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American Passages: A Literary Survey

Exploring Borderlands Garcilaso de la Vega (1539-1616)

[7329] C. Colin, Ferdinand Cortés and Hernando de Soto in the Camp of the Inca at Caxamalca. The Order of His Court and the Reverence with Which His Subjects Approached His Person, Astonished the Spaniards (c. 1902), courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-104362].

One of the first American writers of mixed ethnic heritage, Garcilaso de la Vega signaled his mestizo identity by proudly appending the title “El Inca” to his name. He was descended from the Inca royal family through his mother, the princess Chimpu Ocllo, who was the granddaughter of one of the last Incan emperors. After the Spanish conquered the Incan dynasty in Peru, Chimpu Ocllo converted to Catholicism, assumed the name Isabel Suarez, and married Sebastian Garcilaso de la Vega, one of the Spanish conquistadors. Growing up as the child of this interracial marriage, Garcilaso de la Vega became fluent in both Spanish and the Inca language Quechua and acquired a detailed knowledge of Incan imperial history as well as the history of the Conquest.

After the death of his father in 1560, de la Vega journeyed to Spain to claim his inheritance. While he was never officially recognized as the son of a conquistador, he gained prestige by fighting in the wars of the Alpujarras. He eventually settled in Cordoba, where he studied Christianity and devoted himself to the pursuit of religion and literature. Most of his writings are historical narratives of the New World, including two volumes on Incan culture entitled Commentarios Reales, or Royal Commentaries, which draw on stories he learned from his mother and her relatives. Recuperating Indian traditions in the language of the colonizer, de la Vega’s Incan histories are extraordinary testaments to the sophistication and civilization of pre-Conquest Peru. De la Vega’s other work, The Florida of the Inca (1605), is a romanticized and fictionalized account of the de Soto expedition and of native life in Florida at the time of contact. (Importantly, de la Vega himself never went to Florida, so he compiled his account by synthesizing and drawing on other explorers’ oral and written narratives.) De la Vega’s mestizo background provided him with a unique perspective on the history of Europeans in the New World, and, like his other writings, The Florida of the Inca reflects his commitment to mediating between two different cultures.

Teaching Tips

  • Ask your students how they would characterize the genre of de la Vega’s account of Juan Ortiz. Is this conventional history? In what ways does it resemble a fable or fictional narrative? Remind your students that de la Vega was himself drawing on eyewitness oral accounts when he composed this work. Given this information, ask them to consider how the tale of Juan Ortiz resonates with the conventions of other narratives that derive from oral traditions (you might point them to the Native American tales featured in Unit 1).
  • It is sometimes difficult to ascertain whether de la Vega’s sympathies lie with the conquistador figures or the Indians in his histories. Ask your students which characters in the Juan Ortiz narrative seem sympathetic. How do race and religion seem to impact de la Vega’s characterization of the historical actors in this drama? In order to get your students to think deeply about this issue, you might ask them to rewrite Juan Ortiz’s story from the perspective of one of the other characters, such as the cacique Hirrihigua, the eldest daughter, or Mucoco.

