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Location and Description

The state of Yucatán is located in northern half of the Yucatán Peninsula of southeastern Mexico. It is surrounded by the Mexican states of Campeche (southwest) and Quintana Roo (southeast) and by the Gulf of Mexico. The twentieth largest state in the Mexican Republic, Yucatán is made up of 39,524 square kilometers, or 2.0% of Mexico’s total land area, and is 20th largest state in the Mexican Republic, The State is about half the size of Maine and shares a 342-kilometer coastline with the Gulf of Mexico. The state of Yucatán has 106 municipalities.  The capital of Yucatán is Mérida.

In 2010, Yucatán had a population of 2,097,175 people, ranking it No. 21 among the Mexican states in terms of population.  The capital of the State is Mérida, which had a population of 1777,615 in 2010, representing 37.1% of the state’s total population.

Physical Description

The relief of the state of Yucatán consists of an extensive beach that covers the entire coastline, followed by an immense plain that penetrates into the interior covering 86.26% of the surface area of the state. Nearly 70% of the state is covered by jungles. Another 17.7% of the state is covered in grassland.

The Mayan World

It is believed that human beings have probably inhabited the area of present-day Yucatán for 7,000 years or more.  For the last few thousand years, the Mayan Indians have inhabited the entire Yucatán Peninsula, as well surrounding regions.  The physical “boundaries” of the ancient Mayan empire spanned across a region that now includes parts of five nations.

A map of Mayan Cultural area from Maggie Rost’s “Mayan Civilization” website

(https://www.pinterest.com/margaretrost/mayan-civilization/?lp=true) has been reproduced on the following page:

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In the South, the Mayan world consisted of modern day Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador and western Honduras. The northern reaches of Mayan territory included large portions of five Mexican states, Yucatán, Quintana Roo, Tabasco, Campeche and Chiapas. In all, the territory occupied by the Maya was probably 500,000 square kilometers in area, and is sometimes referred to collectively as El Mundo Maya (The Mayan World). 

The Mayan culture flourished for many centuries with the people making a living through agriculture, hunting and fishing. The Mayan archaeological sites left behind testify to a people who were skilled at weaving and the creation of pottery and other artifacts.

The Early Mayans
The Mayans studied the stars and, in their study of astronomy, were able to develop their own calendar. They were gifted architects who built temples and pyramids, but they were also farmers who provided sustenance for their communities. The “Classic Period” took place from 300 to 900 A.D. and covered most of the area presently recognized as El Mundo Maya. It was followed by the “Post-Classic Period” which lasted from about 1000 AD to 1500 AD. 

The Mayan Languages

The Mayan language group has been divided into several groups: the Huastec, Yucatec, Western Maya, and Eastern Maya linguistic groups. The Huastec represent a northern extension of the Mayan people who settled in present-day Veracruz. The Western Maya language group consists of several significant language groups (Tzeltal, Tzotzil, Chol, Tojolabal, Chuj, Kanjobal, Jacalteco, Chontal and Motozintlec), most of which are spoken in Chiapas and Guatemala. The Yucatec language was and is spoken throughout much of the Yucatán Peninsula, which presently includes three Mexican states (Yucatán, Campeche, and Quintana Roo) and the northern parts of both Belize and Guatemala.

The Yucatec Maya Language

For many centuries, the Yucatec Maya has been the dominant Mayan language throughout the Yucatán Peninsula, including Campeche, Yucatán, and Quintana Roo. The language was documented in the ancient hieroglyphs of the Pre-Columbian Maya civilizations at several archaeological sites and may be as much as 5,000 years old. Even at the time of the 2000 census, 799,696 individuals in the entire Mexican Republic still spoke this language. (This number does not include the other major Maya linguistic groups, such as the Tzeltal, Tzotzil, Huasteca, and the Chol, all of which thrive in several other Mexican states).

Sixteen Mayan States

The Maya ethnohistorian, Ralph L. Roys, has written that sixteen native Maya states occupied most of the Yucatán Peninsula in the early 16th century and that this population was “remarkably uniform in language, customs, and fundamental political ideas.” With the exception of Acalán in present-day Tabasco, all sixteen provinces spoke the Mayan language (In Acalán, they spoke the Chontal language of Tabasco). Some of the sixteen “provinces” were “true political units,” while others were “loose confederations of autonomous communities, as well as groups of independent and mutually hostile states whose ruling families had a common lineage.”

