La Cultura de Mexico: Alma Reed and Felipe Carrillo Puerto: Tragic Romance of the Yucatan
Felipe Carrillo Puerto, progressive governor of the Yucatan in 1922, and San Francisco journalist Alma Reed are two names forever linked to Yucatan history. Their romance fueled pages in newspapers on both sides of the border, but the unlikely outcome of this very public romance enlisted all the elements of Greek tragedy.
Alma Reed was born in San Francisco in 1889. She became one of San Francisco’s first women reporters. As an advocate for the poor and oppressed, Reed assisted a Mexican family in commuting the death sentence of their 17-year old son in 1921. The story was picked up by the Mexican press and due to heightened publicity, Mexico President Alvero Obregon invited Reed to visit Mexico.
In Mexico she reported for The New York Times and was sent to meet Edward Thompson, the leading archeologist excavating Chichen Itza. During this visit, Reed met Felipe Carrillo Puerto, dynamic governor of the State of Yucatan.
Carrillo had commissioned a road to be built from Merida to Chichen Itza, opening the budding archeological site to both tourists and scientists. To commemorate the event, he’d organized a ceremony inviting North American journalists and archeologists.
After touring Chichen Itza, Reed and the entourage of reporters and archeologists went on to Uxmal. It was during this leg of the journey that she and Carrillo got acquainted. Reed was instantly fascinated with Carrillo who had been called both a Bolshevik and a Marxist for his sweeping reforms in the Yucatan.
In an interview, Carrillo explained the Yucatan had been inhabited by 100 powerful families dating back to 1542 when Merida was founded by Frances Montejo. These wealthy landowners were little more than slave masters, notorious for their cruel treatment of the Maya. On Montejo’s palace in Merida’s main plaza, the family crest –a foot planted firmly on the head of a Maya slave–was repeated the length of the building, Carrillo told her.
In 1910 Carrillo had fought alongside Emiliano Zapata in Central Mexico and had taken Zapata’s battle cry, Tierra y Liberdad, (land and liberty) as his own. Back in the Yucatan, Carrillo initiated multifold reforms. Claiming part Maya, part Creole heritage, he organized feminist leagues in Merida that established legalized birth control and the first family planning clinics in the western hemisphere.
His reforms included programs for emancipation and he developed the restoration of the communal village that had been stolen under the Diaz dictatorship. He translated the Mexican constitution into Maya so the people of the Yucatan knew their rights.
It was no wonder that Alma Reed named him the Abraham Lincoln of Mexico. As a liberal herself, she agreed with his reforms. She was smitten. But as a divorcee and a Catholic, she tried to ignore the feelings she was developing for this married father of four. She left for the U.S. vowing never to return, hoping to severe ties in what was becoming amor calido (romance of the steam) as the locals put it.
Two months later, however, The New York Times sent her packing back to Mexico to cover an archeology scandal that involved Edward Thompson. She had a job to do.
On her second round in Mexico, Reed fell hard for Carrillo as he did for her. In the ultimate taboo, Carrillo divorced his wife so he could become engaged to Alma Reed. He had a romantic love song, La Peregrina (The Pilgrim), composed for her.
It seemed a match made in heaven. The two idealists prepared for their wedding that would take place in San Francisco. Reed hastened back to the U.S. to make arrangements before her permanent move to Mexico.
Shortly after her departure to the U.S., however, another revolution looked imminent. Fighting had broken out in the Yucatan, and henequen planters and hacendados were trying to overthrow Carrillo. President Obregon’s right hand man, de la Huerta, was opposing him and as Carrillo backed Obregon, he was at risk. Carrillo was forced to find guns to fight both the planters and de la Huerta’s forces. He now had a $250,000 reward on his head.
Carrillo went by night to the coast with three brothers and six friends as guards. Just as they waded out to the launch that would take them to New Orleans where they’d acquire firearms for the new revolution, the captain signaled to soldiers lying in wait on shore. The soldiers rowed out and captured Carrillo who told his small group not to fight, but to go peacefully.
De la Huerta’s forces took them back to Merida, jailed them for the night and in the morning said they would arraign them. Carrillo refused to make a plea as he was the governor of the state and refused to recognize a kangaroo court. He was condemned and on Janurary 3, 1924, was taken to Merida Cemetery where he, his brothers and friends were lined up against the wall to await the firing squad. The first round of volleys was sent over their heads, as the soldiers did not want to kill them, so fiercely loyal were the Yucatecans to Carrillo.
The commander shouted that those soldiers were to be shot, and over the dead bodies of the first soldiers, Carrillo, brothers and friends were executed as they stood with their backs against the cemetery wall.
Alma Reed, who had been alerted in San Francisco that trouble was imminent, heard the news shortly afterwards that Carrillo had died in the Yucatan, a martyr’s death. He was 49.
Reed insisted on returning to Merida to see the spot where Carrillo fell. She stayed but briefly in the Yucatan, and on arriving back to New York, was sent on an assignment to Carthage to explore more ancient ruins. She would never marry again but would continue to lead a life of adventure. Her reporting took her from Carthage to Delphi and back to Mexico where she helped establish the artist Jose Clemente Orozco’s reputation.
One of Reed’s fears was that Obregon had a hand in killing Carrillo. He had, after all, assassinated Zapata after luring him to a truce meeting. Reed thought Carrillo’s radicalism may have aroused opposition from the Mexican president, but she could never prove the link.
The pueblo of Chan Santa Cruz, south of Tulum, changed its name to honor the Yucatan governor, and now goes by the name Felipe Carrillo Puerto. Alma Reed died in Mexico City, November, 1966, while undergoing surgery. She was 77.
Jeanine Kitchel is the author of Where the Sky is Born: Living in the Land of the Maya, and the upcoming nonfiction book, Maya 2012 Revealed, Demystifying the Prophecy, which will be out in May as an e-book. Contact the author through her website, http://www.jeaninekitchel.com.
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