In the Name of El Pueblo: Place, Community, and the Politics of History in Yucatánby Paul Eiss
The term “el pueblo” is used throughout Latin America, referring alternately to small towns, to community, or to “the people” as a political entity. In this vivid anthropological and historical analysis of Mexico’s Yucatán peninsula, Paul K. Eiss explores the multiple meanings of el pueblo and the power of the concept to unite
The term “el pueblo” is used throughout Latin America, referring alternately to small towns, to community, or to “the people” as a political entity. In this vivid anthropological and historical analysis of Mexico’s Yucatán peninsula, Paul K. Eiss explores the multiple meanings of el pueblo and the power of the concept to unite the diverse claims made in its name. Eiss focuses on working-class indigenous and mestizo populations, examining how those groups negotiated the meaning of el pueblo among themselves and in their interactions with outsiders, including landowners, activists, and government officials. Combining extensive archival and ethnographic research, he describes how residents of the region have laid claim to el pueblo in varied ways, as exemplified in communal narratives recorded in archival documents, in the performance of plays and religious processions, and in struggles over land, politics, and the built environment. Eiss demonstrates that while el pueblo is used throughout the hemisphere, the term is given meaning and power through the ways it is imagined and constructed in local contexts. Moreover, he reveals el pueblo to be a concept that is as historical as it is political. It is in the name of el pueblo—rather than class, race, or nation—that inhabitants of northwestern Yucatán stake their deepest claims not only to social or political rights, but over history itself.
“[Eiss] shows how el pueblo, and history more generally, happen as people conventionalize events in telling about them before, during, and sometimes long after the fact. That Eiss succeeds in this attests to his skills as both ethnographer and historian. . . . Historians will find here the rich makings of history, anthropologists an adroit dissolving of ethnicity, culture, and community into the flow of time.” - John M. Watanabe, Hispanic American Historical Review
“Paul Eiss has delivered a new, epic work of social history/ethnography concerning an especially turbulent region of the Yucatan Peninsula. . . . All told, this is a masterful work that will merit the attention of Latin Americanists for many years to come.” - Paul Sullivan, Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Anthropology
“I find Eiss’s work thoughtful and engaging, a much-needed antidote to the official histories of Yucatán as well as the ahistorical ethnographies of an earlier era.” - Ron Loewe, Journal of Anthropological Research
“Seamlessly blending archival research into the late colonial and national periods . . . with fieldwork in the region, Eiss demonstrates that rural Maya speakers were not ahistorical, but kept and interpreted a record of their past, from the pre-Columbian period to the present. . . . In the Name of El Pueblo provides an accessible, narrative-driven introduction to these genres that will work well in a classroom setting. Students will enjoy the Hunucmá district’s vividly depicted landscapes, stories, and personalities; scholars will find Eiss’s research and interdisciplinary approach solid; and researchers of Yucatán will find themselves feeling nostalgic for the countryside and the archives of the peninsula.” - Mark Lentz, Ethnohistory
“ [A] probing history of communities and debates about community in
the Hunucmá region of northwest Yucatán. In revealing episodes, the study
extends from the mid-nineteenth century to contemporary times. The
analysis is innovative in important ways, notably by revealing
communities’ often conflictive participations in key local and regional
developments and by exploring their often contested constructions of their
own historical understandings.”
