African American Heritage & Ethnography African Nation Founders: Learning Resources Center—Further Reading

Juan Garrido

Richardo Alegría, an ethnologist, published a book and articles based on the transcription of Garrido’s probansa (or petitionary proof of merit). Garrido was born circa 1480 on the coast of West Africa and went to Lisbon as a free young man. According to Alegría, he was probably the son of a king who traded with the Portuguese. Most likely Garrido had been sent to Portugal to become a Christian and to acquire a Portuguese education in order to facilitate commerce between the two nations. He arrived in Lisbon when he is around 15 years old. There he converted to Christianity and later moved to Seville. In 1503 he crosses the Atlantic to Hispanola (present-day Haiti and Dominican Republic) as part of the entourage of the newly appointed Governor, Nicolas de Ovando. He possibly traveled as a servant of a Spaniard named Pedro Garrido. In 1508 he joined Ponce de Leon with about 50 other conquistadors to explore Puerto Rico. Between 1508 and 1519 he participated in the conquests of Puerto Rico and Cuba, and in the unsuccessful attempts to conquer “the islands of Guadeloupe, Dominica and other islands and in all fought Caribs.” He apparently sought the patronage of de Leon, traveling and fighting with him until de Leon died in 1521. It was during this period he participated in the discovery of Florida. Between expeditions he lived in Puerto Rico.

Garrido’s probanza suggests he next sought the patronage of Hernando Cortés (Cortez). After de Leon’s death he joined Cortes in Mexico in his conquest of Tenochititlan (Mexico City) from the Aztecs. During the battle, the Spanish sustained heavy losses in what they would call the “Noche Triste” (night of sorrow). A year later, Garrido built a commemorative chapel he called “The Martyrs” at the Tenochtitlan (Mexico City) city gate on the Tacuba causeway near the site of the heavy Spanish losses. There he buried the remains of some of the conquistadors.

Near the chapel Garrido farmed some land that he may have acquired for his service as a soldier. On the outskirts of Mexico City he lived next to the chapel for two years before he returned to service again. He planted the first three seeds of wheat grown in the New Spain. He grew wheat and produced flour in commercial quantities on his farm. Sometime during this period he married and began to raise a family.

In 1523 and again in 1527 he took part in the exploration of Michoacán. In the years between he lived in Mexico City where in recognition for his services to the King he was granted and received an appointment as a doorkeeper (portero) and for a time was also crier (pregonero) and guardian of the Chapultepec aqueduct. One reference says he held a post equivalent to city manager.

In 1528 he went to Zacatula to head a gold mining expedition, complete with a slave gang, returning soon after to Mexico City. Now 48 years old, Garrido settled down in Mexico City until 1533 when he left with Cortés. He had charge of a squad of enslaved Africans and Indians intended for mining as they headed for Baja California. After enduring terrible hardships and failing to find anything of worth, he and Cortés returned to Mexico City.

After returning from the Baja california, Garrido lived quietly in his Mexico City home for eleven more years where he died in 1547 at 67 years of age. He left a wife and three children (Alegria 2004).

Garrido’s story is told in detail but it was not unique. There were many other “Black Conquistadors” who explored, fought for the Spanish crown, and received various compensation. Those who were slaves first sought freedom as a reward. All received a share of the looted wealth taken from the Indians. If land, position, and money were not awarded by the local administration, free and freed Africans petitioned the crown and the courts through which they gained estates, political appointments and pensions.

From the point of view of African American Cultural Heritage, Garrido’s story and the stories of other Africans in New Spain suggests a composite picture of culture and customs among Africans who participated in the early exploration and opening of the Southwest, Baja California and Florida.