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El Pueblo Mestizo: Modernity, Tradition,

and Statecraft in Yucatán, 1870–1907

Paul K. Eiss, Carnegie Mellon University

Abstract. This article concerns the concept and rhetoric of “el pueblo” in Yucatán
during the regime of Mexican president Porfirio Díaz, from the 1870s forward.
In Yucatán, this era was one of radical change, bringing the transformation and
expansion of the region’s henequen hacienda economy, the rise of the institution of
debt servitude, affecting both indigenous Yucatec Mayan and working-class mestizo
populations, and the rise of encompassing political rhetorics of order, progress, and
nation building among Porfirian government officials and pueblo-level landowning
El pueblo both mediated these transformations and was reshaped by them.
Local gentry worked as cultural and political brokers, joining forces with state
officials in remaking Yucatán as a “modern” and “civilized” state through infra-
structural improvements and education aimed at transforming largely indigenous,
rural pueblos into staging areas of a modern Mexico. At the same time, the gentry,
many of them also of mestizo background, avidly boosted mestizo pueblo “tradi-
tions” as forms of statecraft, appropriating pueblo cultural styles as a repertoire
through which state and nation might be constructed and the social hierarchies of
henequen society might be legitimated. More than just a place, el pueblo became a
strategy through which modernity and tradition were collaboratively produced by
state officials and local elites. Such performative renderings of el pueblo became
paradigmatic signifiers of both mestizo culture and regional Yucatecan identity,
occupying pride of place in the cultural repertoire of rule embraced by Yucatán’s
regional elites from the Porfiriato forward.

To translate “el pueblo” is no easy task. The term seems to carry distinct
meanings, referring either to places or localities (i.e., pueblos), communi-
ties (groups of people united by some form of communal organization),
or political subjectivity (“the people,” in the abstract). These meanings,

Ethnohistory 55:4 (Fall 2008)  DOI 10.1215/00141801-2008-012

Copyright 2008 by American Society for Ethnohistory

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526 Paul K. Eiss

however, are rarely distinguished clearly in practice, and their histories are
intertwined. A genealogy of el pueblo, in the Americas at any rate, would
consist of at least three branches, the first extending back to Spanish com-
munitarian and colonial precedents, where “el pueblo” refers to settlements
and to grounded communities. A second extends to the late eighteenth and
early nineteenth centuries and the emergence of collective republican politi-
cal subjects projected in opposition to ancien régime and colonial rule,
whether in the form of le peuple in St. Domingue and France, “the people”
in revolutionary North America, or el pueblo in Spanish America. A third
branch strikes deep roots in the history of indigenous societies—such as
those of Yucatán, Chiapas, and Guatemala—with manifold understand-
ings of community, territoriality and sovereignty. Such meanings, practices,
and histories altered the meaning and compass of Spanish conceptions of
pueblo, both within indigenous areas and beyond their boundaries.
Moreover, by the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, el
pueblo rose to preeminence not only as a political subject but as a political
object—the primary target of governance for Porfirian-era modernizers,
eugenicists, and revolutionary- and postrevolutionary-era social reformers
alike. While Joseph and Nugent have called, fruitfully, for the study of the
popular dynamics of “everyday forms of state formation,” most scholars
take the nature of “the popular” as a given. To trace the genealogy of el
pueblo is to consider it as both idea and practice, a constantly changing
complex of the various forces and agents—popular and elite; governmental
and civic; social, political, and intellectual—that have taken part in its con-
struction and contestation.1
This essay concerns the reshaping of el pueblo in Yucatán, and spe-
cifically in the context of state formation in the northwestern region of
Hunucmá, before and during the regime of Mexican president Porfirio
Díaz, an authoritarian modernizer who held dictatorial power for three
decades following his rise to power in 1876. As in much of the rest of
Mexico, in Yucatán this era was one of radical change, bringing the emer-
gence of an agrarian capitalist economy focused on the monocultural pro-
duction of henequen on haciendas; the rise of the institution of debt servi-
tude, affecting both indigenous populations and working-class mestizos;
the reorganization, consolidation, and integration of oligarchical regimes
of governance at the municipal, state, and national levels; and the rise of
encompassing political rhetorics of order, progress, and nation building
among government officials and elites.
As I aim to demonstrate, el pueblo both mediated these transforma-
tions and was reshaped by them. Following the dismantlement of Yuca-
tán’s indigenous republics in the early nineteenth century, the organization

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Modernity, Tradition, and Statecraft 527

of municipal governments and town councils at the pueblo level provided

a political framework for local gentry—many of them Maya speakers of
ethnically mixed heritage—to ensconce themselves in power. The gentry’s
control over pueblo governance facilitated its expropriation of land, capi-
tal, and labor, the last composed of both indigenous and mestizo workers
laboring as indebted “peons” or “servants” (sirvientes). Moreover, the
gentry’s position in municipal government allowed it to play a mediating
role in state formation, as local landowners joined forces with Yucatecan
state officials in remaking Yucatán as a “modern” and “civilized” state.
They did so through infrastructural improvements and education aimed
at transforming pueblos like those of Hunucmá into model pueblos for
a modern Mexico, simultaneously remaking both patria chica and patria
In the domain of cultural production, local gentry avidly boosted mes-
tizo pueblo “traditions”—such as local religious fiestas and especially folk
dances, called vaquerías—as forms of statecraft at the pueblo level. Rather
than “playing Indian,” state and local officials “played mestizo,” appropri-
ating pueblo cultural styles as a repertoire through which state and nation
might be constructed and the social hierarchies of henequen society might
be legitimated, from below and from above. Such performative renderings
of el pueblo, at once “modern” and “traditional,” not only stood as markers
of mestizo culture and regional Yucatecan identity but also took pride of
place in the cultural repertoire of rule embraced by Yucatán’s regional
elites, from the Porfiriato forward.

Henequen Society in Yucatán and Hunucmá

While the rise of henequen agriculture thoroughly transformed rural

northwestern Yucatán, it did so on foundations laid by the rise of com-
mercial agriculture, and agrarian capitalism, beginning one century earlier.
Already by the late eighteenth century, changes internal to the economy
of Yucatán and the Spanish Bourbon reforms—which brought disentail-
ment of indigenous cofradías and the sale of many communal lands—had
led to a notable expansion of cattle and maize haciendas, as well as sugar
agriculture, dyewood extraction, and other forms of commercial activity.
With independence in 1821, the pace of land alienations increased, as Cre-
ole liberals used their newfound powers to pass land legislation forcing
the sale of many common lands and reducing the power of the indigenous
republics and their officials, leading to their eventual abolition. In 1847,
a sweeping uprising of indigenous and some mestizo populations, which
became known as the Caste War, demolished much of Yucatán’s agrarian

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528 Paul K. Eiss

commercial economy, particularly in the war-torn southeast, which would

remain a theater of conflict with rebels for decades to follow.2
The period stretching from the last third of the nineteenth century
through the first years of the twentieth, however, brought a revival of
export-oriented production in Yucatán, transforming the northwest into
a “monocultural” region often referred to as the “henequen zone.” Hene-
quen, a tall spiky member of the agave family used to produce fiber for
cordage, was indigenous to Yucatán and thrived in the hot conditions and
thin, porous soils of the northwest.3 Though already expanding in Yuca-
tán by the 1860s, henequen surged in response to increasing demand for
hard fibers on the international market beginning in the late 1870s. This
was triggered both by the United States’ westward expansion and by the
invention of several mechanized harvesting machines that used twine to
knot and bind wheat and other crops. The production of fiber would triple
from 30,000 bales in 1870 to 90,000 in 1879, exceeding 500,000 bales by
the turn of the century.4
U.S. companies became powerful agents in the Yucatecan economy,
with local elites dependent on them for capital and markets. Some Yuca-
tecan planters, merchants, and purchasing agents, however, amassed con-
siderable profits during the henequen boom, or auge. Over the course of a
few years, Yucatán was transformed from one of Mexico’s poorest states
to one of its richest, with a few Yucatecan families achieving such wealth
and power that resentful critics came to refer to them as constituting a casta
divina. The state capital, Mérida, became a modern city in which members
of the henequen elite built palatial homes, constructed wide boulevards, and
busied themselves importing pianos and the latest European styles. At the
same time, the warfare and political factionalism of previous decades gave
way to the machine politics of the Porfirian era. Porfirio Díaz, Mexico’s
president beginning in 1876, installed a series of local military commanders
as governors from 1882 to 1894, instituting a patronage system in which
political factions alternated in power, as long as they demonstrated their
subservience to Díaz.5
With the auge, Yucatecan haciendas increased in both size and num-
ber. They also were transformed internally, as fields of henequen plants
replaced maize plots and cattle pasturage and as such technological inno-
vations as machine houses and narrow gauge railways were introduced to
the estates. A transportation revolution took place as well, with Yucatán
enjoying the distinction, by 1890, of having the most extensive rail network
of any state in Mexico. The installation of telegraph and telephone lines
brought a communications infrastructure as well, and investment in lighting,
public works, and construction in henequen-producing areas transformed

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Modernity, Tradition, and Statecraft 529

the appearance of town centers throughout the monocultural northwest.

