Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Alma Reed and Felipe Carrillo Puerto: Tragic Romance of the Yucatán



     Felipe Carrillo Puerto, Yucatan’s progressive governor of the Yucatan, and San Francisco journalist Alma Reed are two names forever linked to Yucatan history.  Their romance fueled pages in newspapers on both sides of the border, but the unlikely outcome of their very public romance enlisted all the elements of Greek tragedy.

            Reed was born in San Francisco and became one of the city’s first women reporters.  An advocate for the poor, Reed assisted a Mexican family in commuting the death sentence of their 17-yer old son in 1921.  The story was picked up by the Mexican press and due to heightened publicity, Mexico President Alvero Obregon invited Reed to visit his country.

ENTER EDWARD THOMPSON

     As a stringer correspondent, she reported for The New York Times and was sent to meet Edward Thompson, the leading archeologist excavating Chichen Itza.  During the visit, Reed met Felipe Carrillo Puerto, dynamic governor of the State of Yucatan.

     Carrillo had commissioned a road to be built from Merida to Chichen Itza, opening the budding archeological site to both tourists and scientists.  To commemorate the event, he’d organized a welcome ceremony inviting North American journalists and archeologists.

UXMAL AND CARRILLO

     At the ruins, Reed interviewed the famed Thompson who had gone to Yucatan specifically to excavate Chichen Itza. Thompson took a liking to Reed and divulged he had in fact dredged Chichen Itza’s sacred cenote, garnering gold and jade jewelry and ornaments he’d taken from the sacrificial victims. Astonished by the enormity of Thompson’s admission, like the true-born paparrizis she was, Reed asked Thompson to sign a confession, which he did.

            After Chichen Itza, the assembled entourage went on to Uxmal.  During this leg of the journey Reed and Carrillo got acquainted.  Reed was fascinated with the charismatic Carrillo who had been called both a Bolshevik and a Marxist for his sweeping reforms.

     In her interview with the governor, Carrillo explained Yucatan had been inhabited by a handful of powerful families dating back to 1542 when Merida was founded. These wealthy landowners were basically slave masters, and notorious for their cruel treatment of the Maya.

REVOLUTIONARY IN THE MAKING

            In 1910 Carrillo had fought alongside Emiliano Zapata in Central Mexico. From their association he took Zapata’s battle cry, Tierra y Liberdad, (land and liberty) for his own.  Back in Yucatan, Carrillo claimed part Maya, part Creole heritage and began his reforms by setting up feminist leagues in Merida that legalized birth control and the first family planning clinics in the western hemisphere. As governor he seized uncultivated land from powerful hacendados and distributed it to the Maya, stating it was their birthright. He built schools. He reformed the prison system.

            No small wonder Reed named him the Abraham Lincoln of Mexico.  As a liberal she agreed with his reforms. And besides that, she was smitten.  But as a divorceé and Catholic, she tried to ignore the feelings she was developing for the married father of four.  She left for the US, vowing never to return, hoping to severe ties in what was becoming amor calido (romance of the steam).

            Two months later, however, The New York Times sent her packing back to Mexico to cover the archeology scandal that involved Edward Thompson and the Chichen Itza cenote.  She had a job to do.

     On her second round in Mexico, both Reed and Carrillo’s feelings couldn’t be ignored.  In the ultimate taboo, Carrillo divorced his wife to become engaged to Reed.  He even had a romantic love song composed for her, still popular today, La Peregrina (The Pilgrim).

     It seemed a match made in heaven.  The two idealists prepared for their wedding that would take place in San Francisco.  Reed hastened back to the U.S. to make arrangements before her permanent move to Mexico.

SEND LAWYERS, GUNS AND MONEY

     Shortly after her departure to the US, however, another revolution seemed imminent.  Fighting had broken out in the Yucatan, and henequen planters and hacendados were trying to overthrow Carrillo.  President Obregon’s right hand man, de la Huerta, was opposing him and because Carrillo backed Obregon, he was at risk.  Carrillo was forced to find guns to fight both the planters and de la Huerta’s forces.  And to make matters worse, he now had a $250,000 reward on his head.

     To secure the guns and ammunition they would need to do battle, Carrillo went by night to the Progreso coast with three brothers and six friends as guards.  Just as they waded out to the launch that would take them to New Orleans where they’d acquire firearms for their revolution, a Navy captain signaled to soldiers lying in wait on shore.  The soldiers rowed out and captured Carrillo who told his small group not to fight, but to go peacefully.

