Pedro de Alvarado (1485-1541) was a Spanish conquistador who participated in the Conquest of the Aztecs in Central Mexico in 1519 and led the Conquest of the Maya in 1523. Referred to as "Tonatiuh" or "Sun God" by the Aztecs because of his blonde hair and white skin, Alvarado was violent, cruel and ruthless, even for a conquistador for whom such traits were practically a given. After the Conquest of Guatemala, he served as governor of the region, although he continued to campaign until his death in 1541.
Pedro's exact year of birth is unknown: it was probably some time between 1485 and 1495. Like many conquistadores, he was from the province of Extremadura: in his case, he was born in the city of Badajoz. Like many younger sons of minor nobility, Pedro and his brothers could not expect much in the way of an inheritance: they were expected to become priests or soldiers, as working the land was considered beneath them. In about 1510 he went to the New World with several brothers and an uncle: they soon found work as soldiers in the various expeditions of conquest that originated on Hispaniola, including the brutal conquest of Cuba.
Personal Life and Appearance
Alvarado was blond and fair, with blue eyes and pale skin that fascinated the natives of the New World. He was considered affable by his fellow Spaniards and the other conquistadores trusted him. He married twice: first to a Spanish noblewoman, Francisca de la Cueva, who was related to the powerful Duke of Albuquerque, and then later, after her death, to Beatriz de la Cueva, who survived him and briefly became governor in 1541. His longtime native companion, Doña Luisa Xicotencatl, was given to him by Hernán Cortés and followed him on most of his adventures. He had no legitimate children, but did father several bastards.
Alvarado and the Conquest of the Aztecs
In 1518, Hernán Cortés mounted an expedition to explore and conquer the mainland: Alvarado and his brothers quickly signed on. Alvarado's leadership was recognized early on by Cortés, who put him in charge of ships and men. He would eventually become Cortés' right-hand man. As the conquistadores moved into central Mexico and a showdown with the Aztecs, Alvarado proved himself time and again as a brave, capable soldier, even if he did have a noticeable cruel streak. Cortés often entrusted Alvarado with important missions and reconnaissance. After the conquest of Tenochtitlán, Cortés was forced to head back to the coast to face Pánfilo de Narváez, who had brought soldiers from Cuba to take him into custody. Cortés left Alvarado in charge while he was gone.
The Temple Massacre
In Tenochtitlán (Mexico City), tensions were high between the natives and the Spanish. The noble class seethed at the audacious invaders, who were laying claim to their wealth, property and women. On May 20, 1520, the nobles gathered for their traditional celebration known as Toxcatl. They had already asked Alvarado for permission, which he had granted. Things soon got ugly, however. According the Spanish, they slaughtered the nobles because they had proof that the festivities were a prelude to an attack designed to kill all of the Spanish in the city: the Aztecs claim the Spanish only wanted the golden ornaments many of the nobility were wearing. No matter what the cause, the Spanish fell on the unarmed nobles, slaughtering hundreds.
The Noche Triste
Cortés returned and quickly tried to restore order, but it was in vain. The Spanish were under a state of siege for several days before they sent Emperor Moctezuma to speak to the crowd: according to the Spanish account, he was killed by stones thrown by his own people. With Moctezuma dead, the attacks increased until the night of June 30, when the Spanish tired to sneak out of the city under cover of darkness. They were discovered and attacked: dozens were killed as they attempted to escape, laden down with treasures. During the escape, Alvarado allegedly made a mighty leap from one of the bridges: for a long time afterwards, the bridge was known as "Alvarado's Leap."