Cabeza de Vaca and the Reconstruction of American Identity*
Lina Del Castillo
I Cabeza de Vaca re-evaluated
In 1985, Congress established the Christopher Columbus Quincentenary Jubilee Commission in anticipation of a patriotic celebration of the five-hundredth anniversary of Columbus’ voyage; a celebration that would hark back to the yearlong tribute paid to the Admiral in 1892.1 Similarly, by the late 1980s and early 1990s, academic research projects and institutes dealing with the quincentenary received funding from academic and government institutions particularly in the U.S. and Europe. Unlike the celebrations of 1892 depicting the heroic deeds of Columbus, recent scholarship re-evaluated the conquistador narratives. The very notion of “discovery” has been criticized for disguising the devastating repercussions that contact between Europe and the Americas had on native populations. This paper will show how Álvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca’s conquistador narrative, Naufragios, has also been reframed as a result of the quincentenary, and it will demonstrate how re-evaluations of this particular narrative have occurred not only in the 1990’s but also throughout the twentieth century through popular culture.
Naufragios has been the subject of detailed academic works, documentaries, films, children’s books, plays, and music. A search through the Internet will generate approximately a quarter of a million different web pages that refer to Cabeza de Vaca. I chose four twentieth-century cultural texts that draw on Cabeza de Vaca’s experiences. The musical composition, “The Great Journey” by British composer Colin Matthews, three children’s books written by U.S. authors in 1939, 1954 and 1969 respectively, and the Spanish-Mexican joint-venture movie, Cabeza de Vaca, directed by Nicholás Echevarria are indeed disparate sources. Taken together, they become particularly useful as I explore how the producers of these texts re-produce and re-interpret Cabeza de Vaca’s chronicle as the origin myth of a region whose identity continues to be in a state of flux: the U.S.-Mexican borderlands region.
Identity in this region has been malleable, as my analysis of these texts will show. For this reason, I define identity within this region as a process of interaction between “others” across geographic, linguistic, racial and ethnic borders; a process whose dynamics were not immutably established by the first recorded interaction, only initiated. By looking at how different people at different times characterize that first interaction through re-interpretations of Cabeza de Vaca’s conquistador narrative, I seek to show how their understandings of identity in the U.S.-Mexican borderlands region changed in relation to the contemporary dynamics of the interactions between “others” in this region.
First I will begin my analysis with my interpretation of the Naufragios’ text in order to show the identity transformations Cabeza de Vaca undergoes through the narrative, the possible reasons that lie behind his recounting of these transformations to the Spanish Crown, and the tensions that emerge as he confronts and relates to the native “others.” My aim in this section is also to highlight the content and kind of text subsequent musicians, authors, and film directors used to produce their own renditions. I then will analyze each twentieth-century text in its own right, in comparison to Naufragios, and in comparison to each other. My analysis will reveal more about the producers of the texts (including Cabeza de Vaca) than about the impact these texts had on those who would “read” them. Within these analytical limits I will show how the different messages of the producers are shaped by and seek to shape their own historical context, revealing the fluidity of historical re-creation. Ultimately, these twentieth-century musicians, writers, and film directors all portray Cabeza de Vaca’s “original encounter” as an explanation and justification for the way encounters between races and cultures have occurred within the U.S.-Mexican borderlands region. A discordant relationship emerges among these texts as they are compared to each other and to the original Naufragios; this dissonance reveals the contested and continuing construction of U.S. and Mexican identity.
II Cabeza de Vaca creates a text: Naufragios
Álvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca left the port of San Lúcar de Barrameda on June 17, 1527, along with approximately 600 other crewmembers to go to a place he knew little about. He, as with most willing travelers, had expectations about this expedition. According to his chronicle, the purpose of his voyage was to “…conquer and govern the provinces that are found from the Río de las Palmas to the cape of Florida,2 which are on the mainland.”3 Contrary to his expectations, Cabeza de Vaca shipwrecked. Death, disease, starvation, and even incidents of cannibalism among Spaniards reduced the crew’s numbers. After a harrowing nine-year walk from what is now considered southeast Texas to the San Lorenzo River in Northwest Mexico, the only crewmembers to survive were Cabeza de Vaca, two other Spaniards, Alonso Del Castillo and Andrés Dorantes, and an African Moor slave named Estevanico. 4 Once safe back in Spain, Cabeza de Vaca was the only one of the four survivors to chronicle his novel experiences for the Spanish Crown. This service was part of Álvar’s job description as treasurer of the Návarez expedition5 and explains why Cabeza de Vaca wrote the chronicle while the other survivors only testified in the Audiencia of Santo Domingo and at court.6 This chronicle, known now as Naufragios is the recorded testimony of a European’s first encounter with Native Americans, in the company of an African, within an area today considered the U.S.-Mexican borderlands region.
