Xuxub Must Die

pitt l atin american seriesGeorge Reid Andrews, General EditorCatherine M. Conaghan and Jorge I. Domínguez, Associate Editors

Xuxub Must DieThe Lost Histories of a Murder on the YucatanP A U LS U L L I V A NUNIVERSITY OF PITTSBURGH PRESS

Published by the University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh, Pa., 15260Copyright 2004, University of Pittsburgh PressAll rights reservedManufactured in the United States of AmericaPrinted on acid-free paper10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1Paper ISBN 978-0-8229-5944-1Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication DataSullivan, Paul R.Xuxub must die : the lost histories of a murder on the Yucatan / PaulSullivan.p. cm.—(Pitt Latin American series)Includes bibliographical references (p. ) and index.ISBN 0-8229-4230-5 (cloth : alk. paper)1. Mayas—Mexico—Yucatán (State)—History. 2. Peasantuprisings—Mexico—Yucatán (State) 3. Plantation workers—Crimesagainst—Mexico—Yucatán (State) 4. Yucatán (Mexico :State)—History—19th century. 5. Murder—Mexico—Yucatán (State) 6.Cen, Bernardino, d. 1875 or 6. 7. Mayas—Wars—Mexico—Yucatán(State) I. Title. II. Series.F1435.1.Y89S85 2004972'.650812—dc222003021184

ContentsIntroduction: Terrible Beauty1Promises of Quiet112. A Dangerous Path273. Protection444. Between Strength and Weakness555. The Will of God776. Hubris1011.7.Unnatural Cruelty1228.Suitable Measures1469. Worldly Satisfaction167Epilogue: Truth, Guilt, and s197Index257

Xuxub Must Die

IntroductionTerrible BeautyIw e n t w i t h m i g u e l , a m aya f r i e n d , l o o k i n g f o rXuxub. Cartographers hadn’t exerted themselves charting that forsaken corner of Yucatan. You couldn’t just find Xuxub on a map.We came upon the white ruins of a sugar plantation. I thought thosemight be it, so in Maya I hailed two men laboring on the road. Wavinghands they cut me off. They weren’t Maya. They came from Veracruz anddidn’t know the name of that old estate. They had heard, though, that onthose walls appeared strange writing which none had yet deciphered.“Let’s go get scolded,” Miguel quipped as we went to check it out. Iwasn’t worried about the trespassing. I sweated the snakes. In the midst ofthose stout walls, stacks, and sluices, fallen brush lay so thick our feetnever touched the ground. Who knew what lurked down there? For agood while we inspected the ruins inside and out but found no inscriptions at all. I guess those fellows from Veracruz had a good laugh on us.Coming out on the other side we spied a hut nearby. Its elderly ownersat in the shade occupied in some task. They don’t get many visitors outthere. He dropped what he was doing and watched intently as we approached. In Maya again, this time with success, I declared we soughtXuxub. No, he explained with a hint of a chuckle. Those were not theruins of Xuxub. That was the plantation San Eusebio, founded early inthe twentieth century but soon abandoned when the revolution arrived tofree its slaves. (How long had he sat there, waiting for someone to ask?)The ruins of the Xuxub plantation lay ten kilometers further east.The fellow used to hike there through the forest, so he knew. But a recenthurricane had littered the ground with trees and obliterated the trail. Suchwas his excuse for declining to lead us there. He said we’d have to travel bylaunch along the coast and through the mangroves to reach Xuxub, ifthat’s where we wanted to go.Foreigners visit Yucatan for temples and pyramids, beaches and blue1

