Tag Archives: cortes

Contrasting Transitions:Guerrero and Aguilar Among the Maya

By Randy Jackson

The path of human history is a story of successive transitions. Few transitions are peaceful enough to allow the individuals affected to adjust without a personal cost. The greatest historical transitions are the collapse of civilizations. Pre-Conquest, and over the course of 3,000 years, Mexico has had seven major civilizations: The Olmec, the unknown culture or cultures that built Teotihuacán, Zapotec, Mixtec, the Maya, the Toltec, and the Aztec. The last of these civilizations, the Aztec, ended with the Spanish Conquest.

When wandering the ruins of some of these ancient civilizations, I believe one question intrigues us all: What was it like to be a person living in those ancient times? Anthropologists and archaeologists can articulate many aspects of the daily lives of people in these civilizations surprisingly well. These aspects are things people did, how they lived, even what they might have believed. But, except for the leaders of these civilizations, very little is known about any individual, especially individuals who had witnessed the transition of one civilization to another.

Two exceptions to this are Gerónimo de Aguilar and Gonzalo Guerrero. These two Spanish men survived a shipwreck and were washed up on the shores of the Yucatan in 1511, eight years before the arrival of Cortés. There were between twelve and fifteen men in all who washed ashore that day. Some were killed (their leaders likely sacrificed); the remaining men were all enslaved. All but two died or were killed in the following years.

The only two men to survive, Aguilar and Guerrero, escaped their initial enslavement and ended up among a rival Mayan group. Among this second group the Spaniards were treated somewhat better. By working hard, over some years they were able to integrate with the Mayan people and learned to speak their language.

The different ways these two men integrated into the Mayan society seems to have been a function of the type of person each man was. Aguilar was educated in the Catholic Church and was a Franciscan friar. As a man of faith, he kept his Christian faith and persevered in his time among the Maya. He hung onto some hope that he might, one day, return to Spanish society and even Spain. Less is known about Guerero’s upbringing, except that he was likely a fisherman before joining a Spanish crew heading to the new world. Guerrero distinguished himself in battle fighting for his Mayan compatriots. He became a warrior chief, he married a woman named Zazil Ha, the daughter of the cacique (chieftain) and had a family.

When Cortés approached the Mexican coast, he first stopped on the island of Cozumel for some ship repairs. While there, the Spaniards were approached by a canoe of Mayans. To the Spaniards bewilderment and surprise one of the Mayans asked in Spanish, “Gentleman, are you Christians?” This person was Gerónimo de Aguilar, indistinguishable to the Spaniards from his Mayan companions.

Aguilar had adapted and survived his Mayan captivity. With Aguilar’s ability to speak Mayan he was of great service to Cortés and when teamed up with Malinche (an amazing former noblewoman with command of several Mexican languages – see The Eye, March 2021), Aguilar had a front row seat to the Spanish conquest of Mexico. The societal collapse Aguilar watched was from the perspective of a Spaniard and conqueror.

Gonzalo Guerrero’s perspective was fundamentally different. Before leaving for Cozumel to meet up with Spanish, Aguilar went to Guerrero to tell him about the Spanish ship and to see if Guerrero would join him in meeting with the Spanish. Guerrero refused, telling Aguilar he would never be accepted back into Spanish society. He was tattooed and had nose rings and ear plugs in the Mayan style. And besides, Guerrero added, “And look at how handsome these boys of mine are.”

Cortés and his conquistadors passed through the Yucatán and went on to defeat the Aztecs in the Valley of Mexico. The Mayan peoples proved much more difficult for the Spaniards to overcome. It took them decades, and the lives of hundreds of Spanish soldiers, to subdue the Yucatán. The successful Mayan resistance is likely the result of having Gonzalo Guerrero to advise them.

The first Spanish attempt to subdue the Mayan Yucatán was in 1527, six years after the fall of the Aztecs at Tenochtitlán. Francisco de Montejo led a group of Spanish soldiers on this mission; his first effort was to try to get Guerrero on his side. From a ship in the Bahia de Chetumal, Montejo was successful in getting a letter to Guerrero promising to “honor and benefit” him if he became one of Montejo’s “principal men.” Guerrero responded, writing on the back of the letter in charcoal. He once again refused to join his former countrymen.

