Maya Rebellion in Chiapas

An anticolonial, indigenous rebellion against Spanish occupation in southern Mexico, initially rooted in religious persecution but later a revolt encouraged by indigenous elites, was unprecedented in scale, longevity, and leadership structure. The rebellion led to reform of the Mexican Indian labor system by the Spanish and set in motion demands for Mexican independence from Spain.

Summary of Event

The Maya Rebellion of 1712 was, at root, the culmination of nearly two centuries of resentment among the Tzeltal, Tzotzil, and Chol sub-Mayan Chiapas cultures, which had faced brutal enslavement and dehumanization through the Spanish encomienda
Encomienda system system of forced labor. Labor;forced Indigenous peoples were “granted” to the conquerors along with land, and biannual tribute payments were demanded and forcefully collected by Spanish colonizers. [kw]Maya Rebellion in Chiapas (Aug., 1712)
[kw]Chiapas, Maya Rebellion in (Aug., 1712)
[kw]Rebellion in Chiapas, Maya (Aug., 1712)
Indigenous revolts;Mexico
Mayan civilization
Chiapas, Mexico
Tzeltal Revolt (1712)
Maya Rebellion of 1712
[g]Mexico;Aug., 1712: Maya Rebellion in Chiapas[0380]
[c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Aug., 1712: Maya Rebellion in Chiapas[0380]
[c]Government and politics;Aug., 1712: Maya Rebellion in Chiapas[0380]
[c]Social issues and reform;Aug., 1712: Maya Rebellion in Chiapas[0380]
López, María
Simón, Fray
Gómez, Sebastían

The Maya of mountainous Chiapas in southern Mexico were among the last Mexican Indians to be subdued by Hernán Cortés’s Cortés, Hernán Spanish forces, who had been sent to the area in 1522 to collect tribute after conquering the Aztec Empire in Tenochtitlán Tenochtitlán (now Mexico City). When the Chiapans resisted, more forces were dispatched to subdue the uprising. It took an additional six years, however, to completely subdue the rebellion. More than in any other part of Mexico, the Chiapas rebellion simmered, and it flared up again in 1545.

The Maya Rebellion of 1712 is unique because it was fueled, initially, by passions against religious persecution. Catholic Church;and Maya religion[Maya religion] In June of 1712, a thirteen-year-old girl, María López, daughter of a local church overseer, willingly admitted to witnessing an apparition of the Virgin Mary, Marian apparition which led to the formation of a local cult and its building of an unauthorized shrine at the site of the apparition. The local parish priest, Fray Simón, alerted Church authorities of the shrine and locally denounced the miracle. He proceeded to lash both López and her father, Augustin. López, however, held to her story, and, because she was martyred after being punished, her actions strengthened the cult’s resolve to resist the inevitable: a Spanish military response. Moreover, word spread about the apparition, and individuals in the region increasingly made pilgrimages to the shrine, creating a more pervasive and incendiary regional insurgence.

These events spawned a regional conspiracy originally consisting of five regional parish officeholders who, ultimately, became the rebel leaders of a burgeoning army of sorts, estimated at five thousand “soldiers of the virgin.” This army had murdered numerous Catholic priests who had attempted to hold fast to institutional procedure and philosophy. More fuel was provided to the movement, along with organizational structure, after the arrival of Sebastían Gómez, a Mayan Tzotzil from nearby San Pedro Chenalo, who transformed the resistance into an actual movement by claiming authority to ordain priests and bishops. He said that heavenly conversations with San Pedro (Saint Peter) gave him the power of ordination. The insurgency thereby was converted into a local version of a “protestant” phenomenon.

The cult reformed itself as the one true church and rejected the legitimacy of the existing Roman Catholic Church, but it did not reject Christianity. In the few months that remained of 1712, rebel bands established themselves to carry the fight to the Spanish, a fight that had been funded primarily by ransacking and pillaging regional church facilities; there was an October break, however, to bring in the harvest. The riches gained by these rebel bands were substantial and widely disparate, leading to considerable dissension between bands and paralyzing to some degree the force of the resistance.

