Yaxcopoil

The stories of the subjugation of the Maya are traditionally told through the infamous “Black Legend” and the horrors of Spanish Conquest. However, it is during the colonial era of the Yucatán that provides further insight into their malicious mistreatment. This subjugation and exploitation occurred at the Hacienda Yaxcopoil, located near Merida in the Yucatán Peninsula of Mexico. Yaxcopoil, meaning “place of the green alamo trees” in Mayan, was a former hacienda used to cultivate henequen, also known as sisal, beginning in the seventeenth century. During its zenith in the nineteenth century, it reached almost 22,000 acres in size. While today its size has been significantly reduced and it is essentially abandoned with the exception of a museum and a nearby tortilla factory, it serves as a reminder of the exploitation of the Maya people and their resources in an effort to produce mass quantities of henequen to meet demand from United States and European markets during the early twentieth century.

The Porfiriato, that is, the time in which Porfirio Diaz ruled in Mexico from 1876-1911, is viewed as a time of economic boom or the “Gilded Age,” as referred to by authors such as Allen Wells. During this time, demand for goods such as henequen skyrocketed as part of a booming Mexican economy. Wells along with Gilbert M. Joseph refer to this in Corporate Control of a Monocrop Economy in saying that “the accelerated change… accompanied the burgeoning industrial development of the United States and Western Europe...” which ultimately, “tied Mexico every more closely to the global economy” (Joseph and Wells, 69). This boom was at the expense of the Maya peasants who were forced to work on the henequen plantations as part of a system of debt peonage. Hacienda owners purchased the debts in an effort to create a labor force that was comparable to slavery. The peasants, unable to pay back debts, were forced into a cyclical life of debt and servitude by signing labor contracts with the brutal hacendados that bound them to the haciendas until their debts were resolved. The workers began in the early hours of the morning and worked in harsh conditions while they faced beatings and little to no compensation. They were paid in either cash or fichas, a form of scrip used in the haciendas. The scrip was useless elsewhere and workers paid exorbitant prices for goods within the haciendas. They received loans during their time at the hacienda which further increased their debts to the hacendados, who exerted control over many aspects of their lives. This created a system that made it almost impossible for workers to pay back their debts. In the years in which muckraking was a popular means of journalism in the United States, John Kenneth Turner described the conditions of debt peonage system in Yucatán and claimed that nearly a third of the population were part of this cycle.

Yaxcopoil is one of the most prominent examples of the rise of henequen production and the subjugation of Maya in Yucatán. The emphasis on henequen production is derived from the growth and demand of foreign plantations as a result of the invention of the mechanical reaper and the mechanical rasper. Henequen was used to make a variety of cordage for twine. Other crops such as maize could not compete with the demand for this “green gold.” It quickly became the most important export and necessity that Mexico had to offer. Countries such as the United States controlled virtually all of the production as well as the price through a trust known as the International Harvester Company. Ultimately, the haciendas served as one of the few options for the Maya peasants, who were forced into a system of capitalism because of the relationship between Yucatán and the United States.

Images

"El Henequen" by Fernando Castro Pacheco

"El Henequen" by Fernando Castro Pacheco

This image is a painting by Fernando Castro Pacheco titled “El Henequen.” Castro Pacheco was a Mexican painter from Merida, not too far from the Hacienda Yaxcopoil. His murals are extremely powerful, and are on display at the Governor™s Palace in Merida. This mural in particular depicts a Maya peasant with henequen on his back. He is clearly struggling, as he not only carries the henequen but also the demand of the profit-driven capitalists that want the valuable henequen for cordage. The Maya people were subject to years of subjugation and abuse as they worked the haciendas in an effort to pay off debts. | Creator: Amy Townley View File Details Page

Henequen Plant

Henequen Plant

This is an image of a henequen plant, also known as sisal fiber, taken from the Mexican Secretary of Agriculture™s (SAGARPA) website. Henequen still abundantly grows today in the Yucatan Peninsula, as it requires a dry, hot climate with little annual precipitation. It takes at least eight years for the plant to fully mature. Despite a lack of foreign demand for henequen, it is still used in modern Mexico. It has a multitude of uses other than cordage including rugs, hammocks, and even alcohol such as mescal and tequila. The plant is still linked with traditional peasantry. | Creator: Amy Townley View File Details Page

Mechanical Reaper

Mechanical Reaper

This is an image of the first mechanical reaper which was invented in 1831 by Cyrus Hall McCormick. The reaper helped to alleviate the high costs and the high demand for labor, though it stimulated demand for domestic and foreign goods such as henequen. When the mechanical reaper and mechanical rasper were invented, this led to a period of high industrialization not only in the United States but also in Mexico. The machines, while much quicker and more efficient, nonetheless contributed to the hacienda system and demand for labor in places such as Hacienda Yaxcopoil. | Creator: Amy Townley View File Details Page

"Modern Yaxcopoil"

"Modern Yaxcopoil"

This black and white image of modern Hacienda Yaxcopoil was taken on June 4, 2016. While it appears older, it is nonetheless a current image. Yaxcopoil produced henequen for over a century until 1984. Today it serves as a modern marvel with a website and a museum put together in an effort to preserve its rich history. There is an even a RV park for those the wish to envelop themselves in the history of the hacienda. The beautiful archways and classical architecture of the hacienda are breathtaking, thus attracting multiple visitors each year. | Creator: Amy Townley View File Details Page

Yucatan Sisal Advertisment

Yucatan Sisal Advertisment

This image is of an advertisement for henequen placed in an American magazine called The Country Gentlemen in July 1930. The image, called “Twine Troubles,” depicts a man struggling to create cordage when he should be creating it from sisal, or henequen, from the Yucatan Peninsula. The importance of the advertisement itself parallels with the importance of henequen to the modern American farmer at the time and thus demonstrates how the demand for henequen in the United States impacted henequen production in Mexico. The advertisement goes on to describe the importance of henequen, as it is “strong, even and clean” and has a multitude of other benefits. | Creator: Amy Townley View File Details Page

Cite this Page:

Amy Townley, “Yaxcopoil,” HistoricalMX, accessed November 24, 2017, http://historicalmx.org/items/show/11.

Share this Story