyone who failed to support their cause.21

Caste Wars in YucatánClick to view larger

Map 1. Territory of Chan Santa Cruz and its towns and villages. The breakaway state bordered British Honduras (now Belize) to the south, and the British occasionally supplied Maya rebels with weapons and munitions.

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The oracle at Chan Santa Cruz was not throwback to pre-conquest times, though it did demonstrate an adherence to more traditional beliefs blended with an understanding of Catholic teachings. From evidence produced during the 1850s and 1860s, it becomes much more clear just how important Maya beliefs in the Cross were, while simultaneously demonstrating Maya ability to blend Catholic and traditional elements into a powerful folk religion. According to contemporaries,

after darkness fell God was said to descend into the miraculous cross, which would then be formally interrogated by the patron of the cross, Venancio Puc himself; the voice of God was heard by means of a whistle manipulated by a young boy later to be identified as José Nah; sounds of the whistle were interpreted as God’s commands by an elderly man to be identified as Apolinar Sánchez, who was known to cult adherents as Tata Polin, “Father Polin.”22

The Cross itself preached “war without compromise,” and struck fear in the hearts of neighboring regions’ inhabitants, most of whom had no taste for such “all-or-nothing” warfare. When asked what their purpose in fighting actually was, one leader suggested that it was to make up for harsh treatment of Indians by the Yucatecans, and to recover all the lands lost on the peninsula.23

The breakaway territory of Chan Santa Cruz operated in many ways like any other Maya area of the peninsula. Men farmed and served as soldiers in the rebel army, while women maintained the homestead and prepared goods for the men when they left for campaigns. The leadership of Chan Santa Cruz was rather rigid and ethnically diverse, relatively speaking. Bonifacio Novelo, a mestizo from a reasonably wealthy family, served as headman through at least as late as the 1860s, though he was no longer fighting on the front lines. The “second chief of Santa Cruz,” Bernabé Cen, was Maya. From the town, the cruzob Mayas raided the frontiers in the interior of the peninsula with the thousands of men apparently drawn from local towns in the area.

The most pressing needs for the leaders of Chan Santa Cruz were increasing revenues, keeping a check on local “fugitive” communities called pacíficos, and blocking the Yucatecan army from making any gains. The amassing of goods, weapons, and money was a necessity for the breakaway state, but leaders of Santa Cruz had to walk a fine line. Indeed, one of the causes of the conflict in the first place had been heavy tax burdens placed upon the peasantry. Instead of directly taxing residents of Chan Santa Cruz, which might have flirted with disaster, cruzob leaders “devised a variety of disguised taxes that included a percentage of the spoils of war, as well as monopolies on tobacco, pigs, cattle, and rum,” which were then sold in Belize. In addition, peasants paid a tax for the right to farm.24

Chan Santa Cruz gradually became a powerful entity, the leaders of which treated with envoys from British Honduras and sought revenge upon Yucatecans and pacíficos alike. In February of 1858, cruzob rebels attacked and captured the old Spanish port of Bacalar (they had attacked in 1848 but failed to hold the port). The garrison that had been assigned to protect the city was poorly manned and equipped, and suffering from disease. This made for an easy target for the cruzob, who took the city with relative ease according to a captive’s report. Prisoners taken during the raid were executed by cruzob soldiers, despite an attempt by a British envoy named James Hume Blake. Others were taken to Chan Santa Cruz to serve the cruzob in various capacities. With Bacalar firmly in their grasp, the cruzob rebels gained control of trade in the region, something desperately needed in order to maintain their now decade-long war with the Yucatecan government in Mérida. Trade links with British Honduras were so strong that the British government eventually acknowledged the state as an independent entity.25

