While traveling throughout the Yucatán I stopped at the former colonial city of Valladolid. Upon entering the cathedral I was shocked by its magnificence. “How beautiful,” I said aloud to myself. “Yes, but this church is punished,” said a voice. Punished? How strange. I had never heard this word used to describe a church before. Why punished? I inquired further, but the man was unable to say.
Upon returning to the Meson del Marques, I asked the director of the hotel about the meaning of this curious epithet. He could not say, but he advised me to speak with Carlos, one of the many waiters. He arrived, plate in hand. I asked him why the cathedral was called the punished church? He didn’t hesitate.
“Because of the massacres of the landowners,” he said. “They had sought refuge there, but not a single one survived. Their bodies were scattered all the way to the high alter.”
“But when was this?”
“During the war of the castes.”
I had never heard of such a conflict. What was this war that carried such a strange name? Carlos, the waiter, pure Maya and revealing himself to be a well of knowledge and an authority on history, taught me a chapter history of which I was completely ignorant.
When Mexico achieved independence in the second half of the 19th century, rich landowners of Spanish descent, who ultimately proved to be worse than their predecessors, gradually replaced the colonists. Shortly thereafter, the natives revolted. There were massacres of landowners and their families almost everywhere. The Mexican government sent in the army, which was beaten to a pulp. The Maya were gaining ground everyday. The conflict lasted decades, with Indian victories followed by Mexican retaliation, years of ups and downs, twists and turns. The conflict eventually took on a religious character when a Messiah of sorts appeared, who had come to bring victory and independence to the Maya. The Maya fought in his name, until suddenly he disappeared. The Maya gradually withdrew, and the Mexicans troops retook Mérida, Valladolid, and other great northern cities of the Yucatán.
The Maya rebels regrouped in a small town that today goes by the name of Felipe Carillo. This small town witnessed apparition of the “Talking Cross”. Everyday, in the local church, the crucifix on the wall behind the high alter would give the Maya instructions and provide them with words of encouragement and hope as it sent them into battle, and everyday the rebels would fill the church to listen to these holy words. The Cross told them not to abandon their campaign, but to continue the fight against the landowners who exploited them and the Mexican government that either mistreated or ignored them. Soon others joined the conflict. The English sent troops from neighboring Belize. Volunteers of all races joined the fight, some coming from as far as China and Korea, as the Caste War of the Yucatán dragged on.
Ultimately, it was progress that ended the war. When railroad tracks were laid in the region, the Maya found that their knowledge of and abilities to move about and hide in the jungle landscape were no longer as valuable or useful as they had been. The railroad succeeded in vanquishing those whom the Mexican troops could not and soon the war faded from the memory of historians