Indigenous Dispossession
Housing and Maya Indebtedness in Mexico
M. Bianet Castellanos



Indigenous Cancún

TO PLAN A CITY into being is a formidable task of the imagination. In the mid-1960s, a group of Mexican bankers conceived the idea of building a city that would attract mass tourism to Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula. Cancún was considered first and foremost an economic investment. But constructing this international tourist center involved more than building infrastructure and recruiting settlers. It also entailed narrating a beginning and a future that made it possible to erase a past. Cancun: Fantasy of Bankers, the first history of Cancún, written by Mexican journalist Fernando Martí, captures these foundational fictions in the following description of Cancún:1

[A] group of bankers conceived an absurd project: found a tourism city in dense jungle with the basic idea of capturing foreign exchange. The plan appeared to have neither head nor feet. As the site of their utopia, the bankers had chosen the Territory of Quintana Roo, geographically and logistically the furthest and most forbidding area in the nation, 2,000 kilometers from Mexico City and without a single international airport. The beaches selected were 200 kilometers from the nearest city, barely accessible by jeep paths snaking through swamps. Any reasonable observer could have confronted this group with a judicious question or two. Where, for example, were the half a million people needed to colonize the city going to come from in the little that remained of this century? That was the figure envisioned in the preliminary outline, but the document lacked a master colonization plan. The colonists would have to come voluntarily, arriving in the zone spontaneously. (1991, 7)

The bankers first propagated the fiction of an untouched “paradise,” a tropical “utopia” (Martí 1991, 7, 18). In 1968, representing the Bank of Mexico, Antonio Enríquez Savignac and Ernesto Fernández Hurtado traveled Mexico’s coastline until they arrived at Punta Cancún, in the Territory of Quintana Roo, proclaiming it “paradise itself” (quoted in Martí 1991, 18). This territory was considered an “abandoned frontier” and was not granted statehood until 1974 (Dachary 1998, 399). Attracted by the miles of coastline, the lack of development, and the positive results of state-led feasibility studies, Enríquez Savignac and Fernández Hurtado considered it perfect for tourist investment (Martí 1991, 18).2 Enríquez Savignac, who later served as secretary of tourism under President Miguel de la Madrid (1982–88), explained, “Cancun [sic] is a Mexican development, conceived, planned, constructed and administered by Mexicans. This is important because it is the world’s first tourism development from a base of zero . . . Cancun is a Mexican triumph” (quoted in Martí 1991, 9). Cancún was simultaneously imagined as terra nullius, a blank slate ready to be occupied, and as a tourist haven ready to be molded into a bustling city and an investment hub. By declaring themselves the masterminds behind this tourist “utopia” and economic success, Enríquez Savignac and Fernández Hurtado reinforced the fiction of a vacuous, undeveloped land.

Such an empty and geographically isolated space could only be civilized by the “spontaneous” arrival of half a million settlers (Martí 1991, 7). This narrative propagated the second fiction, of Cancún as a modern city made up of settlers. Unlike the colonial city of Mérida, which was built atop the thriving Maya ceremonial and sociopolitical center (kah) of Tihó, Cancún did not supplant a flourishing precolonial city.3 The name Cancún was derived from the island of Cancun [sic], which would become permanently tethered to the mainland with the construction of the tourist center (see map).4 The ceremonial centers of El Rey, San Miguel, Pok-ta-Pok, Punta Nizuc, Punta Ni’Kú, El Meco, and Koxolnah, located in and near Cancún, were not impressive or expansive enough to make them focal points for tourism (C. J. Walker 2009). Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History (Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia or INAH) did not begin excavating these ceremonial centers until after the city had been planned and hotel construction already begun (Con Uribe 2005).5 As for the fishing community that predated the tourist center, it became a historical footnote to the founding of a modern metropolis. Architect Javier Solórzano drafted an urban plan to build a city, a hotel zone, and an airport. This plan neither acknowledged nor incorporated Maya fishermen and campesinos (peasants) who were recruited to form a veritable army of labor necessary to transform the landscape and to service tourists. Cancún’s origin story hailed a future of a bustling metropole of settlers, tourists, and foreign dollars. As a result, Cancún’s designation as a modern city severed its connection to a history of colonialism.

