The Rise and Fall of Chan Santa Cruz, 1847 to 1901

José Antonio Migangos met with the Mexican consul, Buenaventura Vivó, in Havana on March 12, 1849. He represented 135 other Yucatec Maya men, women, and children forced to sign labor contracts for their alleged involvement in the Caste War. The agreements were in Spanish, a language most of them did not understand, with harsh punishment conditions, little pay, and a ten-year term. Both Yucatecan and Spanish officials notarized these agreements, effectively endorsing a secret slave trade. Throughout Mexican colonial and national history, other Mexicans and Mexico’s government have abused Yucatec Mayas. They were not given equal representation within the government while having heavy tax burdens. Not only did they suffer from unfair tax burdens, but they also suffered racial prejudice. The elites of Mexico referred to Mayas and all natives as degenerate races. As a result, Mexico felt justified in their treatment of Mayas, even in selling problem Mayas into slavery in Cuba, while slavery was illegal in Mexico itself. [1] [2]

Yucatec Maya's anger at the mistreatment they suffered eventually erupted into the violence of the Caste War in 1847. The rebellion was successful for a few years until the state almost destroyed it in 1853. A group of rebels called the Cruzob (people of the cross) successfully maintained the insurrection forming a breakaway state called Chan Santa Cruz. The Cruzob were able to carry on as an independent entity within Yucatán for nearly fifty years. Chan Santa Cruz collapsed due to issues with leadership leading to the occupation of the town by the Mexican army on May 4, 1901. Without the Speaking Cross oracle, the Caste War would have ended much sooner. [3] [4]

The Caste War did not arise from a world polarized between Mayas and other Mexicans. Many of the batabs (local Mayan leaders) willingly acted as middlemen between Mayas and the regional government. They collected taxes, enforced behavioral standards, and punished people who failed to live up to expectations. Racial discrimination was a factor in the Caste War, but it was the elite Yucatecans' attempt to control labor, taxes, and politics that caused local discontent. Mayas did not want to enrich the Yucatecan elite by being exploited. One thorn in Maya flesh was the obventions, occasional donations to the church, that they were required to pay. The church would sentence Mayas to forced labor for local landowners if they failed to meet their donation requirements. They were taxed heavily by the state and received little in return. The state also worked Mayas to death, and due to their status, they had few opportunities to improve their situation. The batabs and local elections provided no help, so resentment boiled over into violence. [5] [6]

The Caste War began on June 30, 1847, when Cecilio Chi attacked Tepich. The war went well at first. The rebels gained large swaths of territory, and many Mayas rallied to the cause, but Maya leaders were unable to get along. Yucatán, with foreign aid, took advantage of the lack of leadership and was able to defeat most of the rebels by 1853. The government was also aided by former Maya rebels who traded peace for freedom from tax obligations and the ability to govern themselves. They were known as pacíficos (peaceful Mayas). It seemed the Caste War was over, but the Cruzob rallied around their leaders, and the war continued for nearly 50 more years. [7] [8]

The government was beaten back by the followers of Juan de la Cruz (John of the Cross). Cruz founded the Speaking Cross religion in October or November of 1850 after he had a vision that told him to rally Mayas to the way of the cross. He called himself Jesucristo (Jesus Christ) and blended elements of Catholicism and traditional Maya beliefs in the new religion. His followers were promised immunity from bullets by the Speaking Cross. He exhorted Mayas to drive the whites out and reclaim Maya land in sermons he left at the shrine of the holy cross in Chan Santa Cruz. Juan was the first prophet of the new religion, and José María Barrera was his general. Cruz's identity is not known, but his message was used by Barrera to inspire the Mayas to continue fighting. Cruz's followers helped the Mayas recover from the defeats they suffered in the early 1850s. When Barrera died on December 31, 1852, Juan de La Cruz disappeared, and Venancio Puc took control of the oracle. [9]

It is not clear when Puc established himself as leader of the rebel state, but he was in complete control by 1857. He added discipline to the government of Chan Santa Cruz, which was able to control a large part of Yucatán's Caribbean coast. The rebels captured the old Spanish fort in Bacalar in 1858 under Puc's leadership. Puc cleared the enemies from the border of Chan Santa Cruz and established an independent state. He made one critical error in December of 1863. He underestimated his generals' attachment to the prisoners captured by the rebels over the years. He decided to round up all the captives in Chan Santa Cruz and have them executed as a precursor to an attack on Tekax. General José Dionisio Zapata and José Leandro Santos objected to the executions and overthrew Puc. Puc had been using trickery to make the cross speak and manipulate the people of Chan Santa Cruz. The generals exposed José Nah as the speaker of the cross and executed him, Puc and Puc's priest, Sanchez. The Speaking Cross spoke audibly no more. [10] [11] [12]

The death of Puc was the beginning of the end for Chan Santa Cruz. Assassins killed Puc's executioners, then Bernadino Cen, Crescenio Poot, and Bonifacio Novelo took the reins of the state. They maintained what Puc had assembled, but in 1875 Poot and Cen loyalists fought each other leading Cen to flee the territory. The pattern of infighting repeated itself and, since the active phase of the war ended in the 1870s, Mayas had less reason to bind themselves to the cause. When Porfirio Díaz became president, the state was effectively gone. England ended its diplomatic relationship with Chan Santa Cruz, and the territory shrank over time. When the Mexican Army rolled into town on May 4, 1901, Chan Santa Cruz had already defeated itself. [13] [14]