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Location and Description

The State of Quintana Roo lies on the eastern end of the Yucatán Peninsula in Southeastern Mexico. Quintana Roo also neighbors the Mexican States of Yucatán (on the northwest) and Campeche (on the southwest) and the nations of Belize and Guatemala (on the south). The state consists of only 44,825 square kilometers, which is equal to 2.0% of the national land mass. While the western and northern coasts of the Yucatán Peninsula are on the Gulf of Mexico coast, the eastern coast of the Yucatán — including Quintana Roo — touches the Caribbean Sea.

Quintana Roo had a 2010 population of 1,325,578 which lived in its eleven municipios and represented only 1.2% of the population of the entire Mexican Republic. The state’s population is distributed into 88% urban and 12% rural areas. The capital city of Quintana Roo is Chetumal. The city is almost entirely modern, as it was destroyed by hurricane in 1955.

The name of the state is in honor of the Yucatan lawyer Andrés Quintana Roo (1787 – 1851), born in Mérida, Yucatán. He was Deputy for Puebla in the Congress of Chilpancingo (September–November 1813) that declared the independence of Mexico from Spain and drafted a constitution.

Political Developments (1787-1824)

In 1787, the area of the present-day state of Yucatán was made part of the Intendencia of Valladolid, a part of the colony of Nueva España. But with Mexican independence, Yucatán became a part of the new nation as of September 28, 1821. Yucatán proclaimed its own sovereignty in August 1822 but was re-incorporated into Mexico in February 1824, becoming a state within the Mexican Republic on October 3, 1824. 

As noted in the discussion below, the State of Yucatán had a fraught relationship with the Republic of Mexico during the 19th Century. Even more telling is the fact that from 1821 to 1902, Yucatán was split into several warring factions and was eventually carved into three separate states: Yucatán, Campeche and Quintana Roo.

Separatist Activities in Yucatán (1838-1847)

During the mid-1830s, the authorities in Yucatán became discontent with the central government in Mexico City. A revolt for independence began on May 29, 1839. Two years later, on May 31, 1841, Yucatán declared its independence from Mexico. With the foundation of the new Republic of Yucatán, five departments were created within the state: Merida, Izamal, Valladolid, Tekax and Campeche. The following map shows these departments. Present-day Quintana Roo was represented by portions of the departments of Tekax and Valladolid. [Hpav7, “División Política de la Primera República de Yucatán (Political Districts of the First Republic of Yucatan” (July 21, 2009)].

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General Antonio Santa Anna refused to recognize Yucatán’s independence, and he barred Yucatecan ships and commerce from Mexican ports and ordered Yucatán’s ports blockaded. He sent an army to invade Yucatán in 1843. Although the Yucatecans defeated the Mexican force, the loss of economic ties to the Mexican Republic had a negative effect on Yucatecan commerce.

Yucatán’s governor Miguel Barbachano y Tarrazo decided to use the victory as an opportunity to return to negotiations with Santa Anna’s government from a position of strength. It was then agreed that Yucatán would be returned to Mexico so long as various assurances of the right to self-rule and adherence to the 1825 Constitution within the Peninsula were observed by Mexico City. Yucatán was re-incorporated into Mexico in December 1843, but independence was restored in December 1846.  Then in February 23, 1847, Yucatán was re-incorporated into Mexico again. 

The Caste War of Yucatán Begins (1847)

In 1847, while the Mexican dictator Santa Anna was preoccupied with his war with the United States, Yucatan’s Liberal leadership – consisting primarily of Ladinos (mestizos) and Yucatecos (citizens of Yucatán of European descent) – declared independence from Mexico. As early as 1839, the Ladino leaders had begun to recruit Maya-speaking peasants and farm laborers systematically as soldiers. The Mayan Indians were now brought into the revolt by promises of land reform and the abolition of debt labor, church dues and the aguardiente tax.

But after providing the Indians with arms and military training, the Merida administration balked on their promises and the Mayan troops in Valladolid began to riot. What had started as a series of disputes between elite factions vying for power gradually became an insurrection of certain sections of the Maya-speaking lower classes against the Ladino-dominated government of Yucatán.

On July 30, 1847, the Mayan rebel forces in the east, led by Jacinto Pat of Tihosuco and Cecilio Chi of Tepich, took up arms against local authorities with the declared purpose of driving all the whites, mestizos and mulatos from the peninsula. Their revolt advocated for the abolition of a head tax and free access to agricultural land. Next, the Maya rebellion spread south to Bacalar (now in Quintana Roo) and began to close in on Merida.