On the following page, a map of the Yucatán Mayan kingdoms based on Ralph L. Roys, “The Political Geography of the Yucatan Maya” (1957), has been reproduced. The map was extracted from Wikipedia’s article, “Republic of Yucatán.”

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According to Professor Roys, the inhabitants of the Peninsula seem to have considered themselves a single people and each of these territorial divisions was called a cuchcabal (literally jurisdiction), which the Spaniards translated as province.

Because of the Peninsula’s “political fragmentation,” the historian Nancy M. Farriss writes that “the Maya had no overarching imperial structure that could be toppled with one swift blow to the center.” As a result there was no single government that could be forced to surrender. Also the region was lacking in both gold and silver. As a result, the Spaniards took centuries to completely subjugate the entire peninsula. Each of the Maya provinces had to be negotiated with, and failing that, they had to be conquered separately. For this reason, the Spanish conquest of the Mayan chiefdoms was a much more complex task than the conquest of the massive Aztec Empire, in which case the empire fell after the Aztec Emperor and his circle of lieutenants were eliminated.

First Contacts with the Spaniards (1508-1523)

Vicente Yáñez Pinzón was the first navigator to visit the coast of Yucatán Peninsula in 1508. A second expedition, led by Juan de Valdivia, was shipwrecked along the coast in 1511.  Most of the men who made it ashore were killed by natives. But two men, Geronimo de Aguilar and Gonzalo Guerrero, were captured by the Maya. While Guerrero became a member of the Mayans and married the daughter of a chieftain, Aguilar was rescued by Hernán Cortez as he passed along the coast in 1519 and became an interpreter for the Spaniards in their confrontations with the Mayans and other tribes. Cortez’

Francisco de Cordoba’s expedition to the area in 1517 was met with several bloody engagements and was followed in the next year by an expedition under the command of Juan de Grijalva, who landed from Cuba, landed near Cozumel and took formal possession of the land for Spain. A year later, Hernan Cortez lead a new campaign that eventually made its way to the heart of the Aztec Empire and ended in the conquest of Tenochtitlán (in 1521).

After the conquest of the Aztecs, Pedro de Alvarado, one of Cortez’ chief lieutenants, began his conquest of the Mayans in late 1523. However, most of Alvarado’s campaign concentrated on the Quiché Maya and Cakchiquel of present-day Guatemala.

The Conquest (1526-1539)

In December 1526, a wealthy nobleman Francisco de Montejo was granted a royal contract (capitulación) to raise an army and conquer the Yucatán Peninsula, which today consists of three Mexican states: Campeche (on the west), Yucatán (on the north) and Quintana Roo (on the east).

In 1527, commanding three ships and several hundred Spanish soldiers, Montejo left Spain destined for the Yucatán. His force arrived at Cozumel in September 1527 and proceeded inland. Early in 1528, the Spaniards fought a large battle at Aké, 10 miles north of Tizimin (which is about 160 kilometers from Mérida). Both sides suffered an incredible number of casualties. Soon after, Montejo left the Yucatán with a greatly reduced force.

Montejo made plans for another expedition to Yucatán. This time, he would be accompanied by his son – who was called “El Mozo” (The Youthful) – and his nephew (known as “Sobrino”). The second attempt to conquer the indigenous peoples of the Yucatán took place from 1531 to 1535. For a while, the younger Montejo had subdued portions of northern Yucatán. However, news of the great riches found by Pizarro and his soldiers in Peru (1528-1532) led to many desertions among the Spanish force in Yucatán. The elder Montejo became the Captain General of Honduras in 1535, but lost his claim to that territory in 1539, after which he moved onto Tabasco, where his son was governing. He would return to Honduras to govern in 1542.

The Final Conquest (1540-1547)

In 1540, Francisco de Montejo “El Mozo” returned to the Yucatán to begin the third attempt to conquer the area, a task that would take six years. By this time, the Mayans had been reduced and weakened by smallpox and other diseases. El Mozo started by setting up a headquarters in Campeche, with a force of almost 400 soldiers. Once he had established his position, he summoned many of the Mayan rulers to his base. By the end of 1541, many of the chieftains had submitted to the Spanish crown. The Ah Canules resisted El Mozo but were defeated by Montejo’s cousin at Chakan.

