This article imagines abolitionist politics in the Yucatán peninsula as one group, known as U jeets'el le ki'ki’ kuxtal, pushes against one portion of Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador's development plan known as the “Tren Maya.” I contend that U je'etsel's calls for autonomy speak to forms of radical abolitionist politics present in the United States, where we might observe the centrality of land in both abolition and decolonization. To this end, I first provide a definition of a trans feminist abolition radically focused on the otherwise, or the eradication of all forms of social oppression. This definition is followed by close readings of U je'etsel's communiqués regarding AMLO's 2021 visit to the Yucatán peninsula and the continued role the so‐called “Caste War” plays in attempts to expand nationalized colonization into the region. My final goal is to proffer that “Caste War” constitutes a historicized form of radical autonomy as well as project of abolition subject to forces that seek to vacate it of its liberatory power. I demonstrate that part of U je'etsel's discursive project is to reclaim the “Caste War” narrative as part of an emancipatory project involving a radical reclaiming of autonomy's regional history.
On April 13, 2021, the Campeche-based campaign “U jeets'el le ki'ki’ kuxtal”1 held a press conference that highlighted a series of events, talks, and gatherings organized around establishing a collective push toward autonomy as the response against the so-called and poorly named Tren Maya (Maya Train). As the most publicly visible portion of the massive infrastructural project known as the South-Southeastern Territorial Reordering Project and one leg of Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador's National Development Plan (PND), the Maya Train has been fervently critiqued by environmentalists, scholars, activists, and community members of the region, where this latter group mostly identifies with or are identified as “maya.”2 The Maya Train is marketed to propel the PND's six-part plan conceived to “guarantee employment, education, health, and wellbeing” by “modernizing” turistic and socioeconomic frameworks in Mexico's Southeast (Adrián, Yannick, and Sergio 2019). Organizers of U jeets'el le ki'ki’ kuxtal urge the Southeast's maya rural population to reject the “colonization that has slipped in and deeply embedded itself in our territory, our minds, and our hearts” and begin work toward an autonomous community. Autonomy is understood as the possibility of “wellbeing, living with dignity, and a free life,” and is part of a long-standing practice of sociopolitical self-determination mobilized through the exercising of the second article of the Mexican constitution.3 The dialogues that comprised the press conference centered on autonomy as a framework to create “un mundo donde quepan muchos mundos,” a world where many worlds might fit, as a response that might halt the mass appropriation of maya territory and destruction of fragile ecosystems by the Mexican state as it begins its mega project (Campaña U Je'ets'el le ki'ki kuxtal 2021b).
A world where many worlds might fit. This utterance stems from the EZLN movement and beautifully expresses U je'etsel's position on autonomy as I experience it through their virtual presence, including communiqués, press releases, and Facebook Live events. I contend that U je'etsel's autonomy also speaks to forms of radical abolitionist politics currently taking shape in the region from which I currently write, and offer an example of these nested worlds.4 My first goal in this meditation is to think alongside U je'etsel's campaign as a budding autonomous movement to learn from their concept of autonomy and how it enacts forms of what might be understood as abolition in the United States—that is, to consider how these two worlds fit together. And so, what is abolition as it is imagined and enacted in the US setting? My intervention into these politics is perhaps best captured by Catherine Walsh's decolonial posture of “thinking-otherwise” (2012: 55) and Charles Sepulveda's “life beyond” (Wilson Gilmore et al. 2020)—I think through abolition as a possibility of living that takes up, from its very organization, a radical refusal of oppression and white supremacy. Indeed, while abolition—and trans abolitionist feminisms in particular—defies categorization and fixity, abolition is rooted in the axiom that enslavement is not yet abolished in the United States (Dillon 2012). Enslavement today manifests in prisons, in policing, and in the penal codes that entrap human life and enact social oppression—namely, racism, classism, gendered violence, ableism, etc.—through myriad reconfigurations of hegemonic logics. Abolitionist politics emphasize that these institutions dehumanize us all; they mobilize and maintain legalized racial genocide, feminicide, class struggles, homophobia, cisheteronormativity, and other forms of dehumanization (Gossett 2011: 324). Further, another portion of abolitionist roots is located in the refusal of myriad forms of social and structural enslavement that affect those currently exterior to the prison system, as well, an extension of prison enslavement defined through the mundane: those quotidian practices of living articulated—and inescapably so—through systems that harm: lives lost to clocking in and clocking out; love, acceptance and wellbeing sacrificed to unattainable norms of beauty, of “health”; interest payments and overdrafts; commutes to places we don't want to be in order find jobs that provide survivability, the curated impulse to consume, etc. These habits or behaviors—often perceived as inevitable, if perceived at all—cause us to lose the possibility of multiplicity, of living in other ways. I use the term enslavement purposefully: we currently experience these virtually ineludible systemic harms that rob us of choice and subsequently, the experience of knowing ourselves and what we are capable of.
