The Machete and the Cross: Campesino Rebellion in Yucatan

The Machete and the Cross: Campesino Rebellion in Yucatan

The Machete and the Cross: Campesino Rebellion in Yucatan

The Machete and the Cross: Campesino Rebellion in Yucatan


Violent class struggles and ethnic conflict mark much of the history of Latin America, continuing in some regions even today. Perhaps the worst and most prolonged of these conflicts was the guerra de las castas or "Caste War", an Indian rebellion that tore apart the Yucatan Peninsula for much of the nineteenth century (1847-1903). The struggle was not only ethnic, pitting indigenous peoples against a Hispanic or Hispanicized ruling class, but also economic, involving attacks by rural campesinos on plantation owners, merchants, overseers, and townspeople. The rebels met with sporadic and limited success but still managed at times to remove whole portions of the Yucatan Peninsula from state control.


My interest in the campesino rebellion of Yucatan--the so-called Caste War--and the related cult that featured a Christian cross through which God spoke in Maya, was first piqued in the mid-1950s, when as a graduate student in Mexico I encountered The Maya of East Central Quintana Roo, by Alfonso Villa Rojas. I was delighted when Nelson Reed's The Caste War of Yucatan appeared a decade later.

By that time I was at the University of Oregon and teaching an interdisciplinary course in Mexican history and ethnology. While explaining the well- known "folk-urban continuum" of Robert Redfield, I became uncomfortable with Redfield's lack of attention to the rebellion and the effect it had in forming the attitudes of those remnant rebels of Tusik who were the subject of Villa's study in the 1930s. Not long afterward I attempted to treat this serious omission in a paper that focused on Redfield's conceptualization of Yucatecan society and social history (Dumond 1970).

But in preparing that paper during a sabbatical leave in Mexico, I was disappointed by the extremely secondary (or tertiary, even quaternary) nature of the sources available--in Spanish and well as English--and by the difficulty of getting behind even the nineteenth-century Yucatecan histories to find more primary sources. I decided then to begin a more detailed study.

Active archival research began in the winter of 1971-72, when my wife and I made our first trip to Belize City, where we spent exploratory time in the archives, and then moved to Mérida. There, with the generous assistance of the late Alfredo Barrera Vásquez, director of the Instituto Yucateco de Antropología e Historia, we were introduced to various library and archival sources, as well as to items in Barrera's own collection, and advised of the potential usefulness of the extensive communications reproduced (and preserved) in the official newspapers and gazettes of nineteenth-century Mérida and Campeche. This led us to the magnificent collections of the Biblioteca Carlos R. Menéndez. Trips to Mérida were repeated regularly, with the Menéndez resources supplemented by those of the Hemeroteca del Estado de Yucatán and by book and manuscript collections of the library of the Instituto Yucateco, later to form the Sección Yucateca of the Biblioteca Manuel Cepeda Peraza.

In 1977 a preliminary description of the rebel history was published in a version largely derived from a symposium held five years earlier (Dumond . . .

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