In 1848, the rebelling Maya, after having advanced to the gates of Mérida and Campeche, fell back and retreated eastward before Yucatecan and Mexican forces.  Driven into a region of forests with no significant towns, largely unknown to the government authorities — roughly today’s state of Quintana Roo — the Maya hung on tenaciously.  Although demoralized by defeat and loss of leadership, they clung to their independence, and the misnamed Caste War continued its murderous course.

Then, at a time when final defeat must have seemed imminent, new leaders revitalized their movement, transforming it from a rebellion into a religious crusade sanctioned by supernatural forces.

One of the new leaders, a mestizo named José María Barrera, retreating after yet another defeat, made his camp beside a small cenote in the wilderness.  The cenote offered reliable water, although it was mostly hidden in a cave-like cleft in the rock.  Barrera found a small cross carved on the trunk of a mahogany tree beside the cenote, so he called the place Chan Santa Cruz.  In a typical combination of Mayan and Spanish words, the name means Little Holy Cross.

Within a short time, probably in the fall of 1850, the carved cross became the focus of a new religion.  A larger cross and a shrine were built nearby and called X-Balam Nah.  Nah is “house” in Yucatec Mayan, balam means “jaguar,” an ancient symbol of authority, and the X- (Sh-) is a diminutive prefix.

The first priest or spokesman for the new religion took the name Juan de la Cruz.  He may have been Atanasio Puc, one of Barrera’s principal leaders.  An associate, Manuel Nahuat, was apparently a ventriloquist or had arranged some sort of speaking tube to create the illusion that the cross could talk, delivering oracular messages and prophecies to its followers.  Nahuat may also have been an assumed name — nahuatlato was a term used for Indian translators.  Written versions of the spoken messages circulated with the signature of Juan de la Cruz.

It would be an error to view these men as charlatans.  In their condition of extreme stress from defeat and starvation, in the presence of a cross that appeared mysteriously adjacent to an entrance to the underworld, they heard the supporting and reassuring voice of the supernatural, a real experience for them.  They found means to share the vision with others who had not had the direct experience, deliberate and effective methods to share the good news.  This is not to deny, however, that some leaders used the voice of the Cross to promote their own agendas.

Reconstructed shrine of the Speaking Cross Felipe Carrillo Puerto, Quintana Roo (Wikimedia)

Reconstructed shrine of the Speaking Cross
Felipe Carrillo Puerto, Quintana Roo
(Wikimedia)

The Cruz Parlante — Speaking Cross — quickly attracted a following, as defeated Maya found hope and rallied to the new faith.  The followers became known as Cruzo’ob — adding the Mayan plural ending to the Spanish “cross.”

Believing in a cross that can talk may seem irrational or even laughable to us.  Let us reflect, however, that central ideas underlying major religions may not be rational in the usual sense.  One person’s religion may be superstition and magic-thinking to another.

Further, and more important, new systems of belief frequently arise in cultures threatened with extinction.  In such times, a prophet may appear and promise a return to past happiness through supernatural intervention.  Beliefs such as these continue to arise to this day and are not limited to any religious tradition, culture, or part of the world.  And that is what happened in Yucatán in 1850.

To put the Speaking Cross religion in perspective, let us briefly consider two other well-known cults founded in crisis.

Example of pre-Christian Maya cross image Temple of the Cross, Palenque (From FAMSI, Drawing by Linda Schele.  Color added for clarity.)

Example of pre-Christian Maya cross image
Temple of the Cross, Palenque
(From FAMSI, Drawing by Linda Schele. Color added for clarity.)

In the late 1800s, a powerful new religion spread widely among Indian tribes across western United States.  The cultures of all these people was being threated with extinction.  This movement became known by a term for one of its principal elements, the Ghost Dance.  According to its teachings, practice of the dance and other ceremonies would bring back the great buffalo herds.  Past generations of the dead would return, the whites would fade away, and an era of peace and plenty would ensue.  The movement took strong hold among the Lakota, the westernmost Sioux people and the largest and strongest surviving tribe in the United States.  They came to believe that wearing sacred red paint and traditional-style “Ghost Shirts,” in rejection of the styles adopted from the white invaders, would make the wearer impervious to bullets.  The religion faded with the catastrophic crash of its adherents and their culture, although several tribes still practice the Ghost Dance today.

