Doña Mencía Calderón was one of most remarkable women of the time of the Spanish Conquistadores. She was born in the first decades of the XVI century to wealthy and noble parents. Her father was Alonso García of the castilian lineage of the Calderón and her mother was Ana de Ocampo, both were born and lived in Medellín, Extremadura. Doña Mencía was also a relative of Hernán Cortés, first Marquis of the Valley of Oaxaca, and Francisco Pizarro, Conquistador of Perú.
She was married to another noble conquistador from Extremadura: Juan de Sanabria y Alonso de Hinojosa (1504-1549) who was also on his side a relative of Hernán Cortés. Don Juan de Sanabria was appointed in 1547 as Adelantado of Río de la Plata (the region that comprehends Argentina and Uruguay) but unfortunately he passed away before he could even begin his period in office.
8 years after the untimely death of her husband, Doña Mencía gathered her children, a group of 40 beautiful Spanish women of the aristocracy, a contingent of 80 soldiers and with them she departed in three ships from the port of Sanlúcar de Barrameda to the New World.
It was known that in the New World some Conquistadores had promiscuous lives fathering bastards and having multiple women in their homes. Because of this the King gave Juan de Sanabria the mission of strengthening the Spanish presence in South American territories and to send noble and virtuous women that could marry Conquistadores, thus bringing a social order in those areas.
After don Juan de Sanabria died, his widow, doña Mencía took those important missions into her own hands and she led that group of brave women and men to South America.
The journey to the Canary Islands was uneventful (their first stopover), but then a storm that dispersed the fleet caught them. The San Miguel was dragged by the wind and the tides, towards the African coast. Once they managed to repair the ship they were attacked by French pirates that even though they took some of their treasures, they respected the honor of the women.
After suffering this hardship they were affected by a plague that claimed many lives, including that of one of Mencía’s daughters. Still, nothing managed to diminish the enthusiasm of the “Adelantada”, a title that she never had but with which the crew recognized her for her strength and for being the widow of the Adelantado Sanabria.
After some months of sailing they arrived to the Island of Santa Catalina in December 1550. In this place they found that another ship of the expedition managed to reach the island albeit badly damaged by the storms. The third ship never appeared.
On that island they suffered constant attacks from tribes opposed to the Spanish settlements. During the stay in Santa Catalina several weddings were celebrated, such as that of María Sanabria with the Captain Hernando de Trejo. Their first son was born on the island and of one the daughters of María de Sanabria and Hernando de Trejo I descend: Ana de Trejo y Sanabria, wife of the Captain Alonso López de Portillo.
Returning to doña Mencía and her brave crew: they sailed once again and in 1553 they shipwrecked near Río de la Plata and they were rescued by the ships that were traveling to that place. In 10th of August 1553 an order was issued by the King with the following orders: “Manda que los navíos que han de ir al Río de la Plata, lo hagan por la costa del Brasil, para recoger a doña Mencía Calderón y demás náufragos de la expedición de Sanabria.” (Archivo General de Indias. Audiencia de Buenos Aires. Real Cédula a los oficiales de la Casa de Contratación de Sevilla. 1553. BUENOS_AIRES,1,L.2,F.6V)
After recovering from those hardships, they sailed to San Vicente, the main city of the Portuguese Empire. They were treated as enemies by the Governor Tomé de Sousa, who opposed the Spanish settlements near his border. Doña Mencía and her women were held for another two years, some of whom married Portuguese soldiers, living in that Lusitanian colony.
Once de Souza left his position as Governor the expedition retook the journey and in April 1555 they were divided into two groups. The first, led by Juan de Salazar who was accompanied by his wife, daughters, some craftsmen, a handful of soldiers and two priests, went directly to Asunción, where he arrived in October of the same year, after countless adventures and many casualties.
Doña Mencía, with the remaining ladies and the rest of the men, led by her son-in-law, Hernando de Trejo, returned south where they founded a town called San Francisco, to comply with the instructions of the Council of the Indies. But they were unable to defend it against the attacks of the Cario Indians, so they soon abandoned it and went into the jungle, in an almost suicidal effort to reach Asunción. They traveled more than a thousand kilometers, had to cross mountains, rivers and deal with wild animals. With the support of the Guarani indians, in May 1556, six years and one month after they set sail, about forty survivors entered the Paraguayan capital. Of them, half were women.
It is known that the new governor of Paraguay, Martínez de Irala gave lands and privileges to the Adelantada and her family. It is also known that her offspring can be found throughout most of America and Spain.
The portrait falsely attributed to doña Mencía.
The life of the Adelantada Mencía Calderón has been retold many times but unfortunately a portrait circulates online that has been falsely attributed to her and that appears in some of those stories:
The portrait in reality belongs to doña Mencía de Mendoza, Marchioness of Cenete and that is mentioned in the lower part of her portrait: “Mencia Mendoça. Mar. Zeneta”
And even though we do not know how doña Mencía looked like, in the year 2014 the actress Ingrid Rubio represented her in the Spanish TV series “El corazón del océano”.