Garcilaso de la Vega, the "Inca," was born Gomez Suarez de Figueroa in Cuzco on April 12th, 1539. His father was the prominent conquistador captain Sebastian Garcilaso de la Vega y Vargas. His mother was Isabel Suarez Chimpu Ocllo, niece of Inca Huaina Capac and concubine to the Spanish captain. Her status as Inca princess and mother of his first-born son did not prevent Sebastian Garcilaso from later marrying a well-born Spanish woman (dona Luisa Martel, who was only four years older than Gomez) and marrying Isabel off to a commoner (Juan del Pedroche). Their son was thus one of the first Peruvian mestizos, and both sides of the family took care to ensure that he was exposed to the traditions of their respective cultures. He learned first Quechua and then Spanish before embarking on an elementary study of Latin in Cuzco.

The mid-16th century was a difficult period of rebellion and civil war in the colonies, and Sebastian Garcilaso's reputation was repeatedly tainted with accusations of treason. He remained wealthy, however, and made arrangements in the will he left in 1559 Gomez to be educated in Spain. The young mestizo sailed in 1560, made contact with paternal relatives in Andalusia, and may have studied Latin for a time under Pedro Sanchez de Herrera in Seville. By 1563 he had proudly assumed his father's name. He had also found to his dismay that his combined Inca and conquistador heritage was of little value in the Peninsula. Garcilaso repeatedly travelled to Madrid seeking royal patronage and the rehabilitation of his father's reputation, but was thwarted by hostile judges and damning accounts of his father's activities recorded in early chronicles of the Indies. A brief period of military service against rebel Moriscos did nothing to improve Garcilaso's status. After ten years, prevented from returning to the New World by financial and political difficulties, he inherited a modest fortune from his paternal uncle. By that time, however, repression following the execution of Tupac Amaru (1572) made it inadvisable for those of royal Inca blood to remain in the region. Garcilaso never saw his native land again.

Disappointed by his lack of success at court and in the military, Garcilaso was supported by his family in the Cordoban village of Montilla. There he resolved to devote himself to study and writing, encouraged by a local coterie of intellectuals and humanist literateurs. His published works are Los dialogos de amor (Madrid, 1590), La Florida del Inca (1605) and the Comentarios Reales de los Incas (part 1: 1609; part 2, the Historia General del Peru was published posthumously in 1617). In addition, the Inca is known to have written a number of poems, a diary and unpublished manuscripts such as his geneological essay La descendencia de Garci Perez de Vargas during his time in Spain.

Garcilaso's writings provide eloquent testimony to the emotional and intellectual struggles faced by this unique hybrid of the Old and New worlds. His first literary venture was a skillful Spanish translation of a masterpiece of the Italian renaissance, the neo-Platonic Dialoghi de amore by Leon Hebreo. With this work Garcilaso established himself as a European humanist scholar of the highest caliber, yet he called attention to his mestizo status by styling himself "Inga" on the title page. He also attracted the attention of the Inquisition, which had banned portions of the Dialoghi and later forbade further printings of his Spanish translation. Garcilaso was undeterred from his admiration for the philosophy of Judah Abarbanal, a Jew who proudly proclaimed his own maligned background by adopting the pseudonym "Leon the Hebrew".

With the publication of the Florida, Garcilaso's attention returned to the New World. For years he had collaborated with Gonzalo Silvestre, a survivor of de Soto's expedition to what are now the southeastern United States, to give an epic account of that voyage. Garcilaso's narrative used classical allusions to at once make the conquistadors into heroic figures and depict the Indians as noble pagans analogous to the ancient Romans and Greeks. This historiographical perspective became still more pronounced in Garcilaso's final opus, his monumental two-volume history of Peru.

The first volume of this history recounts the origins and rise of the Inca empire, using accounts sent by native friends in Peru as well as Garcilaso's own childhood memories which were filled with stories handed down by Inca relatives. Again, the overall impression conveyed by the work is that the Incas ruled their realm wisely and well, on the classical model of pagan Rome. Their only real flaw was their unwitting idolatry, and Garcilaso lauded Spanish attempts at proselytization. His message, however, was clear: the Incas were a noble people deserving to be treated with respect and perhaps allowed a role in the governance of their own territories.

The second volume (whose altered title has led to speculation that the original Comentarios Reales may have caused offence with its suggestion of Incan royal legitimacy) continues the narrative of Peruvian history from the advent of the Spaniards to the end of the 16th century. The turbulent and bloody events of early colonial Peru leave an unavoidable impression, especially when contrasted with the orderly Inca regime depicted in the Comentarios Reales, that the Spanish takeover was a disaster for the region. Garcilaso suggested that the main problem was a series of cultural misunderstandings: the Spaniards were gallant warriors and pious Christians but their failure to learn Quechua and their underevaluation of Inca culture had tragic consequences.

What the Spanish colonies needed, Garcilaso argued in an age of Inquisition, forbidden books and racial intolerance, was a new regime led by those who understood the traditions and above all the languages of both Inca and Spaniard. Unfortunately, this enlightened (albeit self-interested) program was ignored and all known copies of the Inca's History in Peru were quietly seized by royal officials in the wake of the 1781 Tupac Amaru II uprising. Only after colonial independence had been achieved in the 19th century could his sympathetic account of Inca history once again be read freely.

In his last years Garcilaso became a minor cleric, took on duties at a charitable hospital, and fathered an illegitimate son (Diego de Vargas). He was occupied with business affairs and his ongoing attempts to gain recognition from the royal court as well as to have his long-completed books printed. Garcilaso Inca de la Vega died comfortable but disillusioned on the 23 April 1616. He was buried in Cordoba cathedral. His memory remains a focal point of Peruvian and native American pride.

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