Casimiro Cárdenas and the Cedral Fair

Copyright 2022, Ric Hajovsky

Some websites say that Casimero Cárdenas founded Cedral. Not true. Cedral was a center of population on Cozumel ever since pre-Hispanic times when the village was called Oycib. During the 1500’s, there were more people living in Cedral (by then called Santa Maria de Oycib) than there were in Xamancab (today’s San Miguel). Later, palo de tinto (dyewood) woodcutters from Belize also had dwellings in Cedral. Casimiro, on the other hand, first settled down in San Miguel, not Cedral. He and his wife show up on the 1850 census of the town of San Miguel, a census which did not include residents of Cedral or the outlying ranchos. Casimiro didn’t move from San Miguel to Cedral until after 1850.

For some time now, around the first of May each year, the village of Cedral on Cozumel has celebrated the “miraculous salvation” of Casimiro Cárdenas. The legend at the root of the Cedral Mayfair is the claim by Cárdenas’ family that he was saved by a miracle during a massacre at the church in Saban, Yucatán, during the War of the Castes. According to the family story, he was in the church with a crowd of other residents of Saban when the Maya Cruzoob rebels attacked. Everyone in the church was killed except him, because he was able to hide underneath a pile of dead bodies and evade detection. The family lore says he attributed his good luck to the fact that he was clutching a small, wooden cross; so he swore that if he escaped Saban alive, he would celebrate his salvation every year with a novena (nine consecutive days of prayer) in honor of the cross. And so, says the legend, when Cárdenas found safety in Cozumel with the rest of the Repobladores de 1848, he settled in Cedral and began the yearly tradition of holding a novena in honor of the cross for his good luck.

Today, Cedral’s May celebration (now named the Feria de Cedral) includes much more than just the novena and a religious celebration on the third of May; horseraces, bullfights, drinking and dancing have all been incorporated into the commemoration. One of the most iconic of the dances performed at the Cedral fair is the Dance of the Pig’s Head, a bastardized version of the ancient Yucatec Maya ceremony also known as Pool kekén, Okosta Pool, or K’u’ Pool, in which a pig’s head has been substituted for a sacrificial deer’s head.

A big part of the May celebrations at Cedral is the third of May’s Catholic feast day of the “Finding of the Holy Cross,” one of several days the Catholic Church once observed in regards to the “True Cross.” It destablished was to commemorate the finding by Saint Helena of what she believed to be the “True Cross” in the year 355 AD. This feast day, however, was removed from the liturgical calendar of the Catholic Church by Pope John XXIII in 1960, in order to reduce the number of major feasts and to focus devotion to the Holy Cross on September 14. This abolishment of the “Feast day of the Finding of the Holy Cross” was something that was a long time in coming. As far back as 1691, the Holy Inquisition was expressing its concern over the May 3rd celebration. The religious court in México complained that the celebrations were held in “indecent locations, and the celebrations with Mass, sermon, and processions were mixed up with farces, bullfights, and masquerades on the pretext of honoring the cross, which results in serious scandal.” Mexicans were loath to give up the feast day, however, and the Mexican bishops pleaded for and received an exception, so now México is the only country in the world where Catholics still celebrate May 3rd as a feast day.

This all makes for a good party, but what are the facts behind the story of Casimiro Cárdenas that this fiesta celebrates?

First, the records show that Casimiro Cárdenas Sanguino was born in 1820 in Tizamín, a town 89 miles north of Saban. The records also show that he married Vitoria Tapia Alvarez of Tihosuco, a town 20 miles north of Saban. There are no surviving records of any type associating Cárdenas with Saban in any manner.

Second, in the January 1850 “Padrón que comprende todos los hombres que forman el Pueblo de San Miguel en la Isla de Cozumel” (Census comprising all the men who formed the village of San Miguel on the island of Cozumel), Casimiro Cárdenas is listed as a 28-year-old male resident of San Miguel. Residents of Cedral and many outlying ranchos do not appear in the census. However, some of these non-San Miguel residents appear in other 1850 letters and documents, such as Luis Lujan, who shows up in a February 1850 letter from Alcalde José Francisco Rosel, listing Lujan as the “dueño o personero del Rancho Santa María de esta jurisdicción, ubicado en esta misma isla a distancia de unas tres o cuatro leguas” (owner or representative of Santa María Ranch, located in this same island at a distance of three or four leagues). Lujan’s uncle, Luis Borja, alsoappears as a non-resident of San Miguel and living near Cedral. Rosel was complaining in the letter to the governor that some people, like Lujan, were refusing to contribute labor to the village of San Miguel because they said they lived too far away.

Third, the census states that Cárdenas was a laborer from Tihosuco, presumably because that is where he was living with his wife when they moved to San Miguel. He is listed as a Hidalgo, which in that day and age meant a Maya or part-Maya who was on the Yucatan Government’s side of the War of the Castes and fighting against the Cruzoob rebels. Cárdenas’ wife, Vitoria, is also listed in the “Padrón que comprende todos las mugeres que forman el Pueblo de San Miguel en la Isla de Cozumel” (Census comprising all the women who formed the village of San Miguel on the island of Cozumel), as a 20-year-old, white molendera (corn grinder) from Tihosuco.

Fourth, although records show that Saban surrendered to the Cruzoob in late 1847, there is no record of a massacre having occurred there at that time. The church at Saban was used later as a redoubt by the Yucatecan government forces from January 17, 1848 until they abandoned Saban to the Maya Cruzoob in August, 1848. There is no record of a massacre at Saban prior to the one that happened there in 1853, three years after Cárdenas and his wife appeared as residents of San Miguel on Cozumel.

Above: Photo of Cedral taken sometime prior to 1910.