Montejo’s attempt to conquer the Yucatán was unsuccessful. The Mayans used guerilla tactics, as well as craftily supplying the Spaniards with misinformation. These tactics were considered to have originated with Guerrero. The heat, mosquitos and the Yucatán jungle did the rest. There were further excursions and some battles with the Mayans, but by 1535 the only Spaniard living in the Yucatan was Gonzalo Guerrero. By this time Guerrero had been among the Maya for twenty five years. Earlier, in 1531, Guerrero’s former compatriot, Gerónimo de Aguilar, had died near Mexico City on his encomiendia (an estate allowed to exact tribute from the native population after the Conquest).

Then in 1536, the Spanish attacked and overwhelmed a Mayan cacique named Çiçumba at a fortress in Ticamaya, Honduras. After the battle, among the dead, Spanish soldiers found a bearded man in native dress killed by a shot from an arquebus, an early long gun. The Spanish commander, Alvarado, reported that the man was Gonzalo Guerrero. Stories say he arrived from Chetumal with 50 canoes of warriors to support Çiçumba.

The dictionary definition of “transition” is “the process or a period of changing from one state or condition to another.” It’s hard to imagine a greater transition than a civilization collapsed by conquest. Millions of people living in what is now Mexico at the time suffered unknown hardships and death. So many individual stories that will always remain unknown to us. As for Gerónimo de Aguilar and Gonzalo Guerrero, we know the main structure of their lives, the decisions they made, some of the things they faced in life, even how they died. Their stories are grand and the transitions they faced are recorded for all times.

Malinche and the Spanish Conquest of Mexico

By Randy Jackson

Up until 500 years ago, the civilizations of Mesoamerica and Europe had been unknown to each other, completely unconnected since the beginnings of human history. But on November 8, 1519, representatives of these two vastly different civilizations met face to face for the first time. They met on a causeway of the splendorous city of Tenochtitlán (now Mexico City).

There now exist many imagined illustrations of this historical event. Any such illustration is without merit unless it shows one of the most important people at that moment. The one person who could enable the representatives of these two civilizations to communicate. That person was a woman known as Malinche. She was the one person on earth who could speak both the language of the Aztec emperor Moctezuma, and the European language of the upstart conqueror Cortés.

Moctezuma and members of his court would have referred to this woman as Malintzin, as ‘tzin’ in Nahuatl denotes honour to the person. Malintzin / Malinche (Doña María to the Spanish) was more than a mere translator. She was from a family of high social standing. She was educated, she was trained in negotiation, and she had a tremendous ability to speak and learn new languages. And in a stroke of bizarre good luck for the Conquistadors, Malinche was a slave to the Mayan peoples when Cortés landed in what is now Mexico.

As Cortés approached the Caribbean coast of Mexico, he presumed he was arriving at a large island like Cuba. He was expecting the peoples of this land to be similar to those of Cuba and Dominica. He could not have imagined a land with a flourishing civilization, with roads and cities, with markets and armies, with engineers and tax collectors. Cortés, without any information about this society and its structures, might not have succeeded in his base desires for gold, conquest, and adventure. Cortés did not know it upon arrival, but he needed someone versed in the workings of this civilization, someone who understood the different peoples, languages, and societal structures, someone who could negotiate with the different peoples of this land. Malinche was uniquely qualified for this.

Upon their arrival in the Yucatan in 1519, after some initial skirmishes with the Mayans, the Spanish were given twenty women slaves to appease them and to secure an alliance. Among the women slaves, they immediately recognized that Malinche was special. Cortés was told of Malinche’s royal heritage. Bernal Díaz, a conquistador with Cortés, noted in his book The True History of the Conquest of New Spain, that Malinche’s noble heritage was very evident in her appearance and demeanor.

When Cortés arrived in the Yucatán, there were two Spaniards who survived a 1511 shipwreck, one was Gerónimo de Aguilar. He was presented to Cortés by the Mayans. By this time Aguilar had learned to speak the Mayan language. Cortés quickly realized that with Aguilar speaking Mayan, and Malinche’s ability to speak Mayan and other Mexican languages, he could communicate with, and learn about, the different peoples of Mexico, and use that knowledge to his advantage.

