When visiting Yucatán, amplify your experience by considering the deep, winding history of the region. For nearly three millennia, humans have been writing history in the Peninsula, a story which features innumerable peaks and falls, twists and turns. Understanding a little about this intense history will help add context to your trip, making you fall deeper in awe with the land of the Maya. In order to simplify, I have broken the timeline into three loose sections: the magical ancient Maya society; the long, brutal colonization; and finally, post-revolution Mestiza culture.
The Ancient Maya
Maya society goes back about 2,500 years before the Spanish conquest, and takes up the largest part of our timeline. During these years, the peninsula hosted its greatest population density, meaning: more people lived on the peninsula then than now. The number of ancient cities that dotted across the peninsula is absolutely astonishing, with most archaeological structures remaining tucked away under thick forests still today. It’s fair to suggest that you are standing above archaeological remains at this very moment, wherever you are. If you are in the colonial city of Mérida, you are in the ancient city of T’oh.
By the end of the Pre-Classic Maya period, the society had developed a complex, hieroglyphical writing system, which corresponded with the spoken language. Today, over 20 different indigenous languages are spoken throughout southern Mexico, Honduras, and Guatemala, which descended from ancient Maya languages.
Only within the last several decades have epigraphers been able to decipher the artistic language, which was primarily used to record history. During the colonization, many of the books were destroyed, requiring archaeologists to decipher the code using texts painted on pottery and buildings, as well as what was carved into the stone architecture. In Yucatán, visit the archaeological site of Uxmal, which features an incredibly large concentration of writing. Allow yourself to get lost in the carvings of the Nunnery Quadrangle, which tells the long history of the site’s royalty.
The Colonization of the Maya by the Spanish
The ancient Maya society was slowly extinguished by long, bleak years of change, in which Spain implemented a rigorous program of Catholicization over the course of 300 years. Stones from T’oh’s pyramid were symbolically used to build Mérida’s cathedral.
Walk through the colonial cities of Mérida and Valladolid, which were founded in the early years of the colonization. In the Palacio de Gobierno in Mérida’s Centro, study the enormous murals painted by Yucatecan artist Fernando Castro Pacheco, which bring to life the details of the violent colonization suffered by the Maya people.
In many instances, we are led to think of the colonization as something that happened in one fell swoop. However, colonization was resisted with great strength. Chichén Itzá was a great stronghold, resisting to recognize Spanish rule for decades. Eventually, the Itzá civilization was forced to abandon its capital, and Maya people from all over Mesoamerica fled to modern day northern Guatemala, where the great king Kanek ruled. Almost 200 years after the colonization, in the year 1697, the Maya state collapsed.
The Spanish colony was arranged by castes, with pure-blooded Spanish people forming the upper class and the indigenous people the lower class. In 1810, México won its independence from Spain. However, class divisions between Maya people and Spanish descendants still ran deep. In Yucatán, the dense population of oppressed Maya people eventually rose up against their colonizers, beginning the “Guerra de Castas” (Caste War) in 1847. Raids went on for decades, with the Mexican government finally overtaking the Maya in 1901. Many historians consider this war to be one of the biggest seeds for the Mexican revolution, which began in 1910 and ended with the victory of the revolutionaries in 1920.
In Yucatán, the Spanish descendants achieved the culmination of great wealth thanks to henequén plantations, or “green gold.” The plantations depended on Maya people for unfairly cheap labor from the mid 1800s until the 1930s, with serious downfall of the henequén industry by 1916. Although the fiber was still in high demand, the Mexican Revolution reformed labor laws, eventually watching the henequén industry tumble into ruins as haciendas were abandoned and the impact of the revolution was felt. Visit Hacienda Sotuta de Peon to learn how the historic henequén plantations functioned during their epoch of splendor.
Post-Revolution, Modern, Mestizo Culture
For the last 100 years, the Maya and Spanish people have mixed, creating a shared “mestizo” or mixed culture. However, many pueblos throughout Yucatán identify as pure Maya. In the pueblo of Yaxhachén (about two and a half hours from Mérida), all of the inhabitants (more than 1800) speak Yucatec Maya. Children learn Spanish at the young schools, but family life takes place in Maya.
The women of the pueblo spend the afternoons making handicrafts, cross-stitching flowers into traditional dresses called “hipiles” and weaving baskets or hammocks. The family recipes rely on ingredients that the men harvest by hand from the “milpa,” or agricultural fields, notably corn, squash, beans, citruses, and coconuts. After planting, the community unites, calling forth the ancient god of rain “Chaac,” in a traditional ceremony led by a Maya X’Men (priest). Corn functions as the center of this traditional lifestyle, like it has since the origin of Maya society.
Visit the Maya pueblo of Yaxuná, an incredible place where Maya traditions are tenderly cared for. In the community museum and botanical gardens, you’ll encounter young people from the pueblo practicing traditional dances. You can also take Maya language classes, and learn about how the ancient Maya connect with the Maya of today, who diligently protect the sacred land of their ancestors.
Editorial by Amanda Strickland
Photos by Yucatán Today, Loboluna Producciones, Hacienda Sotuta de Peón, and Gobierno del Estado for Yucatán Today’s use.
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