This is the story of how Gonzalo Guerrero and Mayan princess Zazil Ha took the first step in creating the racially diverse society that Latin America is today
Latin America is a part of the world whose entire population is of mixed race and ethnic heritage. ‘Mestizo’ is the name given to those of mixed European and Amerindian descent. There are of course, a multitude of people of African descent, Native American, Asian, and even Arabic blood, yet in most Latin nations the Mestizo ethnic group makes up the dominant population. One might wonder, as to how it started and who were the first human beings to begin intermixing themselves between races?
One man, sowed the first seeds
In the year 1511, during the first years of the Spanish conquest of the ‘New World’, one Gonzalo Guerrero found himself voyaging from his homeland Spain – across the Atlantic Ocean. The ship progressed all the way to what is now the Yucatan peninsula on the Mexican Caribbean coast yet it suffered a fatal crash whereupon the vessel sunk in rough waters. Only Guerrero and one other survived the ordeal. Guerrero and Jeronimo de Aguilla periled onto the mainland whereupon they were swiftly captured by the tribe of war chief ‘Xamancaan’.
Where Guerrero’s story began
The two men behaved very differently under captivity. Modern historians state that their captors were Mayan warriors, which would have undoubtedly been a truly terrifying ordeal - at first. One conjures up images from Mel Gibson’s movie - ‘Apocalypto Now’. Jeronimo de Aguilla maintained his strict Catholic code bounding himself to his religion and European habits. Guerrero on the other hand was an open man, he quickly developed an intense appreciation for the Mayan culture and over time began to transform himself into a member of their tribe.
He was finally granted his liberty by the captors on proving himself as a man to be respected when he heroically saved the life of one warrior by the name of ‘Nacom Balam’. With this, he was accepted as a warrior and rose to take Balam’s position as a commander whereupon Guerrero taught the Mayans battle tactics, which having come from Europe where far more advanced than those deployed by the Native Amerindians.
At this point, he underwent a drastic transformation tattooing himself and obtaining piercings as was the custom amongst Mayan men. Learning the Mayan tongue, he immersed himself in their ways and finally married one of their most beautiful princesses – Zazil Ha. She bore him three children, which bound Guerrero even more with his new people.
Why was this significant? These children, were thus recorded as the first three children of mixed European and Amerindian ethnicity… The ‘Mestizo’ was born.
Eight years later, another important chapter of his life took place. Hernan Cortes, the famed Conquistador, landed with his fleet on the shores of present day Cozumel (Yucatan, Mexico). Guerrero’s companion De Aguilla was liberated. On being offered the chance to return to Spain by Cortes himself, Guerrero – to the Spaniards’ astonishment – declined. He argued that he was happily married, had three children and that now his life was with the Maya. This was not taken well by Cortes nor his fellow Spaniards.
Another Mayan chieftain, ‘Cicumba’ had been engaging himself in the fight against the Spanish Conquistadors for ten years. He commanded over what is now present day Honduras. At one point, Cicumba was suddenly caught off guard by the enemy and made a retreat with his warriors for the river Ulua whereupon they built defensive barriers. Guerrero rallied together eighty warriors to which they set off in the pursuit of aiding Cicumba. Guerrero (which in Spanish happens to mean ‘warrior’) was now making it clear that his loyalty resided with the Maya and not his countrymen.
He was prepared to cross mighty distances to defend distant cousins of his new family. This was to be his last great act of loyalty and courage. During the battle of the river, the thick palisades constructed by the Mayan warriors were proving impregnable for the Spaniards despite their advanced weaponry and horsepower. Eventually, due to sheer perseverance on the Spanish part – their defences fell.
It was there that Guerrero was mortally wounded by a stray arrow. Whilst succumbing to his wound, before death he asked his closest allies to look after his children. The Spanish advance forced the Maya to retreat whereupon Guerrero’s corpse made its way into the hands of his countrymen. The Spanish dragged it to their camp where he was examined. It was said that he had the “body and appearance of an ‘Indio’ yet the beard of a Christian”.
Before sunrise, the Maya broke into the Spanish encampment with the mission of retrieving Guerrero’s body. They succeeded. As a final farewell and honouring of their beloved foreign brother, his body was placed into the river as they agreed that the strong current would wash him back into the ocean – from ‘where he came’.
Over time, over many centuries of continued Spanish and Portuguese advance across Latin America, European men procreated with scores of native women. Historians state that many were systematically raped whilst others beg to differ with accounts of native women leaving their men to offer themselves out of free will to the ‘white invaders’. It is agreed by most, that both cases occurred.
The story of Gonzalo Guerrero however, is unique. His, was undoubtedly the most romantic and indeed ‘important’ for it was he who fathered the first children of mixed heritage on what is now the continent of Latin America.
Latin American Post | Benjamin Anson
Copy edited by Susana Cicchetto