Ùltimos testigos,
la Guerra de Castas

Exhibition, book, fine art prints

by Serge Barbeau

‘They burned our villages killing young and old inside their own homes. They hanged our leaders for no more reason that a slight suspicion. And now they accuse us of attacking whites with the “tea” and the machete, and call us savages, forgetting that for centuries they killed us with hunger and slavery. All our cattle they stole from us, they took our fields and burned our gods, collected all our weapons and decimated us with blood and fire. And now they come and remind us that there is one true God and that we are his brothers.'

“Peninsula, Peninsula” Hernan Lara Zavala.

Últimos Testigos La guerra de Castas” is an artistic and testimonial photographic exhibition of outstanding aesthetic quality. It emerged from Serge Barbeau’s fascination with the Caste War of Yucatán after his participation in the making of a short film on the subject. This gave the Serge Barbeau the opportunity to meet with direct descendants of the rebellious Maya who rose up against the federal forces that had taken possession of their territory, not only through a military offensive but by subtler means of domination which finally undermined their habits, conventions and traditions

One by one the prophecies of ”Áalmaj t’aan”, the sacred book of the Mayas, had been fulfilled, as was recorded from the accounts of the witnesses gathered by Marcos Canté from the Cooperativa Xyaat. In the meantime, Serge kept on focusing his lens on the furrows of their wrinkled faces, the great plains of their souls and the eternity of their gaze.

We are in the presence of a respectful and sensitive exhibition of naked words through images.

However, in order to see what the artists’s skills are really offering, we have to ignore the purity and the strength of the captured faces, and rising above the flawless technique, transcend the limits of appearances. Then a deep and sometimes painful truth will remind us that as long as we continue ignoring their voices, the Maya and anything pertaining to them will remain estranged from our blood.

Making the Maya a brand, a mere product, is deeply disdainful to our past, and a sorrowful and shameful omen for the future to come.

The sacred book of the Maya, through the images of Últimos Testigos confronts us with the difficult task of making a choice between resurrection and deluge.

Felipe Ahumada Vasconcelos, 2015

The Book

98 pages, 50x34cm Hardcover

20 full-page portraits with interviews


Abundio Yamá

96 years old, Señor, Quintana Roo.

“God will fight for the Maya”

We Maya used to live in harmony with nature, but everything changed when the wacho’ob (Mexican soldiers) came to kill us because we didn’t want to obey the Mexican authorities. In the past, we Maya belonged to British Honduras (Belize). The federals killed our children, they threw them in the air and caught them with the bayonets of their rifles. They killed and raped the women and burnt our homes and our plantations. It wasn’t until they killed the child of one of our generals that our people consulted God through a Mayan priest, and he told us: “Don’t fear, because God will fight for us: angels and spirits will fight for us because God has seen the suffering of the Maya.”

That’s how it happened. When the Maya and the Mexican federal soldiers fought, the Maya yelled: “Viva Dios!” (Hail to Thee, God!). And the Mexican soldiers saw the Maya in the trees, like monkeys, shooting down at them. The soldiers shot back, but the Maya weren’t in the trees anymore. Suddenly, they were on the ground. In the middle of the confusion, the Maya responded to the order of the Mayan priest and with only wooden clubs, machetes, and stones, they killed 1,000 Mexican soldiers. Not one Maya died that day.

The Maya had a path along which they could reach a cenote (sinkhole). Then they sent 1,200 people from two detachments to cut 1,200 tercios (Mayan unit of measurement for firewood) of chechén (local tree with poisonous resin) and throw it to the bottom of the sinkhole near the Mexican federal soldiers’ camp. The Maya prayed for 24 hours for the trap to work. When the federals came they didn’t know the danger of drinking and bathing in that water. They all died, poisoned by the resin of that chechén tree.

