Friars and Mayas


Multiples adventures

Dominicans and Franciscans in Maya land - XVIth century

A trip by Las Casas to Tabasco and Chiapas

Pedro de Barrientos in Chiapa de Corzo

Las Casas against the conquistadores

Fuensalida and Orbita, explorers

Grouping together the Indians


Numerous studies

An ethnologist friar, Diego de Landa

Learning the Maya languages

Two teachers, Juan de Herrera and Juan de Coronel

Two historian friars, Cogolludo and Remesal


A multitude of buildings

A Franciscan turned architect: Friar Juan de Mérida

The Valladolid convent in the Yucatán

The Izamal convent and its miracles

In the Yucatán, a church in every village

A Dominican nurse, Matías de Paz


A difficult task: evangelization

Peace-making in Verapaz

The creation of the monastery of San Cristóbal

The Dominican province of Saint-Vincent

An authoritorian evangelization

Franciscans and the Maya religion

The failure of the Franciscans in Sacalum, the Yucatán

Domingo de Vico, Dominican martyr


The end of the adventure

Return to the monasteries


Additional information

Las Casas and Indian freedom

The Historia Eclesiástica Indiana of Mendieta

The road of Dominican evangelization in Guatemala

The convent of Ticul, as seen by John Lloyd Stephens

The Franciscans in the Colca valley in Peru

The convent route of the Yucatán in the XVIth century

The dominican mission of Copanaguastla, Chiapas


Available upon request:

- general information upon Maya countries,

- numbered texts on the conquest and colonization of Maya countries


Address all correspondence to:













The mendicant orders, Franciscans and Dominicans, had come to Mexico with the intention of building the Kingdom of God on earth. Here in the New World, they thought, Christianity could be recut from the original template, with none of the failings it had suffered in the Old. Men with such a mentality were of course quite unmoved by pleas for religious tolerance. The friars drove the Mexican priests from their temples and began the first battle against the devil and the diabolical religions.

The ultimate mendicant objective was a separate Indian realm –a república de indios- organized along quasi-medieval corporatist lines, under theocratic rule sanctioned by the Crown, a realm from which Spaniards and Spanish ways would be paternalistically excluded. But it is certain, too, that mendicant rule displayed less benevolent features in practice. Corporal punishment was used to discipline the new Indian converts, and in Yucatán, Diego de Landa, provincial of the Franciscans, institute a reign of terror against Maya idolatrers in the 1560s.


Forced conversions. Chetumal, Mural in the Congres of Quintana Roo, author Elio Carmichael, "Forma, color e historia de Quintana Roo."


Here is described the Franciscan fight  in Yucatán, according to the accounts of Diego López de Cogolludo:


The Franciscans deploy much zeal to convert the Mayan people

“The idea according to which our first founding fathers of this province (Yucatán) also organized the spiritual government of the Indians is widespread, and its implementation widespread as well; and the rest, all that contributes to their perfect Christianization and the good of their souls: I can confirm it since all those who have been to Yucatán witnessed it and are seeing it with their own eyes. With remarkable and commendable enthusiasm, these fathers go to each village to say mass on holy days when the Indians must attend, and they preach the gospel for the day each time, which is quite a burden, and they preach love of virtue and rejection of vices. It is no small job for the missionaries since four times as many priests would be needed with a faith as great as ours to ensure a permanent presence in all the villages; but the love they have for the Indians and their great enthusiasm for the two divinities, divine and human, make up for this shortcoming. This permanent presence of priests and religious men is found in places chosen as centers and convents, from where they depart, on the eve of holy days, to the villages they are responsible for: and most of the time, they must say mass in two villages, and sometimes in three: only by doing so is one capable to understand the amount of work it represents, because on top of it they administer in each village the sacraments of baptism, wedding ceremonies, penance, Eucharist and extreme-unction to those requesting them, carrying the most saintly vial to the homes of the sick with the requested decency and reverence.”