Forming alliances with some of the local chieftains (such as the Pech and the Xiu) during 1541, the Montejos were able to subdue the native settlements in the provinces of Canpech and Ah Canul, bringing the present-day municipios of Tenabo, Hecelchakan and Calkiní under control. Later in the year, Montejo founded “La Villa and Puerto de San Francisco de Campeche” to further enhance the Spanish occupation of the area. However, the Spanish encomiendas (royal grants) caused great suffering among the local people and would galvanize resistance to the newcomers; as a result, complete conquest of the region eluded the Spanish administrators.

In late 1541, Montejo decisively defeated the Mayans in a bloody battle at Tihoo. A few months later, on January 6, 1542, Francisco de Montejo “El Mozo” established the city of Mérida, which was built on the site of a Mayan city that was known as Ichkanziho or Ichcaanzih, or “The City of Five Hills” (the hills were actually pyramids). This area had been one of the primary centers of Mayan culture for many centuries. But this point, Scholes and Roys wrote that “from here the forces of occupation, strengthened by new recruits, moved into the northern, central, and eastern parts of the Maya country.”

In 1542, Montejo established the city of Mérida at Tiho where he received the peaceful submission of the supreme ruler of Maní, Lord Tutul Xiu. Since Maní was the most powerful province of northern Yucatán, other western groups submitted as well. Montejo next sent his cousin to Chauaca to finish the conquest in the east. Most submitted peacefully, but Montejo defeated the Cocua chieftains only after a bitter battle. Even then they continued to resist Spanish rule. The eastern provinces of Cupul, Cochua, Sotuta, and Chetumal retained varying degrees of independence, and continued to harass the Spaniards.

The last holdouts were several Mayan chiefdoms in the eastern part of the peninsula. They were finally subdued after a failed four-month uprising that began in November 1546, and the conquest of the Yucatán was finally considered complete by 1547. Only the Itzá people – living in the region of Lake Petén in present-day northern Guatemala – remained independent. The Itzá kingdom did not submit to Spanish rule until March 13, 1697 when the island capital in Lake Petén was stormed by Spanish troops.

The Uprising of 1546-1547

The eastern Maya chiefdoms were not decisively defeated until a failed uprising in November of 1546. At that time, the Maya had had enough and began to fight back. They captured, tortured and crucified Spaniards when they could be captured, and carried on a kind of guerrilla warfare in the jungles. This resistance lasted for four months at which point the eastern chieftains were captured and the resistance was finished. The remaining Maya people fled to a town called Petén Itzá, sometimes called Tayasil, in 1547.

With their defeat, the ultimate conquest of Yucatán was assured. Only the Itzá remained independent in the region of Lake Petén Itzá until 1696-7, when they were defeated at Tayasil by the Spanish General Martin de Ursua.

Encomiendas (Royal Grants of Indigenous Labor)

Even before pacifying the native peoples of Yucatán, Francisco Montejo and his lieutenants began to distribute the inhabitants through encomiendas, which were royal grants of indigenous inhabitants that licensed a Spanish encomendero to receive their labor and tribute. Unfortunately, the encomiendas became subject to abuse and were frequently enforced through brutality and cruelty.

Because the Mayan lands were offered as land grants to Spanish noblemen and to the Catholic Church, some Mayans became, in effect, slave labor. Although the Spanish Crown outlawed Indian slavery in the Yucatán in royal edicts of 1549 and 1551, many elements of the Mayan population were, in fact, forced to work under horrible conditions.

At first these encomiendas were agreed to by the Mayan rulers who believed giving tribute was a type of political submission for providing supplies the Spanish sorely needed. Once it became clear to the Maya how violently exploitive the Spanish were in implementing these encomiendas they began to revolt. In all three secured areas (the elder Montejo in Campeche, the younger in Chichén Itzá and Alonso Davila in the southeast) the greatest opposition to the Spanish was shown when the encomiendas were handed out to the generals in the field. It took three or four months for the Canul, Canche and other local Maya leaders to organize an assault on Montejo’s position.

Dr. Robert W. Patch has written: “Originally about 150 of the 200 Spanish conquerors of Yucatán received encomiendas. They settled themselves on the peninsula and founded cities in a pattern largely determined by considerations of their own security and of controlling the conquered population for the purpose of tribute collection.” Thus on the west coast 30 encomenderos founded Campeche, on the east coast eight to ten settled at Bacalar, and in the interior 70 settled at Mérida and 39 at Valladolid. Within this semicircle of Spanish towns was enclosed the majority of the peninsula’s Indian population.”

