In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section The Caste War of Yucatán

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews of the Period
  • The Caste War Conflict
  • Edited Collections
  • Primary Sources and Translations
  • Ethnographies
  • Folklore and Oral Literature Collections
  • Travelers’ Accounts
  • General Anthologies and Bibliographies
  • 18th-Century Background
  • Independence
  • 19th-Century Culture and Society
  • Consolidation of the Plantation State
  • Remnants of the Caste War

Latin American Studies The Caste War of Yucatán
Terry Rugeley
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 October 2011
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 October 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766581-0039


On 30 July 1847 an armed group of Maya peasants under the leadership of one Cecilio Chi entered the eastern Yucatecan village of Chichimilá; seeking revenge for brutalities visited upon friends and family, they killed the Hispanic inhabitants and then retreated to the dense forests nearby. Far from settling scores, the attack on Tepich marked the beginning of a decades-long struggle that involved virtually every form of violence imaginable. The Caste War stands as the central event of Yucatecan history, and its contours are the stuff of legend. Infuriated by tax burdens, land expropriations, and increasing political violence, Maya peasants of the eastern region launched an offensive that overran numerous cities and towns on the roads leading to Mérida. But the insurgents suffered from inadequate resources, uncertain aims, and divided leadership, and in late spring of 1848 retreated to the southeastern forests. Rather than disintegrating as so many peasant rebellions before them had done, the insurgents rallied under an oracle that has come to be known as “the Speaking Cross.” They created a new society by cobbling together practices of the Catholic parish system, the municipal government, and above all, the prewar militias that had drafted so many peasants into their ranks. Aided by arms from British Honduras and by the profound state instability that characterized both Mexico in general and Yucatán in particular, the insurgents held on into the early 20th century, when they finally accepted land titles from the Mexican revolutionary government. Remnants of their unique religious culture continue to be found in the modern-day state of Quintana Roo. Prior to the 1970s, most research tended toward the popular narrative, first characterized by positivist rage over Indian savageries and then by an opposite tendency to romanticize the insurgents as a reassertion of pre-conquest Maya civilization. Since 1970 more exacting academic scholarship has since replaced these views with a narrative of how a complex colonial system (never fair, or static, or even particularly efficient) disintegrated under pressure from the problems associated with decolonization, and how disparate and parochially oriented actors’ attempts to influence events often bore unintended consequences. The Caste War is thus a story of a particular place and time. It is also one version of a drama that played itself out in many parts of early national Mexico. Above all, the Caste War is a parable of the depths and extremes to which humanity can descend, and, mercifully, from which it is capable of returning.

General Overviews of the Period

There have been numerous attempts to capture the entirety of peninsular history in a single work. These range from early patrician works motivated by regional pride to more contemporary scholarly works that attempt to synthesize new generations of scholarship. The works listed in this section comprise some of the more notable attempts to take in Yucatecan history as a whole, with the Caste War forming a critical part of that totality. Ancona 1917 and Molina Solís 1904–1913 represent the patrician tradition, in which authors freely rewrote existing chronicles but also injected material based on personal experience and contemporary lore (inevitably with no mention of sources). Despite its relatively late publication date, Acereto 1947 constitutes something of a last gasp of that tradition. Both Joseph 1986 and Quezada 2001 offer newer perspectives based on synthesis of scholarly historical studies.

  • Acereto, Albino. “Historia política desde el descubrimiento europeo hasta 1920.” In Enciclopedia Yucatanense. Vol. 3. Edited by Carlos A. Trujillo, 1–388. Mexico City: Gobierno de Yucatán, 1947.

    A comprehensive synthesis of peninsular history, written by the descendent of one of the families most deeply involved in Caste War history. As per the custom of Acereto’s day, there are no notes and no sources.

  • Ancona, Eligio. Historia de Yucatán desde la época más remota hasta nuestros díás. 4 vols. Mérida, Mexico: Gobierno del Estado de Yucatán, 1917.

    Yucatán’s novelist and former Yucatecan governor synthesized old chronicles, fellow patrician authors, and his own experiences to create this grand-scale account. Like all patrician writings, this is steeped in now-discredited racial attitudes.

  • Joseph, Gilbert M. Rediscovering the Past at Mexico’s Periphery: Essays on the History of Modern Yucatán. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1986.

    Offers perspectives on changing interpretations of peninsular history. Wheras the emphasis tends to remain close to Porifirian and revolutionary times, the author uses his broad knowledge of Yucatecan historical literature to offer a summation of the scholarly panorama as of the mid-1980s.

  • Molina Solís, Francisco. Historia de Yucatán durante la dominación Española. Mérida, Mexico: Imprenta de la Lotería del Estado, 1904–1913.

    Updated version of Ancona, but it carries the story to the cusp of the Mexican Revolution.

  • Quezada, Sergio. Breve historia de Yucatán. Mexico City: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 2001.

    Succinct new retelling as part of a series of state histories of Mexico.

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