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