Valladolid is a city with a rich history waiting for travelers to discover. Many of its churches are masterpieces of colonial architecture. Restored casonas, such as the Casa de los Venados dot the city. The impact of the Maya rebellion known as the Caste War is still the topic of local conversations. For those amateur historians willing to dig for the data, a treasure chest of information awaits them.
One example of such a treasure is Parque los Héroes (Heroes Park). The park is located in the courtyard of the Ex-Convento San Roque, where Calle 41 intersects Calle 38. It is approximately a two-block walk from the city’s zocalo or main plaza, along the street that passes in front of the Cathedral of San Servacio.
Visitors can enter the park through a gate on Calle 38, or they can enter by passing through the Museo San Roque, which was originally a colonial church. The park was established in 1958 to recognize distinguished citizens who lost their lives in the pursuit of freedom, justice, and equality, during the final years of the Porfirio Díaz dictatorship. In order to understand the significance of these heroes’ sacrifices, it is necessary to travel back in time to the late 1800′s and the early 1900′s.
General Porfirio Díaz was a military dictator who ruled Mexico with an iron hand from 1876 to 1911. Early in his domination of Mexico from 1880 to 1884, he allowed a “puppet president” by the name of Manuel González to serve, but Díaz still made most major decisions.
Díaz controlled the country by using the federal military and the rural police to enforce his policies. He appointed his closest and most loyal friends to major positions of power in the judicial and legislative branches of the government. Freedom of the press was tightly controlled and freedom of speech by opposing political groups was not allowed.
The positive impact of Díaz’s years in office was notable, and its effects continue to this day. Mexico was modernized and the economy boomed. Thousands of miles of railroad tracks were completed to connect major cities and ports. Lawlessness in the rural regions of Mexico was brought under control. Electricity was introduced to the larger cities and foreign investment was encouraged.
However, there was a dark side to the progress he achieved. It was gained on the backs of the poor, which made up a large portion of the country’s population. His political cronies were allowed to take the lands of the rural poor and force them to work for low wages or in some cases, no pay. Education and health care for the masses were basically ignored. By the time Díaz was forced into exile in 1911, five to ten percent of Mexico’s citizens controlled more than 90 percent of the country’s land and wealth.
Trouble Brewing in the Yucatán
Political conditions in the State of Yucatán mirrored national conditions. The state’s economy and political situation were under the control of Olegario Molina, a merchant and henequen millionaire. He was also a former governor and a past cabinet minister in the Porfirio Díaz government. Molina controlled the governor’s office from 1906 to 1910 through his handpicked successor, Enrique Muñoz Arístegui, with Díaz’s full support. In the 1909 elections for Yucatán’s governor, Díaz did not respect the results of the election and announced that Muñoz Arístegui would continue as governor.
In Valladolid, political opponents of Aristegui began to discuss a rebellion against the state government supported by Díaz. Retired military Captain Luis Felipe de Regil had been appointed Political Chief of the Department of Valladolid and was sent to maintain order and strict control. Regil was an ill-tempered man with a violent nature. He was intimidating and possessed an apparent need to humiliate the citizens of Valladolid. He forced many poor people to work on projects without pay, conscripted some into military service against their will and levied new taxes. Regil was a constant reminder of the Díaz government’s lack of concern for the common citizen.
The Dzelkoop Plan
Local political leaders began discussions of how to bring justice and freedom to the Yucatán. Merchants, landowners, artisans, lawyers and Maya leaders participated. The Dzelkoop Plan resolved that the current Arístegui government in Mérida was destroying the state and was no longer fit to govern. It also stated that a small group of individuals had gained immense wealth and power while contributing to the suffering of the people. The government of Enrique Muñoz Arístegui was declared illegal and a proposal to remove Arístegui and replace him with a seven-member governing board was suggested. The plan was signed on May 10, 1910, and preparations for a rebellion were initiated.
Leaders of the Revolt
Miguel Ruz Ponce, a former schoolteacher who was an accountant for Marcial Vidal, a prominent businessman and local political party leader, was quickly acknowledged as the movement’s chief tactical strategist. He had served prison time for political dissent and was a frequent object of contempt and humiliation by Regil, Valladolid’s Political Chief.
Maximiliano Ramírez Bonilla was a 45-year old merchant. He had been a political activist for several years and had helped coordinate a plan called, La Candelaria which criticized the Arístegui government. For this, he was rewarded with a prison term in Juárez Penitentiary in Mérida.