     De la Huerta’s forces took them back to Merida, jailed them for the night and planned an arraignment in the morning.  Carrillo refused to make a plea. He was, after all, governor of the state, and refused to recognize a kangaroo court.  He was condemned on Janurary 3, 1924, and taken to Merida Cemetery where he, his brothers and friends were lined up against the wall to await the firing squad.  The first round of volleys was sent over their heads; the soldiers didn’t want to kill them, so fiercely local were the Yucatecans to Carrillo.

            The commander shouted that those soldiers were to be shot, and over the dead bodies of the first soldiers, Carrillo, brothers and friends were executed as they stood with their backs against the cemetery wall.

A MARTYR'S DEATH

     In San Francisco, Alma Reed had been alerted that trouble was at hand. She heard the news shortly afterwards that Carrillo had died in the Yucatan, a martyr’s death,  at 49.

     Reed insisted on returning to Merida to see the spot where Carrillo fell.  She stayed but briefly in the Yucatan, and on arriving back to New York, was sent on an assignment to Carthage to explore ancient ruins.  She would never re-marry. Her reporting life eventually took her back to Mexico where she helped establish the artist José Clemente Orozco.

     One of Reed’s fears was that President Obregon had a hand in killing Carrillo.  He had, after all, assassinated Zapata after luring him to a truce meeting along with Pancho Villa.  Reed thought Carrillo’s radicalism may have aroused opposition from the Mexican president, but she could never prove the link.

            The pueblo of Chan Santa Cruz, south of Tulum, changed its name to honor the Yucatan governor, and now goes by the name Felipe Carrillo Puerto.  Alma Reed died in Mexico City, November, 1966, while undergoing surgery.  She was 77.




Jeanine Kitchel is the author of Where the Sky is Born: Living in the Land of the Maya, and the upcoming nonfiction book, Maya 2012 Revealed, Demystifying the Prophecy, and coming in April: Wheels Up—A Novel of Drugs, Cartels and Survival.  Contact the author through her website, www.jeaninekitchel.com.

Saturday, February 3, 2018

Stephens and Catherwood Take the Maya World: Review of Jungle of Stone

IN 1839 an energetic American writer and a talented British artist, adventurers to the core, braved the jungles of Yucatan, Guatemala and Honduras and became the first English speaking travelers to explore this region originally known only as Maya.

Though a lawyer by profession, John Lloyd Stephens fell hard for archeology after a two-year sabbatical took him to Europe and the Mediterranean in the mid-1830s.  After trekking through deserts and ancient pyramid sites he came away fueled with a desire for more of the same. Simultaneously he discovered he could write and was dubbed “the American traveler” after he penned his first best seller about Egypt’s pyramids, the Nile, Petra and the Holy Land.

British artist Frederick Catherwood gained his footing during the “Egyptomania”
craze that hit London in the 1820s. A bit older than Stephens, he reached Egypt and the Nile in 1823 and discovered he had an uncanny ability to portray ancient monuments and archeological digs with great accuracy. Egypt was the start of an odyssey that in the end would take him to Copán and Palenque, Uxmal, Labna, Chichén Itzá and beyond.

CENTRAL AMERICA BECKONS

Serendipity brought the adventurers together in London, and shortly afterwards.
Stephens received a special ambassadorship to Central America from President Martin Van Buren to negotiate treaties with several Latin America countries.
Stephens immediately contacted Catherwood and asked him to come along for the ride. After political issues were settled, they’d go exploring for ancient ruins.

The duo headed south and after an intense journey through war torn Guatemala and Honduras, Stephens finished what he could of his diplomatic workload. It was time for exploration with their first destination Copán. Spurred on by a letter written to the Spanish king about ancient sites with large stone structures from an explorer named Deigo Garcia de Palacio three hundred years earlier, Stephens and Catherwood followed the trail of Central American patriot Colonel Juan Galindo. Galindo had discovered the archived letter and traveled to both Palenque and Copán in 1834. Stephens and Catherwood would arrive five years later after pouring over sketchy site coordinates from Galindo’s report made to higher-ups.

