Felipe Carrillo Puerto, a Peasant and Workers' Leader in Yucatan

Felipe Carrillo Puerto became governor of Yucatan in 1922 and delivered the first speech of his term in the Mayan language. He as governor was progressive: He recognized the political rights of women. On January 3, 1924, Felipe Carrillo Puerto was shot to death in Mérida.

Felipe Carrillo Puerto, a Peasant and Workers' Leader in Yucatan
In 1924 Mexican revolutionary Felipe Carrillo Puerto was assassinated. During his progressive governorship, he recognized the political rights of women and defended workers, peasants, and indigenous people. Image: Gobierno Municipal de Naucalpan de Juárez

This politician, peasant, and worker leader was born in Motul, Yucatan.  Felipe Carrillo Puerto was educated in his hometown and in Mérida. At a very young age, he joined the Revolution defending the Constitution of 1857 among the Mayan Indians and day laborers of the henequen haciendas.

Felipe Carrillo Puerto took up the agrarian ideals of Emiliano Zapata. In 1915 he held the rank of colonel and was a member of the Zapatista agrarian commission. Back in Yucatan, he held several teachers' congresses, with the idea of promoting popular education.

Felipe Carrillo Puerto became governor of Yucatan in 1922 and gave the first speech of his mandate in the Mayan language. His administration as governor was progressive in all aspects: He instituted cultural Mondays and recognized the political rights of women.

By orders of General Ricardez Broca, who took over the military government in Yucatán, Felipe Carrillo Puerto was shot in Mérida, along with other comrades and two of his brothers, on January 3, 1924. In 1927, the local Congress declared him a State Meritorious.

Carrillo Puerto, Governor of Yucatán between 1922 and 1923.
Carrillo Puerto, Governor of Yucatán between 1922 and 1923.

The Childhood and Youth of Felipe Carrillo Puerto, 1874-1913

Felipe Carrillo Puerto was born in 1874 in Motul, in the heart of the henequen zone of Yucatán. He was the second of 14 children born to Justino Carrillo and Adela Puerto. His childhood was spent quietly in the town, where the Carrillo family was known for owning a centrally located grocery store and a pool hall. Felipe's formal education was not extensive. It is known that he learned the Mayan language and Spanish from a very young age, however, due to family needs his studies ended with primary school.

It is difficult to locate his intellectual and political preparation process since Felipe Carrillo Puerto was self-taught.  Among his youthful readings were the works of Proudhon, Kropotkine, and the first volume of Marx's Capital. His leadership qualities were soon evident, as Felipe was not yet of age when he was imprisoned due to the accusations of the landowners. The crime he committed was to exhort the Mayan indigenous people to tear down a fence that prevented the passage to their milpas. In this context, the situation of the Maya during the last decades of the 19th century could not have been more oppressive.

The henequen boom, caused by the increase in the international demand for henequen fiber, meant the expansion of the cultivated area and consequently, the degree of exploitation of the labor force also increased. In contrast, the flow of capital to the henequen haciendas led to the emergence of an agro-industrial bourgeoisie made up of no more than 400 families, of which between 20 and 30 concentrated half of the production and were owners or partners of the only two export houses.

The fall of henequen was the chronicle of a death foretold. At the dawn of the twentieth century, Yucatán faced a "double determinism" on the one hand its economy was dependent on the exterior and on the other hand the cacicazgo system tied down the labor force. The henequen monoculture placed reformist projects at the mercy of the international market -a market dominated by a monopsony buyer- and in addition, the situation of the peasantry, slaves of a plantocracy that functioned under a cacique regime, blocked any attempt at reform.

During those years Felipe Carrillo Puerto was in Motul, married -since February 1898- to Isabel Palma, with whom he had six children. But his political concerns had not disappeared. Felipe got in touch with Delio Moreno Cantón, then director of La Revista de Mérida ("The Magazine of Mérida"), and decided to enter journalism, as he became the Motul correspondent. He also edited and directed El heraldo de Motul ("The Motul Herald"), a biweekly newspaper that he used to denounce the abuses of the landowners.

In 1909, amid the election campaign, Felipe Carrillo Puerto supported the candidacy of his friend Delio Moreno Cantón for governor of the state. Moreno, a conservative democrat, competed with Enrique Muñoz-Aristegui, candidate supported by Olegario Molina, and with José María Pino Suárez of Maderista affiliation. His militancy caused him numerous problems, because in a confrontation with an agitator -Néstor Arjonilla- he killed him in self-defense. As a result, he remained in prison from October 1911 to March 1913.

It can be said that after his release from prison he began the radical stage of his political life. Attracted by the Zapatista movement, Felipe Carrillo Puerto wrote to General Emiliano Zapata and expressed his sympathy for the proposals of the Plan of Ayala. The response was prompt and he marched to the center of the country. Carrillo stood out in the Zapatista ranks and reached the rank of cavalry colonel. He also formed part of the Third Agrarian Commission of the district of Cuatla.