The Colonial Period

The history of the indigenous peoples of the Yucatán between 1546 and Mexican independence is an exceptionally complex story. In 1545, the first Franciscan friars entered the Yucatán to initiate missionary work among the indigenous people. By 1593, over 150 Franciscan monks had been engaged in missionary work in the Peninsula. In some areas, the conversion was successful; in other areas, the loyalty to Christianity was so weak that during rebellions, the indigenous religions would be embraced once again.

Because the Mayan lands were offered as land grants to Spanish noblemen and to the Catholic Church, some Mayans became, in effect, slave labor. Although the Spanish Crown outlawed Indian slavery in the Yucatán in royal edicts of 1549 and 1551, many elements of the Mayan population were, in fact, forced to work under horrible conditions.

At many points during the Seventeenth Century the Mayans rebelled against Spanish rule, in some cases to protest their difficult work conditions. Sixteenth Century rebellions took place in 1610-33, 1636-44, 1653, 1669, 1670 and 1675. Of all these, the revolt that took place from 1636 to 1644 was the most wide-ranging and serious, resulting in a temporary revival of the old indigenous religious rites.

The Revolt of 1761

Sporadic revolts continued into the Eighteenth Century. In early November 1761, Jacinto Canek became the leader of a new rebellion. Jacinto had adopted the name Canek to suggest that he had a relation to the previous kingdom of the Itzás. After organizing a force of 1,500 Mayans, Canek’s force was confronted by a well-armed Spanish force of 500 soldiers on November 26, 1761 in the plaza of Cisteil (near present-day Sotuta).

In the hand-to-hand fighting, the Spanish forces gained the upper hand. Ultimately, the village was burned and it is believed that as many as 500 Indians perished in the blaze. Canek himself escaped with a small guard, fleeing to Huntulchac. There he assembled a force of about 300 men who had also escaped from Cisteil. But Canek and about 125 followers were then apprehended at Sibac. Canek and eight other organizers of the rebellion were executed in December 1761 –a month after the uprising had begun.

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. 

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 [Hpav7, “División Política de la Primera República de Yucatán (Political Districts of the First Republic of Yucatan” (July 21, 2009)].

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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.

The state was re-incorporated into Mexico in December 1843, but independence was restored in December 1846.  Then in February 23, 1847, Yucatán was re-incorporated again.  At the same time, Campeche rebelled and proclaimed itself as the State of Yucatán and occupied the entire peninsula.  Finally, on August 17, 1848, Yucatán and Campeche were reincorporated into the Mexican Republic. However, the Caste War, a serious insurrection by Mayans and mestizos, took place from 1847 to 1855.

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 (1850-1858)

In 1850, 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.” It was said that in a remote refugee settlement known as Chan Santa Cruz (Small Holy Cross), the 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 declared war against the Yucatecos again.

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 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 Separation of Campeche (1858-1863)

But 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). 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.

Operations against the Cruzoob

In 1860, the Mexican Colonel Pedro Acereto, with a force of 3,000, reached the Cruzoob stronghold at Chan Santa Cruz, but was compelled to retire with the loss of 1,500 men killed after a disastrous battle with the Mayans. Hostilities continued for many years as the Cruzoob continued to hold onto their position. Mexican forces once again occupied Chan Santa Cruz in 1871, but were also forced to retire thereafter.

The Cruzoob continued to survive on through their trade with the Belizeans. In 1887, the Mayan even considered asking for the protection of the Queen of England. However that 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.

During the second half of the nineteenth century, as the stalemate continued, the Yucatecan government remained in control of the west and northwest portion of the peninsula, while the indigenous Maya rebels – known as the “Mayas Cruzoob” – maintained control of the southeast and northeast, as noted in the map from Pininterest (“La Guerra de Castas”) that has been reproduced on the following page.  It is no coincidence that the region occupied by the Maya Cruzoob eventually became the State of Quintana Roo.

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In January 1898, Admiral Othón P. Blanco was commissioned by the Mexican Government to secure the border between the Mayan territory and British Honduras. A customs post was established 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. The city of Cayo Obispo (now known as Chetumal) was founded by Blanco in pursuit of this objective.

