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59 early one october morning in 1853, don Esteban Herrera walked slowly toward his local church in the town of Cacalchén. As he would later testify, Herrera, the village’s juez de paz (magistrate), was tired and worn after having spent the night in consultation with the priest and laying out about fifteen bodies end to end on the patio of the small church. He was plagued with visions of the pinched and bloated carcasses, victims of an ongoing cholera epidemic. In the last few months, demand for burial plots had far exceeded the capacity of the church grounds. Consequently, the bodies lay exposed until he could decide what to do. Herrera felt that the only realistic option was to bury the bodies outside of the pueblo in what would be a new general cemetery. But this plan touched on anxieties concerning the disposition of the dead felt by the many citizens of Cacalchén, who had experienced the loss of friends and loved ones to the illness. Many felt helpless and unfairly punished. Furthermore, it was easy to perceive the hurried construction of the new cemetery as another interruption in daily life exacted by the disastrous cholera epidemic.1 As Herrera approached the gated entrance to the church patio, he picked up a tree branch and began to work his way through the dozens of dogs and pigs.2 Herrera was frustrated that the priest permitted the families of the deceased to leave the infected bodies out overnight. He thought it was unsanitary and barbaric to allow the air to become infested with disease-causing “miasmas,” harmful or poisonous airborne menaces thought to emanate from noxious wastes, decaying bodies, and, in particular, diseased corpses such as the cholera victims. Herrera’s ideas about disease prevention were common among C hapter three On Sacred Ground Cholera, Burial Rites, and Cemetery Management } chapter three 60 Figure 2: Don Esteban Herrera and the Cacalchén Cemetery by Judith B. McCrea. On Sacred Ground 61 laypersons and medical professionals of the time, who were dealing with a violent disease for which they had no ready-made theories. When cholera came to New York City in 1832, for example, a doctor there ascribed it to “a general distemperature of the air.”3 Other issues plagued Herrera as well, like the reminder he received from the local priest about a Catholic canon that required a twenty-four-hour waiting period before burying the deceased. Then there were the residents, already aggravated and tense from the epidemic. Herrera knew that if he tampered with either Catholic or Maya burial traditions, especially overnight vigils and processions to the gravesite, he would face fierce protests. But if he was to obey the state public health laws, as was his civil duty, he would have to order immediate burials for disease victims. By the time Herrera had chased the animals out of the church grounds, a few laborers had arrived, and he ordered them to prepare the bodies for transport to the graveyard site outside of the pueblo. This provoked a number of complaints: one laborer asked Herrera how could he request such a thing, while another explained that the family of one little girl was still busy preparing her procession. The workers all grumbled that they had no time to work in their milpas (small agricultural subsistence plots); they wanted to know when promised grain supplements for their extra labor would arrive.4 As we will see later, the way Herrera interpreted his job in this time of cholera brought down upon him the wrath of his formerly peaceful village. In this diseased moment, the structure of power was stripped of any disguise or ornament in the eyes of the townspeople, and the promise of power—the protection of the villager’s life and limb—was considered to be broken. In this way, an epidemic was not only an event in natural history, but one in political history—a theme that will be developed in this chapter. Herrera’s problem was one shared by many local leaders in Mexico’s southeastern states and the Yucatán Peninsula during the cholera epidemic of 1850–55. For religious and civil officials, this time of accelerated death presented a dramatic increase in workload, ultimately compromising community support networks as daily lives were thrown into the chaos of the epidemic. The struggle to locate suitable burial grounds and conduct a proper burial encompasses terrain wherein policy makers vied with clergy for...


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