By Brooke Gazer
A tall and athletically built people who valued their autonomy, the Yaquis were never totally subdued by the Spanish. After a peace treaty was agreed upon in 1610, the Yaquis relinquished part of their land in exchange for a guarantee, signed by the King of Spain, acknowledging their ownership of their remaining territory in southern Sonora. At that time, they numbered between 100,000 and 200,000 people. Every Mexican government respected this treaty until Porfirio Díaz came to power.
Coveting their fertile lands, the state of Sonora harassed them, sending soldiers and surveyors into their territory, confiscating bank accounts, and burning the home of their leader. In 1894, the federal government confiscated their best land, giving it to General Lorenzo Torres, head of the Sonoran army.
Over the next few years, thousands of soldiers and ten thousand Yaquis died in battle. In 1898, government troops acquired new improved Mauser rifles, which critically overmatched the poorly armed Yaquis; surrender was imminent. Yaqui leaders were executed, and the remaining Yaquis relocated to a region that was barren desert. Without water it was uninhabitable, causing most families to scatter as wage earners in mines, on railroads, and farms. These people became solid citizens and were considered the best workers in Mexico. The remaining four or five thousand formed bands of fierce rebels who took to the hills. They were hunted down like vermin and soldiers received $100 for the ears of a Yaqui guerilla.
The army’s failure to secure the surrender of “a handful of renegades” prompted an extreme government action and in 1908, notices appeared in American and Mexican newspapers. President Díaz had issued a sweeping order that every Yaqui, man, woman and child, should be gathered up by the War Department and deported to the Yucatán. This was not limited to rebels – it included every living Yaqui, young and old alike.
After John Kenneth Turner heard rumors about the fate of these people, he traveled south to investigate and what he learned was not pretty.
Without warning, soldiers rounded up families and herded them to the port of Guaymas, Sonora, where an exhausting journey over land and sea began. They were stuffed into boxcars or the stinking holds of ships; they were marched over two hundred miles of Mexico’s roughest mountains. Between ten and twenty percent died of exhaustion or starvation along the way. The survivors were sold like livestock. Husbands and wives were torn apart, and children ripped away from their mothers.
On board a ship, Turner learned that over fifteen thousand Yaquis had been transported on that vessel. Speaking first-hand with Yaquis, he heard them lament that they had pled to their employers, unsuccessfully, for their release. He listened as they grieved for wives and children who dropped in the dust and died during the arduous trek across the mountains. He felt helpless when they beseeched him to intervene for their freedom.
The new arrivals were put to work on henequén plantations, where thousands of Mayans had already been enslaved. Slavery was abolished in Mexico in 1829, but when Turner arrived in the Yucatan in 1908, it was an integral part of the economy.
Semantically, the Mayans were not slaves, they were “debtors.” Professional money lenders lured poverty-stricken Mayans into debt; sometimes the debt included the entire family. They were forced to work under unbearably harsh conditions on large plantations that fueled the rich economy of the region. Once declared a debtor, no one could never buy his or her freedom – the debt continued to grow, and was passed on to future generations.
The masters never considered that they were buying or selling a person, rather they were transferring the debt and the man went with it. However, the amount the man originally owed was irrelevant, and the debt had a market price, just like machinery or cattle.
The government transferred Yaquis to landowners the same way, but at discount prices, and one owner told Turner, “We don’t allow the Yaquis to get in debt to us.” The owner received a photograph and identification papers with each individual; if one ran away, the papers were sufficient for the authorities to return the runaway. The desert terrain of the Yucatan made escape impossible.
This was a miserable existence for both Mayans and Yaquis alike. Both received equally brutal treatment; they were underfed, overworked, and brutally beaten. But It was far worse for the Yaquis; exhausted and starved upon arrival, two thirds died within the first year. The Mayans could at least maintain a semblance of home and family ties. Yaquis were exiled far from home; thrust into a hot, unfamiliar climate; and separated from family and loved ones.
For the newly arrived Yaqui women, life became especially insufferable. The worst barbarity imposed upon each wretched female, who had just been separated from her husband, was to compel her to marry and live with a man of Chinese origin. Chinese men were brought to Mexico as porters, and laborers to build the railroad. It was often a one-way ticket and later, when they fell into debt, they were also enslaved.
The Yaquis had an advanced culture that did not mix with other people, even other indigenous groups. Their religious beliefs combined Roman Catholic teachings with traditional indigenous practices; family and conjugal fidelity were integral parts of their value system. These women did not know the fates of their husbands, but hoped and prayed they had survived. In their minds, they were still married. To take a second husband was repugnant to them, as was mating with men outside their own tribe.
Yaqui women were housed separately from Yaqui men, with a dozen or more in each tiny hut. Fed meager rations, they were locked inside under pitiful conditions. Each week they took the women out, demanding they choose husbands from among the Chinese men. After several refusals, one was chosen for them. Those who resisted were severely lashed.
Many women perished from starvation and beatings, but those who survived and continued their resistance were put into the henequén fields, forced to do the same backbreaking labor as any man. This entailed harvesting two thousand henequén leaves per day and failure to achieve the daily quota resulted in 15 lashes administered by the overseer.
It seems as if the purpose of this atrocity was not only to punish the Yaqui, but to annihilate them altogether. Why else would they separate women from their husbands and force them to mate with men of a different cultural and ethnic background?
Some Yaquis did flee Sonora and avoid capture. They went north to the USA or to other parts of Mexico, and a few continued their resistance in the hills of Sonora. In 1937, President Lázaro Cárdenas granted the surviving Yaquis their own territory with access to irrigation from a newly constructed dam. Mexico’s 2000 census counted 12,467 Yaquis in Sonora plus some in Baja California and Sinaloa. In 1964, those in the USA received a smaller allocation of land and by 2008, they counted 11,324. This may be a sadly reduced number, but in spite of everything, their culture survived.
Much of this information was taken from a book titled Barbarous Mexico (1910), by John Kenneth Turner. This Los Angeles Express Reporter traveled south, posing as a potential land investor, to investigate rumors he had heard about Mexicans being enslaved in the Yucatán. You can read the entire book online with this link:
Brooke Gazer operates Agua Azul la Villa,
an oceanview B&B in Huatulco (www.bbaguaazul.com).