In October 1875 a group of Maya rebels attacked an obscure sugar plantation, Xuxub, on the northern portion of the Yucatán peninsula, killing the American co-owner, Robert Stephens, and his laborers, including men, women and children. The next day many of the rebels were overtaken by government troops and killed. Anthropologist Sullivan, whose previous book also centered on the problematic relationship of the indigenous Mayas and the predominantly Hispanic government, tries to put the event in perspective and discover why it occurred. Early on, Sullivan asks, "Why dig it up again?" He answers that the Maya remember the event as a kind of triumph, while the Mexican and American establishments remember it not at all; by studying it, we "might recover something lost, something we should recall." Although there is something to learn from Xuxub, it will not be, for many readers, as much as Sullivan hopes. His research on every facet of historical context is impeccable, and the tangled array of personal, cultural and political factors is well explicated. But there is too much historical minutiae to sustain continuous interest. Part of the problem is that Sullivan is overly fond of dramatic sentences like, "The day had come" and "They would learn to fear him among all others...." He also spends too much time on the less relevant political aftermath, especially concerning Stephens's widow. Still, those with a special interest in Latin American history will find this retrieval of lost history of interest. Maps.
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In 1875, Mayan Caste War rebels raided the sugar plantation Xuxub, sacking it and murdering its Irish-American owner Robert Stephens. Back in New York, his [End Page 480] widow sought justice and compensation. For various (and not particularly noble reasons), an ambitious Mexican político, an inept U.S. diplomat, and the U.S. and opposition Yucatecan press turned the murder into a cause célèbre. One American journalist compared the raid and murder to Custer's last stand. Indeed, the incident came to stand as a case of barbarism menacing progress and order.
The story Sullivan tells is dark and remarkably compelling, microhistory noir. Sullivan unravels the tale in a way that blends ethnohistory and investigative journalism, carefully pulling out many ragged strands. Jealous local notables of the Urcelay clan proved complicit. Mayor Baltazar Montilla had a criminal past and more than a little to do with the skullduggery. General Bernardino Cen, who actually led the raid, fell victim to infighting among the rebels and lost his head before he could return safely to the base of the Cruzob (People of the Speaking Cross). We see how North Americans' actions were informed by thinly veiled neocolonialism and racism, as well as the petty factional rivalries dividing Yucatán's upper class. The backdrop is carefully painted, above all the forced labor and inflow of foreign capital and technology that drove Yucatán's sugar boom. Consequently, by the end of his story the raid on Xuxub appears not just an isolated if infamous incident, but a window into the complex forces that shaped Mexico in the age of the first globalization. Sadly, this kind of chaos soon justified Porfirio Díaz's authoritarian order and forced progress in the minds of many Mexicans and North Americans.
Sullivan's informed empathy for the Mayan rebels does not prevent him from showing the way that warlordism, greed, and betrayal plagued the Cruzob. Sullivan deftly charts Cen's rise through the rebel ranks, reconstructing the internecine rivalries and killings that claimed the lives of key rebel generals and many noncombatants. By the time of the raid Cen had joined a triumvirate that ousted and killed Venancio Puc, the Speaking Cross's oracle and something of a moderate. Cen then helped revive a war sparked back in 1847 but since grown cold. He dreamed of driving whites from the peninsula, won victories and booty, but by this point could never prevail. Cen terrified his enemies, but also his own people—he menaced friendly Belize, and while drunk killed two of his own sons. Subsequently, the Queen of Tulum demoted Cen.
Sullivan wastes not one of his roughly 200 pages and writes directly and often elegantly, commending this work to the undergraduate classroom. The narrative poses a number of productive challenges. It begins and at times returns to the present, following the author's search for Xuxub. He tells his story viewed from different perspectives, underscoring the contingent nature of history.
This work will be required reading for students of the Maya, but deserves attention from a wider audience. Both globaphiles and globaphobes will learn that long before the Brady Plan, U.S. entrepreneurs like Stephens and his Mexican partners carved out enclave economies and plugged into international business networks. Key protagonists crossed national boundaries with technology no more advanced than steam power and the telegraph. Stephens, who had tried his luck in the New [End Page 481] York area and Cuba, did business in Belize City, not Mérida (much less Mexico City). Ironically, his murderer, Cen, did too. Stephens' patron and partner, Ramón Aznar, acquired American citizenship and tried to use it to invoke U.S. intervention in his home country affairs. This is history at its best, humanistic without reducing people to either heroes or victims, and able to explain powerful forces in a direct, clear way.
Copyright © 2007 Academy of American Franciscan History