2t e r r i bl e be au t ywater. Just a mile back down the road stood ancient structures, likely oncepart of the largest Maya town on the north coast of Yucatan and a majorport for coastal trade before the arrival of the Spaniards. But I had notcome drawn to spectacles of lost civilization. Remains of more recent vintage attracted me. On the coast at Chiquila we met two brothers whocould take us. They didn’t need to ask why we’d go out there.Almost the only stories you’ll hear of Xuxub are told in Maya, in villages like that from which my companion came. What happened thereonce reverberated across all of Yucatan. It made front-page news in NewYork, too. Then memory failed. Time alone was not the culprit. Keepers ofhistory encouraged us to forget. What happened there was too painful,awkward, controversial. A few pages of chronicle were rewritten, andXuxub vanished. Almost.I’d first heard of Xuxub a decade before when as an anthropologist Ilived among Mayas in Quintana Roo. The tale was brief, but a little history can go a long way. While working on another story, I chanced upon aState Department file concerning the murder of an American at Xuxub. Ithad to be the same known to my Maya friends. The name (shooshoob,“whistling”) is too rare. A fellow American lived and died out there, longbefore archeology and anthropology, tourism, sport fishing, scuba diving,and cave exploration drew tens of thousands of my countrymen to theshores of the Yucatan. What twisted path brought this working man toXuxub and to his encounter with the predecessors of my friend Miguel?What happened to him there?Those weren’t questions that Mayas ever pondered. It’s enough thatthe American was white like their enemies and played a destined part intheir history. Others who once wrote and talked about Xuxub took littlemore interest in the man. He was just another gringo, come like so manyothers to make a buck, a minor example of aggressive, brazen, often insulting foreign capitalists whose grip upon the people and economy ofMexico grew stronger by the year. His death represented a slight, buthardly tragic (maybe even welcomed), receding of that foreign tide. In yetother hands, those of attorneys, jurists, and diplomats, the dead Americanbecame a symbol of any honest, hardworking citizen whose rights are brutally trampled in a foreign land, for which offense, no matter how trivial inthe grander scheme of things, nations must account.Of course, whatever happened to that American didn’t happen to theshadow puppet that he became in death. It happened to a man who had a

t e r r i bl e be au t y3full life. I thought to understand it all, I’d uncover what that life had been.So, too, the lives of others who built Xuxub up and tore it down, most ofwhom perished there.Xuxub struck a deep chord in folks like Miguel, descendants of Indians who waged a long war against their white oppressors and who fordecades enjoyed hard-won independence in the deep forests of theCaribbean littoral. They lost that independence only in the time ofMiguel’s grandparents, and from that elder generation Miguel and his cohorts learned many stories of the time of war and sacrifice. To the tale ofXuxub they return again and again, at least when I’m around to listen, asthough that story best captures who they think they are and how they became that way, their greatness and their flaws, and where they might beheaded, for better or for worse.Yet the cherished tale as it’s told by Miguel and other Mayas doesn’tjibe with stories we’ve been telling ever since they fought that war. Thefirst and bitterly hostile generation of historians understood Maya rebelssimply as enemies of civilization; Indians kept in darkness for centuries bya jealous Catholic church, confused when a new era of enlightenment offered them new freedoms as citizens of Mexico. Egged on by white opportunists and ambitious leaders of their own, they waged unjust andfutile war against the inexorable march of progress. It was a war of evilagainst good, and evil wore an Indian mask. In such a history the tale ofXuxub, should it be told, would strike a discordant note. What happenedthere obscured boundaries of good and evil, of barbarity and civilization.The story of Xuxub would tarnish the shining image of progress thatwhite authors so cherished and championed. In modern times more sympathetic chroniclers rehabilitated the Maya rebels and on paper marshaledthem to fight the battles we wished they had. We recast Maya warriors aspeasant insurgents fighting the kind of war of national liberation withwhich half of the twentieth century made us so familiar. We cast them asethnic militants struggling to preserve their unique culture and identity,once we had lost ours in the bland commercial sameness of postmoderntimes. We championed them as social revolutionaries battling (our) encroaching western capitalism so that they could preserve their primitiveegalitarianism and harmonious relationship to nature. Or, in good Mexican tradition, we admired them as agrarian activists who killed only tosave their land and their simple but balanced farming way of life. Perhapsone day we’ll yet marshal those dead rebels to the cause of environmental-