Gonzalo Ruz, Paulino Villanueva, Felipe Carrillo Puerto and Bartolomé García Correa. 1918.
Opening of the I Congreso Obrero held in Motul, Yucatán. Gonzalo Ruz, Paulino Villanueva, Felipe Carrillo Puerto and Bartolomé García Correa. 1918.

Socialism and The Political Trajectory of Felipe Carrillo Puerto, 1915-1922

Felipe Carrillo Puerto returned to Yucatán in 1915 to collaborate with the government of General Salvador Alvarado as part of the Yucatán Agrarian Commission. By that time the green gold boom was coming to an end. The International Harvester and the ambition of Olegario Molina were two insurmountable obstacles for the henequen industry. Also, new fiber producers such as Kenya, Tanganyika, Sumatra, and Java were soon to enter the market. The landowners, subjected to the revolutionary order, were quite unhappy about having to free their labor force, which increased the cost of labor, just when the international economic panorama was not the most favorable.

Carrillo realized that the workers were a growing sector of the population. Alvarado himself was aware of the value of the working class as a political force and although the evidence is not clear, everything seems to indicate that under his protection the first socialist political party in Yucatán was organized, and on June 2, 1916, the Partido Socialista Obrero (PSO) was founded in Mérida, integrated by the anarcho-syndicalist current of the Casa del Obrero Mundial. Alvarado soon showed his intentions to be governor and even obtained Yucatecan citizenship.

At the beginning of 1917, everything seemed to be going smoothly, however, the promulgation of the General Constitution on February 5 generated a situation that meant a change in Alvarado's political plans. Alvarado declined his candidacy and a reorganization took place within the party to launch the candidacy of Carlos Castro Morales for the governorship of the state. Thus its name changed to Partido Socialista de Yucatán (PSY).

On March 16, internal elections were held and Felipe Carrillo Puerto was elected president. This was the beginning of Carrillo's political career. As the leader of his party, he established the "Agrarian Thursdays" and "Red Mondays" which allowed him permanent contact with the peasants, as well as contributed to their ideological and political formation. He soon became the leader of the party and in November of the same year, he was elected local deputy and president of the corresponding legislature. As interim governor (November 13-December 2, 1918) Felipe Carrillo Puerto promulgated a new Labor Code for the State of Yucatan.

The 1919 elections to renew the Local Congress were not held due to the military coup organized by Isaías Zamarripa, a Carranza-affiliated colonel who began the persecution of socialists and also burned the building of the Central Resistance League. Zamarripa arrested Felipe Carrillo Puerto and expelled him from the state. In April 1920 Carrillo joined the Agua Prieta Plan and returned to Yucatan to rebuild the party. That same year he was elected federal deputy. The second congress of the Socialist Party of Yucatan was held in Izamal in August 1921.

There the change of name to Partido Socialista del Sureste (PSS) was discussed and approved. During the PSS convention, Felipe Carrillo Puerto was nominated as a candidate for the governorship of the state for the 1922-1926 period. The race was not an easy one, as he had to face the Constitutional Liberal Party, the Yucatecan Liberal Party, and the Democratic Party. On November 6, 1921, in a victory described as "resounding" Felipe Carrillo Puerto won the elections and in February 1922 he was sworn in as governor.

Participants in the I Workers' Congress. Felipe Carrillo Puerto, in black suit, with a child.
Participants in the I Workers' Congress. Felipe Carrillo Puerto, in black suit, with a child.

Twenty Months of Socialist Revolt, 1922-1924

"Comrades: for all workers, this should be a day of joy, of happiness, because today one of the great dreams of the Socialist Party of the Southeast is coming true; because here we are all true socialists gathered to celebrate the triumph of our cause [...]. ...] that is why comrades, from today we must say and make those gentlemen see that we can do something for you and also tell them that without the workers this cathedral would not exist, nor this palace; without the workers there would not be this park, where everyone comes to recreate and to breathe the perfume of the flowers, without the workers there would not be the railroads, the automobiles, the cars...".

With these words, pronounced in the Mayan language from the balconies of the government palace, Felipe Carrillo Puerto took possession of the government of Yucatan on February 1, 1922. He was the first ruler to address the Mayans in their language. His words were combative and hopeful and he blamed the hacienda owners for the misery of the Mayan people. To the indigenous people, he promised to distribute land, cancel the free market and rehabilitate the state henequen monopoly. That day the Yucatecan people packed the main square. And Felipe Carrillo Puerto, with this speech, began the path of revindication of the indigenous element in the state context.

A month later, in March 1922, one of Carrillo Puerto's most desired projects materialized, the Universidad Nacional del Sureste (National University of the Southeast), made up of the Faculties of Medicine, Jurisprudence, and Engineering, the Literary Institute or Preparatory, the Mixed Normal School, the School of Music, and the School of Fine Arts. The Archaeological and Historical Museum of Yucatan, the Vocational School of Arts and Crafts, and the Academy of Mayan Language were instituted.

