Zavala: The Yucatecan Vice President of Texas Part 1

Monument to the Sanjuanistas, Mérida, Yucatán (Photo: Robert D. Temple)

From Tecoh Yucatán to San Juan de Ulúa to Madrid

[Link to “Surprising History in Yucatán” — Introduction to the Series]


In 1836, a man from the village of Tecoh, Yucatán became vice president of the Republic of Texas.

Lorenzo de Zavala was a sincere if flawed Enlightenment idealist.  Revolutionary patriot, journalist, publisher, medical doctor, author, historian, traveler, legislator, governor, finance minister, ambassador, translator, entrepreneur, statesman — Zavala, hero and traitor, was all of these and a leader in founding two nations, all in his short life of forty-eight years.

Manuel Lorenzo Justiniano de Zavala y Sáenz was born on October 3, 1788, in Tecoh, Yucatán, about 25 miles southeast of Mérida, then as now an overwhelmingly Maya town.  His parents were José Anastasio de Zavala y Velásquez and María Bárbara Josepha Sáenz y Castro.  A third-generation Yucateco and the fifth of nine children, Lorenzo was baptized a month later in Mérida’s main cathedral.

The family was of Basque origin — zabal means “wide” in the Basque language — and had achieved considerable status in Yucatán.  The family tree bloomed with military officers and lawyers, several of them entombed with honor in the cathedral.  However, although we know little about Lorenzo’s parents, they were certainly not among the well-to-do.  Anastasio may have been a traveling merchant, and he died when Lorenzo was just nine years old.  They did have wealthy relatives and friends, however, judging from the lists of prominent godparents and officiants at baptisms and weddings.  Their connection with Tecoh is also little known.  Manuel Correa, a priest at Tecoh’s church of Nuestra Señora de la Asunción, was the uncle of Lorenzo’s future wife, and he helped Lorenzo financially after the father’s death.

His early life in Tecoh had a lasting influence on Lorenzo.  The need for money to support his family became a continuing issue in his later life.

At age twelve Lorenzo became a student at the only institute of higher learning in Yucatán, the Seminario Conciliar de San Ildefonso (also called the Franciscan Tridentine Seminary) in Mérida.  He excelled in Latin and demonstrated great ability in theology, although he later wrote that was useless, leading only to vanity, pride, and disputes.  He received a scholarship to continue theology studies, which was not to his interest, but he bowed to family pressure and the lack of alternatives.

Education at the time had changed little since the Middle Ages.  Most of the teachers were priests and viewed their responsibility as seeing that students memorized the tenets of the faith and acquired blind obedience to king and church.  But Zavala had the good fortune at age seventeen to have as his teacher Pablo Moreno.  He was not a priest and had learned Greek, French, and Italian so he could read philosophy in the original languages.  Moreno opened broad new perspectives for young Zavala — learning beyond theological dogma.

Zavala read voraciously at the seminary library, which even contained some books on the prohibited list that the priests had overlooked.  He taught himself French so he could read works of the Enlightenment, which were not available in Spanish — Raynal, Voltaire, Montesquieu, Diderot, Buffon.  They seemed like heresy.  This reading shaped his beliefs for life.

One classmate, Andrés Quintana Roo, a year older and from a wealthy family, went on to study law at the Royal and Pontifical University in Mexico City.  Zavala’s family could not afford that for him, so his formal education ended at age nineteen.

On leaving school, Zavala married María Josefa de la Ascención Teresa Correa in Tecoh.  She was a few days short of seventeen years old, a daughter of his godparents.  Their first child was born a year later.  Zavala pursued several business ventures in efforts to cover living expenses, apparently with limited success.  He may also have begun reading the few medical books available to him.  He had a schoolmate and friend, Francisco Bates, whose English father was a doctor, one of only two in all Yucatán.

Lorenzo de Zavala (Photo: Wikipedia)
Lorenzo de Zavala (Oil painting by Escamilla Guzmán Universidad Autónoma del Estado de México)

During this period, Zavala began meeting with a group that became important in the history of Yucatán — the Sanjuanistas.  Padre Vicente María Velásquez, chaplain at the hermitage of San Juan Bautista, began an after-services discussion group in 1805, and it evolved into a society for progressive political debates.  Padre Velásquez was clearly an enlightened thinker.  Inspired by the writing of Bartolomé de las Casas, he took as his mission improving education and helping the Maya by relieving them of onerous religious taxes.  His library contained many books on liberal politics.  In 1814 the church sanctioned him because of his “sinister ideas.”