4t e r r i bl e be au t yism, or some other -ism of our choosing. In short, where enemy historianshad cast them as evil, we embraced the Maya and viewed them only asgood, and having done so had no use for a story like Xuxub, in which goodand evil seem so inextricably entwined, and in which the causes and motives of men are so disputable.In any event, that’s not how Miguel, his people, and his predecessorsviewed themselves—as warriors for our notions of evil or for good.They’ve long understood themselves to be, as they say,“just humans,” children of God, the same as their enemies. As for why they fought that war,they cite no cause for which they killed, only causes that drove them to it.They were raped and beaten, cheated and starved, killed with impunity,until they turned to killing because they had no other choice and nothingmore to lose. They killed the whites and died by droves themselves and allthe while inched closer to that God who too had suffered and been crucified and who returned to the forest to help his Maya children in theirstruggle. They didn’t fight for a cause. They fought simply to live and because it seemed God willed it, and no one dared to defy God.For now the fighting is over; times have changed. Miguel and hisneighbors still organize themselves in military-style companies ruled byofficers like Miguel himself. They used to fight and pray. Now they justpray, keep the God house up, make sacrifices for rain and health and favor,and await with some expectation the return of war in the Final Days.Times have changed, and when they reckon just when that change began,Xuxub comes quickly to mind. What happened there altered the course oftheir history, at least as they tell it. At Xuxub they broke ranks with Godmomentarily, and defeat followed as He said it would. They pay the priceto this very day, or so some of them see it. They’re only human, and atXuxub the flaws of humans had great consequence.The story I’ll tell about Xuxub isn’t precisely theirs, but I hope foronce in this written tale of war Miguel and his friends will at least recognize themselves. At Xuxub cruel deeds were done, some by Mayas likeMiguel. Telling this story might make them seem blindly cruel, even barbaric, as their white oppressors so often claimed. It shouldn’t, though.Maya rebels weren’t barbaric. War was barbaric, and men, Mayas included, did terrible things to the children of God. Their humanity included a capacity for evil. Deny that capacity, and one denies theirhumanity. Xuxub as a Maya parable, a revelation of humanity—that’swhy I started on the trail. From the ruins of Xuxub, I later learned, other

t e r r i bl e be au t y5people had drawn quite different lessons about themselves and theirworld.From Chiquila, our only hope of getting to Xuxub was if those twobrothers would take us in their boat. But the eldest hemmed and hawed.If they went, they’d lose half a day’s work. Maybe a whole day. It was a longway out to Xuxub. Curiosity drew men and children close as Fidenciomade up his mind. “Well, what do you think?” I finally asked. He wordlessly splayed two fingers against his chest. The price was steep, two hundred dollars, but I quickly said OK.We were still standing on the plaza when the grim-faced mayor strodeup. Strangers arriving with a queer request prompted someone to fetchauthority. I explained I wanted to go to Xuxub. The news didn’t pleasehim. He consented, though, comforted to hear we would leave them thenext day. Chiquila is a fishing village and parking lot for the ferry to Holbox Island. A few stores, small masonry houses, and a church surroundthe plaza. Pole and thatch dwellings string down the beach, and a long pierjuts over the water. All that is sandwiched between the swamp and a broadlagoon. Dead by day, it bustles after dark with vehicles coming and going.Maybe they just come to meet a late ferry or buy the day’s catch. But thatdistant corner of the Yucatan Peninsula, so close to the sea and so far fromeverywhere else, has been a favored haunt for pirates, later for smugglers,fugitives, and anyone else needing to enter and leave the country discreetly.Whatever they had going for themselves in Chiquila, they seemed not towant strangers hanging around long.Before daybreak we went out to the pier, even as Fidencio and hisbrother motored the launch around. They’d brought shotguns. Miguel regretted not bringing his own, but we got in anyway and set out for Xuxub.For twenty or thirty minutes the launch cruised full throttle eastward offthe southern shore of the briny lagoon. Fidencio manned the outboardastern, while his brother, perched on the bow, watched for rocks or shallows or floating debris, pointing out here and there the curious eyes offresh water that bubbled up from below. Guided by a solitary coconut treestanding on a low spit of beach, suddenly Fidencio swung the boat towardshore and into the hidden mouth of the Xuxub River.Back when their father was still alive he had often boated out to farmand hunt around Xuxub. Each time he went, he’d prune the mangroves,slashing here and there with his machete wherever the bush threatened tochoke off the narrow passage. The spirit of that old man had so entwined

