The Speaking Cross
How could a cross speak? Was the Cross a hoax or a real artefact? And could it be that it was the magic of the Speaking Cross that united the fragmented Yucatán villages into one major war effort?
The cult of the Speaking Cross certainly played an important role in one of the most dramatic episodes in Mexican history, the Caste War. It was the revolt of the Maya Indians of Yucatán against their white Spanish oppressors and it began in 1847. The war was named after the legal racial caste system in colonial Mexico. It was imposed by the Spanish government. One's caste determined how high in society one could go, what rights one had, what taxes one would pay etc... The caste system defined three main categories of humans (Peninsulares, Native Indians, and African Negros), and then further broke that down into 16 distinct racial subcategories. In fact, the Spanish were so obsessed with race, that they even had the equivalent of posters commissioned by artists to describe the 16 official racial mixtures. For example Peninsulares (Europeans) were further broken down between Gauchapines, who were European born whites and Criollos, who were born in the New World. Mestizos were mixed blood Spanish-Indian. Interestingly, mixed-race children born in wedlock were assigned either a simple Indian or Spanish identity, depending on which culture they were raised in. Cholos were persons with one Indian parent and one Mestizo parent. At baptism, one was assigned to a caste for life by the priest. So there was literally no way to improve one’s prospects.
And then there was the issue of the land, who got it. And who worked on it, like slaves. Guess which caste had the land and which worked on it like slaves. No wonder the rebellion took place.
The first massacre by rebels took place in January 1847 at Valladolid, but the attack at Tepich on July 30 marked the official beginning of the guerrilla war, which lasted over 50 years. Within a year, the Maya rebels had almost succeeded in driving their oppressors from the peninsula. The war was complicated and very cruel. The Maya Indians were enlisted by the Yucatecos to fight on both sides. Some Maya stayed faithful to their hacienda owners and protected them against the rebelling Maya. By 1850, the greatest losses had been sustained. Almost 250,000 people died or fled the region. In 1849, the economic devastation also led the government to a desperate act: the sale of Maya captives as slaves to Cuba, which continued until 1861.
In 1850 the Maya rebels were forced back into the forest of eastern Yucatán. One of the leaders, José María Barrera, made his camp beside a small cenote (water sinkhole) in the wilderness. He was a Maya rebel, which is difficult to judge from his name, because by then all the Maya had Spanish names. The cenote offered a water supply. Barrera found a small cross carved on the trunk of a mahogany tree beside the cenote, so he called the place Chan Santa Cruz (Chan means little in the Maya language and Santa Cruz is Spanish for Holy Cross). Within a short time, the carved cross became the focus of a new religion.
A larger cross and a shrine were built nearby and called X-Balam Nah. Nah is 'house' in Yucatec Maya, balam means 'jaguar', and the X-(Sh) is a diminutive prefix.
One of Barrera’s leaders became the first priest, under the name Juan de la Cruz. Another associate, Manuel Nahuat, was apparently a ventriloquist or had arranged some sort of speaking tube to create the illusion that the cross could talk, delivering oracular messages and prophecies to its followers. Nahuat may not have been his real name (it was an expression for the Indian translators). Another important person in this cult was the successor of the first priest, Venancio Puc. The Speaking Cross united the defeated, disorganised Maya rebels.
So who were these people? Charlatans? Believing in a cross that can talk may seem irrational or even laughable to us. However, the miracle of its speech surely inspired the Maya resistance. Maybe it was a deliberate tactic, creating a miracle, to give people strength and hope.
We must also consider the historical context. At that stage of the war, the Maya were defeated and starving. And then they heard a supernatural voice. It must have sounded like a prophet to them. It seems the new cult started at the time of the threat of extinction of the indigenous Maya.
That brings me to the next question: Did the Speaking Cross represent the voice of the Christian God or the old Gods of the Maya world? To answer, we have to get into some level of detail.
The Maya belief in 'speaking idols' was pre-Columbian. Take the temple in Cozumel, dedicated to Ix Chel, the goddess of fertility. There was a large ceramic figurine of the goddess next to the temple. The priestess entered it and spoke to the pilgrims from within the sculpture, thus creating the voice of the goddess. Such talking idols functioned as oracles. Crosses spoke to people and many families still have their own shrines dedicated to communicating crosses. The God Creator Itzamná always communicated with the Maya through crosses. We must not forget that the ancient Maya had their own cross. The Maya cross was a symbol of the four cardinal points (the four directions of the universe) and it represented the sacred tree of life, the cosmic tree (the Maya called it Yaxché).
