Fray Diego de Landa was born in Spain in 1524, and came to Yucatán as a Franciscan monk in 1549. His assignment was to convert the Maya to Catholicism after the Spanish conquest. He began his work in the mission of San Antonio in Izamal, where his portrait can still be seen today.
Diego de Landa was tireless in his efforts to walk the entire Yucatán peninsula and spread the Catholic religion. He went where others would not go, and made it his mission to learn as much about the Maya culture as he possibly could; probably with the motive that it would be easier to later destroy it. He was welcomed and esteemed at first, and the Maya people showed him some of their sacred writings. But to Diego de Landa, the very fact that these writings existed was evidence of diabolical beliefs. He was relentless in the pursuit of his goal: to convert as many souls as possible and eliminate pagan practices, thereby allowing the Second Coming of Christ to arrive sooner.
Many Maya did not embrace the new religion, and in many cases continued to worship their own gods and idols. Diego de Landa chose a route of physical aggression and abuse, which was even seen as excessive by other Catholic Church members. In 1562 he ordered an inquisition in Maní, burning at least 40 Maya codices. Dozens of Maya nobles and commoners were put in jail, interrogated, and tortured. The violence was such that many Maya escaped into the forests to avoid the extreme abuse.
Diego de Landa is believed to have said: “We found a large number of books, and as they contained nothing in which were not to be seen as superstition and lies of the devil, we burned them all, which they (the Maya) regretted to an amazing degree, and which caused them much affliction.”
Fray Diego de Landa is famously known for his book “Relación de las Cosas de Yucatán,” written in 1566. It is speculated that he eventually repented of his cruelty and destruction of the Maya people and their codices, and decided to write their history himself. The book is widely considered to be a complete and accurate summary of the Maya and their culture, religion, and way of life. His intimate knowledge of the people and villages allowed him to describe their social organization and daily life in a way that no one else could do. He wrote about their history, architecture, language, writing system, and, ironically, about the cruel treatment by the Spanish conquerors; and he even wrote, with some attempt at justification, about the Spanish friars’ methods in the conversion of the Maya to Catholicism.
Most ironically, some scholars believe that it is partly because of Fray Diego de Landa’s attempts to destroy Maya culture that it had the opposite effect, and has survived to this day.
Fray Diego de Landa died in Mérida in 1579.