Home Columns When Did the Caste War End? Part 2 — The Power of General May

When Did the Caste War End? Part 2 — The Power of General May

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

Continued from The Yucatan Times last month — The forces of General Bravo had surrounded the independent Maya nation…

[Link to Part 1, published January 4, 2016]

In the face of the advancing enemy, the Cruzo’ob Maya abandoned their capital and took the Speaking Cross from the shrine at Chan Santa Cruz to a secret location.

On the morning of May 4, 1901, Mexican and Yucatecan troops led by General Ignacio Bravo marched unopposed into abandoned Chan Santa Cruz, establishing the official date for the end of the Caste War.

Bravo announced his great victory by telegraph, provoking wild celebration in Mérida the next day.  In June, Governor Cantón came to visit the fallen rebel capital.  He reviewed the troops while a band played, and he ordered the town renamed Santa Cruz de Bravo.  Some two thousand Yucatecans and Mexicans had died in General Bravo’s campaign, mostly from illness.

Troops rapidly moved out to extend Bravo’s control, northeast to the miserable beachhead at Vigía Chico on Asunción Bay and south to Bacalar.  The defeated Maya rebels scattered to refuges deep in the forest and swamps, to British Honduras, and to Guatemala.  Refusing to stand to a battle, they continued to fight.  Bravo’s forces destroyed food stores and burned milpas.  Prisoners were condemned to labor on haciendas in Veracruz.  Groups that would surrender received promises they could choose own leaders and be left in peace, but few accepted.  There was no general surrender, submission, or amnesty.

Bravo’s victory did not mean that Yucatán regained its long-lost territory.  The price of bringing in the Federal army to fight their war was soon evident.  Within months, President Díaz implemented a plan — proposed as long ago as 1888 — to create a separate territory in the eastern part of the Peninsula.  Yucatán had never really controlled the region but had fought intensely for it during half a century, and vigorous protests came as it was snatched away.  But Díaz was not to be disobeyed, and he named the new territory for Andrés Quintana Roo, Mérida-born hero of Mexican independence.

General Bravo pursued pacification and development of the territory and its capital vigorously and with an iron fist.  In Santa Cruz, he created a pretty plaza with orange trees, built a modern reservoir and a market, and installed an electric generator.  But there was little natural immigration to the long-despised region, viewed as a tropical hell.  Bravo brought in convicts for labor, making the place essentially a penal colony.  The great Balam Nah sanctuary of the Speaking Cross became a chaotic prison dormitory.  Construction of a railroad line to Vigía Chico began, using narrow-gauge Decauville track.  The workers, mainly political prisoners sentenced to hard labor, advanced under dreadful conditions as unconquered Maya snipers shot them.  Attacks continued after the line was completed, and the trains regularly included armored boxcars with machine guns for protection.

Bravo’s administration continued for eleven years.  His systematic persecution of the Maya increased their resistance.  Down at Payo Obispo on Chetumal Bay, Othon P. Blanco carried out development more effectively.  Santa Cruz de Bravo grew to a population of about 4,000, including soldiers and prisoners; Payo Obispo to around a thousand.

Balam Nah, the original sanctuary of the Speaking Cross today. The smaller yellow building is the replacement built after 1915. Felipe Carrillo Puerto, Quintana Roo. (Photograph by Robert Temple)

Balam Nah, the original sanctuary of the Speaking Cross today.
The smaller yellow building is the replacement built after 1915.
Felipe Carrillo Puerto, Quintana Roo.
(Photograph by Robert Temple)

The year 1915 is another date that one could cite as an end of the war.  The Mexican Revolution had sent Díaz into exile, relieved General Bravo of command, and ended his private empire.  The Revolution came to Yucatán in the person of General Salvador Alvarado, Governor and Military Commander of Yucatán and Quintana Roo, who made sweeping changes.  He introduced reforms that addressed Maya grievances.  Prisoners were released, and most of the troops departed.  He offered a peace treaty, and after some Maya groups signed it, he ordered all non-Maya people to leave Santa Cruz and moved the territorial capital to Payo Obispo.

This official and sanctioned separation of ethnic groups had long-lasting importance in the history of Quintana Roo.  It allowed the Maya separatists to strengthen and a new generation of leaders to emerge.  They wanted nothing from the Mexicans.  They wanted isolation.  Declarations of peace were irrelevant.

