In his book, The Caste War of Yucatan (first published in 1963), author Nelson Reed warns readers that the shooting does not begin until the third chapter, because he has to set the stage for the action with a description of the worlds which clashed in the war — the Ladino world and the Mazehual world.
Today, scholars insist that the Caste War, which began in 1847, was not a race war, as it had been depicted in years bygone. I don’t know about that, because the matter of the Caste War, the matter of mid-nineteenth century Mexico itself, these matters are so complex. In trying to give you a sense of the situation, I read Reed’s first chapter, on the Ladino world, several times. I didn’t want merely to quote his thoughts, but it was very difficult work; trust me.
Before I quote Reed on Yucatan’s sociology, I want to discuss Mexico’s geography. Mexico is at its widest where its northern border meets the border of the United States, at the Rio Grande. This border runs all the way west from California to Texas, America’s largest state. Many, many of us Belizeans have entered the U.S. through Mexico’s Tijuana border, where the American city equivalent in California is San Isidro. We had travelled by bus from Chetumal to Vera Cruz to Mexico City to Tijuana.
In the old days in the 1950s and before, however, when we left Chetumal, we Belizeans had to go all the way up to Merida, in the northwest of Yucatan, before coming back down to the southeast of Yucatan in order to travel to Vera Cruz through Villahermosa and cities like that. Sometime in the 1960s, however, the Mexican government built a highway from Chetumal through Escarcega which spared us Belizeans the great problem of having to go all the way up to Merida, when it was really to America that we wanted to go.
Another thing. In the old days, before the war between the United States and Mexico began in 1846, Texas belonged to Mexico. (It had previously belonged to Spain, Mexico’s colonial master.) Roads were primitive in the nineteenth century, and you can see on a map that Texas would be much closer to Yucatan by sea, than Yucatan would be to the capital of Mexico City by road. Yucatan, like Texas, had an independent streak from way back.
Here is what Reed says of the social makeup of the Yucatan: “Under the Spanish Crown, Yucatecan society had been dominated by men of Spanish birth. The royal captain general, his lieutenant, and the bishop all came from the mother country—along with most of the higher judges, officials, and many officers. After them in status came the Creoles, people of supposedly pure white birth but born in the New World. Next stood the mestizos, far down the ladder, of mixed white and Indian blood, and a few mulattos of white and Negro blood. The Pardos, of Negro and Indian blood, came from several hundred ex-slaves in neighboring Tabasco, as well as a group who survived a shipwreck and formed a village in north central Yucatan, but they were never important in number. At the bottom of the ladder were the Indios.”
Mexico became an even more complex place after independence in 1821. A number of white Americans had drifted south into Texas by the time the short-term Mexican president, Vicente Guerrero, declared slavery illegal in 1829 in Mexico, but pressure from the Texans forced him to exempt Texas from the anti-slavery decree. The key thing to note here, historically speaking, is that Guerrero, Mexico’s only president of African descent, who was deposed and shot by firing squad in 1831, had been supported by the General Santa Anna, whose history in Mexican politics and wars is simply incredible.
In the American propaganda movies about Texas and the Alamo which we watched as children growing up in British Honduras, the hero was, of course, Davy Crockett. Santa Anna, leading the Mexican side, was depicted as a buffoon, a weirdo, a coward, and anything else negative you would like to describe him as.
But you can’t understand the background to the Caste War without having an idea of how incredible Santa Anna was. According to Enrique Krauze, Lucas Alaman wrote as follows: “The history of Mexico since 1822, might accurately be called the history of Santa Anna’s revolutions … His name plays the major role in all the political events of the country and its destiny has become intertwined with him.”
Krauze himself wrote of Santa Anna as follows on pg. 135 of Mexico: Biography of Power: “If Iturbide’s empire had been the dramatic enactment of a tragedy, Santa Anna’s eleven presidencies might be compared to the less distinguished genre of operetta, in which he played several roles. One of them was ‘the conspirator.’ Sometimes, a strident ‘pronouncement’ was enough to topple a government. On other occasions, he would incite the rebels in secret, and when he realized that the government had more soldiers than he did, he would change sides and boldly join the peacemakers. But afterwards he would always retire with his profits in monies, power and prestige to Manga de Claro, his luxurious hacienda in the state of Veracruz. Smothered in the admiration of his public and feigning the most bucolic of lives, ‘concerned only with his crops and his livestock,’ Santa Anna would wait for the next call of destiny, which never failed to come and nearly always worked out to his advantage.”
In this column, then, you should have gotten an idea of the furors and uproars in Mexico City, the capital; the independence and ambitions of Yucatan, led by Merida and Campeche; and, finally, the role of Texas in between Mexico City and Yucatan. At the bottom of all this ferment in 1847 were the oppressed Indios. The Caste War was their fight for human rights.