These heady theological uncertainties in Seville seemed far away from the practical politics of New Spain. For another remarkable expedition mounted by Cortés was led by the brilliant, brutal, unpredictable, fascinating, and brave Pedro de Alvarado, an Extremeño from Badajoz, to the Tehuantepec peninsula and subsequently to Guatemala. Far away Guatemala may seem, yet the Spaniards were conquistadors from Extremadura. In November 1522, Alvarado had obtained a large encomienda in watery Xochimilco, just to the south of Mexico-Tenochtitlan, and then one in Tututepec in Tlaxcala. He had been used by Cortés since the conquest of Mexico-Tenochtitlan in August 1521, in a variety of ways: in Veracruz, in relation to Cristóbal de Tapia, the King’s representative (or the bishop of Burgos’s), sent improbably in December 1521 to seize command from Cortés; then in Pánuco in 1523 to deal with Francisco de Garay. But this complex and usually successful Extremeño now wanted a theater of conquest for himself.
In December 1523, Cortés gave Alvarado the mission to go to Guatemala to see if indeed, as he had been told, there were there “many rich and splendid lands inhabited by new and different races.” Presumably Cortés had also been informed that the region was fertile, that it produced both cotton and cacao, and that it had once contained the wild forebears of such plants as maize, tomato, avocado, and sweet potato. Cortés was always anxious to give his close friends a chance to fulfill themselves. With Alvarado in particular, he was always generous, for he had known him since their childhood together in Extremadura and throughout the conquest of Mexico. Alvarado’s reckless valor (with his own life, as well as those of others) and insolent pride impressed Cortés, who was prudent, cautious, cultivated, and patient: it was the charm of opposites. Alvarado, sometimes known as Tonatiuh (Son of the Sun) or sometimes just El Sol (Sun), to the native Indians because of his fair hair, height, good looks, and blue eyes, was the most popular of the many brave men whom Cortés had in his army. Bernal Díaz wrote that Cortés had asked Alvarado “to try and bring the people [of Guatemala] to peace [with Spain] without waging war and to preach matters concerning our holy faith by means of the interpreters which he took with him.” He took the opportunity to say that Alvarado was “very well made and active, of good features and bearing, and both in appearance and speech so pleasing that he seemed always smiling.” He was an excellent horseman, liked rich clothes, always had round his neck a small gold chain on which hung a jewel, and he wore also a ring with a good diamond. Díaz del Castillo´s criticism was that he talked too much and sometimes cheated at totoloque. Others would complain that he was insensitive to the feelings of Indians, whom he treated as beneath contempt. Several of his soldiers in this journey to Guatemala later testified to his brutality.
Alvarado set off. The distance was, of course, considerable. Even now to travel by land from Mexico to Guatemala is a challenge. Aldous Huxley wrote of the journey from Oaxaca to Chiapas with awe. But he did not travel by foot or on a horse, as Alvarado did, seeing for himself the long line of the Pacific coast.
Alvarado took with him about 330 men, of whom 120 were horse, the rest infantrymen. He had four pieces of artillery, which he arranged to be pulled by Indians, and he had a strong force of crossbowmen and musketeers. It was a family expedition from the beginning. With him rode his brothers—Jorge, Gonzalo, and Gómez—all of whom had accompanied Cortés on his dramatic journeys, as well as two nephews, Diego and Hernando de Alvarado, and his future son-in-law, Francisco de la Cueva. He had a chaplain in the shape of Fray Bartolomé de Olmedo, the Mercedarian who had been with Cortés: He was responsible for 2,500 conversions before the end of 1524, when he died. All these friends and relations worshipped Pedro de Alvarado. In addition, Alvarado had with him a substantial number of “natives” from central Mexico—perhaps six thousand or seven thousand men, according to Antonio de Luna, in an inquiry of 1570—including, it would seem, both Mexica and people from Tlaxcala, the Spaniards’ chief allies. There seem also to have been a prudent number of black African slaves.
Alvarado took a month to reach Soconusco, a territory well known for its chocolate and, then as now, for its beautiful, large women. Jorge de Alvarado was allocated that place as an encomienda by his brother, Pedro (Cortés himself had had it for a year or two). It had been fully conquered by the Mexica only in the early years of the century, in the days of Montezuma, but it had been sending semiannual tribute to the Mexica in Tenochtitlan for forty years before that. It was known for its supply of beautiful green feathers from the quetzal bird. Probably the plumage in the famous headdress in Vienna derived from birds from here.
The Alvarados were now on the verge of entering present-day Guatemala. At that time, three dominant peoples lived there: the Quichés, the Cakchiquels, and the Tzutúhil. All were close in social structure to the Mexica, and their priests said that they and their leaders originally came from Tollan and Teotihuacan. Beyond were a warlike tribe called the Mam. Archaelogists argue that there had been three waves of invasion from the north. These northern invaders had brought with them the idea of cremation rather than burial, they used caves (in which they deposited deities) for worship, they had a cult of war, they had good metallurgical traditions, they had experimented with a bicephalous system of government in the style of Rome or Sparta, they had sunken ball courts with vertical walls, they preferred tortillas to tamales, and they had regular commercial relations with Tenochtitlan. They fought with grenades of pottery sometimes filled with fire, sometimes with wasps or hornets: they decapitated prisoners; and they had bark on which to write painted genealogical trees. Their people wore cotton clothing: the women sarongs, the men loincloths. They had above all brought down from old Mexico the god of rain, Tlaloc, and some of his companions in the pantheon of Mexican deities such as Xipe Totec, the terrifying flayed fertility god, and Xolotl, the evening star who was Quetzalcoatl’s half-brother. Their calendar contained, as did that of Tenochtitlan, a sacred cycle of fifty-two years. They did not celebrate human sacrifice on anything like the scale that was practiced in the sixteenth century by the Mexica, which makes one see that the legends suggesting that the practice had much increased in the last generations before the arrival of the Spaniards were probably right. Famous opponents were the only ones to be routinely killed.
