Yucatán, a peninsula in southeastern Mexico, including the Mexican states of Yucatán, Campeche, and Quintana Roo, northern Tabasco, northeastern Chiapas, and the northern parts of the modern republics of Guatemala and Belize. The region has been occupied for millennia, most notably by the Maya, who built their civilization in the area some time after 300 b.c. Europeans arrived on the peninsula during the first decade of the sixteenth century and the Spanish conquistadors conquered the Mayas in 1542, the year in which the Spaniards founded the city of Mérida, the capital of the colonial province and of the modern state of Yucatán. One unfortunate result of contact with Europeans for the Mayas was a substantial demographic decline caused by the wars of conquest, forced labor, and by the introduction of Old World diseases. The Maya population, which had numbered at least 500,000 and perhaps as high as 800,000 in the early sixteenth century, declined to only about 100,000 by the late seventeenth century.
The colonial regime was at first based almost entirely on Maya peasant community labor, which produced food and exportable goods, especially cotton textiles, for the Spanish colonists. Spaniards limited their own activities to stock raising on ranches (estancias), although in Campeche (the western part of the peninsula) the colonists also organized production of salt and dyewood and established a shipbuilding industry. Politically, the province of Yucatán was ruled by a governor captain-general (gobernador capitán general) appointed by the Spanish crown.
In the eighteenth century the Maya population began a demographic recovery, while at the same time the number of non-Indians—Spaniards, mestizos, and mulattoes—also increased substantially. By 1800 the population of the province was over 400,000. Demographic growth resulted in an increased demand for food and other goods, thus leading to the expansion of the landed estates, which produced not only cattle but also maize, sugarcane, rice, and cotton. The economy was also stimulated by commercial and political reforms, including the establishment of the intendancy (chief administrator), which resulted in increased trade with Cuba and the abolition of the Repartimiento (a peonage system that coerced the Maya into producing cotton textiles).
Yucatán did not participate in the Mexican struggle for independence, but once Mexico became independent in 1821, Yucatán adhered to the rules of the new nation. Disagreements with the Mexican government, however, led Yucatán's rulers on several occasions to declare the state a sovereign nation. In the decades after independence from Spain those rulers also carried out a program of decolonization and modernization, which, in effect, ended up further depriving Maya communities of their traditional lands. As a result, in 1847 the Mayas of the eastern and central parts of the state rose in rebellion and attempted to drive the non-Indians from the peninsula. This Caste War of Yucatán lasted several decades (although most of the violence ended in 1855) and resulted in death and destruction on a massive scale.
In the late nineteenth century, Yucatán—which had been separated from the state of Campeche in 1858—began a recovery based on the export of sisal, or Henequen fiber. Eventually, enormous profits were earned by the large landowners, and Yucatán became the most prosperous state in Mexico. This recovery was accomplished, however, by instituting a rigorous system of debt peonage to force the Mayas to work on the plantations, and, consequently, little of the wealth trickled down to the peasants, who made up the majority of the population.
The conservative regime was so well entrenched that it survived the early years of the Mexican Revolution. In 1915, however, the Carranza government, after putting down one last Yucatecan separatist movement, imposed a reformist governor, Salvador Alvarado (1879–1924), who abolished peonage and permitted labor to organize. By 1918 the socialists, led by Felipe Carrillo Puerto (1872–1924), had become the leading political party, and they took power in 1920. Two years later Carrillo Puerto was elected governor. The socialists attempted radical reforms, but their government was overthrown by reactionaries in late 1923; Carrillo Puerto and several of his supporters were executed by firing squad in early 1924. As a result, the Mexican government came to control politics in Yucatán, working through the socialists, who became the basis for the ruling party in the state.
In the 1930s, President Lázaro Cárdenas (1895–1970) destroyed the landowning aristocracy in Yucatán by carrying out an agrarian reform. At the same time, however, the henequen industry, which almost ceased to exist by 1990, had begun its long-term decline. Yucatán's economy came to be based mostly on commerce and tourism, with only a minor amount of industry.
See alsoCárdenas del Río, Lázaro; Carrillo Puerto, Felipe; Caste War of Yucatán; Conquistadores; Diseases; Estancia; Gobernador; Henequen Industry; Maya, The; Mérida; Repartimiento; Textile Industry: The Colonial Era.
Eligio Ancona, Historia de Yucatán, 5 vols. (1878–1880).
Juan Francisco Molina Solís, Historia de Yucatán durante la dominación española, 3 vols. (1904–1913).
Gilbert M. Joseph, Revolution from Without: Yucatán, Mexico, and the United States, 1880–1924 (1982).
Nancy M. Farriss, Maya Society Under Colonial Rule (1984).
Allen Wells, Yucatán's Gilded Age: Haciendas, Henequen, and International Harvester, 1860–1915 (1985).
Inga Clendinnen, Ambivalent Conquests: Maya and Spaniard in Yucatán, 1517–1570 (1987).
Robert W. Patch, Maya and Spaniard in Yucatán, 1648–1812 (1993).
Bracamonte y Sosa, Pedro. La memoria enclaustrada: Historia indígena de Yucatán, 1750–1915. México, D.F.: CIESAS: INI, 1994.
Coerver, Don M; Pasztor, Suzanne B, and Buffington, Robert. Mexico: An Encyclopedia of Contemporary Culture and History. Santa Barbara, CA: 2004.
Joyce, Kelly. An Archaeological Guide to Mexico's Yucatán Peninsula. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1993.
Patch, Robert. Maya and Spaniard in Yucatan, 1648–1812. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1993.
Quezada, Sergio. Breve historia de Yucatán. México: Colegio de México, Fideicomiso Historia de las Américas, 2004.
Reed, Nelson A. The Caste War of Yucatán. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2001.
Sierra O'Reilly, Justo. Los indios de Yucatán. Mérida, Yucatán, México: Universidad Autónoma de Yucatán, 1994.
Robert W. Patch