Cabeza de Vaca’s narration can scarcely be substantiated or refuted by existing archeological evidence, or by the now non-existent indigenous testimony. The only counter-evidence offered about this experience is testimony taken from Dorantes and Del Castillo, whose original testimonies are not even available. Nevertheless, although Cabeza de Vaca’s narrative only offers the perspective of its author, it does serve as a window through which the internal world of the narrator can be seen; a world that was shipwrecked in Florida, submerged within the culture of Native American tribes, only to resurface on Spanish shores.
In the prologue, Cabeza de Vaca assumes the identity of a Spaniard who must explain to the Crown why the expedition went wrong. A successful explanation would allow him access to a governorship in the New World.
…God permitted us to suffer on account of our sins, I had no opportunity to perform greater service than this, which is to bring Your Majesty an account of all that I was able to observe and learn in nine years that I walked lost and naked through many and very strange lands, as much regarding the locations of the lands and provinces and the distances among them as with respect to the foodstuffs and animals that are produced in them, and the diverse customs of many and very barbarous peoples with whom I conversed and lived, plus all the other particularities that I could come to know and understand, so that in some manner Your Majesty may be served.7
According to Cabeza de Vaca’s logic, because the expedition’s failure was God’s will, the members could do nothing to alter its disastrous course. Under these horrific circumstances, Cabeza de Vaca served his King the only way he could: writing. His ulterior motive, however, was to obtain a royal contract for further conquest in the lands of Florida, hence the timing of the 1542 publication.8 Naufragios therefore fulfilled Cabeza de Vaca’s service to the Crown as well as his own interests not only through its existence, but also because of its content.
Cabeza de Vaca presented to the Crown the natural, exploitable, and profitable resources of the “new world” he experienced. He highlighted land value by observing, “Throughout the land there are many and very beautiful grazing lands and good pastures for cattle and it seems to me that it would be very productive land if it were worked and inhabited by men of reason.”9 Observations such as this one denied the reasoning ability of the land’s current inhabitants, and implicitly, the native’s right to cultivate it. The prickly pears10, the opossums, the fish, the bison, the many fur pelts, as well as the possibility of Apalachee gold, were also described in attractive, profit-seeking ways.
It is important to note that these natural resources, especially food resources, also determined the migration patterns of the native tribes Cabeza de Vaca encounters:
…it was necessary that I remain with them11 for six months, which was the time in which those Indians would go to another land to eat prickly pears… because at the time that they harvested them, other Indians from farther on would come to them, bringing bows to trade and exchange with them…12
By explaining the migration patterns and trading habits, Cabeza de Vaca assisted the Spanish search for Indians to feed the encomienda system. Furthermore, Cabeza de Vaca dedicated an entire chapter to describing the natives’ physical strength and disposition to work, as well as their family, war, and religious customs. “This I have wanted to tell because beyond the fact all men desire to know the customs and practices of others, the ones who sometime might come to confront them should be informed about their customs and stratagems which tend to be of no small advantage in such cases.”13 I highlight these observations and evident motives because they contradict subsequent reinterpretations of Naufragios that portray Cabeza de Vaca as an altruistic hero concerned about the natives’ best interests despite the Crown’s greed for slaves.
Though these clearly self-serving motives abound throughout Cabeza de Vaca’s text, there is an underlying tension that emerges between Cabeza de Vaca’s Spanish assumptions that the natives are a resource to be exploited and his observations of native behavior that seem to emphasize their humanity. Furthermore, prolonged contact, or at least the explanation of this submersion in indigenous culture reveals an anxious Cabeza de Vaca who must explain his active adoption of native culture to his Spanish superiors. It seems Cabeza de Vaca, through his narrative, negotiated this anxiety by implicitly suggesting that his understanding of native ways of life as well as his supposed ‘magical’ powers over the natives could lead to success as a future Governor of Florida. This may well be why Cabeza de Vaca explained in detail the process by which he adapted to and came to have spiritual power over the native tribes he encountered.
When describing his first encounter with the natives of Capoques and of Han, with whom Cabeza de Vaca eventually settles for a while, he observes they
…sat down among us. And with great grief and pity they felt on seeing us in such a state, they all began to weep loudly and so sincerely that they could be heard a great distance away. And this lasted more than half an hour, and truly, to see that these men, so lacking in reason and so crude in the manner of brutes, grieved so much for us, increased in me and in others of our company even more magnitude of our suffering and the estimation of our misfortune. 14
First Cabeza de Vaca portrayed these natives as barbarous brutes without reason. They are different and less than the Spaniards. The natives’ emotion and their prolonged weeping rattled Cabeza de Vaca’s preconceptions. Through the sadness of the natives, the Spaniards perceived the “magnitude” of their own sorry plight, i.e. their physical and mental shipwreck. This emotional connection allowed Cabeza de Vaca to overcome the fear of the other, in this case the possibility of becoming a human sacrifice.15 He portrayed himself to the Crown as the one who, in desperate need of food and shelter, tentatively reached out to the natives. Here, contact had an effect on members from both Spanish and Native cultures through empathy. This is a strange kind of empathy considering it led to the enslavement of the unfortunate Spaniards by the empathetic native tribes.
