Mayan Identity: Historical and Cultural Context

Angel Ruiz Novelo with a wood carving in his studio.

Historical and Cultural Context of the Carvings and their Makers.

The Puuc artisans live, work, and produce their sculptures in an area that forms part of a broader region occupied by various Maya-speaking peoples who have undergone processes social, political, and cultural transformation from pre-conquest times to the present. To give the reader a sense of the historical and cultural contexts that have affected the lives of Maya peoples northern Yucatán, the following links provide a brief review of the Puuc Region during Pre-Conquest Period, Northern Yucatán during the Colonial Period to the Nineteenth Century, and Northern Yucatán in the Twentieth and Twenty-first Centuries


The wooden lintel from the west palace group at Kabah, Yucatán. Engraving after Frederick Catherwood, in John L.Stephens, Incidents of Travel in Yucatán, Vol. 1 (after Stephens 1843, Vol. 1, Pl. XXI)

Yucatán Peninsula is in south-east Mexico

The Puuc Region During the Pre-conquest Period.

The low range of hills that stretches across the northwestern part of the Yucatán peninsula is known as the Puuc, or Sierrita de Ticul.  South of the Puuc range are rolling “haystack” limestone hills, known as Wits (Witsob, plural) to the local inhabitants.   Nestled among the Witsob are numerous ancient Maya towns and cities, including better-known centers such as Uxmal, Kabah, Sayil, Labná, as well as scores of smaller ruins. These sites belong to a longer and broader heritage of pre-conquest Maya sociopolitical evolution and cultural achievement perhaps best known from its expression during the so-called “Classic Period” (c. A.D. 250-900). During that time the Maya peoples throughout lowlands regions of Guatemala, the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico, Belize, western Honduras and El Salvador lived in settlements ranging from small villages to large urban centers (e.g., Tikal, Calakmul, Copan, Palenque, Yaxchilan).

Many of these served as the capitals of “city-states” that controlled wider territories and were governed by divine kings (k’uhul ajaw’ob) and a small hereditary nobility consisting of elite families. The material remains that embody “Classic Maya Civilization”—the towering pyramid temples, residential-administrative palaces, ballcourts, carved stone monuments, and elaborate decorated ceramics, now considered to be ancient Maya “art”—were largely produced for the use of this small elite group. Although there was some occupational specialization, evident from the professional planning and construction of stone buildings, carving of sculptures, and painting of ceramics and manuscripts, these activities and the lives of the elite were made possible by the broad mass of ordinary people, who lived in more perishable housing and focused on farming and production of household goods.

    The largest and most impressive Puuc cities, such as Uxmal, Kabah, or Sayil, were established and began a period of rapid growth toward the end of the eighth century. During the Terminal Classic period between about A.D. 750 to 950/1000 there was a tremendous burst of architectural and artistic creation in northern Yucatán, resulting in the monumental edifices and striking architectural facades of Puuc buildings, often adorned by complex geometric sculptural motifs, including long-snouted masks thought to depict the rain god Chaak.  During the latter part of this time, the two powerful Maya cities of Uxmal and Chichén Itzá both became capitals of regional states. There is evidence that these two powerful cities were in contact, and that the Uxmal ruler, Chan Chak K’ak’nal Ahaw (a.k.a. “Lord Chaak”) may have entered into a political and military alliance with the rulers of nearby cities such as Kabah and Nohpat, as well as with the Itzá, the rulers of Chichén, who helped Uxmal consolidate its power in the Puuc region. The size of the eastern Puuc cities, the scale of their monumental edifices, and the elaborate architectural sculpture seen on their facades signaled the political power of their rulers in the past, and are now one of the principal attractions for tourists who visit the Puuc region today.

The West Structure of the Nunnery Quadrangle at Uxmal, Yucatán, with the image of the feathered serpent winding across its facade.
Photograph by Jeff Kowalski.