They make Sunday mass compulsory

Once mass is celebrated, the faithful are counted with the help of lists containing names of the Indians of the villages, according to the distribution I already described, and thanks to which the missionary knows those who came to church. This exercise takes place on the square in front of the churches, since twenty years ago there were so many inhabitants that it was necessary to be on the plaza of the village to count the people since the plaza was always next to the church : today half the inhabitants are gone and it is a shame to witness it. Each responsible person (called Chunthan –ah chun than-) must give the number of attendees for his district, and since we know them, we see them outside the church at their proper place, so that it is easy to find out who missed mass. The priest asks why mass was missed, and the person responsible gives a reason when it is legitimate, be it illness, a trip away from the village, or away to an unknown place (which happened often and is still why a great number of people are missing), but usually, the responsible person knows where to find the missing.”


Missing mass is severely punished

“But when someone does not attend for a valid reason, and when the responsible person does not support him, some mission assessors got get him; and if he does not give a valid reason once in the presence of his spiritual father, he is punished by the governor who attends the meeting, and who orders him to be whipped, and whipped for a longer period if he misses mass several times. When the absentees are not found on the spot, their names are written down and a small piece of string that is given after mass or on holy days to those who attend is kept, and the missionary, who is thus aware that the person was absent the previous time tells him of his sin, lectures him and urges him not to miss church and not to be a bad example for the others and give them the idea to do the same.” (Diego López de Cogolludo, Historía de Yucatán, book 4, chapter 17, translated by Chantal Burns)


The auto-da-fé of Mani, performed in front of the cathedral of Mérida, as part of "Noche de Leyendas", a theatral walk trough the streets of the historic center of the city


An adulatory temple is discovered in Mani

“With the help of the priests whom Father Bienvenida had brought along and who had already learnt the language of the Indians, the best order had been given to evangelization: but at the time when the venerable provincial (Diego de Landa) assumed that idolatry had been forgotten thanks to his zeal and that of the other monks, they discovered that the devil was waging quite a war against them. Some Indians from the village of Mani were practicing idolatry, breaking the promise they had given when they were baptized, and even though this sin was practiced secretly, divine majesty allowed it to be uncovered, and a domino effect took place and other and unsuspected sins committed by other Indians in different places were found, so that these miserable and distraught souls were forgiven and those who did not practice idolatry were forewarned. There was in the convent of Mani an Indian by the name of Pedro Che, who was a doorman. One Sunday, he felt like leaving the village to hunt rabbits which are plenty in the region. He went out in the streets that looked more like forest paths than like village streets (since the Indians did not clear them as well as they do now) and small dogs walked alongside the Indian as they were attracted by the smell, and they went into a cave and came out dragging a small deer that had just been killed and whose heart had been torn out. The surprised Indian went into the place from where the dogs came, and guided by the smell of copal smoke (their incense), came inside the cave where there were an altar and well decorated tables with many idols that had been sprayed with the still fresh blood of the deer. Scared by what he saw and because he was a good Christian, he left the cave and quickly told Father Pedro de Ciudad-Rodrigo, his guardian, what he had seen.  Father Rodrigo in turn told the provincial who was in Merida.”


Diego de Landa leads an investigation

“The zealous minister was saddened by this sin committed by sons whom he had led to Christ and who offended his name and his religion, and he himself decided to find a remedy to such great evil. As he mastered the language of these indigenous people, he quickly discovered who had succumbed to this sin, and using his apostolic authority, he officially investigated and proceeded to conduct a legal investigation against the adulatory Indians renegades of the faith, and he discovered at the same time other adulatory practices among the Indians living in the east of the region, the Cupúles, Cochuaxes de Zotuta, Canules and others. He noticed that many Indians who had secretly clung to their idolatry had been buried in a saintly place and he ordered them to be unearthed and to have their bones thrown into the woods.”


