The conquest of the Yucatán Peninsula by the three Franciscos de Montejo—father, son, and nephew— took three gruesome wars over a total of 24 years. The resolute Maya, their ancestors long incorrectly portrayed by archaeologists as docile and peace loving, provided the Spaniards and the mainland Mexicans with one of their greatest challenges in the New World. Rebellious pockets of Mayan communities held out against the dzulo'obs (dzoo-loh-obs)—the upper class, or outsiders—as late as the 1920s and ’30s.
Yucatecans are proud of their heritage and culture, and with good reason. Although in a state of decline when the conquistadors clanked into their world with iron swords and fire-belching cannons, the Maya were one of the world's greatest ancient cultures. As mathematicians and astronomers they were perhaps without equal among their contemporaries, and their architecture in places like Uxmal was as graceful as that of the ancient Greeks.
To "facilitate" Catholic conversion among the conquered, the Spaniards superimposed Christian rituals on existing beliefs whenever possible, creating the ethnic Catholicism that's alive and well today. (Those defiant Maya who resisted the new ideology were burned at the stake, drowned, and hanged.) Having procured a huge workforce of free indigenous labor, Spanish agricultural estates prospered like mad. Mérida soon became a thriving administrative and military center, and the gateway to Cuba and to Spain. By the 18th century, huge maize and cattle plantations were making the hacendados incredibly rich.
Insurrection came during the Caste War in the mid-1800s, when the enslaved indigenous people rose up with long-repressed furor and massacred thousands of settlers. The United States, Cuba, and Mexico City finally came to the aid of the ruling elite, and between 1847 and 1850 the indigenous population of Yucatán was effectively halved. Those Maya who didn't escape into the remote jungles of neighboring Quintana Roo or Chiapas, or get sold into slavery in Cuba, found themselves, if possible, worse off than before the dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz.
Their hopeless status changed little as the economic base segued from one industry to the next. After the thin limestone soil failed to produce fat cattle or impressive corn, entrepreneurs turned to dyewood and then to henequen, a natural fiber used to make rope. After the widespread acceptance of synthetic fibers, the entrepreneurs used the sweat of local labor to convert gum arabic from the peninsula's prevalent zapote tree into European vacations and Miami bank accounts. The fruits of their labor can be seen today in the imposing French-style mansions that stretch along Mérida's Paseo Montejo.
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