by Beryl Gorbman
Henequen represents slavery, rope, the conquest, heavy labor, and haciendas. It is, of course, the plant and fiber produced on most of the the huge haciendas of Yucatan. Henequen, a type of agave, is uniquely suited to northern Yucatan’s rocky, torrid terrain. It takes at least five years for a henequen plant to mature on its own (there are chemical ways to accelerate this) to the point that the leaves are fibrous and useful. The plant is sterile; it does not reproduce on its own. As it is dying, at about the age of twenty, it shoots off seven baby plants, which are gathered and cultivated.
The Maya, of course, were using henequen hundreds of years before the Spanish got to Yucatan. They used the fibers for string and clothing. But the Spanish mechanized production and shipped henequen products and fiber all over the world, making Yucatan one of the wealthiest states of Mexico by the early 1800s.
Maya towns were built up to serve the haciendas. Haciendas were similar to American southern plantations in that they had closed monetary systems and horrendous work practices. Owners supplied housing (so to speak), access to medical care (truly so to speak) and other amenities, to keep workers close. The company store sold food with “money” earned from field labor. If a man incurred a debt, such as a medical one, upon his death, the debt was transferred to his son. This was slavery, or at the very best, indentured servitude.
These haciendas are the origin of the old money of the Yucatan. They were hugely profitable.
The hacienda plantations were owned by a group of about 650 families. Tiring of life in the campo, these fabulously wealthy people moved to nearby Merida and built huge French-style mansions, like the ones on the Paseo Montejo. This windfall came to an abrupt end after the Mexican revolution. President Lazaro Cardenas had the haciendas appropriated and divided into peasant-owned ejidos and small farms in 1937. Prices of henequen shot up and markets for it disappeared. The advent of plastics didn’t help either. By 1950, abandoned hacienda buildings were ubiquitous. Up until about wenty years ago, you could buy one for ten thousand dollars – complete with Casa Principal, machine shop, other outbuildings and a few acres. I could just kick myself.
Most of us who live here have visited haciendas, which are either crumbling ruins or restored as lovely buildings. Many of them retain the machine shops, buildings with bizarre Rube Goldberg type machinery that doesn’t look real in this day and age. There are, in Yucatan, about fourteen places where it is still used, where henequen is still processed. The henequen is usually made into rope of all sizes, often in locations other than the haciendas. More recently, it is being used for woven floor coverings, natural fibre clothing, handbags, and decorator objects.
Cordemex, the huge complex on the northern end of Merida, just north of the convention center (looks like a series of quonset huts on steroids) was the biggest manufacturer of henequen products in the area. They made rope of all sizes – from twine to massive strands used for tying ships. Also burlap bags and other products. At one point, when it was government run, Cordemex employed over five thousand people. Cordemex has been closed for about ten years.
It’s fascinating to visit working haciendas. Go on tourist websites to see where they are. Several offer rides on the narrow gauge tracks, in old horse-drawn carts. Some even serve lunch and take you for a swim in a nearby cenote (underwater river in a limestone cave).
Below are some pictures of privately owned working haciendas. No tourists. No nicely renovated, elegant Casa Prinicipals. Just hard, filthy work, eight days a week according to the workers. They are paid approximately six dollars a day for their backbreaking labor.
The factory is on two floors. The heavy machinery is upstairs. The narrow gauge track runs underneath and sludge is dropped into one carefully placed railway cart and fiber into another, through holes in the upstairs floor. The horse-drawn carts truck the leaves in, the sludge and fiber out.
Click here to go to a well-reasearched site that has incredible old pictures of henequen production and haciendas.