Home Columns The Yucatán Governor Who Empowered Women

The Yucatán Governor Who Empowered Women

by Yucatan Times

“Surprising History in Yucatán” Article 32, by Robert D. Temple….

Yucatán’s newly elected governor stepped out onto the balcony of the Government Palace overlooking Mérida’s central plaza.  He looked over the wide square, filled to overflowing with excited citizens.  Peasants and wealthy alike were thunderstruck when he began speaking in the Mayan language.  It was February 1, 1922, and he was the first governor in Yucatán’s long history ever to deliver an inaugural address in the language spoken by the majority of the citizens.

Felipe Santiago Carrillo Puerto had won the election with 95% of the votes.  It was probably the most democratic election in the state’s history.  In his speech, he promised radical changes in the way the government would be working.  He promised to be a force for social change, to value work above capital.  He promised workers the rights to the land and to what they harvested, while challenging them to take responsibility for learning their rights, overcoming their exploiters, and not wasting their hard-earned money in cantinas.

Governor Felipe Carrillo Puerto accompanied by women and campesinos, ca. 1923. (Photograph, Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia.)

Felipe’s sister Elvia was listening, doubtless with pride and optimism.  A leading campaigner for women’s rights, Elvia had reason to expect Felipe’s government could mean progress for her cause.

The sixth of the fourteen surviving children of Justiniano Carrillo and Adela Puerto, Elvia was 40 years old on inauguration day.  She had been married at age thirteen, widowed ten years later, then remarried and soon separated from a fellow political activist.  Seven years younger than Felipe, she and her eldest brother had been inseparable as children and had grown to be trusted political allies.

When Salvador Alvarado brought the Revolution to Yucatán in 1915, Elvia and her colleagues, aided by Alvarado’s influential secretary, Hermila Galindo, persuaded the general to convene Mexico’s first feminist congress.  Alvarado also lowered the age of majority for women to twenty-one years — the national law kept it at age thirty until 1926.

Elvia Carrillo Puerto, ca. 1923. (Photographer unknown.)

But women still were not full citizens, since they could not vote or hold elected office.

Felipe Carrillo Puerto was born in Motul on November 8, 1874, the first of nine sons.  His father was a middle-class cabinet maker, merchant, and rancher, a civic leader who developed some local political connections in the 1880s.  Felipe and Elvia learned to speak fluent Mayan from their playmates and from their nurse, Crisanta Chalé.  His father claimed Maya ancestors, perhaps even the legendary opponent of the Spanish conquistadors, Nachi Cocom.  With Felipe, a tall man with fair skin and striking green eyes, Maya heritage was far from obvious.

After completing only a primary education, young Felipe found various jobs as a woodcutter, teamster, butcher, and flute-player in a band.  With a mule team and cart, he drove the terrible roads between Valladolid and Motul, trading products such as corn and beans.  He became deeply troubled by the conditions he saw on the henequen haciendas.  He went to jail for the first time at age eighteen for protesting against a henequenero who wanted to erect a fence that would block access to an adjacent Maya village.  He got hired as conductor on the passenger rail line between Motul and Mérida.  He married Isabel Palma in 1898.  Although his family disapproved of the match and refused to attend the wedding, the couple stayed together for more than twenty years and produced six children.  He started a crusading newspaper, El Heraldo de Motul, and was jailed for provocative reporting against henequeneros.  Political activity during the election of 1911 nearly cost him his life.  He shot an assassin hired to kill him, claimed self defense, and was released after spending a year in prison, having established a macho reputation.

Attacked for his reporting and his political activities, Felipe fled into exile twice, working as a longshoreman in New Orleans.  In 1913, he joined Emiliano Zapata and his revolutionary army in the mountains of Morelos, where he earned promotion to colonel within a year.  When he returned to Yucatán in 1915, Alvarado had him arrested as a supporter of Zapata.  Elvia intervened, and Felipe became a propagandist, labor organizer, and agriculture commissioner in Alvarado’s government.

