Joan Zumarraga Laritz of Durango, Bizkaia, is the first best-known Basque historical figure. The reason is that he was long in deeds and words, an anomaly among Basques, who are supposed to be long in deeds, but short in words.

Zumarraga was born in 1476 and took the habit of Saint Francis in Arantzazu (probably). He died in Mexico City in 1548. OK, I will admit that every time one starts telling the story of another fifteenth-century friar, today many readers are immediately turned off. Well, how wrong can you be?

He emigrated to Castile, where in 1527 he met the emperor Charles V of Hapsburg, who appointed him as the first bishop of Mexico. By all accounts he was one of the most influential figures in the Spanish colonies. He not only laid the foundations of the Christian Church in Mexico, but connected with the very Mexican soul through his intervention and sanction of the cult of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Today one can find dozens of Internet sites on Zumarraga, all of them related to his part in the devotion to the Virgin of Guadalupe. Regardless of the historicity of the 1531 apparition, the records show that his mayordomo Matxin Aranguren was the first person to leave a donation for the Church of Guadalupe in Mexico.

As a bishop, Zumarraga wrote hundreds of letters to kings, high officials, Basque friends, and relatives. He even wrote and published the first printed books in the Americas. He was a true renaissance man, who did not forget his baserritarra roots. Indeed, he may have been the first Basque sheepman of North America. Surprising Zumarraga? You bet!

He was also an early euskalzale. The Basque version of the formula used by the Tertiary Franciscans of Durango to give the religious oaths of poverty, chastity, and obedience is attributed to him, but the paternity is not a sure thing.


What is certain is that on February 15, 1537 he wrote a long letter to Kattalin Ruiz Muntsaratz of Abadi˝o, Bizkaia. This document was discovered in the Archivo General de India, Justicia 1011, no. 2, ramo 2, fol. 214-15 (there is another copy in AGI, Justicia 1011, Cartilla 8).

NOTE: Those interested can read this and other letters with their English version in Richard E. Greenleaf, Zumßrraga and His Family. Letters to Vizcaya 1536‑1548. A Collection of Documents in Relation to the Founding of a Hospice in His Birthplace, Transcribed and introduced by Richard E. Greenleaf, Translated by Neal Kaveny, O.F.M. (Washington, D.C.: Academy of American Franciscan History, 1979).

Kattalin was the lady of the castle of Muntsaratz--the upper class of Bizkaian society--and Zumarraga wanted to marry his nephew Antso Garzia Larrazabal to her daughter Mari Inigez. Larrazabal had been just a tailor in Durango, before he was forced to leave town. He went to Mexico where his uncle secured for him the monopoly of making ornaments for the church.

The bishop tells Kattalin that Antso was no longer a poor tailor but rich. Therefore, he was now an honorable man, and asking for her daughter's hand was not out of his league. The bishop's plan was to set up a foundation in Durango, a hospice for the Franciscan friars, which would be run by Antso and Mari Inigez. The funds would come from Mexico.

Zumarraga calls Kattalin sister ("neba arrebaoc") but that's the Franciscan talking. He always considered himself related to the Muntsaratz, but when Kattalin was asked the question, she declared that she did not know how they were related. Now the bishop wanted to re-connect the Zumarraga-Muntsaratz ties through his nephew Antso.

Zumarraga dictated most of his letter for Kattalin, but at one point, he took the pen in his own hands and this is what he wrote:

"Lo de asta aquÝ se˝ora hermana es de ajena mano lo que se sigue es letra de vuestro hermano fray Juan para con vuestra merced es todo lo que aquÝ dirÚ en especial lo del bascuence."

(What has been written up to this point, dear sister, has been written by another's hand; what follows is in the hand of your brother, Fray Juan. All that I shall write here is for you (alone), especially what is written in Basque).

Unfortunately, the original letter is lost or has not been discovered yet. The document in the Archivo de Indias is a copy.

The text transcribed here has been borrowed (with minor alterations) from Antonio Tovar, Enrique Otte, and Koldo Michelena, "Nuevo y mßs extenso texto arcaico vasco: De una carta del primer obispo de MÚxico, Fray Juan de Zumßrraga," Euskara 26 (2.aldia): 5-14. See also Ibon Sarasola, "Fragmento en lengua vasca en una carta de F. Juan de Zumßrraga," Anuario del Seminario de FilosofÝa Vasca "Julio de Urquijo," 17, (1983): 97-103.

After Zumarraga finished the part in Euskara, he switched back to Castilian, and in the first sentence he gave proof of his awareness regarding the sad situation of the Basque language:

"Para que se alegre vuestra merced he escripto en el lenguage olvidado e no como yo quisiera como pude."

(In order to cheer you up, I have written in the forgotten language, not as well as I would have liked, but as well as I could).


Zumarraga had motives to write Kattalin in their native language. First, there were sentimental reasons. Second, some of the news he was revealing to Kattalin were of a rather delicate nature, especially for a Franciscan bishop. He was telling her that they were sending money in secret (by "they" the bishop meant himself and his Basque collaborators, such as Matxin Ibanez Hernani and Antso Garzia Larrazabal). Because the king of Castile often confiscated the silver that came from the colonies, Zumarraga relied on Basque shipmasters, such as Gonzalo Ugarte, Antso Pinaga, Joanes Ypazteco (probable "Ipasterko"), and others to smuggle the money from Mexico into Bizkaia.

Zumarraga did not show any guilt feelings about doing something illegal, because he figured that the king did not have the right to confiscate the silver, either. He continued sending money this way, but once he was caught, and that cost him. Urti Abenda˝o, the bishop's agent and contact in Seville, helped dislodge the money by taking advantage of the Basque network. In any case, the bishop decision to use Euskara minimized the risk of outsiders penetrating the operation.

For more information on the amazing story of Joan Zumarraga, see

J. Mallea-Olaetxe, "J. Zumarraga, Bishop of Mexico, and the Basques: The Ethnic Connection," Ph. D. dissertation (University of Nevada, 1988).