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Yucatan … another Mexico

8 March 2009

The last leg of my “gringo ghetto blaster tour” was to the Yucatan.  As Jim Fields, of Yucatan Living was careful to tell me, “The Yucatan is different from the rest of Mexico.”  Historically, and culturally, quite true.

First off, it’s Mayan, and

México has been more or less synonymous with the Náhuatl-speaking, or Náhuatl-dominated, peoples north of the Isthmus of Tehuanatepec. The Mayan territories… include the Yucatán Peninsula.

Secondly, it has a very different political history.

Yucatecas staged violent uprisings and almost succeeded in taking over the peninsula in 1847 and 1860…

During those various Yucateca uprisings, by the way, the “ladinos” (the non-Mayan over-class) was quite willing to sell out to the British, the French or the United States to maintain control… or rather, maintain  the apartheid system (“Indians” and everybody else) and the medieval serfdom that lingered there until the Revolution, and — in some sense — beyond.

It was only with the Mexican Revolution of the early 20th century and with the recent spectacular growth of tourism on the Yucatán Peninsula (Quintanao Roo – whose largest city is Cancún – has only been a state since 1974) that Mayan political and economic needs and aspirations were recognized.

carrilloMexpats often adopt not Mexico, but their “chica patria” as the center of the universe.  Jim is no exception.  If he had one criticism of my book, it was that I glossed over a major figure in the Peninsula’s history.  Felipe Carillo Puerto.  Until Carillo Puerto became Revolutionary governor,

By law, indigenes – mostly Mayans – still could not walk on the sidewalks in Yucatán. Much of the barbarity in Kenneth Turner’s Barbarous Mexico had occurred on Yucatán haciendas, which mostly grew henequen – a variety of agave – or sisal – yet another variety of agave – both raw materials for making rope before nylon was invented. There, a coalition of leftist intellectuals, Mayans and feminists gook control under Governor Felipe Carillo Puerto. They collectivized the land and processing plants, and Mayans, for the first time, were brought into the government. Furthermore, Carillo Puerto pushed through voting rights for women, and brought radical feminists into his cabinet.

Getting Crillo Puerto killed for his troubles.  Jim claims Obregon done it, but I’m not so sure it wasn’t just the old entrenched “powers that be” that offed the one great Revolutionary figure from the Peninsula.

Still, Jim’s point is well-taken.  The Yucatan is its own political and social world.  And… thanks in large part to saavy tourism marketing, we often think places like Chichen Itza or Tulum — not to mention Cancun ARE “typically” Mexican… and we often think of Mexico as a lush tropical country (rather than the semi-arid ruggedly mountain country it most is) because of the Peninsula.

The Peninsula definitely is part of the “real Mexico” … Yucatecas and Yucatecos are — thanks to people like Carillo Puerto — part of the Mexican whole.  Indeed, the first “modern” Mexicans were from the Yucatan.  Gonzalo Guerrero, a shipwrecked Spanish sailor turned down his chance to be “rescued” by Hernan Cortes in 1519.  Guerrero was the first foreigner to go Mexican.  He married the local chief’s daughter, gave himself a “border promotion” from able-bodied seaman to naval advisor and fathered the first mestizos we know of.  If that’s not “typically Mexican” I don’t know what is.

Guerrero is Mexican, though Jim will tell you he’s Yucateco, and that’s not the same thing.

(quotes, of course, from  Gods, Gauchupines and Gringos:  A People’s History of Mexico, © 2008 Richard Grabman)

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