Cancún became a city without a past—the third fiction. The first posters advertising Cancún showcased empty beaches and tourists at play (Castellanos and Córdoba Azcárate, forthcoming). What is erased in this telling is the historical and contemporary presence of Maya people, the original inhabitants who prior to Spanish colonization built major urban centers like El Meco and who postconquest inhabit the towns and villages that dot the Yucatán Peninsula. In the few instances when Maya people are mentioned, they are depicted as transitory, as itinerant travelers. One popular poster stated: “This is Cancún. Where the Maya summered 1,000 years ago. Now you can live this world. CANCÚN. The new and millennial world of the Mexican Caribbean” (Martí 1991, 49). These words were imposed over the image of an empty, pristine beach, marred by a set of footprints, soon to be swept away by the incoming tide, reinforcing the narrative of a vanishing people. The preservation of the precolonial history of Cancún did not form part of the city’s origin stories, although it has now been given a more prominent place with the 2012 opening of the Maya Museum (Museo Maya de Cancún).6 Nor was Maya people’s active resistance to predation under colonial and revolutionary governments acknowledged. In 1847, Maya rebels led one of the most successful Indigenous insurrections in the Americas, known as the Caste War, cementing this region’s reputation in the popular imagination as “forbidding” and untamed (Reed 1964).7 Tapped for their cheap labor and rich culture, Maya people played a foundational role in building and branding Cancún, which I discuss in detail in my book A Return to Servitude (2010a). Indigenous peoples currently make up one-third of Cancún’s population.8 Yet popular narratives of Cancún’s origins—as a pristine “paradise,” as a deserted island, as a “promised land,” as “devoid of culture,” as a “banker’s fantasy,” as a tourist site selected by a computer algorithm—consign Indigenous peoples to the past or efface them altogether.9 Maya families residing in or near Punta Cancún at the time of Enríquez Savignac’s visit, if mentioned at all, have been relegated to a few pages, while ejidos (communal landholdings) have been expunged from this history. Not surprisingly, Joaquín González Castro, mayor of Cancún from 1984 to 1987, described Cancún as “a mosaic and a laboratory. There are no natives here. We’re all immigrants” (quoted in Martí 1991, 9). Rendering Cancún as terra nullius replete with vanishing Indians made it possible to reenvision Cancún as a modernist city. This strategy calls forth settler colonial logics of Indigenous elimination and displacement that aim to replace Indigenous peoples with settlers, logics that have dominated Anglophone imperial projects but have yet to be fully examined in Latin American colonialism.10

MAP 2. City of Cancún. Courtesy of Mike Foster of the University of Minnesota Cartography Lab.

In this new technocratic social order, Indigenous histories are severed from modern urbanism and international finance. Historian Coll Thrush reminds us that urban centers are key sites of Indigenous dispossession and constitute the “grounds of settler colonialism” (2016, 15). Consigning Cancún to the status of modern metropolis occludes the colonial and settler colonial logics and technologies instrumental in shaping this city. Indeed, the myth of Cancún as a tropical utopia and investment “triumph” is a legacy of colonial and settler colonial projects.11 The city of Cancún operates on the backs of Indigenous labor and is built upon land that was dispossessed from Indigenous people. In spite of these seizures, this land continues to form part of Indigenous collective traditions and historical memory. Placing the city outside of the nexus of relations—community, spatial, environmental, temporal, spiritual—masks the violent permutations of settler colonial discourse and governance (Dorries et al. 2019; Ramirez 2007a; Tang 2015). It also dismisses Indigenous peoples’ active engagement with urban life, which has spurred a resurgence of intertribal identities and renewed efforts to demand urban land justice and claim rights to the city (Carpio 2011; Fixico 2000; Horn 2019; Lobo and Peters 2001; Negrín 2019). Centering the metropole as an Indigenous space reveals settler colonial policies and planning practices as racialized and discriminatory tactics that discipline and marginalize Indigenous peoples (Hugill 2019; Jackson, Porter, and Johnson 2018; Porter and Barry 2016; Walker, Jojola, and Natcher 2013).12

Heeding Thrush’s call for a recovery of Indigenous histories as constitutive of the making of the metropole, this book begins by asserting Cancún as an Indigenous space. Acknowledging the entanglements of race and colonialism (in its varied manifestations) with modern urbanism calls attention to Indigenous urbanism as a crucial project of modern nation making and global capitalism. In highlighting Indigenous urbanism in relation to contemporary city spaces, I do not proclaim that urbanism is new, nor is it a singular experience for Indigenous peoples. Jack Forbes (2001) reminds us that Indigenous peoples have lived in urban centers since ancient times, as evidenced by the Maya city-states that dominated the Yucatán Peninsula prior to colonialism.13 Maya peoples also have been highly mobile.14 What is explored here is Indigenous people’s relation to contemporary urbanism. In the case of cities built on Indigenous lands, as is the case with Cancún, we need to account for Indigenous place-making strategies and Indigenous belonging as integral parts of urbanism. United Nations Human Settlements Programme estimates that 87 percent of Latin America will be urban by 2050 (UN-Habitat 2012). Indigenous peoples form a key part of this urban migration. In Mexico, one-third of the Indigenous population lives in cities (Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada, 2008).

