Gonzalo Guerrero (also known as Gonzalo Marinero, Gonzalo de Aroca and Gonzalo de Aroza) was a sailor from Palos, in Spain who shipwrecked along the Yucatán Peninsula and was taken as a slave by the local Maya. Earning his freedom, Guerrero became a respected warrior under a Maya Lord and raised three of the first mestizo children in Mexico and presumably the first mixed children of the mainland Americas. Little is known of his early life.
In 1511, sailing with 15 others including Gerónimo de Aguilar in a caravel from Panama and heading for Santo Domingo, he was shipwrecked. However, the crew managed to board the ship's lifeboat and drifted for two weeks along the Yucatán Peninsula until strong currents brought them to the shore of what is now Quintana Roo, in Mexico. On reaching land, Guerrero and the other members of the crew were captured by the local Maya.
Bernal Díaz de Castillo (Historia verdadera de la conquista de la Nueva España, Chapter XXIX) records Aguilar's account, whereby Mayans sacrificed some of the ship's crew almost immediately, while putting the rest into cages. The Europeans managed to escape, but other Mayan lords captured and enslaved them. By 1519, the year Hernán Cortés began his Conquest of Mexico, only two from the original shipwreck remained alive: Gonzalo Guerrero, who by this time had become famous in the Mayan world as a war leader for Nachan Can, Lord of Chactemal (which included parts of Mexico and Belize); and Gerónimo de Aguilar, who had taken holy orders in his native Spain. Guerrero had by then married Nachan Can's daughter Zazil Há and had fathered the first mestizo children in the region. Cortes also learned that it was Guerrero's suggestion which led to the earlier attack on Cordoba's expedition.:60–65
Reluctance to return
On arriving in Cozumel from Cuba, Cortés sent a letter by Maya messenger across to the mainland, inviting the two Spaniards, of whom he had heard rumors, to join him. Aguilar became a translator, along with Doña Marina, 'La Malinche', during the Conquest. According to the account of Bernal Díaz, when the newly freed friar attempted to convince Guerrero to join him, Gonzalo Guerrero responded:
Spanish: "Hermano Aguilar, yo soy casado y tengo tres hijos. Tienenme por cacique y capitán, cuando hay guerras, la cara tengo labrada, y horadadas las orejas. ¿Que dirán de mi esos españoles, si me ven ir de este modo? Idos vos con la bendición de Dios, que ya veis que estos mis hijitos son bonitos, y dadme por vida vuestra de esas cuentas verdes que traeis, para darles, y diré, que mis hermanos me las envían de mi tierra."
English Translation: "Brother Aguilar; I am married and have three children, and they look on me as a cacique (lord) here, and captain in time of war. My face is tattooed and my ears are pierced. What would the Spaniards say about me if they saw me like this? Go and God's blessing be with you, for you have seen how handsome these children of mine are. Please give me some of those beads you have brought to give to them and I will tell them that my brothers have sent them from my own country."
Díaz goes on to describe how Gonzalo's Mayan wife, Zazil Há, interrupted the conversation and angrily addressed Aguilar in her own language:
English Translation: "And the Indian wife of Gonzalo spoke to Aguilar in her own tongue very angrily and said to him, "What is this slave coming here for talking to my husband, - go off with you, and don't trouble us with any more words.""
Then Aguilar spoke to Guerrero again, reminding him of his Christian faith and warning him against throwing away his everlasting soul for the sake of an Indian woman. But he did not convince Gonzalo.
According to Robert S. Chamberlain, Francisco de Montejo discovered that Guerrero was the military captain of Chectumal. He tried to win him over by sending him a longish letter reminding him of his Christian faith, offering him his friendship and a complete pardon, and asking him to come to the caravel. Guerrero replied by writing on the back of the letter that he could not leave his Lord because he was a slave, "even though I am married and have a wife and children. I remember God, and you, Sir, and the Spaniards have a good friend in me."
Guerrero appears to have told his Maya friends and family that the Spaniards would suffer death like other men. He led the Maya in campaigns against Cortés and his lieutenants like Pedro de Alvarado and the Panamanian governor Pedrarias. Alvarado's instructions in his Honduras campaign included an order to capture Guerrero.
