Man and Metaphor

Humbled by Humboldt.

Posted Nov 25, 2018

D. Erdmann & D. Blankenstein, mit freundlicher Genehmigung
Humboldt in Mérida - chillin'
Source: D. Erdmann & D. Blankenstein, mit freundlicher Genehmigung

You can’t go home again. —Thomas Wolfe

Yes, you can. —Homer (implied)

The trope of going native is familiar and poorly understood (Krueger, 2017). Some hipsters and other adolescents take a playful transitional approach, experimenting with garb or hairdos before returning to the square and normative. When going native becomes a deeper project, what does it do to a person’s identity? How does he (bear with me on the choice of gender) see himself and how do others see him? How do these perceptions differ between the members of his original and his adopted group?

Alexander von Humboldt, though “interested in everything” famously resisted going native, while is friend Bonpland, a French botanist, did. Humboldt returned to his ancestral Berlin; Bonpland settled in Argentina, growing crops and fathering children. Humboldt, here above chilling poolside in Mérida, inspired a series of conferences, which explore the psychological, sociological, historical, and literary aspects of travel. I signed up to discuss Gonzalo Guerrero.

J. Krueger
Gonzalo without glamor
Source: J. Krueger

In the Yucatán peninsula, Gonzalo Guerrero is the archetype of going native. More myth than man, we can’t be sure that he existed, but this is not essential to this story. We do know that he looms large in the Yucatec imagination. According to the Spanish chroniclers of the late 16th Century, who are less than completely reliable, Gonzalo was cast away on the shore now known as the Mayan Riviera, before rising to prominence among a Mayan group in the Chetumal region. He led them in war against their neighbors and then again against Spanish intruders, and he fathered the first generation of mestizos. For Gonzalo, going native was a survival strategy. The legends that have grown up around him emphasize his martial prowess, and various statues depict him as a warrior. His Spanish family name having been lost, Gonzalo is now remembered as Gonzalo Guerrero, Gonzalo the Warrior. A painting by Fernando Castro Pacheco, displayed in the Palacio del Gobierno in Mérida, highlights a different aspect (see photo to the left). Here, Gonzalo is seen clutching his family and looking vulnerable. The play of light enhances him and his psychological tension. His family remains in the shadows, perhaps to remind us of essential differences. This painting is remarkable in its departure from Gonzalo’s iconic statuary representation. In stone, Gonzalo presents as strong, defiant, and bearded, but otherwise fully Mayanized. In the painting, we get a glimpse of going-native as a process ridden with conflict.

Oddly, psychological science has little to say about the concept of going native. Where are the theories and empirical studies? Research is squarely focused on issues of immigration, assimilation, dual consciousness, and bi- or multi-culturalism. Important as these issues are, they fail to plumb the experience of those individuals who penetrate an alien culture, thereby risking to be radically transformed. Social psychology, as a discipline, has a tradition of focusing on the experience of disempowered groups. This concern may have created a blind spot for the concept of going native because – hipsters aside – this concept is tied to European expansion, domination, and colonialism. It is here that those who go native swim against a most powerful historical current. The default perception is to see these anadromous adventurers as traitors and savages-by-choice. In the subcontinental Indian context, for example, Kipling warned such types to “never forget that one is a Sahib” (cited in White, 2010).

It may be difficult to think of specific historical examples of individuals gone native, but it seems safe to say that the concept has a foothold in the European imagination; it evokes images and possibilities both alluring and forbidden. With reliable historical data being scarce, a handful of literary treatments drive the dominant narrative. At the extremes, we find characters like the Earl of Greystoke, whose natives are not even human, or the demonic Colonel Walter Kurtz, who loses his mind (“The horror!”). In our time of industrial cultural production, the threat and anxiety of going native are occasionally resolved by a hero who becomes a native to save the natives. John Dunbar dances with wolves to save the Lakota, and the disabled anti-hero Jake Sully in James Cameron’s Avatar scores a triumphant victory over the evil, white industrial man (Krueger, 2010). He achieves this victory by going native more fully than anyone before. He is embodied as one. Hence the Avatar.

