Text by Santiago Pérez Buenfil;
The henequen plant, native to the YucatÁn and called ki by the Mayan civilization, was considered sacred and it is believed it was ZamnÁ, founder of Chichén-Itza, who taught them about the plant’s uses and benefits. But what was once a sacred a gift from the land then became a scourge, and was forever tied to the fate of its people.
By the time of their first contact with the Spanish empire, internecine warfare and environmental degradation had reduced the Mayans’ presence in the peninsula, nonetheless early Spanish explorers reported wealthy coastal cities and thriving marketplaces. During colonial rule the Mayans proved to be resilient; the last independent Mayan city fell 170 years after the conquest, and much of their culture survived through remote villages. The indigenous people in Mexico became foreigners in their own land. But by mid 19th century industrial exploitation of a once revered natural resource would drastically change the relations between the Mayans and the new ruling elite.
The Mexican independence was consumed after long process filled with uncertainty, but the governing families of the Yucatan Peninsula believed they belonged to a nation of their own. The pursuit of an independent republic isolated their society from the progressive ideas that were spreading from the west. Their separatist dream would be supported by a boom in the production of henequen, produced by technological advances and an abundant labor force. These newfound riches brought the affliction of serfdom to a large portion of the indigenous population in the peninsula. The peasants were subject to forced guardianships, retention of their children, and indenture debts, among others. But the Mayan spirit had been defined by centuries of struggle. The people revolted into a conflict labeled La Guerra de Castas, which lasted for 57 years. The clash is better understood as promoted by the territories with proportionally larger indigenous population, since a defined cast system did not exist. The Mayans were somewhat successful and at one point founded their own nation, the Cruzoob. The Caste War ended in 1901 when the dictator Porfirio Diaz sent federal troops to the region. Despite the Mayans’ resilience through the centuries, their emancipation would not come by their own means.
When Porfirio Diaz was overthrown in 1910 Mexico descended into its most violent period, but the revolution brought an end to the separatist dreams of the Yucatan elite, and released the indigenous trapped in the treacherous practices of the haciendas. In 1915, Venustiano Carranza, the temporary victor of the infamous armed conflict, appointed Salvador Alvarado, one of his brightest generals, as governor of the Yucatan. Alvarado was a thinker who echoed the progressive ideas of the era. The commander reformed abolished the feudal hacienda system, much to the rancor of whom he disparaged as the Divine Caste. Alvarado returned to military service three years into his term, and was eventually killed by his enemies in 1924. Alvarado’s legacy was continued by Felipe Carrillo Puerto, a politician with indigenous Mayan background. Carrillo Puerto gave his first speech as Governor in the Mayan language, and thus could be considered as the consummation of a struggle that lasted for centuries. Carrillo Puerto was also executed by his enemies in 1924.
The legacy of the Mayan insurgencies, and its consummation at the hand of Governor Alvarado and Governor Carrillo, reverberate until today. Perhaps many of their victories remain pyric, but serve the great purpose of showing that in the worst of times, against the most powerful of foe—the limitations of a primitive human mind resisting to progress—there were always those fighting for a better future. Today the henequen industry is a distant memory, but not all things turned out for the best; the Mayan people are both integrated into the economic success of Merida, the sate capital of Yucatan, and relegated to third world villages.