During this period Felipe, with important help from Elvia and others, built the political party that became the Partido Socialista del Sureste.  By 1920 it had grown to dominate regional politics.  Key to its success was creation of highly organized self-help associations called Resistance Leagues.  These were a combination of labor unions or farmers’ cooperatives plus social, political, economic aid, and education clubs.  Elvia created the first such organization for women in Motul in 1912.  A conference in 1918 granted women the rights to vote and hold office in the Resistance Leagues and called for full civil voting rights, an important landmark.  Elvia traveled the countryside, using her fluency in Mayan to organize campesina women and conduct campaigns for literacy and birth control.  By the time Felipe became governor, the Resistance Leagues had over 70,000 members in Yucatán and adjacent states.

Rita Cetina Gutiérrez, pioneering educator of women. (Archivo General del Estado de Yucatán. Photographer unknown.)

A remarkable educator had inspired Elvia and a generation of Yucatecan women leaders.  In Mérida in 1870, Rita Cetina Gutiérrez opened Mexico’s first secular secondary school for girls.  She also founded a scientific and literary society for young women, a feminist newspaper, and an art college.  When other schools taught girls only domestic skills and basic reading, Rita Cetina offered mathematics, geography, astronomy, and constitutional law, as well as ground-breaking discussions on sexuality, children, and marriage.  Cetina left a lasting legacy to the feminist movement in Yucatán and throughout Mexico.

Doubtless advised by his sister, Governor Carrillo quickly acted to advance women’s rights.  Noting that the Constitution did not explicitly prohibit the participation of women in political processes, he signed legislation establishing for the first time in Mexico the rights of women to vote and hold office.  He legalized birth control and founded the first legal family-planning clinics in the western hemisphere.  He placed women in responsible positions in his government.  Amalia Gómez Flota de Aguilar, a principal organizer of the feminist congress of 1916, became Secretary for Public Education.

Professora Rosa Torre González, first woman to hold an elective office in Mexico. (Portrait, City Hall, Mérida.)

In the election of 1922, Rosa Torre González, a 32-year-old teacher who had volunteered as a nurse with Alvarado’s army in 1915, won election to the City Council of Mérida.  She was the first woman to hold an elective office in Mexico.  Genoveva Pérez was elected as an alternate member.  In office, Rosa Torre succeeded in abolishing company stores, which were notorious sources of debt slavery.  She caused a scandal by distributing translated copies of Margaret Sanger’s pamphlet on contraception, ruled “obscene” when it was published in the United States.

Three women won election to the State Legislature in the 1923 election.  All were protégées of Rita Cetina.  Most famous was Elvia Carrillo Puerto, widely noted for her energy, oratory, and intelligence.  Educators Beatriz Peniche de Ponce and Raquel Dzib Cicero, 30 and 40 yeas old respectively, joined her.  Guadalupe Lara Kú won election as an alternate member.

In another action favored by feminists, Felipe Carrillo Puerto legalized divorce.  Both Felipe and Elvia were among the first to take advantage of the new law, Felipe doubtless motivated by his romantic relationship with Alma Reed, a journalist from the United States.  At the time, he was estranged from his wife, Isabel Palma, who had been living in Havana for several years.

The handsome young governor brought a sense of excitement and achievement to Yucatán.  In his brief twenty months in the office, Carrillo Puerto was able to make remarkable advances in education, land reform, labor law, and road-building as well as in women’s rights.  He brought the Revolution to the rural poor.  He was especially committed to restoring pride to the long-oppressed Maya people and equipping them to compete in the modern world.  He opened Maya archeological sites to the world and founded an Academy of the Mayan Language.  Despite opposition by the wealthy elite and leading newspapers — who portrayed him as a wild-eyed radical and suggested a Russian invasion was imminent — Felipe’s actions and sincerity earned him the respect of the general population.

