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La Educación
Número: (122) III
Año: 1995

The Ancient Slavery (1547-1847)

In the narratives of the “ancient slavery,” women articulate resistance through an indictment of Mexican moral authority that pivots on the urgency of emancipation. Their narratives show how nineteenth-century nationalism expressed itself in the commercial expansion of sugar and henequen (sisal fiber) and an intense exploitation of the Maya in the export-producing estates. While the Mexican nation celebrated private property, indigenous people were stripped of their land. In the Yucatan, the export-producing estates gradually appropriated the Mayan communities’ land, water, and labor. Without access to these basic resources, the Maya were forced to move to the estates and become dependent on the hacienda owner. The nohoch macoob suggest the usurpation of their land with the term Dzul (foreigner). Moreover, by referring to this experience as slavery, they draw attention to how the Dzul harnessed Mayan labor in a property relationship in which their foreparents were caught, bought, and sold as “beasts of burden.”

In contrast to indigenista discourses, women represent their experiences during this era of nation-building as being radically affected by Dzul power, not abstractly by listing the social practices of “debt peonage,” “racism,” or “political exclusion” (148-152), but concretely in how these practices manifested themselves in the Macehual as pain. Thus, they allude to the sadness of the Mayan condition through powerful metaphors such as the deadening of the Mayan spirit (Doña Marta: 2-13-91).

Women’s histories expose not only how the nineteenth-century nationalist enterprise capitalized Mayan labor, but also how it tied them to the haciendas and made them dependent on the hacienda owner.10

Los costales donde venía el azúcar
son mantas.

[El Dzul] viene,
te lo tira
para que hagas tu ropa.

Esa bolsa quién sabe cuanto tiempo
vas a terminar de pagarlo
con tu trabajo.
(Doña Marta: 2-13-91)

The sacks in which sugar came
were made of cotton.

[The Dzul] comes,
throws them at you
for you to make your clothing.

That bag who knows for how
long you will finish paying for it
with your work.
(Doña Marta: 2-13-91)

In describing the system of debt peonage, doña Marta subverts the textbook’s view that the Maya rebelled out of “ignorance, in the defense of ‘principles they did not understand’” (152). Along with most Macehualoob, her examination of the ancient slavery reflects an acute understanding of the means through which the Dzul exploited them. In her description, the plantation owner did not initially advance them money by which the Maya found themselves in debt, but actually imposed this debt by throwing the sugar sack, and the Macehual had no control over wether to accept it or over its price.

The nohoch macoob expose another theme that is analogous with the configuration of nineteenth-century nationalism: the additional “tasks” that the Dzul required of them. Men raise a particular issue of their experience: their compulsory conscription in the Dzul armies and the coercive killing of fellow Maya. Women, in turn, emphasize a distinct form of sexual violence.

Cuando llevan los esposos
a las haciendas,
si al señor le gusta ella,
regresa el Dzul
y no puedes evitarlo.

Hasta tu hija.

Hasta que ya la usó
tantas veces como quiere,
le pone esposo.

Hasta lo llora cuando le pasa.

A ella le pasó.

Aunque no te guste el hombre Dzul
no puedes evitarlo.

Eres esclava.

Se levantó la gente.
(Doña Marta: 2-13-91)

When they take their husbands
to the haciendas,
if the Dzul likes her
he comes back
and you cannot avoid it.

Even your daughter.

Until he has used her
as many times as he wants,
[and then] assigns her a husband.

She even cries when it happens.

It happened to her.

Although you don’t like the Dzul man
you cannot avoid it.

You are a slave.

People rose up.

(Doña Marta: 2-13-91)

Like doña Marta, most senior Macehual women reveal that the Dzul appropriated not only their land and labor, but also their sexuality. Unlike their representations in mural painting, indigenous women are not submissive, non-contesting, or passive when confronted with sexual violence. Instead, they depict sexual appropriation as a form of creative resistance that is based on an awareness of Dzul immorality. They do not see themselves as mere objects of sexual abuse but reveal the violence and the feelings of pain that it caused in order to create empathy and to strongly suggest a transgression of power that makes separation imperative.