Observing such changes, Yucatecan historian Serapio Baqueiro remarked,
“All the state is for henequen, and outside of it there is nothing.”6
The rise of dependent, monocultural, agrarian capitalism brought
with it a transformation of rural class society. Throughout the northwest,
elite families expanded their properties, using their access to pueblo, town,
and state government posts to facilitate the acquisition of land and labor.7
Extraordinary pressures were brought to bear on subsistence agricultural-
ists. Armed with state and national legislation aiming at the decisive pri-
vatization of “wastelands” (baldíos) and ejidos, or common lands, hacen-
dados carried out an all-out assault on the remaining communal lands in
the northwest. In the 1880s, state governors ordered district prefects (jefes
políticos) and town councils to parcelize and distribute ejidos to pueblo
residents, and circulars to that effect were issued by the federal Secretaría
de Fomento (Secretariat of Development) as well. Such lands often were
fraudulently usurped by hacendados or purchased from residents shortly
after their distribution.8
In Hunucmá, as elsewhere in the henequen zone, the social impact
of such changes was shaped strongly by a history of agrarian transforma-
tion that preceded the henequen auge. By the late colonial period, Hunuc-
má’s growing population of vecinos (a Spanish term meaning “residents”)
blurred distinctions between what once had constituted separate Span-
ish and indigenous “republics.” By 1779, the district’s total population
of 20,899 was roughly 80 percent indigenous and 1 percent Spanish. The
remainder was 10 percent pardo—of African or mixed African and indige-
nous descent—and 9 percent mestizo, or mixed race (Spanish-indigenous).
A few of these mixed-race residents (hereafter referred to collectively as
mestizo) acquired property and capital. They identified with Spanish cul-
tural institutions, and the wealthiest among them wore European cloth-
ing, reflected in the appellation gente de vestido. While they spoke Spanish,
many, perhaps most, also spoke Yucatec Maya or a mixture of Maya and
Most mestizo pueblo residents, however, were working people—small
farmers, artisans, shopkeepers, and the like. While they generally enjoyed a
somewhat higher level of income than indigenous residents, many mestizo
men married indigenous women and raised their children in Maya-speaking
households. When called to give Spanish testimony in court, they often
needed translators, suggesting increasing proximity to indigenous residents
in status, occupation, and language. Indeed, these working-class mestizos
were as dependent on access to common lands as members of the indige-
nous republics, and thus were as threatened by the alienation of those lands

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530 Paul K. Eiss

and the expansion of commercial agriculture. Over time—and particularly

in the wake of the Caste War, as the pace of land alienations increased—
many of them were pulled into the same system of indebted servitude and
forced labor arrangements that affected indigenous workers.10
Hunucmá’s class-divided mestizos might thus be divided into two
groups: Hispanic mestizos and indigenous mestizos. Such terminology was,
however, foreign to the times. While census-takers through the late nine-
teenth century divided Hunucmá’s population in facile ways—residents
with Mayan last names were classified as “indigenous” and those with Span-
ish names as “non-indigenous”—social descriptors were applied in ways
that were locally specific and highly complex, reflecting class, language,
dress, comportment, and place of residence as much as ethnicity or race.
Spanish speakers might use vecino or gente de vestido to refer to wealthier
town residents and indio or indígena to refer to indigenous residents; they
might call working-class mestizos mestizos, but if they were referring to
poor mestizos, especially in the context of criminal cases or social conflicts,
they were more likely to refer to them generically as indios. Maya speakers
called a wealthy and privileged person, regardless of ethnic heritage, dzul,
a term originally denoting foreigner that came to have status and ethnic
connotations, conveying associations of wealth, privilege, and lightness in
skin color. While early in the nineteenth century members of the indige-
nous republics distinguished between the republic member (cahnal) and the
working-class mestizo (vecinoil), this distinction seems to have been lost by
late in the century, as cah came to refer to pueblo of residence rather than
to the no-longer-extant indigenous republics. The terms Maya speakers
used to refer to themselves tended to foreground class (macehual), poverty
(otsil), or pueblo of residence (Tetizil, Hunucmáil) in ways that were not
strictly ethnic, even though those terms, like dzul, conveyed strong ethnic
While commercial hacienda agriculture and indigenous indebted
servitude were well established in Hunucmá by the mid-nineteenth cen-
tury, residents of the Hunucmá district experienced the meteoric rise of
henequen as a radical transformation. By 1881 some 129,000 mecates (the
mecate is a unit of measure roughly equal to 400 square meters) of hene-
quen were under cultivation on 88 haciendas, and 98 henequen rasping
machines were in operation throughout the district. By 1886, the fincas
had risen to 110 in number, with 178,000 mecates of henequen. By 1892,
300,000 mecates were planted in henequen, with an annual production
of more than 1,700 metric tons of fiber. Henequen quickly eclipsed maize
production, and while cattle remained an important form of capital on
some haciendas, many ranchers shifted toward the greater profits offered

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Modernity, Tradition, and Statecraft 531

by henequen. Henequen fields in the vicinity of Hunucmá ranged widely in

size, from small fields of several hundred mecates to those of Texán, with
35,000 mecates in various stages of growth in 1891.12
As in other regions, the rise of henequen in Hunucmá furthered the
dominance of a handful of families that exercised oligarchical control over
land, labor, and capital—principally the Peón clan. The Peóns had been a
powerful, traditional land-holding family in Yucatán at least as far back as
the eighteenth century, but in the wake of the Caste War they bought up a
series of large cattle ranches, including San Antonio Yaxché, which would
become one of the largest henequen estates in the peninsula. Their specu-
lation in lands in the region began to pay off in the early 1870s, when they
began converting those ranches into henequen haciendas, building what
Wells has called a “subregional empire.”13 They did so not only through
the expansion of their estates, but through their control over all phases
of henequen production, through the building of railways, tramways, and
warehouses, to facilitate the transportation and stockpiling of fiber. The
position of the Peón family was strengthened by activities outside the pro-
duction of henequen, like money-lending, real estate, and the exploitation
of other resources in the region, like dyewood, and salt pools near the port
town of Celestún. Through the turn of the century, with the assistance of
Porfirian decrees aiming at the privatization of communal lands, the family
continued to expand its land holdings, even during downturns in the hene-
quen market that led smaller hacienda owners into bankruptcy, and freed
up their estates for purchase by larger growers.14
The rise of henequen had just as striking an effect on local gentry
who had gained local prominence by the mid-nineteenth century as owners
of small to midsized ranches and fincas. They converted their ranches or
haciendas to henequen production and expanded their retinues of indebted
workers. Anastacio Castilla, a justice of the peace in Tetiz in the 1850s and
1860s, acquired a medium-sized hacienda, San Luis, where he had a mix
of maize, sugar cane, and a small amount of henequen, worked by fourteen
indebted indigenous laborers. Eduardo López, a Caste War veteran who
served as mayor of Hunucmá, purchased the hacienda San Eduardo and
then converted it to a henequen finca, with 1,700 mecates of henequen,
processing machinery, a herd of 114 head of cattle, and 13 indebted “ser-
vants.” Even Hunucmá’s priest took part in the secular opportunities avail-
able in the region by acquiring his own hacienda just outside the pueblo of
Tetiz. Other examples abound, demonstrating the great number of small
and midsized estates formed by the late nineteenth century in former com-
munal lands.15
The wealthier gentry of the region owned larger haciendas, which

