Tales Of The Yucatan – Caste War, Mexico

caste war yucatan wall mural belize
Original Wall Mural depicting aspects of the Caste War of the Yucatan Mexico at Corozal Town Board Building.

The Caste War mural has been covered up and repainted to be politically correct at least three times since its original rendition. The image at above is one of the few remaining photographs of the original Yucatan Caste War Mural at the Corozal Town Hall painted by Manuel Villamor in the 1950s.

The mural captures the unvarnished civil convulsions that led to many Latino settlers moving in with their cousins in northern Belize. They established a new society that today makes up the majority of Belizeans.

Sadly, this mural was covered up when the artist painted a more modern version over the original in the 1980’s. In the 1990’s he was allowed to further paint over the second mural to render an even more politically correct anti-colonial version. The artist  is now 82 and lives in neighboring Chetumal, Mexico.

In 2012 Manuel Villamor returned to Corozal Town to repair the newer version of this mural and to reconnect with his roots in Corozal Town. Mr. Villamor is a prolific artist and art instructor well-known in his adopted Quintana Roo, Mexico.

Manuel Villamor Belizean mural artist
In 2011 Manuel Villamor Reyes unveiled his latest creation – Génesis Cultural (Culture Genesis) a 4 meter tall mural depicting the Mestizo culture. The mural is at the State School of Music in the City of Chetumal.

A little-known fact is that Corozal Town was the cradle of the Mestizos of Mexico and Latin America. The father of the Mestizos Gonzalo Guerrero made Corozal his home.

From 1847 until the early 1900s, the Caste War of the Yucatan made it impossible for a fair-skinned person to walk into the eastern Yucatan or the territory of Quintana Roo and come out alive. Only indigenous Maya could safely roam here. Any Spanish or Mestizo would be persecuted. What caused the fierceness of this Maya uprising which lasted over half a century?

No single element alone instigated the rebellion, but as in most revolutions, a long dominated under class was finally pushed to its limit by an overbearing upper-class that had performed intolerable deeds. These included changing the status of public lands which the Maya used for farming, breaking contracts, and enforcing cruel and unfair work conditions on the local peasants. Added to this was the timing of Mexico’s successful break with Spain, which led to numerous changes in the Yucatecan government, including arming the Maya to help fight the Mexican war against the United States in Texas. For the first time ever, the Maya were allowed to own guns.

As a bit of background, Spanish invaders battled 19 years to conquer the Maya in the Yucatan Peninsula. Unlike the Aztecs in central Mexico who succumbed to Cortez in less than two years, the Mayas were not easily overtaken. But by 1700, a once robust Maya population had fallen to 150,000 due to disease, displacement and famine.

As peace reclaimed the area, however, the Yucatan Peninsula’s combined population of Maya, Mestizo and Spanish ballooned to an astounding 580,000 by 1845.

More people on Yucatan soil meant more food was needed, and thus began the battle for land.

The history of the caste war, not unlike Mexico’s dramatic history, is complicated to say the least. After Mexico gained its independence from Spain in 1821, the Yucatan, a former territory, joined the Mexican Union. But by 1839, the Yucatecan elites chafed under federal authority and revolted against the new government, severing ties to Mexico, and enlisting the services of the Maya, offering promises of land, along with freedom from taxes, according to Terry Rugeley, author of Yucatan’s Mayan Peasantry and the Origins of the Caste War.

The Yucatan generals armed the Maya, and with their help, the revolution was a success.

Yucatan Caste War And Its Impact On Modern Mexico and Belize

But a few years later, the new Yucatan government made sweeping changes, including the suppression of monasteries separating church and state, and adopting new land and property rights, which included a clause allowing former public lands to be cultivated and sold.

mestizo girl from the Yucatan
Belize girl Yucatan Belize descent in Corozal District.

Over the next seven years, Rugeley states, several hundred thousand acres of land once used by Mayan peasants was taken from them and transferred into the ownership of the colonial and church elite, who felt the uncultivated lands were barely used by the Maya. Photo: Belize girl Yucatan Belize descent in Corozal District.

To the Maya, however, forest land was sacred and far from vacant, as it housed the deities of the wild places and the guardians of the corn, and to the Maya, corn was the divine food, Rugeley states. So not only were ancient lands stolen from the Maya but the promise of deeded land for combat duty was reneged on and never awarded them. The elimination of church taxes, another pledge, was also ignored, leaving the Mayas embittered. By 1843, Yucatan had waffled again and rejoined the Mexican Union, but retained these newer land laws as well as division of church and state that had been set up during the interim government.

With the church on its own and receiving no state funding, the clergy imposed hefty fees, called obventions, on the indigenous Maya when performing marriages or baptisms. The Maya became easy targets for recouping the church’s lost income. At the same time, water rights protection were removed and cenotes (limestone sinkholes that served as reservoirs to the dry, often bleak landscape) which had supplied an area’s water for centuries suddenly became private property. On a parched peninsula, things were changing rapidly.

Contributed by Jeanine Kitchel.