The Conquistador and the Gardner

Posted on January 1, 2011


We all have seen Hispanics in our hometowns. Maybe they’re nailing down a roof in the neighborhood, putting up a drywall in a construction site, or swirling up dust by the side of the highway with weed eaters.

They’re everywhere, small fellows usually. Those, by the way, are usually Guatemalans, not Mexicans like we tend to typecast all “Hispanics.”

And those here illegally—maybe eleven million, probably more—are the stuff of big news.

We all have an opinion on what to do. Just read the newspapers and hear the pundits Pontificate on television and radio talk shows.

But, did you know the first Hispanics arrived in Alabama about two hundred years before English or French settlers meandered into these pristine woods and plains in the eighteenth century?

And they didn’t come rather humbly looking for work. They rode through on war horses, searching for gold, taking Indians as slaves, and generally wrecking the neighborhood.

They were the conquistadors led by Hernando de Soto, a brash, bold adventurer in an age of adventurers, the likes of Hernán Cortés who conquered Mexico, and Francisco Pizarro who brought the great Inca Empire of Peru to its knees. This was the beginning of civilization in the Americas as we know it.

De Soto brought his ambitions to North America in 1539. With an army of over 600 soldiers, some on foot, some on horses never seen in the New World, they decimated the Indian populations of the Southeast.

They landed in Florida somewhere near Tampa Bay and wended their way through Georgia, the Carolinas and the mountains of Tennessee before dropping down into Alabama like the hand of a plague in the spring and summer of 1540.

The Indians gave as much as they took, however. Conquering was no cakewalk. European swords of hardened Toledan steel and mounted knights did not terrify and intimidate the ancestors of the Choctaw, the Creeks, the Chickasaws, and the Cherokee with impunity.

At the Battle of Mabila, fought 470 years ago, the Indians, led by a great chief, Tuscaloosa (spelled different ways), set an ambush for De Soto’s army pushing deep into central Alabama. They followed the course of the Alabama River and its tributaries into the trap and the battle that ensued lasted most of the day and into the night.

Garcilaso de la Vega, el Inca recorded that “Indians and Castilians fought with many deaths on both sides…and it seemed that the more injury the Indians received, the more they persisted, and, despairing of their lives, instead of surrendering they fought with greater eagerness to kill the Spaniards; and they, seeing the obstinacy, persistence and rage of the Indians, wounded and killed them without pity.”

The battle settled nothing. The Spanish army moved north, perhaps even passing through Moundville or Tuscaloosa, on their way to winter in Mississippi before heading across the great Father of Waters to their destiny. Chief Tuscaloosa disappeared in the battle and few Spaniards returned to Alabama in the sixteenth century.

When French and English outriders of their own expanding empires in the Americas arrived in the region a century later, they gradually pushed the Spanish back into Florida and Texas, and these areas passed into the hands of the fledgling United States in the half century after Independence.

During the American Revolution, though, a Spanish-Cuban naval expedition kicked the English out of Mobile and secured Pensacola as well, once again bringing Spanish-speaking warriors into Alabama. A little over a hundred years later, Alabama soldiers serving in the Spanish-American-Cuban War of 1898 repaid the favor, helping free Cuba from Spanish sovereignty.

Over four centuries after De Soto plunged through Alabama, a small trickle of new Spanish-speakers began arriving in Alabama. They brought with them a strong work ethic and an equally powerful desire to find jobs and prosperity here. Many came into the U. S. illegally, pulled by jobs Americans did not want to do for cultural (too menial and degrading) and economic (low pay) reasons.

Today Hispanics comprise at least 3.2% of the total population of Alabama and data from the U. S. Census shows that nationally people of Hispanic or Latino origin already comprise almost 16% of the population as opposed to 13% black people (using Census language).

They are a polyglot people, speaking not only Spanish but also Indian dialects and other languages of Latin America such as Portuguese (Brazil) and a French patois (Haiti).

Unlike the haughty Castilian Argonaut De Soto who arrived on horseback leading on army of veteran warriors in 1540, the modern “Hispanics” and “Latinos” usually arrive in pickups and vans, often undocumented or here illegally.

Would that Chief Tuscaloosa had checked the credentials of the conquistadors!

“Are your passports in order? Do you have a green card?”

As we slowly, sometimes painfully, move to integrate this renewing stream of immigrants into our country, we probably ought to look back into history as well as forward into the future.

We are both a nation of immigrants, and a nation of laws. They need to be reconciled to keep us both strong and faithful to our principles and traditions.

Article published as Hispanics Played Major Role in Settlement of Alabama in The Tuscaloosa News, Dec. 26, 2010

Posted in: History