Besides Díaz’s book, there are few historical documents that provide the scant history of the person we know as Malinche. She was likely born in the year 1500. Evidence of Malinche’s privileged class rests in part with her ability to speak the royal court language of Tecpillatolli (“lordly speech”) which is significantly different from the common tongue. It was the language spoken by Moctezuma. Before the Spanish conquest, children of elite families of Mexico were educated starting at the age of seven. Girls and boys were taught Tecpillatolli, along with such subjects as geometry and religion. They were also taught negotiation and public speaking, as these skills were central to the functioning of their society. Malinche’s negotiations for Cortés have often been cited as significant in helping him obtain allies to oppose the Aztecs.

Around the age of twelve, Malinche’s father died and her mother remarried. Bernal Díaz wrote that Malinche was sold into slavery to favor the male child of her mother’s new marriage. Díaz reports that Malinche was taken away at night to avoid social censure of her parents. For seven years, until the time of Cortés’s arrival, Malinche was traded or exchanged as a slave. Women were often given as gifts or traded to secure alliances between groups, and Malinche would have been seen as a prize gift. She was 19 years old when she was given to Cortés. By the time Cortés met Moctezuma, 10 months later, Malinche could speak Spanish.

The significance of Malinche’s role in the conquest of Mexico seems indisputable. Various codices (contemporary illustrated manuscripts) depict Malinche being as significant a figure as either Cortés or Moctezuma. In fact, Moctezuma referred to Cortés as Malintzin. The life-story, talents, and courage of this intriguing woman suggests a person with real strength of character. All of Malinche’s strengths worked to Cortés’s advantage. The military advantages of Spanish guns, steel and horses would not have been sufficient to defeat the Aztecs without the help of tens of thousands of warriors from alliances – alliances negotiated by Malinche.

After the conquest and after having a son by Malinche, Cortés “gave” her to one of his officers: Juan de Jaramillo. Jaramillo married Malinche and together they had a daughter. Then in 1528 at the age of 28, Malanche died of a European disease along with tens of millions of her countrymen. There are no records of the words of Malinche, only a few second-hand accounts of her role in the Spanish Conquest.

Through the succeeding centuries the mythic Malinche has been interpreted in various ways. To the Spanish she was portrayed as the Mother of New Spain. To Mexicans, starting around the time of the struggle for independence from Spain, Malinche was seen as a traitor. In fact, the word malinchista, still used today, is an insult, meaning a traitor and a fornicator with foreigners.

Before the Spanish Conquest, the peoples of Mesoamerica did not see themselves as one people commonly opposed to this new European group. They were Tlaxcalans, or Aztecs or Mayans, or one of many very different groups that had distinctly different languages and were often in conflict with each other. In this context how should Malinche be remembered? As a traitor – to whom? She was a woman who was traded (no doubt raped and abused) by different groups until February 1519, when one of these groups gave Malinche to this new group – the Spaniards.

All interpretations of Malinche seem self-serving. To those who sought independence from Spain she represented a traitor. To the Catholic Church, Malinche was a temptress like Eve in the Garden of Eden – Diego Rivera portrayed her in an Aztec market, crowned with callas (an erotic symbol) and lifting her skirts, in one of the murals in the National Palace in Mexico City. To the Spanish Malinche represented the romantic notion that she was the mother of New Spain, or romantic partner of Cortés. In fact, Cortés had 4 children (that we know of) with different women of Mexico – two of which were with Moctozuma’s daughters.

None of these interpretations seem to hold any respect for this central person in such a fascinating chapter in the course of human history. Malinche was a woman of her times. Someone who used her unique talents, education and experience. She overcame unimaginable obstacles when discarded by her noble family and traded as a slave. She acted with agency in creating her own mark on the history of the world. Now, 500 years later, the life and experiences of this remarkable woman stands as one of the most enthralling characters in the Spanish Conquest of Mexico.

The History of the Cow in Mexico

By Kary Vannice

In 1521, Capitan Gregorio de Villalobos set sail, probably out of Santo Domingo on the island of Hispaniola, but there’s evidence he left from Cuba, heading for Veracruz, Mexico, with some heavy weight contraband on board – contraband that would forever change the culture and landscape of North America. Below decks he harbored six cows and one bull, at a time when cattle trading was strictly prohibited in Mexico.