- John Tutino, A Contracorriente
“A meticulous history of the political engagement of Yucatecan
peasants in the north-western region of Hunucmá from the early nineteenth
century to the present. Among its accomplishments is its refutation of the
image of Yucatecan peasants as passive and, in particular, as passive
recipients of the Mexican Revolution of 1910. This is a narrative at which
historians have chipped away in recent years. But the range and depth of
Eiss’s work makes it particularly convincing because the book focuses not
on Maya participation or its lack thereof in the revolution, but rather on
the way that peasants in Hunucmá have come, over a long period of time, to
understand themselves in relation to the state and the national politics
in which they have always participated.” - Karen D. Caplan, Social History
“In the Name of El Pueblo is a must-read for Mexicanists. It offers a masterful, detailed bottom-up view of history. It lays to rest once and for all the idea that Maya peasants remained quiescent and passive until revolutionary generals arrived in 1915 to overturn the old order. It clarifies the different visions of villagers and revolutionary leaders, traces the travails of a revolutionary order in decline, and shows the pitfalls and problems attending the agrarian reform process, a process that continues to define rural land tenure in Mexico.”—Terry Rugeley, author of Rebellion Now and Forever: Mayas, Hispanics, and Caste War Violence in Yucatán, 1800–1880
“Few regions of Mexico have elicited as sophisticated a dialogue between history and anthropology as Yucatán has of late. With this book, Paul K. Eiss positions himself at the crest of this new wave of interdisciplinary scholarship. Daunting in its chronological scope and breadth of research and analysis, distinguished by a meticulously crafted and often haunting narrative, and pioneering in its interwoven understanding of community, popular politics, state formation, indigenous identity, and historical memory, this book sets a new standard for the production of Mexican social histories and ethnographies. In the Name of El Pueblo is a splendid achievement, not least for the probing questions it raises about the nature of history itself.”—Gilbert M. Joseph, Farnam Professor of History and International Studies, Yale University
Read an Excerpt
IN THE NAME OF EL PUEBLOPlace, Community, and the Politics of History in Yucatán
By PAUL K. EISS
DUKE UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 2010 Duke University Press
All right reserved.
Chapter OneTHE LAST CACIQUE
The Archival Landscapes of Kah, Común, and Pueblo
CACIQUE PASCUAL CHAC was "not lacking in guilt." That was the verdict of the criminal court judge Jos. María Rivero Solís, who on 14 January 1857 passed judgment in the case brought by the hacienda owner Juana Peña. Peña had accused Chac of encouraging a group of pueblo dwellers to clear and plant lands on her hacienda, Tacubaya. Even as the trial concluded, the production of a case file went forward. On Rivero's desk was a pile of papers: outraged complaints from the hacendada; Chac's self-defense; the correspondence of courts and government offices; a surveyor's account of a week-long trudge through Tacubaya and a map; a prosecutor's denunciations; receipts. Each was a document in its own right, but all now were stitched together as a single case file under the title "Causa por acusación de Doña Juana Peña contra el casique Pascual Chac."
To read this case file historically is to unbind it: to read each of its elements in its own terms, juxtaposing them with documents outside the file. Unbound in this way, the "Causa" opens a window onto the Hunucmá Region of Yucatán in a time of radical changes, among them the decline of the indigenous leaders called caciques and the rise of hacendados. Once fragmented from its apparent unity into a cacophony of voices indigenous and Spanish, communalist and capitalist, the "Causa" offers an opportunity to explore how different ethnic groups, classes, and political entities coexisted uneasily and then came apart in the wake of national independence, the rise of agrarian capitalism, and caste war.
To read the "Causa," is also to rebind the file: to read the sutured text for signs of the political forces that made stories like Chac's end in similar ways and in the process helped to transform the landscape that Chac and Peña inhabited. It is to use the "Causa" as an entrée into an archival landscape in which documents bound people to place and place to people via contrasting historical narratives told by indigenous populations and Spanish and mestizo gentry. Landscapes in the archive, and archives in the landscape-from the first tree felled at Tacubaya to the last stroke of Rivero's pen.