But simmering political conflicts boiled to the surface and brought Carrillo Puerto down.  Extreme factional violence had been widespread in Yucatán during the period before his election, acts that remain bitter memories even today, generations later.  In 1923 opponents of the government seized an opportunity to retaliate against the victors.  They joined a revolt linked to the imminent Mexican presidential election.  Adolfo de la Huerta, supported by military, church, and U.S. oil interests, inspired an armed uprising against the establishment candidate, Plutarco Elías Calles.  In Yucatán, aristocrats encouraged a general who supported the insurrection to eliminate the troublesome Socialist governor.  Carrillo Puerto’s political party, though strong and disciplined, lacked military training and was no match for army troops.  Apprehended and condemned in a summary trial, Felipe Carrillo Puerto was shot on January 3, 1924, beside three of his brothers and nine other associates, including the mayor of Mérida.

The De la Huerta revolt was over in a matter of months, though it cost seven thousand Mexican lives.  Many of Carrillo Puerto’s reforms, including women’s voting rights, were rolled back.  The women elected to the State Legislature were prevented from serving.  A decade of decline, repression, and inaction in Yucatán followed.  But the organization he established was ready for re-activation in the 1930s with the arrival of the next reformer, Lázaro Cárdenas.

Let us continue with events after Felipe’s death.  Elvia Carrillo Puerto fled Yucatán after suffering two physical attacks.  In San Luis Potosí, where the governor briefly recognized the political rights of women, Elvia ran for federal deputy in 1925.  During the campaign, gunshots were fired at her eight times.  All missed, and she won the election by 4,576 votes to 56.  In Mexico City, the Chamber of Deputies refused to seat her.

Elvia moved to Mexico City and continued to work for women’s rights the rest of her life.  Neglected and living in poverty, she survived some years by giving music lessons.  An automobile accident in 1941 left her almost blind.  She had regained some political favor by 1952, when the federal government honored her with a Revolutionary Merit Award.

Mexican women finally achieved full voting rights in 1953.  The Chamber of Deputies unanimously approved an amendment to the Constitution, President Adolfo Ruiz Cortines signed the legislation, and it took effect on December 31.  The definition of citizenship in Article 34 of the Constitution of 1917 used the word mexicanos, the masculine form implying males only.  The amendment simply added the words varones y mujeres — men and women.

Elvia Carrillo Puerto died in Mexico City in 1968 at the age of 86.  She had lived to vote in a presidential election.


Today in Yucatán, memorials and place names commemorating Felipe Carrillo Puerto are abundant.  An image by Fernando Castro Pacheco dominates the murals in Merida’s Government Palace; a bust graces the main building of the Universidad Autónomo de Yucatán, which he established; and a heroic statue stands in the center of Motul.  In Mérida’s Paseo de Montejo, at Calle 37, an attractive art nouveau monument, doubtless of great historic and symbolic importance, curiously depicts a bare-chested Felipe embracing two nude youths.

 The historic Carrillo Puerto home in Motul, at Calle 29 ´ Calle 28, is a museum.

Elvia Carrillo Puerto’s name appears in gold letters in the main assembly hall of the Yucatán State Congress, placed there in 2016, on the 100th anniversary of the first feminist congress.  She is the first woman so honored.

Both Felipe and Elvia are entombed at the impressive red and yellow socialist shrine in Mérida’s Cementerio General.  A nearby monument marks the place where Felipe and his brothers died in 1924.  The cemetery is off Calle 66 at Calle 95.

[Note:  Key dates in the life of Elvia Carrillo Puerto are subject to surprising confusion in the literature.  This article uses birth 6 December 1881 and death 15 April 1968.]

By Robert D. Temple for TYT


Robert D. Temple, PhD, is the author of the award-winning book Edge Effects and numerous  magazine articles, mostly dealing with matters of local history.  He lives in Yucatán, Ohio, and  Virginia. This article relates to the ‘Surprising History in Yucatán’ series, which appeared in The Yucatan Times from  January 2014 to January 2017.

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Tonia Kimsey October 20, 2017 - 1:43 pm

My Dear Bob,Thank you….This is a wonderful, most interesting and fascinating article.
Tonia Kimsey

Bob Temple October 21, 2017 - 7:41 am

Thank you, Tonia. Best wishes to you in Florida.


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