This article is from the May 2004 The Mexico File newsletter.
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Alma Reed and Felipe Carrillo Puerto: Tragic Romance of the Yucatan

by Jeanine Lee Kitchel 

Jeanine Lee Kitchel lives in Puerto Morelos. Her recent travel memoir, Where the Sky is Born: Living   in the Land of the Maya (Enchanted Island Press, $15, 230 pages), is available at local bookstores or at amazon.com. Contact the author at casamaya@yahoo.com. 

Felipe Carrillo Puerto, progressive governor of the Yucatan in 1922, and San Francisco journalist Alma Reed are two names forever linked to Yucatan history. Their romance fueled pages in newspapers on both sides of the border, but the unlikely outcome of this very public romance enlisted all the elements of Greek tragedy. 

Alma Reed was born in San Francisco in 1889. She became one of San Francisco’s first women reporters, working on a William Randolph Hearst newspaper named The Call. As an advocate of the poor and oppressed, Reed assisted a Mexican family in commuting the death sentence of their 17-year old son, Simon Ruiz, in 1921. The story was picked up by the Mexican press and due to the publicity, Mexico President Alvero Obregon invited Reed to visit Mexico as his guest. 

In her southern travels, although based in Mexico City where she reported for The New York Times, Reed was sent to Merida in the Yucatan to meet Edward Thompson, the leading archeologist excavating Chichen Itza. During this visit, Reed met Felipe Carrillo Puerto, dynamic governor of the State of Yucatan. 

Carrillo had commissioned a road to be built from Merida to Chichen Itza, opening the budding archaeological site to both tourists and scientists. To commemorate the event, he’d organized a ceremony inviting North American journalists and archaeologists.  

At the ruins, Alma Reed interviewed archaeologist Thompson. Edward Thompson had gone to the Yucatan in 1885 to explore and excavate Chichen Itza. In 1890, Allison Armour, meat packing magnate, made a donation to Thompson intended for purchasing the ruins at Chichen Itza. With $75US, Thompson acquired 100 square miles of land on which the ruins were located along with a Spanish plantation house which he used as his headquarters. (Thompson’s house, now Hacienda Chichen, is presently a hotel at the ruins). Thompson took a liking to Reed and divulged that he had in fact dredged Chichen Itza’s cenote, garnering gold discs, jade, jewelry, and ornaments that had adorned the sacrificial victims. He had secretly sent these artifacts back to his benefactors at Boston’s Peabody Museum in diplomatic pouches. Astonished by the enormity of Thompson’s admission, like the true-born paparazzi she was, Reed asked Thompson to sign a confession, which he did. (Reed would later go public with the story and assist Mexico in trying to retrieve their national treasures from the Peabody). 

After touring Chichen Itza, Reed and the assembled entourage of reporters and archaeologists went on to Uxmal. It was during this leg of the journey that she and Carrillo would get acquainted. Reed was instantly fascinated with Carrillo who had been called both a Bolshevik and a Marxist for his sweeping reforms in the Yucatan. 

In an interview, Carrillo explained the Yucatan had been inhabited by 100 powerful families who dated back to 1542 when Merida was founded by Frances Montejo. These wealthy landowners were little more than slave masters, notorious for their cruel treatment of the Maya. On Montejo’s palace in Merida’s main plaza, the Montejo family crest, Carrillo told her, was repeated the length of the building: a foot planted firmly on the head of a Mayan slave. 

In 1910 Carrillo had fought alongside Emiliano Zapata in Central Mexico and took Zapata’s battle cry “Tierra y Liberdad” (Land and Liberty), as his own. Back in the Yucatan, Carrillo initiated multifold reforms. Claiming part Maya, part Creole heritage (rumor had it he was related to the Nachi Cocum dynasty of Mayapan, the last ruler of the Maya federation who held out against the Spaniards), Carrillo organized feminist leagues in Merida which established legalized birth control and the first family planning clinics in the western hemisphere.  