THE HISTORY IN THE LANDSCAPE
Today the Hunucmá region is tightly connected and subordinated to the nearby capital city of Mérida. Five centuries ago, however, it was oriented toward the gulf coast. The shoreline was inhabited by Maya populations that lived in settlements (each called a kah in Maya) active in fishing and salt production. The interior was more sparsely populated and more densely forested. Populations there gathered beeswax, hunted and fished, and cultivated maize, beans, squash, chile, and cotton. They did so through swidden agriculture, as Mayan populations did elsewhere in Yucatán and throughout Mexico and central America (where the plots are called milpas, a Nahua term). They felled trees and brush in the woods, or k'ax, in the dry season, burned the drying refuse as the rainy season approached to create a layer of rich ash over the thin and stony soil, and then planted each forest plot, or kol. After two seasons of cultivation, the kol was abandoned to the forest once again, as only a decade or more of regrowth would make the land cultivable once more. Thus the small kahs of the interior-Kinchil and Dzemé, Tetiz, Hunucmá, Sihunchén, Yabucú, Samahil, Umán and Dzibikak and Dzibikal, among others-produced a surplus that they traded with coastal populations, providing maize, beans, and cotton in exchange for salt and fish. Through overland routes and maritime trade, the people of coast and interior were linked to central Mexico, Guatemala, and Honduras, exporting cotton and slaves and receiving a range of finished goods and precious objects in return.
Centuries had passed since the decline and collapse of the great Mayan city-states of the classic period; the last regional confederation in Yucatán, centered in the city of Mayapán, succumbed to interclan warfare in the 1440s. An era of political fragmentation followed in which noble families, ch'ibal, in Maya, became entrenched as they gained control of the largest kahs. Those kahs were ruled by leaders called batabs, with the batab of a dominant kah, a figure sometimes referred to as the halach winik, exercising dominion over those of neighboring populations. Most lands and other resources like cenotes, or sinkholes, and salt pools were attached to the kahs as communal possessions, but others were held as lineage property of the ch'ibals.
After the Spanish invasion and occupation of the peninsula in the first half of the sixteenth century, Yucatán, where there was no gold or silver to be mined, was spared the heavy influx of European immigration suffered by other regions. Even so, the spread of contagious diseases in areas of dense population, especially along trade routes, decimated coastal areas. In contrast, the kahs of the interior, ranging in population from several hundred to several thousand, survived. To facilitate conversion and tribute collection the Spanish forced survivors to congregate in a few authorized pueblos. Today's pattern of towns and pueblos thereby took shape, with each congregated kah, or indigenous republic (república indígena), based in a core settlement, or pueblo, with a church and plaza and a surrounding street grid.
Despite such changes, the kah remained an entity grounded in communal possession of forests and other resources. While the conquest brought the elimination of the top levels of the Mayan social and political hierarchy, the batabs, whom the Spanish called caciques, a loanword from the Arawak language, retained many of their powers. They adjudicated disputes, regulated communal agriculture, and oversaw the collection of taxes and tributes. In return they won exemptions from tribute and personal service and enjoyed some Spanish prerogatives like ownership of horses and use of Spanish dress and of the honorific title Don. The conquerors imposed some Spanish institutions on their subjects, like the cabildo, or town council, although native elites turned such institutions to their own purposes. Members of leading ch'ibals monopolized positions as officials in the new civil hierarchy (tenientes, alcaldes, alguaciles, regidores), scribes, and gendarmes (tupil, in Maya). Kah officials acted as judges, mediating between members of the kah, documenting the sale or transfer of lands, and representing their kahs in disputes involving Spanish officials, priests, and neighboring communities. Native elites also took up positions as assistants to parish clergy and headed religious confraternities (cofradías). Those organizations managed extensive ranches and properties and supported saints' cults and fiestas in which Christianity was incorporated into native religious practice.
The kah came to play an intermediary role in the workings of the colonial economy, linking the Hunucmá region to Mérida and to the rest of the Spanish empire. Through the institution of encomienda kah members were forced to pay tributes to their Spanish overlords in labor and kind, from turkeys and maize to beeswax. Governors, war captains, and other officials also claimed tributes, as did parish priests. The kahs of the region maintained granaries for the provision of maize to Spanish populations and also rendered tribute in salt and fish. One of the most effective forms of extraction was the repartimiento de mercancías, or the forced purchase of goods. The kahs in this way were both subordinated to local Spaniards and articulated to an Atlantic colonial economy through the extraction of products like textiles and wax that Yucatán exported, principally to silver mining areas elsewhere in Mexico.
