The Yucatán ‘Republic’ has a long, complicated history with México

Carlos Rosado van der Gracht
Carlos Rosado van der Gracht
Born in Mérida, Carlos Rosado van der Gracht is a Mexican/Canadian blogger, photographer and adventure expedition leader. He holds degrees in multimedia, philosophy, and translation from universities in Mexico, Canada and Norway.
Though undisputedly a fully integrated region of México, the Yucatán Peninsula still holds onto its cultural, historical, and gastronomical roots with great pride. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

We Yucatecos are hardly shy about sharing our thoughts on Yucatán as a land apart. 

This sentiment is also often shared by folks from elsewhere in the country who often refer to the state as “la hermana republica” or our sister republic

It does not take much to get Yucatecos talking about how Yucatán was its own republic on not one but two separate occasions in the 19th century. 

A late 18th-century map of Yucatán with some rather imprecise proportions and locations. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Of course, Yucatán was much larger back then, incorporating the territories of the current states of Campeche and Quintana Roo. 

Though this is for many Yucatecos, this fact is a source of pride, comparable to that felt by Texans, the situation is far from identical. 

Folks in Yucatán take great pride in the achievements of their Maya ancestors, though paradoxically, racism against Maya peoples continues to be an issue. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

In a nutshell, Yucatán’s succession from Mexico was brought on by two major factors.

The first of these is geography and the sense of being cut off from the rest of the country. 

During the 19th century, Yucatán was in many ways much closer culturally to Havanna and New Orleans than it was to México City. 

The Orizaba was one of the largest ships in the 19th and 20th centuries to dock in Yucatán, taking passengers to Havanna, New Orleans, and continuing to Europe. Photo: Courtesy

Even my own grandmother was born in New Orleans, though she was never registered there as my great-grandfather did not want a “gringa” daughter. 

Even as far back as the 1960s, getting to Mexico City from Mérida was a several-day trip that involved switching from buses to trains and even boats to get across the Laguna de Terminos on either side of Isla del Carmen. 

The small ferry, or “panga,” was used to shuttle cars, busses, and passengers across the Laguna de Terminos until it sank 43 years ago. Photo: Courtesy

As a consequence, those in Yucatán lived in relative isolation from the rest of the country and were generally seen by the rest of the country as an odd and remote land full of people “who speak funny.” 

The other major factor that pushed Yucatán towards independence was frankly fear of Maya rebellion. 

The violence during Yucatán’s Caste Wars between Europeans, Mayas, and Mestizos was intense, causing much fear on all sides and an exodus of scores of Yucatec-Maya to what was then the territory of Quintana Roo and Belize, then British Honduras. 

Despite repeated calls for aid by Yucatán’s elite, requests for military support from the federal government fell on all but deaf ears. 

But given Yucatán’s economic might, which it owed to its henequen plantations, it was no slouch militarily on its own and even purchased the world’s first iron hull warship. Yucatecan diplomats made overtures to the United States to help protect the Peninsula and even suggested annexation to the United States. 

The production of henequen, also known as Sisal, was reproduced and exported in great quantities from Yucatán, making the region’s elite extremely rich and powerful. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Independence from México, then annexation, followed by independence for a second time, followed by yet another annexation, finally settled the matter, but neither Yucatecos nor the federal government was fully comfortable with the outcome. 

In what was a major betrayal by the federal government, Yucatán was officially divided into three after annexation. That is why today, the Peninsula comprises Yucatán, Campeche, and Quintana Roo.

Though today Quintana Roo is known for its tourism industry and gorgeous beaches, before 1974, it was considered too insignificant to be a state. Thus, it was granted the status of inland territory. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

But despite friendly rivalries, these three states still have much in common, including similar cuisines, regional dress, and large Mayan-speaking communities. But it would not be honest to say that Yucatecos do not still feel wronged and hold a bit of a grudge against the federal government, though still firmly clinging to their Mexican identity. 

Food, especially dishes like relleno negro and cochinita pibil that trace their history back thousands of years, is a great source of pride for Yucatecos. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

All of these mixed feelings came to the surface again last week when a reform to the constitution was passed, which made flying the historic Yucatecan flag legal again. 

The flag of Yucatán is divided into two main sections, with a green field with five stars on the left and three horizontal bars on the right, with the top and bottom bars being red while the middle is white. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

But it is important to point out that this flag had largely been forgotten until the 1990s when Gov. Victor Cervera Pacheco reintroduced it to public life in an effort to ward off federal persecution by appealing to Yucatecan nationalism.

The return of the flag to official status has caused many mixed emotions, raging from nationalism to nostalgia, but nothing as extreme as a desire for real secession. 

Yucatán has consistently ranked as México’s safest state, leading its population to feel like they are living in a bubble that could pop at any moment, thus making the idea of secession a little more palatable, yet in almost everyone’s opinion, unfeasible. 

Mérida’s Monumento a la Patria was designed to commemorate history, It was also crafted with the intention of making people in Yucatán feel more Mexican. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

It would appear that just like in the 1990s, the flag of Yucatán is being used once again in a jingoistic fashion — as its official status is owed to the efforts of Ramírez Marín, a long-time politician in the state, third place in Mérida’s most recent municipal elections and an extreme long shot in next year’s race for the governorship. 

Over the past few weeks, signs have been popping up all over the city, expressing the sentiment that although Yucatecos are proud of their identity, they are nevertheless Mexican as well. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Though I can by no means speak for every single Yucateco, in general, folks in this fine state are quite happy being Mexican, though it’s undeniable that despite it all, the Yucatán still remains a land apart.

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