Robert Calder’s A Hero for the Americas: The Legend of Gonzalo Guerrero is an impeccably-researched and compelling nonfiction title offering much to ingest, enjoy, and learn from. The GG award-winning author and Emeritus Professor (U of S) came to his subject as a frequent traveler to the Yucatán Peninsula, where the Spanish-born sailor Gonzalo Guerrero and numerous other conquistadors believed they’d find their fortunes.
A sculpture of Guerrero, “a powerful figure dressed as a Mayan warrior,” first piqued Calder’s interest in the enigmatic 16th Century hero, and indeed, Guerrero’s relatively unsung story (as compared to that of fellow conquistador, Hernán Cortés) has all the makings of a Hollywood blockbuster: adventure, battles, romance, and legacy.
The robust Andalusian sailor defied his country and Catholic religion after being shipwrecked (of nineteen, only Guerrero and fellow Spaniard Jerónimo de Aguilar survived) off the Yucatán Peninsula in 1512. Guerrero was enslaved by a Mayan chief; earned the tribe’s respect; married the chief’s daughter; became a Chactemal military captain; and fathered the first mestizaje children in Mexican history.
There’s more. Both Aguilar and Guerrero lived in Mayan captivity for seven years before the former happily reunited with the eventual Aztec-conquering Cortés, on Cozumel. Aguilar told an incredulous Cortés about their countryman who’d embraced Mayan culture, adopting everything from their language to unique tribal piercings and tattoos. Through Aguilar, Cortés compelled the “Spaniard-turned-Maya” to rejoin his countrymen, and Guerrero politely but definitively refused.
Calder writes that Guerrero’s legend as both a warrior and a father are integral. He explains that he hopes to help readers “trace [Guerrero’s] path through the tumultuous and quickly changing life of fifteenth-and sixteenth-century Spain and of the New World,” while allowing that the hero’s story straddles “the unstable border between history and fiction, between fact and folklore,” as Guerrero left no written account of his experience. Little’s even known of his death, though it’s suspected he died in Honduras, and his family likely “melted into the jungle”.
While Guerrero’s definitely the star of this story, the book’s also ripe with information on myriad subjects, including the history of maize; Queen Isabella’s admission that “she only had two baths in her life;” the historical Mayan practice of flattening a newborn’s head between two boards for several months “to [produce] a permanent sloping forehead and elongated skull … considered a mark of the ruling class;” and the Cortés-Malinche story. Malinche was the Nahua slave with the “aristocratic bearing” who was “given” to Cortés, acted as his interpreter, bore his son, and greatly aided in the Spanish conquest of the Aztecs. In contrast, Guerrero was “recast as the heroic opponent of Spanish hegemony”.
Calder illuminates a part of Mexican history that’s long lived in the shadows: the history of the mestizos, who make up 60% of Mexico’s population. This book ably demonstrates why a “plurality of perspectives” is critical, and while it should almost be required reading for all beach tourists in Mexico, it’s a lesson we can also take to heart in Canada.
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