As the revolt gained momentum, the entire area of three present-day states — Campeche, Yucatán and Quintana Roo — was now involved in the hostilities. This revolt — which became known as the “La Guerra de las Castas” or “The War of the Castes” — was now primarily directed against the Yucatecos who held most of the political and economic control in the region and were concentrated in the northwest part of the state (around Merida). By the summer of 1848, the rebels had a force of between 100,000 and 150,000.

The Maya-speaking lower class (Indians and vecinos) in the north and west of the peninsula did not generally support the uprising in 1847; in fact, many of them even joined government forces and fought against the rebels. By 1848, no less than 10,000 of the 25,000 men fighting the rebels were Indians.

Within three months of the beginning of the rebellion, indigenous forces under General Cecilio Chi – a veteran of the Mexican army – had conquered roughly four-fifths of the peninsula from Mexican rule. Many of the homes, shops, plantations and government offices of wealthy Ladinos were sacked, and only the walled cities of Campeche and Mérida and portions of the southwest remained under European control. The map below shows the movements (black arrows) of the rebel army and the range of the rebel territory (the gray area) in 1848 [Lean Sweeney, “Entre la Criminalidad y el Patriotismo: Los Mayas Icaichés y los Nexos Entre el Poder Legítimo e Ilegítimo (Between Criminality and Patriotism: The Icaiché Maya and Their Links to Legitimate and Illegitimate Power),” Península, Vol. 3, No. 2 (January 2008)].

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During the spring of 1848, as the Mayan army advanced on Mérida — where the Europeans had taken refuge — the Yucatecos were preparing to evacuate the city. However, when things looked most bleak for the Yucatecos, the Maya suddenly broke off their attack and returned to their villages and fields to plant their corn, in observance of Mayan tradition. With the approach of the rainy season, the maize planting season had arrived. It has been claimed that the appearance of flying ants after a heavy rain was the traditional signal to mark the beginning of the planting season. The Mayans returned home to plant and then harvest their corn.

The Yucatecos Rebound

The Mayans felt a strong responsibility to provide food for their families, but, during the summer months, the Yucatecos were able to regroup. At the same time, Yucatán was once again officially reunited with Mexico on August 17, 1848. Now that the state had once again become part of the Mexican Republic, fresh guns, money and troops from Mexico arrived and, by 1849, the Yucatecos had amassed sufficient supplies and reinforcements from abroad to reclaim the land back from the Maya. When General Chi was murdered on December 13, 1848, the rebellion collapsed.

The Beginning of the Talking Cross Uprising (1851)

In 1851, a new threat to Yucatán’s stability materialized. The Mayans in the southeast (now Quintana Roo) were inspired to renew their struggle through the apparition of the “Talking Cross.” According to Wayne M. Clegern, in his article, “British Honduras and the Pacification of Yucatán,” a Mayan group living in a remote refugee settlement known as Chan Santa Cruz (Small Holy Cross) in the southeastern corner of the peninsula, “were anti-Mexican, pro-British and, according to their name, practiced paganism with Christian symbols. Their syncretistic worship had a pre-Columbian based overlaid with elements of Christian ritual gotten from Spanish missionaries… during the colonial period.”

These Mayans believed that God was communicating with them through a wooden cross which impelled them to once again raise their weapons against the Europeans. The cultists called themselves “Cruzoob” – the Spanish word for cross with the Maya plural suffix. With the help of arms supplied by the British (who occupied neighboring British Honduras – now Belize), the Maya Cruzoob declared war against the Yucatecos.

The new rebellion was infused with religious significance and Chan Santa Cruz became the political and religious center of the resistance. The city – which is located in present day Quintana Roo – was later renamed Felipe Carrillo Puerto after a native-born politician who was assassinated in 1924. The Talking Cross rebels held most of the region of Quintana Roo until they were defeated by a federal army in1901.

Britain Recognizes the Cruzoob

The United Kingdom recognized the Chan Santa Cruz Maya as a de facto independent country, in large part because of the thriving trade between the rebel government and British Honduras. The trade between the Cruzoob with British Honduras bought arms and other goods to the rebels. The rebels were able to pay for the goods with captured loot and with “taxes” charged to British woodcutters allowed to work in areas they controlled. 

The Pacificos del Sur

The military pressure on the Cruzoob rebellion was distracted when Yucatán’s troops responded to a new separatist revolt in the poorer Yucatán region of Campeche (in the southwestern part of the peninsula). In 1853, a group known as Pacificos del Sur (The Peaceful of the South) arose from the numerous peasant refugees, army deserters and former combatants who had settled in what is now southern Campeche. Most historians have said that this group made peace, but there is also evidence that they may have maintained some sympathy with the Cruzoob rebellion.

