Mar 8, 2006

Review: The Caste War of Yucatan


Reed, Nelson. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1964 (reprinted 2001), 308 pages

Reed’s book examined the Mayan rebellion, or Caste War, of 1847 and the protracted, low-intensity war that continued well into the 20th century. The author provided a brief introduction to the conflict, splitting the material into two categories: the “Ladino world” and the “Mazehual world.”

Reed’s analysis is thus based on the artificial construct of racial antagonism, and groups of people that do not fit neatly into these categories (such as mestizos) get shoehorned into one or the other. Reed argued that the Maya, after a long period of figurative sleep, collectively awoke and rebelled in 1847 in response to centuries of Ladino abuses.

The book is heavy on detailed descriptions of the military exchanges between the Maya and Ladinos. Reed acknowledged this in the preface with the forewarning that there “should be enough battles in this book for anyone’s taste.” This, however, is an understatement, as over one-third of the book is a meticulous summary of battles, strategies, and a dizzying array of personages. The only merit to scholars – besides military historians – is an examination of the historiographical language used to describe the combatants. Ladino forces were usually depicted by Reed as garrisons, battalions, and troops; Mayan forces received such sobriquets as "half-civilized," "natives," and at best, "guerillas."

Reed’s prose suffers from a dated paternalism, thus limiting the usefulness of the book for modern scholars. The author postulated that the underdevelopment of the Yucatan was due to the failure of "European ideas of reason, the perfectibility of man, and human progress" to reach the peninsula in a timely fashion. The Speaking Cross, in Reed’s view, was operated by a "ventriloquist;" while this may have been technically true, the word imparts a sense of trickery on the part of the Maya, and demeans what for the Cruzob ("followers of the Cross") was a very real religious experience. This sort of neo-Eurocentrism appears throughout Reed’s book.

Left: Speaking Cross of Felipe Carrillo Puerto

In addition, Reed’s analysis sometimes overlooked explanations, as in the case of his claim that the rebellion resulted in "147,000 persons still unaccounted for, and these must have been the dead: thirty percent of the population killed by the gun, the machete, starvation, or disease." Reed did not seem to consider that the Maya simply may have simply viewed census takers in 1850 with great suspicion, and that the Mayan skill of disappearing into the hinterlands may have been employed to great use in the post-rebellion Yucatan.

The pre-rebellion Maya are generally depicted by Reed as passive actors in a drama largely orchestrated by Ladinos. The propensity of the Maya toward docility , in Reed’s eyes, was a sort of resigned acceptance of events beyond their power to control:
They [the Maya] saw their sacred corn trampled and smashed by unfenced cattle, their very land stolen away. They had no recourse when their women were raped or seduced, when their fmilies were broken by labor laws, or when they found themselves bound for life on a hacienda in debt servitude.

Reed also painted a dichotomy of rather simplistic class structures, as the impoverished Maya "dressed up in their best and lined up to kiss his [the hacendado’s] hand" when the master visited his distant hacienda.

The value of Reed’s book is in bringing the Caste War and the cult of the Speaking Cross to a wide audience. The author filled a void in historiographical literature on the Maya, despite his decision to produce the book without footnotes. While overly weighted toward military history, Reed nonetheless provided a balanced narrative that neither worships nor condemns the Maya.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

interesting, Mike.