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Peripheral Visions: Politics, Society, and the Challenges of Modernity in Yucatan

Peripheral Visions: Politics, Society, and the Challenges of Modernity in Yucatan


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Yucatan has been called “a world apart”—cut off from the rest of Mexico by geography and culture. Yet, despite its peripheral location, the region experienced substantial change in the decades after independence. As elsewhere in Mexico, apostles of modernization introduced policies intended to remold Yucatan in the image of the advanced nations of the day. Indeed, modernizing change began in the late colonial era and continued throughout the 19th century as traditional patterns of land tenure were altered and efforts were made to divest the Catholic Church of its wealth and political and intellectual influence. Some changes, however, produced fierce resistance from both elites and humbler Yucatecans and modernizers were frequently forced to retreat or at least reach accommodation with their foes.
Covering topics from the early 19th century to the late 20th century, the essays in this collection illuminate both the processes of change and the negative reactions that they frequently elicited. The diversity of disciplines covered by this volume—history, anthropology, sociology, economics—illuminates at least three overriding challenges for study of the peninsula today. One is politics after the decline of the Institutional Revolutionary Party: What are the important institutions, practices, and discourses of politics in a post-postrevolutionary era? A second trend is the scholarly demystification of the Maya: Anthropologists have shown the difficulties of applying monolithic terms like Maya in a society where ethnic relations are often situational and ethnic boundaries are fluid. And a third consideration: researchers are only now beginning to grapple with the region’s transition to a post-henequen economy based on tourism, migration, and the assembly plants known as maquiladoras. Challenges from agribusiness and industry will no doubt continue to affect the peninsula’s fragile Karst topography and unique environments.

Contributors: Eric N. Baklanoff, Helen Delpar, Paul K. Eiss, Ben W. Fallaw, Gilbert M. Joseph, Marie Lapointe, Othón Baños Ramírez, Hernán Menéndez Rodríguez, Lynda S. Morrison, Terry Rugeley, Stephanie J. Smith

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780817355647
Publisher: University of Alabama Press
Publication date: 03/16/2010
Edition description: 1st Edition
Pages: 320
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 9.20(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Edward D. Terry is a professor emeritus of Spanish and director of the Alfredo Barrera Vásquez Center for Yucatecan Studies at The University of Alabama, where he organized and was director of the Latin American Studies program from 1966 to 1972. Among his several publications on Hispanic topics in the United States and in Yucatan are: Yucatan: Worlds Apart (University of Alabama Press, 1980), and “Alfredo Barrera Vázquez: Breve Semblanza de dos perspectivas de un filólogo y humanista,” in Unicornio 10, no. 513 (2001). Dr. Terry was secretary-treasurer of the Southeastern Conference of Latin American Studies and editor of the Southeastern Latin Americanist and later served as president of the Southeastern Conference on Latin-American Studies and of the Southwest Council of Latin American Studies.

Ben W. Fallaw is an associate professor of Latin American studies and history at Colby College in Waterville, Maine. His first book, Cárdenas Compromised: The Failure of Reform in Yucatan, came out in 2001 (Duke University Press). In 2005 he coedited a special edition of the Journal of Latin American Anthropology on Maya identity. Dr. Fallaw is also coeditor of Heroes and Hero Cults in Latin America (University of Texas Press, 2006). Currently he is completing a study of political relations between Catholics and the revolutionary state in Mexico from the end of the Cristero War to 1940.

Gilbert M. Joseph is the Farnam Professor of History and International Studies and the recent director of Latin American and Iberian Studies at Yale University. He has published several books on Yucatan and Latin America. His most recent books are In from the Cold: Latin America’s New Encounter with the Cold War, coedited with Daniela Spenser (2008), and A Century of Revolution: Insurgent and Counterinsurgent Violence during Latin America’s Long Cold War, coedited with Greg Grandin (2009), both published by Duke University Press. He is currently working on a book that examines transnational lives and cultural encounters in the American century.