Abolitionist stances are active, both physically and intellectually, and do not merely “sit with” these realities. Radical or revolutionary trans feminist abolitionisms as I experience them seek opportunities to destabilize, imagine, and act upon those imaginings in another way, a way in which we learn to care for ourselves and each other, take accountability for our (in)actions and those of the past, and design social systems that provide resources and frameworks that meet those ends (Bey 2022; Boellstorff et al. 2014; Giroux 2004; Lamble 2011; Lamble n.d.). Those goals drive abolitionism to seek an opening-up of the “us,” one that goes beyond the ways the modern colonial system has divided “us,” be that in gender, in race, in class—toward an imagining of “us” that takes into account, and radically so, how these preconfigured identities have shaped us and enable certain behaviors, but harken us to be traitorous to those forms. In a word, I follow Dylan Rodríguez's definition that the abolitionist stance seeks to “build a different set of historical and political assumptions that recast our understanding of the prison regime as a focal point of a collective, radical political creativity—abolitionism—that takes seriously the monumental challenges of freedom, liberation, self-determination, and anti-violence” (Gossett 2011: 361).
Thus, from Rodríguez's definition to my own conjectures on abolition, self-determination—or in other words, autonomy—plays a central role in an abolitionist stance, and vice versa (Hasta Muerte Coffee 2021). If we return now to the “Mexican” southeast, we might think about how abolition is employed in the autonomy of U je'etsel's movement. The hegemonic response to U Je'etsel's declarations for autonomy were swift. Less than one month after the Facebook Live press conference, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) traveled to Yucatán for an event planned by his administration to formally request forgiveness from the mayan people for the centuries of “terrible abuses” committed (past tense) by colonial and national regimes. Replete with a display of Authentic Mayan Traditional Ceremonies, the event culminated in a speech delivered by the president before an emblem that read “Petition for Forgiveness for the Harms Caused to the Mayan People / Ending the Caste War” (Osorio 2021). Even during the speech, the response to the petition was exceedingly clear through the shouts and interruptions from the protests surrounding the event (Pie de Página [@PdPagina] 2021). Shortly after, U je'etsel le ki'ki kuxtal mobilized against AMLO's “false apology,” highlighting through various communiqués that while AMLO (vaguely and loosely) denounced the liberal politics of Porfirio Díaz, or the Porfiriato,5 and subsequent neoliberal policies, he continues to move forward with the very sort of project for which he claims to seek forgiveness (Campaña U Je'ets'el le ki'ki kuxtal 2021a; Indignación 2021). In one such communiqué, U je'etsel indexes the political orientations of the Porfiriato as they appear today in their neoliberal form. They state, “What comes with forgiveness? While one part of this speaks of asking forgiveness, the other part commits the same acts that Porfirio Díaz did back then. With forgiveness comes big companies, the loss of our land, the accumulation (of wealth) for the few and misery for the people. [With it comes] The military: agents of violence and the cruelest disappearances of our recent history.” They earmark the notion of “progress” as one that stems from a “western perspective” that provides “wealth for the few” and has caused “exploitation and expropriation that prioritizes death,” that “enslaves and kills,” and “destroys others’ forms of living.” They highlight that what is in “dispute [are] the possible futures of the many ways of living and organizing of the people, of the children, of nature, and of life itself,” that “when large projects come and snatch away our land, the peace of our people is transformed to terror [ . . . ] because [our land] has become regional, national and even global sites of labor exploitation, of general lack of safety, of femicides and murder, of drug and human trafficking” (Cortés and Fernando 2021).