This was a time of great turmoil in Spain and its overseas colonies.  Napoleon had deposed King Fernando VII, and the Cádiz Cortes met as the nation’s first representative assembly.  In 1812, armed with a new, liberal constitution from the Cortes, the Sanjuanistas took advantage of the greater freedom of expression to promote autonomy for Yucatán and representation in the Cortes.  Meanwhile, in northern Mexico, a revolution had begun.

Zavala, at age twenty-four, was elected to a welcome paid position as secretary of the new constitutional city council, which had a majority of Sanjuanistas.  From his earliest days in politics, he concerned himself with press freedom and education.  He and his colleagues set up the first printing press in Yucatán and started the first newspapers, to which Zavala contributed as editor and prolific writer.  They started a college, attracting students away from the seminary.

Monument to the Sanjuanistas, Mérida, Yucatán (Photo: Robert D. Temple)
Monument to the Sanjuanistas, Mérida, Yucatán (Photo: Robert D. Temple)

Then at the end of 1813, Fernando VII was restored to the Spanish throne.  He re-imposed absolute monarchy, abolished the Cortes, and canceled the new constitution and laws.  The Sanjuanistas published opinions against the king.  Authorities arrested Zavala and two of his associates, tried them, and sent them to the San Juan de Ulúa prison in Veracruz.  It was the first time Zavala had been out of Yucatán.

During his three years of imprisonment under dreadful conditions — bad food in dark, damp, poorly ventilated, filthy dungeons — Zavala somehow managed three life-changing accomplishments.  He learned English, probably with the help of other prisoners — fellow Sanjanista Francisco Bates and a merchant (and likely secret agent) from the United States, who we know was there at the time.  Second, he read medical books, somehow smuggled in.  And finally, he embraced Freemasonry.

At this time, Freemasonry was becoming a fad among the educated class in Mexico.  The movement had been popular in Britain and France for some decades, and its secret meetings provided safe places for the exchange of ideas, free of domination by monarchy and church.  Masons spread ideas of the Enlightenment, and although they were elitist, they helped create the modern concept of individuals as political and social activists.  Authorities found such ideas threatening, and Masonry was often illegal under royal edict and condemned by the church.  With their internal self-government, including constitutions, laws, and elections, the Masonic lodges were a kind of model for society.  But Freemasonry in Mexico was uniquely political.  Before the emergence of political parties there, the Masonic lodges came to have a dominant influence.  Only in Mexico did military conflicts take place between rival lodges.

Zavala received a royal pardon and returned to Mérida as a hero in 1816.  He established a successful medical practice.  He participated in organizing the first Masonic lodges in Yucatán, which included many of his Sanjuanista friends.  When a coup against Fernando VII in 1820 led to restoration of the Cortes and the Cádiz Constitution, the collaborators reorganized themselves into the Patriotic Confederation and elected Zavala its president.

The Confederation split into two factions — supporters of a constitutional monarchy under the Spanish government and those advocating outright independence from Spain.  Zavala led the pro-independence wing while seeking to act as a neutral peacemaker.  The Cortes, now meeting in Madrid, was to include representatives from the overseas parts of the empire, and Zavala won election for Yucatán.  Local authorities arrested Zavala for advocating independence but decided just to get him out of the way by requiring that he leave immediately for Spain, while imprisoning other members of the Confederation.

In Madrid, Zavala received news that, in September 1821, the Mexican Empire had achieved independence.  Yucatán declared its independence from Spain on September 15, 1821 and sent representatives to negotiate incorporation into the Mexican Empire.  Independent Yucatán officially joined Mexico on November 2, 1821.  Zavala headed back home, made valuable contacts in Paris and New Orleans along the way, and arrived at Campeche in early 1822.


Next:  Off to Congress in Mexico City.


Continued next month — Part 2— To Mexico, New York, Paris, and Tejas

By Robert D. Temple


Tecoh, Zavala’s home town, merits a visit if only for its 17th century Franciscan church, Nuestra Señora de la Asunción, a grand fortress set atop the remaining base of an immense Maya pyramid.  Its treasures are the late baroque main and side retablos, tall and richly ornamented red and gold masterpieces.

A monument to the Sanjuanistas is on the Avenida Campestre (Calle 38 between 3A and 5) in Mérida.  It features a statue of Vicente Velásquez.  The beautiful yellow and white church of San Juan Bautista where they met is a few blocks south of the main plaza.



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