The Caste War and the Talking Cross

During the first half of the 19th century, the Maya of the eastern coast of Yucatán were fighting for their freedom and the right to live according to their uses and customs. This is how it went.

The Caste War and the Talking Cross
Watercolor of the Caste War. Image: Mediateca INAH

In the first half of the 19th century, the Maya of the eastern coast of Yucatán were fighting for their freedom and the right to live according to their uses and customs. This claim included the ancestral right to own land and later they took up arms in 1847, when the indigenous leader Cecilio Chí took the town of Tepich in the current state of Quintana Roo, "coordinated the insurrection among others with Manuel Antonio Ay, the Cacique of Chichimilá, and Jacinto Pat, to constitute the Mayan nation independent from Mexico, which would respect the rights of the indigenous people," giving rise to the so-called Caste War, which spread throughout a large part of the Yucatán Peninsula.

The first five years of the war were the bloodiest and most difficult: the Mayas were close to dominating the entire peninsular territory a little less than a year after the conflict began; they took most of the region, and by May 1848, ten months after the outbreak of the conflict, the Indian militias had the towns of Yucatan under their control. The Caste War did not have the same intensity during the period that spanned little more than half a century. The most intense part of the war took place between 1847 and 1849. In Nelson Reed's La Guerra de Castas de Yucatán, he describes a great number of clashes and bloody passages committed by both sides during that first period. By May 1848, says don Serapio Baqueiro, "the whites were almost lost".

By 1850, the Maya were at the gates of the city of Mérida, but instead of taking it, they returned to their milpas to sow, since it was the rainy season and the harvest was of vital importance for the sustenance of the families. This was taken advantage of by the Yucatecan Creoles and mestizos, who reorganized and began the counteroffensive.

The Maya were forced to seek refuge in the jungle, where they established themselves and created a new social order based on the military-religious organization that revolved around the cult of the Talking Cross. For this purpose, they founded the ceremonial center of Chan Santa Cruz (today Felipe Carrillo Puerto), which would acquire a solid structure. Thus they created a religious, political, and military institution. With the appearance of the Holy Cross, the political power of the Maya was linked to religious power, taking the form of a theocracy.

The cult of the Cross promoted the cohesion of the Maya who were dispersed and gave them the strength to resist the Yucatecan offensive, which pushed them further and further into the jungle. Knowing that they were a chosen people gave them courage and granted them supernatural protection during the war period. After this stage, the Maya organized themselves around a symbol and a common idea: the Holy Cross, which gave them the elements to reorganize, adapt and build a new culture.

With the passage of time, due to the government's interest in pacifying the area and the rebels' exhaustion after so many years of resistance, the army took Chan Santa Cruz in 1901, officially ending the Caste War.

The role played by the leaders Manuel Nahuat and José María Barrera about the cult, was that they carried out more important functions than those of a simple reproducer of the voice of the cross, they exercised tasks of a priestly nature, performed tasks of a ritual and religious nature, in addition to their political functions. Through them, according to tradition, the Talking Cross communicated with them and in turn transmitted messages to the villagers to guide them in the struggle. "Recently founded Chan Santa Cruz, the rebels adopted a new religion taking up Catholic and pre-Hispanic elements, also, it had its initial basis in the worship of a Talking Cross, whose origin is told in the following way: José María Barrera, in one of his forays in the region of Quintana Roo, came across a cedar tree. When he saw it, he painted a cross on it and as the tree grew, it also increased in size and when he saw it, he told his companions that it was the work of God and the Mayas believed it. They cut down the sacred tree and made a cross out of the wood, took it to the village, and named it Chan Santa Cruz. The next thing was to make it speak whenever it was necessary."

There are differences between the official Maya Church and the popular religion; the former is derived directly from the cult of the Talking Cross and the latter is carried out around the milpa. With the appearance of the cross, its cult spread and took root among the rebellious Maya population, which identified itself as cruzoob (this term is made up of the Spanish word cruz and the plural o'ob of the Maya language). The Cross, a symbol of the new religion, was not completely Christian. Among the pre-Hispanic Maya, it existed as a representation of the corn plant and the tree of life. Fray Bartolomé de Las Casas narrated that in Cozumel there was an oratory of the cross related to rain (necessary for the cultivation of corn). About the crosses, Bartolomé de Las Casas points out: "In the kingdom of Yucatán, when our people discovered it, they found crosses; one of lime and stone, ten palms high, in the middle of a lucid and crenelated patio, next to a solemn temple visited by devout people, in the island of Cozumel".

The Caste War has been explained from different perspectives. Studies of the 19th and early 20th centuries attributed the "hatred of the Maya towards foreigners that had been nourished by several centuries of European domination. In recent years, the thesis of expansion in commercial agricultural production and private property has been proposed, which introduced labor relations among the indigenous population that clashed with the traditional system of Maya property and cultivation". Another fundamental reason was the new system of personal contributions initiated by the laws of the Cortes of Cadiz in 1812.

May 3rd is the day of the Talking Cross. The people of Felipe Carrillo Puerto celebrate this day, the Mayan people of Quintana Roo relive the historical passage that propelled them to liberate themselves from the oppressor in the Caste War.

In the mid-1850s, José María Barrera (a mestizo who first belonged to the Yucatecan army and later joined the indigenous struggle) discovered a spring near Kampocolché, and to mark its location he carved three crosses on an adjacent mahogany tree; little by little the indigenous people who were dispersed in the jungle found the three crosses, settled in the surrounding area, and placed offerings and candles before them.

