Juan de Zumárraga

The Spanish churchman Juan de Zumárraga (ca. 1468-1548), first bishop and first archbishop of Mexico, was an outstanding representative of a group of 16th-century Spanish clergy in America who combined missionary zeal, a sensitive social conscience, and love of learning.

Juan de Zumárraga was born in Tavira de Durango, Vizcaya. Entering the Franciscan order as a youth, he rose in its ranks and in 1527 was appointed first bishop of Mexico. Soon after his arrival in Mexico in 1528, he clashed with the audiencia (a court with executive functions) which Charles V had appointed to govern Mexico in place of Hernan Cortés. The judges proved to be greedy and corrupt men whose main concern was to enrich themselves at the expense of the Indians and the Cortés faction. Since Zumárraga combined with his episcopal office that of protector of the Indians, he attempted to put an end to the abuses committed against the natives by the audiencia, but in vain.

The quarrel between Zumárraga and the judges reached such a pitch that he excommunicated the offenders and placed Mexico City under interdict. Summoned to Spain in 1532 to justify his action, he did so with entire success. The first audiencia, meanwhile, had been removed and replaced with able and conscientious judges with whom Zumárraga maintained excellent relations.

Despite his concern for Indian welfare, Zumárraga did not oppose the encomienda (the assignment to a Spanish colonist of a group of Indians who were to serve him with tribute and labor). He believed that this system, properly regulated, could be beneficial to both Spaniards and Indians.

From 1535 to 1543 Zumárraga served as inquisitor in Mexico. He was extremely active in the pursuit of heresy and other offenses against orthodoxy. The high point of his inquisitorial career was the trial for heresy of the Indian cacique of Texcoco, Don Carlos, whom Zumárraga condemned to death by burning. This excessive severity brought a rebuke from Spain and his removal from the post of inquisitor. Despite the earnest efforts of his principal biographer to clear Zumárraga of the charge of destroying pre-Conquest codices, there is no doubt that he was responsible for the destruction of these and other relics of the Indian past.

Zumárraga made important contributions to the education of Indian youth and to Mexican culture in general. With the aid of Viceroy Antonio de Mendoza he established the famous Colegio de Santa Cruz de Tlatelolco in 1536 to train the sons of Indian chiefs. Before this school began to decline in the second half of the 16th century, it had produced a generation of Indian scholars who assisted Spanish friars in the writing of important works on the history, religion, and customs of the ancient Mexicans. Zumárraga also built hospitals for both races, introduced the printing press to Mexico in 1539, and wrote and published books for the religious instruction of the Indians.

Zumárraga was appointed the first archbishop of Mexico in 1547. He died on June 3, 1548, in Mexico City. Strongly influenced by the Christian humanism of Erasmus and Thomas More, Zumárraga drew heavily on Erasmus's books for the preparation of his own writings, but selectively, using only that material which was clearly orthodox. His thought was a fusion of medieval and Renaissance elements, but the medieval friar in him was certainly dominant.


Further Reading on Juan de Zumárraga

The classic biography of Zumárraga is in Spanish. Richard E. Greenleaf's excellent Zumárraga and the Mexican Inquisition, 1536-1543 (1962) covers briefly, but soundly, various aspects of his career. See also the sections on Zumárraga in Lesley Byrd Simpson, Many Mexicos (1941; new ed. 1966), and R. C. Padden, The Hummingbird and the Hawk: Conquest and Sovereignty in the Valley of Mexico, 1503-1541 (1967).