What this brief vignette illustrates is how autonomy and abolition share multiple points of struggle. The maya and other oppressed peoples of Latin America possess decades and centuries of experience carving out autonomous zones that are independent of the colonial-liberal state. Even within the last fifty years, from Zapatista autonomous municipalities in Chiapas to the Cherán K'eri movement in Michoacán, autonomy encapsulates a right to live outside the social-institutional totality of the nation-state that continues its process of global universalization. Like abolition, there are myriad approximations, understandings, and deployments of autonomy, but the form of autonomy here enacted emphasizes (and is often spurred by, as is the case here) the state-sanctioned theft of the land and unchecked (neoliberal) capitalist extractivism, which autonomy understands as a deeply dehumanizing endeavor. The U Je'etsel movement, like other Indigenous or native autonomous movements, emphasizes independent decision-making structures, economic alternatives to capitalism, and territorial restructuring that permits collective rights to land and natural resources, all of which sharply diverge from the PND and its train. Additionally, autonomy, especially in the “Mexican” southeast, has historically prioritized the independent implementation of other important social structures, such as medical and educational systems, that support self-determination outside the systems of the state (Mora 2017). So, where abolition might first turn to the abolishment of police and carceral violence (and the systems such violence proliferates) as its center, autonomy centers the abolishment of legalized and illicit land appropriation and ecocide. This variance illustrates the centrality of each movement's locus of enunciation (Mignolo 2000), where in the context of mayan resistance, there is a continued, historical struggle of land appropriation that, like enslavement in abolition in the US context, has changed shapes many times (Desinformémonos 2020). In the colonial moment, such land theft began via terra nullius claims by European colonizers; in the nineteenth century, terreno baldío (vacant land) claims mobilized the theft of indigenous lands by the early iterations of the nation-state; today, neoliberal law and ideology facilitates land-grabs by a state increasingly intertangled in multinational mega companies. In US abolition, on the other hand, land has become the meeting place of productive conflict, in the case of indigenous sovereignty versus land reparations and ultimately, commensurability (King, Navarro, and Smith 2020), for example. Land is thus the place where abolition and decolonization show their intimate entanglement, demonstrating how the end of the consumption of the land benefits all, and conversely, white cisheteropatriarchy, that which propagates that consumption, will end us all, even those that currently benefit from its proliferation (for indeed, what will even those in power consume once all is consumed?). While this differing point of entrance addresses how state systems cause harm in different political contexts, what both orientations share is the deep and profound refusal of state/hegemonic logics that promote harm (the language of abolition) and the loss of dignity (the language of autonomy).
During U Je'ets'el's press conference, representatives there noted that they chose to have their event on that precise day because 88 years ago, in 1933, the “Last Mayan Rebel” was vanquished in Dzulá by the Mexican state, thus closing the door on a mayan autonomy that had lasted more than fifty years in Noj Kaaj Santa Cruz X Balam Naj, known also as Felipe Carrillo Puerto, the same city where AMLO held his own press conference a few weeks later. In other communiqués, U je'etsel's campaign gestures toward a reclaiming of Yucatán's so-called Caste War as part of its ideological roots. Where historical configurations define the fifty-four-year uprising (1847–1901) as connected to local caudillos, disagreements regarding federalism, and “Maya bigmen” (Rugeley 2009: 2) occurring during the extension of liberal politics and capitalist extractivism into rural areas of the peninsula, U je'etsel's estimation of the conflict differs significantly from other interpretations of the historical register. Curiously, AMLO also lays claim to the Caste War movement, evoking it in his presidential backdrop during his petition for forgiveness: “Ending the Caste War.” In response, one protester yelled, “If [the rebel leader] Jacinto Pat were alive today, he would be embarrassed of this display” (Osorio 2021). What, then, might this battle for meaning-making mean? What is the importance of historical autonomous movements that have sought to halt land appropriation and enclosure of the commons, and what might be found in the apposition of US abolition and indigenous autonomy?