The four remaining Navarez survivors during their enslavement learned about native cultures languages and practices including strange new methods of healing and magic. Cabeza de Vaca, perhaps to avoid charges of heresy and witchcraft, explained to the Crown that he tried to abstain from participating in these practices, but eventually was forced into it for fear of having food withheld from him.16 Cabeza de Vaca and Alonso Del Castillo were first to use indigenous methods of healing on the natives, but eventually Andrés Dorantes, and Estevanico, the slave, also became healers due to a high demand for these services. Cabeza de Vaca points out that Estevanico also heals despite his lower status as a slave. Nevertheless, since all four could trade their healing practice equally, this status differentiation seems to have occurred more in Cabeza de Vaca’s eyes than in native eyes. The four used their healing practice as currency for food, fur pelts, shelter, and travel guides. In fact, Cabeza de Vaca claims he became so adept at their healing practices, that he actually raised a native man from the dead:
And when I arrived near their huts, I saw the sick man whom we were going to cure, who was dead… his eyes rolled back in his head, and without any pulse…as best I could, I beseeched our Lord … And after making the sign of the cross and blown on him many times, they brought me his bow and they gave it to me along with a basket of prickly pears… at nighttime they returned to their houses and said that the one who had been dead and whom I had cured in their presence had arisen revived and walked about and eaten and spoken with them…17
One must maintain a healthy skepticism regarding Cabeza de Vaca’s reports on his miraculous healing powers, particularly his ability to raise the dead. On the one hand, their description could be merely another ploy to obtain a high administrative office in the New World. Not only had Cabeza de Vaca explained he knew their war, migration, and feeding habits, he apparently had obtained a high rank within native culture as a healer, a comparative advantage over other Spaniards. On the other hand, if indeed Cabeza de Vaca did become a shaman, he must culturally translate his experiences in a way that is acceptable to the Spanish Crown and the Catholic Church. Otherwise he would have to face the Inquisition’s fires. It is highly likely that both these two survival interests frame Cabeza de Vaca’s explanations of why he could heal. Cabeza de Vaca piously attributed these miracles to his Christian God, not to the native culture within which these miracles occurred. Furthermore, he claimed to have explained the power and “truth” of Christianity to the natives and in doing so, converted them. Cabeza de Vaca therefore maintains his Christianity in the eyes of the Church as well as his own pivotal role within these new lands. He, as a cultural and linguistic translator, expressed the wonders of the “true” faith to the “savages” and reported these successes back to the crown.
Cabeza de Vaca’s narrative depicts a pious Christian traveler that transformed his identity from Spanish conquistador to slave, to apprentice, to healer, to merchant, and back to Spaniard again in order to survive. As a slave he learned about native cultures and how healing practices gave power to the healer over the other natives. Cabeza de Vaca, supposedly pressured into becoming a healer, gained status and trading privileges among the natives. As a merchant, Cabeza de Vaca broke out of his slave condition and continued learning about native customs, lessons crucial to advancing his healing practice and his supposed evangelization of the natives to Christianity. Cabeza de Vaca claimed this powerful position allowed him to pressure the natives to guide him west to where he thought the Spanish were, despite native reservations as to the danger involved. It is clear throughout the narrative that Cabeza de Vaca morphed his identity pragmatically in order to obtain his driving goal: to reach the River Panuco and the encampment of the Spanish. Despite this tenacious narrative purpose, there are excerpts in the chronicle that depict a lost Cabeza de Vaca both physically and psychologically. Though his Spanish Conquistador identity may have eventually won primacy over his other identities, the text reveals tensions that arise from his numerous and erratic transformations.
III Cabeza de Vaca re-created
Unlike Columbus’ logs, or Bernal Díaz del Castillo’s chronicle, Naufragios reveals what happened to a European who is absorbed into indigenous culture for nine years, not as a conquistador who sees Indian “others,” but as an “other” for the natives. Cabeza de Vaca wrote about his experiences and in doing so was no longer an “other.” He is a member of Spanish culture who can use Spanish language to describe what he lived through from his perspective. The encounter tale he wove, filled with tragedy, magic, anthropological observations, new flora and fauna, strategic war tactics, and a spiritual awakening, is highly unusual. This tale has been adopted, transformed and disseminated by subsequent European, and later American generations (both from the United States and Mexico), demonstrating the Encounter’s continuing relevance to evolving understandings of identity in a place that is not easily defined: southwest United States to northwest Mexico.
I now turn to three types of cultural texts that base themselves on Cabeza de Vaca’s Naufragios in order to transmit their own particular perspectives on American identity in this region. First, the musical setting “The Great Journey” creates a tone for the encounter through its dissonance. I will then examine how in one generation, three children’s books written in the United States based on Naufragios portray radically different identities for the same character: Estevanico, the black moor slave. These two interpretations reflect a changing attitude towards slavery and racism within the United States. Finally, Nicholás Echevarría’s 1990 film, Cabeza de Vaca delivers a powerful, mythic, visual image of the Encounter. I have selected these three types of texts to show how different types of media have been used to re-create the meaning of the first encounters between Europeans, Africans, and Natives on “American” soil.