The late Edward H. Moseley was director of international programs and professor emeritus of Latin American history at The University of Alabama. He was coeditor (with Edward D. Terry) of the collection of essays Yucatan: A World Apart (University of Alabama Press, 1980) and coauthor (with Paul C. Clark) of Historical Dictionary of the United States-Mexican War (Scarecrow Press, 1997). He later coedited (with Eric N. Baklanoff) Yucatán in an Era of Globalization (University of Alabama Press, 2008), to which he contributed the essay “From Tallapoosa to Tixkokob: Two Communities Share Globalization.” A past president of the Southeastern Council of Latin American Studies, he was also executive director of the Alabama-Guatemala Partners of the Americas.

Helen Delpar was a professor of history at The University of Alabama until her retirement in June 2006. Her publications include Looking South: The Evolution of Latin Americanist Scholarship in the United States, 1850-1975 (University of Alabama Press, 2008), “The Enormous Vogue of Things Mexican”: Cultural Relations between the United States and Mexico, 1920-1935 (University of Alabama Press, 1992), which won the A. B. Thomas Award of the Southeastern Council of Latin American Studies (SECOLAS), and Red against Blue: The Liberal Party in Colombian Politics, 1863-1899 (University of Alabama Press, 1981). Dr. Delpar served as secretary-treasurer of SECOLAS and editor of the Southeastern Latin Americanist (SELA) on two occasions (1979-1982, 1988-1992) and as president of SECOLAS in 1984-1985.

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Peripheral Visions

Politics, Society, and the Challenges of Modernity in Yucatan

By Edward D. Terry, Ben W. Fallaw, Gilbert M. Joseph, Edward H. Moseley

The University of Alabama Press

Copyright © 2010 The University of Alabama Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8173-8336-7


The Caste War of Yucatan in Long-Term Perspective

Marie Lapointe

Late in 1846, the adventurer Juan Vázquez raised an army of frontiersmen in the southeastern village of Yaxcabá. After seizing Peto, he advanced northward and on January 15, 1847, assaulted Valladolid; Mayan, mestizo, and mulatto residents of the town's outlying barrios joined the attackers against the aristocratic Creoles who lived in the center of the town, wantonly destroying property, slaughtering white citizens, and even committing some acts of cannibalism. A wave of fear passed through the peninsula in this opening phase of what came to be known as the Caste War of Yucatan. Devastating effects of this conflict were still felt in the region until the beginning of the twentieth century, and it continues to be a topic of major debate in Yucatan today.

Theoretical Approaches to Peasant Uprisings

Scholars who have carried out research on the phenomenon of peasant uprisings have reached several important points of convergence. Theda Skocpol, in her article "What Makes Peasants Revolutionary?" states: "Peasants are only part of the story ... A holistic frame of reference is indispensable, one that includes states, class structures, and transnational economic and military relations." A decade later, Michael W. Foley stressed the impact of international politics on the limited capacity of a given state to react to mass movements in its territory. The ideas of Skocpol and Foley were further developed by Friedrich Katz in a series of essays on agrarian conflict in Mexico titled Riot, Rebellion, and Revolution. It is also important to mention an earlier consensus among French sociologists concerning the spread of peasant insurrections; Roger Bastide and Henri Favre contended that when leaders in a peasant society find themselves confronted with a colonizing or neo-colonizing society committed to rapid modernization, the subsequent spread of insurrection is assured.

The goal of this chapter is to combine the aforementioned approaches in an effort to explain the origins and long-range impact of the Caste War. It is my view that the conflict rests on a social formation that brings together many structures or links of various time spans. Such an approach will allow us to analyze the continuities and ruptures within the colonial and neocolonial social fabric that contributed to the insurrection. Special attention will be given to the Yucatecan agrarian structure and the role of leaders within that society, both during the colonial era and the early decades of independence. At the same time, attention will be given to the situation that allowed the conflict to linger until 1901, in large part owing to the policies and activities of the British in Belize. Throughout the long period under review, the agrarian structure was influenced by the natural environment, various forms of land tenure, different methods of production (including their links to domestic and foreign markets), and a variety of local, regional, national, and international sociopolitical relations. In essence, the following analysis will use a comprehensive approach that takes into account the longue-durée, or long-term, perspective on the Caste War.

