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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca
Cabeza de Vaca, a promising young noble, was assigned by Emperor Carlos V as the Crown’s treasurer to the Pánfilo de Narváez expedition chartered to explore the Gulf coast in 1528. Narváez, who had lost out to Cortés in a power struggle during the conquest of Mexico, was attempting to stake out his own area to exploit. Cabeza de Vaca’s official charge was to protect the emperor’s investment, assure compliance with Spanish law, and keep separate books both on expenditures and on everything seen, found, or done. His encyclopedic task of textual absorption reflected well the self-assurance of the Spanish conquistadors, especially after the incredibly successful experience in Mexico. Yet it also placed on Cabeza de Vaca an enormous responsibility for the fate of the project. When the high expectations floundered in the inhospitable vastness of North America, the result was a chronicle of self-justification under the onus of failure.

Of the hundreds of men Narváez disembarked in Florida, only four survived after seven years. The troops had floated on improvised rafts from Florida to Texas, having lost contact with Narváez somewhere off the mouth of the Mississippi when, as Cabeza de Vaca depicted it, the governor had abandoned them to their fate in order to save himself. Shipwrecked and reduced to a handful of men, they were enslaved by Indians and held for a number of years, during which many died. Cabeza de Vaca and three companions survived by acculturating to the point where they were allowed to move freely among the tribes. They commenced a trek in search of Spanish settlements that led them through the present-day Southwest into northwestern Mexico. Upon his return to Spain, Cabeza de Vaca, faced with the failure of his mission, wrote his memoirs to justify himself and his new petition for the continued support of the Crown.

Failure made it impossible to utilize the discourse of conquest, so Cabeza de Vaca had to reformulate his experience into some alternative code of value. He chose the medieval genre of hagiography, the life of a saint. Thus, his texts became a Christian conversion tale, the first in the U.S. tradition, in which the undeniable losses suffered are interpreted as part of God’s plan to reform a chosen representative on earth. The author recounts having been stripped of all signs of European civilization—clothes, status, social context, everything on which his identity was founded—except his faith. As a captive—also the first in the U.S. tradition—he is forced to become a religious practitioner, a healer of the sick with nothing but the word of God, creating a syncretic religious practice from Native American customs and Catholic prayers. His failure thus is repackaged as a spiritual success, a working out of a divine plan; the fact of his survival is translated into the proof of his religious merit; his intimate knowledge of Native American ways, the basis for a petition for a new appointment in the Americas. He received a commission as governor of Paraguay.

Cabeza de Vaca’s tale is hagiography, captivity narrative, and immigrant tale. As an immigrant, Cabeza de Vaca voyaged with high expectations and, like many an immigrant after him, arrived to find less than hospitable natives organized into a society not fully comprehensible. He forged a new identity based on improvised service. He learned a new language, deciphered the code of social interaction, worked hard at whatever he was permitted to do, and then exploited all opportunities. All through it, the immigrant’s dream was to return to the homeland. However, having acculturated to survive, Cabeza de Vaca was no longer the Spaniard who set out on the voyage, but a hybrid New World man, a state he acknowledged upon finally meeting up with fellow Europeans.

Cabeza de Vaca’s is the New World, mestizo voice speaking for the first time from what is now the U.S. literary tradition. His text both narrates and incarnates the process of becoming something new we now call American.
Juan Bruce-Novoa
University of California at Irvine

In the Heath Anthology
Relation of Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca
      from Chapter VII: "The Character of the Country" (c.1542)
      from Chapter VIII: "We Go from Aute" (c.1542)
      from Chapter X: "The Assault from the Indians" (c.1542)
      from "Chapter XI: Of What Befel Lope de Oviedo with the Indians" (c.1542)
      from Chapter XXI: "Our Cure of Some of the Afflicted" (c.1542)
      from Chapter XXIV: "Customs of the Indians of That Country" (c.1542)
      from Chapter XXVII: "We Moved Away and Were Well Received" (c.1542)
      from Chapter XXXII: "The Indians Give Us the Hearts of Deer" (c.1542)
      from Chapter XXXIII: "We See Traces of Christians" (c.1542)
      from Chapter XXXIV: "Of Sending for the Christians" (c.1542)

Other Works

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Cabeza de Vaca
Along with biographical material and a map, the site includes a long account of de Vaca's voyage.

On the Trail
Page with a poem and story presenting the story of Estevanico from the time of de Vaca's journeys.

The Environmental History of De Vaca's Wonderous Journey By Dan Flores
(The Environmental History of De Vaca's Wonderous Journey By Dan Flores)
An essay that is part of the "Windows to the Unknown" project focusing specifically on de Vaca's "Relacion."

The Journey of Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca
Site providing the primary source by de Vaca on his journey, dating from 1542.

Windows to the Unknown: Cabeza de Vaca's Journey to the Southwest
An extensive project at the University of Texas that includes many analytical essays on de Vaca's life and discoveries.

Secondary Sources

Juan Bruce-Novoa, "Shipwrecked in the Seas of Signification," Reconstructing Our Past, ed., Maria Herrera-Sobek, 1993

Nartin A. Favata and Jose B. Fernandez, "Introduction" to The Account: Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca's Relacion, 1993

Tzvetan Todorov, The Conquest of America: The Question of the Other, 1984

Frederick W. Turner, Beyond Geography: The Western Spirit Against the Wilderness, 1980