Though the Quiché and the Cakchiquels were plainly related, they had fought one another for years over possession of cacao and cotton fields. That was what marked them. Had the Spaniards not come, the region would probably have been eventually conquered by the Mexica. The land, Alvarado reported to his leader, Cortés, was so thickly populated that “there are more people than Your Excellency has governed till now.” Like all comments at that time on populations, or the size of armies, that was an exaggeration. But archaeologists have found pyramidical mounds of old Guatemala in which there were fifteen million shards, perhaps from about half a million vessels, suggesting that the mounds must have been built in the early Christian era by ten to twelve thousand laborers.
The country included the Cuchumatan highlands, the most sensational nonvolcanic region of Central America. The name may signify “that which has come together with great force,” but it can also mean, in Nahuatl, “place of the parrot hunters.” There are also the jungle lowlands of Petén and a chain of active and geologically young volcanic peaks, which can be seen from the sea and which inspired Disraeli’s famous comment about the aging Whig cabinet of 1868.
Guatemala was also the land of Popol Vuh, a poem composed in the fourth century A.D. about the creation of the world. By 1500 it probably had as many versions as there are dialects of Maya, but the one that has survived is that of one of the leading clans of the Quiché. The book that contained it was traditionally said to have been obtained as a result of a journey to the Atlantic or Caribbean coast and would be consulted by the lords of Quiché when they sat in council. The Quiché referred to the volume as “The light which came from near the sea.” Other names for it were “Our place in the shadows” or “The dawn of Life.”
The existence of this remarkable poem along with high-class pottery, elaborate ball courts, and dance platforms for the performance of religious and historical music dramas, as well as the Annals of the Cakchiquel, made Guatemala one of the most sophisticated countries the Spaniards set out to conquer. Repetitive, contradictory, and often incomprehensible to the modern reader, Popol Vuh has about it an unquestionable profundity, which makes it a landmark of indigenous literature.
Once beyond Soconusco in January 1524, Alvarado sent messages to the lords of Guatemala asking them not to impede his progress but to submit themselves to him as the representative of Charles the Emperor. If they resisted, he declared, he would make war on them. He understandably received no reply. Such communications were relatively easy, since Nahuatl was understood in many Quiché and Cakchiquel towns. So Alvarado’s mercenaries from Tlaxacala or Tenochtitlan could talk together easily and secure supplies at least of maize made into tortillas, or into drink (atole), or even boiled in a leaf (tamale), as today.
Alvarado moved on, passing Zapotitlán, the land of the sapodilla plum. Afterwards, the journey became more difficult since they were obliged to continue along the coastal plain, the llanura costera, between the sparsely populated Sierra Madre de Chiapas, which rises to about 4,000 feet at its border with Oaxaca and to 10,000 feet on the southeast frontier into Guatemala and the Pacific Ocean. The mosquitoes never left the Spaniards, who suffered thereby more than if they had met ferocious enemies. These, too, they encountered, though on a small scale. On February 19, they struck inland and up the hillside. This was the first time that any European had seen, much less visited, these Pacific-facing hills.
The pueblos of the mountains were small clusters of twenty-four to thirty-six mud-walled houses with palm-leaf roofs. The only certain item in these houses was a tripodal stone for grinding corn—a rounded or rectangular slab of hard igneous rock whose grinding surface would have been worn in the center. The villages were usually undefended, there were no avenues or fine plazas, nor, indeed, any kind of urban planning. What they did have, though, was much superb monochrome or bichrome pottery made into bowls, pots, and incense burners with three legs, as well as figurines and whistles.
Popol Vuh seemed to have forecast the Spaniards’ arrival: “And it is not clear how they crossed the sea, They crossed over as if there had been no sea. Where the waters were divided, they crossed over.” The Quiché people were, therefore, on a war footing. They fell on Alvarado’s indigenous mercenaries with pleasure. Their temporary success was set back by Alvarado’s horsemen. But the Quiché had heard of the menace of the horsemen and recovered to attack the Spaniards from above, in a valley under the volcano Santa María, approximately where there is now the city of Quezaltenango (Xela in Maya). The attack was eventually held and pressed back, the Quiché leader Tecún Umán being killed, perhaps by Alvarado himself. The Maya insisted that Tecún Umán immediately became a god, in the shape of an eagle with quetzal plumes. The legendary ability of many Quiché to become animals impressed even Alvarado.
After the battle, the Spaniards rested several days, only to receive yet another attack by another Quiché army, numbering, so Alvarado grandly put it, twelve thousand. This was also defeated by a clever Spanish combination of artillery and cavalry. After this, the Quiché agreed to seek peace and invited Alvarado to negotiate with them at Utatlán, their main city, a characteristic hilltop fortress town, known for the legend of the so-called “marvellous Kings,” Gucumatz, who died in 1425, and Quicab, who died in 1475. Those mythical individuals have reminded some learned archaeologists of the great god Quetzalcoatl in Mexico (Ehecatl, in Guatemala) and there were in Guatemala certainly the circular temples with which that deity had been associated in Tenochtitlan. There were ceremonial plazas and buildings that served as tombs, painted temples, and good avenues alongside pyramids as in Teotihuacán. The fine pottery from here included many figurines. The Spaniards duly went there in March, by then knowing of the tribal hatreds between the Quichés and the Cakchiquels, with the last-named of whom Alvarado had just made an alliance and who were said to have provided him with four thousand men.