The true story of Cozumel’s past is now almost completely obscured by the misstatements, mistakes, and misunderstandings put forth in hundreds of poorly-researched websites, misleading tourist brochures, and articles by well-intentioned authors who relied on badly translated English versions of original Spanish manuscripts as their primary sources. It is a crying shame.
For a few years now, I have been crusading against this dreadful process because I hate to see the true record of the past slip away and be replaced by this new “Disneyfied” version of events. After writing articles on this subject in Spanish for various Quintana Roo newspapers and magazines as well as giving talks at Cozumel’s Museo de la Isla and the Universidad de Quintana Roo, I decided to write a book about it in English, The True History of Cozumel. In the book, I tackle many of the most diehard myths and legends that have been touted for years as the truth regarding Cozumel’s past. Some of them have been repeated so often that they now are enshrined in popular culture as ironclad fact.
A few of these assertions have a seed of truth in them, while others are made up from whole cloth. For example, there are hundreds of authors who boldly state Jacques Yves Cousteau was single-handedly responsible for bringing Cozumel to the world’s attention by filming a documentary on Palancar Reef at the end of the 1950s or beginning of the 1960s, but this is a complete fabrication. It is hogwash, as my grandmother used to say. There was no such documentary. The rumor began as a misguided attempt at promoting tourism by associating Cozumel with the famous celebrity and then it was repeated and re-repeated. After years of reading about it, a kind of herd mentality has overtaken the public and most people will swear it is true. However, if you do any kind of serious search for copies or written records of this purported documentary, you will soon realize it never existed. There are no newspaper articles of the period reporting on what would have been quite a show, had it taken place. Imagine the Calypso anchored off of San Miguel, handsome French divers coming ashore and posing for photographs in their spiffy striped t-shirts, and the big man himself, standing in his red tuque next to a proud Presidente Municipal for a hero shot. But no such photos exist and there are no contemporary newspaper or magazine articles that mention anything of such an event. Even the Cousteau Society says it never happened. This tale is nothing more than one writer copying another without checking the facts and then being copied himself by another writer, and so on ad nauseam.
The film director who really did promote the island by making an underwater film in Cozumel was René Cardona. That film, Un Mundo Nuevo, was shown in Mexican cinemas in 1957 before being translated into English and broadcast on American TV as A New World in 1958. And that, folks, is why we have a Cardona Reef in Cozumel and no reef named after Cousteau!
Another oft-told tale I address in my book is how Maya women supposedly traveled from all over the peninsula to make offerings at the temple of Ix Chel on Cozumel at least once in their lifetime. Another myth. If you examine the original early documents in their original Spanish, Latin, or Mayan (and not the popular books and articles on the subject) you will find that there is only one, single, solitary instance where the names Ix Chel and Cozumel appear in the same document prior to the mid-20th century. That one was written in 1579 by a man living in Valladolid and it says not a word about Maya women. All the rest of the pre-twentieth-century documents speak of the temples of the other gods on Cozumel, like Teel Cuzam, Kinich Kakmó, Ah Yax Ac, Chinab, and Ah Hulneb, but not a peep about a temple to Ix Chel on Cozumel or a women’s pilgrimage to the island. Claims of a women’s pilgrimage to Cozumel do not appear anywhere in the literature until the 1970s and have grown exponentially ever since.
Another story regarding Ix Chel that is patently false is the account of a life-sized statue of the goddess in which a Maya priest would hide inside and offer up prophesies while mimicking the goddess’s voice. This tale has its origin in an incorrectly transcribed word. Andrés de Tapia, who was with Cortés in Cozumel in 1519, wrote in his 1539 report that in Cozumel there was an idol of baked clay and that the priests would, in his words, “empower the said idol, and that is as it was, because the Indians said, according to what I could understand, that the idol talked.” The Spanish word the eyewitness Tapia used for “empower” was “envestirse,” meaning “to invest him with a power” or “to confer a power on him.” However, 33 years later, in 1552, Francisco López de Gomara rewrote that report in his Historia General de las Indias and changed Tapia’s word “envestirse” to “embutiase,” which means “he squeezed into” something. The legend grew from there.
One of the most egregious misrepresentations of history is the fairy-tale that is purported to be the story of Gonzalo Guerrero. First, it is important to know that the very name “Gonzalo Guerrero” never appeared in any written document until Gomara’s Historia General de las Indias in 1552. Prior to that, the shipwrecked sailor was called “Morales” by Hernán Cortés in his (and other’s) sworn court testimony. Cortés also refutes the part of the story that says “Gonzalo” declined the offer of rescue because he did not want to leave his wife and children. The conquistador wrote, again in sworn testimony, “By this Jerónimo de Aguilar we were informed that there were other Spaniards in that caravel that sank and that they were spread out far and wide across the land, which, he informed us, was very large and it was impossible for us to be able to gather them up without wasting a lot of time.” The story of the sailor refusing to rejoin the Spaniards was invented by chroniclers several decades after the fact. Indeed, the entire legend of the shipwrecked marrying a Maya princess first appeared when a Mexico City newspaper reporter wrote the fictitious story in 1974.
One often hears that Cozumel was a base of operations for several buccaneers and corsairs, including Jean Laffite, Henry Morgan, Francis Drake, and many others. Not so. There were a few minor raids on the island in the late-1500s by minor-league French freebooters (of which I go into great detail in my book), but no one ever made the island their headquarters. It is true that Jean Laffite’s brother, Pierre, spent a few months on Isla Mujeres, but there is no record of Jean ever setting foot on that island, let alone on Cozumel. Other claims, such as the one made in the 1994 Baedeker’s Mexico guide are outright ludicrous. That particular book says Long John Silver, a fictitious character in Treasure Island, lived on Cozumel! The root of this myth lies in the Spanish term pirata. This unfortunate nomenclature was made formal on June 22, 1672, when the Spanish Crown issued an edict declaring all foreigners who were trading without a license in Spanish overseas ports to be piratas. This word conjures up a vision of a swash-buckling buccaneer, cutlass in hand, a patch over one eye, and a parrot on his shoulder, but in reality it merely meant a contrabandista; a person who earned his living dealing in contraband, or merchandise upon which he had paid no tax. That misinterpretation of the word “pirata” is what led non-historians to write that in the 1600s and 1700s Cozumel was a “pirates’ lair.” This legend is far from the truth. There were English logwood (palo de tinte) cutters on Cozumel at that time, but they were called piratas because they did not pay tax to the Spanish Crown, not because they were “buccaneers.”
The history of Cozumel is an amazing chronology of extremely interesting characters and events that has no need of embellishment. The old, original eyewitness accounts were vividly written and often would make great movie scripts; like when the Republic of Texas planted its flag on Cozumel and claimed it in 1837, or the time Abraham Lincoln tried to buy Cozumel to use as a colony where he could send the freed slaves, or when Earnest Hemingway’s brother went searching for Nazi spies on the island. Read the book and see for yourself!
The True History of Cozumel
Copyright 2015, Ric Hajovsky
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