Doña Marta, like most nohoch macoob, also suggests a transgression of power by drawing a connection between these injustices and their coercive nature. This relationship is presented through the figure of the whip that went along with the enforcement of strenuous work routines and sexual abuse of Mayan women.

¿Qué le platicaba su
abuelita de cuando los
Dzuloob las obligaban?

Doña Marta:
Después de que duerme
no te dejó dormir toda la
te levanta a hacer hax
y a regar.

[El Dzul] no te deja dormir
ni de día ni de noche.

Con henequén

Lo ponen en la candela
para que se suavize.

Si no quieres tener
relación con ellos,
te pegan
con esas pencas de henequén.

Dice mi abuelita
que si quieres a tu esposo
y no lo quieres traicionar,
no había forma de evitarlo.

Lloraba mi abuelita:
“Sufrimiento antigüo,
(Doña Marta: 2-13-91)

What did your grandmother
tell you about their being
forced [to have sexual
intercourse] by the Dzul

Doña Marta:
After he sleeps with you, he
doesn’t let you sleep all
night long.

He wakes you to weave hax
[henequen rope]
and to water [plants]
[The Dzul] won’t let you
during the day or night.

They hit [the women]
with henequen.

They put it over the fire
so it gets softened.

If you don’t want to have
sexual intercourse with
them, they hit you with those
henequen leaves.

My grandmother says
that if you love your husband
and do not want to betray him,
there was no way to avoid it.

My grandmother used to cry:
“Ancient suffering
(Doña Marta: 2-13-91)

From the dominant masculine perspective, the relationship of indigenous women and white men has been expressed in images that embody fantasies of rape. When this relationship is shown from the perspective of indigenous women, they do not represent themselves as passive objects of sexual appropriation but powerfully expose it as a transgression of authority that considers women’s sentiments of betrayal and strategies of discipline. Here, doña Marta makes women’s coercion explicit through her detailed description. The Dzuloob hit them with softened sisal fiber, the same fiber to whose production they were enslaved. What bewilders women is not the imposition of discipline from above but the intention behind it: the Dzul aim to use the Macehualoob for his or her own profit or pleasure. In the development of Macehual awareness of Dzul immorality, women add a new element to the long lists of transgressions: the “punishment without culpability” that their foremothers suffered through the myriad absurd tasks that the Dzul forced them to perform. Women recount that the Dzuloob would force women to use green wood to make their cooking fire so they wouldn’t be able to light it, and that Dzuloob’ wives would throw beans coated with lard to the floor and order Mayan women to pick them up.

The oral histories of Macehual women bring to light the despicable practices that went along with the formation of Mexican nationhood: the use of indigenous labor, the system of debt peonage that tied them to the land, the appropriation of Mayan land, labor, and sexuality, the disciplinary strategies of separation of families, and “punishment without culpability.” Thus, their histories discredit the civilizing ideology of nineteenth-century nationalism which justified these practices.

In their histories, Macehual women put forth two very different, gender-related experiences of resistance. On the one hand the pain of the lack of sleep, of sexual assault, of unintended “betrayal,” of “punishment without culpability,” and the melancholy of a symbolic deadening of the spirit were used as a critique of Dzul moral authority. On the other hand, the representation of these experiences as pain and melancholy engender radical social transformation. Their narratives explain implicitly that they were subjected to the Dzul injustices because their eyes were closed, and, explicitly, that they withstood them to the furthest extent possible until they became “exhausted.” It was that awareness of and exhaustion from Dzul abuse in view of their own downtrodden humanity which made them “rise” and carry them through the dangerous journey eastward. There, the creation of a new space, physically separated from the Dzuloob, was essential for life. Thus, the move toward emancipation is projected not as an “inner hatred of whites,” or as an opportunistic move “to declare themselves in open war against the white race” (152), as the textbook argues, but as a redemptive alternative to the abusive authority of the Dzuloob.