The Talking Cross functioned as an intermediary between God and men. There is a document entitled "Proclamation in the Maya language by Juan de la Cruz, diviner of X Balam Na (House of the Jaguar)" was the name given to this first temple built for the Talking Cross; addressed to his fellow citizens in 1850, it was originally preserved by the Maya of Tixcacal Guardia, in the speech it is emphasized that the permission to start the war is requested to both God the Father and the Virgin. Likewise, it is notorious the appearance of the number seven as part of the requirements to access the divine.

The Talking Cross
The Talking Cross is for the Cruzob Maya of Quintana Roo the supreme symbol of the sacred. It functions as an intermediary between God and men. It was born as a military oracle of the Caste War in Chan Santa Cruz during the fall of 1850. There is a document titled "Proclamation in the Mayan language of Juan de la Cruz, diviner of X Balam Na (House of the Jaguar)" was the name given to this first temple built for the Talking Cross. There, only the generals could listen to the cross, the soldiers and women remained outside waiting to hear what its orders were. Image: Cultura

The prologue begins: "Jesus, Mary, in the name of God the Father and God the Son and the name of God the Holy Spirit, Amen, Jesus. Amen, Jesus. In the fourth chapter, we read the following: Another thing I command you where you are, my dear Christian peoples: that you must know that seven times I entered by day, seven times I entered by night in the presence of my Father and in the presence of my Lady the Sweet Virgin Mary, to obtain permission to initiate the war for the second time against the whites, from my children the Indians against the whites." There, only the generals could listen to the cross, the soldiers and the women remained outside waiting to hear what his orders were. Nowadays the guards who guard the cross are military. In times past the gift of the word served as a military guide with a spiritual mix, the sense of community, and the modernization of the people. "The green color [of] the crosses represents the ceiba which was the most sacred thing for the Maya."

Chan Santa Cruz is also "the name given to the de facto independent Maya state, which was the capital or main settlement of the indigenous people who revolted during the rebellion known as the Caste War". These were the ones who developed a new religion, known as the Cult of the Talking Cross. This was the most important city for the Maya during the aforementioned war. "The cult [...] has been preserved to this day thanks to the perseverance of the elders, the grandparents have taught the parents and these have taught their children even when in another time this could cost them their lives."

In the second stage, from 1850 to 1863, there was a counter-offensive by the colonial forces and the retreat of the Maya to the region of the current state of Quintana Roo. In the new organization of the Cruzoob, men were the ones who occupied positions of power or authority. According to historiography, once the main leaders of the uprising were dead, the new chiefs were Venancio Puc, Florentino Chan, José María Barrera, and Bonifacio Novelo.

María Uicab, Priestess and Military Chief of the Mayan Rebels of Yucatán in the period 1863-1875

The transcendental role of María Uicab, who held power at a critical moment in the history of Yucatán; she was recognized as queen, priestess, and military chief of the Cruzoob, as well as a transmitter of the oracle's orders, and had sufficient authority to name and change the military chiefs of the Maya of Chan Santa Cruz. The Mayan women actively participated in the rebellion, some of them in the leadership of their people in the religious and political sphere.

But who was Maria Uicab? By reports from Moisés Chin, priest of Tulum, we know that she had another name, Petrona (she was María Petrona Uicab), she was the daughter of a main chief of the Cruzoob, her lineage was decisive to be recognized by the Mayas as queen and priestess. We also know that she resided in Muyil, so she only went to Tulum to consult the oracle and to attend to government affairs.

By inheriting power from her father, Maria Uicab never depended on her marriages; rather, her husbands were the beneficiaries of the tradition that the priestly office was shared with the couples. Proof of the prestige achieved by Maria are the myths, reproduced by the oral memory, that speak of her importance as queen and priestess, according to which not just anyone could claim her, according to Alberto May:

No one dared to pretend to her being such an important woman. Her husband was a very big and strong man, so much so that when he fought he suffocated and had to be fanned by seven people. He was killed by the army when invaded Tulum and it took seven bullets to kill him because he was so strong. so strong he was. They were so amazed at the work it took to kill him that they opened him up to discover his secret, and they found out that he had three hearts.

Evidence of the enormous power she had over the Crucizoob is more abundant. The prestige achieved by María Uicab was recorded in various reports prepared by civilians and the military. One of these reports states:

From this period dates the establishment in Tulum (1867) of a woman named María Uicab, who is the one who recognized in herself all the attributes of sovereignty invested with a sacred character [...].

María Uicab held power for a long time, in a context where leaders were short-lived in office, due to struggles for power within their ranks and the fight against the colonial army that later ended in death.

The third and last stage of the war took place between 1861 and 1901. During those forty years, the rebellious Maya formed their government and controlled a large territory in the southeast of the peninsula. The long Castassass War only officially ended on May 4, 1901, when the Mexican federal troops took charge of the peninsular conflict and entered the religious and war sanctuary of Chan Santa Cruz; in 1902 Don Porfirio Díaz, President of the Republic, decreed the formation of the Territory of Quintana Roo (today a State of the Mexican Federation). In that eastern zone of the Peninsula, where rebellious indigenous militias remained, the Mexican government agents reached a pacification agreement with the Cruzoob, who recognized some rights and personality to negotiate with the Mexican government. The indigenous rebels had been reluctant to deal with the Yucatecan government. After 54 years, they agreed to do so with the representatives of President Díaz.

By Guadalupe Flores Rodríguez, Source: National Institute of Indigenous Peoples