The Caste War Ends (1901)

On May 4, 1901, a Mexican Government force under General Ignacio Bravo occupied Chan Santa Cruz, dispersing many of the Cruzoob rebels in the region now known as Quintana Roo. The rebels had put up a fierce resistance but eventually fled into the swamps. A year later, 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 and named after a famous lawyer, Andrés Quintana Roo, a native of Mérida who had played a role in Mexico’s struggle for independence.

Even after the victory of 1901, peace was not assured and in 1910, Mexican troops put down another serious rebellion in the northern part of the Yucatán Peninsula. It was also during the early years of the Twentieth Century that Yaquis from the states of Sinaloa and Sonora were exiled by the Díaz regime to Yucatán. By the time of the 1910 census, the Mexican census recorded that 1,072 persons who spoke Yaqui – a language native to northwestern Mexico – were living in the state of Yucatán.

The end result of the nineteenth century turmoil and conflict eventually resulted in the single Mexican state of Yucatán being split into the three states as seen with the map on the following page:

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The 1921 Census

According to the 1921 Mexican census, the state of Yucatán contained 358,221 persons in a republic that boasted a total population of 14,334,780. A total of 155,155 residents of the state were classified as being of pure indigenous background (“indígena pura”), representing 43.31% of the state population.

Another 121,189 residents of Yucatán were classified as “indígena mezclada con blanca” – or mixed – representing 33.8% of the state’s population. The Yucatecos – classified as “blanca” in the census – numbered 78,249 individuals and comprised 21.8% of the states’ population.

The 1930 Census

However, the 1930 census did not classify people by their ethnic identity, but by the languages they spoke. And in 1930, when 335,445 persons aged 5 and over lived in Yucatán, 242,298 of them (or 72.23%) were classified as speakers of indigenous languages. When viewed in the context of the 1921 census, it might be assumed that many mixed/mestizo inhabitants of Yucatán were speaking indigenous languages, in addition to the “indígena pura” persons.

The 2000 Census

According to the 2000 census, the population of persons five years and more who spoke indigenous languages in the state of Yucatán totaled 549,532 individuals – equal to 37.3% of the state’s total population of 1,472,683.

By far, the most common indigenous language spoken in Yucatán in 2000 was the Mayan language, which was spoken by 547,098 residents of the state. This meant that 99.56% of the indigenous speakers in Yucatán were Mayan speakers. The other languages spoken in the State were: Chol (474 speakers), Zapoteco (319), Mixe (283), and Tzeltal (222). In the 2000 census, 12 of Yucatán’s 106 municipios had populations with indigenous speaking populations of 95% or more. Eighteen municipios had populations of 90% or more.

The 2010 Census

In 2010, Yucatán’s 537,516 indigenous speakers five years of age and older represented 30.3% of its total population five years of age and older. Yucatán had the fifth largest indigenous speaking population among its fellow Mexican states (after Oaxaca, Chiapas, Veracruz and Puebla), but was ranked second in percentage behind Oaxaca, whose indigenous-speaking population five years of age and older was 34.2% of its population. The following table illustrates the eight states with the largest percentages of indigenous speakers as of 2010:

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Yucatán Municipios in the 2010 Census

As one of the core areas of the ancient Maya civilization, Yucatán is one of several states that still has a large number of indigenous speakers, and nearly one in three of its residents speak an indigenous language. In the 2010 census, Yucatán’s 544,927 indigenous speakers 3 years of age and older represented 29.6% percent of its entire population 3 years of age and old.

In 2010, fifty-two of Yucatán’s 106 municipios had indigenous-speaking populations of at least 50 percent. In all, ten municipios had indigenous-speaking populations of 90 percent or more. And, even more significant is the fact that only five of Yucatán’s municipios have an indigenous speaking population of less than 10 percent (including the capital, Mérida).

Indigenous-speaking populations are distributed across all parts of the state. More than one-third of the states’ indigenous speakers (35.3%) live in five of the state’s largest municipios: Mérida, Valladolid, Tizimín, Chemax and Tekax, as shown in the following table:

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Indigenous Languages Spoken in Yucatán in 2010

Nearly 99 percent of the 537,618 indigenous speakers three years of age and older speak the Mayan language. Another 4,114 indigenous speakers in the state did not specify the language they spoke. Only one other indigenous language Ch’ol (Chol) ‒ a member of the western branch of the Mayan language family more common in Chiapas ‒ had more than 1,000 persons who spoke its language. One other Mayan language from Chiapas ‒ Tzeltal ‒ had 558 speakers in the State. At least 36 other languages are spoken in the state, but comprise only 0.2% of the indigenous speakers 3 years of age and older, as indicated in the table below:

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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.

