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The Caste War can best be understood as the culmination of centuries of an unstable and contentious relationship between the Maya and the Spanish (later, the Mexicans) who wanted to control them. Throughout this time, the Maya worked to retain their ancestral lands, culture, and practices as the world around them was dramatically changing.

The sugar and henequen plantations that developed in the Yucatán in the early part of the 19th century pressured the Maya to relinquish their lands and their milpa practices in favor of indebted labor on large landholdings. As plantations appropriated Maya lands and thereby their livelihoods, the Maya also faced increasing taxes from both the national government and from the Church, which charged for the support of the clergy and for the performance of rituals.

At the same time, the chronic political instability in the region required Maya soldiers to fight in regional and national political conflicts. The experience the Maya gained while fighting these battles was soon to be applied to their own cause.