The Caste War, the Church of the Speaking Cross, and the Cruzob Maya

By Jeanine Lee Kitchel

Living in the land of the Maya today, one takes for granted the solemn undercurrent of a revered, majestic culture that built pyramids, developed the concept of zero, and for centuries, quietly held their ground against the Spanish when their Aztec cousins had succumbed to The Conquest in a heartbeat.

While sunbathing on gorgeous white sand beaches, snorkeling off the Great Meso-American Reef, or enjoying Mexicoís laidback hospitality, itís easy to forget to whom we owe allegiance on Quintana Rooís spectacular coast. But just beneath the surface of this postcard perfect existence lies a Yucatan tale that isnít talked about much but has set the tone for most of the past century: the Caste War of the Yucatan.

When cultures collide as they did in Mexico, history requires a winner and a loser. But in Quintana Roo after the Caste War of the Yucatan, which began in 1847 and ended with a half-hearted truce as recently as 1935, itís difficult to determine who won the battle and which side lost the war.

From 1847 until the late 1930s, the Caste War made it impossible for a light-skinned person to walk into the eastern Yucatan or the territory of Quintana Roo and come out alive. This was a place where only indigenous Maya could safely roam. All white men were killed on sight. What caused the fierceness of this Maya uprising that lasted well over half a century?

No single element alone instigated the rebellion, but as in most revolutions, a long dominated underclass was finally pushed to its limit by an overbearing ruling class that performed intolerable deeds. Indentured servitude, land grabbing, and water rights were but a few issues that pushed the Maya into full-fledged revolt.

The history of the Caste War, not unlike Mexicoís dramatic history, is complicated to say the least. Mexicoís successful break with Spain led to changes in the Yucatan government, including arming the Maya to help fight the Mexican war against the U.S. in Texas. Mayan numbers were needed to assure victory. Armed with rifles and machetes, this tactic soon backfired in Valladolid, the most elitist and race conscious city in the Yucatan.

After a decade of skirmishes, in 1847, when the newly armed Mayans heard one of their leaders had been put to death by firing squad, a long simmering rebellion broke out into full-fledged battle. The Maya rose up and marched on Valladolid, hacking 85 people to death by machete, burning, raping and pillaging.

Merida braced itself, sure to be the next staging ground for what was fast becoming a race war. In retaliation for the Valladolid massacre, the Yucatecans descended on the ranch of a Mayan leader and raped a 12-year old Indian girl. With this affront, eight Maya tribes joined forces and drove the entire elite white population of Yucatan to Merida, burning houses and pillaging as they went. So fierce was the slaughter, all non-Maya prepared to evacuate Merida and the peninsula by boat.

But just as the Mayan tribes approached Merida, sure of victory, fate intervened when great clouds of winged ants appeared in the sky. With this first sign of rain coming, the Maya knew it was time to begin planting. They laid down their machetes against the pleadings of their chiefs, and headed home to their milpas (cornfields). It was time to plant corn - a thing as simple and ancient as that.

In 1848 the Yucatecans staged a comeback, killed Mayan leaders and reunified. But as the Mayans harvested corn theyíd planted in hidden fields, they kept fighting, relying on guerrilla tactics to preserve the only life they knew. Throughout all this, the Maya were pushed to the eastern and southern regions of the Yucatan and Quintana Roo, as far south as Bacalar. Mexico slowly gained control over the Yucatan, but the rebel Maya held firmly onto Quintana Roo, using the pueblo of Chan Santa Cruz (present day Felipe Carrillo Puerto) as their base.

Tired from years of struggle, the Maya regained confidence from an unlikely source: a talking cross found deep in the jungle near a cenote. Revolutionary Jose Maria Barrera, driven from his Yucatan pueblo, led his band of people to an uninhabited forest and to a small cenote called Lom Ha (Cleft Spring). There he discovered a cross that was carved into a tree. The cross bore a resemblance to the Maya tree of life, La Ceiba, and a new religion formed around it, the cult of the speaking cross, centered in the Tulum area.

Barrera, a mestizo, said the cross transmitted a message which was later given as a sermon by Juan de la Cruz (of the Cross), a man trained to lead religious services in the absence of a Mayan priest. Barrera also used a ventriloquist, Manuel Nahuat, as the mouthpiece of the cross, and through this directed the Maya in their war effort, urging them to take up arms against the Mexican government, assuring the people of the cross they would attain victory.

From this speaking cross a community evolved-- Chan Santa Cruz (Little Holy Cross)-- and its inhabitants came to be called Cruzob, or followers of the cross. By chance, the cross bore three elements sacred to the Maya: the Ceiba tree, the cenote, and a cave. The cross was found growing on the roots of a Ceiba, the Maya tree of life, which sprung from a cave (caves were sacred spots to the Maya), by a cenote, which the Maya believed was the place where the rain gods lived, making it easy for the Maya to accept this supernatural phenomenon.

It was also really not a stretch for Mayans to believe the cross spoke to them. In the Chilam Balam, an ancient Maya text, priests were described as hearing voices from the gods. So, even this aspect of mysticism fell into acceptable myth for the Maya. To the Chan Santa Cruz, the voice of God came from that cross in that tree. To the Cruzob, the cross was inspired by a shamanic ventriloquist -- the man speaking to them through the cross was Godís chattel, a mouthpiece of the gods. A shaman. The Cruzob believed this tree and this cross were con