He organizes an auto-da-fé in Mani to punish the Indians

“Once he had solid proof, he decided to conduct a public auto-da-fé in the manner of the Inquisition in the village of Mani to scare the Indians, and in order to implement it he requested the Alcalde to provide a public force. Not only did he do it, but on the day chosen for this ceremony, he went to the village of Mani to attend it and took with him almost all of the Spanish nobles in the region, to give the required importance to the ceremony as well as to get protection in case of trouble. On that day, a multitude of Indians had gathered to watch something entirely new to them: during the ceremony, the sentences were read and the idolatrous people were punished with the help of the public force; nevertheless, some of them who were adoring the devil and did not repent had hung themselves for fear of punishment, because some of them, it seems, had already relapsed: their bodies were thrown into the woods. To get protection from idolatry, he gathered all the old books written in the Maya language that were available to the Indians, in order to prevent them from remembering their ancient rites : all that could be found on the subject was burnt publicly on the day of the auto-da-fé, and all traces of their past history were erased at the same time. Thanks to this action, no idolatry among the Indians was discovered or known during many years, although the rivals of the blessed Father described him as a cruel man. But Doctor D. Pedro Sanchez de Aguilar in his “Memoire against the adulatory people on this Earth” judged this event quite differently.” (Diego López de Cogolludo, Historia de Yucatán, book 6, chapter 1, translated by Chantal Burns)



Pedro Sánchez de Aguilar


“Towards the year 1550, some Indians of the province, although not all of them, turned away from the Faith and went back to being adulatory; Friar Diego de Landa, an apostolic saintly man, energetic in his actions and his words, was then Custodian of his order and had Episcopalian authority thanks to the OMNIMODA Bull of the Roman Pope Alexander VI and other briefs, in the absence of a Bishop in the diocese at that time: he rebelled against them, and carried away by divine zeal and acting like a new Mattathias (Maccabées II), he destroyed the altars of the idols, arrested those who adored them, had them whipped and thrown in jail; and he and his companions (whose names are consigned in the Book of Life) eradicated this sin as much as possible, through force and pressure, so much so that the Indians got frightened and remained so for many years, and not only did they give up idolatry but also the drinks (Balche) they drank during their binges.” (Informe contra los adoradores de idolos del Obispado de Yucatán. Año de 1639. Pedro Sánchez de Aguilar)


The auto-da-fé in Maní, reconstitution


Letter of Francisco de Montejo Xiu, Governor of Maní, and other prominent town governors, to the King, April 12, 1567.

"Sacred Catholic Majesty:

"After we learned the good, in knowing God our Lord as the only true god, leaving our blindness and idolatries, and your majesty as temporal lord, before we could well open our eyes to the one and the other, there came upon us a persecution of the worst that can be imagined; and it was in the year ’62, on the part of the Franciscan religious, who had taken us to teach the doctrine, instead of which they began to torment us, hanging us by the hands and whipping us cruelly, hanging weights of stone on our feet, torturing many of us on a windlass, giving the torture of the water, from which many died or were maimed.

"Being in these tribulations and burdens, trusting in your majesty's Justice to hear and defend us, there came the Dr. Quijada to aid our tormentors, saying that we were idolaters and sacrificers of men, and many other things against all truth, which we never committed during our time of blindness and infidelity. And as we see ourselves maimed by cruel tortures, many dead of them, robbed of our property, and yet more, seeing disinterred the bones of our baptised ones, who had died as Christians, we came to despair.

"Not content with this, the religious and thy royal Justice, held at Maní a solemn auto of inquisition, where they seized many statues, disinterred many dead and burned them there in public; made slaves of many to serve Spaniards for from eight to ten years, and placed the sambenitos. The one and the other gave us great wonder and fear, because we did not know what it all was, having been recently baptised, and not informed;. and when we returned to our people and told them to hear and guard justice, they seized us, put us in prison and chains, like slaves, in the monastery at Mérida, where many of us died; and they told us we would be burned, without our knowing the why. (...)

"One thing that has greatly dismayed and stirred us up, is the letters written by fray Diego de Landa, chief author of all these ills and burdens, saying that your majesty has approved the killings, robberies, tortures, slaveries and other cruelties inflicted on us; to which we wonder that such things should be said of so Catholic and upright a king as is your majesty. If it is told that we have sacrificed men after that we received baptism, it is a great and false witness invented by them to gild their cruelties. (...)

