top of page

Diego de Landa: From Monasteries to Roundabouts

Fray Diego de Landa

In the North of the peninsula of Yucatán, in modern Mexico, next to the yellow walls of Izamal’s Franciscan Monastery stands a statue of Fray Diego de Landa. Landa was one of the first Franciscan Bishops of Izamal and Yucatán. The statue is rather nondescript, with a small plaque barely big enough to fit more than the Fray’s name. Now serving as a roundabout, little more can be said about the statue. However, the man it depicts is one of the most infamous men in early colonial Yucatán history.

Born in 1524, only a few years after Cortés’ campaign against the Aztecs, Landa lived during Spain’s vast and rapid conquering of Meso- and South America. As a leading Franciscan bishop, in the mid-16th century he led an inquisition against the Maya in Yucatán and attempted to prevent the continuation of their traditional practices. Thousands were arrested and tortured; later records state that 157 were killed during the Inquisition and thirteen took their own life to avoid brutal torture.[1] During the months of persecution, Landa played an instrumental role in its development and execution.

Like many colonisers, Landa was memorialised with a statue. It is not a hugely celebratory monument; its plaque simply notes the conflicting sides of his life ­– the good and the bad – and how this made him a ‘complex’ figure in Yucatán history. It reads:

Fray Diego de Landa

Contradictorio provincial de hierro. Fanático

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 el segunda mitad del siglo XVI

Fray Diego de Landa plaque -

(Friar Diego de Landa

Contradictory iron-fisted provincial. Fanatic

destroyer and tireless builder. Light and

shadow. Persecuted the Mayas as

inquisitor. As bishop he defended them from the

encomenderos.* He was responsible for the auto de fe of Maní and the

“Account of the Affairs of Yucatan”.

Primordial historian, he is an eminent figure

in the second half of the 16th century)

* an estate of land and the inhabiting American Indians formerly granted to Spanish colonists or adventurers in America for purposes of tribute and evangelization.

Landa statue on roundabout

Many are disturbed by the statue, which was erected centuries later in 1971 by politician Carlos Loret de Mola Mediz. Yet, there is no public desire to remove it.[2] While the plaque attempts to show a more accurate history than a blatant colonialist rendering, Landa is nevertheless oversimplified. The “good” he did he does not have the same historical weight as his “bad”, yet his memorial almost suggests that the two sides were balanced, describing his deeds as ‘light and shadow’. Every comment that discusses his damaging presence in history is paired with one that notes some beneficial historical legacy.

I do not consider myself to be in a position to state whether the statue should still be standing. I am not Mexican nor Maya, and therefore not among those who have a rightful authority to decide this case. Instead, I want to discuss the place of statues in modern society, and provide in this article a fuller story about Landa and his acts of persecution: one that a small plaque cannot give.

The “good” he did he does not have the same historical weight as his “bad”, yet his memorial almost suggests that the two sides were balanced, describing his deeds as ‘light and shadow’.

Christianisation was fundamental to Spanish colonisation of the Americas, right from the arrival of Christopher Columbus in 1492 in the Caribbean. Throughout the 16th century, the presence and actions of the kingdom of Spain in the so-called ‘New World’ was at the heart of many legal and moral debates. Christianisation itself became an ethical tool, because it appeared to provide legitimacy to Spanish conquest. One year after Columbus landed on the island of Haiti, in 1493 the Inter Caetera Papal Bull encouraged the Castilian Crown to spread the word of God, giving impetus to missionary work which became systematic in 1524 and was used to justify Spanish presence in the Americas. Indigenous people were forced to attend mass and listen to bible readings. Noble indigenous families were made to send their sons to Christian monastery schools.[3]

The missionaries’ paternalistic approach was shattered when it was discovered that ‘converted’ indigenous people were continuing to practice their own traditions. This caused a decided shift and change in attitudes from the 1530s. In 1539 the first bishop of Mexico, Juan de Zumárraga, and the heads of the main orders in Mexico officially stated that missionaries could use ‘light punishments’ to force conversion.[4] This ruling enabled Diego de Landa and his followers to follow an inquisition to stop idolatry, with practices that appalled even their contemporaries.[5] Although missionaries were often violent, Landa stood out among his contemporaries as the worst of them all.

A mural by Fernando Castro Pacheco depicting the burning of Mayan objects and deities by Landa

In 1549, at the age of 25, Landa first arrived in Yucatán, Mexico, and quickly became the custodian of Izamal. In 1561 he was elected as the first provincial (the superior of a province of a Roman Catholic religious order) of the area.[6] As the Franciscans dominated the missionary scene in Yucatán, Landa’s position was an exceedingly powerful one. The following year, in early 1562, Landa led an investigation into covert ‘idolatrous’ practices. In particular, the missionaries worried that ­– instead of replacing Mayan traditions – the Christian god was being incorporated into the extensive Mayan pantheon.[7] This served as a catalyst for the next three months of torture and violence led by Landa. It was reported that when Native penitents were tied to whipping posts for their lashes, their bodies and skin was already so ripped and damaged from their preliminary interrogations that 'there was no sound part on which they could be flogged'.[8]

Diego de Landa's notes on the Maya language

Contemporaries did not all stand by these torture: the first Bishop of Mexico, Fray Francisco de Toral, arrived on a visit to Merida in August 1562. He disliked Landa and could not abide by his methods. While he accepted that cases of idolatry had occurred, he believed they did not justify the violence, despite many frays in Yucatán supporting Landa and his methods. In 1563, he drew up a report on Landa’s behaviour to Philip II of Spain. After this was sent, Landa resigned from his position to take up his defence and, in order to plead his case in person, left for Spain. He likely wrote his Account of the Affairs of Yucatán as part of his defence.[9] It included details of the Maya culture and language, all noted by Landa in order to better destroy it and to prove the idolatrous nature of the Maya. As Landa burnt many Maya codices and destroyed traditions, there is significant irony in the fact that the fragment of Landa’s work we do have is one of the most instructive surviving sources of information about Maya culture at contact.[10]

It was not until 1565 that theologians and canon lawyers took up Landa’s case. Due to its complexity and how much it encroached on the internal affairs of the Franciscans, it took four years for them to give their verdict, which acquitted Landa on all charges. He remained in Spain for a couple of years, before returning to the Mexico once more as Bishop of Yucatán, a position which he held till his death in 1579.[11]

Diego de Landa’s presence in Mayan history and the extent of the devastation he caused cannot be reduced to a couple of lines. Some may argue that historical figures with chequered pasts need to be understood with consideration of the standards of the time. That said, Landa is an example of an individual who ordered horrific acts of persecution and colonisation that, even at the time, were considered unacceptable. A statue cannot tell its full history; a plaque is never big enough.

By Nina Holguin



[1] I Clendinnen, ‘Disciplining the Indians: Franciscan Ideology and Missionary Violence in Sixteenth-Century Yucatán’, Past and Present, No. 94 (1982) and B. R. Hamnett, ‘A Concise History of Mexico’ (1999)

[2] [3] I Clendinnen, ‘Disciplining the Indians: Franciscan Ideology and Missionary Violence in Sixteenth-Century Yucatán’, Past and Present, No. 94 (1982) [4] Ibid. [5] Diego de Landa, ‘Account of the Affairs of Yucatán’, ed. and tr. A. Pagden (1975) [6] Ibid. [7] Ibid. [8] I Clendinnen, ‘Ambivalent Conquests: Maya and Spaniard in Yucatan, 1517-1570’ (2003) [9] Diego de Landa, ‘Account of the Affairs of Yucatán’, ed. and tr. A. Pagden (1975) [10] Ibid. [11] Ibid.

bottom of page