There is an instructive difference here. Dunbar returns to the white man’s world, presumably in yet another attempt to do good for the natives, whereas Sully’s mind is eventually made to reside in the Avatar in permanencia. Dunbar reconnects with ‘home,’ whereas Sully cuts all ties. Sully drinks up the cup of going native. Dunbar, in other words, leans on the mythology of the Odyssey, where the trials and tribulations of life are eventually rewarded with a hero’s return (Humboldt), whereas Sully chooses irrevocable immersion (Bonpland). Gonzalo, though, if he existed, was the real Avatar. Flores (2012) notes both visual and psychological similarities. Both the Avatar and Gonzalo fight on the side of nature and the natives against European expansion and destruction. Gonzalo loses in the short term, but re-emerges as the Urvater (first father) of a new race; the Avatar wins in a Hollywoodian happy ending, which must come as a decisive victory of good over evil.

Across the types of Tarzan, Kurtz, Costner, and the Avatar, we encounter key elements of the European imagination: the fascination with nature, and creatures living in harmony with it. The desire to have what they have, and to take it from them by force. Then, there is the fear of being overwhelmed by nature and the natives, of not being able to cope with their very different world, and to either die or be swallowed up. This is a form of ego anxiety (Freud, 1965/1933). The emotional base of European supremacy is ambivalent (Ullrich & Krueger, 2010).

Returning to Gonzalo, we must concede that we know very little about him. One man who became obsessed with Gonzalo is Canadian Professor of English Robert Calder, who after decades of searching for Gonzalo wrote a wonderful book to introduce us to the legend and the few bits of evidence that have been handed down (Calder, 2017; see also Fray Diego de Landa’s, 1566, summary). Gonzalo is not a capitan, he is a marinero. His ship sinks in a storm (Odysseus), and he and some shipmates wash up on the Yucatec shore. The local Maya capture and eat most of them, but they save Gonzalo and a few others to be fattened first and eaten later. Gonzalo and a padre by the name of Jerónimo de Aguilar escape and wind up with a friendlier group of Maya down near Chetumal. They are still slaves, but they manage to build trust and obtain privileges.

The plot thickens when Gonzalo’s and Jerónimo’s strategies diverge. Gonzalo goes native, while Jerónimo holds on to as much of his Spanish identity as he can. To Jerónimo, Catholicism and the Crown remain anchors, while Gonzalo transforms his body with tattoos and piercings. He could shave his beard, but, like another Mexican icon of the blessed imagination – the most interesting man in the world – he chooses not to. To these Maya, Gonzalo’s martial skills make him more valuable alive than dead. Nachán Ka’an, the cacique, uses him against his neighbors and later against the Spanish. Jerónimo has a harder time. He bets on total submission. One of his strategies is to convince his captors that he will not bother their women. They test his will by sending a beautiful girl to tempt him; Jerónimo resists – or so he says. As Gonzalo earns the chief’s trust, he is eventually made a captain (Nakom)  to lead warriors, and given the hand of the chief’s daughter, Zazil Há. Gonzalo makes war and love. From a sociological standpoint, his assimilation is now complete. He has gone fully native. From a psychological standpoint, certain questions remain. How has his identity, his self-conception changed? Can we even know?

Jerónimo is our only source, and perhaps he made it all up. When Cortés lands in the Yucatán, Jerónimo tells him that there is another Spaniard in the selva. Cortés tells Jerónimo to fetch him, and Jerónimo goes and pleads with Gonzalo to return to the Spanish banner. Gonzalo declines, pointing to his commitments, some of which (e.g., his tattoos, his family) are irreversible. Conceivably, Gonzalo is making a rational decision, judging correctly that he would not be able to function again in the Spanish context. He realizes perhaps that he who has gone native will be viewed with suspicion upon return. Gonzalo cannot go back because his transformed body marks him as a heathen. Indeed, in an attempt to make sense of Gonzalo’s choices, one of the chroniclers, Fernández de Oviedo, speculated Gonzalo was a Muslim, a Jew, or a Converso, but no real Catholic (Calder, 2017). Who else would join the savages?! Clendinnen (cited by Calder, 2017, p. 83) put her finger on the psychological spot when writing that “for one of their own to acquiesce in such filthiness, and to choose it over his own faith and his own people, was to strike at the heart of their sense of self.” The identity of the native-goer and the identities of the referent groups are interwoven.

