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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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•  Authors
- Gloria
- Bartolomé
de las Casas
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del Castillo
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de Champlain
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- Álvar Núñez
Cabeza de Vaca
- Garcilaso
de la Vega
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Authors: Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca (1490-1558)

Ancient Map
[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.

Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca Activities
This link leads to artifacts, teaching tips and discussion questions for this author.
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.

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