Hunucmá's importance to the colonial economy derived from tribute but also from a transport economy. Mérida was connected to Campeche, the region's only major fortified port city, via the camino real, or royal road, which passed from Mérida eastward and southward through Umán, giving the region its name in this period: Camino Real Bajo. Merchandise imported to Yucatán from Spain or other areas of the empire passed through the region on its way to Mérida, and exports like wax and cotton traveled the same road back to port. The small pueblo of Sisal, northwest of the kah of Hunucmá became a secondary transit route, particularly for the trade in cane liquor, or aguardiente. Spanish merchants demanded that the kahs of the region provide muleteers and unpaid transport services. By the 1720s the exploitative nature of this arrangement would trigger a regional crisis, as batabs and kah officials, who complained bitterly to Yucatán's governor in defense of their "tired and skinny" mules, began to withhold transport services and even to blockade merchandise. In response, Spanish officials, merchants, and a local priest denounced Hunucmá's batab as a "notorious" cacique who told "a thousand lies." Facing beatings and imprisonment, the batabs restored the services.
Over time the Hunucmá region came to be important to the Spanish not only for tribute and transport but also for land. Despite protective legislation limiting Spanish acquisition of indigenous lands, ranches, and commercial maize haciendas began expanding west of Mérida over the course of the seventeenth century. From the early 1700s forward, indigenous cabildos sometimes raised funds by selling land to Spaniards, although often with a proviso that the lands in question were unneeded for communal subsistence-in the words of Samahil's cabildo, "because we have enough other lands to maintain ourselves." Even indigenous cofradías began to exploit lands commercially, albeit to communal ends, by raising herds of cattle for sale to raise funds. Nonetheless, colonial forms of exploitation, the rise of a commercial economy, and even the formation of large cattle ranches and haciendas in formerly communal lands implied neither the destruction of the kahs of Hunucmá, nor the elimination of the cabildos and batabs that ruled them. Kah officials in Hunucmá, as elsewhere in Yucatán, made the best of their position as intermediaries. They acted as agents of both Spanish exploitation and communal autonomy, retaining significant autonomy in decision making on matters that affected daily life.
The sovereignty and integrity of the kahs were nowhere more evident than in the usage of written documents and histories composed by batabs and other officials. Before the Spanish conquest, scribes and their writings had been critical to the workings of Mayan society and culture. Historical accounts of the ch'ibals and community titles of the kahs both legitimized lords and their families and endorsed the territory and sovereignty of the kahs they controlled. While Spanish anti-idolatry campaigns destroyed the vast majority of the codices still extant at the time of conquest, under colonial rule indigenous scribes and their archives continued to play a critical role in guaranteeing the territorial integrity of the kahs. From the sixteenth century through the eighteenth, Mayan scribes wrote and compiled Maya-language historical narratives in Latin script, documenting the claims and legitimacy of ch'ibals and the kahs. Moreover, the kahs retained and consulted documents and maps in the context of land sales, inheritance, treaties, and conflicts. Many of those documents were ambulatory texts, narrating walks through forests and fields and noting the presence and location of stone mounds and trees the Maya used as boundary markers. In a document dating from 1735 and relating to the kahs of Umán and Dzibikal, for instance, some fifty-three stone markers are noted. Such walks were rituals of possession that often took several days to complete and led to the production of an extensive body of documentation that legitimated the kahs and the ch'ibals that controlled them. Theirs were histories embedded in the land itself: in stone markers, trees, and other landmarks, in ritual walks of possession, and in Mayan documents that made those features and walks into expressions of community, sovereignty, and history. If Mayan scribes brought representations of landscape into the archives, so, too, did they embed archives in the landscape, transforming stones, trees, and wells into historical traces of the kahs and of their sovereign claims.