The Spanish, numbering only about two hundred, were initially unable to extinguish the revolt. They were stationed in Ciudad Real, the Spanish administrative capital in this region of Chiapas. However, an effective Spanish counteroffensive began in August with a force of about five hundred troops, assembled from various regional militias, which laid siege to Huixtan, just east of Ciudad Real. Additional reinforcements sent from Guatemala City soon added strength to the Spanish offensive. Beginning in November of 1712, rebel bands and their leaders were beginning to face arrest, trial, and execution for what the Spanish regarded as treasonous crimes. Rebel bands were too overmatched to maintain their initial ferocity; indeed, most had been armed with wooden pikes and slingshots, clearly ineffective against superior Spanish arms. The original rebel leaders were able to continue to pester the Spanish by defying capture for another four months.

After further analysis, what seemed a popular uprising at the time appears to have been, however, the result of a local group of Mayan elites seizing the popular outrage over the treatment of María López and her father. The elites took advantage of the situation to reestablish themselves in the network among which tribute and taxes were traditionally distributed. The elites had been replaced in the network by principals in the Spanish colonial administration. The religious-based outrage provided the original fuel to the rebellion, but the longevity of the resistance among a few of the locals was attributable to those disenfranchised local elites desperately trying to regain lost wealth and power. In attempting to reassert their privileges within the militarized resistance, these elites served to dissolve ethnic solidarity. Thus, the majority of the rebels were subdued in a few months. Rebel solidarity was further fragmented by the subsequent formation of a rival cult around claims of yet another Marian apparition.

The unusual ferocity and tenacity encountered by the Spanish in this particular Mayan rebellion, nevertheless, was an eye-opening experience for the Spanish colonial administration. These factors can be attributed to the remoteness of this particular group of highland Mayan subcultures. Groups inhabiting areas nearby Ciudad Real, for example, or along connective routes with higher traffic volumes, encountered the Spanish much more frequently than did the remote highland groups participating in the 1712 rebellion. Consequently, they were more indoctrinated in accepting social relations between Spanish and the various indigenous groups, being more familiar with Spanish attitudes, behaviors, and institutions. The relatively remote highland groups benefited from a sense of unity, derived from similar lifestyles, against a common, culturally distinct, and oppressive enemy; a resistance similar to highland groups around the world.


The Maya Rebellion of 1712 was unprecedented in both scale and longevity, prompting the Spanish to revise their practices concerning Mexican Indian labor. Typically, uprisings were limited to single communities reacting to threats from outsiders. The rebellions were usually short-lived and were often leaderless because of their spontaneity, making them easy to overcome. The 1712 rebellion had many unusual elements, however, including ransacking and pillaging of Mexican Indians by Mexican Indians, the formation of a cult around internal leadership, and the importation of outside leadership to further incite and organize a large army. The 1712 rebellion also was unique because of its early religious focus. Furthermore, had that initial focus not been diluted by the corrupt influence of local elites, the rebellion’s impact may have been even more significant.

Also, the rebellion was a precursor to myriad small-scale rebellions of the latter half of the eighteenth century, as Mexican independence Mexican independence drew near. Rebels would come to articulate a vision of a new indigenous society with new leaders, institutions, rituals, and myths, powerful inspiration for later movements.

Further Reading

  • Gosner, Kevin, and Arij Ouweneel, eds. Indigenous Revolts in Chiapas and the Andean Highlands. Amsterdam: Centre for Latin American Research and Documentation, University of Amsterdam, 1996. A collection that explores the history of anticolonial uprisings and revolts in Chiapas as well as in the Andes of South America. Includes the chapter “Historical Perspectives on Maya Resistance: The Tzeltal Revolt of 1712.” Illustrations and bibliography.
  • _______. Soldiers of the Virgin: The Moral Economy of a Colonial Maya Rebellion. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1992. A detailed presentation of the main figures, events, and historical significance of the rebellion.
  • Grube, Nikolai, ed. Maya: Divine Kings of the Rain Forest. Cologne, Germany: Kónemann, 2001. A comprehensive, 480-page examination of the Maya of Mexico. Includes the chapter “Between Conformity and Rebellion: The Maya Society in the Colonial Period (1546-1811).” Illustrations, bibliography, and index.
  • Macleod, Murdo J., and Robert Wasserstrom, eds. Spaniards and Indians in Southeastern Mesoamerica: Essays on the History of Ethnic Relations. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1983. A more general approach to understanding relations between the Spanish and the Mexican Indians.
  • Wasserstrom, Robert. “Ethnic Violence and Indigenous Protest: The Tzeltal (Maya) Rebellion of 1712.” Journal of Latin American Studies 12 (1980): 1-19. Provides an additional perspective of the historical significance of the rebellion.

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Chiapas, Mexico
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Maya Rebellion of 1712