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

2. Exploring

•  Unit Overview
- Instructor
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& Resources
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- Learning
•  Using the Video
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Unit Overview: Instructor Overview

Classroom and other assignment activities for this Unit.
After the Spanish explorer Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca was shipwrecked and stranded in the present-day southwestern United States, he spent years living among Native American groups while seeking out his own countrymen. When he finally encountered a group of Spaniards, he was surprised to realize that they did not seem to recognize him as European: "They were dumbfounded at the sight of me, strangely undressed and in company with Indians. They just stood staring for a long time, not thinking to hail me or come closer." At the same time, he found that his Indian companions refused to believe that he was of the same race as the "Christian slavers," or Spanish colonists, whom they associated with exploitation, cruelty, and enslavement. Somehow, in the process of living among the Indians and mixing their culture with his own European customs, Cabeza de Vaca had created a hybrid identity for himself that was neither wholly Indian nor wholly European. His unique experience was a product of the complex culture of the "contact zone," which scholar Mary Louise Pratt has characterized as an "interactive" and "improvisational" space where groups geographically and historically separated from one another come into contact and establish relationships. As Cabeza de Vaca's experience makes clear, contact and conquest were not one-way experiences in which Europeans simply imposed their will on passive Native Americans. Instead, contact is always characterized by intersecting practices and perspectives, even if power relations are often unequal. As diverse groups of Europeans explored, settled, and exploited the New World of North and South America in the fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth centuries, they came into contact with diverse groups of Native Americans, creating contact zones from present-day Canada to the Caribbean. The dynamic, fluid cultures that arose out of the contact zones were marked by antagonism and violence as competing groups struggled for power. These contact zones could, however, also give rise to vibrant new traditions forged out of cooperation and innovation.

Unit 2, "Exploring Borderlands: Contact and Conflict in North America," examines the contact zones and colonial experiences of European explorers and the Native Americans they encountered. The unit also pays special attention to the way the contact zone between present-day Mexico and the southwestern United States evolved into a hybrid border region that continues to be influenced by the legacies of the different groups who first struggled there for dominance in the sixteenth century. After hundreds of years of war, intermarriage, trade, slavery, and religious struggles, a complex, syncretic culture has flourished in the space that marks the current U.S./Mexico border. As conquerors and conquered merged, a new mestizo identity (a blending of Indian, European, and African heritage) was created and continues to find expression in the work of contemporary Chicano and Chicana writers of the "borderland" region. Unit 2 explores a wide variety of contact and border experiences, including narratives by Christopher Columbus, Bartolomé de las Casas, Bernal Díaz del Castillo, Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, Garcilaso de la Vega, Samuel de Champlain, John Smith, Adriaen Van der Donck, Americo Paredes, and Gloria Anzaldúa. The unit provides contextual background and classroom materials designed to explore the multiple and diverse ways these writers represented encounters between cultures in contact zones and borderlands.

The video for Unit 2 focuses on four writers who challenge the geographical, cultural, political, and racial boundaries in the U.S./Mexico border region: Bernal Díaz del Castillo and Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca wrote as Spanish footsoldiers who witnessed the brutal tactics of conquest and subjugation visited upon Native Americans. Writing centuries later, Americo Paredes and Gloria Anzaldúa protest the continued oppression and marginalization of people of mestizo ancestry in the United States. Their work also explores the dynamic, inclusive potential of the hybrid culture of the border region. All of these writers articulate the tensions inherent in power relations in border regions, as well as the possibility for the formation of new identities in these interactive spaces.

In its coverage of these writers and their texts, the video introduces students to the complexity of the concept of the "border" and of cultural and racial boundaries more generally. How do the texts in Unit 2 represent the violence and exploitation that were part of the European exploration of the New World? What kinds of beliefs and expectations did European colonizers bring with them to the Americas? How did the sophisticated and varied cultures of native peoples impact the settlements Europeans created in America? How do European writers represent the experiences and cultures of indigenous peoples? How does gender complicate power relations in contact zones and borderlands? How has mestizo identity transformed over time? Unit 2 helps answer these questions by offering suggestions on how to connect these writers to their cultural contexts, to other units in the series, and to other key writers of the era. The curriculum materials help fill in the video's introduction to contact zones and borderlands by exploring the works of writers who articulated other, diverse experiences, such as Samuel de Champlain (who wrote as a French colonist in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Canada), Adriaen Van der Donck (who described the Dutch colonial experience in New Netherland), and Garcilaso de la Vega (who drew on his mixed European and Incan heritage to write histories of Indian/Spanish interactions).

The video, the archive, and the curriculum materials situate Unit 2's writers within several of the historical contexts that shaped (and continue to shape) their texts: (1) the formation of the U.S./Mexican border and the impact of "borderlands" and boundaries on American culture; (2) Native American modes of writing and representing history, including contact histories; (3) traditional archetypes of Mexican and Mexican American femininity; (4) the discourse of "wonder" in contact narratives; and (5) metaphors of romance and eroticism that are common to conquest narratives.

The archive and curriculum materials suggest how the writers and texts featured in Unit 2 relate to those covered in other American Passages units: How does mestizo/a culture challenge dominant contemporary ideas about the origin of America and American identity? How did the history writing and historias of contact experiences shape subsequent American texts? How have concepts of Native American and Chicana femininity evolved over time? How have "borderlands" shaped American culture and politics? How do concepts of writing and literacy differ among cultures? How has transculturation shaped the American experience?

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