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Outside the Hacienda Walls

The Archaeology of Plantation Peonage in Nineteenth-Century Yucatán

By Allan Meyers

Publication Year: 2012

The Mexican Revolution was a tumultuous struggle for social and political reform that ousted an autocrat and paved the way for a new national constitution. The conflict, however, came late to Yucatán, where a network of elite families with largely European roots held the reins of government. This privileged group reaped spectacular wealth from haciendas, cash-crop plantations tended by debt-ridden servants of Maya descent. When a revolutionary army from central Mexico finally gained a foothold in Yucatán in 1915, the local custom of agrarian servitude met its demise.

Drawing on a dozen years of archaeological and historical investigation, Allan Meyers breaks new ground in the study of Yucatán haciendas. He explores a plantation village called San Juan Bautista Tabi, which once stood at the heart of a vast sugar estate. Occupied for only a few generations, the village was abandoned during the revolutionary upheaval. Its ruins now lie within a state-owned ecological reserve.

Through oral histories, archival records, and physical remains, Meyers examines various facets of the plantation landscape. He presents original data and fresh interpretations on settlement organization, social stratification, and spatial relationships. His systematic approach to "things underfoot," small everyday objects that are now buried in the tropical forest, offers views of the hacienda experience that are often missing in official written sources. In this way, he raises the voices of rural, mostly illiterate Maya speakers who toiled as laborers. What emerges is a portrait of hacienda social life that transcends depictions gleaned from historical methods alone.

Students, researchers, and travelers to Mexico will all find something of interest in Meyers's lively presentation. Readers will see the old haciendas--once forsaken but now experiencing a rebirth as tourist destinations--in a new light. These heritage sites not only testify to social conditions that prevailed before the Mexican Revolution, but also remind us that the human geography of modern Yucatán is as much a product of plantation times as it is of more ancient periods.

Published by: University of Arizona Press


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p. 1-1

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. 2-7


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pp. vii-9


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pp. ix-xi

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pp. xiii-xvi

The Mexican Revolution has been called “the defining event” in the history of modern Mexico.1 The tumultuous, epic struggle was born out of three-and-a-half decades of autocratic rule by military strong man Porfirio Díaz. Díaz’s ouster in 1911 unleashed a violent competition for political and economic reform. It made populist icons out of charismatic figures such as Emiliano Zapata...

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pp. xvii-xxi

Archaeology at Hacienda Tabi has been the product of a great many dedicated professionals and students in two neighboring nations, as well as in local communities surrounding the site. First and foremost, I extend a heartfelt thanks to Leticia Roche C. Fortuny, director of the Fundación Cultural Yucatán (Yucatán Cultural Foundation) during its stewardship of the Tabi Ecological Reserve. It was she who...

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1. The Death of Pablo Chan

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pp. 1-18

About two hours after sunrise on January 6, 1890, José Ceh, a thirty-seven-year-old widower and father of two, was in transit from one morning task to another. Accompanying him was Juan Tun, a slightly younger man with a surname meaning “stone” in his native Maya tongue. The two had started work in the fields around 5:00 a.m. by the light...

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2. The Birth of an Expedition

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pp. 19-34

The journey to Hacienda Tabi spans a landscape full of tales from natural and cultural history. Air travel to Mérida from Houston or Miami offers sublime views of the Gulf of Mexico before its cyan waters give way to deep green matted jungle along the peninsula’s northwest coast. Minutes later, sun-bleached concrete rooftops of the sprawling state capital come into sight...

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3. Chronicle of an Estate

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pp. 35-55

When Spaniards first skirted the coast of Yucatán in the early 1500s, the northern peninsula comprised a patchwork of at least sixteen provinces. A dynasty by the name of Xiu (SHOO) controlled much of the Puuc region, including the eventual location of Hacienda Tabi. It ruled from Maní, which is today a sleepy little town north of Oxkutzcab. Maní is best known as the site of Bishop Diego...

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4. Life and Debt beyond the Walls

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pp. 56-73

Several decades after the Mexican Revolution, a fellow by the name of Jorge Flores came upon a well-worn document among a collection of papers that he had recently inherited. Penned by his late father, Esteban, in the months leading up to General Salvador Alvarado’s triumph in Mérida, the nineteen-page report detailed the circumstances of life, labor, and death...

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5. A Village Rediscovered

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pp. 74-96

Armed with surveying equipment, camping supplies, and the bird’s-eye sketch map, a five-member field team from Texas A&M University arrived in Mérida on a steamy July day in 1996. We had scheduled a meeting with Leticia Roche, the Yucatán Cultural Foundation’s director, at her office in the city. She, in turn, had made arrangements for us to settle in at Tabi for the month-long pilot project. We made our introductions...

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6. The Social Order in Clay and Stone

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pp. 97-119

For all that we learned during the initial ground surveys, our efforts left some important issues unresolved. Explorations into the construction and spatial patterning of debt-peon housing yielded conflicting results. The locations of different house types suggested that residents were split into several ranks or segments. Comparisons of house size, however, suggested...

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7. Where the Garbage Went

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pp. 120-135

As we have seen, moving onto the hacienda brought significant social and economic changes. In most cases, you were no longer free to come and go as you pleased, lest you be branded a fugitive in the local press and pursued by bounty hunters. You purchased necessities at the plantation store and retrieved water from the estate well. Shelter and medical care would...

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8. If Floors Could Talk

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pp. 136-161

As the archaeology project matured, the Yucatán Cultural Foundation made noticeable progress on its plan to stabilize and renovate the Tabi palacio. Parts of the big house were architecturally weak at the time of the government’s acquisition. The foundation procured enough funds by 2000 to commission a painstaking reconstruction of its western end, the walls of which had collapsed...

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9. Return to the Light

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pp. 162-176

An axiom of archaeology is that the most improbable finds occur at or near the very end of fieldwork. So there we were on the last day of the May 2002 season, excavating test pits in village Block 10. We had already weathered an unseasonable amount of rain, and this morning the forest seemed especially muggy. Dew dripping from the canopy above left us clammy...


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pp. 177-193

Works Cited

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pp. 195-211


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pp. 213-219

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About the Author

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pp. 221-246

Allan Meyers is professor of anthropology at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida. He holds a bachelor of arts degree in anthropology/sociology and Spanish from Centre College, a master of arts in anthropology from the University of Alabama, and a PhD in anthropology from Texas A&M University (1998). He taught at Centenary College...

E-ISBN-13: 9780816599615
E-ISBN-10: 0816599610
Print-ISBN-13: 9780816529957
Print-ISBN-10: 0816529957

Page Count: 248
Illustrations: 61 illus, 13 tables
Publication Year: 2012