Managing the Interstices: Cacique Politics in Late Colonial and Early National Yucatán

Rajeshwari Dutt, Carnegie Mellon University


This dissertation takes as its subject the figure of the indigenous Mayan leader or cacique and charts his evolution as a political actor over the course of the late colonial and early national period in Yucatán, Mexico. In this dissertation, I show how indigenous caciques, stripped off traditional power and the right to administer their communities, were able to insert themselves back into the process of governance through strategic local alliances. This dissertation proposes that caciques were not intermediaries in the sense of being conduits between state and community or as go-betweens. Rather, caciques were fundamentally political intermediaries who actively shaped the outcome of mediations. Not only were ―mediations‖ essentially political but they were often non-linear, multi-layered and—for the indigenous leaders and their communities—temporal in nature. While the cacique‘s role was curtailed to mainly tax-collection in the post-Independence period, this very process of erosion of cacique privilege and legitimacy led to a process whereby the politicization of caciques became intensified. The early national period thus saw the cacique become an important local political figure. I show that at the local level power was diffuse and existing in webs or networks and that personal relations were key to political outcomes. Moreover, for caciques alliance-making was a strategic operation so that they forged alliances across racial lines even during the tumultuous years of the Caste War. The 1860s—with emergence of haciendas and advent of Empire (1864-67)—had a contradictory impact on caciques and decline of cacique legitimacy was both a top-down and a bottom-up process. Despite their eventual abolition in 1869, the survival of caciques as political agents for almost a half-century following Independence was no mean feat. Certainly the advent of the Caste War and the Empire helped preserve the indigenous república. More importantly, the cacique‘s flexibility and adaptability as a political agent helped him survive as an influential local figure. In this process, indigenous caciques gave rise to particular forms of political conduct which would become parameters for political behavior not only for indigenous leaders but also for indigenous commoners.