Gonzalo Guerrero – The First European To Make Belize His Home
Statue by Raúl Ayala Arellano in Akumal, Quintana Roo commemorating Gonzalo Guerrero.
Without a terrible shipwreck and a harrowing set of experiences that followed, the unique ethnic group known as Mestizos wouldn’t exist today. The story of Gonzalo Guerrero exists in stark contrast to the later interactions between Europeans and locals. And it reveals a portrait of the Maya people that’s more nuanced and sophisticated than the traditional narrative of colonizers would have us believe. And it all started with a Spanish ship crashing off the Yucatan Peninsula.
The Trials of Gonzalo Guerrero
When Gonzalo Guerrero found himself on the shores of Belize, it wasn’t by choice. By 1511, he was a skilled conquistador who had demonstrated his talent with both a sword and his golden tongue — but his skills couldn’t save him from the whims of the Caribbean Sea. He was one of only 15 survivors when the ship Valdivia — which was shipping slaves and gold — crashed against the short of Northern Belize, and the Spanish warrior found himself a captive of the local Mayas. Thus began a period of slavery for Guerrero. The other survivors died around him until only himself and one other remained. They would escape their original captors only to end up in the company of other tribes who treated them better but considered them as slaves still. Both of these men would eventually assimilate into the culture of the Maya. When the Spanish conquest of Mexico began in 1819, the other survivor would flee back to Spain. Guerrero would stay among his captors. It wasn’t for a lack of trying on the part of the Spanish. Hernán Cortés, who would bring much of Mexico under the heel for the Spanish Empire, offered Guerrero a position among his army. It’s an offer that Guerrero — who had at this point had already adopted the piercings and facial tattoos popular among the Maya — refused directly.
Finding a New Place in Life
Slavery didn’t last forever, and a liberated Guerrero eventually found himself catching the eye of a man known as Nachan Can. As the leader of the region of Chactemal, he was a powerful individual — and he recognized the value that this soldier from across the seas could offer him. Between the time of his capture and the arrival of Cortés, Guerrero had become an accepted war chief and had fully embraced the clothing and customs of the Maya. So close was the bond that Nachan Can offered Guerrero the hand of his daughter — Princess Zazil Há — in marriage. For two decades, Guerrero would fight against his former kinsman on behalf of the people that the Spanish sought to subjugate. He understood that he wasn’t simply fighting to help his chosen tribe secure their homes. He was protecting his own home, including his wife and the three sons that they had together.
The Legacy of Gonzalo Guerrero
The Spanish saw Gonzalo Guerrero as a traitor, and it’s true that his valiant attempts to turn the tide of the Spanish conquest was ultimately futile. By 1532, Guerrero had been declared dead. The body of a naked and heavily tattooed European was found among the bodies of a battle in Çiçumba. Still loyal to Chactemal, Guerrero had arrived with 50 war canoes to help neighboring Çiçumba repel the invasion. He was only about 60 years old when he died, and much of his time before the shipwreck is unknown — either due to the simple passing of time or destruction of records on the part of the contemporary Spanish government.
Today, no first-person records from Gonzalo Guerrero exist. But while it’s said that history is written by the victors, the legacy of Guerrero’s heroics extends well beyond the pages of any book. As the first known Spanish man to wed and reproduce with a Maya woman, their three children are effectively the first Mestizos anywhere. Today, roughly half of Belize’s residents are of Mestizo heritage, and that rises to about 60% when you talk about Central America. And while this blending of cultures, unfortunately, came through a campaign of conquering that ran contradictory to Guerrero’s ideals, he and his bloodline represent the hope that indigenous American and European customs and sensibilities can work in conjunction with one another rather than being a dynamic of antagonistic subjugation.
Today, Belize is experiencing a similar migration. North Americans and Europeans, in particular, are recognizing the cultural richness and the natural beauty of this Caribbean nation, but they’re just the latest in a history of migrants that include the Afro-Caribbean Garifuna, the Mennonites, and the Chinese who have each added their own individual spice to the giant mixing pot that constitutes this country. Today’s Belize is a victory for the legacy of Gonzalo Guerrero and Zazil Há — a reminder that we become stronger when we welcome each other with open arms.