The most serious Maya revolt in colonial Yucatec history happened at a town called Cisteíl. Its leader was Jacinto Uc. We know him as Canek.
Jacinto Uc may have been born in the San Román neighborhood of Campeche in about 1730. When he was a child, the Franciscans took him, as they did many, for service to the Church. At their monastery in Mérida, he learned to read and write and was deeply immersed in the rituals of the religious establishment.
When he left the monastery, possibly expelled, he found work as a baker in Santiago, one of Mérida’s segregated neighborhoods, this one restricted to Maya people. Somehow, he managed to do some traveling around the province.
On about November 7, 1761, Jacinto showed up in the town of Cisteíl, deep in the interior of the peninsula. Although controversy surrounds the events that followed, it is certain that a very serious rebellion took place, with Jacinto as a leader. Spanish authorities sought to portray him as an insane, drunken savage, but historians present evidence that his journey to Cisteíl was part of a wide conspiracy, planned for more than a year.
Cisteíl was a crossroad town in the Sotuta district of Yucatán, seventy straight-line miles southeast of Mérida. The name — pronounced kees-teh-EEL and also spelled Quisteíl — refers to a kind of tree that must have grown there abundantly. The tree’s wood is useful, but it has malodorous flowers, and kis-te-il in Yucatec means something like “stink-tree-place.”
Why would Jacinto have chosen to walk so far — Maya were forbidden to ride horses — to this obscure and remote village? Selecting it as the place to begin the revolt makes sense only when seen as part of the plan. It was a new village, founded in about 1750 by groups of Maya migrants, people who would have had contacts in other places. Cisteíl was far enough from the centers of Spanish power that troops would require several days to arrive there in strength. The area had been a center of stubborn resistance well into the late years of the conquest, two hundred years in the past, resistance that never entirely went away. Finally, the town was having a fiesta in honor of its patron saint, Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception, so the arrival of large numbers of Maya might attract little untoward attention.
In Cisteíl, Jacinto presented himself to town authorities and announced that he was King Jacinto Canek Moctezuma. These were names bearing power. Canek was the hereditary name of the Itzá rulers in the last Maya chiefdom to fall to the Spanish. Moctezuma, the name of the Aztec ruler who died during the conquest of Mexico, had become widely known throughout the Spanish colonial world. Although we cannot know exactly what the names meant to Maya people at the time, they likely symbolized legitimacy and authority. Jacinto, now as Canek, created a sensation in the town.
On a Saturday after Jacinto’s arrival — maybe November 14 — the visiting priest, Father Miguel de la Ruela, came in from Tixcacaltuyub. Canek confronted the priest, and local officials had to restrain him. The next day during mass, someone yelled “fire,” the church emptied, and Jacinto and others attacked the priest. Father Ruela escaped, but Canek succeeded in demonstrating his seriousness of purpose, and his support grew.
Things reached a climax on November 19. A meeting of town leaders took place, ostensibly to begin planning the next year’s fiesta but clearly focused on more serious business. Leaders from other places, some distant, were present. Canek took over the meeting and delivered a long harangue urging listeners to throw off the Spanish yoke. “I have walked across the province, inspected all the villages, and considering carefully what use or benefit the subjection to Spain brings us … I find nothing other than a painful and inviolable servitude.” Condemning the onerous tributes — civil taxes — they had to pay, he burned the record books, telling the assembled dignitaries that the days of tributes, serfdom, and whipping posts were at an end.
Later that day, an unfortunate Spanish merchant called Diego Pacheco arrived to collect some routine debts, obviously unaware of the situation. Canek challenged him. Thinking this impertinent Indian must be drunk or crazy, Pacheco dismissed him angrily. Canek ordered the town deputies to kill Pacheco. Leaders gave Canek their support, without which the revolt would have ended right there. Villagers killed Pacheco with three shotgun blasts. The town choirmaster, Luis Cauich, one of the few who still doubted Canek, fled to inform the priest at Tixcacaltuyub.
The assault on Father Ruela and the murder of Pacheco built Canek’s credibility. Although some of his subsequent actions seem bizarre, he actually manipulated Christian symbols and deeply ingrained traditional beliefs skillfully to recruit his fellow Maya to the uprising.
People led him into the church and there proclaimed him king. He removed the crown from the statue of the Blessed Virgin and placed it on his own head. According to some witnesses, he claimed the Virgin was his wife.
The return of a liberating king fulfilled a prophecy and was consistent with traditional Maya beliefs in cycles of time. People began following King Canek around with candles, offering gifts, bowing, and asking his blessing. He gave sermons and heard confessions. He performed “magic” tricks, the kind of rituals and cures associated with a traditional Maya hmen — priest or shaman. He told the people that it was time to kill all the pigs, because each pig was the soul of a Spaniard — and they did it.
Word of Pacheco’s murder quickly reached the district military commander, Tiburcio Cosgaya y Solís, in Sotuta, who sent word to Governor Captain-General José Crespo y Honorato, asking for orders. Without waiting for the orders, he went ahead to Cisteíl with fourteen cavalrymen. During a long period of social peace in the region, enforced with brutal repression, uprisings had been only trivial affairs. Unruly Maya had usually offered little more than stone throwing before submitting to authority. That must have been what Cosgaya expected. This time was different.
The rebels were prepared and deadly serious. Cosgaya and his small force arrived in Cisteíl late on the afternoon of November 20 and were puzzled by the abundance of pig carcasses around the town. Allowed to reach the central plaza, they found themselves ambushed from all sides. Although armed only with machetes, sharpened sticks, and a few shotguns, the Maya were ten times superior in number. Only four of the Spaniards, all of them wounded, escaped with their lives.
