The Mayas of Quintana Roo — who fought an 1847-1901 rebellion against Mexican settlers and the government known as “the War of the Castes” — still live on the Caribbean coast. The rebellion was finally ended when Mexican troops captured Felipe Carrillo Puerto between May 4-5, 1901.
While Mexico's Mayas have survived, they have been largely locked out of the rich tourism industry that has sprung up at coastal resorts like Cancún and Playa del Carmen since 1974. Most eke out livings as small-scale farmers or fruit growers, or as construction or cleaning workers at resorts.
“We realize that we have a great history, that we are held up as an example, and people make a lot of money off our name, but that money never shows up in our communities,” said Mayan activist Alfaro Yam Canul.
While the coast south of Cancún is known as the “Riviera Maya,” and aquatic parks often have “Mayan” attractions, the vast majority of Mayas live in poverty in the southern, undeveloped part of the state of Quintana Roo, south of Felipe Carrillo Puerto, close to the border with Belize.
Yam Canul asked López Obrador to give the Mayas the right to promote tourism a long stretch of mangrove-studded coast that has been designated a nature reserve.
Yam Canul said the Sian Ka'an nature reserve — which occupies 75 miles (120 kilometers) of coast and 1.3 million acres (530,000 hectares) of mangrove, wetlands and shallow bays and lagoons — had been “taken, stolen from us in a bad way, without out knowledge or consulting us.”
The reserve currently offers small day trips to visitors, but there are no hotels. Experts say the lagoon and mangrove ecosystem are extremely delicate, and that any significant fishing or tourism activities would threaten them.
Yam Canul asked the president to revise the nature reserve's rules “so that we Maya, followers of the cross, can enter and develop community ecological tourism, in which we do not want really big buildings." He said “all the tourism infrastructure and hotels should be in the Maya capital” of Felipe Carrillo Puerto.
Felipe Carrillo Puerto, once known as Chan Santa Cruz, is considered the Maya capital because it was the center of the rebellion. It held the temple of the “Speaking Cross,” an apparent ventriloquist's trick that counselled the Mayas to rise up against their oppressors.
During the 1800s, Mayas were forced to work in serf-like conditions on sisal plantations. Sisal and henequen were fibers used in making rope. Some were even tricked into virtually slavery in sugar cane fields in Cuba.