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532 Paul K. Eiss

were planted in larger amounts of henequen and possessed processing

machinery, and also invested in a more diverse range of enterprises. Some
of them had teams of servants cut wood or dyewood on public lands or
harvest salt from pools in coastal areas. The more prosperous owned stores
in towns and pueblos and participated in a brisk local real estate market.
While they faced difficult competition from oligarchs like the Peóns, and
some were driven to ruin by occasional busts in the henequen market, many
continued to profit from henequen agriculture through the turn of the cen-
tury. They continued to acquire lands by various means, especially follow-
ing the surveying, parceling, and break-up of the ejidos, and they progres-
sively increased their retinues of indebted workers. They expanded their
involvement in lumber and dyewood trades, in some cases mounting direct
competition to larger merchants.16
But the rising tide of henequen did not lift all boats. Indigenous and
mestizo working populations experienced the auge differently, as a his-
tory of dispossession, deprivation, exploitation, and violence. Due to the
increased, and year-round, labor demands associated with the cultivation of
henequen, hacendados avidly sought laborers in the pueblos and increased
their control over labor through the use of indebted servitude and acasilla-
miento—the permanent settlement of workers’ families on the haciendas.
Throughout northwestern Yucatán, resident working populations of the
haciendas swelled as pueblo residents were reduced to indebted servitude.
The population of the district of Hunucmá reached a critical threshold
toward the end of the nineteenth century, a point of equality in the relative
numbers of people resident on the haciendas and in the pueblos (50 per-
cent / 50 percent)—although in some localities in the heart of henequen
expansion, the scale tipped in the haciendas’ favor.17
This development was the outcome of various strategies. Hacendados
acquired lands not only for the cultivation of henequen but also as a means
to gain access to labor. Throughout the Hunucmá district, as a result of the
loss of access to nearby lands for cultivation, subsistence milpa agriculture
entered a severe decline, with pueblo residents facing ever-increasing pres-
sures to move to the haciendas. The situation was exacerbated by a series
of locust plagues, which made the cultivation of maize a losing prospect
throughout most of the 1880s. These developments conspired to inflate the
prices of maize and other staple commodities in Hunucmá as elsewhere
in the peninsula. To such pressures were added the practice of conscrip-
tion, through which pueblo dwellers—unlike hacienda dwellers, who were
exempt—were forced into three-month periods of military service. In addi-
tion to the perils of service, the conscripts, as well as corvée laborers, were

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Modernity, Tradition, and Statecraft 533

unable to tend to their crops during the duration of their service, making
such practices strong if indirect inducements toward the migration of work-
ing families from the pueblo to the haciendas.18
All of these pressures—as well as a generalized state of impoverish-
ment—encouraged migration from pueblo to hacienda, whether under
physical duress or not. Many workers arrived at the haciendas already bur-
dened with personal or family debt, but even those who did not quickly
became indebted to the owner, typically through purchases at the hacienda
store or loans made to cover wedding or other expenses. With the acqui-
sition of debt, workers forfeited the right to leave the haciendas of their
creditors, as the “servant’s” debts (and with them, the “servant”) were con-
sidered transferable assets of the hacienda. Given low rates of pay, the debts
were practically impossible to pay off, and while workers theoretically held
the right to pay off their debt in exchange for their freedom, in practice they
could afford to do so only by finding a new amo, or “master,” to cover their
debt, and in many cases hacendados refused to accept money offered to
them in payment of debts. Thus, Yucatecan debt peonage became the most
regimented and exploitative form of peonage in Mexico of its time, sup-
ported by state laws and government policies that actively enforced indige-
nous servitude despite the fact that peonage had been declared illegal in
Mexico’s 1857 Constitution.19
While governed by debt and law, it was with violence that the social
regime of henequen was enforced. On the haciendas of the Hunucmá region,
both imprisonment and public beatings and whippings were typical parts of
the labor regime, administered liberally. Females, who also provided essen-
tial services and labor on the haciendas, were additionally subject to sexual
abuse by encargados and owners. On Hacienda Hotzuc near Umán, for
instance, whippings with a henequen rope were customarily administered
to groups of workers as “correctional punishments” intended to improve
their work discipline. Testimony regarding the practice only entered the
record in 1898 when a worker named Laureano Cetz was found dead, with
lash marks covering his chest, belly, and testicles.20 When workers fled the
haciendas, newspapers carried advertisements with physical descriptions,
and bounty hunters joined forces with a host of local officials to track them
down. The threat of punishment through military conscription, or corveé
labor, helped to intimidate workers, whether indebted or not, who might
have wanted to abandon the estates.21
Such was life in the mestizo pueblos of the Hunucmá district by the
end of the nineteenth century: pueblos tied together by henequen’s coarse
fiber but divided into the social worlds of workers and gentry.

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534 Paul K. Eiss

The Pueblo’s Progress

While critics of henequen society, in Mexico and abroad, denounced

indebted servitude as “slavery,” Yucatán’s oligarchs and hacendados did
not understand the system in that way. Regional elites and state officials,
who recalled decades of warfare and crisis following the Caste War, situated
the rise of henequen within their understanding of the epochal struggle of
Hispanic “civilization” versus Indian “barbarism.” Throughout the 1870s
and 1880s, as sporadic warfare continued, commentators in Yucatán and
elsewhere in Mexico declared the necessity to defeat the rebels militarily,
in order, in the words of one, to “end the anachronistic state of things that
keeps part of our territory subject to the incomprehensible and unjustifiable
domination of the ferocious savages . . . to the detriment of civilization and
the progress of our epoch.”22 Such declarations were merged with patriotic
rhetoric, as urgent calls to support the war against the “barbarians” were
accompanied by appeals to the “patriotism that lives in the hearts of all
Yucatecans” and predictions that the “hour of redemption of the Yucatecan
pueblo [was] nigh.”23
The role of henequen agriculture, at least in the rhetoric of Yucatecan
elites, was not simply that of a source of revenues, but also that of a material
and symbolic front line of an enduring war between Hispanic “civiliza-
tion” and Indian “barbarism.” In 1876, one writer saluted henequen as an
“invaluable gift that Providence has conceded to us, the only means of sal-
vation for our beloved patria . . . now that the most fertile lands, where we
could produce more sugar than Cuba, are at the frontier, in the power of the
Indian rebels.”24 Moreover, Yucatecan hacendados defended servitude as
the best way to “civilize” workers and counteract presumed racial tenden-
cies toward laziness, alcoholism, and violence. Thus the henequen hacienda
came to be thought of as a new front in the war, both by financing a return
to “order and progress” and by “civilizing” or “regenerating” indigenous
populations through disciplined labor and moral supervision.25
With the henequen boom, Yucatecan elites and state- and national-
level government officials offered exuberant tributes to the new era of
“progress” that had dawned after decades of military and political conflict
and economic crisis. From the mid-1870s forward, speeches delivered by
state governors and press coverage announced the end of “fratricidal” and
violent upheavals, and a return to progress and patria. One state governor,
in an 1882 speech to the state legislature, referred to a “constant and grow-
ing development of the state in every sense, in all of its elements and social
forces, which reveal a true period of regeneration.” Commercial agricul-
ture, he made clear in another speech, was the primary agent of this tran-

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Modernity, Tradition, and Statecraft 535

sition, as the expansion of henequen and the construction of railroads had

made “any retreat or setback impossible.”26 Yucatecan and Mexican com-
mentators regaled the henequen plant as a path of “salvation” for Yucatán
and as a means to civilize its rustic inhabitants.27 According to one 1887
account, “The state of well-being is now general, and its welcome influence
is evident in the entire population, from the poorest workers to the wealthi-
est landowner . . . they all take part in public rejoicing, with unprecedented
enthusiasm, and this has changed the previously sad aspect of our society,
and brought more life and movement to the masses.” Another commentator
called henequen an “invaluable gift . . . that Providence has given us, as the
only possible salvation for our beloved patria.”28
Thus, by the 1880s, the Yucatecan press and government officials had
united their regionalist rhetoric to one of patria, or nationalism. This was
evident during national independence holidays on 15 September (celebrating
national independence from Spanish rule) and on cinco de mayo (celebrating
a Mexican victory against French forces in 1867). National holidays were
celebrated with unprecedented exuberance in the capital and in towns and
pueblos throughout the state, to the accompaniment of music, dances, and
fireworks, among other spectacles. As one writer for the official newspaper
explained, the cinco de mayo holidays “mark dates in our historia patria,
that are indelible—that never can be erased from the memory of Mexi-
cans. . . . We Yucatecans, from our humble corner of the patria’s beloved
soil, salute this memorable day with the greatest enthusiasm.”29 In a time
of ever more accentuated social and class divisions, the patria seemed to
offer a cultural framework that could unite the classes. As one commenta-
tor wrote, “The flame that burns for independence in every Mexican heart,
purifies the atmosphere of the patria for its defenders, and poisons it for the
foreigners who might wish to destroy it. The patriotic sentiment of Mexi-
cans is not limited [to any one group,] but uniform, to such an extent that
every social class salutes the patria during national holidays.”30
Such celebrations turned on the association of the material uplift of
el pueblo yucateco with its integration within an encompassing Mexican
patria. Commenting on cinco de mayo celebrations in 1880, Yucatán’s gover-
nor noted the appropriateness of timing the inauguration of public works—
such as the opening of railway lines, public markets, and town squares—to
coincide with national holidays like cinco de mayo: “Pueblos that are able
to advance through material improvements, show that they are deserving
of the glories that they have achieved. . . . In inaugurating public works
on this day, in which we remember the power of the patria to preserve its
autonomy and liberty, we demonstrate the connection of the patricians of
today, with those of yesterday.”31 At the inauguration of a new railway line