As in earlier census counts, the Maya language remained the most spoken language by residents of the State of Yucatán in 2015, as indicated in the following table:

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Of Yucatán’s 2,097,175 inhabitants in 2015, 28.89% of its people three years of age and older actually spoke an indigenous language. Of the 106 municipios, five had populations of 90% or more indigenous speakers, and fifteen municipios had populations of 80% or more.

Only five municipios had an indigenous speaking population under 10%.

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.

Out of 106 municipios in the State of Yucatán, 48 municipios had a population of 90% or more who identified themselves as being of indigenous origin. In fact, no municipio in the state had less than 44% of its population identified as indigenous. The average for the 2,097,175 inhabitants of the entire state was 65.40% persons who identified as indigenous.

Only sixteen of Yucatán’s municipios had 20,000 or more inhabitants in 2015. The following table shows the sixteen municipios, sorted by their percent of persons who identify themselves as indigenous, but also including their indigenous speaking population:

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It is notable that Mérida — the municipio that contains the capital city — has a very small indigenous speaking population (10.2%) and a very low percent of people who identify as indigenous (48.26), relatively speaking.

An Archaeological Treasure

Today, Yucatán is no longer a Mayan kingdom and is now part of the large and diverse Mexican Republic. According to Instituto Nacional de Estadística y Geografía (INEGI) and Instituto Nacional de Lenguas Indígenas (INALI), the people of Mexico belong to 62 official ethnolinguistic groups (grupos etnolinguísticos) that speak 364 language variants. Sixty-one of the ethnolinguistic groups are indigenous and include several Mayan groups.

The evidence of the Mayans and their rich culture remains throughout Yucatán. Archaeological sites can be found throughout the State of Yucatán… and its neighboring states. Tulum, Xel-Ha, Cobá, Mayapan, Uxmal, El Rey and Xcaret are just a few of the many places left for tourists to visit and appreciate.

Copyright 2019 by John P. Schmal. All rights under applicable law are hereby reserved.

Bibliography

Clendinnen, Inga. Ambivalent Conquests: Maya and Spaniard in Yucatán, 1517-1570. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2nd edition, 2003.

Departamento de la Estadística Nacional. Annuario de 1930: Estados Unidos Mexicanos. Tacubaya, Distrito Federal, 1932.

Dumond, Don E., The Machete and the Cross: Campesino Rebellion in Yucatán. University of Nebraska Press, 1997.

Gerhard, Peter. The Southeast Frontier of New Spain. Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 1993.

Farriss, Nancy M. Maya Society under Colonial Rule the Collective Enterprise of Survival. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1984.

Gordon, Raymond G. (ed.), “Ethnologue: Linguistic Lineage for Maya, Yucatán.” Dallas, Tex.: SIL International, 2005.

Instituto Nacional de Estadística y Geografía (INEGI). La Población Hablante de Lengua Indígena de Yucatán. XII Censo General de Población y Vivienda 2000.

INEGI. Censo de Población y Vivienda 2010: Tabulados del Cuestionario Básico: Población de 3 Años y Más Que Habla Lengua Indígena por Entidad Federativa y Lengua.

Patch, Robert W. Maya and Spaniard in Yucatán, 1648-1812.Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1993.

Reed, Nelson. The Caste War of Yucatán. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1964.

Restall, Matthew. The Maya World: Yucatec Culture and Society, 1550-1850. Stanford University Press, 1997.

Roys, Ralph Loveland. The Political Geography of the Yucatán Maya.Washington: Carnegie Institution of Washington, 1957.

Roys, Ralph Loveland. The Indian Background of Colonial Yucatán.Washington: Carnegie Institution of Washington, 1943.

Rugeley, Terry, Yucatan’s Maya Peasantry and the Origins of the Caste War. University of Texas Press, 1996.

Scholes, France V. and Ralph L. Roys, The Maya Chontal Indians of Acalán-Tixchel: A Contribution to the History and Ethnography of the Yucatán Peninsula. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1968, 2nd edition.

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