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Juan Garrido, Hernán Cortés, and Mexico City

Cortés' Conquest of Tenochtitilan

Cortés' Conquest of Tenochtitilan

Garrido did not hesitate to find a new employer - or a new vehicle for fortune hunting. This time he was able to plant roots. The August after Ponce died, Garrido joined Hernán Cortés to conquer the mighty city of Tenochtitlan (now Mexico City) from the Aztecs. The Spaniards won, but with immense casualties on both sides.

Cortés took over the Aztec fortress and awarded Garrido land near the city gate. There, Garrido built a chapel and buried some of the fallen conquistadors. He later named it "The Martyrs" - perhaps to persuade himself that the conquest was for religious reasons. (Seventy-five years later, the current church "San Hipolito of the Martyrs" was built on that spot.) Faith aside, Garrido's devotion to Spain was finally paying dividends.

Garrido acquired some Indian and African slaves. He farmed the land near the gate of what is now Mexico City. He planted some grains of wheat, and within two years had a plantation exporting commercial quantities of flour. He sold it to Spanish colonies who had reluctantly relied on corn for lack of wheat in their new locales. By all available accounts, Juan Garrido is the first person to grow wheat in the Americas. He was thirty-six years old.

Garrido got married and had children at his plantation. Cortés awarded him a changing stream of paid positions, including doorkeeper, town crier, guardian of the Chapultepec aqueduct, and city manager.

But Juan Garrido was more of an adventurer at heart. In 1527, he and a group of treasure hunters rushed for the gold that was reported in Michoacan. He invested his own money for the trip, and came back penniless within the year. He returned the following year with a slave gang to mine for gold, but again found nothing.

Garrido settled down at his plantation for another five years. But he could barely make ends meet. He was deep in debt when Cortés tempted him for the last time in 1533. Garrido followed Cortés to another legendary island supposedly filled with black women, gold, and pearls. Once again, it turned out to be a barren peninsula: Baja California. He had borrowed money for the trip, and came home penniless two years later. The year was 1535; he submitted his request for pension in 1538.

Unsigned 16th century engraving of Juan Garrido and Hernán Cortés meeting Aztecs.

Unsigned 16th century engraving of Juan Garrido and Hernán Cortés meeting Aztecs

Garrido the Poor and Famous

For all his pursuit of fortune and fame, Juan Garrido died poor on his plantation at the age of 67. He left a wife and three children. Actually, this fate was on par with most of the Spanish conquistadors. Nevertheless, Garrido was popular enough to be depicted as an explorer with Hernán Cortés and Ponce de Leon in fresco paintings that same century.

Subsequent Mexican generations, on the other hand, have hailed Juan Garrido as the New World's first wheat sower. In the 1950s, Diego Rivera painted him in a mural of Mexican agriculture on the wall of the National Palace.

Now we're into the next century, and the color of Garrido's skin has become yet another source of fame for him. Since black oppression became a hot historical subject in the United States, Juan Garrido stands out as the first black man to dictate his own life in the Americas, in the United States, and in Florida.

Garrido's Memoir (Petition for Pension)

Garrido's petition for a pension includes a 'probanza,' a proof of merit. In it, he outlines his service to Spain. We call it a 'memoir' because it also outlines his life. Little did he know, people would be reading his letters over four hundred years later.

Juan Garrido's Memoir to Charles V of Spain, 1538

I, Juan Garrido, black resident of this city [Mexico City], appear before Your Mercy and state that I am in need of making a probanza to the perpetuity of the king, a report on how I served Your Majesty in the conquest and pacification of this New Spain, from the time when the Marqués del Valle [Cortés] entered it; and in his company I was present at all the invasions and conquests and pacifications which were carried out, always with the said Marqués, all of which I did at my own expense without being given either salary or allotment of natives or anything else. As I am married and a resident of this city, where I have always lived; and also as I went with the Marqués del Valle to discover the islands which are in that part of the southern sea [the Pacific] where there was much hunger and privation; and also as I went to discover and pacify the islands of San Juan de Buriquén de Puerto Rico; and also as I went on the pacification and conquest of the island of Cuba with the adelantado Diego Velázquez; in all these ways for thirty years have I served and continue to serve Your Majesty - for these reasons stated above do I petition Your Mercy. And also because I was the first to have the inspiration to sow maize [wheat] here in New Spain and to see if it took; I did this and experimented at my own expense.

Further Reading

  • Ricardo Alegria's Juan Garrido: el Conquistador Negro en las Antillas, Florida, Mexico y California.
  • Jane Landers' Black Society in Spanish Florida, 1999.

Last modified 10-29-08.

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