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536 Paul K. Eiss

in Acanceh, timed to coincide with the independence holiday, one speaker

first saluted the heroes of Mexico’s liberation from Spain, and then hene-
quen, which had come to “announce a new era of future prosperity for our
beloved Yucatán.”32 Another noted how the opening of the railway served
as a material manifestation of both progress and love of country:
Look at the face of el pueblo, and the hope of progress and happiness
reflected there. . . . Look at it! It is eager, seeing these celebrations, fre-
netically applauding the triumph of civilization, and envisioning, with
their excited imaginations, the indecipherable mysteries of the future,
of the vertiginous rapidity with which the way has been opened to the
great, majestic, train car of Progress! Who does not feel the stirrings
of love of country [amor patrio], even if just awakening, in the depths
of his soul?33
Such events also were occasions for professions of loyalty to Mexican
president Porfirio Díaz, who seemed to embody the idea of nation making
through order, progress, and capitalist commercial development. Yucatán’s
regional power-holders and local elites thus gave expression to what might
be called “pueblo patriotism,” a cultural and political idiom that mediated
between state formation at the local, regional, and national levels, even as
it legitimated the social and class regime of henequen society in pueblo
The upper echelons of Hunucmá’s landowners and notables embraced
the rhetoric and practice of pueblo patriotism. Their monopoly on munici-
pal and pueblo governance positioned them well to collaborate with regional
elites and governmental officials in the public remaking of el pueblo over
the course of the Porfiriato, and thus to act as protagonists in the materi-
alization of conceptions of “modernity” and “tradition” that were cen-
tral to state formation at the local, regional, and state levels. The emer-
gent nationalism of Hunucmá’s dzuls unified local, regional, and national
sentiments practices of “pueblo making” via a highly publicized series of
efforts to improve and modernize a region until then considered a provin-
cial, depressed backwater of Mérida. As early as 1871 a set of regulations
regarding policing, sanitation, public decorum, and the upkeep of buildings
and properties was issued in Hunucmá, and then was extended to other
pueblos of the area. Along with improvements to the roads of the region,
and the tranvías or light rails constructed leading to the largest haciendas, a
rail system built in the 1880s was a critical element in the henequen econ-
omy, facilitating the transportation of fiber to port. Public lighting, schools,
and municipal buildings were built in all of the towns and pueblos of the
area. The two principal towns, Hunucmá and Umán, saw the construction

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Modernity, Tradition, and Statecraft 537

and improvement of parks, public markets, telephone and telegraph lines,

and, in the case of Hunucmá, a prominent bell tower, or torreón.35
At the same time, Hunucmá’s dzuls presented themselves as represen-
tatives of “traditional” mestizo pueblos, and offered their self-consciously
rustic virtues as vital supplements to the politics of capital city oligarchs.
Thus, pueblo “tradition” became a preoccupation of Yucatecan elites, state
officials, and rural gentry in areas like Hunucmá, as they recast state-pueblo
relations from the 1870s forward. What might be called rural “folk” cul-
ture was a hybrid of Spanish, African, and Mayan elements, for instance,
in language, dress, and performative genres such as song and dance. One of
these was the vaquería, or baile de mestizas, a public dance often performed
at celebrations or on holidays. While a mestizo cultural form, by the mid-
nineteenth century such events became moments for the performance and
display of ethnic and class, as is evident in a description of two such dances
in Ticul—the first an evening formal dance, the second an informal day-
light event—from the North American traveler John L. Stephens:
El báyle [sic] de las Mestizas was what might be called a fancy ball,
in which the señoritas of the village appeared as las Mestizas, or in
the costume of Mestiza women: loose white frock, with red worked
border round the neck and shirt, a man’s black hat, a blue scarf over
the shoulder, gold necklace and bracelets. The young men figured as
vaqueros, or major domos [sic], in shirt and pantaloons of pink striped
muslin, yellow buckskin shoes, and low, roundcrowned, hard-platted
straw hat. . . . [At the daylight dance the next day], the place was
open to all who chose to enter, and the floor was covered with Indian
women and children, and real Mestizos in cotton shirts, drawers, and
sandals; the barrier, too, was lined with a dense mass of Indians and
Mestizoes [sic], looking on good-humouredly at this personification of
themselves and their way.36
Such public displays of “traditional” mestizo dances were controlled by
regional gentry, whose daughters would be invited to play the role of mes-
tizas, with working-class mestizos and indigenous residents typically par-
ticipating only as spectators.37
In 1870s Hunucmá, such mestizo performances were refashioned as
a form of statecraft. This much is evident in an 1875 regional theater play
entitled El rábano por las hojas: Una fiesta en Hunucmá (The Radish by the
Leaves: A Fiesta in Hunucmá). The short musical farce recounts the attempts
of the son of a well-connected elite family in Mérida to seduce a betrothed
working-class mestiza against social convention. Since the young woman
couldn’t “reach [his] level, due to social position, costume, and customs,”

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538 Paul K. Eiss

the young man proposes with a friend to “lower [them]selves to her level,
by adopting her dress [i.e., traditional pueblo attire], and dancing in the
jaranita” at a fiesta the pious young women would attend in Hunucmá,
after a visit to the Virgin of Tetiz. After some rustic dances accompanied by
verses sung out in a mix of Maya and Spanish, the two young men are found
out by the young woman’s betrothed, who declares that he is without party
allegiances but “serves the Government” and “order, religion and peace,”
and so is obligated to denounce the young men regardless of their social
status. This leads to outraged denunciations, by another character in the
play, of elite men who come to pueblo fiestas to “pervert and sully” virtuous
young “mestizas,” disguising themselves as mestizos to do so. Their efforts,
he declares, offend the popular dances, and thus el pueblo: “Not content
with taking advantage of mestizas in Mérida, the little gentlemen come to
the pueblos of the state, seeking more conquests, to pervert and sully them.
Not content with mixing up el pueblo in the farces called elections and
swindling them, they come here to adulate them, joining in their dances
and even wearing their clothes, in order to insinuate themselves more easily
among the mestizas.” Such deceptions, above all, offended el pueblo, which
is “highly moral and religious . . . these little gentlemen, under the pretext
of civilizing el pueblo, corrupt it iniquitously.”38
Beyond demonstrating the image of virtuous pueblo rusticity asso-
ciated with Hunucmá by the mid 1870s, El rábano also suggests how local
and capital elites joined in making Hispanic “traditional” mestizo fiestas
into moments for encounter with, and for seduction, corruption, defense,
or construction of, el pueblo. Such fiestas and dances not only were a major
component of religious and cultural life but also became a stage for inter-
action with outsiders from Mérida or elsewhere, and between various
social classes who took part in both the performance of “traditional” cul-
tural forms and the display of modern civility and enlightenment. El rábano,
moreover, celebrates the “traditional” culture of el pueblo as a corrective to
the potentially corrosive effects of commerce and modernity. Finally, and
perhaps more interestingly, the play demonstrates a perceived connection
between the integrity of pueblo fiestas in Hunucmá (as well as the physical
beauty and sexual honor of mestizas, or those who played that role in the
dances) with the protection of honor, political order and social peace. As
one newspaper reviewer wrote, beyond critiquing elite ballroom culture
and applauding traditional dance, the play’s intention was to “demonstrate
that our pueblo enthusiastically loves any government that does not perse-
cute its beliefs and customs.”39
Over the ensuing years, tradition and modernity played in counter-
point in Hunucmá, as capital city elites and local gentry collaborated in

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Modernity, Tradition, and Statecraft 539

transforming the region from a backwater of a state that was itself a back-
water, into a gateway of progress for Yucatán and Mexico alike. In a widely
publicized visit to the region in 1876—the year Porfirio Díaz came to
power—Governor Eligio Ancona and a retinue of officials and press com-
mentators who accompanied him gave the region a mixed review, taking
Hunucmá as representative of both regional “decadence” and the possibili-
ties of “progress.” In pueblos like Ucú, Kinchil, and Tetiz, school facilities
were “in ruins,” and the old port town of Sisal—formerly the state’s most
important port but now, after the rise of the larger nearby port of Progreso,
deprived of its erstwhile prosperity—was a shambles. Nonetheless, officials
and the official newspaper noted that throughout the region, wherever the
governor went, he encountered the “will of all of its inhabitants to main-
tain the state of peace that the entire State now enjoys, and to take advan-
tage of it to dedicate themselves with enthusiasm to their labors, convinced
that the prosperity and well-being of individuals and of the entire country
depend on peace and work.”40
An official visit by another governor in 1881 drew starker distinctions
between signs of “decadence” and progress in the region. The pueblo of
Samahil was in a “ruinous” state, marked by extreme poverty, despite the
“beautiful horizons” of henequen plants flanking every road and vista. Ucú,
where “a profound silence reigned,” likewise was much diminished despite,
or perhaps because of, the rise of the fincas, with its school closed and
church and convent in a “deplorable state of abandonment, with their icons
unclothed and dirty, [and] the sacristy filthy.” In contrast, the pueblos of
Tetiz and Kinchil earned praise for their condition and progress. Tetiz’s
main road seemed an icon of undetoured progress toward modernity, lead-
ing one commentator to exclaim, “What a beautiful road! Straight as an
arrow, without the slightest bend—not a single loose stone on it, from
the main plaza of Hunucmá all the way to the plaza of Tetiz!” He also
praised Kinchil’s plaza and streets and its work ethic, declaring that “in
no other pueblo have I ever seen light a bright so pure, or breathed air so
It was the larger towns of the district, however, that seemed to have
undergone a process of urbanization that made them exemplars of good
government and pueblo modernity. In Hunucmá, the governor was received
with fireworks, music, toasts, and parades of the local national guard bat-
talion, including a separate militia that still existed for pardos, or African-
descended town residents. Public buildings, the militia, and public educa-
tion in the town comprised a “beautiful spectacle,” and a “great example of
the effects of a democratic Government, in which the governor has talked
with the leaders of el pueblo so sensibly, about the most important interests