"The religious of San Francisco of this province have written certain letters to your majesty and to the general of the order, in praise of fray Diego de Landa and his other companions, who were those who tortured, killed and put us to scandal; and they gave certain letters written in the Castilian language to certain Indians of their familiars, and thus they signed them and sent them to your majesty. May your majesty understand that they are not ours, we who are chiefs of this land, and who did not have to write lies nor falsehoods nor contradictions. May fray Diego de Landa and his companions suffer the penance for the evils they have done to us, and may our descendants to the fourth generation be recompensed the great persecution that came on us.

"May God guard your majesty for many years in his sacred service and for our good and protection. From Yucatan, the 12 of April, 1567.

"Your majesty's humble vassals kiss your royal hands and feet."


Statue of Nachi Cocom, lord of Sotuta (Maya new year day, july, 26, 2015).

Nachi Cocom was the last independant Maya king of the state of Sotuta in Yucatan. After the conquest, he befriended Diego de Landa and served as one of his informants on Maya culture.


Diego de Landa’s indictment of the Sotuta Indians, 11 August 1562


"In the village and advocacion St Peter, head village of this province of Sotuta, which is held in encomienda by Juan de Magaña, citizen of the city of Merida, the which said village is in the boundaries and jurisdiction of the said city, on the eleventh day of the month of August, the year of our Lord one thousand five hundred and sixty-two years, the very magnificent and reverend Lord Fray Diego de Landa, first Provincial of these provinces of the Order of the monasteries of the lord St Francis that are founded in this province, and Apostolic Judge of the Holy Office by bulls of His Holiness conceded and secured at the request of His Majesty,


"before me, Juan de Villagomez, his notary and apostolic notary in all the kingdoms and lordships of His Majesty through nomination by Luis Sanchez, Palatine Count, by bulls of His Holiness conceded to him in order to nominate notaries and other things:


"he said that in so far as His Grace being in this village and province punishing the idolatries which have been and are now in it, he has been informed and thus it is that among the chiefs and principales of the said village and province and the rest of the common people there have been great sacrifices and heresies within the churches, and not fearing the fear of God our Lord, holding as they have held for little the things of our Holy Catholic Faith, they have gone against it preaching within the churches the false sect of the devil and things of idolatries as they were used and accustomed to do in the time of their heathen past, bringing to the church for the said preaching the idols and devils they have, that they adore and have adored until now, and besides this they have brought back and perverted the rest who already have and who will come to the said idolatries, threatening the masters and boys of the school and forcing them to consent without delay to the performance of the said sacrifices and ceremonies within the church. And that besides this the principal lords and ah-kines and schoolmasters have made human sacrifices to god [sic] within the church of this village and in other places in homage to the devils, killing infants and boys and girls, Indian men and women, offering the hearts ripped living from them to the devils. And likewise they have made many other idolatries and ceremonies in accordance with their ancient customs and have burnt crosses, taken from the altar to burn them, mocking them, holding them in little account, and holding in little account the preachings of the religious, and they themselves have become priests, and have preached falsely, claiming that which the priests, friars and clerics were teaching them was not true or good, and that they [the ah-kines] were telling them were things for their salvation and that by doing that which they were advising, sacrificing, worshipping and venerating the idols and devils, they will be saved.


"And in order to know and discover the truth and to identify the guilty ones so that they might be punished and castigated each one according to the guilt of his transgressions, and likewise in order to establish who have been the prophets and priests ah-kines [sic] who have preached the said heresies and things against our holy faith in order to punish all of them which in the province of His Grace, because it is for His Grace to decide whether to use mercy toward them, and in case of crimes and serious offenses whether they should be handed over to the secular arm, always in accordance with the judicial enquiry His Grace would make and other enquiries which the secular justice might further wish to make in order to punish them in accordance with the transgressions they have committed, and in order that the truth of all should be known and verified and explored, His Grace the said Lord Judge wishes to proceed in the case and to have the judicial enquiries and verifications concerning the case." [Here follows the name of Juan Bautista de Campo as interpreter.]


