The Cedral fair has not been held every year for the past 166 years. Nor has the novena, nor the religious celebration. As with many stories about Cozumel’s past, the story of Casimiro Cárdenas has become much inflated, conflated, and altered over the years.
The Cedral fair coincides with a defunct Catholic holiday (on May 3, but cancelled by the Pope in the 1960s) of the supposed finding of the true cross by Emperor Constantine’s mother, Helena, as well as the day Juan de Grijalva discovered Cozumel in 1518. But it is the legend of Casimiro that is at the root of the Cedral Mayfair. The Cárdenas’ family claims that he was saved by miracle during a massacre at the church in Saban, Yucatán, during the War of the Castes. According to the 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 bodies and evade detection. It is said 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 some others in 1848, he settled in Cedral and began the yearly tradition of holding a novena in honor of the cross for his good luck. Sometimes the legend even goes so far as to claim Cárdenas was the actual founder of Cedral.
This all makes for a good party, but what are the facts behind the story of Casimiro Cárdenas that this fiesta celebrates?
First, the birth records show that Casimiro Cárdenas Sanguino was born in 1820 in Tizamín, some 89 miles north of Saban. The marriage records show that he married Vitoria Tapia Alvarez of Tihosuco, a town some 20 miles north of Saban. There are no written records of any type associating Cárdenas with Saban.
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, Cozumel. The residents of Cedral and many outlying ranchos do not appear in the census, only people living and working in San Miguel.
Third, the census states that Cárdenas was a laborer from Tihosuco, because that is where he was living with his wife when they moved to San Miguel. 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, 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.
There is also the problem of the lapse of time in the late 1800s during which the church at Cedral was neglected and abandoned. During this period, it is really doubtful that a religious ceremony was still being held there every year. In 1885, an American sent to Cozumel on a scientific expedition by the US government wrote this about Cedral in his report: “They have a small Catholic church in the village, but there having occurred several remarkable spiritualistic exhibitions among the inhabitants on the island, they have in consequence all turned spiritualists, and their church is neglected and about to fall down. Just on the edge of the village is an old ruin, which, these Indians say, was here at the time of the Spanish conquest, but they know nothing definite about it.” Later, sometime prior to 1909, the townsfolk of Cedral abandoned their “spiritualist” religion, returned to Roman Catholicism, and built a new church of poles and thatch next door to the Maya ruin that stands by today’s new stone and cement church.