Hacienda, Henequén & Hipil

Hacienda, henequén and hipil: three Spanish words that begin with the letter H. For starters, the letter H is silent in Spanish and when speaking Spanish, unless there is an accent mark, emphasis is placed on the second to last syllable. The accent mark in “henequén” dictates that emphasis will be on the last syllable.

Mexican Haciendas were efficient farming, ranching and manufacturing centers that produced meat, produce, and products for export. In the 19th century most Yucatecan haciendas produced henequén which was used worldwide to produce cord, twine and rope for the shipping industry. Yucatán was the world’s largest producer of henequén fibers between 1901 and 1916.

Late in the 19th century and the early 20th Century, the area surrounding Mérida prospered from the production of henequén. For a brief period, around the turn of the 20th century, Mérida was said to house more millionaires than any other city in the world.

The leaves of the agave plant (Agave fourcroydes Lem.) yield a strong fiber called henequén which came to be called “green gold” for the wealth it produced. Our guide said the plant grew wild in Mexico and the Mayans discovered how to manually beat the succulent agave leaves to extract the fibers.
Processed henequén looks like rope.
Henequén products include rope, hammocks, hats, and fabric. These products look stiff and scratchy, but I was shown articles of clothing made of soft, linen-like henequén and told that it softens with repeated washing.

In the Yucatán during the 16th century, Spaniards enforced a caste system enslaving the indigenous Maya on haciendas in a system similar to the feudal system of Europe and slavery on southern US cotton plantations.

After the 1847 Caste War, and with the later invention of synthetic fibers, most haciendas were abandoned and left to decay in the jungle.

In the 1990s many haciendas were restored and renovated to their former state of glory as private homes, or transformed into beautiful 5-star spa hotels, or opened as museums as a way of providing a glimpse into the colonial era.

We decided to visit the Hacienda San Lorenzo de Aké because it is still a working hacienda processing henequén. It is located about one hour from Mérida. They offered a 1-hour tour of either the hacienda or the processing plant or a 2-hour tour of both. We took a quick peek inside the processing plant, but opted for the hacienda tour.
Passing through this archway was like stepping back in time.

Hacienda San Lorenzo originally began as a cattle ranch in 1653. Many times in the hacienda’s history it was owned by women. In 1863 Hacienda San Lorenzo planted agave and began processing henequén in 1873. The steam boiler exploded in 1906 after which the hacienda was sold multiple times – in 1907 to a woman, in 1908 to a woman, and in 1910 to the current owner’s family. A new machine house was constructed in 1912. In 2002 Hurricane Isidore caused extensive damage to the machine house.

Although the building is without a roof, the machinery is still operable.
The largest building on any hacienda was the main house or Casa Principal providing housing for the owner. The current owner lives on the property in this newer house.
The church was constructed in 1840 on top of a Mayan pyramid and is still used today. This side staircase is the owner’s entrance. There is a separate staircase for the villagers.
The infirmary – a necessity on each hacienda as well as a foreman’s residence, school, store, chapel, jail and stables.
Today, the hacienda raises deer as well as four different crops to feed them and sells the deer meat to restaurants. Notice the Mayan ruins on the hill overlooking the hacienda.

Mayan people began to settle at Aké over 2300 years ago, their population peaked between 600-1200 AD then declined and abandoned the area around 1450.

Our guide pointed out many trees and plants growing on the hacienda that provide food including a pepper tree and a bush that produces gourds which he said the Maya used for drinking gourds and scooping water for bathing.

This painting shows the agave planted in the foreground and a horse pulling a load of leaves on rails to the Machine House.
The rails are still used today to move loads to the different processing stations.
Today, the hacienda doesn’t grow agave; it sells the henequén it produces from agave purchased from local growers.
The henequén fibers arrive to be be combed and sorted.
Skeins of henequén.
A short video showing the Machine House in operation – a noisy and dusty operation.

Fun Fact: Why did henequén become known around the world as “sisal” instead of henequén? Because the boxes in which it was exported were marked with the seal of the Port of Sisal.

Prior to the Industrial Age this tool was used to manually comb and separate the henequén fibers and sort by length for different uses.

In Valladolid we stayed at a hotel called Casa Hipil. What is a hipil? I had seen and admired the hipil (also called huipil) without knowing what it was called.

This painting depicts the typical clothing on a feast day. The “hipil” is a woman’s cotton knee-length shift-type dress with a very colorful and artistically cross-stitched border at the hem which is worn over a longer cotton skirt with a wide lace border called a “fustán.” The clothing was influenced by the Spanish during their rule over Mexico.

Maybe the following photos will be worth a thousand words.

The simple embroidered shift (hipil) and lacy slip (fustán) are worn on a daily basis by local Yucatecan women today. Although the dresses I noticed are mostly embroidered with brightly colored flowers, the hipil pictured here is embroidered in black and draped with a black rebozo (shawl). Notice the henequén hammock displayed behind the dress.

The typical formal dress of Mestizas is the “terno.” It consits of three pieces: the “jubón”, which is a square lapel that is attached to the neckline of the “hipil” which is a knee-length shift-type dress. The third piece is the “fustán”, a half slip worn underneath the hipil. Each garment has embroidery, cross stitched or machine-made, at the bottom edge. A luxurious dressy terno’s hipil is fringed with wide white lace as well as the fustán.

Yucatan Today
A beautiful terno like this is only worn on special occasions.
An elegant 19th century wedding terno of fine cotton and elegant lace.
The man’s suit is of linen or cotton trousers and a pleated shirt with gold buttons and cufflinks and worn with white leather alpargatas (sandals) and a finely plaited palm leaf hat.
A Yucatecan artisan and her cross stitch on henequén fabric.

And now you know a little history of the Hacienda, Henequén, and Hipil.

Meet you next time from Valladolid, another Pueblo Mágico.

This is a travel blog and I would be remiss to not mention my sorrow and concern over the heartbreaking news coming from Ukraine. Although I have not traveled to either Ukraine or Russia, I would’ve liked to. I know people from both countries. I hope and pray for peace!

2 responses to “Hacienda, Henequén & Hipil

  1. Pingback: Henequén, La Cuerda Que Cambió Un Continente - EarthMagz.com·

  2. Pingback: Henequén, The Rope That Changed a Continent - EarthMagz.com·

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