I rely on migration as a framework by which to capture the fluidity of Indigenous mobility across the Yucatán Peninsula. As Indigenous people move to cities, they may be positioned as settlers by the state and other institutions. Since my inquiry focuses on rural-urban migration within the peninsula, a region that is the traditional homeland of (Yucatec) Maya people, I do not frame Maya people as “settlers.” Instead, I consider how Maya people engage these (re)positionings to demand rights to land and dignity. Indigenous peoples’ understandings of space, territory, settlement, and environmental sustainability are increasingly being (un)settled by global economic recessions and neoliberal economic reforms throughout Latin America (Goodale and Postero 2013; Postero 2006; Sawyer 2004; Stephen 2013;).15 Reframing the Latin American city through Indigenous experience follows the example of projects like Detours (Aikau and Vicuña Gonzalez 2019) that have produced decolonial guides to cityscapes that unearth the multilayered cultural geographies created by sovereign and autonomous Indigenous peoples and their diasporas.16 These projects unsettle cities by disrupting the discovery narratives, imperial fantasies, and foundational fictions that have guided how we see and imagine Indigenous homelands. I aim to do similar work with the city of Cancún.

This book attends to contemporary Maya people’s experiences with land and housing in Cancún. Specifically, it examines Indigenous homeownership as an urbanizing experience that is intimately connected to a history of debt and dispossession and to new emerging financial markets. Since 2000, the Mexican government has promoted homeownership for its working poor, making “housing reform” a central component of its economic reforms.17 Tract housing has become synonymous with economic development, generating a billion-dollar industry. The national push to move away from land reform and promote the tract house as symbolic of national belonging is transforming Indigenous peoples’ relationship to land, urbanism, and finance. Through an ethnography of Maya migrants living in Cancún, one of Mexico’s fastest growing cities, I examine how migrants make sense of the cultural, political, and legal ramifications of neoliberal housing policies that privilege mortgage finance over land redistribution. For Indigenous peoples, access to affordable housing is crucial to alleviating poverty. Yet Maya people have long associated debt with a history of debt peonage and land with freedom and autonomy. As palapas (traditional thatch and wood houses) are supplanted by thousands of tract houses, Maya migrants have learned to embrace debt and financial risk (fig. 1). I examine how this cultural shift and new aspirations transform Indigenous subjectivities, gender relations, and a tradition of collective landownership. How do these new aspirations overlap or come into conflict with market transitions and failures? How do Indigenous migrants withstand the racial and gender violence endemic to such transitions?

The central argument of this book is that as Indigenous migrants move to cities, they are no longer treated as Indigenous and instead become deracialized subjects who are disciplined through neoliberal instruments of debt, like mortgage finance and credit cards, leading to greater economic precarity and a loss of autonomy from the state. Maya migrants’ struggles to own a home reveal the colonial and settler colonial structures underpinning the city’s economy, built environment, and racial order. As they grapple with predatory lending and foreclosure, Maya families cultivate strategies of resistance, from “waiting out” the state to demanding recognition as Indigenous people in urban centers. Through these maneuvers, Maya migrants forge a new vision of Indigenous urbanism that counters a discourse of urban malaise and articulates dignity with democracy.

FIGURE 1. From palapa to tract housing. Photograph by author.

In the Wake of Wilma and Other Calamities

Finding housing in Cancún has always been a challenge, especially as the half a million settlers became a reality. This book was driven by Maya migrants’ preoccupation with finding affordable urban housing following the national shift away from land redistribution. Specifically, I focus on the period beginning in the year 2000 and concluding in January 2020, a couple of months prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. Migrants featured in this book come from the rural ejido of “Kuchmil,” Yucatán. I use a pseudonym for this village and its residents to protect people’s privacy and in deference to this community’s valid concerns and fears over working with institutional actors, be they government officials or anthropologists.18 In Kuchmil, land is valued as more than a commodity: it forms part of a moral economy that regulates social relations, protects sacred spaces, and fosters sustainable ecologies (Castellanos 2010b).19 As prefabricated tract houses in social housing developments were marketed as an affordable option to the city’s housing shortage, Maya migrants encountered a new property regime beset by a host of new bureaucracies and financial regulations, what I refer to as “housing reform.” I began studying these reforms to help migrants negotiate Cancún’s shifting land policies and real estate market, especially in the wake of Hurricane Wilma in 2005. The hurricane severely damaged homes that were built with recycled and traditional materials, like wood and thatch, prompting Maya families to question the durability of self-built homes. It’s important to note that not all Maya families were willing to forgo procuring land to take on a mortgage. Many spoke critically of this system. By 2012, I was able to devote my time to investigating how Maya migrants were faring under housing reform, why some families were willing to take on debt, and why others were set against it. After that, I returned annually to conduct ethnographic research, but the bulk of the research was collected when I spent five months in Cancún in 2015. The book is based on over fifty interviews I conducted with Maya migrants, developers, mortgage lenders, government officials, activists, nonprofit organizations, and homeowners. I refer to public officials, mortgage lenders, and developers by name, unless they requested to remain anonymous. To understand the government’s housing reform campaign, I analyze print media, including newspapers and advertisements. To understand Cancún’s housing demographics and population dynamics, I analyze economic and census data.

