— piste — past and present

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The War of the Castes, an insurrection of Indians against the ruling Whites, began in July 1847 and was soon widespread throughout Yucatan. Because Piste was populated chiefly by mestizos and by Indians who were sympathetic to the Spanish-speaking people, the population of the town was reduced to only a few families and in them strife and killing were uppermost in their minds. It is said that Piste was completely depopulated during those years. On August 16, 1859, the priest of Dzitas, Juan de la Cruz Monforte, wrote in a baptismal church record for Piste: “Baptismal records belonging to Piste people from the time of its delivery to the parish of Dzitas according to the loose papers which I have found and by superior order, I have set them down.” Such data in Yucatan are generally recorded in separate books and, if, as the priest stated, he copied the Piste records from loose sheets, it cannot be certain that all of them have been preserved. It is my opinion that, since the Piste region belonged at that time to the parish of Dzitas, many people resided temporarily in Dzitas during those troublesome years but had their baptisms, deaths, and marriages recorded by the priests of Dzitas to read as if they still lived in their own town of Piste.

Although the region was almost inaccessible to travelers and to scientists wishing to study the Maya ruins, those who could command an armed guard did visit Chichen Itza. Desire Charnay reached Chichen Itza in 1859 and wrote in 1863 that Piste was a wretched pueblo, “for it comprised some Indian huts, and like other towns nearby, it bore indelible traces of the plundering of the Indian rebels.” 19

In 1865 the government census of Piste lists only 228 individuals, 145 with Indian and 83 with Spanish names. 14

In 1875, Le Plongeon visited and described Piste, as well as the region from Dzitas to Chichen Itza. He tells that no one lived in the village of Piste except the soldiers who were stationed at this so-called advanced post:

Piste, ten years ago [more likely twenty-five], was a pretty village, built amid forests around a cenote of thermal waters and surrounded by most fertile fields, which the industrious dwellers cultivated. Suddenly, on a certain Sunday (election day), when they were entertained at the polls, the ominous war-cry of the Indians of Chan-Santa-Cruz fell upon their ears. Few were the villagers who, taking refuge in the bush, escaped the terrible machete of their enemies. Of this village, only the name remains. Its roofless houses, their walls crumbled, are scarcely seen beneath the thick green carpet of convolvulus and cowage. The church alone stands in the midst of the ruined abodes of those who used to gather under its roof. It is today converted into a fortress. The few soldiers of the post are the only human beings who inhabit these deserts for many leagues around. Its old walls, its belfry, widowed of its bell, are all that indicate to the traveller that Piste once was there. 20
In 1880 Charnay made a second journey to Chichen Itza and recorded of Piste:

It has been so often sacked and burnt by the revolted natives that the only building left is the church, occupied by a company of twenty-five men….the natives, who first arose to conquer their liberties, fell to massacring from a spirit of revenge and now only take the field for the sake of plunder. 21

From men now alive who were in Piste 1880-94, it has been learned that about 20 families inhabited the town during this period. Most of the people were agriculturalists and none owned cattle. Because of frequent raids by the Indians, the townspeople often had to flee temporarily to other communities for protection. Between flights, however, the people were not content, for there was the ever-present dread of raids, while petty jealousies and prejudices gave rise to murders. Although guard service was supposed to be obligatory for all men, many escaped by paying an exemption fee. In order to obtain money, the natives would sell their lands for a few pesos or would ask rich landowners for money and then serve their creditors in the capacity of peons. (See Appendix IV, “History of Piste as Told by Former Inhabitants,” on file in the Division of Historical Research, for more detailed accounts.)

Maudslay describes Piste as it was in 1888: “The Indian ruins had been freely used as quarries when the buildings of Piste and the hacienda were being raised, and many well squared blocks of stone bearing fragments of hieroglyphics and other sculpture can be found embedded in the church walls.”22

Even as late as 1891 it was necessary for the archaeologist Teobert Maler to resort to the protection of the Piste garrison to carry on his work. He writes:

Piste is a sad village in which some dozen native families gain a living from their small maize farms, spending on a vile aguardiente the entire product of their labor. Although these workmen [who worked on the ruins with Maler] received four reales [50 centavos] a day for their light work, I had great difficulty in getting them, because money has little attraction for these native people, and at Piste, no one works when he has earned four reales or a peso. They then get drunk, and only when the last centavo has been spent will they again resolve to work for a day or two. 23

Thus, the period from 1859 to 1900 was one of chaos and strife. Piste did not advance politically, economically, or culturally to any great extent. Such a situation helps to explain the attitude of the present inhabitants, for, although seemingly ingenious and in many ways a truly remarkable people, they can hardly be considered progressive.

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