The Maya Civilization: Historical Conflict with the Spaniards (part 2)

articles History & People Maya

Luis Dumois

The Maya Civilization
Historical Conflict Part 2

(To Part 1)

“Just because of the crazy times, because of the crazy priests, is it that sadness overtook us, that ‘Christianity’ overcame us. Because the ‘very Christians’ came here with the true God, but that was the beginning of our misery, the beginning of the tribute… the cause of the hidden discord to come out, the beginning of the fighting with firearms, the beginning of the outrages… Oh! Let us grieve, because they arrived!”

“They [the Spanish] taught us to fear; and they came to fade the flowers. For their flowers to live, they damaged and sucked dry the flowers of the others… There was no High Knowledge, nor Sacred Language, neither Divine Teachings in the substitutes of the gods that came here. To castrate the Sun! That is what the foreigners came here for. And the sons of their sons stayed here, among the people, and they receive their bitterness.”

The Maya resisted with a persistence and force the conquerors did not expect to encounter. Mexico Tenochtitlan fell in 1521. Hernán Cortés himself organized and headed an expedition in 1524 that crossed the Guatemalan Petén, in the heart of the Mayan country. But the conquest of the Maya was long and difficult. Fray Diego de Landa, in his Relación de las cosas de Yucatán, tells us

“That the Indians heavily felt the yoke of the servitude; but the Spaniards had their towns, which embraced their land, well under control.”

It was not until 1546 that the two young Montejo, under the command of the Adelantado Cortés, managed to suffocate the resistance put up by the coalition of the Maya chiefs of the East. With this victory the conquest of the Yucatecan peninsula came to an end.

There was only one independent Mayan group left: the powerful and well organized Itzá nation, settled in the surroundings of the Petén-Itzá lake, inside the dense tropical forest of the Guatemalan Petén. The capital of the Itzá, Tayasal, rested upon an island in the middle of the lake itself. The city kept its freedom for another 150 years. After a bloody fight in 1697, the last independent Mayan political entity was finally taken and subdued to the power of the Spanish Crown.

That did not bring peace to the territory. Revolts, insurrections and riots kept being the daily bread in the Mayan country. The official records of the Cabildo in Mérida, December 1761, tell,

“… of the generalized and bloody ravages that threaten the Province because of the insurrection of the indians who live here, them being precipitated into the reckless audacity of proclaiming one of them, with the name of Canek, as king.”

Ermilo Abreu Gómez, in his poetic Canek, put in words of the hero the feelings of rebellion that had never left this land, just as the well rooted hatred against powerful and unjust landlords has never died:

“Canek said: White people made this land foreign to the Indian; they forced the Indian to buy with his own blood the wind that he breaths. That is why the Indian follows the endless trail, being sure that the end, the only attainable end, the one that frees him and allows him to find the lost trail, is where Death lies.”

After the independence of Mexico in 1821, the situation of the Maya, far from improving, became even worse. The War of the Castes that tore the Mayan country apart from 1847 to 1849, provoked sequels and consequences that led to the so called Continuation of the War of the Castes, between 1853 and 1901. There were armed cruzobs (as the Mayan rebels of that time were called, after the “miraculous cross” which spoke to them, foreseeing the holy war against the white oppressors) in the jungle as late as 1935.

And the story goes on and on, up to this day. This war is not a problem caused by today’s Mexico. The war in Chiapas is but just another wave in the sea of irreconcilable differences that has always flooded the relationship between the Maya and the white people and its descendants.

From the glorious past of the Maya we have the ruins of their cities, the written codexes, the estelas, the brilliant ideas. After reaching their zenith, the ceremonial centers were abandoned. As the builders left, nature claimed her rights. The old cities were swallowed by the jungle, and in many cases even their names were forgotten. In 1696, Father Andrés de Avendaño, Franciscan missionary detached in Guatemala, took part in an expedition which got lost in the tropical forest of the Petén. After days of terrible hardships, Father Avendaño stumbled upon the ruins of an ancient city:

“Among these high mountains that we passed through there is a variety of ancient buildings, except several of them that I recognized as dwellings, inside, and although they were very tall, and my strength quite diminished, I climbed (although with difficulty) them.”

The description that accompanies the story leaves no room to doubt: the Franciscan Father was the first European to see Tikal, the biggest of all ancient Maya centers.