Writing a book about how people manage their money and deal with financial crises takes trust. Before immigrating to the United States, my parents belonged to an ejido in the Mexican state of Colima. Listening to their stories and visiting with my aunts and uncles who remain members of the ejido instilled a respect for the land and the ejido. This fact helped establish my credibility as more than a mere gringa (foreigner) and anthropology student when I first arrived in Kuchmil in 1991. What began as an undergraduate research project under the guidance of anthropologists James Fox and Renato Rosaldo became a lifelong commitment to engage and collaborate with Kuchmil and its diaspora as its people endeavor to resist dispossession and maintain their autonomy. Over the years, this rapport has matured into deep and abiding friendships. Migrants were willing to speak frankly with me about their financial lives, personal dreams, and social commitments because of this longstanding collaboration and mutual regard. Nonetheless, I am cognizant of the imperial legacies and the power and privilege that continually shape these interactions.20

Migrants were careful to remind me that not all their stories were intended for public consumption. To protect my interlocutors’ privacy and following Linda Tuhiwai Smith’s decolonial approach to research (2012), I acknowledge and support Indigenous people’s right to determine what information can be circulated to a wider audience. What I share here are the aspects of their lives Maya migrants are willing to make public. In exchange, Maya migrants asked me to serve as an intermediary as they navigated new systems of finance. They understood that, as a Western-based scholar with access to government officials and developers, I was positioned to get answers to their pending concerns over mortgage defaults and foreclosure and eviction proceedings. Instead of speaking on the behalf of Maya migrants, I organized workshops where migrants could pose their own questions about housing inequities. In conjunction with the Office of the Federal Attorney for the Consumer (Procuraduría Federal del Consumidor or PROFECO), I organized a financial literacy workshop on credit cards in January 2015. This was the first time PROFECO had held a workshop for Indigenous consumers in Cancún. I also worked with the National Commission for the Protection and Defense of Users of Financial Services (Comisión Nacional para la Protección y Defensa de los Usuarios de Servicios Financieros or CONDUSEF) to organize a workshop on foreclosures, but it was canceled after the state delegate unexpectedly stepped down from his position.

My aim to work in collaborative partnership with Indigenous communities is informed by Indigenous feminists’ call for a decolonizing praxis that is territorially specific and challenges settler heteropatriarchy and settler capitalism (Arvin, Tuck, and Morrill 2013; Baldy 2018; J. Barker 2017; Green 2017; Ramirez 2007a; L. B. Simpson 2017; Smith 2012; Speed 2019). With a feminist psychologist, Dr. Liliana Moreno Lucero, I organized a gender workshop for Maya women who sought new tools for combating oppression against Indigenous women. As the leaders of land and housing struggles, Maya women face racial and gender violence. The two-day workshop created a space where Indigenous women shared stories and worked to heal from the trauma enacted by institutional racism, gender inequities, and state violence. I agreed not to circulate the intimate disclosures generated by this workshop, but I reference it here because we must be mindful of the ways race, class, and gender as interrelated systems of settler violence shape Indigenous women’s lives and buttress the worlds of finance and urban planning.

My positionality as a Mexican-born feminist scholar trained in the United States has also deeply shaped this book. The questions I asked were grounded in a feminist praxis. Yet whom I could pose these questions to was delimited by my brown body and my privilege as a US academic. While Maya migrants generously agreed to talk with me about their experiences purchasing homes and land in Cancún because of my longstanding relationship with their community, I encountered many of the difficulties associated with “studying up” (Nader 1972). To understand the philosophies and promotional strategies of the administrators of mortgage banks and housing development agencies, I interviewed government administrators, land developers, and loan officers. Government administrators and land developers were willing to meet with me to talk about their “vision” for urban development in Cancún. The mortgage bank administrators and loan officers, in contrast, were evasive. I made numerous calls to set up appointments with the administrators of these private companies, only to be stood up or handed off to a lower-level administrator who could not answer my questions. I sat for hours in reception areas hoping to catch a word with administrators, but they were always too busy or had “too much work.” What I share here is a partial accounting of Indigenous land and housing struggles, but one that I hope will generate a greater investment in understanding Indigenous urbanisms.

