Going in Circles: Spanish American Identity and the Circular Motif in Nicolás Echevarría's Cabeza De Vaca

By Alcocer, Rudyard | Literature/Film Quarterly, October 1, 2008 | Go to article overview

Going in Circles: Spanish American Identity and the Circular Motif in Nicolás Echevarría's Cabeza De Vaca


Alcocer, Rudyard, Literature/Film Quarterly


Perhaps no other Latin American film has sparked as much debate about what it means to be American man Nicolas Echevarría's Cabera de Vaca (1990). The purpose of the present study is to explore a motif that, while prominent and repetitive in the film, has been overlooked in previous studies: the circle, particularly in relation to constructions of Spanish American identity. My contention here is that an analysis of the circular motif in Cabeza de Vaca can help readers better understand the ways the film engages in these constructions.

That there have been numerous studies on Cabeza de Vaca over the past few years attests more than likely to the ways in which the film addresses issues of ongoing currency both in and out of the academy. One of these issues, and the one of most relevance in this study, is the nature of cultural identity or identities, in particular as diese relate to the dual cultural heritage often ascribed to Spanish Americans. As one of the first Spaniards (or Europeans in general) to immerse himself in a Native American society (Gonzalo Guerrero, for instance, had done so in the Yucatan a few years earlier), Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca holds a position of considerable importance as a precursor to the many who have since occupied the cultural middle ground between Europeans and Native Americans (including all of the Americas, not just the United States). When one uses the term "Spanish American," for instance, whether in reference to groups that might otherwise be labeled "Hispanic" (of Spanish-speaking family or ancestry) or "Latino" (commonly used in the United States to refer to someone in this country who has a family background in any of the Spanish-speaking countries south of the US/Mexico border), is each half of the term of equal importance or value? Can it be assumed mat the "Spanish" is of greater importance given its first position in the term? Furthermore, what does it feel like to be Spanish American?

By way of prefacing my remarks on Cabeza de Vaca, a look at Richard Rodriguez's writings can serve as a reminder of the ongoing relevance of the preceding questions or issues: simply stated, the initial encounters between Europeans and Native Americans mat eventually led to the tragedy that has come to be known as "The Conquest" are in many ways still being played out and are still being processed. In his 1992 memoir, Days of Obligation, Rodriguez ponders, "Is it the nature of Indians-not verifiable in nature, of course, but in the European description of Indians-that we wait around to be 'discovered'?" (6-7). Interestingly, the epigraph for the chapter "India" in which the above question appears is taken from Naufragios, the relación or chronicle published by Cabeza de Vaca in 1542 and which in turn served as the basis for Echevarría's film.

Rodriguez's more recent social commentary, tided Brown: The Last Discovery of America, further develops the trope of discovery. On the one hand, the subtitle suggests that cultural "impurity" has only recently gained acceptance in the United States; another way of reading the title, however, is that in many ways the continent of America is still being discovered; the conquest is still alive. Rodriguez states: "[...] what makes me brown is that I am made of the conquistador and the Indian. My brown is a reminder of conflict" (xii).

Although pigmentation may not be at the heart of his problem, a student of mine who arrived recently from Sevilla (and is in a sense retracing the pam laid out by Cabeza de Vaca), expressed bewilderment with regard to the way the term "Hispanic" is used here in the US, particularly as concerns the best way for him to identify himself vis-à-vis the term. He confesses that in Spain he seldom thought of himself as "Hispanic," but that here, particularly when it comes to filling out forms and checking the appropriate box under the category "race," he has struggled: does "Hispanic" mean Spanish speaking? If so, he is Hispanic. …

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