ADVANCED CIVILIZATION

Galindo believed whoever built these stone monuments had been an advanced civilization, and the artisans who created the works did so without iron tools. The monuments were covered in hieroglyphics and he conceived it was phonetic writing, which proved accurate, though it would take more than a hundred years to confirm his theory. He believed the site was the seat of a great power, a large population and a people advanced in the arts. The site had a grand plaza that could compete with the coloseum of Rome, he said. He emphasized that local inhabitants had little knowledge of the site’s history. And unbelievably, the account that pushed Galindo to explore Copán had accumulated dust in the archives of a Spanish court for more than three centuries. This mysterious and intriguing report was the reason Stephens and Catherwood found themselves in the depths of a Honduran jungle.

Because terrain in southern Mexico, western Guatemala and Honduras is a thick tangle of vegetation filled with rain forests and swamps, parts of the land were a mystery even to the Maya who lived there. Locals had no explanation for the stone blocks and imposing structures and knew nothing of their creators. So dense was the jungle that Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés passed within one hundred miles of Palenque in the early 1500s, never learning how near he was to a massive pyramid site. (The classic Maya collapse occurred around 900 AD).

WHERE DID THEY COME FROM?

Galindo’s revolutionary view of an ancient sophisticated civilization with no ties to their Northern European brethren fell on deaf ears. Early explorers of Palenque in 1787 insisted it had classical Roman and Greek influences, speculating somehow one of these cultures had crossed the Atlantic, conquered the native locals, built the structures, never to be seen again. Another explorer said it had to be the work of the Lost Tribe of Israel’s doing, underscoring how hesitant each and every western explorer who came in contact with the Maya was to give an advanced indigenous culture its due. 

These discoveries continued to baffle western intellects and religious scholars alike. The existence of vast sophisticated cities hidden in the middle of Central American jungles threatened the biblical order of the known world. Where did these people come from and how old were their cities? One explorer, a crazy outlier named “Count” Jean-Frederic Maximilien de Waldeck, made an accidentally correct claim when he stated Uxmal was at least one thousand years old, basing his claim on the concentric tree circles he counted from a tree that implanted itself in the building’s entryway after it was already in ruins.

It would take Stephens and Catherwood, seasoned with their old world explorations, to examine the evidence at the sites and forge a new, correct narrative.

CAPTURING COPÁN’S ESSENCE

Though Stephens’ written descriptions of the sites were detailed and informative, it was Catherwood’s otherworldly sketches that would forever change the way the world viewed the mysterious, previously unknown Maya culture. On their first week at Copán, Catherwood would toss out countless attempts at capturing the Maya stelae (stones with hieroglyphs) that he found. At first his western mind could simply not contemplate, then draw, what he was seeing. To him, a western European, the gigantic Copán sculptures, some four to five meters high, were so profoundly different than the antiquities of the mideast that he had a difficult time rendering them. The two veteran travelers who had toured the wonders of Egypt knew they were in the cross hairs of an incredibly advanced civilization and they were now on “new ground” as Stephens wrote later in Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatán, his best seller about the Maya world.

To capture the soul of the sculptures and to assist himself in so doing, Catherwood took photos with his Camera Lucida, the precursor to a modern camera, then from those drawings, he attempted to re-draw what he saw.  Though it took him many tries, a slight shift in his perspective broke through and with powerful persistence, he finally got it right. He filled page after page with drawings rich in detail of the unfathomable hieroglyphics, monuments, sculptings. His drawings would prove so accurate that long into the future, archeologists would be able to read them when they finally broke the Maya code in 1976 at the famous Palenque Round Table.

But at the time, to convince an uncertain world of what they were seeing, it would take not only the stark beauty of Catherwood’s detailed drawings to put Copán, Palenque and other Maya sites on the map, it would also take Stephens’ energetic and romantic prose to seal the deal.

Copán and Palenque were just the beginning of Stephens and Catherwood’s Maya explorations. They would go on to view forty-four sites in all, many detailed in Jungle of Stone. The struggles they endured to bring this discovery to the world hit them hard. Both were forever plagued by side effects of malaria and other diseases contracted while chasing pyramids.

CATHERWOOD’S SKETCHES

Even if you’re not in the mood for a long read, Frederick Catherwood’s incredible sketches shown in the book, many in color, make Jungle of Stone worthwhile. It’s available at Alma Libre Bookstore in Puerto Morelos, 360 pesos.

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Jeanine Kitchel, author of Where the Sky is Born: Living in the Land of the Maya, has a new novel out this April, Wheels Up—A Novel of Drugs, Cartels and Survival.