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540 Paul K. Eiss

of their community!” The transformation was owed not only to good gov-
ernment, and to prominent local dons like Emetrio Peniche (a “good man,
the father, the gentleman of this town”), but also to the rise of commercial
It was thought that Hunucmá, with the decline of the port of Sisal,
was going to disappear, because its wealth depended in large part on
traffic from the port. But that has not been the case, some say, because
in the absence of the traffic that gave life to commerce and inns, its
inhabitants have dedicated themselves to agriculture . . . which have
not only returned to Hunucmá its old movement and traffic, but have
given it true wealth.42
The result was that by its urbanized “buildings, clothing and customs”
Hunucmá had come to seem like a “true piece of Mérida. Social life there is
the same as in the capital.” Umán also was singled out for praise: “It looks
entirely like Mérida—the towers of its cathedral, and the fincas nearby,
with their emerald fields of henequen plants.”43 Several months later the
governor would return to Umán to take part in public festivities celebrating
its reclassification as a villa with its own town council, an occasion that
“principal notables” of the town would celebrate as the “greatest day in the
history of Umán,” one that had brought joy to “el pueblo” and would surely
become an “indelible memory for it.”44
Thus the stage was set for the incorporation of the fiesta del pueblo
as a hegemonic public form, central both to the legitimation of the local
dominance of rural gentry and to the redefinition of pueblo-state relations
during the henequen boom. Such fiestas always accompanied important
processions and events associated with the veneration of local saints such
as the Virgin of Tetiz. Local notables realized the importance of such cults
and their associated fiestas for the renown and prestige of the region, and
they donated icons and funds to church functions, facilities, and the orga-
nization and advertising of fiestas. Hunucmá’s town council even chose
to name Hunucmá after a famous local clergyman and dramaturge named
Lorenzo Caldera, officially baptizing the town “Hunucmá de Caldera” in
1878.45 But official government visits to the district of Hunucmá also were
accompanied by abundant public festivities, including fireworks, proces-
sions, feasting, sometimes bullfights, and especially traditional dances.
Widely advertised fiestas accompanied inaugural events, as for instance
during the opening of a bazaar-market in Hunucmá in 1884, which one
newspaper congratulated and termed a “fiesta of progress” in which the
population “succumbed to a joy as intense as it was legitimate.” The state
governor, along with many other Mérida residents, attended the festivities,

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Modernity, Tradition, and Statecraft 541

witnessing an exemplary demonstration of the civility and hospitality of the

Hunucmeños, including dances in which “Hunucmá’s beauties displayed
their grace and beauty.”46
Such official visits, like the theater play El rábano, seem to have called
attention to the district of Hunucmá, making it, and especially the towns
of Hunucmá and Umán, models for a vision of progress and civilization
in the countryside, but also for pueblo culture and traditions that were
critical to the political and moral identity of that region and, beyond it,
Yucatán. Local gentry responded by become avid boosters of the region;
alongside attention to religious cults that effectively defined the region and
its “traditions,” well-to-do residents of Hunucmá pursued the material
transformation of el pueblo, by “patriotically” financing public works.
In 1887, for instance, prefect Abelardo Ponce avidly collected funds for
the construction of the town’s bell tower from the “principal vecinos”
of Hunucmá, leading the most important state newspaper, La Revista de
Mérida, to declare: “We expect of the patriotism of the Hunucmeños, that
they will not fall short in their enthusiasm for material improvements.”47
Later that year, Ponce appealed to all “patriots of Hunucmá” to share with
the government the costs of a telephone line stretching from the “patria of
Caldera” to the “city of Montejo” (named for the Spanish conquistador who
founded Mérida).48
At the same time, town gentry came to see the development of Hispanic
civic cultural institutions as a way both to earn praise from capital city
elites and to cement their own claims to local prestige and cultural capital.
In 1883, several merchants and shopowners of Hunucmá, Tetiz, and Umán
joined together to publish a newspaper for the district, titled La voz del
partido (The Voice of the District), under the direction of Hunucmá’s prin-
cipal man of letters, Pedro Magaña.49 Some of its typical preoccupations
seem to have been public events and ceremonies in town, and the honor and
prestige of its leading citizens. Moreover, a group of what a writer for the
Eco del comercio called “enlightened vecinos” organized a nonprofit theater
company.50 The group was soon performing pastoral Spanish zarzuelas in
Hunucmá, to entertain and edify local gentry and their families.
Above all, the issue of education joined the themes of modernity and the
remaking of el pueblo most powerfully, conveying the image of a Hunucmá
populated by future in the making. Despite persistent deficiencies in the
district’s schools, newspaper commentators saluted “elements of progress”
in the region that were leading to what one called an “awakening of el
pueblo, a new educational era beginning in the town of Hunucmá,” feeding
hopes for the “redemption of el pueblo through schools and work.”51 In
such terms, the editors of the newspaper Eco del comercio pleaded:

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542 Paul K. Eiss

Enthusiastic and hard-working people of Hunucmá, listen to the

hosanna of civilization. Join the new era that is beginning, and take
up with fervor the great educational crusade. As Athens sent a poet
to Sparta, Hunucmá, send good teachers to your pueblos. Urge recal-
citrant authorities to fulfill their duties. Inspire indifferent parents.
Demand the cooperation of the rich and of the poor. Put everything
you have into it, spend all that you have to educate the next genera-
tion. Sell your jewels like the queen of Castile, if it is necessary—do
everything, everything, for work, morality, education, and thus you
will conquer the Future.52
In all of these arenas of material improvements and governance—in
Hunucmá, as well as pueblos and towns throughout Yucatán and elsewhere
in Mexico—the cult of the nation and pueblo patriotism became increas-
ingly evident in public life as local, regional, and national elites coordinated
the inauguration of public works with commemorative rituals and festivi-
ties symbolizing their connection to the founding heroes of the Mexican
patria. In Hunucmá patriotic councils (juntas patrióticas) composed of the
principal local gentry, typically hacendados and merchants, were selected
by district prefects in advance of national holidays in September and May,
and were charged with organizing commemorative events and festivities.
The cinco de mayo celebrations of 1882, for instance, were dedicated not
only to the honor of the “heroes of that glorious day, May 5, 1862,” but
also to the inauguration of Hunucmá’s new public market area, which was
feted with fireworks, speeches, and vaquerías.53 For town residents cele-
brating national independence in 1882, there was no conflict between what
newspapers called the patria of Caldera and the patria of Díaz, between
Hunucmá’s tradition and Mexico’s modernity.
From the beginnings of the Porfiriato, Hunucmá’s profile rose, as the
rapid expansion of henequen agriculture and the technological develop-
ment of the haciendas yielded abundant revenues for propertied and com-
mercial classes and the state. Outside of sporadic references to “criminal”
attacks against some haciendas and ranches by bandits and disgruntled
indigenous communalists, newspaper reporting from the Hunucmá district
consisted mainly of an accounting of periodic rituals of progress and of
traditional pueblo diversions. Hunucmá’s prefects rendered periodic, and
reassuringly bland, reports on order and peace in the region, and provided
statistics that seemed to reflect the steady expansion of henequen and the
kinds of salubrious transformations that henequen wealth had brought.54
As state officials and elites publicly pondered the possibilities of conclud-
ing the decades-old Caste War by enlisting the “spirit of progress” in the

