Gonzalo Guerrero, from Shipwrecked Prisoner to Father and Mayan Leader
A Spanish sailor shipwrecked on foreign shores is captured by the natives and survives great perils before finally being accepted by them. He falls in love with a princess and has three children with her. Adopting the ways of his wife’s race, later he turns against his countrymen who come as conquistadors and dies trying to drive the invaders out of Mayan lands. It may sound like the plot for a Hollywood blockbuster, but this is the story of the life of Gonzalo Guerrero, the padre del mestizaje, father of the first children born to a European man and a native Mexican woman, in this case a Mayan noblewoman. This year marks the 500th anniversary of the arrival of Gonzalo Guerrero, who was washed up on the shores of the Mexican Caribbean.
In 1511, a Spanish galleon sailing from Central America and bound for the port of Santo Domingo on the Caribbean island of Hispaniola was blown off course by a terrible storm and shipwrecked on the east coast of the Yucatán Peninsula. A handful of survivors were cast ashore, among them the captain, several women, Friar Jerónimo de Aguilar and Gonzalo Guerrero, a sailor from the town of Palos in Spain.
The castaways were surrounded by a band of Mayan warriors and dragged before the Halach Uinic or ruler of the province of Ecab in northern Quintana Roo. At the urging of his priests and elders, he decided to sacrifice some of them to appease the gods and enslave the rest. Years passed, and one by one the captives succumbed to disease, overwork and harsh treatment. Only Jerónimo de Aguilar and Gonzalo Guerrero survived and when it became clear that their lives were once again in danger, they managed to escape and fled into the forest.
They were soon recaptured by the wood-crafty Maya and became the slaves of another chieftain or cacique, the ruler of Xaman-Há (now Playa del Carmen). Noticing the strength and bravery of Guerrero, he gave him to the ruler of the province of Chactemal (modern-day Chetumal), where the Spaniard gained the trust of the chief and his subjects and became a nacom or Mayan warrior. He also found favor with a beautiful Mayan noblewoman whom he married and they had three children.
In 1519, when the Spanish expedition led by Hernán Cortés reached Cozumel, Cortés heard tales of “bearded men who resembled the Spaniards and who were not from the area, living among the Maya.” He was intrigued and sent messages and a ransom for Jerónimo de Aguilar who was subsequently reunited with his countrymen and served as their translator. Gonzalo Guerrero, however, sent a message to Aguilar saying: “Brother Aguilar, I am married and have three children and they look on me as a cacique here, and a captain in time of war…My face is tattooed and my ears are pierced. What would the Spaniards say if they saw me like this? And look how handsome these children of mine are!”*
On learning that Guerrero had suggested to the Maya that they attack the 1517 expedition led by his predecessor Francisco Hernández de Cordoba, a soldier who subsequently died of his wounds, Cortés exclaimed, “I wish I could get my hands on him, for it will never do to leave him here.” Left with no choice, Cortés reluctantly abandoned the idea of searching for Guerrero and set sail for the west. In 1521, the mighty Aztec empire fell to Cortés and his handful of soldiers.
Gonzalo Guerrero did indeed turn against his countrymen, knowing that their hunger for conquest, land and riches would lead to the downfall of the Maya. In 1527, the Spaniards turned their sights on the Yucatán Peninsula and the campaign to subdue the population began. Resistance was fierce and in 1536, Gonzalo Guerrero died in battle alongside his warriors in Puerto Caballos, Honduras, as he tried to defend his family and his adopted people. In death he had become a Mayan leader.
You can see statues of Gonzalo Guerrero and his Mayan family in Akumal and Chetumal and a painting by renowned artist Fernando Castro Pachecho on the first floor of the State Government Offices in Mérida, Yucatán.
* From The Conquest of New Spain written by Bernal Díaz de Castillo, a member of the Cortés expedition.