I proffer that the so-called Caste War is a historicized form of radical autonomy and a project of abolition subject to forces that seek to vacate it of its liberatory power. This substantiates the symbolic importance of the Caste War in both AMLO's forgiveness tour and in U je'etsel's autonomy campaign. Indeed, control of Caste War discourse constitutes a decades-long battle.6 Nineteenth-century newspapers, narratives, and historical accounts talk of rebel leaders and their rebel troops attacked white-owned haciendas and settlements, killing, raping, and plundering as they went. Eyewitness reports tell tales of rebels taking hacienda owners’ wives as concubines; of houses and possessions burned; of entire towns of white families—including women and children—murdered, their bodies left to decay in the aftermath (Ancona 1878, 4:5–14). In all, it was reported that more than half of Yucatán's white population either fell victim to the rebels or fled the peninsula: casualties are estimated from 250,000 to 360,000 throughout the course of this fifty-five-year war (Reed 1964; Rugeley 2009). A militarized mayan independent state called Chan Santa Cruz formed in the 1850s, encompassing the majority of what is today called Quintana Roo. Chan Santa Cruz was recognized as a de facto independent country by the British government, which reflected the intimate ties between the former and British Honduras (Dumond 1997).
The rebels themselves tell a strikingly different tale in the epistolary accounts that they left behind. “Indio”-identifying leaders maintained that the war was not one of racial antagonism; and if it was being conceptualized as such, it was because “the whites began it” (Rugeley 2001). Leaders repeatedly state that the rebellion reflected a response to the loss of life caused by poverty, cultural control, and labor exploitation, a response taken to after exhausting all other possibilities. Indeed, the rebels’ perspective reflects much more accurately what is known of the period: Yucatán's nineteenth century was defined by white politicians attempting to bring the lofty charges of order and progress—the credence of modernity—to the region via institutionalized and epistemic violence. The maya, in turn, paid the cost in land expropriation, exorbitant taxation, and cultural oppression all in the (white European) hopes to mold Yucatán into a racially homogenous, liberal, capitalist state. Rebel epistolary accounts reflect a push against the biological essentialism of blanco racial discourse, or the imagining of the Caste war as an antagonism based on skin color and the meanings assigned to phenotypic difference as exemplified above. To them, the Caste War was not about the accumulation of rights under a white regime, but rather, the right to live otherwise, outside of capitalism, and outside of state participation, and outside of social articulation. As one general succinctly expresses, “it will not be necessary to buy land, the white, the black, or the Indian can plant their milpa wherever he wants, and no one will prohibit it” (Kazanjian 2016). That is, Caste War rebels were imagining a world-otherwise at the metonymic nexus of capitalism and land—the very rejection of land as ownable, its surplus, its enclosure, its sale, the radical refusal of the chattelizing of the earth—which attests to a pushing away from wanting “more” or “better” rights in a world organized by whiteness, and toward a world that abolished the very systems that oppress in the first place.