Oviedo reports Guerrero as dead by 1532, when Montejo's lieutenants Avila and Lujón arrived again in Chectumal. Andrés de Cereceda, in a letter to the Spanish King dated August 14, 1536, writes of a battle that occurred in late June 1536 between Pedro de Alvarado and a local Honduran cacique named Çiçumba. The naked and tattooed body of a Spaniard was found dead within Çiçumba's town of Ticamaya after the battle. According to Cereceda, this Spaniard had come over with 50 war-canoes from Chetumal early in 1536, to help Çiçumba fight the Spanish who were attempting to colonize his lands. The Spaniard was killed in the battle by an arquebus shot. Although Cereceda says the Spaniard was named Gonzalo Aroca, R. Chamberlain and other historians writing about the event identify the man as Gonzalo Guerrero. Guerrero was 50 years old when he died.
Knowledge of Guerrero's existence
There are no verified first-hand accounts written by Gonzalo Guerrero that have survived until today. The primary accounts of other people writing about him are our source of information. First, there is Geronimo de Aguilar, who says Guerrero was captured by the Maya at the same time as he was. Cortés exchanged letters with Guerrero, but did not meet him face to face. Bernal Díaz de Castillo wrote about the same events as Cortes. Cereceda found him dead on a battlefield in Honduras but never communicated with him. The initial Spanish attempts to chronicle the conquest, done in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries (Oviedo, Herrera), mention him, but are considered less accurate than the contemporary accounts.
Literary critic Rose-Anna M. Mueller, in an essay titled From Cult to Comics: The Representation of Gonzalo Guerrero as Cultural Hero in Mexican Popular Culture, surveys the numerous depictions of Guerrero from a reviled figure for the sixteenth-century Spanish invaders to founder of modern Mexico. Yet, like many symbols, the reality behind this myth remains very questionable.
Mueller concludes, 'while primary and secondary sources sketched Guerrero's history during the colonial period, today he has become a political and literary icon and has been transformed into a national myth... If he was reviled by the chroniclers, Guerrero has enjoyed a vindication of sorts, since he has become an exemplar who fills the need to connect the colonizers from Europe and the indigenous of the Americas in a domestic context'
Perhaps the most famous literary work celebrating Guerrero as the father of the mestizos in Mexico remains Gonzalo Guerrero: Novela historica by Eugenio Aguirre published in 1980 in Mexico. The novel became a national bestseller and went on to win the Paris International Academy's Silver Medal in 1981. Another popular book published in Mexico in 1999, Guerrero and Heart's Blood by Alan Clark tells of the inward life and history of Guerrero and Aguilar. Guerrero and Aguilar are central figures in the historical novel Maya Lord by John Coe Robbins which was published in the U.S. in 2011. "The Confessions of Gonzalo Guerrero", by John Reisinger, was published in 2015, and is an historical novel written from Guerrero's point of view, exploring his motivations and conflicts, as well as his relation with his Mayan wife.
American author David Stacton fictionalized Guerrerro's life and exploits in his novel A Signal Victory (1960). Recently republished by Faber & Faber, the work is "David Stacton's eighth novel, and the first in what he envisaged as an 'American Triptych'... [It] paints a vivid picture of the impact of two great civilisations upon each other [and of] Guerrero's story - that of a man who found where his true loyalties lay, and pursued them to their inevitable end."
Although Gonzalo Guerrero appears in various historical chronicles of the conquest of Mexico and media and his existence is historically attested, some accounts of him are contradictory. These, coupled with often missing facts and historical falsehoods, have led over the centuries to a continuous redefinition of the character. This process started with the chroniclers of the 16th century and culminated in the 20th century with the Mexican Indigenismo, each with their own motivation and interpretation.
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- Santiago (2001), 141-142.
- Diaz, B., 1963, The Conquest of New Spain, London: Penguin Books, ISBN 0140441239
- Historia verdadera de la conquista de la Nueva España, Chapter XI (in Spanish)
- Historia verdadera de la conquista de la Nueva España, Chapter XI (in Spanish)
- Conquest and Colonization of Yucatan, p.63
- Menna (2017)
- Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo, Historia General y Natural de las Indias, Book XXXII, Chapter VI, 1851, Madrid.
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- Santiago, Juan-Navarro; Theodore Robert Young (January 2001). A Twice-Told Tale: Reinventing the Encounter in Iberian/Iberian American Literature and Film. University of Delaware Press. ISBN 0-87413-733-0.
- Stefano Menna (2017). Gonzalo Guerrero e la frontiera dell'identità. Jouvence. ISBN 9788878015579.