Shaping the Caste War's Boundaries: 1544–1700

The conquest of Yucatan was over for all practical purposes with the founding of Bacalar in 1544. At the time, few Spanish colonizers were brave enough to venture south of Champotón and Valladolid, and the vast majority of residents established their homes in the northwest and west of the peninsula. In the sixteenth century, Spanish officials and Franciscan friars reorganized the Maya who had joined in or succumbed to the conquest into villages called repúblicas indígenas under the governance of their own caciques. These local rulers were at first Mayan, but with the passage of time some mestizos, mulattoes (descended from African slaves and Spaniards), and pardos (derived from Negroes and Indians) took over that role; the caciques obtained a wide range of powers and privileges. In turn, they assisted Spanish authorities in the collection of tribute and the organization of forced labor from their villages. Working with the Franciscan priests, they also collected the obvenciones (ecclesiastical contributions) for the church. The encomienda system, based on the grant of tribute-paying villages to Spaniards, though abolished in most of the Spanish colonies by the early seventeenth century, continued as a basic part of the society of Yucatan. The system was disrupted, however, by pirate or corsair invasions and by the incessant rivalries between members of the regular clergy and encomenderos (holders of encomiendas) regarding the collection of tribute and use of the indigenous workforce.

The Maya who lived in the far south and southeast of the peninsula escaped most of the civilizing and enslaving powers of the encomienda system and, to some degree, even church pressures. In 1695, Pedro Martín de Ursúa was given a royal order to pacify the scattered Indians in southern Yucatan and open roads into the Guatemalan Petén, or northern Guatemala. In direct contradiction to royal instructions that had been in effect since the early conquest, the commander was authorized to take control of the territory without having to wait for the Franciscans to convert the indigenous population. Spanish authorities were willing to make this exception primarily to combat the increasing British threats on their southern flank. In 1698, De Ursúa succeeded in reestablishing a small Spanish settlement at Bacalar, the original outpost having been abandoned in 1642 (map I).

The zone was only superficially pacified, being placed under the secular clergy, who were allies of and often related to encomenderos. Unlike the Franciscans, the secular priests did not live with their Mayan flock, and many were more interested in acquiring property than providing religious instruction to the Indians. Few villages, even to the immediate south of Valladolid and Ichmul, were subjugated to the encomienda system, given the difficulty of any systematic tribute collection in that area. The fugitive Indians scattered throughout the jungle and founded small communities. According to William Dampier, a British corsair who in 1676 worked as a woodcutter south of Campeche, they often practiced subsistence agriculture. In 1688, Padre Diego López Cogolludo mentions in his Historia de Yucatán that in these small refugee communities, caciques had previously been choir masters in the Catholic churches and spoke and wrote Spanish. The vast territory between Valladolid, Bacalar, and Champotón remained outside the control of the Spanish governors of Mérida. The entire region served as a safe-haven zone for the Maya who had never been subdued or those who joined them from time to time by fleeing from their northwestern masters.

By the middle of the seventeenth century an international and strategic dimension was added to the emerging society in Yucatan. After 1655, British corsairs with ties to their recently established base in Jamaica gained control of forests in the region of present-day Belize. Cutting timber and engaging in unauthorized trade with the natives, they pushed to the very outskirts of the small Spanish settlement at Bacalar. English pirates and intruders also occupied territory around Campeche, carrying out woodcutting operations at Laguna de Términos and Isla del Carmen until their expulsion in 1716. In addition to the British, other European intruders entered the Spanish territories. In 1643, and again in 1652, Dutch pirates took Indians from the small community of Zoite, not far from Bacalar, to a deserted island in the Golfo Dulce. In 1670 two French captains reported to Vice Admiral comte D'Estrées that Maya near the mouth of the Belize River were very friendly. The admiral leaves an idealized description of the natives:

This country is admirable for its beauty and abundance. [The Indians] cultivate their lands in May for their food which is corn. They raise fowl in great quantity. They raise also cacao trees from which is made chocolate. They gather sap, gum (from the zapote tree) and vanilla that the English take away in their boats. From Jamaica the Corsairs went there during the war to stock up on maize and they paid them with booty from their looting, which means that they prefer seeing the Corsairs rather than the Spanish who come only to take their food and who do not give them the quarter of what their merchandise is worth.