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Modernity, Tradition, and Statecraft 543

old war of “civilization” against “barbarism,” Hunucmá’s gentry seemed

exemplary of the possibilities of the mutually compatible formation of the
state and el pueblo—a model for a new rural “civilization” that might van-
quish, once and for all, the “barbarism” of bandits and rebels.55 Hunucmá’s
regional culture—which was produced and advertised as a collaborative
effort of local and state elites and government officials—came to occupy
a special place statewide, as embodying the harmonious synthesis of the
modern and the traditional in pueblo life. This vision of Hunucmá, and
of a few other regional centers in the henequen zone, seemed to evoke the
possibility of Yucatán’s redemption by agrarian capitalism and integration
within a Mexican patria, while maintaining the cultural distinctiveness that
was still so central to the elaboration of the political hegemony and cul-
tural legitimacy of Yucatecan elites, from oligarchs to mid-sector pueblo
In 1883, for instance, the inauguration of a railroad running from
Umán to Mérida led to impassioned public demonstrations of admiration
for the region. One poet, after declaring that “Today the West; covers itself
in splendor; the spirit of progress; visits its mansion,” noted that the rail-
road had transformed Umán into an “Eden,” and soon would bring “glory
to the country,” and fortune to “el pueblo,” allowing “radiant Yucatán;
to glimpse its future.”56 Perhaps the greatest homage to Hunucmá was
rendered by capital city poet and man of letters Rodolfo Menéndez, who
authored a poem entitled “To Hunucmá”:
Pueblos have a day; of sublime awakening; in which they suddenly
shout; Progress! Fraternity!
Their horizons expand!; they want more space, more!; they want for
their minds; the clarity of daylight!;
They want to break; on the anvils of Art, with noble spirit; the rustly
links; of the fatal chain.
They want great conquests; of audacious intelligence; they want the
sacred fire; they want the holy ideal!
Awaken, finally, awaken; from your secular dream; in the embrace of
the great century; admirable Hunucmá!
You, o queen of the West; of heroic Yucatán; Beautiful pearl, set; in
the road to Sisal.
In the sands of combat; you seize the ground, with your face held
high; noble, valiant, and ready; to struggle for progress!
In the heavens of the Idea; your flag waves; your splendid flag; of
enlightenment and peace!

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544 Paul K. Eiss

With the printing press, and with the school; you go towards the
future; with work and science; with goodness and truth.
I, who love all pueblos; with pure fraternal love. I salute you, from
your east: Forward, Hunucmá!57
In 1893, the official news media took a visit by then governor Daniel
Traconis as an opportunity to boost Hunucmá as a “fine place for relax-
ation and for passing the summer, due to its vegetation, which is more
exuberant than that of the Mérida area, and to its fresh breezes, rich in
oxygen.” The town was “called to progress, by a thousand of its qualities”;
its people had the “frank character of a coastal people, and the unaffected
amiability of people of good upbringing.” On arrival, the governor was met
outside Hunucmá by a mounted escort of twenty of its principal vecinos,
including Emetrio Peniche (saluted, as a decade earlier, as the “patriarch”
of Hunucmá, a “wise doctor who brings health and comfort to inhabitants,
who see him like an affectionate father”). After a tour of the district, the
governor returned to Hunucmá for one of its famed traditional dances, in
which the “angelic beauties of the town showed off their graces.”58
In the 1890s, as in the 1880s, such events were celebrated as expres-
sions of national and pueblo patriotism, and they were often coordinated
with national holidays. Wealthy town residents took these moments as
opportunities to profess their loyalties to the state, and government offi-
cials did their part in return, by helping to solidify the political and cultural
prestige of local notables. Thus in 1899, the inauguration of a telegram
line in Tetiz on 5 May provided an occasion for Tetiz’s mayor to thank the
“advances and progress of our beloved State,” and for Yucatán’s gover-
nor to salute the work of Hunucmá’s prefect, who by his commitment to
progress had “realized the ideals of Progress in this important part of our
State.” According to the governor, the telegraph line, inaugurated on such
a “memorable date,” served as “the most eloquent commemoration of this
day of the patria.”59 Local notables, realizing that el pueblo’s progress was
linked both to its ability to become “modern” and to its ability to exemplify
“traditional” mestizo culture, expanded their efforts to collect funds for
the improvement and reconstruction of churches in the region, and for the
boosting of “traditional” and “popular” fiestas, chiefly those of Hunucmá
and Tetiz.60
On one such occasion, in August 1898, the “humble” and “pleasant”
pueblo of Tetiz invited visitors from the entire state to attend the yearly
fiestas in honor of the Virgin of Tetiz, and to enjoy bullfights, vaquerías, and
“etiquette dances, in which beautiful young angels, their wings quivering
to the accompaniment of melodious orchestral music, will display their

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Modernity, Tradition, and Statecraft 545

graces.”61 A few months later, a fiesta in Hunucmá led one enthusiast to

proclaim: “The high price of henequen fiber, and the high spirits of Yucate-
cans and Campechanos, to whom we are now linked by the railroad, leads
us to offer to all Tyreans and Trojans these agreeable diversions, which will
surely enter into the annals of history!” At such events, rural tradition and
capitalist modernity played in harmonious counterpoint, seeming to offer
festive and, indeed, historic, confirmation of the union of pueblo and patria
in places like Hunucmá.62
On 7 February 1906, a carnival parade wended its way along Mérida’s
avenues, past as many as 50,000 spectators, including the guest of honor:
President Porfirio Díaz. This was a “Paseo Histórico,” and so the floats
and costumes, donned by young men and women of Mérida’s wealthiest
families, represented the history of Yucatán. The parade was led by a sec-
tion dedicated to the ancient Maya: archers, priests, warriors, dancers,
and “sacrificers,” all adorned with feathers, plumes, and breastplates, their
faces, arms, and legs painted red and blue. A group of “slaves” carried a
Mayan leader—a Gran Cacique or Halach Uinic, played by the Yucatecan
botanist and man of letters, Narciso Souza—aloft on a platform. When
the group passed Díaz, they paused to perform their version of ancient
Mayan music and dance. Parade sections dedicated to “conquest” and
“Spanish domination” followed, with floats featuring a “Spanish building,
constructed atop a Mayan base,” and a friar in the act of converting an
“Indian” to Catholicism. One dedicated to the “present epoch” followed,
featuring a “goddess of Liberty” holding aloft fragments of chains—the
broken fetters of slavery.63
This “historical” parade was perhaps the most dramatic of the events
organized for the pleasure of the president by the committee of Yucate-
can oligarchs, led by magnate Augusto Peón, that had planned his visit. A
less attended event of equal symbolic importance, however, had preceded
it that morning, when Díaz and his retinue traveled to Chunchucmil, a
large hacienda located just south of the westernmost edge of the Hunucmá
district. There he was received by groups of workers, as well as hacen-
dado Joaquín Peón, who offered Díaz a toast and a speech, in which he
criticized “some national writers, who don’t know our state, for calling us
slavers.” To the contrary, he argued that workers in Yucatán were free and
fairly paid, and that “even if we wanted to, we would not be able to stop
the freedom and progress of our times from coming to our fincas.”64 Díaz
responded in kind, attesting to having seen with his eyes not only the pros-
perity henequen had brought but also the condition of workers, whom he
had found to be a “happy pueblo,” despite the “calumny” of those who had

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546 Paul K. Eiss

Figure 1. “Vaqueras” of Hacienda Chunchucmil.

falsely decried the existence of “slavery” in Yucatán.65 Applause followed,

as well as a Maya-language speech by several older workers, who thanked
Díaz for having come to visit their “ancient Mayan land.”66 The conclu-
sion and culmination of the event was a traditional vaquería, performed
by twenty mestizas of the finca. Dressed in sumptuous traditional garb,
an observer wrote, they danced to their “strange music”—a “mix of Arab,
African, and Mayan” elements—their beauty offering “irrefutable proof”
of the “convenience of racial mixing.”67
As is well known, a few years later, in the wake of the Mexican Revo-
lution, indigenismo and mestizaje would become dominant features of the
ideology, rhetoric, and institutional practice of Mexico’s new leaders. The
performance of jaranas and vaquerías, and even the use of Maya, became
strongly associated with Yucatecan leaders from Felipe Carrillo Puerto for-
ward (for a later example, see Fallaw, this issue). Today, the performance of
vaquerías and jaranas is a commonplace at political events in Yucatán, State
governors and other public officials often dress in “mestizo” garb—not the
typical dress of working-class pueblo residents, but rather the elaborate
versions of regional costume that Yucatecan elites wear in order to identify
themselves with el pueblo, while not being confused with it. Such spec-

