Carmen Barbachano y Gomez Rul – 1930-2019
By Evan J. Albright
Born of Yucatecan entrepreneur stock, Carmen Barbachano y Gomez Rul blazed her own path, found her own success, and cut the best deals before her passing last March at the age of 89.
Doña Carmen was born in 1930, the same year her father Fernando Barbachano Peón opened the historic Mayaland Hotel in the archaeological zone of Chichén Itzá. The Mayaland launched the Barbachano tourism empire and during her lifetime Carmen cared for the family business, fought for it, and expanded it.
I interviewed her twice in 2008 for my book, The Man Who Owned a Wonder of the World. At that time, the federal government was pressing to expropriate the combined land assets of the Barbachano family at Chichén Itzá, which had been divided into thirds: her brother, Fernando Barbachano Gomez Rul, had inherited the famous archaeological zone and four years earlier had given it to his grandson, Hans Thies Barbachano; her nephew, don Fernando’s son and namesake Fernando Barbachano Herrero, owned the Mayaland Hotel and property to the east; and doña Carmen owned the Hacienda Chichén and extensive property to the south.
She was openly concerned about the government’s expropriation threat. “The government will take the land of the Indians–the ejidos–and our land,” she told me. Powerful forces were working with the government to pry Chichén Itzá from Barbachano hands, she said, but did not identify who those individuals were. The federal government, through its overseer of the nation’s archaeological ruins, the Instituto Nacional Antropologia y Historia (INAH), had announced that by law it could only pay for all of Chichén Itzá $8 million Mexican (~$500,000 USD). Tourists spent that amount on admission tickets to Chichén in just a few weeks.
The government would not take Chichén in the coming year, she said, because of the plight of the global economy in 2008. But expropriation appeared inevitable.
Exactly four years later, doña Carmen negotiated the sale to the Mexican government of 99 hectares south of the Hacienda Chichén, which included ancient Maya structures known as “Chichén Viejo.” How much of the 8 million peso assessment did she get? All of it and more. The price she received was $232 million Mexican. That is the kind of canny businesswoman she was.
A Family of Tourism Pioneers
She came from a family of tourism visionaries. Her paternal grandfather, Fernando Barbachano Bolio, was a liquor distributor who dabbled as a promoter, bringing the very first airplanes to Yucatan in 1912 to perform an airshow.
Her maternal grandfather, Francisco Gomez Rul, a Spanish expatriate whose real name was Francisco Cebrián de la Tovilla y Pérez Gálvez, was among the earliest tourism promoters in Yucatán, writing and illustrating with his photographs one of the first guidebooks and forming one of the first corporations for promoting tourism in the region.
While don Francisco’s tourism plans never bore fruit, his daughter (doña Carmen’s mother) Carmen Gomez Rul Castillo and son-in-law Barbachano Peón took up the tourism mantle and built the Mayaland Hotel on a small parcel that was part of the Hacienda Chichén. The hacienda, which in 1930 included all of Chichén Itzá and surrounding property, was owned by American Edward Herbert Thompson. Thompson was engaged in a legal battle with the Mexican government, which had accused him of stealing more than $1 million Mexican in Maya artifacts dredged from the Cenote Sagrado. Even though Thompson’s ownership was in dispute, doña Carmen’s father leased from Thompson one hectare and, even though he risked losing everything to the Mexican government should it prevail in its case against Thompson, built the Mayaland.
“In 1930, the year I was born, they inaugurated the restaurant and hotel,” doña Carmen recalled.
Carmen spent her early childhood in Mérida and at Chichén Itzá, where her mother ran the Mayaland Hotel. Most of her memories of living by the ruins were tinged with fear. In our interview, she said she was deathly afraid of snakes and of jaguars, which more than once came out of the forest to drink at the Mayaland’s fountain.
Next door to the Mayaland was the main casa and outbuildings of the Hacienda Chichén, which served as the headquarters for the Carnegie Institution’s Chichén Itzá Project. “I don’t remember the names of the archaeologists,” doña Carmen told me, “but I remember when I was four, five years old, I went from lap to lap. I was their dog.” She did recall one archaeologist, Sylvanus Morley, and his wife Frances. “I remember going to the Hacienda Chichén all dressed up to have dinner with them. I was shocked to see the splendor they had there. All the servants had white clothes. We had a wonderful supper there.”
The Carnegie eschewed hiring local Maya as house servants, instead bringing in Korean workers from Mérida. The Mayaland always hired and trained local labor, something that continues to this day.
The Mayaland Hotel became successful, despite opening at the beginning of the Great Depression. It earned enough to support the family and repay the $10,000 US loan doña Carmen’s father had borrowed to finance its construction. Their business came to a crashing halt in 1941 with the outbreak of World War II in the United States. The family, which had added the Hotel Mérida in the capitol city to its tourism holdings, faced ruin. In 1942, the Barbachanos lost the hotel and their home in Merida, and moved to its only remaining property, the Mayaland Hotel.
“Those years…were very rough for my father,” doña Carmen said. Her brother Fernando, who had entered Harvard, was recalled to work the hotel. Things were about to get tougher. Later that year Edward Thompson’s heirs lost their legal battle against the Mexican government. A judge ordered the Thompson family to pay $90,000 Mexican; the only asset the Thompson’s had was the Hacienda Chichén, including the property upon which the Mayaland was built.
Fortunately, the Mexican government overplayed its hand. It wanted more from Thompson’s heirs and appealed the decision to Mexico’s Suprema Corte, which in 1944 overturned the lower court’s ruling and found that Thompson had not stolen the artifacts and owed nothing. Their property returned, Thompson family sold the Hacienda Chichén to doña Carmen’s father for $10,000 US.
Doña Carmen, at the time her father bought Chichén Itzá, was at school. “I was sent to Montreal to a convent,” she said. The Sisters of the Congrégation de Notre-Dame operated a boarding high school called Villa Maria.
To be continued.
Evan J. Albright is the author of:
- The Man Who Owned a Wonder of the World: The Gringo History of Mexico’s Chichén Itzá
- Cape Cod Confidential: True Tales of Murder, Crime, and Scandal from the Pilgrims to the Present
The Yucatan Times