Indigenous Dispossession

This book is a deliberation on Indigenous dispossession. Indigeneity is a relational and historical category deployed by governments and capital to justify dispossession, produce difference, and solidify empires (Byrd 2011; O’Brien 2010; Vimalassery, Hu Pegues, and Goldstein 2016). This approach acknowledges that colonialism is not a monolithic project but comprises ideological and historical formations shaped by social, racial, and economic structures (Mignolo 2005; Quijano 2000; Wolfe 1999). By displacing Indigenous peoples and in some places eliminating them altogether, colonialism(s) became space-making projects that transformed geographic and social landscapes through acts of violence, genocide, and terror (Saldaña-Portillo 2016). In the process, indigeneity—that is, the cultural, political, and racial representations of being Indigenous—became a marker to construct difference by distinguishing settlers from Indigenous peoples and by creating the categories of the indio (Indian), mestizo (mixed race Indian and Spaniard) and criollo/creole (a person born in the Americas) (e.g., Jackson 2012).21 These distinctions asserted and reinforced power differentials that determined who could own land and who received the benefits of full citizenship.

The shift from colonialism to nationalism did not conclude this history of radical alterity and dispossession. Inspired by liberal ideologies of equality and political sovereignty, independence from Spain has been immortalized in Latin America as a move from colonial subjugation to liberation. As the colonial systems regulating Indigenous lives were dismantled (like repartimiento and encomiendas), Indigenous communities faced new strategies of containment and elimination.22 Land usurpation became central to nation-building projects and remains so under neoliberal regimes. In contemporary Mexico, state efforts to promote property rights and homeownership are tied to a long history of dispossession. To draw out these connections, I apply Indigenous dispossession as a framework that articulates the longue durée of colonial and settler colonial projects with Indigenous people’s contemporary experiences with land loss under neoliberal regimes. Analyses of contemporary Indigenous dispossession have been understood primarily through a political and legal framework.23 In her study of Indigenous women in US detention centers, for example, Shannon Speed (2019) demonstrates how the neoliberal settler state continues to rely on tactics of elimination and dispossession. Other studies highlight the active role of Indigenous peoples in theorizing dispossession.24 For example, Jodi Byrd reminds us that “Indigenous peoples must be central to any theorization of the conditions of postcoloniality, empire, and death-dealing regimes that arise out of Indigenous lands” (2011, xiv). This book focuses primarily on Indigenous people’s understanding of and engagement with dispossession in urban settings. It considers how Indigenous conceptions of home and property draw upon historical memory to produce a situated understanding of loss and autonomy in an era of increasing urbanization and financialization.

This book maps out the convergence of colonial and settler colonial projects to examine Indigenous dispossession in Mexico, and thus extends my previous analysis on settler colonialism in Latin America in American Quarterly (2017). Settler colonialism is a form of colonialism that is predicated on Indigenous dispossession and elimination (Wolfe 1999). Primarily associated with the Anglophone world, settler colonialism has rarely been discussed in relation to Latin America.25 Instead, regimes of colonialism in the Americas were distinguished by their method of dispossession, as rooted in either land or labor expropriation: US settler colonialism was premised on land extraction, Indigenous elimination, and settler occupation, whereas colonialism in Latin America was based on the extraction of Indigenous labor. This paradigm prompted a reluctance to apply a settler colonial framework to Latin America (Sánchez and Pita 2014; Saldaña-Portillo 2016). Recent works questioning this paradigm, conducted by myself, Juan Castro, Richard Gott, Lourdes Gutiérrez Nájera, Korinta Maldonado, Baron Pineda, Manuela Picq, Ricardo Salvatorre, and Shannon Speed, have identified a multiplicity of settler colonial projects throughout the Americas. I apply this paradigm to urban Latin America.

In Mexico, the logic of dispossession is manifested in both land and labor extraction, thus offering an example that blurs the land/labor distinction used to distinguish colonialism in the Americas.26 During the colonial period, the encomienda system of tribute displaced Indigenous peoples by forcing them to resettle in larger towns. Abolished by royal decree in 1718, the demise of the encomienda paved the way for the rise of the hacienda system, where Indigenous peasants participated in contract labor as peones (workers).27 After Mexican independence from Spain in 1810, liberal politics led to increasing land alienation. The rights and protection granted to Indian pueblos by the Catholic Church and the colonial government were no longer upheld by the Mexican government, spurring land encroachment. Similar processes of land dispossession took place throughout Latin America (Castro and Picq 2017; Di Giminiani 2018). The postrevolutionary Mexican government aimed to redress these land disputes through a policy of land redistribution through the fortification of the ejido system (Eisenstadt 2011). But this process also entailed promoting non-Indigenous settlement on Indigenous lands located in conflict-ridden regions. For example, the Echeverría administration (1970–76) provided peasants from states like Michoacán and Tabasco with grants to land deemed “uncolonized” in the states of Quintana Roo and Chiapas (Collier 1994, 43; Schmidt 1991).28

