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Yucatan and Chiapas

The Yucatán’s unique geography and its literate and organized Maya population gave it a separate identity before the Spanish invasion. The peninsula is one of the largest limestone platforms in the world and has a mean elevation of not quite thirty feet above sea level. Below ground it has a vast world of caves and water sources, including cenotes or sinkholes, with openings to the sky.

The Maya of Yucatán resisted the Spanish invaders, and in many areas of the peninsula it was a standoff, with the colonial government unable to exercise full control. The land yielded no gold or silver, however, so the Spaniards imposed an agricultural and taxation system that exacted tributes to compensate.

With independence from Spain in 1821, Yucatán resisted a centralized Mexican government, fearing a decrease in autonomy. In 1838, Santiago Imán led a revolt, and in 1840 Yucatán separated from Mexico, to be reunited in 1843, only to be separated again in 1845.

Maya served in the Yucatán army, until broken promises caused many to become rebels, and the Caste War began. President James K. Polk (UNC 1818) had favored assistance to the Yucatán against the Maya rebels, and some fellow Democrats wished the U.S. to annex the state, before news reached them of a peace treaty between warring factions. With the end of the Mexican-American War and the violence of the Caste War, the Yucatán government gave up its claims for independence.

The land of neighboring Chiapas is one that contrasts geographically with the Yucatán Peninsula, having a variety of terrains and including the Tacana volcano at over 13,000 feet. Part of Guatemala until independence from Spain and eventual annexation by Mexico, it was controlled by Spanish and mixed ancestry ranchers and merchants. Like the Yucatán, its indigenous population has resisted subjugation. There have been repeated Maya uprisings in Chiapas, the so-called Caste War of 1869 being one of these.