An invasion by Porfirio Díaz's troops in 1902 is often considered the end of the so-called Caste War—incredibly, an invasion motivated by the establishment of a railway that would facilitate the shipment of chicle sap to use in the booming chewing gum industry (Redclift 2004). However, some scholars account for the decades of struggle that took place after Díaz's invasion, including the above-cited “last battle” of Dzula in 1933 (Kaeding 2013). However, it is clear that the continued battle over meaning-making and discursive control lies at the heart of two diametrically opposed movements: autonomy and the PND. Indeed, if AMLO seeks to discursively end the war to ideologically clear the way for the PND, this constitutes an admission that the Caste War movement continues on as U je'etsel asserts: “the [so-called Caste] war continues. We live in one of the most critical moments of the history of mayan territory.” And at the center of this contention, I find a world where many worlds might fit. Where institutions and individuals complicit with white cisheteronormative patriarchy seek to create narrative logics that claim that no other way is possible, that there has never been and never will be any other way to live and organize our social and political worlds, U jeetsel asserts that this is not the case: there have already been worlds within worlds, as evident in the living memory of the so-called Caste War. Abolition and autonomy, while experiencing moments of convergence and departure, share similar struggles in the face of naturalized, overpowering narrative logics in a struggle for making the world. As Bassichis, Lee, and Spade claim, “To chart a different course for our movements, we need to understand the road we've traveled” (Bassichis, Lee, and Spade 2011: 19):part of U jeets'el's emancipatory project is a radical reclaiming of autonomy's historicity.
Establishment of the Good Life / Autonomy (Asentamiento de la buena vida/autonomía). This campaign forms part of the collective Rebirth of Collective Work, or Ka Kuxtal Much Meyaj. Translations to English from Spanish and Maaya T'aan resources are my own throughout. Speakers at the press conference included Manuel May, Ángel Sulub, Álvaro Mena, Nora Tzec, Wilma Esquivel, Letina Cruz Velasquez, and Selena Uc, many of whom are also involved with the collective Ka kuxtal much meyaj (Kuxtal 2021).
Following Juan Castillo Cocom, the notion of “maya” came to being via its relationship to state-building, institutionalized hegemony, and westernizing knowledge crafting. On the other hand, the term maya is also an identitary category under which many find political power and belonging. As such, it can both “interpellate and exceed the mayan realism created in the long night of the times of the anthropological romance” (Castillo Cocom and Castañeda 2021). It is of note that many people who are deemed “maya” by the state and cultural institutions in fact identify otherwise, as, for example, masewuales, indios, campesinos, mayeros, etc. I opt to not capitalize the word maya or any currently popular identificatory category, following, for example, Samuel Delany's considerations on the word black (2000). See also Whittaker 2021.
The Mexican Constitution of 1917 “recognizes and protects the indigenous peoples’ right to self-determination and, consequently, the right to autonomy.” Regionally, other legislatures exist that might create the legal groundwork for mayan autonomy, including the 1998 Ley de Derechos, Cultura, y Organización Indígena del Estado de Quintana Roo, and the 2011 Ley para Protección de los Derechos de la Comunidad Maya del Estado de Yucatán.
Chicago is the stolen land where the Ojibwe, Odawa, and Potawatomi Nations reside and resided. It is the stolen land where the Miami, Ho-Chunk, Menominee, Sac, and Fox reside and resided. It is land enslaved under capitalism; capitalism makes chattel slavery of the land. It is also one of the US urban centers, with Minneapolis as its epicenter, that saw significant abolitionist activity via the uprisings of the summer of 2020, the year of George Floyd's murder (Nevada 2022).
The Porfiriato is the de facto dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz, lasting from 1876 to 1911, or seven “elections.” During his reign, he sought international foreign investment in Mexico and directly contributed to the mass accumulation of land in the hands of the wealthy and the widespread suffering of his impoverished, rural, and racialized constituents. While widely hailed as the elite golden age of the Mexican economy, Díaz’ massive “modernizing” projects—including the construction of railways and landmark buildings—required the widespread dispossession of peasant lands and the poorly remunerated labor, indentured servitude, or enslavement of those dispossessed.
The “Caste War” is a near permanent presence in peninsular politics, evoked often in major political shifts in the Yucatán peninsula, especially those referring to changes in land tenure. See Fallaw 2012.