Author Questions

  1. Comprehension: Why does the cacique Hirrihigua bear such enmity toward Juan Ortiz? What motivates his brutal treatment of his Spanish captive?
  2. Comprehension: During the Renaissance the status of Native Americans was much debated: it was not uncommon to question whether they were fully human or even if they had souls. What criteria does Garcilaso de la Vega use to laud the Florida Indians? What do these criteria tell us about his perspective on what constitutes a fully human or even a “civilized” people? How does his definition of essential humanity compare to that of the conquistadors?
  3. Comprehension: What is the role of Christianity and paganism in the narrative of Juan Ortiz? Which characters exemplify Christian qualities? How does de la Vega complicate traditional European ideas about Native American morality and religion?
  4. Context: How does Juan Ortiz’s story compare to John Smith’s account of his own salvation through the intervention of Pocahontas? Why do you think Pocahontas’s story has received so much more attention and is so frequently retold? What is the effect of de la Vega’s decision not to record Hirrihigua’s daughter’s name?
  5. Context: Both Juan Ortiz and Cabeza de Vaca were stranded in North America as a result of the ill-fated Panfilo de Narváez expedition. How do Juan Ortiz’s experiences compare to Cabeza de Vaca’s?
  6. Context: Garcilaso de la Vega praises the beauty of the native women in Florida, and even places them on the level of Cleopatra. What significance does the physical beauty of native peoples play in de la Vega’s (or conquistadors’) account? What is the rhetorical value of comparing the women to the Egyptian queen? Compare Garcilaso de la Vega’s portrait of Native American women to those composed by other colonists, conquistadors, and engraver Theodor De Bry.
  7. Context: De la Vega’s narrative points to the often shaky distinction between “history” and “fiction” during the Renaissance. (In fact the Spanish word for history, historia, is also the word for story.) What parts of The Florida of the Inca seem to be the result of imagination rather than eyewitness testimony?
  8. Exploration: While de la Vega’s account of Juan Ortiz’s relationship with Hirrihigua’s daughter is one of the earliest descriptions of an interracial relationship between a European and a Native American, it certainly was not the last. Interracial relationships and romances between Native Americans and Europeans or European Americans fascinated nineteenth-century American writers as well. How does Juan Ortiz and Hirrihigua’s daughter’s story compare to later fictional interracial romances (such as Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans, Child’s Hobomok, or Sedgwick’s Hope Leslie)?
  9. Exploration: Pan-Indianism usually refers to the nonviolent liberation philosophy of Native Americans and is based in part on the belief that Native Americans share a collective spiritual reality and certain essential cultural attributes that distinguish them from European Americans and other groups. In the preface to Florida, de la Vega makes an early move toward pan-Indianism when he claims that his Incan ancestry allows him to present a unique and more truthful perspective on the de Soto expedition and on the native peoples of Florida, although he had never set foot in Florida and presumably never spoke to a native Floridian. What evidence could you use to substantiate de la Vega’s claim? What are the potential benefits and drawbacks of Pan-Indianism as a rhetorical and political strategy?
  10. Exploration: Eight paintings grace the Capitol rotunda in Washington, D.C., each of which depicts a key moment in the discovery and independence of the United States. One of these is William Powell’s Discovery of the Mississippi by Hernando de Soto, 1541 A.D. There are three other images of discovery: Landing of Columbus, by John Vanderlyn, Baptism of Pocahontas, by John Chapman, and Embarkation of the Pilgrims, by Robert Weir. All were painted between 1840 and 1853. To what extent do these images still represent what we might consider the four key moments in the discovery of the United States? Would the de Soto expedition still play so large a role if these paintings were to be created today?

Selected Archive Items

[2591] Theodor de Bry, A Noblewoman of Pomeiock [Indian Woman and Young Girl] (1590),
courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library, Brown University.
This engraving shows a native woman of the Virginia town of Pomeiock carrying a clay vessel, while a child holds a rattle and a doll. The woman resembles the female figures painted by Renaissance artists like Botticelli.

[2890] Robert W. Weir, Embarkation of the Pilgrims (1844), 
courtesy of the Architect of the Capitol. 
This painting shows Pilgrims praying on the deck of the Speedwell as it departs from Holland, on July 22, 1620, on its way to meet the Mayflower in England. The rainbow on the left symbolizes divine protection and hope.

[7329] C. Colin, Ferdinand Cortés and Hernando de Soto in the Camp of the Inca at Caxamalca. The Order of His Court and the Reverence with Which His Subjects Approached His Person, Astonished the Spaniards (c. 1902), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-104362]. 
The Spanish Conquistadores discovered a complex, highly developed society when they arrived in Peru. This image depicts an Incan court ritual that particularly impressed the Spanish. Garcilaso de la Vega’s Commentarios Reales (Royal Commentaries) tells an Incan version of the conquest of Peru.

[8340] John Gadsby Chapman, Baptism of Pocahontas (1840), 
courtesy of the Architect of the Capitol. 
Pocahontas was the daughter of Powhatan, a powerful chief of the Algonquian Indians near colonial Virginia. Although her life has been much romanticized, it is known that she married Englishman John Rolfe in 1614. Before their marriage, Pocahontas converted to Christianity and was baptized and christened Rebecca.

[8359] William H. Powell, Discovery of the Mississippi (1855), 
courtesy of the Architect of the Capitol. 
At the center of this painting is Hernando de Soto, riding a white horse. In 1541 de Soto, a Spanish explorer, became the first European to see the Mississippi River. The painting shows Native Americans watching de Soto’s approach, as a chief offers a peace pipe.

[8365] John Vanderlyn, Landing of Columbus (1847), 
courtesy of the Architect of the Capitol. 
Columbus is shown raising the royal flag in order to “claim” Guanahani, the West Indies island he renamed San Salvador, for Ferdinand and Isabella. As natives look on from behind a tree, crew members search for gold in the sand.

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American Passages: A Literary Survey


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