News of the Maya victory spread rapidly. Many people began arriving from other villages, worshiping Canek and proclaiming him to be the prophesied liberator. He told the people they had been ordered by God to kill all the Spaniards, except “some of the principal women,” who would be married to Indians. He said, “They will not be able to tie us up, there is not enough rope.”
Messengers had gone out to more distant towns — one was apprehended in Maní with a letter — and leaders and fighting men poured into Cisteíl. No doubt Jacinto Canek was the main caudillo of the rebellion, but several chiefs were also involved. Among these were Francisco Uex from Tabí, near Sotuta, and Miguel Kantún from Lerma, near Campeche. The Maya army numbered at least 2,000 fighters — some estimates say twice that number — a force that required planning and the participation of many towns.
The killings sent a shock wave through the Spanish population. Wild rumors swept the buena gente. Indians had begun acting disrespectfully; some had been seen with painted faces; large numbers were disappearing from various towns and seen marching somewhere; servants were poisoning food; attackers planned to set fire to houses and chop up the residents as they ran out; rebellion was spreading throughout the peninsula. Gallows were set up in Mérida’s main plaza as a warning. Amid panic, paranoid fear, and great confusion, authorities had a difficult time finding out what was really happening.
Governor Crespo realized that this was not just a mutiny or drunken riot but a major rebellion, possibly a generalized insurrection. Within days of the Cosgaya massacre, all the district military commanders received orders to call up militias, post sentries, confiscate firearms from Indians, and detain the Maya caciques. By November 24, the commander of the Sotuta region, Captain Cristóbal Calderón, had hundreds of troops at his disposal, with more arriving every day. He ordered forces sent to towns surrounding Cisteíl, blocking roads in every direction. The occupiers found the towns deserted, all the food gone — “not even enough for breakfast” — and weirdly, all the pigs killed.
On November 26 an army of five hundred soldiers marched on Cisteíl, backed up by perhaps three thousand more in the surrounding area. The Maya rebels had constructed trenches in the town’s central plaza and fought tenaciously, but after a two-hour battle, superiority in weapons gave the victory to the Spaniards. The Spanish suffered forty losses and reported more than six hundred Indians killed. The victors set fire to the town, and women and children who had barricaded themselves in the houses died in the flames.
Canek and about three hundred other survivors escaped into the forest. After fighting several skirmishes, they were captured on November 28 and marched to Mérida for trial.
Jacinto Canek arrived in Mérida on December 7, forced to wear a mock crown, and his trial began the next day. The Spanish apparently found Canek’s greatest offense to be — even worse than the rebellion itself — his profaning the Blessed Virgin Mary by claiming she was his wife and usurping her crown. Under extreme torture, he refused to reveal any information about the revolt or co-conspirators. The outcome of the trial was never in doubt.
On December 14, Jacinto was brought to a platform erected in Mérida’s main plaza. The city was decorated as for a fiesta. Viewing stands had been arranged for the Governor, his wife, and top government, military, and religious leaders, while throngs of citizens pressed close on all sides. Gentle reader, you do not want to know details of the tortures inflicted upon the prisoner. Governor Crespo had ordered the executioners to keep him alive as long as possible while they performed their torments. Ovations from the assembled citizens accompanied the protracted spectacle. When Jacinto finally was allowed to die, his body was torn apart and left on display for some hours. The remains were finally burned and the ashes scattered to the wind, ensuring that he could not revive on the Day of Judgment.
Eight other participants were hanged in the main plaza. Their bodies were quartered, the parts publicly displayed in their home towns. Several principal chiefs were sent to San Juan de Ulúa in Veracruz to finish their lives in its dungeons. Other rebels were flogged, had an ear cut off, and were condemned to forced labor in Cuba.
Governor José Crespo y Honorato ordered the village of Cisteíl obliterated, its fields sown with salt, and its wells poisoned.
The Governor sent a full report to the Viceroy of New Spain, Joaquín de Montserrat. Instead of responding with the expected congratulations, the Viceroy condemned the Governor’s brutal excesses, arguing that they would not inspire submission but instead drive the Indians to more rebellions. King Carlos III of Spain himself also sent an official condemnation. Governor Crespo had the good grace to die within the next year.
Repression and paranoia persisted for decades afterwards in Yucatán. The Maya people did not forget Canek, and the memory became a rallying point. The great rebellion that began in 1847, known as the Caste War, celebrated Jacinto Canek as a martyr, and his name was a slogan for revolution.
The location of Cisteíl is unknown and remains a subject of investigation by archeologists.
By Robert D. Temple
Today another village known as Cisteíl, with about eighty inhabitants, is located in the Yaxcabá municipio of Yucatán state, some twenty miles west of Chikindzonot. You will need a good map to find it. The historic site may have been nearby, possibly a few miles farther west, closer to present Timul.
In the Government Palace on Mérida’s main plaza, the murals by Fernando Castro Pacheco illustrating the struggles of Yucatán’s people include a dramatic image suggesting Canek’s tortures. The panel prominently fills the west wall of the second-level front gallery.
A major street in Mérida is named Avenida Jacinto Canek. An impressive statue of the man, rising and thrusting a torch forward, stands near its western end. A similar monument is in Campeche, at the beginning of the road to Champotón. Many streets, schools, and parks bear his name throughout the peninsula and all of Mexico. No monument to the memory of Governor Captain-General José Crespo y Honorato exists.
When visiting Mérida’s lovely and peaceful plaza, it is worth reflecting on the violent events that took place there in 1761.
The author thanks Victor Hugo Lizama Morales for his help in identifying kis te (Gyrocarpus americanus).
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