Monday morning will be the first Monday morning in many weeks that hasn’t completely sucked balls. This is mostly because instead of sitting around fluorescent-lit cubicles debating the pros and cons of committing seppuku with an ordinary pair of non-lefty scissors, we’ll be spending the vast majority of our work/school days dreaming about the dozens of El Grande Presidente Margaritas and sombreros full of guacamole and triple-tequila infused Dos Equis we’re going to shotgun at whatever badass Cinco de Mayo party we plan on attending. And that’s great. A truly noble endeavor worthy of the annals of history. But while you guys are all out there navigating through salsa-dancing gyrating fields of hot girls in “Hecho en Mexico” half-shirts in your noble quest to cram dual-wielded fistfuls of quadruple-stuffed quesadillas in your faces like that burrito-eating hamster, don’t forget that Mexico also boasts a badass history that includes hardcore shit ranging from giant stone pyramids full of heart-mutilating human sacrifices to awesomely-mustached shotgun-slinging revolutionaries with bandoliers of rifle bullets fighting for independence by crashing locomotives full of explosives into enemy fortifications.
I’ve already discussed how the Cinco de Mayo holiday is the annual celebration of badass 19th-century Mexican warrior Ignacio Zaragoza defending his homeland by carving his name into the armies of France at the head of a bad-as-hell armada of machete-wielding Danny Trejos, but this week I’ll feature another truly unsung hero from early Mexican history – Gonzalo Guerrero. A guy who to this day is mentioned as being basically the first of the modern-day Mexicans, and a guy who’s story reads like a real-life Avatar, Last Samurai, or Dances with Wolves except with more cannibalism and shipwrecks and explosions and instead of morphing himself blue and dicking around in some dumb forest the dude pierces his septum with a stick and gets a fucking tattoo on his face.
As tends to be the case with many great badasses, we don’t know much about Gonzalo Guerrero’s past. One story claims that he was a badass Spanish mercenary who enlisted in the military at the age of 17 and fought on the front lines as a soldier of fortune against the hated Moors during the Reconquista, charging screaming towards imposing Muslim fortifications in a steel breastplate, armed with a sharp Spanish steel sword and a single-shot matchlock arquebus rifle. After the final defeat of the Moors by Isabella of Castille, Guerrero was out of battles to fight, so he offered his services to join Christopher Columbus on his fateful voyage to the New World. Sailing the uncharted reaches of the Atlantic Ocean aboard the Nina, Guerrero landed on Hispanola, ended up in Cuba, and decided to stay behind and man the garrison of a Spanish fort that had been built to maintain order in the region by shooting the shit out of any uppity Natives who were opposed to the idea of having a Spanish Empire forged on their backs in their own homeland. That this guy fought in the Reconquista and participated in the first journey from Europe to the New World and all it accounts for is a short opening paragraph in his biography should tell you something about how badass he is.
Around 1511, Guerrero took part in a violent Spanish raid to plunder gold, food, slaves, and silver from present-day Colombia, but as his treasure-laden ship was making its way back to Cuba a massive storm – possibly a hurricane – came flying in out of nowhere and teabagged the Spaniards with torrential rain, bad karma, and sixty mile an hour winds. Smashed by the winds and tossed around by the waves, the mast splintered off Guerrero’s ship, and a huge chunk of wood brained the Spanish mercenary, sending him careening over the railing and into the swirling black waters of the rain-drenched Caribbean.
Swimming through the stiff currents in near-zero visibility, Guerrero somehow fought his way to a lifeboat that had been dropped into the water by some of the crew. Hauling himself aboard, Guerrero and his fellow sailors waited out the storm, which smashed their caravel into splinters and left them adrift alone on the high seas in a tiny little lifeboat with no sails or oars. Dead in the water, the 20 survivors drifted at sea for over two weeks.
When the ship finally came within sight of the shore, only 8 sailors remained. In order to survive, those eight had sustained themselves by eating the uncooked bodies of the others who had perished. Without salt or queso or sriracha or anything.
The exhausted, dehydrated, sunburned survivors struggled to the shore, landed on the coast of Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula, and immediately came face-to-face with a terrifyingly hardcore band of tatted-up angry Mayan warriors.
The Spaniards were immediately taken prisoner, and brought back to the king of whatever city-state these warriors had come from. Now, as I mentioned in my piece on Yuknoom the Great, the Mayans were badass as fuck, and these guys weren’t exactly thrilled to see a group of bizarre white-skinned weirdoes landing on their shores like they owned the place. Thinking this whole "hey here's some white people" thing was a sign from the gods, the Mayans immediately sacrificed four of the Spaniards by cutting out their hearts and eating them. The other four, including Guerrero, were thrown in cages to be sacrificed later.
