Land of the Conquistadors

It's estimated that some 15,000 Extremeños (from a total pop. of 400,000) went to seek gold in the New World. The most fabled of these adventurers were Hernán Cortés (from Medellín), who went to Mexico; Francisco Pizarro (from Trujillo), who went to Peru; Vasco Núñez de Balboa (from Jerez de los Caballeros), who landed in Panama, where he first sighted the Pacific Ocean; Hernando de Soto (from Barcarrota), who discovered the Mississippi River and explored Florida and beyond; and Francisco de Orellana (also from Trujillo), who ventured through Ecuador and the Amazon.

Thanks to these conquistadors, the names of Extremaduran villages are sprinkled through the Americas, as exemplified by the Guadalupe Mountains (Texas), Albuquerque (New Mexico), Trujillo (Peru), Mérida (Mexico), and Medellín (Colombia).

Because Extremeños faced such a hard time making a living in the harsh land of their birth, they often turned elsewhere to seek their fortune. One reason for the area's extreme poverty was that huge tracts of land, used for ranching, were owned by absentee landlords (as many still are today). These ranches are called latifundios, and they're often home to tenant farmers and their families, who pay the owners for the privilege of grazing a few goats or growing scanty crops in the dry climate. Worse, a system of mayorazgo (still in effect) decreed that all family property must be passed to the eldest son, leaving any younger sons, called secundinos, penniless. Not surprisingly, many of secundinos set sail for the New World to seek gold.

Plenty of conquistadors died or stayed in the New World, but others, who had grown rich there, returned to the land of their birth and built magnificent homes, villas, and ranches, many of which stand today. Bernal Díaz, who joined the Cortés expedition to Mexico, described the situation very bluntly. "We came here to serve God and the king," he wrote, "and to get rich."

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