The Yaqui – Conflictual History of One of Our Many Nations

Reforma: Lorenzo Meyer
Translated by Penn Tomassetti



Mexican society has a complaint, and with good reason, because of the brutality of what has taken place in Tlatlaya and Ayotzinapa. It ought to react also against certain actions taken by the authorities in relation to what has happened and is happening in the Yoemem region, that is, of the Yaqui tribe.

Nation-building is full of violence. Many nationalities have built themselves up at the cost of others. Mexico is not the exception and the Yaquis are one example. Today, the dispute over water has caused “the Yaqui problem” to re-emerge in Sonora. A leader of this ethnic group, Mario Luna, from the town of Vicam, is in prison. He maintains that his imprisonment is explained by his opposition to the removal of water from his community. In contrast, the local government says it is for stealing a car and temporarily depriving the owner of his freedom. This is one more episode in the difficult historical relationship between the nation and the Yoeme and the system of power that reigns in the rest of the country, in the great nation.


The “Yaqui problem” or the “Yaqui’s problem with the rest of Mexico” goes back a long way, from the difficult relationship between Yaquis, Jesuits and colonial authorities. The tension, which sharpened in the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century, and its consequences linger on. The last episode of the contradiction between what survives of the Yaqui nation and the government of Sonora revolves around the Independence Aqueduct, a local government project made to take water from the El Novillo dam and to stock Hermosillo. The Yaquis maintain that this aqueduct, which was built by a governor who has his own lake on his ranch “Pozo Nuevo” [“New Well”], infringes on the tribe’s right to 50% of the water from the Yaqui river, according to the 1940 ruling from President Cárdenas.


The concept of nation does not have a single definition, though a simple dictionary definition is useful for our purposes: a nation is a social group that possesses a sense of identity, has a shared historical experience and substantial cultural elements and that for the most part inhabits an identifiable geographic area.

By 1821, the Yaquis already possessed all the attributes of a small nation, since, during the colonial era and under the control of the Jesuits, they formed a solid community structure and a strong sense of ethnic identity that was accentuated after the Jesuits left. With Mexican independence and the power vacuum that followed, the Yaqui organization was strengthened. It clashed head on with liberal politicians from the national government and the ambitions of foreign interests that wanted their lands, waterways and labor. The outcome was a series of rebellions and alliances with other indigenous and white groups.

The Yaqui historiography is extensive. There are some very useful works that can help in understanding the tensions of the last two centuries in the regions between the Yaqui and Mayo rivers, such as those by Héctor Cuauhtémoc Hernández, Insurgencia y autonomía: Historia de los pueblos yaquis, 1821-1910 [Insurgency and Autonomy: History of the Yaqui People,
1821-1910], (CIESAS, 1996); or the doctoral thesis by Ana Luz Ramírez on the relationship between Yaquis and the regime that emerged from the Mexican Revolution (The College of Mexico, 2014).

At the moment of New Spain’s disintegration and the beginning of the difficult construction of the Mexican State, the Yaquis lived in full autonomy, but it did not last. The government of Sonora was always divided in the 19th century, but desirous to impose its political and military authority over all the territory and on its own terms. That increased the appetite for Yaqui resources — land, water and labor — and led the relationship among the eight Yaqui towns and the State authority to waver between negotiations, mutual recognition and head-on collision. From that collision emerged political-military-religious men that are already a part of the regional history as well as national history: Juan Banderas and his movement (1825-1833), Cajeme and Tetabiate at the end of the century.

When the Mexican State finally consolidated at the national level in the Porfiriato [rule of Porfirio Díaz, 1876-1911], great colonizing businesses emerged, like the company Constructora Richardson, which obtained 400 thousand hectares in the Yaqui area. It was then that the government opted for a "final solution" to the problem — mass deportation to Yucatan and Veracruz in order to disperse the Yaqui nation. At the outbreak of the 1910 Revolution, some Yaquis joined the revolutionaries but others remained in rebellion and the new regime decided to combine repression (the Lencho massacre in 1917) with assimilation, deportations and military-agricultural colonies, where they gave lands, assets and certain autonomy to the Yaquis in exchange for loyalty.

In 1926, under pressure from the expansion of "modern" foreign economic interests in the land, the Yaquis joined the remaining “De la huertistas” [followers of Sonoran governor Adolfo de la Huerta, who
led a successful coup detat´against President Venustiano Carranza in
1920 and a failed one against Álvaro Obregon in 1923
] and carried out one last great rebellion. The federal government, controlled by Sonorans, followed the harsh policy of the old regime and proposed, according to Ana Luz Ramírez, "the cultural extermination of the Yaquis" which included aerial attacks and even suggested using poisonous gas against them (pp. 146-174).

Defeated, deportations of the Yaquis continued in 1927. The arrival of “Cardenismo” [Presidency of Lázaro Cárdenas, 1934-40] and the marginalization of “Callismo” [rule by President Plutarco Elias Calles, 1924-28, and as "El Maximato, from 1928-34] was necessary so that the Mexican president could meet with the Yaqui governors and give them back a part of their lands and water.


The historic charge of Mexico’s relationship with the Yaqui nation is enormous and must be at the center of all negotiations between that nation and the rest of the country.


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