Mexico’s problems in the late 1850s and 1860s spilled into Yucatán, impacting the Caste War. The conflicts between liberals and conservatives exploded into an all-out war during a period known as La Reforma. As had happened previously, landowners in Yucatán saw their peasant workers swept away in military drafts. For the most part, these conscriptive measures did not impact the cruzob directly; the threat of military service saw many men escape to pacífico communities in the southern jungles. During the 1860s, particularly between 1864 and 1867, Maximilian of Austria’s control of Mexico during the French Imperial period led to a shift in relations between rebellious Mayas and elites in Yucatán. Maximilian attempted to create some balance by instituting “special administrative devices such as public defenders for peasants, but these measures merely served to antagonize Creole elites.” Such Creole anger notwithstanding, the cruzob scored a significant blow against Yucatecan forces in their siege of the town of Tihosuco, close to where the Caste War had initially begun. Though the siege was eventually broken by fresh Yucatecan troops who arrived to save their peers, the cruzob won a moral victory when the government decided that “further initiatives against Chan Santa Cruz were out of the question.” Between 1864 and 1872, life looked promising for the cruzob, who raided enemies, fought the pacíficos, and attempted to maintain their territory in the face of growing changes in the rest of Yucatán and beyond. For Mayas living in other parts of the region, “fear of starvation, epidemic, violent death, and forced service in either the rebel or government army” were the reality, and the seemingly unending conflicts eventually led to more strict ethnic divisions that emerged during the reign of Porfirio Díaz.26

Ending the Caste War

By 1876, the decades of conflict that tore apart Mexico came to an end with the ascension of Porfirio Díaz to the presidency of the nation. Díaz ruled Mexico from 1876 until early 1911, with a brief interregnum from 1880 to 1884. During his reign, Mexico became integrated into the world market, with Yucatán chiefly important because of the production of henequen, a strong fiber used to bind agricultural products. Economic growth required strong leadership and a tamping down of the rural revolts that ravaged Mexico in the northern, western, and southeastern parts of the nation. Díaz set about reducing the political chaos that would make Mexico undesirable for foreign investors, and the so-called pax porfiriana (Porfirian peace) influenced Yucatán just as much as it did in other parts of the nation.

Indigenous peoples in particular, and the poor in general, overwhelmingly had negative experiences during the Porfiriato, and nowhere is this more evident than in Yucatán. Labor drafts, known as fagina, dragged down Maya and non-indigenous peasants alike. Local political bosses, known as jefes políticos, had the power to assign peasants to unpaid labor, could potentially raise taxes, and abused their authority. This was a dangerous game, because as leaders no doubt knew, taxes and abuse had kindled the Caste Wars in the 1840s and 1850s. By the early 1880s, work obligations occupied the time of many Mayas, and while peace was evident on the surface of Yucatecan society, chaos and disorder existed in “the form of criminal violence.” This sort of protest was more unpredictable, but likely less threatening than the gangs of rebellious men who had roamed the countryside in earlier decades.27

The Caste War dwindled to a close during the Porfiriato, as Mexico gradually saw a strengthening of the center over the peripheries. Land became increasingly valuable as a commodity, and the goods produced on Mexican lands exploited as the nation entered the world market. This would be part of the undoing of Chan Santa Cruz. In the early 1870s, as the active phase of the war slowly fizzled out, some of the unifying characteristics of Chan Santa Cruz also dissolved. Then, the British government dealt a significant economic blow to the cruzob by formally ending trade relations with the breakaway state, and reestablishing diplomatic and economic relations with Porfirio Díaz’s Mexico. The Mexican government was able, as a result, to slowly tighten its grip over the province, finally stamping out the worst of the rebellious elements by the end of the century. The Mexican Army occupied the town of Santa Cruz in 1901, breaking the power of the cult by the spring of that year. Lacking resources, suffering from epidemics, and demoralized, the cruzob splintered into factions and melted into the jungles. Though conflicts occasionally erupted until the 1930s, the worst of the instability was over, until the outbreak of the Mexican Revolution in 1915.

Discussion of the Literature

The Caste War period has produced numerous studies by historians, anthropologists, and authors, all of whom vary in their focus, but also emphasize multi-causality. With each subsequent analysis, a clearer picture of this troubling era in Yucatecan history begins to come into focus. Nelson Reed’s The Caste War of Yucatán (1964) was one of the first modern studies of the Caste War, and from there, Mexican and foreign scholars have built upon their predecessors’ works. Reed’s frank study of the conflict pits enraged Mayas against their Creole overlords in a fight to the death. Though not a professional historian, Reed’s study of the period benefitted from the scrutiny of Howard F. Cline, who acknowledged that this period in Mexican history had been largely ignored. In Reed’s work, readers can understand the violence with which Mayas reacted, in response to unscrupulous behavior on the part of the non-indigenous political elites in Yucatán. One of the problems with Reed’s assessment is that the Mayas appear as relics of an ancient past, brutish, violent, and entirely separated from their Hispanic neighbors; distinct in every way from Europeans and Mexicans, the Mayas of Reed’s story fought to regain what they had lost over the centuries since the Spanish conquest. In his work, we see a very black-and-white recounting of the Caste War that has since been revised.

