Jeanine Kitchel writes about Mexico, the Maya and the Yucatán. Her travel memoir, Where the Sky is Born: Living in the Land of the Maya, details how she bought land and built a house in a small fishing village on the Mexican Caribbean coast. Her debut novel, a psychological crime thriller written in the style of "narco lit," Wheels Up—A Novel of Drugs, Cartels and Survival, is available on Amazon.
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
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.
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).
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
Serendipity brought the adventurers together in London, and
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.
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
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,
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
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.
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.