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A Visit to Chan Santa Cruz *

With the image of the craggy ruin of the church there fresh in our minds, we headed south from Tihosuco to the busy crossroads town of Felipe Carrillo Puerto.

As we had been reminded in the new Museum of the Caste War in Tihosuco, Carrillo Puerto was formerly Chan Santa Cruz, the focus of a great Maya uprising in the mid-1800s and the capital of the cruzob Maya - the "People of the Cross."

In 1847 the Maya of Yucatan rose up against their oppressors and, in a bloody campaign, drove the whites and mestizos back across the peninsula as far as the gates of Merida, the old colonial capital. When the rebellion faltered, the Maya were in turn forced back deep into the forests of the southeast - now the state of Quintana Roo. There, a "Speaking Cross" arose beside a hidden cenote to give heart to the Maya and direct them during 50 more years of resistance and independence.

Although the great Maya temple of Balam-na, built by captured prisoners in the 1850s, still stands in the heart of Carrillo Puerto, we wanted to visit the original site of the Speaking Cross located, still unmarked, beside its cenote on the western outskirts of town.

The shrine was a simple stone niche, or oratorio, containing three crosses. As we walked around the area, we finally saw three plain wooden crosses set on a hillock. Below, in a sloping, walled site, we noticed the cave-like cenote entrance and above it, a simple chapel, newly thatched and whitewashed.

As we approached, an elderly Maya came out of a nearby hut to greet us.

Shaking hands, he introduced himself as Victor Chablekal, the guardian and rezador, or religious keeper of the shrine, which is still known as the cruz parlante, although the cross has long since ceased to speak. In the 1980s, we were told, a splinter group of Cruzob Maya from nearby villages renewed the ancient ceremonies here, taking turns at providing a guardia or militia for the sacred site.

Victor led us to the side door of the new chapel and, asking us to remove our shoes, ushered us inside. There, beyond an archway and now forming the gloria, or sanctuary of the chapel, was the original limestone niche. A large blue cross was painted on the rear wall and two other wooden crosses were placed in front, painted and "dressed" in huipils. An altar stood before the shrine, decorated with arches of flowers and bearing bowls for offerings.

With his wife Victor was keeping guard here and keeping the faith, chanting the traditional Maya prayers and making offerings to the cross and the ancestors several times a day.

We asked him if any of his five sons planned to follow him in the future, learning the prayers and ceremonies. Victor looked glum. Television, el cine and other amusements seemed to be of more interest to them, he sighed.

Text and photographs ©2001 by Richard D. Perry

* Adapted from our new travel anthology EXPLORING YUCATAN

For more on Chan Santa Cruz see MAYA MISSIONS