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American Passages: A Literary Survey

Exploring Borderlands Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca (1490-1558)

[7672] Anonymous, NEW WORLD MAP from Thomas Hariot, ADMIRANDA NARRATIO FIDA TAMEN, DE COMMODIS ET INCOLARUM RITIBUS VIRGINAE (1555) courtesy of University of Pennsylvania, from the Jay I. Kislak Foundation, Inc.

Often called the first culturally Chicano or mestizo writer, Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca composed his Relation to narrate his extraordinary experience as a Spaniard who became integrated into Native American culture in the New World. Part hagiography, part captivity narrative, and part adventure story, the text recounts his ordeals from shipwreck to enslavement and details his rise to prominence as a trader and healer among various Native American groups. In the process, the Relation reveals the complex modes of acculturation through which Cabeza de Vaca forged a new, hybrid identity.

When Cabeza de Vaca set sail with Panfilo de Narváez in 1527 on an expedition to chart the Gulf Coast, he probably believed himself to be embarking on an auspicious career. He was a descendant of a noble family and had been chosen to serve as Emperor Charles V’s representative and treasurer on an enterprise that seemed poised to garner wealth and fame. But whatever hopes Cabeza de Vaca held for his future must have been shattered when Narváez, an incompetent leader, lost the ships under his command through a series of misadventures and left his crew marooned in Florida. After a plan to construct new ships ended in a disaster at sea, Cabeza de Vaca and the few other survivors from the expedition found themselves shipwrecked on the coast of present-day Texas and enslaved by the Han and Capoque clans of the Karankawa Indians. Cabeza de Vaca responded to his predicament (and freed himself from slavery) by learning the Native Americans’ language and adapting himself to their culture, though he never relinquished his hope of eventually finding a Spanish outpost and being reunited with his countrymen. To this end, he began traveling north and west through North America, drawing on his skills as a trader and especially as a healer to ingratiate himself with the various tribes he encountered. Combining Christian rituals with traditional Native American customs, Cabeza de Vaca operated as a shaman, or spiritual healer, and acquired fame, respect, and power for his ability to heal and comfort the sick. The Relation‘s account of his successful melding of different cultural and spiritual traditions reveals the importance of improvisation, adaptation, and flexibility to the process of acculturation.

Cabeza de Vaca and a small group of other survivors from the Narváez expedition reached present-day New Mexico in 1535. They gathered a large contingent of Native American followers and headed south to Mexico, hoping to find a Spanish settlement there. But when they eventually encountered a group of Spaniards, Cabeza de Vaca was appalled by their eagerness to enslave the natives and soon found himself in conflict with them. In his narrative, he ironically refers to these Spanish settlers by the same disparaging term the Indians used: “Christian slavers.”

Cabeza de Vaca finally returned to Spain in 1537, where he continued to speak out against the conquistadors’ mistreatment of Native American peoples. He wrote the Relation both to boost his own reputation and to offer his insights into Spanish colonial policy. In 1540 he received a grant from the emperor to lead an expedition to what is today Paraguay and help found the Rio de la Plata colony there. The other Spanish colonists in the region, however, were more interested in acquiring wealth than in upholding Cabeza de Vaca’s enlightened policies toward the Indians. In 1545, they overthrew his government, arrested him, and sent him back to Spain in chains. Spanish authorities then exiled him to North Africa and forbade him ever to return to America.

Teaching Tips

  • At the conclusion of the excerpt from the Relation in The Norton Anthology of American Literature, Cabeza de Vaca explains that the Indians refused to believe that he and his group were of the same race as the “Christian slavers” they encountered in Mexico. Their “naked and barefoot” appearance as well as their gentleness and generosity seemed to separate them, in the Indians’ minds, from other Spaniards. Ask your students to look at this segment of the narrative carefully, examining it for indications of Cabeza de Vaca’s own racial and national identification. Does he see himself as “of the same people” as the Christian slavers? How has his identity as a European and as a conquistador altered over the course of his time among the Indians? To get at the issue of Cabeza de Vaca’s hybrid identity, you might ask your students to chart his interesting use of pronouns in this concluding section of the Relation. When does he use “we” and “they”? Whom does he include when he refers to “we” and “us”?
  • In the section entitled “Our Life among the Avavares and Arbadaos,” Cabeza de Vaca explains that exposure to the southwestern sun caused the members of the European group to “shed our skins twice a year like snakes.” After pointing out the physical and mental transformation implied in this image of skin-shedding, ask your students to find other moments where Cabeza de Vaca symbolically indicates that he is undergoing a kind of metamorphosis. His accounts of acquiring a taste for native foods and his use of birth imagery might be good places to start this discussion.

Author Questions

  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?

Selected Archive Items

[2819] Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, Frontispiece to second edition of La Relacion y Comentarios del Governador Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, de lo Acaescido en las Dos Jornados que Hizo a las Indias (1555),
courtesy of the Jay I. Kislak Foundation, Inc.
Sometimes considered the first captivity narrative, Cabeza de Vaca’s account of his ship-wreck and travels through Florida and northern Mexico is to some degree modeled after medieval romances.

courtesy of University of Pennsylvania, from the Jay I. Kislak Foundation, Inc.
European encounters with the New World presented a host of logistical problems for explorers; among them was the absence of cartographic data about the vast lands that were now being colonized. Early travelers contributed data that enabled the creation of maps like this one, which offer testimony to the various ways in which geographic space was conceived of during the era of early exploration.

[8766] Maria Herrera-Sobek, Interview: “De Vaca” (2002), 
courtesy of Annenberg Media.
Maria Herrera-Sobek, professor of Chicana studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, discusses de Vaca as a foundational figure for Chicanos.

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American Passages: A Literary Survey


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