There was a train on the road to Vigía Chico on the coast. The Maya wanted to derail it but they didn’t know how. There was a mechanic among them, Calabio Alcocer, but he didn’t have tools. So they cut 30 lengths of wire from the telegraph line of Mérida, braided it into a cable 30 centimeters thick, and tied it between two big trees across the train tracks, Every morning they waited and listened, ears to the ground, to know if the train was coming. One day they heard the train and they yelled “Viva!” – in praise of God. The 600 Maya split into groups of 50 people per kilometer, up to the spot where the train would run into the cable. As the train approached, the first 50 Maya shot at it. The other groups did the same at each kilometer. Then the train crashed into the steel cable and all the federals died. The blood of thousands of soldiers was spilled on the ground, shining like glass or a mirror. The train had 42 wagons, and their remains are now in the museum in Felipe Carrillo Puerto.

The Maya traded wood for weapons in Belize, exchanging palo de tinte (logwood) for guns, gunpowder and machetes.


Alberto Cruz Peraza

93 years old, Uh May, Quintana Roo

“I think they’re going to kill us”

My father was Rumardo Cruz. He signed the agreements for the redistribution of the communal territory with President Lázaro Cárdenas (1934–40). My father told me that when he went to make war in Tsuuk ja’as village, the Mayan priest said: “I see vultures circling in my sáastun (crystal ball). That’s what I see, and I think they’re going to kill us.” And he was indeed the first one to be killed. The two men who went to help him were shot dead as well. And that’s how the battle began. My father’s brother managed to get close to the sniper and shot him in the head. He took the sniper’s place and killed 48 wacho’ob (federal soldiers). But he became careless and got killed as well. So my grandfather José burned down the quarters in which the Mexican soldiers were sleeping by firing a lit candle made of Melipona beeswax into it. All the soldiers died in the blaze.

Meanwhile, in Bacalar the federal soldiers were busy celebrating. My father took a soaking wet sheet and wrung it out over the gunpowder. Other members of the Mayan army drove sharpened stakes into the federal soldiers’ trenches. When the Maya opened fire, the soldiers went running over to their cannons, but the gunpowder was wet, and those who jumped into the trenches impaled themselves on the stakes. The Maya took the soldiers’ women. There were Spanish women among them. After the Maya had taken Bacalar, they set up their quarters in the local Church.

On the road from Uh May to Bacalar there was a woman who was considered to be a witch. People believed she ate the people who used this road. So travelers passing this way used to sleep on small hills known as táas che’ (tree level) when it got dark. Once, though, a couple decided to spend the night by the side of the road and got attacked by this woman. The man fired off about 30 shots and the witch hid behind a ts’alam tree. Alarmed by all the screams and the noise, some Mayan farmers came to help them. The witch ran away badly wounded and and was never seen again.

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The Exhibition

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Superb photo book

Fresko - Das Magazin für Kultur- und Kunstgenießer


Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

Extraordinary narrations of a Nation's identity

La Jornada Maya, Merida

The Last Maya “The day when we will get organized.”

It is a particularly sad chapter of the history of the Maya in Yucatán: In the Guerra de Castas, the so called “caste war” between 1847 and 1901, Maya rebels in today’s Mexico were fighting acrimoniously for their independence from the “white” upper class - in vain. The Canadian photographer Serge Barbeau visited the descendants of the indigenous fighters in the jungle of Quintana Roo on the peninsula Yucatán.

In the middle of the 19th century thousands of Maya secretly united under the leadership of Cecilio Chi and Jacinto Pat in order to free themselves from the dzules (Mayan term for masters) and to put an end to exploitation, suppression, libel, and robbery of their estates. The war dragged on for half a century. Already four years after it had begun, half of the population died, the Maya lost the fight.

Serge Barbeau, who has been living in Mexico for many years, started in 2010 to get interested in the history of the Maya in Yucatán and recorded it in photographic portraits. His photos are full of visual poignancy and show the descendants of the fighters. Their faces mirror the lives of people who until today suffer from inequality, and who are deeply anchored in religion, and show an unbroken will for independence.

The suberb photo book published with the exhibition “Últimos Testigos. Die letzte Rebellion der Maya in Yucatán”, assembles large full page portraits rich in details as well as individual stories retold by contemporary witnesses. In these stories the disastrous defeat of the Mayan rebellion stays alive.