More recent scholarship has emphasized the multi-causality of the Caste War in a different way, noting that casta referred not only to ethnic distinctions, but to economic divisions as well.28 It is imperative to see the Caste War for what it was: a conflict pitting multi-ethnic rebels, mostly though not exclusively led by Maya batabs (villages leaders), against Yucatecan elites. These Hispanic members of the upper class often had Maya soldiers fighting on their behalf; occasionally, mestizos ruled Maya towns and led men into battle. Thus, the Caste War was much less about rigid ethnic differences than the economic conditions under which peasants struggled. Heavy taxation, shrinking land bases, and terrible working conditions on growing haciendas were not burdens unique to Maya peasants.29

The political machinations behind the Caste War are the focus of two recent monographs. First, Karen Caplan’s Indigenous Citizens: Local Liberalism in Early National Oaxaca and Yucatán examines indigenous participation in the political process. Her sections on Yucatán demonstrate that not only did land and taxation spur rebellion on the part of some Mayas, but eroding political participation among the Mayas contributed to the outbreak of violence. Douglas Richmond’s Conflict and Carnage in Yucatán: Liberals, the Second Empire, and Maya Revolutionaries, 1855–1876 explores the political background of conflict in Yucatán.

Finally, at least one study had considered both sides of the conflict over the course of the 19th century. Previous studies tend to emphasize one group of combatants as opposed to the other, typically with a focus on the Mayas and their grievances. An innovative way of examining the Caste War, written by Terry Rugeley in 2009, examines both ethnic groups who participated in the fighting. In his book, Rebellion Now and Forever, the motivations for war, demands of the combatants, and personalities of some of the key figures emerge. From Rugeley’s study, it becomes clear just how complex the Caste War was; it was not a race war led by Mayas aimed at exterminating all white elements in the region, though certainly ethnic conflict was part of the war. Nor did non-indigenous members of Yucatecan society intend to eliminate all Mayas from their midst. Rugeley’s story demonstrates the interconnectedness of Mayas and Hispanics in Yucatán, and provides an overview of the serious political turmoil in Yucatán (and Mexico) that contributed to the outbreak of hostilities, and the impact that events in central Mexico had, which helped foster an uneasy peace.

Primary Sources

Researchers interested in learning more about the Caste Wars in Yucatán can consult the state and national archives and a number of edited volumes that contain primary sources. At the Archivo General del Estado de Yucatán, the Fondo Congreso del Estado, Sesiones (State Congress Catalog, Sessions) provides documents on the military, public safety, conflicts with Mexico, and rebellions from the years in which the Caste Wars occurred. In the same catalogue, the Comisión de Gobernación y Puntos Constitucionales and the Comisión de Milicia y Guardía Nacional both contain numerous files on rebellions; in Gobernación and Puntos Consistucionales in particular, one will find records relating to the Caste Wars. Additionally, in the Fondo Poder Ejecutivo, there are numerous files that may be pertinent located in Gobernación, which are grouped by years (so, for example, searching for records of the Caste War between 1847 and 1901 would be important). The Hemeroteca del Estado de Yucatán, located in Mérida, contains newspaper articles about the Caste War. In the Archivo General de la Nación, located in Mexico City, a brief search using the terms “guerra de castas” brings up roughly eighteen, multi-page files on the Caste Wars of Yucatán, most located in the catalog titled “Instituciones Gubernamentales” (Government Institutions). Also in Mexico City, one can locate records of the sales of Yucatecans to Cuba; these files are currently housed in the Archivo de la Secretaría de Relaciones Exteriores. Finally, the Archives of Belize in Belmopan also contain some records, but there is no guide to their archive available online.