(In Inga Clendinnen, Ambivalent conquest, Maya and Spaniard in Yucatan, 1517-1570, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1987)



Adam Jones, Religious Repression of Indians, Campeche, Ex-Templo de San José


Una carta de Francisco de Toral (1563)


"En el caso, que como no hay hombre docto destos padres ni menos conocen a indios ni tienen caridad ni amor de Dios para sobrellevar sus miserias y flaquezas, por no sé qué flaquezas que entreoyeron de que algunos dellos se volvía a sus ritos antiguos e idolatrías, sin más averiguaciones ni probanzas comienzan a atormentar a los indios, colgándolos en sogas, altos del suelo y poniéndoles a algunos grandes piedras a los pies y a otros echando cera ardiendo en las barrigas y azotándolos bravamente.


"Y por las confesiones así hechas, luego los condenaban estos padres a tantos reales de pena y se la llevaban, y a tantos azotes, y se los daban, y a obras de servicio en casas de españoles.


"Hicieron dos autos públicos con todas sus cerimonias de pendones y procesiones, etc., en los cuales echaron gran cantidad de santbenitos a los indios recién bautizados y azotaron a todos y trasquilaron, condenaron a servicio y esclavonía por tres, seis y diez años, y sacaron huesos de los sepulcros, y hicieron veinte estatuas de su dios y las quemaron con los huesos, sin haber procedido informaciones ni hecho probanzas más de los dichos de los colgados que fué todo falso y fición, como yo lo he averiguado. Tenían presos ciento y tantos principales en el monasterio desta cibdad, y andaban prendiendo más para hacer un auto y quemarlos a todos, cosa de gran atrevimiento y libertad. Como yo llegué a la tierra y la hallé por esta causa alborotada y como los indios se veían así maltratar, prender y matar, y supe el modo que llevaban los religiosos y entendí que todo era desatino, comencé a tomar las causas en mí y a averiguar lo que era, y hallo ser todo falsedad y testimonio y a los indios que decían haber muerto y enclavado en cruces, etc., hállolos vivos y sanos. Y prueban los indios como en acabando de decir sus confesiones, luego se desdecían y decían que de miedo de la muerte lo decían porque habían visto morir a muchos, de los crueles tormentos, y les decían los religiosos que así habían de morir ellos como los otros, si no confesaban, y así los miserables confesaban cuanto les preguntaban sin mirar si era contra ellos o no. (…)


"Otros (indios) que no los podían hallar se ahorcaban desesperados por haber confesado lo que no tenían y de temor que si volvían sin ello los tomarían a colgar y acabarían la vida como la habían acabado otros sus compañeros, que de los tormentos crueles murieron muchos y otros quedaron lisiados. (…)


"He dicho todo esto para que V.M. sepa que en lugar de doctrina han tenido estos miserables tormentos; y en lugar de les dar a conocer a Dios, les han hecho desesperar; y en lugar de los atraer al gremio de nuestra madre la Santa Iglesia de Roma, los han echados a los montes; y lo peor es, que quieren sustentar que sin tormentos no se puede predicar la ley de Dios…" (Francisco de Toral, franciscano, obispo de Yucatán: Carta a Felipe II, desde Mérida, el 1° de marzo de 1563)


Iron slab set below the statue of Fray Diego de Landa, at Izamal

"Fray Diego de Landa, contradictorio provincial de hierro fanatico, destructor e incansable constructor, luz y sombra. Persiguió a los Mayas como inquisidor. Como obispo los defendió de los encomenderos. Hizo el auto de fe de Maní y la "relación de las cosas de Yucatán". Historiador primordial, es figura eminente en la segunda mitad del siglo XVI. 1971. Carlos Loret de Mola Mediz. [Yucatan governor, 1970-1976]"


An Indian speaking, in Lope de Vega, The Discovery of the New World by Christopher Columbus (El Nuevo Mundo descubierto por Cristóbal Colón), circa 1600


"What shall I do? Shall I leave my Ongol

For this foreign Christ,

God-Man and Spanish God?

Should I leave the moon and light,

Night, day, sky, sun?