Farther away geographically but closer in time, a crisis cult known as the Boxers swept northern China in 1900.  China’s ancient culture was losing ground to foreign colonial powers.  Foreign technology was putting thousands out of work, and Christian missionary activity was causing major discontent.  Floods and drought added to a general feeling of powerlessness.  The Boxers were an essentially leaderless peasant movement with deep roots in traditional folk customs and religion.  They believed that physical training, diet, martial arts, incantations, and prayer would connect them with spirits and confer extraordinary powers.  They claimed that spirit possession gave them the abilities to fly, walk on water, spit fire, and become invulnerable to bullets and swords.  Their rebellion produced terrible violence, with atrocities on all sides, and ended with further oppression by foreign powers.  Later Chinese governments reinvented the Boxers as symbols of patriotism.

Some scholars contend that Christianity itself originated as a crisis cult among Jewish people facing destruction under Roman rule, although its characteristics as a social movement changed as it spread through the Roman Empire.

As for the Speaking Cross, its deep roots extended through ancient traditions and centuries of Spanish-imposed Christianity.  The blending of traditional and Christian elements existed and still exists throughout the Maya area — and indeed all of Native America.  What is remarkable is the strong re-emergence of pre-Conquest practices and beliefs, after centuries of suppression, in the new religion and the society that grew around it.

Icons had always been important to the Maya, from large scale cults down to individual milpas and households.  This tradition fit well with Catholicism’s abundance of religious icons.  Oracles that spoke through intercessors also had precedents in pre-Columbian times.  An important one was at a great pilgrimage site on Cozumel Island.  Speaking tubes behind images are known from ruins there and at Cobá and Xelhá.

Reflecting 350 years of forced conversion, the new religion contained many elements of Mayanized Christianity, although the cross itself was not necessarily one of them.  Crosses had been important Maya symbols long before the conquest.  The ancient symbol represents the ceiba tree, sacred bridge between heaven, earth, and the underworld (afterlife).

Prophecy is also an important part of Maya tradition, based on the cyclic concept of time.  Written prophecy is well represented in surviving ancient Maya codices and the various books of Chilam Balam, held in secret but widely known in the nineteenth century Maya world.  Pronouncements by the Speaking Cross were entirely credible within this tradition.

On the tide of enthusiasm sustained by both Maya and Christian traditions, hundreds of refugees journeyed to be near the Speaking Cross and hear its messages.  An admonition advised its followers to attack the enemy at Kampocolché, the nearest Yucatecan army base, convincing them that they would miraculously be made impervious to the enemy’s bullets.  The attack took place on January 4, 1851.  The Cruzo’ob, like the Ghost Dancers and the Boxers, proved not to be bulletproof and were badly defeated.  What was worse, the enemy learned of the new shrine, attacked it, killed Manuel Nahuat, and carried away the Speaking Cross.

But the religion did not collapse.  A new, replica Cross appeared and won more adherents.  The cenote and shrine became the center of Maya resistance.

Approximate areas of control in the mid-1850s Cruzo’ob in blue, Pacificos in green, other independent groups in red. Current state and national boundaries shown. (from San Pedro Daily, Ambergris Caye, Belize)

Approximate areas of control in the mid-1850s
Cruzo’ob in blue, Pacificos in green, other independent groups in red.
Current state and national boundaries shown.
(from San Pedro Daily, Ambergris Caye, Belize)

Several letters from the Cross to the governor of Yucatán, Miguel Barbachano, still exist, written in Latinized Mayan and signed by Juan de la Cruz.  Beginning in August 1851, the letters complain about the ill treatment of the Cross by the attacking Ladino soldiers, mourn the death of Manuel Nahuat, and demand reparation payments.

The Speaking Cross united the defeated, disorganized Maya rebels and gave their cause religious sanction.  Village loyalties, disrupted by the displacements of war, became transferred to a more centralized government and military organization.  The greatest effects of the revitalization were in creating a closely linked religious, government, and military authority, a kind of military theocracy perhaps not unlike the system of rule that prevailed in pre-Conquest times.  The many Cruzo’ob ranks and titles often had the kinship and inheritance elements characteristic of ancient Maya history.