The separatist Maya might have welcomed Alvarado’s withdrawal from Santa Cruz as great good fortune, but they were contending with a severe smallpox epidemic at the time.  This they regarded as punishment for allowing the fall of their historic capital.  Recovery and return were gradual.  The Cruzo’ob faction that reoccupied Santa Cruz at last was under the leadership of Francisco May Pech, who claimed the rank of General.

General May’s people were not happy when they found what the foreign occupiers had done to Santa Cruz, and they set about erasing the “improvements.”  They blew up the reservoir and market with dynamite, burned the buildings used as barracks, and wrecked the generator.  They cut all telegraph and telephone lines.  They tore up the railroad to Vigía Chico, destroyed the locomotives, and burned the rail cars.  Balam Nah, the sanctuary of the Cross, had been desecrated beyond possible restoration and remained unoccupied.  A small chapel adjacent to the main large church became the new shrine of the Cross.

News of the destruction arrived in Mérida and raised fear of a new uprising.  A small detachment of troops went out to Santa Cruz.  Encountering opposition, they backed off and left the Maya alone.

The main Cruzo’ob factions now centered at Santa Cruz and at Chunpom, about 30 miles to the north.  The groups maintained separate and mostly friendly relations, with their own versions of the Speaking Cross.  The Santa Cruz inhabitants unofficially renamed the place for Venancio Pec, the rebel leader who died defending it in 1852.


General Francisco May Pech (Photographer unknown)

General Francisco May Pech
(Photographer unknown)


The Mexican government made serious efforts to engage General Francisco May.  He visited Payo Obispo — the first real town he had ever seen — then Mérida, and eventually Mexico City, where he met President Venustiano Carranza.  May was honored by being made a general in the Mexican army, given a fancy uniform, and presented with a military review, complete with airplanes.  Allegedly his hosts also introduced him to a house of prostitution.  May returned to his milpa much impressed.


After about 1917, a boom in the harvesting and sale of chicle changed life for many of the separatist Maya.  Chicle, a resin made from the sap of the zapote or sapodilla tree, was the main ingredient in chewing gum, which was gaining popularity in the United States at the time.  The Maya used their zapote trees to their advantage, collecting rent from concessionaires and eventually learning the trade themselves.

The railroad to Vigía Chico was renovated to aid export.  They were soon making cash money and attracting traders.  Their acquisitions expanded beyond the traditional shotguns and salt to whiskey, jewelry, canned food, and cigarettes, seducing them into the world of trade with “foreigners.”

General Francisco May took firm charge of the chicle trade.  He converted a two-story hotel in Santa Cruz into his office and warehouse, opened a store, and hired a series of Ladino assistants to translate and handle affairs of the capitalist world.  But conflicts with concessionaires and chicleros arose, the developments attracted government interest, and troops returned.  May, who had become rich by local standards, reluctantly accepted Mexican intervention to keep the peace.  His more militant associates regarded him as a traitor, and in 1929 they left in disgust.

The largest dissident faction, led by Evaristo Zuluub, established a new settlement at a previously uninhabited site they called Xcacal Guardia (variously spelled), about thirty miles northwest of Santa Cruz.  They took the Cross with them and installed it in a new sanctuary, in what they initially viewed as temporary exile.  With about 700 supporters, they built a small thatched church and barracks, marked boundaries with crosses, established a rotating system of armed guards, and barred outsiders.  The main interpreter of the Cross was Pedro Pascual Barrera, grandson of José María Barrera, the man who found the original Speaking Cross carved on the trunk of a mahogany tree beside a cenote and named the place Chan Santa Cruz.

As civil control advanced, skirmishes continued with settlements that refused to acknowledge Mexican authority.  Non-Maya people risked being killed if they ventured into the forest.  The Cruzo’ob of Xcacal led continuing guerrilla warfare.  In April 1933, rumors of revolution and murder brought elements of the 35th and 42nd Battalions of the Mexican Army to the village of Dzula, west of Santa Cruz, to arrest Evaristo Zuluub.  A skirmish followed, five Maya and two Mexican soldiers died, and the village burned.  Zuluub escaped.

Some historians regard Dzula as the last battle of the Caste War, yet another possible “end” date, more than 85 years after it began.

Many indigenous leaders continued to express loyalty to Francisco May as overall “chief of the Maya tribe.”  Without official authority, and repudiated by more militant factions, May influenced many to sign various local treaties with Mexico through the 1930s and 1940s.  General May himself was party to a formal peace treaty in 1935, another possible date to regard as the end of the War.  But scattered settlements of recalcitrant macehuales (from the Náhuatl word for peasant farmer) remained in control of much of Quintana Roo.  Some refused to consider themselves Mexican and, remembering the long years of support from Belize, claimed to be British subjects.