On May 3, 1858, Campeche was formally separated from Yucatán, although it was not recognized as a separate sovereign territory until 1863 by President Benito Juarez. The following map illustrates the situation on the Yucatán Peninsula in the late 1850s, showing the Línea del Sur (Southern Line) which separated the Pacificos del Sur from the northern Yucatecos. The territory of the Cruzoob is shown in gray. [Lean Sweeney, “Entre la Criminalidad y el Patriotismo: Los Mayas Icaichés y los Nexos Entre el Poder Legítimo e Ilegítimo (Between Criminality and Patriotism: The Icaiché Maya and Their Links to Legitimate and Illegitimate Power),” Península, Vol. 3, No. 2 (January 2008)].

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Hostilities with Chan-Santa-Cruz Continue (1860-1871)

In 1860 the Mexican Colonel Acereto, with 3,000 men occupied Chan-Santa-Cruz, but was finally compelled to retire with the loss of 1,500 men killed, and to abandon his wounded — most of whom were executed. Acereto’s forces also lost most of their artillery and small arms, with the result that the Indians were able to use those weapons to strike back, burning and ravaging 19 towns, entirely wiping out their inhabitants. As a result, the population in three districts was reduced from 97,000 to 35,000.

Savage atrocities continued through 1864, as the rebels engaged in contraband, smuggling English manufactured goods into their territory. They were able to stay well supplied with arms and munitions at this time through their trade with British Honduras. Hostilities continued for many years as the Cruzoob continued to hold onto their position. Mexican forces again occupied Chan Santa Cruz in 1871, but were once again forced to retreat thereafter. The territory of the Chan Santa Cruz at its greatest height (circa 1870) is shown on the following map [Map from Wikipedia, “Caste War of Yucatán (October 26, 2006).” Online:].

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Yucatán Indigenous Groups

The Chan Santa Cruz state, stretching from north of Tulum to the Belize border and a considerable distance inland, was the largest of the independent Maya communities of the era but not the only one.

Another rebel group, the Ixcanha Maya community, lived in the jungles of the lower center of the peninsula and opposed both the Cruzoob and the Mexicans. The Ixcanha consisted of about 1,000 people who rejected the Cruzoob’s break with traditional Catholicism. They agreed to nominal recognition of Mexico in exchange for weapons to defend themselves from Cruzoob raids. The Mexican permitted the Ixcanha to govern themselves through 1894.

Southwest of Santa Cruz territory lay an area dominated by several loosely related groups of Indians, the strongest of whom were the Icaiche, who were pro- Mexican, anti-British, with a unique brand of paganism. In the 1860s, the Icaiche battled against the Mexicans and the Cruzoob, but also made raids in British Honduras as well, under their leader Marcos Canul. Eventually, the Icaiche made their peace with both the British and the Mexican governments.

Negotiations and Other Developments (1884-1893)

In 1884, Mexico re-established diplomatic relations with Great Britain, broken seventeen years earlier. Britain responded by acting as a peacemaker, sponsoring negotiations between Yucatán and the Maya Cruzoob state — while continuing their lucrative arms trade with the rebels.

Negotiations led to a peace agreement signed on January 11, 1884 in Belize City by a Chan Santa Cruz general and the Vice-Governor of Yucatán recognizing Mexican sovereignty over Chan Santa Cruz in exchange for Mexican recognition of Chan Santa Cruz leader Crescencio Poot as the Governor of the State of Chan Santa Cruz. An exchange of prisoners was also agreed to. However, the day after the signing, a drunken General Canto insulted one of the Maya leaders, Antonio Dzul.  The Maya denounced the treaty and left in anger.

In 1887, the Maya formally requested that the British annex their territory and place them under the protection of Queen Victoria. However, the proposal was declined and actually led to talks between the Mexican and British governments in resolving the Mayan insurgency and the territorial status of Quintana Roo and Chan Santa Cruz.

Fixing the Border with British Honduras

In 1893, Mexican President Porfirio Díaz, who was already dealing with several long-running Indian revolts, recognized that cutting off the arms supply from British Honduras was the key to defeating the Cruzoob and winning in Yucatán. The Spencer-Mariscal Treaty, signed in 1893, was signed, establishing the Rio Hondo as the boundary with British Honduras. The British agreed to close their border with Mexico, thus shutting down their trade with the Cruzoob rebels. As Belize merchants were Chan Santa Cruz’s main source of gunpowder, this was a serious blow for the Maya.