Felipe's concern for the education of the people was neither recent nor the result of his position as governor. For years before he had participated in the Yucatecan Indianist Society and supported the idea of creating Commercial and Technical Academies in which "the indigenous class" would be given free entrance.

Apart from Carrillo's work in favor of education in the Yucatan area, he was also concerned with keeping abreast of intellectual development in Latin America. Thus, in 1921 he wrote to José Ingenieros, a prominent Argentine intellectual, and informed him of the political situation in Mexico and especially in Yucatán.  Ingenieros' response was not long in coming. The Argentine converged with the ideals of the Yucatecan "aimed at increasing among men the spirit of justice and the feelings of solidarity".

Carrillo's ideas were soon put into action. The "nuclei of moral resistance" and the "uniform programs or methods" to which Ingenieros alluded found their channel in the Leagues of Resistance, former constituent elements of the party that evolved into instruments of the government. Thus the league became the instance that allowed the exercise of power to put its social program into practice.

The leagues functioned in parallel to the town councils and were a success as an organizational structure since they promoted agrarian distribution and the construction of roads, and Carrillo, as part of his economic project, created production and consumption cooperatives to facilitate the cultivation and exploitation of agricultural and fishing resources. Felipe Carrillo Puerto also gave importance to savings through institutions such as workers' refinancing banks and agricultural banks.

Felipe Carrillo Puerto was not only a socialist leader but also a bold political strategist who knew how to manage changes in the regional and national political environment at his convenience.

Despite the excellent results of the leagues, their implementation and the implementation of Carrillo's policies involved two elements that have been little highlighted in the historical analysis. The first is the use of corrupt political practices, such as political patronage, nepotism, repression, and threats, and the operation through informal political networks structured by kinship ties or around organized collectives.

The second element is the set of political and friendly relations that Felipe Carrillo Puerto maintained with members of the political class in the center of the country. In this sense, it can be affirmed that the success of the organization through the leagues was articulated around the United Railroads of Yucatan since both its infrastructure and human capital were at the service of Carrillo's cause.

At first, it may have been out of conviction, but later threats and repression were used to continue maintaining these services. Felipe Carrillo Puerto himself, between 1922 and 1923, sent letters to the highest level railroad employees requesting "first-class cars" to carry out proselytizing tours throughout Yucatan. He also ordered "energetic action" against railroad employees whose actions could be detrimental to the party.

Felipe Carrillo Puerto with his government cabinet, 1922.
Felipe Carrillo Puerto with his government cabinet, 1922.

The figure of Felipe Carrillo Puerto has several contours

One of his contributions during his administration was to incorporate women into the political and social life of the state. During his administration, professors Rosa Torres and Genoveva Pérez were the first women in the history of Mexico to occupy elected positions. These achievements were witnessed by Alfredo Palacios. The Argentine intellectual visited Yucatan in March 1923 and received the doctorate Honoris Causa from the Universidad del Sureste. He was struck by the advance of Yucatecan feminism, which had its maximum expression in the Ligas Femeninas (Women's Leagues).

Likewise, Carrillo Puerto's work reached other areas besides agrarian and education, since during his administration he promulgated the laws of social welfare, labor, and expropriation for public utility. The Yucatecan trova also benefited from Carrillo Puerto's government, using the radio station " The Voice of the Great Socialist Party" for its broadcasting.

Felipe Carrillo Puerto and a group of professors. To his left, Mr. Antonio Gual García.
Felipe Carrillo Puerto and a group of professors. To his left, Mr. Antonio Gual García.

In these circumstances, on November 28, 1923, Felipe Carrillo promulgated the Law of Seizure and Expropriation of Abandoned Farms which provided for the expropriation, prior nominal compensation, of the abandoned lands to be given to the workers for their collective operation. This law, together with that of December 4, which instituted that 25% of the henequen income should be given to the workers as a benefit, signified a revolution, as these measures violated the already damaged economic and political interests of the men in power in Yucatan. Adolfo de la Huerta's coup d'état was the opportunity that the henequen landowners took advantage of to capture Carrillo.

During the first days of December 1923, military chiefs Juan Ricárdez Broca and Hermenegildo Rodríguez dismantled Carrillo Puerto's revolutionary government. On December 21 they apprehended him in Holbox, a town located on the coast of Quintana Roo, and transferred him to the Juarez penitentiary in Merida. Felipe Carrillo Puerto was shot in the Civil Pantheon in the early morning of January 3, 1924, together with 12 collaborators (among them three of his brothers). With the leader's disappearance, socialism in Yucatan entered into a crisis that resulted in divisions in the party and the short term meant its extinction as a political force of regional importance.

The New Inte rnational Airport of Tulum 'Felipe Carillo Puerto' was named after this important historic figure by the Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador in 2022.

Sources: EPN, Elda de Jesús Moreno Acevedo (Rediscovering Felipe Carrillo Puerto Apostle of the Maya, ideologue of Yucatecan socialism, unrecognized intellectual?)  via The Journal of the Autonomous University of Yucatán (UADY), No. 233.