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Trust Me On This : No Happy Ending

January 16, 1994|MARK I. PINSKY | Mark I. Pinsky is a Times staff writer

A 29-year-old, academic history of an obscure 19th-Century uprising might not spring to mind as the ideal traveling companion. But I have found that in a decade of annual visits to Mexico's Yucatan peninsula, each accompanied by a different book about the Maya and their ancient civilization, nothing has affected me as indelibly as Nelson Reed's "The Caste War of Yucatan" (Stanford University Press). And, as with the best travel guides, I strongly suspect that an armchair traveler would be equally impressed, especially in light of the recent armed uprising of Maya peasants in neighboring Chiapas.

Reed's account is admittedly a bloody Baedeker. "There should be enough battles in this book for anyone's taste," Reed notes whimsically in the introduction, "but readers must be warned that the shooting doesn't start until Chapter 3."

In January of 1847, the Maya rose against their European masters, called Creoles, in a six-day eruption of urban warfare and mob violence that rivaled in its savagery the worst of the French revolution's Reign of Terror. The incident, in the city of Valladolid, sparked a revolt known as "The War of Castes" that lasted 65 years and cost more than 200,000 lives. Barely mentioned in Yucatan's tourist literature or development brochures--or even Mexican textbooks, which consider it a minor sideshow to the nation's history--this story can easily escape even a regular visitor to the peninsula's ruins and resorts.

With Reed's book in hand, I saw many of the ruins and cities I thought I knew well in a profoundly different, sometimes disturbing, light. But the darker prism of "The Caste War" only deepens a traveler's appreciation, providing unexpected insight into the psyche of the enigmatic Maya and their modern descendants.

Once you have consumed Reed's work--and "consume" is the way most describe their reading experience--it is impossible to view the modern Maya is precisely the same way. This is especially true for me on those not infrequent occasions when an Maya slips from a jungle trail on the road, machete slung on his belt, from some back-country, slash-and-burn rancho in the interior. For this history is more than just a picturesque background: His grandfather might have fought in a rebel army.

Yucatan's three preeminent cities--Valladolid, Merida and Campeche--had for years after Mexican independence from Spain in 1821 been jockeying for power. In internecine skirmishes, the cities' Creole elites fought each other and, in various combinations, the central government in Mexico City. Weary of doing the battling themselves, the Europeans raised militias from local Maya, over whom they claimed lordship, treating the Mayas as slaves, serfs and, finally, as cannon fodder.

After one skirmish between rival municipal militias, a company of Maya soldiers marched on Valladolid, flushed with success. In the city, which banned both Mayas and mixed bloods from its center, the Maya began to celebrate with the local brew, aguardiente, and then ran amok, massacring the local Creoles and hacking to death their own light-skinned officers. The battle cry of the warriors in breechclout, echoing Paris' sans-culottes, was: "Kill everyone in trousers!"

Several months after the Valladolid rising, a full-fledged rebellion exploded in the nearby town of Tepich. It was an epic struggle--at one point in the war the rebels had captured nearly the entire peninsula, to the gates of Merida and Campeche in the west. But with total victory in sight, they decided it was time to go home to plant maize. Even after several military and political disasters and numerous plots and betrayals led to their ultimate "pacification" around 1910, the rebels managed to hang on to Yucatan's Caribbean coastal jungle--much of what became the unassimilated Mexican state of Quintana Roo.

For modern travelers to the area, most of whom are drawn to ancient Maya ruins like those of Chichen Itza and Tulum, touring with "The Caste War" in hand adds another dimension. Even a favorite tourist haunt like Isla Mujeres, the sleepy village off the coast of Cancun, was settled by descendants of frightened Creoles who fled their haciendas on the mainland during the uprising.

The chill I have experienced on visits to Chichen Itza I long supposed was due to all the blood in the ground at the spiritual center, which I always took to be ritual, symbolic and ancient: Here, more than a thousand years ago, Maya priests ripped the still beating hearts from captives atop pyramids, and threw bejeweled young people into the sacred cenote. But these were not the only sacrifices. During the Caste War, hundreds of Mexican prisoners were massacred by rebels beneath the stone arch of the nearby hacienda.

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