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American Passages: A Literary SurveyUnit IndexAmerican Passages Home
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2. Exploring Borders   

2. Exploring

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Activities: Author Activities

Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca - Author Questions

Back Back to Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca Activities
  1. Comprehension: How does Cabeza de Vaca survive among the various Native American groups he encounters? What skills does he draw on and develop? What strategies does he use to fit into native communities?

  2. Comprehension: Why does Cabeza de Vaca come into conflict with Spaniards he encounters in Mexico? Why does he refer to his encounters with them as "confrontations" and "falling-outs"?

  3. Context: How does Cabeza de Vaca's account of his experiences as a prisoner of the Malhados compare to John Smith's narrative of his imprisonment among the Chesapeake Bay Indians? What do the strategies they use to escape enslavement have in common? In what ways do their tactics for dealing with the natives differ? Who do you think was ultimately more successful?

  4. Context: When Cabeza de Vaca traveled through what is now the southwestern United States and northern Mexico, there was of course no official border between the two areas. Nonetheless, do you think he might have had a sense of himself as inhabiting a kind of "borderlands"? In what ways?

  5. Context: When Spanish colonists arrived in the Americas, they sometimes encountered berdaches--Native American males who cross-dressed and performed female sex and social roles. While this form of transvestism was often widely accepted in native cultures, it frightened the Spanish. In his narrative, Cabeza de Vaca writes of the "soft" native men of Florida who dressed and worked as women. Why might the berdache have been so threatening to the Spanish? What notions of masculinity and femininity are implicit or explicit in the narratives about the conquest? How do the berdaches threaten (or reinforce) this gendered system?

  6. Exploration: The captivity narrative has sometimes been called the first distinctly American genre, since it grew out of the cultural collision of colonists and America's native peoples. Literary critics and historians sometimes read the Relation as part of the captivity narrative genre (discussed in Unit 3). Do you think this is appropriate? What does Cabeza de Vaca's narrative have in common with Mary Rowlandson's account of her captivity among the Indians?

  7. Exploration: Read Chicana poet Lorna Dee Cervantes's poem "Visions of Mexico While at a Writing Symposium in Port Townsend, Washington." How does her poem about her feelings of both closeness to and alienation from Mexican culture compare to Cabeza de Vaca's narrative? How does Cervantes's exploration of the meaning of the colonial experience and its relation to writing resonate with Cabeza de Vaca's struggles with this issue?

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