A curious series of incidents in the 1930s involved the prominent North American archaeologist, Sylvanus Morley.  Morley established contacts with Maya leaders while doing scouting work on ancient sites during the First World War.  (He was also acting as a paid spy for the U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence, but that is another story.)  As Morley continued his work, leaders from Xcacal Guardia began contacting him, seeking arms to use against the Mexicans.  They also wanted U.S. flags to indicate they were not part of Mexico.  In 1939 they asked to be annexed by the United States, with Morley to act as their “white chief.”  Morley gave ambiguous responses and wisely refused to meddle in Mexican politics.

Ethnographers and other visitors continued to report occasional observations from macehual villages:  A proclamation from the Speaking Cross signed by “Juan de la Cruz” in 1957.  Requests for rifles to drive out the Mexicans in 1959.  A British flag flying in Xcacal Guardia in the 1970s.  Remote Cruzo’ob villages that believed the Caste War was still going on.  The guarded and worshipped Cross in Xcacal Guardia, where residents were expecting “help” from the Americans and British as late as 1997.

The guard at Xcacal Guardia, 1930s (Photograph by Frances Rhoads Morley, Brigham Young University)

The guard at Xcacal Guardia, 1930s
(Photograph by Frances Rhoads Morley, Brigham Young University)

Central Quintana Roo has been transformed in the past half-century, as roads, schools, and modernization penetrated remote areas and people became increasingly dependent on a government once considered their enemy.  But the Caste War remains immediate historical reality in tales told with pride and horror.  Distinct Maya culture and ideology endure.  Maya officers and priests continue to exercise authority in villages far from the beach resorts, far even from the language of the conquistadors.

The Maya did not win the War, but they accomplished their objective of stopping expropriation of their land for commercial agriculture.  They kept the best land, leaving the Ladinos with the poor northwest, suitable only for henequen.

Maya prophecy regards history as cyclic.  In that tradition, the present may be a time of relative peace and freedom, but subjugation will come again, and the Cross will deliver a signal to resume the war and drive out the foreigners.  Events in history do not so much end as come around again in the next cycle.




In 1934, during a brief period when Quintana Roo was reincorporated into the state of Yucatán, the name of Santa Cruz de Bravo was changed to Felipe Carrillo Puerto, honoring the state’s martyred governor.  (Many still call it Santa Cruz.)  In 1937, the Governor of re-established Quintana Roo, Rafael E. Melgar, resolved to remove all religious place names from his territory.  He changed the name of Payo Obispo to Chetumal, recalling the names of Sublieutenant Blanco’s naval vessel and the ancient Maya chiefdom of Chactemal (probably meaning “red-tree-place”).


The founder of Chetumal, Othón P. Blanco, had a distinguished naval career, rising to Vice Admiral and Undersecretary of the Navy.  A ceremony at Chetumal honored him in 1956, three years before his death at age 92.  Chetumal’s municipio (county) bears his name.


Blanco’s boat, the Pontón Chetumal, which changed the course of the war, is still on station, sunken and buried in mud near the mouth of the Río Hondo.


General Francisco May lost his wealth because of his limited abilities to deal with the modern world.  Practicing the traditional custom of burying his treasures for safekeeping, he lost several fortunes by failing to find them.  May lived in Santa Cruz (Felipe Carrillo Puerto) until his death in 1969 at age 90.  He remains an honored but controversial figure in the transition of the rebel Maya into peacetime.


The living memory of the Caste War of Yucatán may inspire the EZLN (Zapatista Army of National Liberation), which declared war on the Mexican government in 1994.  This coalition of Tzotzil, Tzeltal, Lancandón, and other Maya and non-Maya people continues to defend a territory and enjoy a measure of autonomy in eastern Chiapas.


By Robert D. Temple



Balam Nah, the great church that was the center of the independent Maya government, still dominates the center of Felipe Carrillo Puerto, Quintana Roo.  Since its fall in 1901, it has been a prison, stable, store, movie theater, and Masonic lodge.  It was deeded to the Maryknoll Fathers in 1942 and is now one of their churches — the “Indian” church.


Also in Felipe Carrillo Puerto, the small chapel General May had built for the Speaking Cross still stands, immediately south of the large main church.  A bronze plaque commemorating General May, hailing his work for peace and the wellbeing of his people, is nearby in the main plaza.


Xcacal Guardia is just off Highway 295, 30 miles north of Felipe Carrillo Puerto.  The road is unmarked, and the reception tourists might find is questionable.


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