I have by necessity emphasized the male and the European perspective. What about the female and Mayan view? Who is Zazil Há, and what is her role in Gonzalo’s transformation? Without her, his fate and story might look rather different. This is a chapter that wants to be written. Meanwhile, we are left to ponder questions of identity that pervade the stories we tell about ourselves (McAdams & McLean, 2013). Extreme cases like Gonzalo are instructive because they highlight conflict and transformation. Such cases are stress tests of identity. Various parts of the Gonzalo story may resonate with you. Perhaps Gonzalo can encourage us to take another look at where we stand and why. What are the forces that shape us, and how will we respond when a storm throws us up against an unfamiliar shore. 

Home to Homer

There is a curious sociological side to the reception of Gonzalo. In the Yucatán, he is widely known and revered. His legend is a rallying point against the official point of view, which still emphasizes the deeds of the conquistadors (in Mérida, these are the Montejos, father and son [el mozo]). The Yucatán is Maya country and far removed from Central Mexico, where the Aztecs provide the indigenous reference point. There, Cortés is credited with creating the race of mestizos with his slave, interpreter, and mistress, La Malinche. Cortés is reviled in the popular imagination there (just look at how Diego Rivera depicted him). Now consider the psychological problem: how can a positive image of an ingroup – here: la raza of mestizos – be constructed on the back of a raptor Urvater? The Yucatecans have solved this problem by embracing Gonzalo. Their ethnic identity is a blend of the Mayan, the mestizo, and the Mexican, and they can trace the mix to someone they can love.

And this is possible, I submit, because Gonzalo took the leap without a safety net. Gonzalo’s journey is not an Odyssey. In the Odyssey, the eventual return home is the engine behind the voyage; in Gonzalo, the hero does not look back to look forward. In conversation in Mérida, colleagues asked me why I did not consider Cabeza de Vaca as an exemplar of going native. Cabeza was shipwrecked in what is now Florida and walked all the way to the city of Mexico, a journey that took him eight years and that gained him repute as a healer and shaman among native populations along the way (Reséndez, 2007). But Cabeza had one goal: to reach home. And he did. He was a modern-day Odysseus. Gonzalo, who took a different path, remains unique and his legend has much to teach us.

Calder, R. (2017). A hero for the Americas: The legend of Gonzalo Guerrero. Regina, Saskatchewan: University of Regina Press.

Flores, L. E. (2012). Avatar o el regreso to Gonzalo Guerrero. La Jornada Semanal, 880.

Freud, S. (1965/1933). New introductory lectures on psychoanalysis. (trans. James Strachey). Oxford, England: W. W. Norton.

Krueger, J. I. (2010). Back to the story. Psychology Today Online.

Krueger, J. I. (2017). Going native. Psychology Today Online.

Landa, D. de (1566). Relación de las cosas de Yucatán. 2nd ed. Mérida, Yucatán, September, 2011.

McAdams, D. P., & McLean, K. C. (2013). Narrative Identity. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 22, 233–238.

Reséndez, A. (2007). A journey so strange: The extraordinary tale of a shipwrecked Spaniard who walked across America in the Sixteenth Century. New York: Perseus.

Ullrich, J., & Krueger, J. I. (2010). Interpersonal liking from bivariate attitude similarity. Social Psychology and Personality Science, 1, 214-221.

White, E. R. (2010). In search of identity: Inner diaspora and psychic healing in Rudyard Kipling's Kim and Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children. South Asian Review, 31, 9-26,