Since the conquest of the Petén, very little was added to the history of the Mayan cities. But between 1839 and 1841, John Lloyd Stephens, American traveler and amateur archaeologist, along with Frederick Catherwood, an English artist, twice visited the Mayan country, to later publish two extraordinary books, Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan (1841), and Incidents of travel in Yucatan (1843). Both volumes were adorned with the superb engravings made by Catherwood. According to Professor Sylvanus G. Morley, a famous scholar and archaeologist dedicated to the Mayan world, “until today, after 100 years, these are the most pleasant books yet written about the Maya region.”

The publishing of these books aroused a great interest throughout the world for the Maya and their culture, and inaugurated the era of the modern expeditions and investigations of the most important civilization of our indigenous America.

A lot has been said and studied and written about ancient Maya. But modern Maya still live in conditions that throw them into violence, be it a valid response or not. The temptation to simplify things and to forget history and to find somebody to blame is great.

The war in Chiapas cannot be explained just by naming a couple of “opportunistic manipulators”, or “Marxist guerrillas.”

It is not enough to get acquainted with the merciless oppression and the terrible material need suffered in the country.

All these ingredients are present in the stew, yes, but this is a cauldron that has been over the fire for centuries. The fire of racial differences, of discrimination of the indian and of discrimination of the white, of hatred between castes, of confrontation between two radically opposed cultures.

If we want a solution for Chiapas and for the rest of the Maya, we will have to look for and find these solutions in solidarity and mutual understanding, in the notions of person and fellowship. The answers to the problems that are today harassing the inheritors of this great culture are in there somewhere.

Meanwhile, in the traces on the stone and in the stucco mortar the evidence of this ancient civilization is still alive. The images of the past that we present here today may bring to mind the first lesson of History:

Nothing is forever in this world.
Everything passes away.


De la Garza, Mercedes, y León-Portilla, Miguel,
Literatura Maya.

Compilación de textos: Popol Vuh, Memorial de Sololá, Libro de Chilam Balam de Chumayel, Rabinal Achí, Libro de los Cantares de Dzibalché, Título de los Señores de Totonicapán, Las historias de los Xpantzay, Códice de Calkiní. Biblioteca Ayacucho. Caracas, Venezuela, 1980.
ISBN: 84-499-1303-9.

Landa, Fray Diego de,
Relación de las cosas de Yucatán.

Consejo Nacional para la Cultura y las Artes. México, 1994.
ISBN: 968-29-6033-9.

Stephens, John L.,
Incidents of Travel In Yucatan.

Dover Publications, Inc. New York, USA, 1963.
ISBN: 0-486-20926-1.

Morley, Sylvanus G.,
La Civilización Maya.

Revisado por George Brainerd, con un Examen crítico de la civilización maya, por Betty Bell. Fondo de Cultura Económica. México, quinta reimpresión, 1975.

Thompson, J. Eric S.,
Arqueólogo Maya.

Editorial Diana. México, 1965.

Reed, Nelson,
La guerra de castas en Yucatán.

Ediciones Era. México. Novena reimpresión, 1995.
ISBN: 968-411-192-4

Lapointe, Marie,
Los mayas rebeldes de Yucatán.

El Colegio de Michoacán. México, 1983.

Meyer, Jean,
Problemas campesinos y revueltas agrarias (1821-1910)

SepSetentas. México, 1973.

Castellanos, Rosario,

Fondo de Cultura Económica. México. Séptima reimpresión, 1978.

Abreu Gómez, Ermilo,

Ediciones Oasis. México. Vigésimoquinta edición, 1972.

Hartung, Horst,
Die Zeremonialzentren der Maya.

Akademische Druck-u.Verlagsanstalt. Graz, Austria, 1971.

García Moll, Roberto,
Palenque 1926-1945.

Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia. México, 1985.

Piña Chan, Román,
Chichén Itzá. La ciudad de los brujos del agua.

Fondo de Cultura Económica. México. Cuarta reimpresión, 1991.

Montemayor, Carlos,
Chiapas, la rebelión indígena de México.

Joaquín Mortiz. México. Segunda reimpresión, 1997. ISBN: 968-27-0695-5


Published or Updated on: January 1, 1999 by Luis Dumois © 1999
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