From the onset of the Spanish exploration and invasion of the Americas in the 1490s, Africans were brought across the Atlantic as slaves and servants. Many fought as black conquistadors against native warriors, thereby earning their freedom and a subordinate place in Spanish colonial society. Juan Garrido was one such African.
The details of Garrido's birth, including his original name, are not known, but most likely he was born in West Africa in the early 1480s and sold as a boy to Portuguese slave traders. He was baptized in Lisbon in the 1490s and then moved to Seville, perhaps when he was purchased by a Spaniard named Pedro Garrido. Around 1503 Pedro Garrido brought Juan across the Atlantic to Santo Domingo, on the island of Hispaniola. Juan Garrido later claimed to have arrived in the Americas a free man, but it is probable that he earned his freedom fighting in the conquest of Puerto Rico, where he then settled. Garrido's biography becomes clearer from this point on, for he later summarized it himself in a letter to the King of Spain, in his probanza de mérito, or "proof of merit," requesting a royal pension (the letter is preserved in the Archive of the Indies in Seville or AGI). Between 1508 and 1519, Garrido "went to discover and pacify" the Caribbean islands of Puerto Rico, Cuba, Guadalupe, and Dominica, and he participated in the Spanish discovery of Florida (Restall, 2000, p. 171).
In 1519 Garrido joined the expedition led by Hernando Cortés into Mexico, serving "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 repartimiento de indios (allotment of tribute-paying natives)" (Restall, 2000, p. 171). Garrido's lack of salary had nothing to do with his origins; the conquistadors, whether African or Spanish, were armed investors, not salaried soldiers, and they fought for the spoils of war. Only the higher-ranking Spaniards were allotted native communities, but Garrido might have hoped for some of the lesser rewards and benefits that he did indeed receive. In the wake of the fall of the Mexica (Aztec) imperial capital of Tenochtitlán in 1521, Garrido settled temporarily on the outskirts of the ruined city, by the Tacuba causeway. Here he built a small chapel commemorating the Spaniards and their allied native warriors who had died in "La Noche Triste"—the bloody escape from Tenochtitlán in 1520.
It was also at this time that he had "the inspiration to sow maize [i.e., wheat] here in New Spain and to see if it took; I did this and experimented at my own expense" (Restall, 2000, p. 171). Although Cortés and several other Spaniards also took credit for the first planting of wheat on the American mainland, Garrido successfully made it his claim to fame, and he is usually associated with it to this day.
Meanwhile, Garrido continued to participate in the Spanish Conquest, joining the expedition under Antonio de Carvajal to Michoacán and Zacatula from 1523 to 1524. Upon his return to Mexico City, now rising from the ruins of Tenochtitlán, he was made a portero (doorkeeper) and a pregonero (town crier), both positions typically given to free blacks and mulattoes in colonial Spanish America. For a time he was also guardian of the important Chapultepec aqueduct. Perhaps most significantly, on February 10, 1525, Garrido was granted a house plot within the rebuilt capital, where he settled for his remaining two decades. He remained active, heading a gold-mining expedition to Zacatula in 1528, complete with an African slave gang, and also leading a mine-labor gang of black and native slaves, of whom he was part owner, on the Cortés expedition to Baja California from about 1533 to 1536. But he also enjoyed domestic life, marrying and having three children, before dying in Mexico City around 1547.
Alegría, Ricardo E. Juan Garrido, el conquistador negro en las Antillas, Florida, México, y California, c .1503–1540. San Juan, Puerto Rico: Centro de Estudios Avanzados de Puerto Rico y el Caribe, 1990.
Gerhard, Peter. "A Black Conquistador in Mexico." Hispanic American Historical Review 58, no. 3 (1978): 451–459. Reprinted in Slavery and Beyond: The African Impact on Latin America and the Caribbean, edited by Darien J. Davis. Wilmington, Del.: Scholarly Resources, 1995.
Restall, Matthew. "Black Conquistadors: Armed Africans in Early Spanish America." The Americas 57, no. 2 (2000): 171–205.
matthew restall (2005)