Fresko - Das Magazin für Kultur- und Kunstgenießer

The Faces of the Maya and the Teaching of the People

What fascinating faces! All those faces of eighty-, ninety-, even more than one-hundred-year old inhabitants of the Yucatan peninsula who to this day are looking with mistrust at the Mexican state, and who self-confidently call themselves Maya, and consider themselves as the descendants of those fighters who rebelled against the dominance of the mestizo upper class during the so called “Caste War” from 1847 till 1901.

Wrinkly old men with snow white or still deep black hair whose charisma is expressed in a delightful unpretentious way in Serge Barbeau’s portraits. The Canadian photographer has been living in Mexico for a long time and has warily approached Yucatan’s original inhabitants for many years, keeping records of their memories. His picture-text book, published in Spanish, English and German, leaves a feeling of melancholy - not only because of the once lost fight for independence.

The unwritten legacy of these dignified elderly Mayan people, mostly farmers who don’t benefit from the tourist boom of the “Costa Maya”, have become more fragmented over time. So the frozen narrative pictures of the Maya swinging spears and of the spiked horses of the government have become a shriveled form of a historical memory that could not be cared for because of a lack of education. Even the religious rituals of the “Speaking Cross” and the sacred Maya book “A’almaj T’aan” seem to be less a mystery that has to be protected from the curiousness of strangers, but more a smorgasbord of things formerly heard but by now half forgotten.

What remained is a deeply pessimistic world outlook: “The earth will burn, and us, the Maya, will live among chaos.” A book of faces and anecdotes in a coffee-table-format that refuses folkloristic glorification. Respect!

Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

Pocos quedan para referir el hecho y ayudar a otros a comprender sus todavía hoy latentes repercusiones. Son los nonagenarios –y algunos de ellos centenarios– descendientes de quienes pelearon hasta el final por conservar el dominio de poblaciones como Chan Santa Cruz, nombre original de Felipe Carrillo Puerto, población situada en el estado de Quintana Roo.

Son ancianos de memoria prodigiosa y empecinada salud, como Abundio Yamá, de 96 años, habitante de la comunidad de Señor, o como Faustino Tamay Marín, de 105 y Aniceto May Tun, de 107, originarios de Xyatil. Son los recuerdos persistentes, las miradas sabias, los invaluables relatos y la prosa suave y directa de los últimos testigos de un tiempo en que, también como ahora, ser indio representaba subir por una escarpada pendiente cargando sobre el lomo la colosal piedra de la discriminación.

Barbeau supo observar y ahí, donde otros vieron sólo arrugas efecto del envejecimiento, él supo ver profundos surcos por los que corren extraordinarias narraciones de la identidad de un pueblo.

La Jornada Maya, Merida

Munich, Germany. Fünf Kontinente Museum, 2015-2016

Merida, Mexico. Museo de la Ciudad, 2015 / La Fundación de Artistas, 2016

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Each portrtait is available as an original photograph in a limited edition archival pigment print on Hahnemuhle fine art paper.

Each is signed, numbered and comes with a Certificate of Authenticity, it is guaranteed not to fade or change color in normal conditions.

The prints come in 2 sizes, 150cm x 100cm or 75cm x 50 cm.

theultimostestigos @ gmail.com

Hard cover, coffee table book, 50cm x 34cm , printed in Italy.

20 full page portraits, each with an interview conducted in Maya, translated into English, Spanish and German.

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Serge Barbeau was born in Canada in 1951. He majored in 'Communication Arts' at the University of Loyola, Montreal, Canada in 1972. He debuted as a fashion photographer in Montreal & New York in 1973.

He then moved to Europe in 1976 and lived in Milan and Paris for the subsequent 30 years. His work was published in various international fashion magazines: Vogue, Elle, Marie Claire, Anna, Gala international, Madame Figaro, Femme, Woman, and many more.

He started the “Últimos Testigos” project in 2013. He lives in Tulum, Mexico, and travels to Europe frequently for work.