Streets of Mexico – December 2022

Nuño Beltrán de Guzmán

Just how bad was “Bloody” Guzmán? One of his biographers, Santana, claimed he was known for “cruelty of the highest order, ambition without limit, a refined hypocrisy, great immorality, ingratitude without equal, and a fierce hatred for Cortés.” Guzmán went down in history as, by far, the worst of all the Spanish conquistadors.

A former royal bodyguard, he served the king as governor of Pánuco, to the northeast of Mexico City, sent to challenge Cortés’ burgeoning power. He did so ruthlessly, divesting most of Cortes’ supporters of their encomiendas, executing many others. He nearly incited a civil war. Meanwhile, he enslaved thousands of Natives.

When the king called Cortés back to Spain to explain himself, Guzmán became New Spain’s ruler, leading the first royal Audiencia (high court, established as a foil to Cortés in order to assert royal authority in New Spain). But, after the bishop smuggled news of Guzman’s wonton brutality back to the king, and Cortés subsequently returned in triumph (the Natives supposedly welcoming him with great relief by strewing flowers in his path), Guzmán set off to conquer the lands northwest of Mexico City, employing a merciless scorched-earth, perhaps even genocidal policy. He either murdered or enslaved the Natives, and burned their villages to the ground. When the King of Purépecha, Tangaxoán II (the father of the mythical Purépecha Princess) wouldn’t or couldn’t divulge the location of his treasure (because it existed only in Guzmán avaricious imagination), Guzmán tortured him, dragged him around town behind a horse, then burned him alive.

Eventually accused of treason, abuse of power, and mistreatment of Natives, Guzmán returned to Spain in chains and disgrace.

However…Cortés’ supporters such as Vasco de Quiroga and De las Casas wrote most of Guzmán’s despicable story, one that claimed he died ignobly in prison. Other accounts, however, assert that Guzmán resumed his prestigious position as the King’s bodyguard.

Only two things are certain: First, history is a slippery, murky affair. Second, if you want to go down in history well, you better make sure you win. Guzmán didn’t. Still, he is credited with founding numerous cities in Mexico, including Guadalajara. And many streets bear his name.

This is a selection from Ellison’s forthcoming book, Mexican Streets: Tales of Tragedy and Triumph

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David Ellison
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