The tree was the axis mundi that connected the Upper world (sky), Middle world (earth) and Underworld. The axis was traversed by the souls of the deceased, on their way to the Upper world (heaven). Such a cross was often painted green, like a tree. The ancient Maya priests used the cross (i.e. the tree of life) as a device for communication with the supernatural realm, with their deities. I believe that by the time of the Caste War the two cross symbols had simply merged into one for them (that is how the Spanish presented the cross of Christianity to them, merging it with the Maya tree of life, during the Christianisation process). The Maya utilised the Christian cross for their own purposes; they integrated the Crucifix with the world tree. They turned the Cross of their ancient belief into a powerful object able to perform miracles and make rain.
Moreover, the Maya Cross is also linked with agricultural regeneration (the cross represents the corn plant) and crosses are often dressed in clothes. The dress looks like a huipil (traditional Maya blouse or dress) but in fact it is a special cloth called a sudario. We know that from the collar, because a huipil has a U-shaped collar while the sudario has a V-cleft collar. The Maya consider the cross to be masculine (although in Spanish it is feminine, la cruz) and therefore dressing it in female clothes would not be appropriate (although in some villages you will find that they do use a huipil, through lack of knowledge). A cross in sudario is like a plant emerging through clefts in the earth, a symbol of life through organic regeneration. In other words, the crosses are regarded as living beings and as plants or trees and the Maya use them also in rain-making ceremonies, for the fertility of the land. Also of great importance regarding the symbolism of the cross is that it is the manifestation of their main gods, Itzamná (the Creator God) and Chac (the Rain God).
I have seen such dressed crosses myself, for example during my recent visit to the Maya shaman (they call them Ah Men) in the village of Trapich. Usually you will see two crosses: the common Latin cross on the wall and another one dressed in the Maya dress called sudario.
This village sits on the route of the Speaking Cross, not far from the village of Chumpón, one of the centres of the cult of this cross today. I went to see Zacariás to observe a Maya ritual, with a focus on a love spell (for a friend). The visit was organized by one of the Maya elders, Caamal Pastor Witzil. And it was here where I learnt about the cult of the Speaking Cross, when we were driving through the village of Chumpón, where the preparations were in full swing for la fiesta de la Santa Cruz. The festival lasts two weeks (the first two weeks in May) and includes a traditional procession with the Cross, offerings, prayers, dances. Some villages have traditional bullfights during such a fiesta.
The place of the original Speaking Cross, Chan Santa Cruz, grew into a town (now it is named Felipe Carrillo Puerto). In 1858 a large church, named Balam Nah, was built here to house the Speaking Cross. The Cruzo’ob territory extended from north of Tulum down to Bacalar in the south. During the 1860s and 1870s, rivals repeatedly deposed Maya generals and patrons of the Cross. Chan Santa Cruz suffered raids by the government army and the cross was moved to different locations. For example, a woman named María Uicab was the main interpreter of the Cross in 1871 in Tulum.
The Cruzo’ob sometimes carried replica crosses to lead them into battle. And factions broke away from Chan Santa Cruz and regrouped around their own crosses.
So where could the cross be now? Does it still exist? Today the Balam Nah Church in Felipe Carrillo Puerto is a Catholic church, named Iglesia de la Santa Cruz, the Church of the Holy Cross. I have no way of telling if it has an original cross from the time of the Caste War but I doubt it. I think of the Speaking Cross rather in terms of a symbol. At people's homes, a small representation of the Speaking Cross is sometimes incorporated into a family shrine.
The Maya Cross has not ceased to exist because its symbolic identity is that of supernatural entities, such as their gods Itzamná and Chac; and as ancestral entities, trees, corn stalks, and other plants which abound in the land of the Maya. It seems that the cross itself became a saint. To this day, the cross remains a tremendous source of pride for the Maya, especially on May 3 (Day of the Holy Cross), when you can see various Maya communities paying their respects in religious ceremonies. The villages around the town of Felipe Carrillo Puerto (formerly Chan Santa Cruz) have altars with the Cross and run festivals devoted to the cult of the Cross.
During the period of the Caste War there were no Catholic priests in the zone controlled by the rebel Maya. The followers of the cross began their own church and ordained men, most likely the maestro cantors, the men trained by the Spanish as religious assistants at the Cruzob sanctuaries. The Mexican Government has legitimised these sanctuaries. The major sanctuaries are at Tixcacal Guardia, Chancah Veracruz, Chumpón, Tulum and Felipe Carrillo Puerto (yes, a separate Maya sanctuary from the main Catholic Church there) and at each one there is this sign on the exterior showing the government's endorsement: Sanctuario de la Cruz Parlante. The religious services in these sanctuaries bear similarities to the Roman Catholic mass.