There are few published primary sources about the Caste Wars. The first, and most accessible to English-speaking audiences, is Terry Rugeley’s Maya Wars: Ethnographic Accounts from Nineteenth-Century Yucatán. In this collection, Rugeley translated numerous accounts of the conflict, some of which were referred to above. Many of the documents come from either the Archivo General del Estado de Yucatán or the Archives of Belize in Belmopan. The two-volume Yucatán: textos de su historia is a compilation of short pieces written by Mexican historians. There are several entries related to the Caste Wars in volume two, some of which were written during or immediately after the events that occurred. These include Crescencio Carrillo y Ancona’s (d. 1897) “Guerra de Castas,” Serapio Baqueiro Preve’s (d. 1940) “Arcadia feliz antes de 1840,” “Estalla la insurrección de Tepich” written by Juan Francisco Molina Solis (d. 1932), and an important piece from a former governor of Yucatán, Eligio Ancona (d. 1893), titled “Causas de la sublevación indígena.”30

In the United States, the Garrett-Gates Collection of Mesoamerican Manuscripts, located at Princeton University, holds letters and other files about the wars in Yucatán. Newspaper collections at both the Library of Congress and Yale University Library contain microfilmed periodicals from the 19th century, such as La revista de Mérida, El Monitor (both from Yucatán), and countless newspapers from Mexico City.31

Further Reading

Alexander, Rani T.Yaxcabá and the Caste War of Yucatán an Archaeological Perspective. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2004.Find this resource:

Caplan, Karen Deborah. Indigenous Citizens: Local Liberalism in Early National Oaxaca and Yucatán. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2009.Find this resource:

Dumond, Don E. “The Talking Crosses of Yucatan: A New Look at Their History.” Ethnohistory 32.4 (1985): 291–308.Find this resource:

Dumond, Don E.The Machete and the Cross: Campesino Rebellion in Yucatan. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1997.Find this resource:

Flores Escalante, Justo Miguel. “¿Separatismo, autonomía o soberanía? Yucatán, 1821–1848.” In Yucatán en la ruta del liberalismo mexicano, siglo XIX, 169–218. Mérida, Yucatán, México: Universidad Autónoma de Yucatán, 2008.Find this resource:

Joseph, G. M.Revolution from without: Yucatán, Mexico, and the United States, 1880–1924. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1982.Find this resource:

Joseph, Gilbert M. “From Caste War to Class War: The Historiography of Modern Yucatán (c. 1750–1940).” The Hispanic American Historical Review 65.1 (1985): 111–134.Find this resource:

Lapointe, Marie. Los mayas rebeldes de Yucatán. Zamora, MI: Colegio de Michoacán, 1983.Find this resource:

Lapointe, Marie. “The Caste War of Yucatan in Long-Term Perspective.” In Peripheral Visions: Politics, Society, and the Challenges of Modernity in Yucatan, 17–39. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2010.Find this resource:

Navarro, Moisés González. “La guerra de castas en Yucatán y la venta de mayas a Cuba.” Historia Mexicana 18.1 (1968): 11–34.Find this resource:

Pérez Betancourt, Antonio, ed. Yucatán: textos de su historia, vol. 1. México, D.F., 1988.Find this resource:

Quezada, Sergio. Breve historia de Yucatán. México: Colegio de México, Fideicomiso Historia de las Américas : Fondo de Cultura Económica, 2001.Find this resource:

Reed, Nelson A.The Caste War of Yucatan. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1964.Find this resource:

Richmond, Douglas W.Conflict and Carnage in Yucatán: Liberals, the Second Empire, and Maya Revolutionaries, 1855–1876, 2015. Available at

Rugeley, Terry. “The Maya Elites of Nineteenth-Century Yucatán.” Ethnohistory 42.3 (1995): 477–493.Find this resource:

Rugeley, Terry. Yucatán’s Maya Peasantry and the Origins of the Caste War. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1996.Find this resource:

Rugeley, Terry. “The Caste War: Rural Insurgency in Nineteenth-Century Yucatán.” In Revolution and Revolutionaries. Wilmington, DE: Scholarly Resources, 1999.Find this resource:

Rugeley, Terry, ed. Maya Wars: Ethnographic Accounts from Nineteenth-Century Yucatán. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2001.Find this resource:

Rugeley, Terry. Rebellion Now and Forever: Mayas, Hispanics, and Caste War Violence in Yucatán, 1800–1880. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2009.Find this resource:

Sullivan, Paul R.Unfinished Conversations: Mayas and Foreigners between Two Wars. New York: Knopf, 1989.Find this resource:


(1.) Terry Rugeley, “The Maya Elites of Nineteenth-Century Yucatán,” Ethnohistory 42.3 (1995): 484. For a brief overview of Yucatán between independence and the Imán revolt, see Karen Deborah Caplan, Indigenous Citizens: Local Liberalism in Early National Oaxaca and Yucatán (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2009), 104–114.

