Juan de Zumárraga, first bishop and archbishop of New Spain, was a prolific letter writer. During the two decades of his Mexican episcopacy (1527-48), hundreds of letters were scrawled by the hands of his escribanos. Unfortunately, much of the bishop’s correspondence is no longer extant. Letters were lost in the Atlantic passage, others were inadvertently destroyed over the past four centuries. In addition, an unknown quantity of them no doubt lies buried in family papers and conventual archives.
The fifteen letters presented in this volume form part of a series of intricate lawsuits spanning the years 1548 to 1553. All of them were drafted between 1536 and 1548 and are contained within a single legajo of the justicia section in the Archivo General de Indias. Finding the letters was relatively easy; transcribing and translating them was another matter. Several of the letters are “imperfect copies of other imperfect copies” (p. xxxv). Owing to the incompetence and carelessness of Zumárraga’s scribes—something the bishop himself often complained of— the paleography of some passages proved to be extraordinarily difficult. Another problem was Zumárraga’s faulty knowledge and use of both Castilian and Latin. His native tongue was Basque, and, as Richard Greenleaf notes, the bishop was never at home in any other language. In Mexico Zumárraga even surrounded himself with Basque-speaking associates so that he might continue to speak the language. Given these problems, the work of translator Neal Kaveny is remarkable.
The letters, presented in parallel pages of Spanish and English, offer tangential insights into the episcopacy of Zumárraga and the viceregency of Antonio de Mendoza. They focus, however, on three consuming interests in the bishop’s life. Zumárraga remained in close contact with his family in Durango, Vizcaya, frequently involving himself in matters such as marriages, deaths, and financial affairs; he was the generous benefactor of a lay order of Franciscan women in Durango who performed social and charitable works; and he nurtured a near lifelong plan for founding a hospice for Franciscan friars in the town. In pursuit of all endeavors Zumárraga was involved intimately with his artistically talented but unscrupulous nephew, Sancho García Larrazábal. The bishop’s long, and in the end painful, relationship with Sancho García reveals his changing relationship with an ungrateful relative.
Letters to Vizcaya reveals a personal and little-known dimension in Zumárraga’s life that extends beyond his capacity as primate of New Spain. This slim but expensive volume also reflects well on the painstaking scholarship of editor Greenleaf and translator Kaveny.