Enriched by Otherness: The Transformational Journey of Cabeza De Vaca

By Docter, Mary | Christianity and Literature, Autumn 2008 | Go to article overview

Enriched by Otherness: The Transformational Journey of Cabeza De Vaca


Docter, Mary, Christianity and Literature


Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca's Relacion presents one of the earliest accounts of Spanish exploration in North America. Although it begins as a common tale of a sixteenth-century Spanish conquistador in search of gold and glory, Cabeza de Vaca's story is anything but typical. In fact, it depicts a remarkable adventure unequaled in the history of the New World. (1) Forming part of the ill-fated 1527 expedition of Panfilo de Narvaez, Cabeza de Vaca found himself shipwrecked off the coast of Florida. Struggling to survive in a hostile environment, and under conditions of desperate need, the original group of six hundred men was eventually reduced to just four. La Relacion ("The Account") narrates Cabeza de Vaca's decade-long adventure in the New World, culminating with his amazing pilgrimage westward through the wide expanses of present-day Texas to the Sea of Cortes, and then south to Mexico City. This journey made him and his three companions the first non-Indians to cross the North American continent on foot. Cabeza de Vaca survived by living among the Indians, first as slave, then as trader, and finally as "healer" an experience that deepened his Christian faith and turned him into one of the first--and most passionate--advocates for Native American rights.

Upon his return to Spain in 1537, Cabeza de Vaca spent three years diligently preparing his manuscript, which was first published in Zamora in 1542 as La Relacion. (2) In 1555, a second edition was printed in Valladolid, which also contained his Comentarios, a longer work that recorded his subsequent failed exploits as governor of the provinces of Rio de la Plata, the enormous region now occupied by southern Peru, Argentina, Uruguay, and Paraguay. (3) This later edition, which contains only minor alterations from the first, (4) is the one most frequently cited, translated, and studied. The North American narrative soon became known as Naufragios, (5) which literally means "Shipwrecks," but which has been liberally (and arguably more poetically) translated as "Castaways."

The work exemplifies a "cronica," a traditional genre in Spanish literature. The cronicas de Indias (chronicles of the Indies or New World chronicles) share a common stated objective: "to provide a direct account of the concrete facts of the discovery, exploration and conquest of the New World's lands and cultures" (Pastor 2). Scholars typically distinguish two trends among this body of work. The official accounts of the conquest were those commissioned or sanctioned by the Catholic Monarchs. (6) These historiographical chroniclers reconstructed the events based upon oral accounts and testimonies gathered from participants in the action. The second group, on the other hand, consists of narratives that reported the first-hand experiences of the direct participants themselves. These early accounts were generally not written for the benefit of posterity, but rather for purely pragmatic purposes: to persuade their audience, the sovereigns, to recognize and reward their service with wealth, land, or position (Hart 17-18). Cabeza de Vaca's Relacion falls squarely within this second category, but stands out in significant ways: first, Cabeza de Vaca is a gifted and engaging storyteller whose work "reveals a transition from historiography to literature" (Pastor 188). Second, of all the known New World chroniclers, he is the one who most fully immersed himself in the indigenous cultures; and finally, unlike the majority of early accounts of military action in the New World, which took the bias of the invading Spanish forces, Cabeza de Vaca's Relacion presents a much more complex point of view.

The rather short work has inspired much critical dialogue, numerous translations, (7) several fictional works, (8) and an award-winning feature-length film. (9) La Relacion is valuable for historians, literary scholars, ethnographers, and anthropologists. It offers, for example, the first reported sightings of the buffalo, as well as the first descriptions of the Mississippi River and the southern regions of the present-day United States. …

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