The Women of Chichen Itza

March 8th, 2018 by ejalbright

Editor’s note:

I devote a chapter in my book about the “gringo” history of Chichen Itza to the “gringas.” It’s one of the longest chapters in the book and I could have written much, much more. The women who explored and tamed Chichen Itza were practical and capable, unlike many of the men, who were dreamers and, much of time, rash and foolish. The hubris of the early archaeologists and developers of Chichen is a major theme of the book, hence they get most of the ink (not to mention the book title).

One day the women of Chichen will get their respective due. As today is “International Women’s Day,” below is an excerpt from my chapter, covering the period of the late 1920s and 1930s and featuring Carmen Gomez Rul Castillo, Frances Morley, Anne Axtell Morris, and the unnamed “virgin” who talked her way out of sacrifice into the Sacred Well. The rest of the chapter covers Tatiana Proskouriakoff and Elva Legters, who were influential during that period. And the book is peppered with other women who played important roles during the discoveries and commercial development of Chichen Itza, including Alma Reed, Victoria (Marrufo) Manjarrez, Alice Le Plongeon, Adela Breton, Henrietta “Etta” Thompson, Carmen Barbachano y Gomez Rul, Isabel “Belisa” Barbachano Herrero, and Maruja Herrero Garcia.

From The Man Who Owned a Wonder of the World


the women of Chichén Itzá

FERNANDO BARBACHANO PEON may get the credit for building Yucatán’s tourism industry, but he did so in partnership with his wife, Carmen Gomez Rul Castillo. And hers arguably was the hardest job. She ran the Mayaland Hotel—trained and managed the staff, planned the menus, supervised any new construction—and did it all while caring for her five-year-old son, Fernando, and a newborn baby girl, Carmen Barbachano y Gomez Rul. While her husband was in Mérida building that end of the business, she was at Chichén insuring that her customers had every luxury and more importantly, were insulated from the reality of living in the bush—thriving scorpion populations, the occasional poisonous snake, and at least once, the majestic jaguar, whose wet paw prints were discovered on morning leading away from the hotel fountain.

For such a remote area almost exclusively inhabited by Maya and mestizos, white women called the shots. Not only Carmen (assisted by her aunt) at the Mayaland, but Sylvanus Morley’s second wife, Frances, was the true power next door at the Carnegie Institution’s headquarters at the Hacienda Chichén. “Vay” and Frances had met in Sante Fe in 1926 and, even though she was fifteen years his junior, Morley knew instantly he wanted to marry her. In March 1927 he brought her to Chichén Itzá and at sunset proposed to her atop El Castillo, twenty years to the day after he first visited Chichén Itzá. Frances became Morley’s guardian and micro-managed his life. During meals she would hover over her husband and hand him his napkin, put food on his plate, salt it, and even butter his bread. The two were the source of local gossip, the result of their non-stop public displays of affection—a taboo in conservative Yucatán where men courted women without even speaking to them or looking directly at them. “They often pull ears and sometimes kiss!” one observer noticed. The couple was so amorous, it became a bit of a joke by some of the archaeologists and visitors to Chichén Itzá. At one meal Morley leaned over to buss Frances and on cue all the other couples at the table simultaneously turned and kissed their partner. The table roared at its prank on Morley, but according to one of the witnesses to this event, “I do not remember that it reformed him.”

Between the Mayaland and the Hacienda Chichén was doña Victoria, who fed the Carnegie workers and later took in visitors. Her husband, Carlos Marrufo, and her sons frequently were away, leaving her run her little inn.

These three women had little interaction with each other; even though they lived within a few hundred feet of each other, their lives did not appear to intersect with any regularity.

Of the three, doña Carmen had the greatest challenge. While the Carnegie Institution refused to hire Maya as servants in the main house (considering them unfit for domestic service), doña Carmen had no such luxury. She depended upon local labor to clean the hotel rooms, work in the kitchen and laundry, and maintain the grounds. Few, if any, of those she hired had any experience at all. Her workers were farmers who grew maize or laborers who rebuilt the ancient Maya temples for the Carnegie. Or they were young girls hired from the villages and who wore huipils. They lived in Maya nas with packed dirt floors and hammocks in which to sleep. They had no experience cleaning buildings with tile floors and modern bathrooms. They had to be taught the proper way to strip a bed and then make it, even though they themselves would probably never spend a night in one over the course of their entire life. They had to be trained how to serve drinks in glasses filled with ice even though they drank from hollowed dry gourds. They learned to set a table with silverware, plate, and napkin, even though they had no use for such things for in their homes the tortilla served all those purposes and was edible to boot.