(2.) Terry Rugeley, Rebellion Now and Forever: Mayas, Hispanics, and Caste War Violence in Yucatán, 1800–1880 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2009), 1–3; Terry Rugeley, Yucatán’s Maya Peasantry and the Origins of the Caste War (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1996), loc. 2873 and 2881. Please note that I used a Kindle version of this text, which has location as opposed to page numbers. See also Caplan, Indigenous Citizens, 127.

(3.) Rugeley, Yucatán’s Maya Peasantry, loc. 2909; Justo Miguel Flores Escalante, “¿Separatismo, autonomía o soberanía? Yucatán, 1821–1848,” in Yucatán en la ruta del liberalismo mexicano, siglo XIX (Mérida, Yucatán, México: Universidad Autónoma de Yucatán, 2008), 189; Sergio Quezada, Breve historia de Yucatán (México: Colegio de México, Fideicomiso Historia de las Américas: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 2001), 130–133; and Nelson A Reed, The Caste War of Yucatan (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1964), 27.

(4.) Rugeley, Yucatán’s Maya Peasantry, loc. 251 and 444.

(5.) Rugeley, Yucatán’s Maya Peasantry, loc. 166.

(6.) Rugeley, “The Maya Elites of Nineteenth-Century Yucatán,” 478–483; and Rugeley, Yucatán’s Maya Peasantry, loc. 2943.

(7.) Rugeley, Yucatán’s Maya Peasantry, loc. 2147. See also Caplan, Indigenous Citizens, 121–126. For a chart showing henequen growth over the course of the 19th century, see G. M. Joseph, Revolution from without: Yucatán, Mexico, and the United States, 1880–1924 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1982), 24.

(8.) Douglas W Richmond, Conflict and Carnage in Yucatán: Liberals, the Second Empire, and Maya Revolutionaries, 1855ertie, 2015, 25. Available at

(9.) Rugeley, “The Maya Elites of Nineteenth-Century Yucatán,” 484; and Terry Rugeley, “The Caste War: Rural Insurgency in Nineteenth-Century Yucatán,” in Revolution and Revolutionaries (Wilmington, DE: Scholarly Resources, 1999), 13.

(10.) Letter from Jacinto Pat to John Kingdom and Edward Rhys, February 1848; letter from Cecilio Chi, Venancio Pec, and José Atanacio Espada, April 1849; letter from Jacinto Pat to Modesto Méndez, July 1848; all cited in Terry Rugeley, ed., Maya Wars: Ethnographic Accounts from Nineteenth-Century Yucatán (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2001), 51–56. The original sources for the letters are, respectively, Archives of Belize (Belmopan), record 28, February 18, 1848, 220; Archives of Belize, record 28, April 23, 1849, 223; Archivo General de Centroamérica (Guatemala City), Legajo B28543, Expediente 279, July 11, 1848.

(11.) Caplan, Indigenous Citizens, 109.

(12.) Caplan, Indigenous Citizens, 182.

(13.) Rugeley, “The Maya Elites of Nineteenth-Century Yucatán,” 485; and Rugeley, Rebellion Now and Forever, 59.

(14.) Quezada, Breve historia de Yucatán, 141; and Rugeley, Rebellion Now and Forever, 58–61.

(15.) Rugeley, Rebellion Now and Forever, 62.

(16.) Rugeley, Yucatán’s Maya Peasantry, loc. 3908 and 3923.

(17.) Don E. Dumond, “The Talking Crosses of Yucatan: A New Look at Their History,” Ethnohistory 32.4 (1985): 293.

(18.) Moisés González Navarro, “La guerra de castas en Yucatán y la venta de mayas a Cuba,” Historia Mexicana 18.1 (1968): 15–16; and Rugeley, “The Maya Elites of Nineteenth-Century Yucatán,” 485–486.