6t e r r i bl e be au t yitself with the thickets that when he died, the mangrove languishedovernight. Since then it had returned, lush as ever, and it slowed ourprogress to a crawl.Eventually the water grew so shallow that Fidencio’s brother had topole us the final yards, until a drought-thirsty river could carry us no further. We jumped out where a low bridge once spanned the way. By then Irealized the folly of our trip. Now that I was there, I knew little better thanbefore just where Xuxub lay. We’d traveled east, then south, then so manyturns later through the mangroves, I could not say precisely where wewere. Only that we were at Xuxub. I should have taken this as a sign. Eachof my efforts to decipher what really happened there would bring me tothe same point—amidst truths without sound bearings.Just where was Xuxub? It was a no-place, really. No one ever happilycalled it home. No one really belonged there. People came there, or werethrown together, in one of those odd, often fleeting, sometimes bloody encounters across national and ethnic divides. Saint Anthony stood nominally as protector over the place, and once a year with prayer, drink, music,dance, and fireworks they’d fete that icon of charity—“go and sell thatthou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven.”Yetover Xuxub every other day reigned money, and to that men sacrificed tolerance and mutual respect, dignity and truth, and, finally, human lives.Fidencio and his brother forged ahead. They slashed at the emeraldthicket of fronds and saplings as mosquitoes, our constant, buzzing companions, welcomed us into that forsaken corner of the world. At first theguides fumbled for their bearings. It all looked different from the last timethey were there. The hurricane had knocked down many trees, and thensunlight hitting the forest floor ignited blasts of new growth. As theyhacked on, however, a stack came into view. There once stood the rum distillery. All of it had long since crumbled but that chimney, held erect by anancient tree, as though nature itself remembered yet what had happenedthere.Further on Fidencio uncovered another structure—four masonrywalls, no roof, no door, no windows. Some sort of storage tank. Elsewherein the rank tangle near the river’s edge one could still spy parts of the fine,tiled floor of the plantation’s big house. That’s what they told us, anyway.Most else had vanished long ago. The bodies and the blood, the echoes ofmusic and screams. Mosquitoes taunted us to move on, so we did. Little

t e r r i bl e be au t y7more than an hour after landing at Xuxub, we boarded the launch anddrifted downriver again.What happened at Xuxub once echoed far and wide. Rival city newspapers trumpeted one explanation or another for the killings there, anddiplomats tussled over who to blame. More than one U.S. president andseveral secretaries of state handled plaintive missives from the aggrieved.The case even wormed its way into compendiums of international law.The killing took little more than a day, but angry pens shed ink fordecades to come, until they finally stilled. Then only the talk was left, andthe talk goes on. Everyone knew from the start who did the killing. Butwhy did it happen? What sinuous chain of human events, passions, hopes,and frailties had caused Xuxub to die? That question begged. The answersseemed simple, though each contained the germ of a different vision of theworld. Each attempt to answer the question, Why? evoked an alternativeworld in which Xuxub and its people had, of course, to perish. Neighborsthen lived in such different worlds. So too, today, when they speak of whathappened there. Each story told starts in a different place and leads youdown one trail or another until you reach Xuxub. Any trail you follow willget you there, but leave you with a different notion about why Xuxubmust die.The event still fresh, storytellers chose their paths well. Some had lostkin there, some property, some lost prospects and gained a grievance or aright to boast, or sullen satisfaction to share about vengeance and the like.They were partisan and fashioned tales to lure others to their cause. Until,at last, blood debts were paid, money changed hands, some history wasrewritten, and Xuxub could be buried deep where none might chanceupon it.Why now dig it up again? Partly to wonder at the spectacle of it all, athow everything can come together to make for such a very bad day. It’s likewatching flames consume what man has built, illuminating a dark sky.Terrible, but not without its beauty, too. So with the story of Xuxub.There’s the spectacle, too, of intelligent gentlemen deploying venerabletexts and skill at rational disputation in vain attempts to agree upon whathappened and why. Attorneys, judges, and the law could extinguish livesor spare them but never find the truth behind it all. Representatives of sister republics appealing to august principles—the rights and duties of manand nations—could find no common ground in equity or justice, as long

8t e r r i bl e be au t yand hard as they tried. Truth, it seems, must yield to interest, power, andprejudice.Why dig it up again? A kind of duty inclines me to. Mayas remember.Their white neighbors have forgotten. We’ve forgotten, even though whathappened at Xuxub for one brief moment linked us all. What happenedat that little no-place in the mangroves dashed hopes in a suburb of NewYork, raised passions and rhetoric in Washington and Mexico City, andeased fear on a far frontier of the British Empire. Close by, many heraldedXuxub as an extraordinary triumph for civilization and humanity. Othersjust as grandly lamented what happened as a rupture between man andGod. Yet only Mayas now remember, choose to remember. And the rest ofus? Is there nothing of Xuxub worth remembering, worth preserving, besides a gravestone in New Jersey, a skull in a museum in Yucatan, somemeager ruins half-lost in the mangroves? Listening once more to the storyof Xuxub, we might reco