IV Cabeza de Vaca created through music
Cabeza de Vaca’s experiences had an important musical component. His account includes the first European mention of arietos, or musical rattles used by medicine men in their healing practices:
At sunset we reached a hundred Indian habitations. Before we arrived, all the people who were in them came out to receive us with such yells as were terrific, striking the palms of their hands violently against their thighs. They brought us gourds bored with holes and having pebbles in them, an instrument for the most important occasions produced only at the dance or to effect cures, and which none dare touch but those who own them. They say there is virtue in them, and because they do not grow in that country, they come from heaven; nor do they know where they are to be found, only that the river brings them in floods. 18
Further along his travels, Cabeza de Vaca and his companions were given a “jingle bell of copper, thick and large, figured with a face, which the natives greatly prized...”19 in exchange for their healing. The possession of the copper jingle bell and the arietos, or rattles, raised Cabeza de Vaca’s and his companion’s prestige among the natives.
The contemporary composer, Colin Matthews, close to 500 years later, picked up on the mystical musical undertone of Naufragios. “The Great Journey of Álvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca” is a cantata that sets the English translation of Naufragios to music and uses only one baritone and eight players. Although the original language is not used in the piece, Matthews’ compositional form conveys the tense confusion and isolation Cabeza de Vaca’s text suggests.
First, Matthews sets very strict limitations on the kinds and number of instruments. They are all of European origin, including the baritone voice (both the singer and the technique), yet the rhythms and melodies they produce are, at times, decidedly tribal. Additionally, it seems as if Matthews purposely limits his musical resources so as to imitate the limited resources Cabeza de Vaca had access to for survival. Ingenuity, inventiveness, and intuition are crucial for both this contemporary composer and the sixteenth-century “new world” traveler.
“The Great Journey” is not an easy journey. The falling percussion roll and the dissonant conversations between winds and strings express tension, confusion, and frustration. These nuances capture the fear and incomprehension Cabeza de Vaca must have felt as he shipwrecked both physically and mentally. Matthews pointedly introduces this sensation in the first song, where the fragmentation of background baroque music parallels the fragmentation of Cabeza de Vaca’s known world. The one fleeting moment of pleasing, joyful, harmonic baroque music occurs in the eighth song the moment Cabeza de Vaca is reunited with the other three survivors. Interestingly, this harmony is not apparent when Cabeza de Vaca meets with the Spanish conquistadors after his nine-year trek. The dissonance in this encounter makes sense. Cabeza de Vaca is no longer like the other Spanish Conquistadors, nor is he a native. Harmony does not exist; a new disjointed sound is created to express Cabeza de Vaca’s difficulty.
In essence, Colin Matthews sets out to capture the identity crisis Cabeza de Vaca undergoes. Matthews did not choose to use tribal instruments such as the rattles and bells Cabeza de Vaca had access to. He limited his musical language just as Cabeza de Vaca was limited to the Spanish language. The composer’s piece therefore structurally reflects the communication limitations Cabeza de Vaca grappled with during the sixteenth century. Both Matthews and Cabeza de Vaca express extra-ordinary experiences by being creative with their “native” language, be it Spanish or classical music. The tension that gives rise to this creativity is caused by the encounter of what is considered ordinary, or known, with that which is different. In short, the Encounter generates a need to identify the other in familiar terms, no matter how unfamiliar and tense that identification may be. In this sense Colin Matthews musically identifies the meaning of the original encounter between Europe and America as dissonant and alienating, yet haunting and familiar at the same time.
V Cabeza de Vaca re-created for children
Cabeza de Vaca’s internal identity struggle is not the only source of inspiration for subsequent creators of cultural texts. The chronicle also narrates a first encounter between Europeans, Native Americans, and Africans within the U.S.–Mexican borderlands region. Furthermore, Cabeza de Vaca’s name, roughly translated into English as cow-head, allows a bit of playfulness children might enjoy and, more importantly, remember. It is therefore not surprising that several fictionalized histories geared towards children have been written based on the Naufragios text.
In the original Naufragios, Estevanico’s relationship to the Spanish survivors was never explicitly mentioned. According to Cabeza de Vaca’s text, we know four things about Estevanico: he is Andrés Dorantes’s slave; he healed; he was ‘taken along’ with some natives on the search to find the Spanish Conquistadors at the journey’s end; and while Cabeza de Vaca remained in the Spanish in camp, Estevanico was sent out to lead the Spanish back to where the other survivors were, in the company of 600 enslave-able natives.20 That Estevanico also practices magic along with the Spaniards suggests the natives gave similar status to all four survivors. Cabeza de Vaca explains away Estevanico’s shamanistic status to the Crown as a result of the high demand for their services and their need for supplies. This explanation, Estevanico’s diminutive name, lack of a surname, and the relative silences surrounding Estevanico’s experiences all suggest that in Cabeza de Vaca’s Spanish world, Estevanico or ‘el Negro’ the black man, had a lower status than Andres Dorantes or Alonso Del Castillo. Naufragios therefore reveals an implicit hierarchical relationship among the Navarez’ survivors, but there is room for interpretation. Camilla Campbell’s Galleons Sail Westward, Frank G. Slaughter’s Apalachee Gold, and Jeannette Mirsky’s The Gentle Conquistadors follow Naufragios’ basic story line, except for their portrayal of one major character: Estevanico, the black Moor slave. I will compare and contrast the changing characterization of Estevanico in these historical fictions written by authors in the United States in order to demonstrate how each manipulates history in order to reconstruct a past that justifies their ideas about their present circumstances, particularly with respect to race relations in the United States.