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Modernity, Tradition, and Statecraft 547

tacles are likely to be described, and appreciatively received, as sartorial

and festive demonstrations of traditional Yucatecan culture, even as they
are meant to serve, rather transparently, as populist appeals to regionalist
sentiment among voters of various classes and ethnicities.
It would be easy to consider the events of 1906 in Mérida and
Chunchucmil as foreshadowing such developments. As this study of the
Hunucmá district in the nineteenth century demonstrates, however, such
traditions were “invented,” or refashioned, in an earlier period, with hene-
quen society and indebted servitude, rather than revolution, as their back-
drop. They emerged as a form of statecraft not for revolutionary or post-
revolutionary reformers, but rather for Porfirian oligarchs and local elites,
as they made pueblos like those of Hunucmá into stages where “moder-
nity” and “tradition” might play in a harmonious counterpoint, construct-
ing “the people” as a disciplined, virtuous, and productive entity. For gov-
ernment officials, el pueblo was not so much a place as a political strategy,
one absolutely critical to the twin tasks of forming a state and fomenting a
social world centered on the production of henequen and the wealth that
it brought; for local gentry, el pueblo was a privileged subject position that
they could occupy as local hegemons but also as privileged intermediaries
between the government and the indigenous and mestizo laboring majority.
The “annals of history,” in the imaginations of oligarchs like Augusto Peón,
mestizo gentry like that of Hunucmá, and perhaps even Porfirio Díaz him-
self, featured such events as the culmination of a victorious struggle for the
material and spiritual construction of a modern state and civilized pueblo
on the twin foundations of henequen money and regional “traditional”
Excluded from those imagined annals was the counter-history of places
like Hunucmá—a history written in the organized resistance of working
indigenous residents of towns, pueblos, and haciendas, who mounted a
concerted campaign of resistance from the 1870s forward, directly chal-
lenging the dominion of oligarchs, hacendados, and gentry, and their ver-
sion of el pueblo. That counter-history, long ignored by gentry and state
officials, despite a long and violent history of insurgency and repression,
would be neither performed in jaranas before approving officials nor “writ-
ten” in the annals of fiestas organized by local gentry in the name of el
pueblo. It would be inscribed in acts of violence that, with the coming of
the Mexican Revolution from 1910 forward, would destroy most of the
haciendas of the region and haunt the prospects of reform and revolution
thereafter. To be sure, such actions were, and would be, taken and remem-
bered in the name of el pueblo as well, but even if the name was the same,
the pueblo was different.68

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548 Paul K. Eiss


My thanks to anonymous reviewers for Ethnohistory for their comments on an

earlier version of this essay.
1 See Gilbert Joseph and Daniel Nugent, eds., Everyday Forms of State Formation:
Revolution and the Negotiation of Rule in Modern Mexico (Durham, NC, 1994);
Luis Roniger and Tamar Herzog, eds., The Collective and the Public in Latin
America: Cultural Identities and Political Order (Brighton, UK, 2000); Claudio
Lomnitz Adler, Deep Mexico, Silent Mexico: An Anthropology of Nationalism
(Minneapolis, MN, 2001); and Sara Castro-Klarén and John Charles Chas-
teen, eds., Beyond Imagined Communities: Reading and Writing the Nation in
Nineteenth-Century Latin America (Baltimore, MD, 2003). On the politics of
nationalism, regionalism, and regional culture in Mexico, see Claudio Lomnitz
Adler, Exits from the Labyrinth: Culture and Ideology in the Mexican National
Space (Berkeley, CA, 1993). For explorations of aspects of the concept of el
pueblo, see David Nugent, Modernity at the Edge of Empire: State, Individual,
and Nation in the Northern Peruvian Andes, 1885–1935 (Stanford, CA, 2005);
and Emilio Kourí, “Interpreting the Expropriation of Indian Pueblo Lands in
Porfirian Mexico: The Unexamined Legacies of Andrés Molina Enríquez,” His-
panic American Historical Review 82, no. 1 (February 2002): 69–117.
2 See Moisés González Navarro, Raza y tierra: La guerra de castas y el henequén,
2nd ed. (México, D.F., 1979); Terry Rugeley, Yucatán’s Maya Peasantry and the
Origins of the Caste War (Austin, 1996); Arturo Güémez Pineda, Liberalismo en
tierras del caminante: Yucatán, 1812–1840 (Zamora, México, 1994); and Don
Dumond, The Machete and the Cross: Campesino Rebellion in Yucatan (Lincoln,
NE, 1997).
3 See Allen Wells, Yucatán’s Gilded Age: Haciendas, Henequen, and International
Harvester, 1860–1915 (Albuquerque, NM, 1985), 28, 127; Gilbert M. Joseph,
Revolution from Without: Yucatán, Mexico and the United States, 1880–1924
(Durham, NC, 1988 [1982]), 24; Allen Wells and Gilbert M. Joseph, Summer of
Discontent, Seasons of Upheaval: Elite Politics and Rural Insurgency in Yucatán,
1876–1915 (Stanford, CA, 1996); and Allen Wells, “Henequen,” in The Second
Conquest of Latin America: Coffee, Henequen and Oil during the Export Boom,
1850–1930, ed. Steven C. Topik and Allen Wells (Austin, TX, 1998).
4 See Wells, Gilded Age, 29, 33–38; Wells, “Henequen,” 86–97; Gilbert Joseph,
Rediscovering the Past at Mexico’s Periphery: Essays on the Modern History of
Yucatán (Tuscaloosa, AL, 1986), 82–83; and especially Sterling Evans, Bound in
Twine: the History and Ecology of the Henequen-Wheat Complex for Mexico and
the American and Canadian Plains, 1880–1950 (College Station, TX, 2007).
5 See Joseph, Rediscovering, 34–36, 55–58; Joseph, Revolution from Without, 37;
Wells, Gilded Age, 2, 7, 32, 46, 63–68, 128; Wells, “Henequen,” 108–11; and
Wells and Joseph, Summer of Discontent, 21–54.
6 Baqueiro, cited in Joseph, Revolution from Without, 32.
7 See Rosemary L. Batt, “The Rise and Fall of the Planter Class in Espita, 1900–
1924,” in Land, Labor and Capital in Modern Yucatán, ed. Jeffery T. Brannon
and Gilbert M. Joseph (Tuscaloosa, AL, 1991), 197–219; Wells, Gilded Age, 67,
8 9 March 1886, 22 and 24 July 1886, Revista de Mérida (RdM); 14 July 1890,

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Modernity, Tradition, and Statecraft 549

Razón del Pueblo (RdP); Joseph, Rediscovering the Past, 56–58; Joseph, Revolu-
tion from Without, 27–32.
9 See Robert Patch, Maya and Spaniard in Yucatan, 1648–1812 (Stanford, CA,
1993), 233, 234, 260; Matthew Restall, The Maya World: Yucatec Culture and
Society, 1550–1850 (Stanford, CA, 1997), 18; and Wolfgang Gabbert, Becoming
Maya: Ethnicity and Social Inequality in Yucatán since 1500 (Tucson, AZ, 2004),
32–36, 74–77.
10 “1824. Causa criminal contra Juan Navarro . . . ,” Archivo General del Estado
de Yucatán (AGEY), Ramo de Justicia (JUS), Sección Penal (PEN), 2, 18; “1855.
Causa de Norberto Chuil . . . ,” AGEY, JUS, PEN, 70, 8; and “1862. Causa
contra José María Naranjo . . . ,” AGEY, JUS, PEN, Caja 98, Exp. 15. See also
Gabbert, Becoming Maya, 72–73; and Dumond, Machete.
11 Andrés D. Peniche, JP Hunucmá, 5 September 1977, AGEY, PE, 200. For
thoroughgoing analyses of the historical and contemporary complexities of
Yucatecan ethnic categorizations, see Gabbert, Becoming Maya, and Peter
Hervik, Mayan People within and beyond Boundaries (Amsterdam, 1999). I bor-
row the term “indigenous mestizo” from Marisol de la Cadena, Indigenous Mes-
tizos: The Politics of Race and Culture in Cuzco, Peru, 1919–1991 (Durham, NC,
12 Abelardo Ponce, JP Hunucmá, 1891, AGEY, PE, Ayuntamientos, Estadística,
Box 267; 1892, AGEY, PE, Ayuntamientos, Box 273; Dr. L. Cáceres, JP
Hunucmá, 15 April 1910, AGEY, PE, Fomento, Box 675; 1909 documents of
Dirección General de Estadística, Secretaría de Fomento, AGEY, PE, Fomento,
Box 675; 28 January 1880, RdP; 20 August 1881, Eco del Comercio (EC); and
24 April 1892, La Sombra de Cepeda (SC).
13 Wells, Gilded Age, 78–87.
14 “1894. Interdicto de apeo y deslinde de la hacienda Yaxché . . . ,” AGEY, JUS,
Sección Civil (CIV), 89, 1; assorted Hunucmá-related documents in AGEY,
Congreso (CON), CIAA, Dictámenes; 29 June, 26, 27, 29, and 31 October, and
1 November 1894, RdP; March 1899, Diario Oficial (DO); and Wells, Gilded
Age, 78–87.
15 “1879. Testamentario del C. Eduardo López . . . ,” AGEY, JUS, CIV, Box 121-A,
microfilm roll 139; “1891. Testamentaria de la finada Dolores López . . . ,” AGEY,
JUS, CIV, 10, 23; and “1879. Testamentario del finado Anastacio Castilla . . . ,”
AGEY, JUS, CIV, Box 121-A, microfilm roll 137.
16 “1891. Indice de escrituras del notario Eligio Guzmán,” AGEY, JUS, CIV, 15,
32; “1894. Interdicto promovido por Marcos Novelo . . . ,” AGEY, JUS, CIV,
74, 37; “1896. Juicio promovido por Rafael Peon y Losa . . . ,” AGEY, JUS,
PEN, 69, 46; “1897. Juicio verbal promovido por Ignacia Serrano . . . ,” AGEY,
JUS, CIV, 178, 35; “1898. Diligencias de consignacion . . . Luciano Tuyub . . . ,”
AGEY, JUS, CIV, 197, 20; and “1898. Juicio verbal promovido por Alvino
Uc . . . ,” AGEY, JUS, CIV, 196, 12.
17 See Abelardo Ponce, Jefe político Hunucmá, undated, AGEY, PE, Ayuntamien-
tos, 267; 1892 survey of henequen fincas of Hunucmá in AGEY, PE, Ayunta-
mientos, 273; and 4 March 1881, RdP. See also Joseph, Rediscovering, 55–56.
18 See “1892. Acusación de Isidro Quijano . . . ,” AGEY, JUS, PEN, 20, 57; “1893.
Averiguaciones . . . Facundo Magaña,” 14 Mar. 1893, AGEY, JUS, PEN, 25,
16; Wells, Gilded Age, 83; 22 June and 18 October 1883, 1 April and 29 August
1884, and 1 June 1885, Union Yucateca (UY ); 5 November 1876, 26 May, 17