Despite postrevolutionary efforts to curb land encroachment, the process of land extraction and Indigenous elimination through assimilation sped up under neoliberal regimes, undergirded by liberal ideas of creating a democracy based on property ownership. Land redistribution programs ended with the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), paving the way for the privatization of ejido lands by making it permissible for ejidatarios (members of the ejido) to sell, rent, sharecrop, or mortgage land parcels to foreign capital. The primary outcome of land reform after NAFTA was to displace Indigenous peoples from their lands, making them readily available as surplus labor. Given that ejido lands made up over half of Mexico’s cultivable land, NAFTA’s impact has been compared to the English Enclosure Movement and the United States’ 1887 Dawes General Allotment Act (“Reform of Article 27” 1994). The English Enclosure Acts, which were enacted in the 1700s through the 1800s, divided communal lands into individually owned farms, while the Dawes Act divided Indian tribal lands and made them available for public sale to white settlers. NAFTA took place centuries after these acts, but its push to privatize communal lands held in trust by Indigenous communities situates it within the tragedy of the commons.

David Chang astutely notes that new policies of enclosure “simultaneously extended and masked the reach of state power” (2011, 109). Neoliberal regimes are more than just echoes of earlier colonial projects. They are based on models of extraction, but they also comprise projects of elimination. As such, they are being reinterpreted as a new iteration of settler colonialism (Speed 2017, 2019; Castro and Picq 2017; Loperena 2017). Settler colonial theory offers a new lens by which to think through the ramifications of settler colonial tactics in Latin America. Settler colonial logics are considered to originate in US empire, but they have also been deployed in Latin America, especially under neoliberal regimes. Tracing the “technologies of settler belonging and their ability to be refashioned and redeployed” in Mexico, I connect ejido dispossession with neoliberal policies of urban land development and expanding real estate markets (Jackson 2012, 60). This approach helps us examine the colonial and settler colonial logics that have transformed an Indigenous landscape into the settler colony of Cancún.

When I first visited Cancún, I arrived as a tourist, but one who had spent a summer conducting an ethnographic project in Kuchmil. I was guided by tour books that peddled the fiction of a city with an ancient past and of an untouched paradise converted into a booming tourist center by Mexican technocrats. Yet my experience living in Kuchmil and spending time with Kuchmil migrants in Cancún prompted me to question the veracity of these narratives. Cancún’s architecture and hotel zone may be construed as “modern,” but Kuchmil migrants reminded me that Cancún formed part of a sacred geography and was embedded in longstanding struggles for Indigenous autonomy. To understand Cancún, it is necessary to delve into this history.

In colonial Yucatán, land was concentrated in the hands of the church, Indigenous pueblos, and colonists who benefitted from the encomienda system. During nationalism, Indigenous communal lands in Yucatán, which consisted of uncultivated forests, were appropriated by private owners for use in the commercial agricultural production of henequen, sugar, corn, and cotton on haciendas (Joseph 1988; Rugeley 1996). The shift in mode of production from subsistence to commercial agriculture reduced the amount of land available to Maya peasants, forcing independent subsistence farmers to become peones on haciendas. Maya concerns over land incursions and heavy taxation prompted rebellions and led to the Caste War of 1847, a fifty-year battle that took place in southeastern Yucatán (Redfield 1941; Reed 1964; Rugeley 1996). The war prompted Spanish settlers to flee the region and compelled Maya peasants to take up arms or hide in the jungle, thereby designating southeastern Yucatán as dangerous and abandoned. The creation of the Territory of Quintana Roo by the Díaz administration (1877–80, 1884–1911) in 1902 was intended to quell offshoots of this insurrection and to repopulate the region.