The central plaza in heart of the old section of Mérida, Yucatán. The broad, well manicured plaza is a center for local citizens on Sunday, and has booths around the periphery operated by vendors selling a variety of goods to tourists. In the background is the Cathedral of Mérida. This large colonial structure, whose construction began in 1561, rose above the remains of the ancient Maya capital city of ‘Jo. This was the seat of the Bishops of Yucatán, including the infamous Diego de Landa, responsible both for the ruthless suppression of Maya religious beliefs as well as the record of Maya history and customs in the Relación de las Cosas de Yucatán. Photograph by Jeff Kowalski.

Hacienda Yaxcopoil, located south of Mérida, is a good example of the type of large estate that produced henequen during the nineteenth to early twentieth century. Photograph by Jeff Kowalski

Northern Yucatán during the Colonial Period to the Nineteenth Century.

Early Spanish voyages to Yucatan included those of Francisco Hernández de Córdoba (1517), Juan de Grijalva (1518), and Hernán Cortes (1519). The subsequent conquest and colonization of Yucatán began in 1527, when an expedition led by Francisco de Montejo the elder mounted an invasion from the east coast. This effort, and another launched in 1531, were inconclusive. In 1540 Montejo’s son and nephew organized a new entrada (invasion) to conquer the peninsula. Perhaps aided by the demoralization and decimation of local populations due epidemic disease, this effort was more successful, resulting in the foundation of Mérida in 1542, and of Campeche, Valladolid, and Salamanca de Bacalar (near Chetumal) in 1544. In the process, Montejo gained the support of the Tutul Xiu lord of Mani, who converted to Catholicism, and provided military support. With Xiu assistance, the Spaniards were able to defeat the eastern Maya forces, resulting in effective Spanish control of much of the northwestern and north central sections of the peninsula, including the Puuc zone that formed part of the province of Mani.

The conquest involved both physical subordination and spiritual transformation of earlier Maya society and beliefs. In the areas subjugated by the Spanish, the conquerors were granted encomiendas, officially involving the right to collect tribute from native communities located on territory under the control the landowner. Complementing the encomienda was the repartimiento system, under which local Maya were compelled to provide labor for public projects and agricultural cultivation, ostensibly in return for pay, although Spanish officials and the encomenderos abused the system to use workers for private gain.

 Perhaps the best-known incident in an effort to convert local people to Catholicism and suppress traditional religious beliefs occurred at Mani in 1562, where the Franciscan friar, Diego de Landa, sponsored an auto-da-fe to extirpate idolatries, including public humiliation of local Maya accused of heresy (i.e., continuing to follow indigenous religious practices) and the burning of many Maya codices.

Due to gradual decline in income and decreasing populations in the seventeenth century in northwestern Yucatán, the encomienda system was gradually replaced by estancias (cattle ranches) owned by wealthy Creoles (individuals of Spanish descent). These gradually transformed into haciendas, large estates worked by local Maya, who raised maize for local consumption and tended the cattle. After Mexican independence was declared in 1821 larger estates, whose principal crop was sugarcane, were established in productive areas in the central peninsula. These haciendas expropriated “vacant” land that had been the communal milpa (cornfields) of the local Maya, who subsequently became peones (indebted servants) unable to practice their traditional slash-and-burn agriculture. The destruction of long accepted lifeways, along with other ethnic and class differences, provided the impetus for the  native uprising known as the Caste War.[i] Beginning in 1847, this armed conflict reached its peak in 1848, when Maya rebels succeeded in laying siege to Mérida, only to return to plant their cornfields before final victory could be won. Regrouping Creole forces were able to defeat the Maya, many of whom fled to the thinly occupied forested eastern area of the peninsula in what is today Quintana Roo. There rebel Maya, known as the Cruzob, established an independent society under indigenous leadership, with institutions and organizational structures based on a mixture of pre-conquest, colonial, and nineteenth century forms. The independent Maya continued to wage low-scale guerilla warfare until defeated by Yucatec forces in 1901.

