Reconstructing Yucatan history in the back patio
For the past forty years, living in a home once owned by chicleros, I’ve heard a few stories, and a few very old people have shared memories of those years. The Gonzalez brothers who had an office across the street from Casa Mexilio and who were in business with the husband of the former owner of our home were the principal source of information, for they owned the legendary chicle collection depot called Tankah.
For some years it was the only civilized place along the coast where one could safely stay the night. There was one guest room. Tankah shared the northern border with the Ruins of Tulum. There, they lived like Indian princes, with an abundance of lobster and wild turkey. The three brothers took turns staying at the Caribbean ranch, each three months at a time. They used a single sideband radio for communication and the primitive landing strip at Tulum ruins.
Their dusty and rusty radio still existed in a forgotten storeroom when I arrived in 1982. Their armoire which was outfitted with shelves was the depository of the business receipts and communication with the chicle buyers in the US. It is now in the Old Kitchen of Merida’s romantic small hotel, Casa Mexilio.
There was an older woman who recounted her girlhood days of playing in the patio of Casa Mexilio, and being fearful of that ominous back storeroom which contained glass containers of formaldehyde and dead snakes and vipers. That old chicle bodega is still standing, if with the help of a refortified roof. Francisco Polo Montes used it to store bricks of chicle sap before their ultimate New York Wrigley destination.
The adventurer, Michel Peissel, author of ‘The Lost World of Quintana Roo’ surprisingly communicated with me after reading my blog post about several of his Merida friends, friends made while passing through on his way to the Caribbean coast and the ‘Lost World' in about 1958. Peissel spent time at Xamach, the beachside copra ranch which Jorge Manzanero and I owned and inhabited for close to twenty years.
He writes: “To my horror I was soon to realize the the worst tales told about the chicleros were true. Apparently the chicle areas of Quintana Roo, which are situated behind the coast from Tulum up to Cape Catoche, are exploited by several companies, but for the chicleros the two most important companies are two clans who are constantly at war with each other . . . I soon began to realize that in the monte there were chicleros who would make any Chicago gangster seem like a timid child. The law among chicleros is to shoot upon the slightest provocation and to finish off one’s enemy with machete blows.”