Cattle, first brought to the Caribbean islands by Christopher Columbus, had not yet made their way to Mexico. Spanish stock raisers, afraid they would lose their monopoly for the supply of cattle to the Spanish settlements, had petitioned the crown to institute severe restrictions on the delivery of brood stock to Mexico. They had good reason – the vast landscapes of Mexico made for ideal grazing country.

Modern day cows come from a breed of animal that was domesticated about 10,000 years ago in Asia. This huge beast, called an auroch, was about twice the size of a cow today and originated in India, spread into China, then the Middle East, and eventually to northern Africa and finally to Europe.

When European sailors brought cattle to the Caribbean islands they were a thin-legged, wiry Moorish-Andalusian breed known as “black cattle” (ganado prieto). Turned loose and left on their own, it didn’t take long in their new lush surroundings for them to evolve into the heavy-boned, swift breed that Villalobos smuggled into Mexico.

These first cows arrived in Mexico just as Cortés and his men were completing their conquest of the indigenous peoples of Mexico. By the end of 1521, the conquistadors had all the money and power they could want, but they found the local meat supply not to their liking. Thus, Cortes himself petitioned King Charles V of Spain to lift the restriction on cattle importation.

To supply his men with the meat they desired, Cortés developed a breeding program in the high-altitude valley of Mexicalzimgo (around what is now San Mateo Mexicaltzingo, south of Toluca) and started the tradition of cattle raising in Mexico. The modern-day practice of branding is even attributed to Cortes, who it is said branded all his cattle with three crosses, the first brand recorded in North America.

Soon, missionaries also arrived on the shores of Mexico. As they established communities around their new age culture and religion, rich European landowners mounted native Indians on well-trained horses and began teaching them to handle cattle using methods originating from the Iberian Peninsula in Spain. Missions became the impetus for encouraging the local indigenous people to raise livestock, to supply a steady stream of meat to the growing population of Anglos arriving from Europe.

Native cow handlers quickly blended their local knowledge with their new skill of horsemanship and surpassed their European counterparts in both skill and precision. The wide open spaces of Northern Mexico became a major center for raising cattle. Ranching, farming and trading of livestock became the primary economic activity in that region, which we know today as Texas.

Over the next two hundred and fifty years, the cattle industry grew in Mexico, which at the time included New Mexico, Utah, Nevada, Arizona, California, Texas, and western Colorado. With such a vast territory and no way to contain herds to a specific tract of land, huge roundups were often held to collect cattle for sale and transport. With their expert horsemanship and roping skills, the hard-riding vaqueros and charros controlled the chaos and laid the foundation for our modern day cowboy culture.

During the Mexican-American War of 1846-48, the number of wild cattle increased as ranchers on both sides turned their attention toward the war effort and no longer had time to organize the huge roundups required to regroup the scattered herds.

After the war ended, with a newly established border, the two countries developed common routes for moving large amounts of cattle between the north and south. The most famous was the Chisholm Trail, which became the path for the greatest movement of cattle ever known. This established a trade network for cattle between the two North American countries and cemented a strong ranching culture in both countries that remains to this day.

An extension of ranching culture in both the USA and Mexico is the rodeo, where charros show off their skills in horsemanship, cow handling, and bull riding. Another Spanish tradition that would not exist without the cow, and is still practiced today in some Mexican cities, is the bull fight.

While the ranching and cowboy culture remain strong in many of the states in both Mexico and the United States, the cattle industry has largely become an industrial affair. Today, industrially raised cattle account for nearly half of the cattle in each country.

In 2016, Mexico reported over 16 million head of cattle within its borders, the vast majority of which would not be considered “open range” cattle, but instead are raised in feedlots to produce meat for both Mexican and foreign markets.

In 2019 beef ranked 58th among Mexico’s top 100 exports, bringing in over a billion dollars in revenue for the country. And that amount does not take into account any of the byproducts such as tallow, rawhide, bones, horns and hooves.

The 2020 beef export numbers may be even stronger because of the pandemic. When factories in the United States were forced to shut down due to COVID-19 protocols, Mexico beef producers came to the rescue. Between January and May, Mexico’s meat export numbers were 32.6% higher than they were in 2019.

So, from its first illegal origins on the shores of Mexico 500 years ago, the humble cow has not only shaped a distinct part of Mexican culture but has also become a major economic contributor to the Mexican economy.