The haciendas were the landed estates of Mexico, some with territories as big as
Belgium. For visitors to Mexico, they conjure up surreal images of ruined
palaces; still possessing a faded grandeur, dominating a desolate landscape of
cactus and agave.
Before the revolution of 1910, when their lands were confiscated, the haciendas
(a term which referred either to the estate or the often huge house of the
owner) made up a high percentage of Mexico's agricultural land, and their
collective power was enormous. Each one was a rural, autonomous social unit with
its own history, and for each, myths accumulate over the centuries.
The properties represent the history of the towns in the Yucatan, their customs,
economic and social activities developed over several centuries. Each one has
its own architectural style according to the period, where man and its nature
join to show the world all they represent. In colonial times, the properties
were ranches assigned to the Spanish colonists.
After the conquest, they were livestock ranches and during the years of crisis,
they were corn plantations. During the 19th century, many of the properties,
particularly those in the Mérida region, were transformed into sisal producing
operations. Yucatan separated from the states known today as Campeche and
Quintana Roo in 1910.
The Yucatan's leadership in the number of these estates throughout Mexico gives
it the right to be known and promoted globally.
The hacendado (or owner) might buy neighboring ranches; often he would simply
appropriate Indian land. As the haciendas grew, they became feudal estates
supplying all the needs of the surrounding community, including food, clothing
and medical aid.
Haciendas played host to a variety of activities from baptisms, weddings, and
celebrations of saints' days to fiestas, charro (cowboy) parties and contests,
bullfights, and harvest festivals. Travelers who stopped for the night, whether
invited or not, were treated to displays of hospitality, particularly in the
more remote regions.
The charro played a similar role in the life and folklore of the hacienda as did
the cowboy on the American ranch. His horsemanship skills, his elaborate and
elegant clothing and accoutrements, his music, and his pride and personal style
were every bit the equal of those of his cousins across the border. The
tradition of the charreada (rodeo) is still kept alive in the haciendas of
today, and the charro has become a symbol of nostalgia for the traditional rural
life of Mexico.
For the Indian population whose lands had been appropriated by the hacendados,
hacienda life was often less romantic and rosy than diaries describing social
visits to the haciendas might suggest. Deprived of their own land, the Indians
were forced to work on the haciendas as peons, and had little choice but to buy
everything they needed form the hacienda store, further increasing their
The relentless growth of the haciendas was not due to a need for, or even
interest in, increased production but was usually motivated simply by the
prestige that went with substantial land ownership. Only about 10 percent of
hacienda land was ever cultivated. Once acquired, most of this land which had
once been carefully cultivated by the Indians was left as derelict pasture.
Haciendas usually concentrated on one particular agricultural product, depending
on the region: mescal in Zacatecas, sugar in Morelos, sisal in Yucatan, pulque
(the alcoholic beverage produced from the agave plant which, when further
distilled, becomes mescal) in hidalgo, and cattle in Querétaro.
Around the haciendas, and administered by them, were smaller ranches which
supplied grain and other seasonal crops. By the eighteenth century a typical
hacienda was an elaborate institution. In addition to the main house and its
guest quarters there were stables, a general store, a chapel, a school,
equipment stores, servants' quarters, granaries, corrals and a forge. Clothing
was produced at the hacienda from cloth woven on the premises.
The haciendas grew in size during the centuries of colonial rule. In 1821 Mexico
became an independent nation, but lapsed into a period of decline and economic
From 1864 to 1867 the French occupied Mexico with Maximillian and his wife
Carlota installed as Emperor and empress. This intervention was brief, but it
began a period of French influence in architecture and culture which lasted will
into the twentieth century. From 1876 until 1911 Porfirio Díaz ruled Mexico as
dictator, restoring it to economic strength by the use of capitalist measures
and the encouragement of foreign investment.
Earlier in the nineteenth century there had been failed attempts by liberals to
dissolve the haciendas and restore their land to the Indians. Díaz did the
opposite, making extra land available to establish new haciendas and increasing
the size of many existing ones.
During his rule many haciendas were given a face-lift, usually in the form of a
proud neoclassical style reflecting the new national confidence. At the start of
the 20th century, the Haciendas Yucatecas, the majority of which were henequen
plantations, showed their best styles through their construction.
They were surrounded by natural beauty with beautiful gardens and ample spaces.
Their owners, relatives and friends visited them and enjoyed the countryside's
fresh and clean natural environment. It was in these Haciendas where great
parties and activities were held, where guests shared and delighted for several
The Haciendas were the place for bull fights, dances and patron saint
celebrations -- the biggest event of the year. Many of the owners managed the
Haciendas and lived in them most of the year. In years past, native Yucatecans
with economic resources set out to buy some of the old estates to refurbish them
to their original style, in honor of their original owners.
At present, smart investors have purchased and converted them into comfortable
hotels and tourism paradises. Through this short narration, the history of the
Mexican henequen plantations, colonist estates, corn and livestock operations
The Haciendas Yucatecas are paradises full of enchantment and natural beauty
that have entered the 21st century as part of the future's first industry, the
Fragments From the book "CASA MEXICANA" ©1989 Tim Street-Porter, .