The stories of the subjugation of the Maya are traditionally told through the infamous “Black Legend” and the horrors of Spanish Conquest. However, it is during the colonial era of the Yucatán that provides further insight into their malicious mistreatment. This subjugation and exploitation occurred at the Hacienda Yaxcopoil, located near Merida in the Yucatán Peninsula of Mexico. Yaxcopoil, meaning “place of the green alamo trees” in Mayan, was a former hacienda used to cultivate henequen, also known as sisal, beginning in the seventeenth century. During its zenith in the nineteenth century, it reached almost 22,000 acres in size. While today its size has been significantly reduced and it is essentially abandoned with the exception of a museum and a nearby tortilla factory, it serves as a reminder of the exploitation of the Maya people and their resources in an effort to produce mass quantities of henequen to meet demand from United States and European markets during the early twentieth century.
The Porfiriato, that is, the time in which Porfirio Diaz ruled in Mexico from 1876-1911, is viewed as a time of economic boom or the “Gilded Age,” as referred to by authors such as Allen Wells. During this time, demand for goods such as henequen skyrocketed as part of a booming Mexican economy. Wells along with Gilbert M. Joseph refer to this in Corporate Control of a Monocrop Economy in saying that “the accelerated change… accompanied the burgeoning industrial development of the United States and Western Europe...” which ultimately, “tied Mexico every more closely to the global economy” (Joseph and Wells, 69). This boom was at the expense of the Maya peasants who were forced to work on the henequen plantations as part of a system of debt peonage. Hacienda owners purchased the debts in an effort to create a labor force that was comparable to slavery. The peasants, unable to pay back debts, were forced into a cyclical life of debt and servitude by signing labor contracts with the brutal hacendados that bound them to the haciendas until their debts were resolved. The workers began in the early hours of the morning and worked in harsh conditions while they faced beatings and little to no compensation. They were paid in either cash or fichas, a form of scrip used in the haciendas. The scrip was useless elsewhere and workers paid exorbitant prices for goods within the haciendas. They received loans during their time at the hacienda which further increased their debts to the hacendados, who exerted control over many aspects of their lives. This created a system that made it almost impossible for workers to pay back their debts. In the years in which muckraking was a popular means of journalism in the United States, John Kenneth Turner described the conditions of debt peonage system in Yucatán and claimed that nearly a third of the population were part of this cycle.
Yaxcopoil is one of the most prominent examples of the rise of henequen production and the subjugation of Maya in Yucatán. The emphasis on henequen production is derived from the growth and demand of foreign plantations as a result of the invention of the mechanical reaper and the mechanical rasper. Henequen was used to make a variety of cordage for twine. Other crops such as maize could not compete with the demand for this “green gold.” It quickly became the most important export and necessity that Mexico had to offer. Countries such as the United States controlled virtually all of the production as well as the price through a trust known as the International Harvester Company. Ultimately, the haciendas served as one of the few options for the Maya peasants, who were forced into a system of capitalism because of the relationship between Yucatán and the United States.