There is nothing more impossible

Than leaving your old faith

And your terrible customs.

But if Ongol was an angel,

And Christ is invincible;

That mean and impatient

Maker who perished

For being impudent and rebellious,

Following Christ is better."

(III. 2706-2729)


The destruction of the idols, August C. Haun, 1866



Fray Jerónimo de Mendieta:


"Although on the one hand these servants of God were heartily content at seeing how the people attended their sermons and listened to their doctrine, on the other hand they suspected that the Indians might be attending church merely to comply superficially with the orders given them by their nobles in order to deceive the friars, and that this might not be a sincere movement by the people to seek the remedy for their souls by renouncing the worship of the idols. And the friars persuaded themselves that this was indeed the case, for they were told that, while in public the Indians no longer made their old sacrifices, which usually involved the killing of men, in the secret spaces of the hills and in fearful, remote places, and at night in the temples of the demons which were still standing, they continued to make their sacrifices, and in the temples they performed their old ceremonies, chants, and drunken celebrations. [...]


"Business went on as usual, and the idolatry continued so the friars agreed to begin destroying the temples, and not to stop until they were all burned to the ground, and the idols likewise destroyed and eradicated, even though in doing this they would place themselves in mortal danger. They carried out their plan, [...] taking with them the children and young men they had raised and instructed, the sons of the Indian lords and nobles, and they also received help from the common people who were already converted and wanted to prove that they were confirmed in the faith." (Fray Jerónimo de Mendieta, Historia eclesiástica indiana, Libro tercero,  Capítulo XX, Cómo los religiosos, con ayuda de sus discípulos derrotaron los templos de los ídolos)



2018 "Friars and Mayas"

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El Santo Oficio [the Inquisition], a Mexican movie by Arturo Ripstein, 1973. In the document regarding the creation of the Holy Office in America (1569), the king prohibited interference in Indian cases and preserved the bishops' authority. At that time, in civil as well as ecclesiastical matters, New Spain was split into two republics, that of the Indians and that of the Spaniards











The black legend, the Franciscans as seen by Eisenstein, in his movie Qué Viva México, 1930





"Los Prelados eclesiásticos pueden con toda licitud llamar en su ayuda al brazo secular, cuando se trata de defender la fe, los bienes de la Iglesia, o de conquistar territorios ocupados por infieles; asi lo afirma Silvestre, Homicidium 3 & 5 par. 2; no ciertamente con objeto de matar, mutilar o herir: intentar esto sería procurar directamente el homicidio e incurrirían en irregularidad. El fin perseguido debe ser el defender la fe, o los bienes de la Iglesia, o la patria con objeto de reducirla a Cristo. Y si de un lado y de otro resultan algunos muertos, no se les imputa a los dichos Prelados; asi se deduce de 23q. 8 Igitur y del c. Omnium, c. Hortatu, c. Ut pridem y 23 q. 5 De occidendis; por el contrario, no oponiendo resistencia a tales enemigos, cometerían pecado." (P. Juan Focher, Itinerario del misionero en América, 1574, part. I, cap. VI, De la legitima defensa de los misioneros, Novena verdad.)


















 Friar Diego de Landa' statue, in Izamal




Diego de Landa:

"After the people had been thus instructed in religion, and the youths benefited as we have said, they were perverted by their priests and chiefs to return to their idolatry; this they did, making sacrifices not only by incense, but also of human blood. Upon this the friars held an Inquisition, calling upon the Alcalde Mayor for aid; they held trials and celebrated an Auto, putting many on scaffolds, capped, shorn and beaten, and some in the penitential robes for a time. Some of the Indians out of grief, and deluded by the devil, hung themselves; but generally they all showed much repentance and readiness to be good Christians." (Diego de Landa, Relación de las cosas de Yucatán, Sec. 18. Vices of the Indians. Studies of the friars in the language of the country. Their teachings to the Indians. Conversions. Punishments of apostates).




















Oxkutzcab, Yucatán, 2017 april 16, the artist Leonardo Paz Novelo restores his mural "Auto de fe de Maní", first painted in 1998