The lives of Maya migrants from my study reflect this history of Indigenous dispossession in Yucatán. Migrants’ desire for land originated from their families’ history of peonage on haciendas and their own participation in the ejido system. Their great grandparents worked as peones on haciendas located in southeastern Yucatán, a practice locally referred to as esclavitud (slavery). With the onset of the Caste War in this region, they escaped the haciendas and debt peonage and participated in the war as devotees of the speaking cross, known as the Santa Cruz, which rallied Maya rebels to keep fighting (see Reed 1997). In spite of the turmoil triggered by war and debt peonage, these families did not stray far from the tuuch (belly button) in Xocen, one of six sacred and ancient shrine centers that make up a sacred geography and connect patronymic clan lineages (Sullivan 1989). In the late 1890s, as they searched for the ideal place to make milpa (corn), they opted to settle on a postclassic Maya site, which they named “Kuchmil,” which was tied to their patronymic clan lineages and was surrounded by dense forest with access to fresh water from an ancient well. The community soon benefited from the Mexican government’s efforts to redress land disputes in response to revolutionary mandates. From 1915 to 1933, one-fifth of land in the state of Yucatán was decreed ejido land, formally recognizing peasants’ rights to work it (Brannon 1991). In 1931, Kuchmil was included in an ejido grant that encompassed three other pueblos. Ejido land was held in common and organized collectively on a rotation system. As a result of these experiences, land for Maya communities came to represent a sacred geography, a primary source of food, freedom from slavery, and autonomy from the state (Castellanos 2010b; Eiss 2002, 2010; Re Cruz 1996a; Sullivan 1989; Villa Rojas 1978). Not surprisingly, Maya migrants attach many of these meanings to land in Cancún. Land represents more than private property as recognized by the state. Cancún is situated on land that forms part of a sacred geography for Maya peoples and that provides essential resources for the maintenance of Indigenous practices. Land is also a symbol of freedom from tourism and the state, regardless of the significant role the state has played in providing migrants with access to land.

Yet obtaining land in Cancún is extremely difficult, especially as land once again has become increasingly concentrated in private hands. Cancún’s 1974 master plan failed to include housing for the working class, thereby limiting how migrants could obtain land and/or a house. Prior to housing reform, migrants procured land in the following ways. One option was for migrants to purchase land on the private market. Since affordable plots rarely went up for sale, few migrants could rely on this approach. The second option involved squatting on ejido land or land that was deemed “unoccupied,” regardless of ownership. This was a popular tactic in the early days of Cancún’s history (McLean n.d.), but opportunities for squatting dwindled with the city’s expansion as the state and developers snapped up large tracts of land. The third option entailed petitioning the state for a land allotment. Although it meant long waiting periods, this was the most popular and affordable option for self-help housing. As the Mexican government began pivoting away from land redistribution in 2000, its land reserves dwindled, and it began to phase out government-subsidized land allotments, making it increasingly difficult for Maya migrants to obtain land. This divestment has increased urbanization (Vásquez Castillo 2004). The fourth option was to purchase a house with the aid of government programs. However, few migrants earned sufficient income to qualify for these programs. Social housing was proposed as an affordable solution, leading to the construction of thousands of hectares of tract housing in Cancún.

To own a home today, Maya migrants must learn to embrace debt on a scale previously unimaginable and unattainable. The private developer has become the modern day hacendado, especially in urban centers like Cancún, where ejido land has been commodified and homes can be converted into debt. The rise in homeownership among the lower middle and working classes in Cancún stimulated greater access to formal credit from banks, microfinance lenders, and retail stores. Mortgage debt—and the accompanying credit opportunities it made possible—binds migrants to Cancún’s shifting economic future as a settler colony and urban metropole. Maya migrants’ forays with a new credit economy can be attributed as an outcome of modernization and to the Mexican government’s efforts to integrate Indigenous peoples into national economies. However, this interpretation ignores the ways shifting land tenure practices spanning colonial and settler colonial periods have led to Indigenous dispossession and circumscribed Indigenous autonomy within urban spaces and under neoliberal regimes.


1. Doris Sommer (1993) coined the term “foundational fictions” to explain how modern heterosexual romance became aligned with patriotic ideals of nationalism. I loosely apply Sommer’s term because it captures the idea of mythic nation building. While ideas of conquest have been tied to heterosexual romance, I do not make this claim for the case of Cancún.

2. For a more detailed discussion of Cancún as a tourist pole, see Clancy 1991.

3. The Maya center is also spelled cah. For a historical overview of Tihó, see Restall 1997. For an overview of the precolonial sites in Quintana Roo, see C. J. Walker 2009 and Shaw and Matthews 2005.

4. The spelling of the island has varied. Carlos Plank, who served as Interim Governor of the Federal Territory of Quintana Roo during 1915–16, spelled it “Cancum” (Macías Richard 1997, 259). Martí refers to the island as “Kankún” and “Kan Kún” (1991, 18). The place of the accent over the letter “u” also varies. Martí (1991), for example, does not use an accent in his book title. I adopt the spelling used by the city—Cancún. When I do deviate from this spelling, I do so because I am citing authors who rely on a different spelling of this name.

5. Maya ruins in Quintana Roo were surveyed in the mid-1950s, but the INAH’s Regional Center of the Southeast (Centro Regional del Sureste) did not begin a substantial study of these sites until the 1970s. See Con Uribe 2005.

6. The first museum, Museo Arqueológico de Cancún, was built in 1982 as part of the Convention Center. In 2012, this museum was replaced with the much larger and grander Museo Maya de Cancún in the Zona Hotelera.

