Who was Gonzalo Guerrero?

Certainly, the Spanish conquest caused the natives suffering, but what if there was a figure who showed that the opposite was true as well? That is the shock of Gonzalo Guerrero, the story of a shipwrecked Spaniard in Yucatán, who defected from the Europeans, married a Mayan, and had two sons with her. On top of it all, reports circulated that Gonzalo Guerrero made himself into a Mayan warrior, and helped defend Yucatán from the invaders, even killing Spaniards himself!

Before saying any more, I should touch base with everyone. I have some news. I now have a tenure-track job at Auburn University as Assistant Professor of the Literature of Colonial Spanish America. We are excited to be in Alabama, where I can teach and research at one of the flagship institutions of the US southeast.

My first reaction was to say, “Oh well, there goes Forgotten Lives LA.” Then, my lovely and insightful wife Olivia suggested that instead of leaving the project behind, I should continue, and use blogging as a way to open a little window onto my research and teaching. So, here we are, and now I have a reason to blog more often. In the coming weeks, more news will come from Forgotten Lives, including highlights from our 2019 trips to Perú and México.

Back to Gonzalo. The shipwrecked Spaniard comes to mind this year especially. According to Spanish chroniclers, it was 500 years ago this year that Hernán Cortés & Company first arrived to Yucatán, and made their overland journey to Mexico-Tenochtitlan. In fact, November 8, 2019 marks the 500-year anniversary of the first meeting between Moteuczoma (which the Spanish chroniclers pronounced “Montezuma”) and Cortés on an earthen bridge in the middle of beautiful Lake Texcoco, where the native capital stood. This means that Gonzalo Guerrero, the shipwrecked Spaniard, is part of fabric of historical events that has changed the world.

On October 10, I will present a paper on Gonzalo Guerrero at MIFLC (Mountain Interstate Foreign Language Conference) here at Auburn University. Below is the abstract for the presentation. Gonzalo Guerrero gives us plenty of surprises, and invites to us to take a fresh view of the early colonial period. He helps us to shift our focus to indigenous memories and literature at this 500-year anniversary of colonial encounters in Mexico.

What have you been up to? It would be great to hear from you. What do you think about Gonzalo Guerrero?

Gonzalo Guerrero at 500: Encounter,

(Mis)representation, and the Limits of Spanish Knowledge in Yucatán


            According to Spanish chronicles, in 1519 Diego Velásquez, Cuba’s governor, sent Hernán Cortés to find Gerónimo de Aguilar and Gonzalo Guerrero, survivors of an expedition shipwrecked in Yucatán. Cortés found Aguilar, who returned to the Spanish with relief. Yet regarding Gonzalo Guerrero, only a loose thread joins the chroniclers’ varied recollections of his life. All agree that Guerrero refused to return: he remained in the jungle, content with his Mayan wife and —by some accounts— their sons. Over time, Spanish chroniclers modified the story of Gonzalo Guerrero, at times adding contradictory details. Together, their inconsistencies cast doubt on even his existence. Rolena Adorno has observed that the patchy evidence reveals the construction of the nativized Spaniard as a literary figure. He simultaneously personifies the chroniclers’ disappointment from early defeat at Mayan hands and their uneasiness towards horizons of cultural and biological hybridity. In this paper, I examine the Gonzalo Guerrero story, drawing on Enrique Dussel’s notion of the Americas as a European invention and Terry Goldie’s observations on western representations of indigeneity. Understanding that the invention of Guerrero signals the Spanish failure to conquer Yucatán, I propose that Spanish failure points to native success in the form of cultural survival. Native successes remain in pictorial sources from before and during the colonial period —including the Lienzo de Tlaxcala, the Madrid Codex, and the Songs of Dzitbalché— all of which offer further correctives to the blurred lines between history and literature in the Gonzalo Guerrero story.

Bronze statue of Gonzalo Guerrero and his family, Chetumal, Quintana Roo. The statue commemorattes the various memories from Spanish chroniclers of the legendary figure.

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