This history was still present in 1856, when cacique Pascual Chac led a group of men into the woods near Hacienda Tacubaya. The testimony of several of the men involved indicates that Chac ordered that a breach be opened in the brush, and then he led the men in. Perhaps when the cacique did so he would follow the ancient customs of the kah: walking the lands with his subjects; noting and naming rocks and trees and telling their histories; and leaving landmarks of his own along the way in an attempt to restore and to reclaim an archive in the landscape.
FROM MESTIZO TO TS'UL
Chac, however, found himself in a different landscape from that inhabited by batabs of prior centuries, as it was shared with the likes of Doña Juana Peña. Peña and others of her class were products of the past century of Spanish rule in Yucatán and of a shift away from the Spanish tributary regime toward one based on commercial agriculture and ranching. Partly a result of population growth and commercial development in Yucatán, this change also was fostered by reforms enacted by the Bourbon rulers in Spain. From the 1770s forward, those reforms brought the disentailment of corporate bodies like the kahs, the expropriation of community treasuries, the seizure and sale of properties held by kahs and cofradías, and the centralization of tribute collection and governance in the hands of district-level officials called subdelegados. Such measures accelerated the expansion of Yucatán's emergent commercial capitalism at the expense of indigenous communalists. While sugar cane became dominant in southern and eastern Yucatán, in the northwest commercial maize agriculture and ranching prevailed. Moreover, in swampy lands in coastal regions like Hunucmá, gangs of woodcutters cut dyewood (also known as logwood, or palo de tinte) to supply merchants involved in the lucrative trade in dye.
These developments fostered the growth of Hunucmá's nonindigenous, or vecino (a Spanish term meaning "resident"), population, blurring distinctions between what once, at least in theory, had constituted separate Spanish and indigenous republics. By 1779 the district's total population of 20,899 was roughly 80 percent indigenous and 1 percent Spanish; the remainder was 10 percent pardo (African or mixed African and indigenous descent) and 9 percent mestizo (here, mixed Spanish and indigenous descent). Most mestizos and pardos were working people: small farmers, artisans, shopkeepers, and the like. A few, however, like Juana Peña's father, Eduardo Peña, acquired property and capital. They identified with Spanish cultural institutions, and the wealthiest among them wore European clothing, reflected in the appellation gente de vestido. While they spoke Spanish, many also spoke Maya or a mixture of Maya and Spanish. To indigenous residents, they were ts'uls, a Mayan term originally denoting foreigner that came to have status and ethnic connotations, conveying associations of wealth, privilege, and lightness in skin color.
By the late eighteenth century, kah officials were sharply aware of the threat that the expanding commercial sector posed to kah lands and resources. They lodged petitions with Spanish authorities, claiming the expropriation of communal resources was unjust and a violation of Christian principles. When a cofradía ranch was seized for sale in 1782, Hunucmá's batab and kah officials, identifying themselves as the "old men" of the kah, appealed to the king of Spain for mercy and justice and inquired why cofradía cattle were being slaughtered and other properties "wasted, without any benefit to the Virgin." In 1819 batabs and kah officials from Hunucmá and Tetiz sent Maya-language petitions to Yucatán's governor, complaining of exploitation by a local priest and warning, "Lord, Tetiz kah will be ruined, since there'll be no food to eat.... Lord, I shall not abandon [those of] my kah, although they are dying." Kah officials put their maps and documents to use in contending with the expanding claims of Spanish and Yucatecan Creole landowners. Perhaps the most protracted conflict, one that began in the 1730s and continued for almost a century thereafter, pitted batabs and officials of five kahs against the owners of an expanding hacienda. In 1815 the leaders of the indigenous republics involved set off, joined by Spanish officials, on a five-day walk through forest and field to document their contending claims.
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Meet the Author
Paul K. Eiss is Associate Professor of Anthropology and History and the Director of the Center for the Arts in Society at Carnegie Mellon University.
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