The Haciendas

After two hours of driving past abandoned mansions and expansive fields, I arrived at Sotuta de Peón to spend the day exploring a massive henequén hacienda.

The word hacienda has dual meaning: it refers to an estate or large tract of land, and also to a factory, plantation, or mine that is located on said large estate. Similar to the feudal system in Europe, haciendas in México were owned by the nobility, employed local peoples in agriculture and production, and formed the basis of the economic system for hundreds of years. Prior to haciendas, agriculture and mining were used to support the local population. Suddenly, with the arrival of the Spanish, the country had demand for its exports overseas.

While haciendas in México date as far back as the 16th century, they flourished from the 1800s to early 1900s. Those focused on producing agricultural products were prevalent.

With a minimum of 2500 acres, hacienda owners (called hacendados) couldn’t work their fields alone and brought in workers to live on and work at their estate. At first, these workers came from the surrounding areas. Then, to meet the growing demand for laborers, workers began to come from overseas. These large privately owned properties operated more like autonomous cities than businesses or farms; each had its own school, store, health facility, and chapel. The hacienda system reminded me of America’s southern tobacco and cotton plantations that functioned around the same time period. However, workers on the hacienda weren’t slaves, but were dependent on the hacendado, like a serf with his lord.

After falling into disuse in the early 1900s, most haciendas remained abandoned until the early 21st century, when many were restored to be used as hotels and restaurants. Located southeast of Mérida, Hacienda Sotuta de Peón has been restored to look and operate as it did circa 1900.

Each hacienda focused on cultivating or producing one crop or material, Sotuta de Peón’s primary focus was the production of henequén. In fact, this was the main product of the majority of haciendas in the Yucatán. Henequén is a fiber that’s harvested from leaves of agave plants and is used to make rope and twine. From cutting the spiky, fleshy leaves of the agave plant to the bale press, this multi-step process of turning plant to product has only slightly evolved since the 19th century.

In 1916, before the hacienda system began its rapid decline, the Yucatán had more than 200 factories for processing henequén. In the 1950s, with the invention of synthetic fibers, henequén production came to a virtual standstill. Today, there are fewer than 20 factories that produce henequén.

Fun Fact: Henequén is also called sisal, which comes from the name of the Yucatán port from which the henequén was often shipped out. Workers gathering the boxes of henequén in other countries saw the stamp “Sisal” and mistook the port’s name for the product inside.