7. Martí describes the Territory of Quintana Roo as “the furthest and most forbidding area of the nation” (1991, 7).

8. Over one-third, 38.67 percent, of the residents of the municipality of Benito Juárez, where Cancún is located, identify as Indigenous (Encuesta Intercensal 2015).

9. For these descriptions, see Redclift 2005, 84 and Martí 1991. For a discussion of the computer algorithm story, see Robert Dunphy, “Why the Computer Chose Cancún,” New York Times, March 5, 1972.

10. See Castellanos 2017.

11. For a discussion of settler colonialism in Latin America, see Castellanos 2017.

12. Laura Harjo (2019) has developed “way-finding tools” to help Indigenous communities envision their own futurity.

13. Recent archaeological research using LiDAR shows that Maya city-states were more complex and densely populated than previously documented. See Tom Clynes, “Exclusive: Laser Scans Reveal Maya ‘Megalopolis’ below Guatemalan Jungle,” National Geographic, February 1, 2018,

14. Maya peoples have participated in migration before, during, and after colonialism. For a discussion of migration during colonialism, see Farriss 1984. For a discussion of migration during the early national period, see Rugeley 1996. And for a discussion of migration in contemporary times, see Castellanos 2010a.

15. I rely on David Harvey’s definition of neoliberalism: “a theory of political economic practices that proposes that human well-being can best be advanced by liberating individual entrepreneurial freedoms and skills within an institutional framework characterized by strong private property rights, free markets, and free trade” (2005, 2).

16. For decolonial guides of other cities, like Los Angeles, Chicago, and Minneapolis, see “Mapping Indigenous LA,”; “Settler Colonial City Project,”; and “Connect with Mni Sota Makoce, an Indigenous Place,”

17. These reforms expand upon previous efforts by the Mexican government to promote homeownership. Since the 1960s, housing policies for the working poor have focused on self-built housing, rental housing, public housing, and social housing (Bredenoord and Montiel 2014; A. Gilbert 1993; Gilbert and Ward 1985; Hartman forthcoming; Ward, Jiménez Huerta, and Di Virgilio 2015). Social housing commonly refers to rental housing made available at subsidized rates to low-income families by the government or other organizations (Hansson and Lundgren 2019). In Mexico, social housing encompasses both rental housing and housing finance subsidies. Social housing (also referred to as social interest housing) emerged in Mexico in the early 1900s and was directed toward developing public housing for the proletariat (Schwanse 2014). By the 1970s, social housing had expanded to include housing credits for home purchases, following the establishment of INFONAVIT. After 2000, social housing was oriented primarily toward housing finance subsidies and loans, leading to the mass construction of tract housing (Bredenoord and Cabrera Montiel 2014).

18. I use pseudonyms for rural villages here, with the exception of large towns and cities.

19. For a discussion of ejidos as sustainable ecologies, see Mike Gaworecki, “Mexico’s ejidos are finding greater sustainability by involving youth and women,” Mongabay Series: Indigenous Peoples and Conservation, June 2018,

20. For a discussion of the politics of returning again and again to a particular place and the ethics of representation, see Castellanos 2019.

21. The term criollo refers to a Spaniard who was born in the Americas, whereas the term creole refers to a person of African or Indian (from the subcontinent) descent.

22. See Herzog (2013). Repartimiento was the system of conscripted Indigenous labor that was employed throughout the colonial period in Latin America. The encomienda system was a “restricted and well-defined institution in which the holder [of the land] performed certain government duties and in return received tribute [from Indigenous peoples] which residually belonged to the crown” (Lockhart and Schwartz 1983, 94). Although the encomienda system was abolished by royal decree in 1718, the encomienda prevailed in Yucatán until 1785 (Farriss 1984).

23. See Castro and Picq 2017 and Tuori 2015.

24. The works of Smith 2012 and Coulthard 2014 have been groundbreaking.

25. For the exceptions, see Gott 2007 and Salvatorre 2008.

26. Also see Speed 2017.

27. The hacienda was a private estate dedicated to ranching or agricultural production. During colonial Yucatán, haciendas concentrated on cattle ranching and the cultivation of corn, which required a “mild labor system” (G. Joseph 1988, 20). By the late eighteenth century, haciendas turned to henequen cultivation, although some specialized in sugar, cotton, tobacco, and rice. Henequen cultivation was labor intensive and led to an upsurge in debt peonage among Indigenous campesinos, transforming the hacienda into a plantation system (G. Joseph 1988).

28. Peasants also came from Campeche, Yucatán, Veracruz, Puebla, Guerrero, Morelos, Oaxaca, Distrito Federal, Hidalgo, Jalisco, Sinaloa, and Sonora (Collier 1994).