Omar Swallowing Fire: Maya Resistance Movements During the Colonial Period
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July 9, 2021

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Omar Swallowing Fire: Maya Resistance Movements During the Colonial Period

When the Spaniards conquered the Yucatan, the Maya fiercely resisted being dominated. During the colonial period of the 16th through 18th centuries, Spain had claimed the lands of the Yucatán peninsula and the right to extract its natural resources and the Spanish colonizers used systems of forced labor and tribute to operate their mines, farms, and cattle ranches. As a result, when Maya lands and traditions were threatened by the colonial system, the Maya resisted in a long series of raids, battles, and confrontations, all of which were brutally suppressed.

For 2,500 years before the Spanish arrived, the Maya had a thriving, creative culture rooted in their ancient cities, the veneration of deities and ancestors, with a worldview that connected the natural, spiritual, and social realms. By 1521, Spain had claimed the lands of the Yucatán peninsula and the right to extract its natural resources, using the native Maya as labor while converting them to the Catholic faith.

Resistance to the Spaniards began immediately. By 1546, Maya communities in the Yucatán were rebelling against the foreigners who built settlements atop their ancient temples, tried to eliminate traditional belief systems and languages, and seized lands and people for economic gain.

For the next 300 years, the Maya, with periodic uprisings, sustained the hope of regaining their freedom and revitalizing their culture.

Indignation over the Spanish founding of Valladolid atop the ancient center of Saci incited the Maya to action. The principal leader of this movement was the chilam (priest) Anbal. The Maya sacrificed 16 captured Spaniards as an offering to their traditional gods.

This movement was led by Pablo Beh, chilam of Kiní, and Baltasar Ceh, batab (local authority) of Tecoh, who called for the restoration of worship of the ancient Maya gods. Beh and Ceh were discovered, captured, and handed over to the religious authorities for punishment.

The Maya were inspired to return to their ancient rites after a destructive hurricane was interpreted as a sign of the anger of the gods towards those who abandoned their religion. After the Maya were discovered still engaging in their traditional religious practices, Friar Diego de Landa ordered the auto-da-fé (an Inquisition ritual of public confession) of Maní, torturing and forcing thousands of Maya to admit their participation in the insurrection movement. Landa also destroyed numerous pre-Hispanic codices (illustrated hieroglyphic books) in this massive retaliation.

A batab of Campeche, Francisco Chí, tried to encourage a religious insurrection against the Franciscan evangelizers. The movement sought to expel the Spanish, restore a pre-Hispanic society, and raise a Maya army. The government immediately took notice and Chí was captured, hanged, and decapitated.

Photograph Courtesy San Pedro House of Culture

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