The biggest training challenge no doubt had to be to get the local men to accept orders from a woman, although at Chichén Itzá this may have been less of a problem because there had always been unusually empowered white women. For more than fifty years Chichén Itzá had attracted strong-willed gringas, such as Alice Le Plongeon in the 1870s and 1880s, Adela Breton after the turn of the century, and Edward Thompson’s wife Henrietta. These women endured the same hardships as their male counterparts, but it is the men who received most of the credit for the discoveries and accomplishments. It is a tradition that reached back to the ancient Maya of Chichén. The oral history of Maya regarding Chichén is filled with exploits of men, such as man-as-god Kululcan, or the three brothers who legend had it together ruled the ancient city, or of the king of Mayapan, Hunac Ceel, who conquered it. But the hieroglyphs found on some of the walls at Chichén Itzá refer to women. There are glyphs in Akab Dzib which describe at one prominent woman, the mother of a dynastic ruler, although in her case the world of men still intrude as her name has been translated as “Lady Penis.”

The only oral legends that mentioned women at Chichén Itzá were about those who were sacrificed into the Cenote Sagrado, but there was one well known story of the woman who said, “no.” Like the other sacrifice victims before her, this woman was led into the little shrine at the lip of the Sacred Well where the priests explained that she would be lowered by a long rope into the cenote thirty meters below and dunked repeatedly until she encountered the gods, or until she died, whichever came first. If the gods came to her, they told her to ask for rain. “I will ask no such thing,” she said. Instead she would tell the gods to send no maize or anything at all. “The boldness and assurance of that virgin in her speech had so great an effect that they left her and sacrificed another in her place,” according to a Spanish monk who documented the tale.

A millennium later, another strong-willed woman Ann Axtell Morris ventured into Sacred Cenote, not as a sacrifice but of her own free will. She lived at the Hacienda Chichén for several years assisting her husband Earl with his excavations of the ancient monuments for the Carnegie. She eventually became a skilled excavator in her own right, in addition to her work as a staff artist. According to Axtell Morris, there were two types of archaeologist wives: Those who stayed at home and those who joined their husbands on their expeditions. Of the latter, acceptance among the husband’s archaeology colleagues had to be earned. “The poor newcomer who presumes to break into the sacrosanct circle must stand trial by fire, till it is decided she is all right,” Axtell Morris once observed.

Axtell Morris possessed those ephemeral qualities that she believed made her “all right.” Crazy, but not too crazy; hard-boiled about facts, but still retained a “will-o’-the-wispish flair”; unbothered by ants in the oatmeal or other discomforts; perceived indigenous people, past and present, as something more than the stereotypical savage; “finally it is imperative to consider a skeleton as a very lucky find, and not as a dead human being.”

One afternoon in the late 1920s, Axtell Morris, her husband, and two other men wanted an adventure to escape the tedium of archaeology. They found they could reach the waters of the Cenote Sagrado by climbing down a tree that was growing on a ledge about halfway down the cliff. They made it the rest of the way by shinnying down one of the tree’s thick, exposed roots that stretched to what Axtell Morris described as a “small beach.” She apparently did not know the beach was man-made, the tailings left behind by Thompson’s famous dredge two decades earlier. As they stood on Thompson’s Beach, the quartet marveled at the thought that under the jade green waters was a fortune in Mayan treasure.

The four spent the afternoon lazily swimming the cenote. When the sun disappeared over the lip, the shade gave the appearance that twilight was only a few minutes away. The party hurriedly dressed on the beach and one by one the men climbed up the root, then up the tree and out of the cenote. They threw down the end of a rope and instructed Axtell Morris to tie it around her waist as a safety harness. Morris, unaccustomed to ropes and knots, put too much slack in the loop around her body. As she crawled up the tree root, the oversized noose began to slip over her head. She panicked, let go of the tree root and grabbed the rope with both hands. The three men had no choice but to haul her up, unceremoniously banging her repeatedly against the wall of the cenote.

Morris wrote that she remembered nothing of the ascent. She could not let go of the rope once she was topside and the men had to pry it from her fingers—not unlike those women of centuries past that legend claimed also were pulled from the cenote. Once she regained her senses, she found the world above was now “beautiful beyond anything I had ever imagined,” she wrote. “For those few minutes, the scales of the commonplace fell from my eyes, and I saw the earth and loved it, in the manner one should.”

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