The new Maya capital saw explosive growth and became a town called Chan Santa Cruz.  In 1858 a large stone church, named Balam Nah, was built to house the Speaking Cross.  Much of the construction was done by Ladino prisoners, a reversal of the labors long required from Maya people by their Spanish-speaking overlords.

The Speaking Cross installed in Balam Nah was dressed in the huipil worn by Maya women.  It spoke to the selected elite from behind a curtain, usually at night.  The voice reportedly had a shrill, whistling quality, and a barrel may have been used to add resonance.  Its patrons carried out ceremonies and functions in the name of the Cross — prayers, marriages, baptisms — apparently modeled after those of the Ladino priests.

The independent Cruzo’ob territory extended from north of Tulum down to Bacalar in the south and east to the fringes of the Pu’uc Hills.

During the 1860s and 1870s, rivals repeatedly deposed Maya generals and patrons of the Cross.  Chan Santa Cruz suffered raids by the Ladino army.  The main Cross was apparently moved to different locations as the conditions of war and politics required.  Instructions in the name of the Cross issued from Tulum in 1866.  A woman named María Uicab was the main interpreter of the Cross in 1871.  Not all of the leaders were devotees, but documents signed by “Juan de la Cruz” continued to appear.

Replica crosses became popular throughout the Cruzo’ob area, replacing images of saints in Christian tradition.  There were village and lineage crosses, crosses to protect homes and fields, crosses believed to have miraculous powers.  The Cruzo’ob sometimes carried replica crosses to lead them into battle.  Factions broke off from Chan Santa Cruz and regrouped around their own crosses.  Allegiances followed military and political trends.  Some generals had their own santos, often plundered from churches.

However, the cult of the Speaking Cross retained enormous power and devotion among the people.  Even third-hand relics such as fragments of wax from candles burned at its shrine had great value in the countryside.

The cult never spread westward, and even in the east some Maya did not accept it.  Weary of war, various groups made peace with Yucatecan authorities.  In 1851, a remarkable political leader, Modesto Méndez, the governor of the Department of Petén, Guatemala, negotiated a treaty with groups in the south.  As a result of the treaty, which was essentially a mutual noninterference agreement, inhabitants in a large area of what is now southeastern Campeche State became known as Pacificos del Sur.  Isolation and difficult, swampy countryside protected them, and the Ladino governments mostly left them alone.  Although militaristic and organized much like the Cruzo’ob, they sometimes welcomed Catholic priests.  Cruzo’ob armies repeatedly attacked them, but the Pacificos survived through the century.  Groups of warlike nonbelievers also existed in the area around the Río Hondo, where Mexico, Belize, and Guatemala meet.

During the rest of the 1800s, the Caste War became a battle between two separate, opposing governments, the Cruzo’ob in Chan Santa Cruz versus the Ladinos in Mérida and Campeche.  In the area of conflict, they were of comparable strengths.  During long years of perpetual warfare, both sides committed atrocities.  Maya captives were routinely sold into Cuba as slaves.  The Cruzo’ob attacked the Pacificos as well as the Ladinos.  Large numbers of people fled to British Honduras to escape the fighting and compulsory military service.

It seemed as though the grief-filled Caste War, unquestionably the most successful revolt by Native American people, might go on forever.  But against all expectations, in the late nineteenth century Yucatán was finding political stability and growing wealthy.  The Mexican army was becoming more professional and acquiring modern weapons.  The British in Belize were changing from arms suppliers to peace brokers.  The days of the Cruzo’ob state were numbered.

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The former Cruzo’ob capital, Chan Santa Cruz, is now the city of Felipe Carrillo Puerto, Quintana Roo.  The cenote of the Speaking Cross and a replica of the original shrine still exist.  The restored great Balam Nah sanctuary is a culture center and Catholic church.  For those interested in history, the town offers great interest and power.

Crosses dressed in Maya-style clothing and regarded as saints can still be found, especially in the part of rural Quintana Roo that was the Cruzo’ob heartland. .  Some village churches have a separate, restricted area called La Gloria, where members of a rotating citizen guardia protect a dressed cross.

The Yucatan Times