Galleons Sail Westward characterizes Estevanico as a “black-skinned giant” who begs his master to be taken along because of a profound concern: “Who will keep your fine leather boots polished for you?”21 He is presented as a good-natured, loyal, but not too bright slave who looks “…more savage than the naked red men on the shore.”22 His earnest longing to serve is a source of entertainment for the other Spaniards. “The big Moor looked so broken-hearted because his ‘other master’ was leaving that Castillo and Cabeza could hardly restrain their laughter.”23 There are two instances in this 1939 text where Estevanico pretends to assume a position of power in the new world. The first is met with derision; the second indirectly brings forth the wrath of the natives. After a transfixed, child-like fingering of red silk by the slave, Estevanico and Cabeza de Vaca talk about the profitability of trading the material considering it would make a wonderful robe for a native chieftain. Impulsively, Estevanico observes, “I would like to be a chief and wear a robe like that.” Amused by this notion, Cabeza de Vaca “…threw back his head and laughed.”24 The second instance of power for the “black man” involves Estevanico’s curing practices. He wears, according to the author, a mask throughout the practice and successfully heals natives. Upon taking off the mask, the natives are angered and begin shooting arrows at the survivors. Implicitly, the author suggests that power in this new world by a black slave is, in the best of cases, laughable, in the worst, dangerous. This characterization also runs counter to native reactions towards Estevanico’s healing practices as described in Naufragios; reactions that demanded healing from Estevanico and the other Navarez survivors equally.
Despite Estevanico’s eager willingness to serve his master at the beginning of the narrative, slavery is considered wrong by Cabeza de Vaca, the story’s hero. Nevertheless, he does not do much about it. The particular interaction that highlights this perspective occurs after Cabeza de Vaca gives an order to Estevanico, who wants to refuse. The slave owner is rattled by Estevanico’s disobedience thinking he has been too lenient. Cabeza de Vaca is easier on Estevanico: “ But after all, Captain, he’s a man like ourselves.” The captain, worried about his slave-holding status in the eyes of the benevolent hero asks, “You disapprove of slavery, then, Cabeza?” To which Álvar answered “…with feeling, ‘Yes, very much!’” Realizing his faux pas, Cabeza de Vaca tries to ease the slaveholder’s worries about the morality of slavery by saying, “It isn’t your fault Estevan was taken into slavery. I’m sure he couldn’t find a better master in all of Spain. Do not trouble yourself about it, please.” The slavery discussion goes no further.25
The characterization of Estevanico by Camilla Campbell reveals her perspective on the roles of African Americans in the New World, particularly Texas. Campbell deeply believes Cabeza de Vaca’s adventures in part shaped the identity of this southwestern state of the United States. In the middle of the narrative, she observes:
None of them, of course, knew they were the first white men to touch this ground which was later to be known as Texas. They made no ceremony of possessing the land: they had no flags to unfurl, no cannon to shoot. In truth, they had no thought of the land beyond wondering if they could find on it water, and wood for fire, and food. They could not know that for many years the effect of their landing was to be felt in the history of this territory that later became the largest of the United States.26
She highlights the importance of the “first white men” in Texas, and ignores the presence of Estevanico, who is also, obviously, present. In this sense, Campbell’s narrative, though based on the experiences of sixteenth-century shipwreck survivors, reflects the tension regarding slavery and race prevalent in Texas in 1936, the centennial of the state’s founding. She writes the book for children, and in this sense, Campbell tries to perpetuate her particular views.
Frank G. Slaughter’s Apalachee Gold is a fictionalized historical account geared towards presumably white pre-teen and teenaged boys. The hero is Juan Ortiz, the imaginary teenage nephew of Cabeza de Vaca. Juan knows everything and makes all the right moves despite serious adversity to himself and his love. Apalachee Gold is therefore a coming of age adventure story with a romantic twist, set in the 16th century’s “new world.” The focus is on Juan, the fictional character, but Estevanico plays the important, supporting role.
Estevanico, similar to Tom Sawyer’s black runaway slave friend, Jim, demonstrates unwavering loyalty and friendship to Pedro. “In the midst of the weary journey Pedro found a friend, a small, gnome-like black man named Estevanico.”27 Estevanico is wiry and tough with a friendly grin, is a skilled hunter, and, according to Pedro, “Estevanico passes for an Indian easily.” 28 In other words, Estevanico is a friend, but he is also a savage “other.” Estevanico owes Pedro his life according to the narrative, because Pedro saves him from a native attack. In this sense, Estevanico’s loyalty to Pedro stems not from his condition as a slave, but as a transcendental life debt.