The Final Offensive (1898-1901)

In 1898, the Mexican Government decided to move once again on the Cruzoob territory. Admiral Othón P. Blanco was commissioned by the Mexican Government to secure the border between the Mayan territory and British Honduras. He did this by establishing a customs post at the mouth of the Hondo River (the present-day boundary between Mexico and Belize) in an attempt to stop the supply of weapons to the Mayan forces.

This customs post soon became the City of Payo Obispo and has become Mexico’s main trading gateway with Belize since then. Today, Payo Obispo is known as Chetumal and is in the municipio of Othón P. Blanco. At the invitation of founder Othón P. Blanco, the early town was populated by settlers who were from Belize (including Caste War refugees and Englishmen).

The Caste War Ends (1901)

On May 4, 1901, a Mexican Government force under General Ignacio Bravo marched into Chan Santa Cruz, dispersing many of the Cruzoob rebels who fled into the swamps. This marked the end of the Caste War, which finally ended after fifty-four years of hostilities. The war had cost about a quarter of a million lives and hundreds of towns were destroyed. In fact, the Yucatán Peninsula lost a third to half of its population, killed or forced to flee from the violence. 

With their capital occupied by government forces, the Cruzoob split into smaller groups often hiding in small hamlets in the jungle. Epidemics of measles and smallpox carried by General Bravo’s troops further depleted the numbers of the remaining Cruzoobs. Some of the surviving rebels carried on with their cause deep in the forest and swamps, while others fled to British Honduras or Guatemala.

Mexican occupation did not end resistance by the indigenous Maya, who continued to conduct guerrilla attacks against the Mexicans. In the 1930s, a dissident faction, led by Evaristo Zuluub, established a new settlement at a previously uninhabited site they called Xcacal Guardia, about 30 miles northwest of Santa Cruz. 

The dissident Cruzoob faction of 700 supporters in Xcacal held out until April 1933 when elements of the 35th and 42nd Battalions of the Mexican Army moved on the village of Dzula, west of Santa Cruz, to arrest the ringleader, Evaristo Zuluub.  A skirmish followed in which two Mexican soldiers and five Maya died, but Zuluub escaped. This represented the last known skirmish of a conflict that had lasted more than 85 years. A peace treaty was signed between the Government of Mexico and the Cruzoob in 1935, officially ending hostilities.

Political Evolution of the State

On November 24, 1902, by a decree of President Porfirio Díaz, the territory of Quintana Roo was carved out of the southeastern section of Yucatán. The territory was named after Andrés de Quintana Roo, an illustrious lawyer born in the city of Mérida in 1787 and who had played a role in Mexico’s struggle for independence. However, from June 10, 1913 to June 28, 1915, Quintana Roo was re-incorporated into the Yucatán.

A couple decades later, in 1931, Quintana was divided between Yucatán and Campeche. But, on January 14, 1935, President Cárdenas of Mexico constituted the Federal Territory of Quintana Roo. Finally, on April 3, 1974, Quintana Roo was granted its status as the free and sovereign state of Quintana Roo. The following map shows the territorial division of the three Yucatán states and their disagreements about the boundary lines [Hpav7, “Conflicto Limitrofe entre Yucatan, Campeche y Quintana Roo” (April 21, 2010) in Wikipedia, “Punto Put.” Online:].  

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The 1921 Census

In the unique 1921 Mexican census, residents of each state were asked to classify themselves in several categories, including “indígena pura” (pure indigenous), “indígena mezclada con blanca” (indigenous mixed with white) and “blanca” (white).

Out of a total territorial population of 6,966, one-fifth (1,434 persons, or 20.6%) claimed to be of pure indigenous background. A much larger number – 2,950, or 42.4% – classified themselves as being of mixed origins (mezclada or mestizo). The whites population amounted to 1,056, or 15.2% of the population, and extranjeros made up more than one-fifth of the population (1,496 extranjeros, or 21.5%). In total, 985 persons spoke an indigenous language, and nearly all of them (976) spoke the Maya language.

Quintana Roo in the 2000 Census

According to the 2000 census, the population of persons five years and more who spoke indigenous languages in Quintana Roo amounted to 173,592 individuals. These individuals spoke a wide range of languages, including:  Maya (163,477), Kanjobal (1,286), Náhuatl (1,213), Tzotzil (1,164), Zapoteco (811), Chol (798), and Totonaca (726).