The Caste War and subsequent conflict greatly decreased sugarcane production. However, northern Yucatán is also well suited to growing henequen, a variant of the agave cactus, whose fibrous and spiny leaves were used to produce cordage and textiles for industrial and marine purposes. Henequen was grown as a major export crop on large hacienda plantations during the late 19th to early 20th century. (Figure 6). The focus on henequen production increased commerce and contacts between Yucatan and the United States, which purchased a substantial amount of cordage (particularly after the invention of the McCormick twine-binding reaper in 1878). As a cash crop, henequen produced an economic boom for wealthy hacendados, who built magnificent mansions along the Paseo de Montejo, the broad street leading north from Mérida and designed to recall the Champs Elysees in Paris. (Figure 7) However, such wealth was bought by the crushing labor of the Maya peones who worked the hacienda lands under harsh and impoverished conditions. Land reforms instituted after the Mexican Revolution of 1910 were only imperfectly adopted in Yucatán in the 1930s under the presidency of Lazaro Cárdenas

[i] For the history of the Caste War and its impact, see Nelson Reed, The Caste War of Yucatán (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1964); Marie Lapointe, Los Mayas Rebeldes de Yucatán (Zamora, Michoacan, 1983); Don E. Dumond, The Machete and the Cross: Campsino Rebellion in Yucatán (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press).


The central “20 de Noviembre” market in the town of Oxkutzcab, Yucatán. Photograph by Jeff Kowalski.

A view of the northern extension of the Paseo de Montejo in Mérida, Yucatán, a result the expansion of the city during the period from the 1970s to the present and the impact of global commerce and corporate investment.
Photograph by Jeff Kowalski.

Northern Yucatán in the Twentieth and Twenty-First Century.

The twentieth and early twenty-first centuries have seen major transformations in Maya life in northern Yucatán and the greater Maya region. The decline of henequen production had a strong adverse economic impact. The decline was the result of multiple factors, including the expropriation of large private haciendas and redistribution as ejidos in the 1930s, the Great Depression, the nationalization of cordage mills (culminating in the formation in 1964 of Cordemex), and competition from synthetic fiber-based rope and cordage, which captured about half the world’s markets by the 1970s.

As a response to the loss of henequen income, Yucatán has made an effort to diversify its economy. Raising livestock and cultivating of specialty crops has become more common in the countryside, while commercial fishing has become more important among many who live in communities near the coast. There has been a strong bid to attract maquiladoras (assembly factories for production of export goods) from the 1980s onward, a process intensified by the passage of NAFTA in 1993. Tourism, particularly focused on impressive archaeological sites such as Uxmal and Chichén Itzá, and colonial and traditional Maya heritage (as opposed to the beach vacation and nightclub variety of Cancún and the Maya Riviera), has also played a major role in providing a growing stream of revenue and created a variety of new jobs for the Maya of Yucatán.

     The pressures and changes created by increasing globalization, trade compacts (NAFTA), and an influx of foreign visitors are all affecting the Maya’s cultural identity and sense of self. Until fairly recently, for those living in smaller rural towns, this was countered by their relative isolation and conservatism. There old ways of “being Maya,” such as the regular use of Yucatec Maya language, the importance of the local (J)Meen [aka h-men] (shaman and healer) and the practice of field rituals that blended Catholic and traditional Maya concepts, were maintained despite the introduction of improvements such as electrification, improved roads, or ability to purchase labor saving machinery and appliances. Increasingly, however, the traditional agricultural system can no longer support people in these more distant places, so they seek sources of cash income in larger cities, or in the tourist zone on the east coast, where “modernization” and a desire to adopt new fashions diminish identification with traditional lifeways. Nevertheless, the Maya have been remarkably successful in negotiating and adapting to severe disruptions to their cultural traditions in the past, and the formation of various indigenous cultural organizations that promote a contemporary pan-Maya consciousness and pride in Maya cultural achievements, indicate that they will continue to conserve an awareness of their past, while striving for effective political, economic, and social recognition in the present.



The symposium is free and open to the public.

We encourage attendees to contact Connie Rhoton (, or 815-753-1474) to give us an idea of the audience size. Those who would like to purchase an on-site lunch, which will cost  $8.00, must pre-register by contacting Connie Rhoton.

Please report any site problems here.