The clearest demonstration of Estevanico’s loyalty is in the main characters’ interactions with the native tribes. Both Pedro and Estevanico try to trick the natives into thinking Pedro has god-like powers so they may survive native wrath. Slaughter therefore attributes survival not to shamanistic healing as much as to science. Pedro says he can make the gods set fire to a hut, and Estevanico aids him by secretly employing a magnifying glass and sunlight to this end. Once the hut catches fire, Estebanico runs out and screams “… ‘Hail to the messenger of the Great Spirit, hail to the bringer of fire!’ With his instinctive understanding of the savage mind, Estevanico had done the one thing that could make Pedro’s triumph complete.”29 Pedro becomes god-like and Estevanico “…accepted cheerfully the position as servant of the pale-skinned messenger of the Great Spirit assigned him by the Indians.”30 The instinctive knowledge Estevanico possesses is never explained, but one can assume Estevanico’s skin color might have something to do with it. Perhaps his skin color might also explain why Estevanico, in Slaughter’s mind, would unflinchingly accept his role as servant to Pedro.
Slaughter has Dorantes free Estevanico because he has proven his loyalty to the survivors throughout the story. Estevanico has such an overdeveloped sense of loyalty that despite his condition as a free man, he still serves the white Navarez survivors. Once they encounter the Spanish conquistadors, Estebanico volunteers to remain with the natives to make sure the Spaniards do not enslave them. The reason he does this is so Pedro can feel free to return to Cuba and find his love interest.31
In essence, Slaughter’s portrayal of Estebanico betrays a friendly yet hierarchical relationship between African-Americans and whites. Slaughter, through this narrative, reshapes the past and inadvertently makes a general commentary on race relations during his present. This narrative suggests that African-American loyalty and friendship is pivotal to their gaining freedom from slavery, but nevertheless it is in African-American nature to remain subservient to whites. Furthermore, part of the loyalty that evolves between blacks and whites stems from their joint subordination of native peoples who are portrayed as savage, as well as easily fooled by a black slave and a white teenage boy. In Slaughter’s rendition, whites must depend on blacks like Estebanico, their loyalty, cunning, as well ability to relate to the “savage” mind in order not only to survive attacks from the “savages,” but also to maintain control over them. This is a relationship in which inherent tensions are suppressed and sweetened, and it reflects the nature of tensions in race relations during the 1950s within the United States.
By 1969, the Civil Rights Movement changed the dynamics of race relations in the United States. This turbulent context led to several reconstructions of the past that sought to shape contemporary and subsequent understandings of African-American identity in the United States. A perfect example of this re-construction within a historical narrative geared towards children is The Gentle Conquistadors. Written by Jeannette Mirsky in 1969, her account portrays a very different Estevanico than Slaughter’s. He is Esteban, not a diminutive Estevanico, and he is the central character. Cabeza de Vaca becomes incidental. In her book, Mirsky painstakingly creates Esteban’s identity and how it evolves from his youth to his adventures as a slave in the “new world” to his death at the hands of the Zuñi while playing the role of a “gentle conquistador.”
The first chapter, “Before the Beginning” focuses on how Esteban was sold into slavery. Records regarding his childhood do not exist, so the author relies on her knowledge of the slave trade in the sixteenth century and her imagination. Mirsky’s Esteban grapples with questions about what it means to be a slave. His relationship with Dorantes, his master, is almost mystical. They are spiritual and intellectual equals despite Esteban’s slave status. Walking back from the slave auction, Dorantes and Esteban exchange their views on God and are united by this exchange:
“ Master, if I understood rightly we are bound on a great adventure. Whether we come back or not is in the hands of God. We must, of course do our best to live – that is our duty as human beings. But as for who God is, I see the great truth in our proverb.”
“What is the proverb on which you will stake your soul?” Dorantes, a good Christian, asked.
“God, we say, has a hundred names. Man knows ninety-nine. Only the camel knows all one hundred.”
“When we get near Seville, I shall present you to a camel,” Dorantes said. They smiled at each other. They had forged a bond – it left them tired. ”32
The above passage sets the stage for how Esteban relates to the other castaways. They are, despite Esteban’s status, spiritual and intellectual equals.
Later in the story, Mirsky highlights the enslavement of the castaways by the native tribes, as well as enslavement of natives by Spanish conquistadors. Doing so allows the reader to understand why slavery is bad, not from the viewpoint of a white non-slaveholder, but from the viewpoint of slaves, black, white, and native. Slavery becomes the cruel equalizer for all men that live in America because they all experience it and they all agree it is not a desirable condition.