Claudio Alcocer was the overseer of Hacienda Kantó, and helped recruit Maya workers to participate in the rebellion. Alcocer also held a personal grudge against Regil, who had expelled him from the city of Valladolid when he came to visit his elderly and sick mother.
Atilano Albertos was an officer in the rebellion. In addition, he held Political Chief Regil responsible for the rape of his niece.
José E. Kantun helped lead the assault on the local police station. He would pay the ultimate price for his participation in the rebellion.
In Valladolid, the rebellion is referred to as La Chispa, or “the spark” for the 1910 Mexican Revolution. Near midnight on June 3, 1910, Miguel Ruz Ponce gathered his forces of approximately 1,500 men in front of the Church of Santa Lucía. At 3:00 AM on the morning of June 4th, the rebels attacked the city.
Colonel Miguel Ruz Ponce and Lieutenant José E. Kantun led a group to the Valladolid Police Station, where the night security guard, Liborio Albornoz, was killed. Additional policemen at the station were taken prisoners. Claudio Alcocer and Atilano Albertos headed the attack on the state’s National Guard quarters. Facundo Gil, the Sergeant of the Guard was killed. Meanwhile, the hated Political Chief Regil was aroused from his sleep by the shots and came out of his house brandishing two pistols. According to undocumented reports, Claudio Alcocer cut him down with a shotgun blast before others fell on him with their machetes. He was left dead in the street. By dawn on June 4, 1910, the rebels controlled the city.
A Price to Pay
The reaction of Governor Arístegui and President Díaz was immediate. Arístegui appointed Colonel Ignacio Lara Political Chief of Valladolid to replace Regil and ordered him to organize a combat exercise against the rebels. Colonel Lara left Mérida quickly with 75 professional troops and 300 new rifles. On the way to Valladolid, he conscripted local peasants. By the time he reached Tinum, 12 kilometers (8 miles) from Valladolid, his forces numbered 600.
Meanwhile, President Díaz sent 600 well-armed troops of the 10th Federal Battalion from Veracruz under the command of Colonel Ignacio Luque. These troops joined the state troops of Colonel Lara in Tinum on June 8, 1910. The formal attack on the rebels began the next day at 8:00 AM. By 1:00 PM, the battle was over. The rebels fought bravely, but with inferior weapons and without trained military leaders, it was an unfair match. Altogether, 30 government troops died in the skirmish and 60 were wounded.
After the dust had settled, there were 200 dead rebels, 500 wounded, and 600 prisoners. A few rebels including Claudio Alcocer and Miguel Ruz Ponce escaped into the jungles of Quintana Roo where they sought protection from disenchanted Maya tribes. Ruz Ponce stayed with the Maya until Francisco Madero was president. He then traveled to Mexico City to offer his services to the government, but was never given a significant position. Alcocer stayed in the jungles of Quintana Roo, but was eventually murdered by the Maya because they did not trust him to protect their secret locations.
Colonel Maximiliano Ramírez Bonilla, Major Atilano Albertos, and Lieutenant José E. Kantun were held prisoners until June 25, 1910, when they were executed by a 20-member military firing squad in the courtyard of the Ex-Convento San Roque. That same courtyard where their lives were ended in pursuit of liberty is now the Heroes Park.
A Place of Tranquility
When the park was created as a tribute to the martyrs of La Chispa in 1958, an obelisk was placed in a prominent location. The names of Maximiliano Ramírez Bonilla, Miguel Ruz Ponce, Claudio Alcocer, José E. Kantun, and Atilano Albertos were inscribed on the Obelisk. On June 4, 1960, on the 50th anniversary of the rebellion, the remains of Bonilla, Albertos, and Kantun were moved from the Valladolid Cemetery and interred in one of the walls of the park.
Today, visitors can visit their burial site and observe the obelisk and plaques in the park. There is also a large bronze bust of President Venustiano Carranza, who was president when Mexico’s 1917 Constitution was ratified. This constitution addressed many of the complaints that led to the Valladolid rebellion. Today, families stroll in the park through its well-manicured gardens and young couples hold hands on cozy benches. Other visitors come to reflect on the sacrifices made to protect the ideals of freedom, liberty, and justice. Vallisoletanos, citizens of Valladolid, are justifiably proud of their heroes’ roll in helping to bring Mexico’s longest lasting dictatorship to an end.
Author’s Note: Individuals interested in learning more about this period of Mexican history will enjoy Allen Wells and Gilbert Joseph’s book, Summer of Discontent, Seasons of Upheaval: Elite Politics and Rural Insurgency in Yucatan, 1876-1915, published by Stanford University Press.