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550 Paul K. Eiss

June, 1 and 5 July 1885, 6 May and 20 November 1886, 8 July 1887, RdM; and
2 and 28 January 1880, and 4 October and 3 November 1886, RdP.
19 “1891. Causa seguida a Lorenzo Baas . . . ,” AGEY, JUS, PEN, 8, 58; Máx-
imo Uc to Calixto Maldonado, 17 September 1915, AGEY, PE, Guerra (GUE),
476; 6 July 1886, RdM. See also Joseph, Rediscovering, 55–56, 60–69; Batt,
“Rise and Fall;” Friedrich Katz, “Labor Conditions on Haciendas in Porfirian
Mexico: Some Trends and Tendencies” Hispanic American Historical Review 54,
no. 1 (1974): 1–47; Joseph, Rediscovering, 62; Wells, Gilded Age, 113–50; Wells
and Joseph, Summer of Discontent, 146–65; González Navarro, Raza y Tierra,
162–68, 195–98, 324–29.
20 “1892. Causa seguida a Federico Mata . . . ,” AGEY, JUS, 18, 28; “1898. Causa
a Carlos Perez y Claudio Mendez . . . ,” AGEY, JUS, PEN, 105, 29; and “1900.
Diligencias por la muerte de José Baas . . . ,” AGEY, JUS, PEN, 159, 4.
21 “1898. Juicio verbal promovido por Alvino Uc . . . ,” AGEY, JUS, CIV, 196, 12;
“1898. Diligencias de consignacion . . . Luciano Tuyub contra Eligio Canto . . . ,”
AGEY, JUS, CIV, 197, 20; “1898. Causa a Juan Maldonado . . . ,” AGEY, JUS,
PEN, 95, 25; “1900. Acusación de Marcos Che . . . ,” AGEY, JUS, PEN, 143,
32; May 1876, RdM; 28 February 1883, UY; 2 and 28 January 1880, RdP. See
also Wells, Gilded Age, 157–62; and Wells and Joseph, Summer of Discontent,
22 2 November 1880, RdP.
23 24 December 1880, RdP. See also 14 February 1880, EC; 30 June, 4, 14, and 21
February, 27 April, and 26 September 1881, RdP.
24 3 September 1876, RdM.
25 1 April 1899, DO. See also Gabbert, Becoming Maya, 70; 11 October 1871,
6 July 1886, and 21 April 1887, RdM; 24 February 1880, and 14, 17, and 21
May 1881, EC; “1891. Causa seguida a Canuto Soberanis . . . ,” AGEY, JUS,
26 2 January 1882, and 7 September 1881, RdP.
27 9 February 1880, RdP. See also 14 January 1876, and 2 and 5 January, 9 Febru-
ary, and 6 and 20 August 1880, 6 April, 10 August, and 21 and 23 September
1881, RdP; 24 March 1884, UY; 1 January 1880, EC; 11 September, and 24 and
1 December 1887, RdM.
28 24 November 1887, and 3 September 1881, RdP.
29 4 May 1885, UY.
30 15 September 1880, RdP. See also 16 and 21 September 1885, UY; William H.
Beezley, Cheryl English Martin, and William E. French, eds., Rituals of Rule,
Rituals of Resistance: Public Celebrations and Popular Culture in Mexico (Wil-
mington, DE, 1994); and Mary Kay Vaughan, “The Construction of the Patri-
otic Festival in Tecamachalco,” in Rituals of Rule, ed. Beezley, Martin, and
French, 213–45.
31 5 May 1880, RdP.
32 19 September 1881, RdP.
33 Ibid.
34 See 15, 16, and 17 September 1880, 21 and 23 September 1881, and 17 October
1888, RdP; and 24 March 1884, UY.
35 See “Reglamento de policía, ornato y buen gobierno de la villa de Hunucmá,”
20 July 1871, AGEY, Congreso (CON), Comisión de gobernación y puntos

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Modernity, Tradition, and Statecraft 551

constitucionales (CGPC), 51, 1, 66. On public works in the district, see 28 Janu-
ary 1880, 29 June 1881, 4 October 1886, 5 December 1887, 9 November 1888,
and 2 August 1889, RdP; 20 August 1881, EC; and 19 September 1885, 11 Sep-
tember 1886, 21 January, 24 March 1887, 1 May and 4 October 1887, RdM.
36 John L. Stephens, Incidents of Travel in Yucatán, vol. 2 (New York, 1963), 63,
37 Ibid., 74–77.
38 José García Montero, El rábano por las hojas: Una fiesta en Hunucmá (Mérida,
1901), n.p. See also Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger, eds., The Invention of
Tradition (Cambridge, 1983); and Richard Maddox, El Castillo: The Politics of
Tradition in an Andalusian Town (Urbana, IL, 1993).
39 Montero, El rábano.
40 22 September 1871, AGEY, CON, CGPC, Caja 51, vol. 1, exp. 82; 7 January
1876, RdP.
41 4 March 1881, RdP.
42 Ibid.
43 Ibid.
44 3 June 1881, RdP. See also 28 January 1880, and 4 and 14 March 1881, RdP;
AGEY, CON, CGPC, box 54, vol. 4, exp. 7.
45 Eduardo López, 25 September 1878, AGEY, PE, 205; “1900. Causa instruída
contra Alfonso Barrera . . . ,” AGEY, JUS, PEN, 159, 50.
46 16 June 1884, EC. See also 8 December 1884, EC; 20 January 1886 and 21
January 1887, RdM.
47 4 October 1887, RdM. See also Génaro Cervera, JP Hunucmá, to gobernador,
9 October 1867, AGEY, PE, GOB, 167; 29 June 1881, RdP; and 1 May 1886,
48 24 March 1887, RdM.
49 10 and 14 November 1883, La voz del partido: Periódico noticioso de literatura y
50 21 November 1884, EC.
51 21 May 1883, EC. In 1883, thirteen schools served a population of 18,500,
among which only 400 children attended school. 13 November and 15 Decem-
ber 1882, and 6 June and 28 November 1883, UY; 1 May 1886, RdM; 5 Decem-
ber 1887, RdP.
52 8 June 1883, EC.
53 15 May 1882, UY. See also 6 September 1880, 29 April 1881, and 8 March 1886,
RdP; 25 April 1884, UY.
54 Abelardo Ponce, JP Hunucmá, 1891, AGEY, PE, Ayuntamientos, Estadística,
Box 267; 11 June and 4 July 1890, and 5 August 1891, RdP.
55 20 February 1891, RdP. See also 29 June 1881 and 2 August 1889, RdP; 20
August 1881, 9 June 1884, EC; 19 September 1885, and 24 March and 1, 5, 7,
and 8 May 1887, RdM; and 14 November 1883, La voz del partido.
56 4 April 1883, UY.
57 8 January 1883, EC.
58 15 March 1893, RdP.
59 6 May 1899, DO.
60 14 September 1894, RdP; 21 September 1895, EC; 13 March 1899, DO.
61 21 July 1898, RdM.

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552 Paul K. Eiss

62 17 December 1898, RdM.

63 Rafael de Zayas Enríquez, El estado de Yucatán: Su pasado, su presente, su por-
venir (New York, 1908), 343–45.
64 Ibid., 339.
65 Ibid.
66 Ibid., 340.
67 Ibid., 341.
68 See Paul K. Eiss, In the Name of El Pueblo (Duke University Press,

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