Esteban and the question of slavery play a central role in Mirsky’s narrative, unlike Slaughter’s. According to this account, Esteban is not sold by Dorantes after the nine-year journey. Instead Dorantes allows Esteban to serve the viceroy and the Christian Fray Marcos without charge. Esteban leads these Spaniards to the fabled golden cities of Cíbola, not because of personal greed as traditional historians have suggested, but to protect and continue healing the native tribes. Esteban is killed by the Zuñi not because they do not believe he is a shaman, but precisely because they do. Mirsky, in the concluding “Author’s Note,” explains why she creates this historical fiction regarding Esteban’s death:
[I am] Supported in my belief that Esteban went northward of his own free will because he found being a black man and a slave – even with the best of masters- unendurable in Mexico…For me, anthropological insights have a greater truth than the story [Fray] Marcos used to explain Esteban’s death to himself as well as to his Spanish contemporaries. 33
This final observation by Mirsky is applicable to all three authors. Each reinterprets Cabeza de Vaca’s narrative in a way that is consonant with their particular narrative world. Campbell’s world maintains control and supremacy in the hands of a virtuous, intelligent, and white hero: Cabeza de Vaca. She reinterprets Naufragios in way that apologizes for slavery in the U.S. and perpetuates stereotypes about black men. Slaughter’s world does everything it can to foster the maturing process of Juan Ortiz. Estebanico is a friend that supports Juan, and accepts his slave status unflinchingly in order to do so. As soon as Estebanico serves his purpose, he disappears from the narrative. Mirsky’s world focuses on Esteban. His constant display of spiritual strength, intelligence and morality are admirable, especially since they do not waver when he is faced with death. These children’s books, though they are set in the sixteenth century, reflect the changing notions of identity in America with respect to African-Americans during the twentieth century.
VI Cabeza de Vaca re-created as a cosmic image
The last cultural text I will discuss in relation to Naufragios is the film, Cabeza de Vaca, directed by Nicholás Echevarría. This film was the result of a joint production effort between Mexico and Spain in association with Channel Four (Britain) and PBS and was broadcast as part of the American Playhouse Theater series in 1991. The film bases itself on Naufragios, but its portrayal is different from the narration because it is not an official story written for the Crown. The film portrays Cabeza de Vaca’s experiences as a madman’s fragmented, dreamlike flashbacks after having recently arrived at a Spanish encampment.
Historically based films such as Cabeza de Vaca, instead of reflecting history, “generate a knowledge of the past that is intimately tied to the ideology of the given moment in which they are produced.” 34 Similar to the children’s books based on Naufragios, Cabeza de Vaca re-interprets the conquistador chronicle in an effort to re-fashion identity. The film does not primarily seek to portray African-American identity in the U.S. Instead, it seeks to portray the origins of Mexican identity.
Cabeza de Vaca re-creates the encounter period not from the perspective of the conquering white man, but of the conquered white man. To accomplish this end, the director chose to portray the disorientating effects of not knowing the language of the dominator. The language in the flashbacks is a foreign, unrecognizable tongue and the title character must assimilate native culture and learn the conqueror’s language as he is enslaved and humiliated. Cabeza de Vaca eventually blends his own spiritual beliefs with those of the culture he encounters in order to survive and transcend his slave status. As a result the native shamen who enslaved him no longer see him as a pack animal, but as a magical human with whom they can communicate as an equal. The poignant moment that reveals this transformation occurs after Cabeza de Vaca heals a native giant through shaman practices. Cabeza de Vaca and the sorcerer master-teacher exchange the word “hand” in both the native and Spanish languages. This linguistic recognition symbolizes the recognition of each other’s humanity. The result: Cabeza de Vaca gains his freedom.
This freedom seems senseless, however, because Cabeza de Vaca remains in an unfamiliar land surrounded by native others whom he is only beginning to understand and still has no way of returning to Spain. He therefore meshes even deeper within the native culture at the same time that he tries to maintain his Christian beliefs. A spiritual regeneration occurs within Cabeza de Vaca through his growing belief in his healing powers. His “savage” physical appearance and actions seem to answer to a voice only he can hear. He mixes Christian religious symbols with native religious symbols in such a powerful new way that Cabeza de Vaca can bring a dead native woman of reproductive age back to life.
This segment of the film proposes the spiritual generation along the lines of Vasconsuelos’ “raza cósmica”. Cabeza de Vaca’s spiritual renewal and shamanistic practice not only translate into a new life not only for Cabeza de Vaca, but also for the fertile, native woman who will give mythic birth to a new type of human: one spawned from spiritual instead of sexual miscegenation, a type of virgin re-birth. This revival contrasts sharply with the sequence that shows how Cabeza de Vaca and his followers encountered evidence of Spanish occupation. The first sign of the Spanish conquistadors is the death of a native shot by a musket ball. Cabeza de Vaca recognizes that he cannot bring this native back to life. Spanish colonial power has killed both a native body and spirit.