Mayan residents in the far south were very mobile, practicing the itinerant cultivation of corn that required land rotation at least every three years and frequently moving to escape Creole demands for the forced sale of cotton. Those living around Bacalar traded in cacao, copal, and a variety of other products with groups of free Maya in the Petén. Ironically, they also carried out commercial relations with Maní where Creole encomenderos had established large livestock operations. The eastern provinces of Cupules, Cochuah, and Sotuta fell under encomenderos, primarily centered in Valladolid (map I). Those three provinces remained sparsely populated, supporting only a few livestock estancias (ranches). Mayas lived alongside mestizos and whites in mixed villages; caciques protected maize and cotton fields in their communities with the "help" of the encomenderos, and collected tribute for their masters, usually in the form of cotton fabric.

Thus, by the end of the seventeenth century, the boundary lines were already being formed for the Caste War, which took place some 150 years later. The encomendero communities of the south and east were centers where Mayan caciques exercised an important role, especially that of tax collector (and ecclesiastical contribution collector for the church) in exchange for exemptions and special privileges. Farther to the south were the safe havens, populated not only by the Maya who were originally from the area but also by numerous immigrants fleeing from the growing pressures in the northwest. Many of the inhabitants in those regions, though practicing subsistence agriculture, also entered commerce that was more often than not built upon the contacts with the British woodcutters and the smugglers based in Belize.

Spain's Changing Fortunes in Yucatan: 1700–1821

The eighteenth century was marked by numerous conflicts between Spain and England stemming from the dominance of Atlantic trade by the latter power. The Spanish Bourbon kings were unable to enforce laws in the marginal territories of their empire; thus British corsairs strengthened their woodcutting installations and smuggling operations south of Bacalar. The governors of Yucatan were never able to expel the English from the southeastern part of the peninsula, and with the end of the Seven Years' War in 1763, Spain recognized the right of the English to continue their presence in the region.

In 1766, José de Gálvez, visitor general of New Spain, warned the Spanish Crown that if England, which had just acquired Florida in the recent struggle, also took possession of Yucatan, that nation could block Spanish access to all the ports of Mexico. He advised liberalizing trade between Spain and various colonial ports, including Yucatan, in an effort to counter British imports that had already reached alarming levels. Inspectors working for Gálvez admitted that it would be impossible to stop the smuggling completely, in part owing to the fact that some Yucatecan coast guards were engaged in the illicit activities with the English, exchanging dyewood, wax, salt, salted meat, and broadloom cotton for alcohol and fine cotton goods. The agents warned that the coast guards, who were also quite poor, might become allies of the colonists in Belize and spies against the Spanish system.

The "enlightened" Spanish monarch Charles III (1759–1788) initiated the liberalization of trade within the Spanish empire, and that policy was continued under his son Charles IV (1788–1808). The Bourbons hoped to promote industrialization so that Spain, and not England, might provide the colonies with manufactured goods. Although Campeche's trade quadrupled and Yucatan began to reap benefits after 1770, the illegal trade from Europe via the Caribbean (Jamaica especially), and the unauthorized goods from the United States via Havana, closely approached the level of legal commerce. Spain was never able to adequately supply the colonies; she stumbled into conflict with Great Britain from 1779 to 1783 (linked to the rebellion of the North American colonies) and again from 1796 to 1809 (as an offshoot of the French Revolution and Napoleonic wars). In the Treaty of Versailles (1783) the Spanish monarchy once again confirmed the right of usufruct for British colonists in Belize. This English foothold continued after the end of Spain's colonial rule as a base for illegal trade via Bacalar northward to Ichmul, Tihosuco, and other points in the peninsula. That commercial link would take on added importance with the outbreak of the Caste War in 1847.

Yucatan experienced strong demographic growth in the second half of the eighteenth century. The safe zones and surrounding communities continued to attract immigrants and to serve as intermediaries between Maya in their communities and the woodcutters of Belize. One reason for the movement of native elements into these southern regions related to administrative changes that were imposed throughout New Spain after 1785 (map 2). The Bourbon reforms, in addition to the stimulation of commerce, reorganized the administrative structure throughout the empire, establishing the intendant system to replace complex, old political institutions. Subordinates of the intendants, known as "subdelegates," replaced a series of low-level royal bureaucrats, including agents of encomenderos and Maya caciques. In fact, the encomienda was finally abolished in Yucatan well over a century after it had disappeared in most regions of the Spanish empire. The subdelegates were now responsible for the systematic collection of the royal tribute in all villages and even on the haciendas and estancias. Furthermore, under the new structure the head of each household, not the community, was responsible for the payment of tribute. The efficiency of the system was demonstrated by a major increase in tribute that was collected by the streamlined agencies of the crown; however, this occurred at the expense of the caciques.

