The introduction of steam-powered engines and machinery for stripping the sinuous leaves of the henequén allowed the hacienda owners to multiply their production many times over. They accumulated great wealth that propitiated enormous growth in the agro industry and economic prosperity in the state of Yucatán. The owners had plantation-style homes and gardens at the haciendas and stately city residences in Merida.
They enjoyed every luxury available, traveled extensively, and brought back precious items from Europe, the U.S.A., and the Caribbean. They hired Italian and French artisans to build their palatial residences. Their sons studied in the United States, Cuba and Europe.
Four hundred families owned the approximately 1,000 haciendas. However, only twenty or thirty of the most prominent “hacendados” held the majority of the holdings. These families were known as “la casta divina” – the exalted class. La Casta Divina controlled almost 90% of the commerce in Yucatan.
The extraordinary production was largely the result of super-human effort on the part of the laborers. The “Acasillado”, an indentured laborer system, included nearly 90% of the available work force at the time; at its peak in 1900, there were some 80,000 acasillados. These men and women worked long and hard. As well, they were at the beck and call of the hacienda owners, day and night.
Once a family had fallen into debt, there was virtually no way to pay it back. It kept compounding and actually the hacendados counted the outstanding amounts as part of their wealth.
The owners of the haciendas did not consider that their treatment of the workers should be called abuse. They made themselves believe that the system ideally suited the poor. “After all,” they would tell one another, “their basic needs taken care of and they don’t need to worry about making difficult decisions.” The rich considered their minions as too daft to make their own choices. They actually fancied themselves as “benefactors.” From time to time a young woman would catch the hacienda owner’s eye and he would feel that he had done her a favor by signaling her out as fit for his bed.
The owners closed their eyes and ears the resentment that brewed among their laborers. Nonetheless the acasillado system came to an abrupt halt with the arrival of the revolutionary general Salvador Alvarado in Yucatan on March 19, 1915. Many hacendados couldn’t understand what had hit them. To them, the natural order had been broken.