The movie completely transforms the Naufragios narrative by taking the power of speech out of Cabeza de Vaca. He cannot communicate in the movie until he is initiated into the healing practice, a practice that regenerates his spiritual beliefs. From then on Cabeza de Vaca is portrayed as a pilgrim who gains a following among native tribes and his encounter with the other Spanish seems accidental and undesirable. After nine years and a profound connection to native culture and spirituality, Cabeza de Vaca realizes he no longer fits in this Spanish “home”. He is more like the naked natives caged by the conquistadors. His identity has been altered, he no longer identifies with Spanish cultural points of reference and, when we encounter him at the beginning and end of the movie, he seems to be a madman. This madness is symbolic of the schizophrenia that characterizes Mexican identity.
Other Spanish conquistadors, such as Cortez or Pizarro, were never lost when they penetrated new lands; they just did not know where they were. Constantly surrounded by a relatively large Spanish military corps, Catholic religious leaders, horses, weapons, and, more tangibly, European dress, these conquistadors never needed to question who they were or their purpose in unfamiliar lands. Cabeza de Vaca was different. He continually reminds his reader that he walked through these lands as naked as the day he was born.35 This nakedness is most likely metaphorical rather than literal, considering cloth and blankets formed a large part of his trade with the natives. Nevertheless he is stripped of European garb and its corresponding European identity, both literally and figuratively. When he is alone as a slave to a native tribe, without any material reference to his culture, Cabeza de Vaca may have been lost in an unfamiliar place among unfamiliar people with an unfamiliar culture. Only when he rejoins the other Navarez survivors can Cabeza de Vaca regain some of his original identity, and then only partially because they are in the same situation as he.
No longer a conquistador in the conventional sense, Cabeza de Vaca must therefore adjust to his changing circumstances. By the time the four survivors encounter the Spanish conquistadors, Cabeza de Vaca realizes his changed identity in the eyes of another. “This day I went ten leagues, and the next day in the morning I reached four Christians on horseback who were greatly surprised to see me so strangely dressed and in the company of Indians. They looked at me for a long space of time, so astonished that they did not speak to me nor ventured to ask me anything.”36 Cabeza de Vaca has assimilated part of the indigenous culture, and the Spaniards do not know how to react to the result. At the tail end of his travels, Cabeza de Vaca is not completely a Spaniard, nor is he completely a native of this new land. He does, however, form part of both cultures, in a sense creating a new identity for himself. Álvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca through Naufragios exploits this new identity and uses it to seek a governorship from his original Spanish world so he may rule in the New World.
American and Mexican identity has continually been in a state of flux ever since the first encounters between Native Americans, Europeans, and Africans. Álvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca’s Naufragios, although it has clear profit-seeking intentions, nevertheless reveals how the author crossed over into a new, and different culture from his original Spanish culture. Subsequent generations have sought to understand what Cabeza de Vaca’s experience means for American Identity, be it African-American, Native-American, Mexican, or even Texan. Communication through cultural texts, be they musical compositions, historical fictions, or movies, explicitly and implicitly address the complexities, tensions, psychological, and cultural traumas generated by this encounter. They construct, tear down, and construct again the identities of the people who inhabited the past. Interpretations of these cultural texts, and the changing messages they convey over time reveal how identity, be it European, African, Indian, Mexican, or American is not a fixed entity but rather a process of continued interactions between individuals and the world.
Colin Matthews’ piece introduces the tensions Cabeza de Vaca experiences through his great journey. Although the musical setting is in English, the tone, structure, and message clearly portray the Spaniard’s mental and physical shipwreck as well as the inherent difficulties he has in communicating this experience. The fictionalized historical narratives for children reveal, either explicitly or implicitly, twentieth-century tensions regarding African-American identity in the United States through their portrayal of Estevanico, or Esteban, the black slave. Finally, the Mexican-Spanish film, Cabeza de Vaca, by insinuating Cabeza de Vaca’s screaming madness, suggests the difficulty individuals have had in communicating the painful legacy of this first encounter.
The Encounter period, as narrated by Cabeza de Vaca’s conquistador narrative, influences the identity of the U.S.-Mexican borderlands through the meanings we give to this “original” interaction, how we reconstruct it, and how we remember it. This memory is colored by the context of how we relate to others in our daily lives, what categories we use to define these relationships and the changes these undergo over time. Identity in this region was not immutably established by the first encounters of three different cultures. Instead, it has become an evolving, living organism that feeds on and is shaped by human relationships that occur within the U.S. – Mexican borderlands region including speech, actions, literature, music, art, film; the list is as long as human interaction is intricate.
* This paper was presented at the Society for the History of Discoveries conference held at Guadalajara, Mexico in October 2002. I would like to thank the SHD for the opportunity to present and receive feedback on this paper, the History Department at the University of Miami for funding my presentation, and Dr. Martha Few, Dr. Steve Stein, and Dr. Germán Mejia for their insightful criticisms. Of course, I bear full responsibility for any mistakes and/or omissions.
1 Elizabeth Kolbert, “The Lost Mariner: The
self-confidence that kept Columbus going was his undoing” in The New Yorker (Oct. 14-21, 2002) :206.
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