In the whole bloody saga of the Spanish conquest of Mexico, there are few stories more remarkable than that of Gonzalo Guerrero and Zazil Ha. Guerrero was a would-be Spanish conquistador who was shipwrecked on the unknown coast of the Yucatan in 1511. The survivors were captured and enslaved by the local Mayans. Some were sacrificed, some died of disease, and some from overwork until only Guerrero and another Spaniard named Jeronimo de Aguiller remained alive as slaves.
At some point in his captivity, however, Guerrero met and fell in love with a Mayan woman named Zazil Ha, the daughter of the local Batab, or chief. While de Aguiller remained a slave, Guerrero rose in Mayan society and became a war leader. He and Zazil Ha married and had three children, the first mixed race Mestizos who became the backbone of the Mexican nation. Then, one day, everything changed.
In 1519, Cortez landed on Cozumel and, hearing of the two surviving Spaniards in the interior, sent a messenger with beads to ransom them. De Aguiller accepted eagerly, and served as an interpreter for Cortez during the conquest of the Aztecs. Guerrero, however, refused to return, and remained in the Yucatan, leading the Mayan resistance against his former countrymen. His knowledge of Spanish weapons and tactics helped the Mayans hold the Spaniards at bay for years.
So who was Zazil Ha that she could inspire this sort of devotion? I recently released a book, The Confessions of Gonzalo Guerrero that explored this whole story.
Zazil Ha means “clear water”, but what do we know beyond that? Was she just a passive squaw, or was she something more? Well, she must have been of an independent turn of mind to contemplate a relationship with a foreigner such as Guerrero, and she must have had the strength of will to overcome the traditional and religious strictures against it. One hint comes in the only words of hers ever recorded.
De Aguiller said that he went to see Guerrero and try to persuade him to return with him to Cortez, but Guerrero refused. De Aguiller then says that Zazil Ha appeared and berated him, saying “Why does this slave come here and talk to my husband? Away with you and don’t trouble us with any more of your words!”
Apparently, Zazil Ha was not the type of woman to sit passively while the men worked things out. She seems to have been assertive and quick-witted, not to mention intelligent. She was probably poised and attractive as well, because she obviously caught Guerrero’s eye in a big way. Once Guerrero encountered her, he was hooked. In Confessions, Guerrero describes her as standing out among the other women, “like a swan among a group of hens”.
When Cortez arrived in Cozumel, Guerrero had a golden chance to return to Spain, probably as a rich man. All he had to do was leave his Mayan family to their fate. In Confessions, Guerrero says he was forced to choose between the country of his birth and the woman of his heart. “I made my choice,” he says, “and have never doubted I made the right one.”
Guerrero’s fight, however, was doomed as the Spaniards, with greater numbers, deadlier weapons, and disease wore the Mayans down. Guerrero died in a battle in Honduras several years later. He had fought a war he could not win for a woman he could not live without.
Today, there are statues of Guerrero in Mexico at Cozumel, Merida, Akumal, and Chetumal. He stands bearded and proud, brandishing a spear against all who threaten his family. Next to him are his children, and Zazil Ha, the remarkable woman who inspired him and gave his life a higher purpose.