In a further attempt to concentrate power, the Bourbon monarchs carried out sweeping changes in church-state relations; in the empire as a whole, the most drastic and far-reaching action was the expulsion of the Jesuits in 1767. In Yucatan, however, the Jesuits had never played a major role, and their removal caused only a minimum of disruption. A series of actions against the Franciscans brought a major change to Mérida, and especially to the outlying regions of the peninsula. As discussed above, the traditional role of the Franciscans had been disregarded in the late seventeenth century with the conquest of Bacalar by Martín de Ursúa. The Bourbons made a systematic effort to reduce the number of members of the order of St. Francis and to turn over many of their churches and landholdings to the secular clergy.

By the middle of the eighteenth century, important changes were under way in the landholding patterns of northwestern Yucatan; around Mérida and in the center of the peninsula near Sotuta, Creole entrepreneurs established "mixed" haciendas that concentrated on the production of corn and livestock. The hacendados expropriated land and livestock operations from village cofradías (religious brotherhoods) formerly supervised by the Franciscans. Secular clergymen who replaced Franciscans in many communities had the right to hold private property. These priests, often with family ties to the Creole landed class, wished to take advantage of expanding markets that came with the increasing population. Mayan villagers, many of whom had already worked part-time on the haciendas, often ended up as full-time peons after 1785. If peonage or debt bondage meant servitude, it also meant that the landowners were responsible for both political and religious obligations of the Indians, not to mention their physical safety. Despite the reduction of their political role, many caciques from the northwestern and central communities became managers on the haciendas and, unlike many other Indians, enjoyed the privilege of private landholding. In the countryside, those of mixed blood, referred to as castas —in fact, mestizos, mulattoes, or pardos—also could serve as administrators for the colonizers or become small farmers. In the urban centers, they carried out minor trades. Few Maya from the communities along the outskirts of Mérida or from the haciendas around the capital city sought refuge in the safe zones of the south. On the periphery of the central area, however, workers often fled beyond the reach of taxes of the subdelegates and obvenciones of the secular priests; they scattered in the thick forest of the safe zones, where wells were scarce, deep, and often inaccessible.


Excerpted from Peripheral Visions by Edward D. Terry, Ben W. Fallaw, Gilbert M. Joseph, Edward H. Moseley. Copyright © 2010 The University of Alabama Press. Excerpted by permission of The University of Alabama Press.
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Table of Contents


Introduction Helen Delpar and Ben W. Fallaw,
1. The Caste War of Yucatan in Long-Term Perspective Marie Lapointe,
2. Casting an Image of Modernity: Yucatan at the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893 Helen Delpar,
3. A Measure of Liberty: The Politics of Labor in Revolutionary Yucatan, 1915–1918 Paul K. Eiss,
4. Removing the Yoke of Tradition: Yucatan's Revolutionary Women, Revolutionary Reforms Stephanie J. Smith,
5. The Crusade of the Mayab: Cardenista Modernization and Contestation in Yucatan, 1935–1940 Ben W. Fallaw,
6. Against Great Odds: Lebanese Entrepreneurs and the Development of Modern Yucatan Eric N. Baklanoff,
7. The Decline and Collapse of Yucatan's Henequen Agro-Industry: Neoliberalism Reconsidered Othón Baños Ramírez,
8. José Canuto Vela and Yucatan's "Benign" Clergy from Independence to the Reform, 1821–1861 Lynda S. Morrison,
9. From Santa Iglesia to Santa Cruz: Yucatecan Popular Religion in Peace and War, 1800–1876 Terry Rugeley,
10. The Resurgence of the Church in Yucatan: The Olegario Molina–Crescencio Carrillo Alliance, 1867–1901 Hernán Menéndez Rodríguez with Ben W. Fallaw,
11. From Acrimony to Accommodation: Church-State Relations in Revolutionary-Era Yucatan, 1915–1940 Ben W. Fallaw,
12. Some Final Thoughts on Regional History and the Encounter with Modernity at Mexico's Periphery Gilbert M. Joseph,

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