The Caste War of Yucatán

Terry Rugeley

in Latin American Studies

ISBN: 9780199766581
Published online October 2011 | | DOI:
The Caste War of Yucatán

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  • Regional and Area Studies
  • History of the Americas


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On 30 July 1847 an armed group of Maya peasants under the leadership of one Cecilio Chi entered the eastern Yucatecan village of Chichimilá; seeking revenge for brutalities visited upon friends and family, they killed the Hispanic inhabitants and then retreated to the dense forests nearby. Far from settling scores, the attack on Tepich marked the beginning of a decades-long struggle that involved virtually every form of violence imaginable. The Caste War stands as the central event of Yucatecan history, and its contours are the stuff of legend. Infuriated by tax burdens, land expropriations, and increasing political violence, Maya peasants of the eastern region launched an offensive that overran numerous cities and towns on the roads leading to Mérida. But the insurgents suffered from inadequate resources, uncertain aims, and divided leadership, and in late spring of 1848 retreated to the southeastern forests. Rather than disintegrating as so many peasant rebellions before them had done, the insurgents rallied under an oracle that has come to be known as “the Speaking Cross.” They created a new society by cobbling together practices of the Catholic parish system, the municipal government, and above all, the prewar militias that had drafted so many peasants into their ranks. Aided by arms from British Honduras and by the profound state instability that characterized both Mexico in general and Yucatán in particular, the insurgents held on into the early 20th century, when they finally accepted land titles from the Mexican revolutionary government. Remnants of their unique religious culture continue to be found in the modern-day state of Quintana Roo. Prior to the 1970s, most research tended toward the popular narrative, first characterized by positivist rage over Indian savageries and then by an opposite tendency to romanticize the insurgents as a reassertion of pre-conquest Maya civilization. Since 1970 more exacting academic scholarship has since replaced these views with a narrative of how a complex colonial system (never fair, or static, or even particularly efficient) disintegrated under pressure from the problems associated with decolonization, and how disparate and parochially oriented actors’ attempts to influence events often bore unintended consequences. The Caste War is thus a story of a particular place and time. It is also one version of a drama that played itself out in many parts of early national Mexico. Above all, the Caste War is a parable of the depths and extremes to which humanity can descend, and, mercifully, from which it is capable of returning.

Article.  8517 words. 

Subjects: Regional and Area Studies ; History of the Americas

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