Well, yeah… fuck that. Within a few days, Gonzalo Guerrero and his fellow mercenaries gathered enough strength to attempt an escape. They broke out of their cages, ran for it, and fled into the completely-unknown jungles of the Yucatan, figuring that death by jaguar bite to the skull was probably preferable to having Mola Ram Kali Ma your ass in front of all your buddies.
Naturally, the group of fugitives was captured again, this time by warriors of a different Mayan city-state. And these guys didn’t sacrifice the Spanish, they simply enslaved them and worked them so hard that two more guys died from exhaustion.
Dude can’t catch a break.
So now only two Spaniards remained – Gonzalo Guerrero and a Franciscan friar named Geronimo de Aguilar. Geronimo stayed true to his Spanish roots, saying his prayers every day and asking God for deliverance from his miserable existence, but Guerrero was actually kind of starting to dig this Mayan shit. He started wearing native-style clothing, learned the language, got some kickass tattoos on his face, pierced his nose with a stick, and eventually won his freedom in the most badass way imaginable – by saving his tribe’s chief from an alligator attack by kicking the fucking alligator’s ass in hand-to-hand combat. Guerrero got out of slavery, bought Geronimo’s freedom, and immediately went about turning his Mayan city-state from a tiny little kingdom into an all-powerful Mayan war machine of death and destruction.
Gonzalo Guerrero, a lifetime war-monger who kicked ass from Cordoba to Cuba and survived anything and everything the universe threw at him, started teaching European-style military tactics to the Mayans. He taught them to build fortifications, how to organize into military units, and how to launch full-scale assaults or minor hit-and-run raids. He drilled them in tactics and technique. He commanded them in raids and battles against rival Mayan tribes, building up power and prestige for his king by charging full-on into battle armed with a blowgun, a spear, and an obsidian sword and massacring all who stood in his path in a torrential rampage of carnage.
Thanks to his impeccable ability to smite and annihilate all that stood before him in a fury of massive sword wounds to the skull, Gonzalo Guerrero became more and more powerful in his tribe. Eventually, his chief hooked him up to marry the Mayan princess Zazil Ha, and together the newlyweds produced the first Mestizo children conceived in Mexico. Guerrero and Zazil Ha had three sons together, and eventually took over the operation of a prestigious temple located on a powerful trade route between some of the Mayan land’s wealthiest city-states.
Then, something weird happened.
The Spanish showed up.
After hearing several rumors of mysterious white men living in the Mexican jungles, the Spanish Conquistador Hernan Cortes landed on the Yucatan to see what the hell was going on. He somehow tracked Guerrero and Geronimo down, came to visit them in their kingdom, and offered to take these marooned sailors home – a good eight years after they’d been shipwrecked and presumed dead.
Friar Geronimo was ecstatic. He threw his arms around Cortes, thanked the Lord for answering his prayers, and went for the high-five bro-hug with Gonzalo Guerrero.
But Guerrero left him hanging. He wasn’t going anywhere.
In Spain, Gonzalo Guerrero had known only war and destruction. Among the Maya, he had a wife, a nice home, a place of power, and a new life. He told his old comrade-in-arms Friar Geronimo:
"I married a Mayan woman, have three children, am chief and captain, taken their ways with tattoos, pierced ears and scared face…this is my place.”
Friar Geronimo tried several times to convince him to come, but Guerrero had made his decision. He stayed behind.
From Zorro villain to native berserker in three easy steps.
Guerrero lived among the Maya for another 13 years, earning himself and his family a place of honor among the tribe. He helped his people win wars against their rivals and expand their influence throughout the region. Then, around the 1530s, the Spanish Conquistadors showed up looking to ravage and pillage the lands. Again, Guerrero came to the aid of his people, leading them in combat against his former countrymen, battling the forces of Pedro de Alvarado when their arrived to try and conquer the Maya. His knowledge of the European style of warfare allowed his people to win a few early encounters, delaying the advance of the Spanish up from Honduras into Mexico.
Gonzalo Guerrero, the 50-year-old badass Spanish mercenary turned hardcore Mayan war chief, was eventually killed in battle in 1532, when he was shot in the chest by an arequebus while leading a fleet of 50 canoes to aid a Mayan village that was under attack from Spanish troops. To this day he remains a hero of Mexico – the first man to blend traditional Spanish culture with the culture of the indigenous populations, and the sort of hardcore life-taking badass we should be thinking about the next time we pop open a Corona.
Carrasco, David and Scott Sessions. Daily Life of the Aztecs. ABC-CLIO, 2011.
D’haen, Theo and Patricia Krus. Colonizer and Colonized. Rodopi, 2000.
Juan-Navarro, Santiago and Theodore Robert Young. A Twice-Told Tale. University of Delaware Press, 2001.
Peck, Douglas T. The Yucatan from Prehistoric Times to the Great Maya Revolt. Xlibris Corporation, 2005.