Carrillo drew up a program for emancipation and developed the restoration of the communal village which had been stolen under the Diaz dictatorship. He translated the entire Mexican consitution into Maya so the people of the Yucatan knew their rights. As governor he seized uncultivated land from huge hacendados and distributed it to the Maya, stating this land was their birthright. He built many more schools; he encouraged native arts and crafts. He built highways from pueblos to cities so farmers could get their products to market quickly. He reformed the prison system in the Yucatan. 

It was no wonder that Alma Reed named him the Abraham Lincoln of Mexico. As a liberal herself, she was smitten. But as a divorcee and a Catholic, she tried to ignore the feelings she was developing for this married father of four. She left for the U.S. vowing never to return, hoping to sever all ties to what was becoming amor calido (romance of the steam, as the locals called it, according to Antoinette May, author of Passionate Pilgrim: The Extraordinary Life of Alma Reed.) Two months later, however, her publisher, The New York Times, sent her packing back to Merida. She had a job to do – after the Edward Thompson story broke, Mexico was in the news and someone needed to report it. 

On her second round in Mexico, Reed fell hard for Carrillo, as he did for her. In the ultimate taboo, Carrillo divorced his wife of many years so he could become engaged to Alma Reed. He had a romantic love song, La Peregrina (The Pilgrim), composed for her by Yucatecan poet Luis Rosada de la Vega with music by Ricardo Palmerin. 

It seemed a match made in heaven. The two idealists prepared for their wedding which would take place January 14, 1924, in San Francisco. Reed hastened back to San Francisco to arrange a high profile engagement party and to wrap up her affairs before her permanent move to Mexico. Shortly after her departure to the States, however, another revolution looked imminent. Fighting had broken out in the Yucatan, and henequen planters and hacendados were trying to overthrow Carrillo. President Obregon’s right hand man, de la Huerta, was opposing him and as Carrillo backed Obregon, he was at risk. Carrillo was forced to find guns to fight both the planters and de la Huerta’s forces. He now had a $250,000 reward on his head. 

Carrillo went by night to the coast with three of his brothers and six friends as guards. Just as they waded out to the launch that would take them to New Orleans where they would acquire firearms for this new revolution, the captain signaled to soldiers lying in wait on the shore. The soldiers rowed out to the launch and captured Carrillo, who told his small group not to fight, but to go peacefully. 

De la Huerta’s forces took them back to Merida, jailed them for the night, and in the morning said they would arraign them. Carrillo refused to make a plea as he was governor of the state and refused to recognize their kangaroo court. He was condemned and on January 3, 1924, was taken to the Merida Cemetery where he, his three brothers, and six friends were lined up against the wall to await the firing squad. The first round of volleys was sent over their heads, as the soldiers did not want to shoot them, so fiercely loyal were the Yucatecans to Carrillo. The commander, a Colonel Broca, shouted that those soldiers were to be shot, and over the dead bodies of the first soldiers, Carrillo, his brothers and friends were executed as they stood with their backs against the cemetery wall. 

Alma Reed, who had been alerted in San Francisco that trouble was imminent, heard the news shortly afterwards from The New York Times that Felipe Carrillo Puerto had died in Yucatan, a martyr’s death. He was 49. 

Reed insisted on returning to Merida to see the spot where Carrillo fell. She stayed but briefly in the Yucatan, and on arriving back in New York, was sent on assignment to Carthage to explore more ancient ruins. She would never again marry, but she would continue to lead a life of adventure after Carrillo’s death. Her reporting took her from Carthage to Delphi to the mid-east, and back to Mexico where she helped establish the reputation of Mexican artist Jose Clemente Orozco. 

One of Reed’s fears was that Obregon had had a hand in killing Carrillo. Obregon had, after all, assassinated Emiliano Zapata after luring him to a truce meeting where they were to negotiate surrender terms. Reed thought that Carrillo’s radicalism may have aroused opposition from the Mexican president. But she could never prove a direct link to Obregon for Carrillo’s death. 

The pueblo of Chan Santa Cruz, south of Tulum in Quintana Roo, changed its name to honor the dynamic Yucatan governor, and now goes by the name Felipe Carrillo Puerto. Alma Reed died in Mexico City, November 20, 1966, while undergoing surgery. She was 77.