Tracking Indigenous Speakers 3 Years and Over

In previous censuses, information on the indigenous speaking population five years of age and older was obtained from the Mexican people. However, in the 2010 census, this approach was changed and the Government also began to collect data on people 3 years and older because from the age of 3, children are able to communicate verbally.

With this new approach, it was determined that there were 6,913,362 people 3 years of age or more who spoke an indigenous language (218,000 children 3 and 4 four years of age fell into this category).  The population of children aged 0 to 2 years in homes where the head of household or a spouse spoke an indigenous language was 678,954. In 2010, Quintana Roo was the state with the four highest percentage of persons aged 3 and more speaking an indigenous language were:

  1. Oaxaca (33.8%)
  2. Yucatán (29.6%)
  3. Chiapas (27.3%)
  4. Quintana Roo (16.2%)

Maya as the Most Spoken Language (2010)

In 2010, the Maya language was spoken by one in ten residents of Quintana Roo. Other Maya languages constituted a smaller portion of the indigenous speaking population, but all of these languages are imports from other Mexican states or Guatemala. The 2010 language data for Quintana Roo is illustrated in the following table:

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Mexico’s 2015 Intercensal Survey

In 2016, the Mexican government agency, Instituto Nacional de Estadística Geografía e Informática (INEGI), published the 2015 Intercensal Survey, which upgraded Mexico’s socio-demographic information to the midpoint between the 2010 census and the census to be carried out in 2020. With a sample size of over 6 million homes, this survey provides information on the national, state and municipio level, as of March 15th, 2015.

In the 2015 Intercensal Survey, Maya continued to be the dominant language spoken in Quintana Roo, but Tzeltal, Tsotsil and Ch’ol are Chiapas-based languages that were most likely introduced by migrants from Chiapas. The following table illustrates the percentage of the primary languages spoken in the state.

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Considered Indigenous Classification

One of the 2015 survey questions read “De acuerdo, con su cultura, se considera indígena?” Essentially, Mexican residents were being asked if they considered themselves indigenous through their culture. Survey respondents had four possible responses:

  1. Sí (Yes)
  2. Sí, en parte (Yes, in part)
  3. No
  4. No sabe (Do not know)

From 1895 to 1990, the Mexican census asked Mexican citizens if they spoke an indigenous language. Only the 1921 census used racial categories. However, in recent years, INEGI has begun to recognize “Autoadscripción étnica” (Ethnic self-identification) which gives its citizens the right to “self-identification based on their own culture, traditions and history,” even if they do not speak an indigenous language. In 2000, INEGI first began using indigenous self-identification in the census. But, in 2010 and 2015, it was used in a more careful and measured manner and the results were very interesting.

According to the 2015 Intercensal Survey, more than 44% of Quintana Roo’s 1.5 million residents identified with their indigenous past. On the other hand, only about 17% of Quintana Roo’s inhabitants three years of age and more actually spoke an indigenous language. And, Quintana Roo, in contrast to many other southern Mexican states had a very low monolingual rate of 2.82%. 

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Two of Quintana’ Roo’s municipios — Felipe Carrillo Puerto and José María Morelos — each had a population of more than 90% who considered themselves to be indigenous. Five of the state’s eleven municipios had indigenous populations of more than 50%, and the municipio with the least indigenous population was Solidaridad (with 33.60%).

In total, 16.62% of Quintana Roo’s population 3 years of age and more spoke an indigenous language, but the five municipios in the preceding table had between 34% and 67% indigenous speaking populations. The two municipios with the least percent of indigenous speakers were: Benito Juárez (10.83%) and Othón P. Blanco (8.26%).

Archaeological Sites

Quintana Roo is home of the world famous city of Cancún and many other tourist spots. Quintana Roo’s tourist boom began in the 1970s and has resulted in the development of coastal hotels and resorts and a booming tourist industry, in large part because of the numerous archaeological sites left by the Mayans.

According to the latest numbers from the Quintana Roo Tourism Board, 16.9 million visitors traveled to Cancun and the Riviera Maya in 2017, up 5.3 percent from the previous year. According to Allianz Global Assistance’s most recent summer travel study, Cancun remains the top travel destination this summer for the second year in a row, with 15.72 percent of U.S. travelers surveyed planning a trip there. Thanks to tourism, the Mexico Daily News reported that Quintana Roo’s GDP grew by 7.6% in 2017.

Quintana Roo’s indigenous past remains a part of its present, with 16% of its population speaking the Yucatec Mayan language and a large number of archaeological sites for visitors to explore.


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