(19.) Rugeley, Rebellion Now and Forever, 3; Rugeley, “The Caste War: Rural Insurgency in Nineteenth-Century Yucatán,” 14, 16; Dumond, “The Talking Crosses of Yucatan,” 293; Rugeley, Yucatán’s Maya Peasantry, loc. 4300; Navarro, “La guerra de castas en Yucatán y la venta de mayas a Cuba,” 18; Rugeley, Maya Wars, 60–61. See introductory notes and “Letter from Rómulo Díaz de la Vega, 11 May 1852,” from the Archivo Histórico de la Defensa Nacional (Mexico City), xi/481.3/3300, May 11, 1852.

(20.) Rugeley, Rebellion Now and Forever, 3; Rugeley, “The Caste War: Rural Insurgency in Nineteenth-Century Yucatán,” 14, 16; Dumond, “The Talking Crosses of Yucatan,” 293; Rugeley, Yucatán’s Maya Peasantry, loc. 4300; Navarro, “La guerra de castas en Yucatán y la venta de mayas a Cuba,” 18; Rugeley, Maya Wars, 60–61. See introductory notes and “Letter from Rómulo Díaz de la Vega, 11 May 1852,” from the Archivo Histórico de la Defensa Nacional (Mexico City), xi/481.3/3300, May 11, 1852.

(21.) See explanatory note, Rugeley, Maya Wars, 59.

(22.) Dumond, “The Talking Crosses of Yucatan,” 297–298.

(23.) Rugeley, “The Caste War: Rural Insurgency in Nineteenth-Century Yucatán,” 15. See also “Letter from John Carmichael, Corozal, 15th November 1867,” in Rugeley, Maya Wars, 80–87. The source for this letter is Archives of Belize (Belmopan), record 96, November 15, 1867.

(24.) Rugeley, “The Caste War: Rural Insurgency in Nineteenth-Century Yucatán,” 15–16.

(25.) “The captivity narrative of José María Rosado,” cited in Rugeley, Maya Wars, 68 War The source for this narrative comes from Richard Buhler, ed., “A Refugee of the War of the Castes Makes Belize His Home: The Memoirs of J. M. Rosado” (Belize: Belize Institute for Social Research and Action, 1970). See also Rugeley, “The Caste War: Rural Insurgency in Nineteenth-Century Yucatán,” 15.

(26.) Rugeley, TERO_ITEM CSar: Rural Insurgency in Nineteenth-Century Yucatán,” 15–18.

(27.) Rugeley, Rebellion Now and Forever, chap. 7.

(28.) Rugeley, Rebellion Now and Forever, 63. Rugeley points out that casta could refer to racial or ethnic divisions on the one hand, and “to a society divided into the well-to-dos and the rabble” on the other.

(29.) Excellent scholarship has been produced by: Rugeley, Yucatán’s Maya Peasantry, loc. 2147. See also Rani T Alexander, Yaxcabá and the Caste War of Yucatán an Archaeological Perspective (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2004); and Gilbert M. Joseph, “From Caste War to Class War: The Historiography of Modern Yucatán (c. 1750–1940),” The Hispanic American Historical Review 65.1 (1985): 111–134; Don E Dumond, The Machete and the Cross: Campesino Rebellion in Yucatan (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1997); Paul R. Sullivan, Unfinished Conversations: Mayas and Foreigners Between Two Wars (New York: Knopf, 1989); Marie Lapointe, Los mayas rebeldes de Yucatán (Zamora, MI: Colegio de Michoacán, 1983); and Marie Lapointe, “The Caste War of Yucatan in Long-Term Perspective,” in Peripheral Visions: Politics, Society, and the Challenges of Modernity in Yucatan (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2010).

(30.) Antonio Pérez Betancourt, ed., Yucatán: textos de su historia. Vol. 1 (México, D.F; Mérida: Secretaría de Educación Pública, 1988), 61–93.

(31.) Adán Benavides and Agnes L. McAlester, comps., “Independent Mexico in Newspapers in the 19th-Century: Guide to the Microfilm Set,” Austin: University of Texas Press, 2005. The Yale University Library periodicals catalog can be found here.