Like most such nationalist holidays incorporating imagery of an original people, there are many problematic aspects to this celebration. The image of Lempira on Honduran currency and in the statue that stands on a boulevard in San Pedro Sula draws more from ideas about generalized American Indians than any specifics of Lenca appearance or costume. But these aspects of cultural appropriation and their ironies are not the subject of this post.
In honor of this Lempira day I want to step back and remember the historical Lempira.
Lempira, or El Empira, was a Lenca war captain in the 1530s when the Spanish invaded western Honduras. We know he was a real person, one of those rarely named indigenous people who appear in Spanish Colonial documents of this time. When we began research in the country thirty years ago, the high school graduates we talked to were dubious about his historical existence, thinking he was legendary. But he was demonstrably real, and the recovery of his story is a tribute to the tenacity of Honduran scholars.
There are two contradictory stories about Lempira's death at the hands of the Spanish.
The most well known story is from the 17th century writings of Antonio de Herrera y Tordesillas. In his multivolume work Historia General de los hechos de los castellanos en las islas y en tierra firme del mar océano.
This story, written long after the Spanish Conquest, was composed by interviewing the children of participants in the conquest and by examining documents in archives in Guatemala. In Herrera's story, Lempira agreed to meet with two representatives of the Spanish captain Alonso de Caceres to negotiate peace. While they were meeting under a flag of truce, a Spanish sharp-shooter shot and killed him. This is the story as it is taught in Honduran schools.
Due to the hard work of Honduran historian Mario Felipe Martinez Castillo, we actually know that earlier documentation of Lempira's campaign against the Spanish, dating to the 1560s, exists. Written less than a generation after the events, it contains first-hand witness testimony, and it tells a much different story.
The document, Patronato 69, R. 5 ("Meritos y Servicios Rodrigo Ruiz Nueva España") is in the Archivo General de Indias in Sevilla, Spain.
The document was sitting in the archives but was unknown to Honduran historians until the 1980s, when Mario Felipe Martinez Castillo, a noted Honduran historian, found and published it in Honduras in his book, Los Últimos Días de Lempira: Rodrigo Ruiz, El conquistador Español que lo venció en combate.
Rodrigo Ruiz gives us a fascinating story of infiltrating the Lenca forces during the battle with Lempira, until he arrived at the spot where Lempira was commanding his troops. He reports that Lempira was dressed in the clothing of two Spanish soldiers because Lempira felt it would make him impervious to bullets. He reports that he fought Lempira in hand to hand combat and killed him with his sword, later cutting off Lempira's head and presenting it to Montejo, the Spanish governor in 1537, as proof of Lempira's death. After Lempira was killed, Ruiz reports the Lenca withdrew for four days, then came to give obedience to the king.
The account of Rodrigo Ruiz contains elements which match the oral history preserved by the modern Lenca about Lempira, specifically that he thought he was impervious to the Spanish bullets, and that he was killed in combat, not in ambush as Herrera wrote.
The story of Lempira received from Herrera has been an important part of the creation of Honduran national identity, especially in the 1930s under the dictator Tiburcio Carias Andino. The new national currency, the Lempira, was named after him in 1931. The story of Lempira's betrayal by the Spanish, as told by Herrera, was incorporated into the new national school curriculum.
When Mario Felipe Martinez Castillo came forward with the account of Lempira based on earlier-- and therefore, likely more reliable-- documents, he was largely ignored. Lempira as an innocent victim of his nobility, doomed to defeat by the crafty (if morally flawed) Spanish, fits a standard storyline also seen in Mexico and Guatemala (where the stories are equally questionable historically). These stories underwrite ideologies of national integration, of assimilation and acculturation, of the inevitable loss of indigenous autonomy and identity.
Lempira as a successful leader who rallied a large-scale resistance to the Spanish is quite another kind of founding father. He is one of a group of alternative figures of indigenous history, who came to grips with the new historical circumstances in which they were living, and took active roles in advancing the persistence of their peoples.
It is a tribute to the work of Honduran historians that today the more complex story of Lempira is so well known that an editorial in Tiempo today by Edwin Wilfredo Rubí presented basically the same facts as we have in this post, about the rediscovery of the earlier story of Lempira and the contradictions it presents with the nationalist version. He ends his editorial
This extraordinary document...that has not been studied by any other historian [since Mario Felipe Martinez Castillo], merits a more careful analysis... It is also a stimulus for the present and future generation of Honduran historians that will give life to our colonial history, making use of documents like this...
From this text you can take two conclusions: first, that the rising of Cerquin was absolutely true, and second, that the indigenous leader who led the peoples of the province of Cerquin was named ELEMPIRA.
If this version is the truth, it also makes me feel proud, on knowing, that our Cacique Lempira died completely as a hero, preferring to die fighting, rather than on his knees
[Unfortunately, we cannot provide a link directly to the original document. But due to the policies of open access by the Spanish government, anyone with computer access can look up a scan of the original 16th century document. To do this,
1. Navigate to http://pares.mcu.es
2. Select the button for "Búsqueda Avanzada"
3. Under "Filtro por Archivo" select "Archivo General de Indias"
4. Under "Filtro por Signatura" enter "Patronato,69,R.5" and select the "Búsqueda por Signatura exacta" radio button.
5. Click on the "Buscar" button at the bottom of the page.
6. On the search results page click on "Patronato Real" underneath the "Archivo General de Indias" title.
7. Under "Titulo" click on "Meritos y Servicios Rodrigo Ruiz".
8. To view the page images, click on the "Ver Imagenes" button. ]