Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca: explorer, shaman, proto-anthropologist
October 13, 2013 8:26 PM   Subscribe

' "Discovery" is such a loaded term nowadays in American cultural studies that one dare not use it without immediately qualifying it as problematic and politically charged. We tend to prefer "invasion" or "dispossession" or "conquest" because those words, and their attendant categories, suggest a more accurate way to characterize early American exploration.... Homi Bhabha's theory of the "hybrid" colonial subject, and his focus on the production and maintenance of colonial power, has compelling implications for the relationship between European explorers and Native Americans in Cabeza de Vaca's 1542 discovery narrative La Relación. Several scholars have commented on Cabeza de Vaca's hybridity—the collision between his Spanish heritage and his acquisition of Native American culture—but none has discussed it in terms of the exercise of colonial power and its resultant ambiguities.' This is a verbose introduction to the interesting and complex life of Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, one of the four survivors of the 600-strong Narváez expedition, in the period of inland Spanish conquistadores. You could read more, or watch Cabeza de Vaca, the 1991 film that is "sometimes straightforward, sometimes pagaentlike and sometimes hallucinatory ... a road trip movie set in a time before there were roads."
posted by filthy light thief (14 comments total) 37 users marked this as a favorite
Great post, thank you! I'm excited to see that the movie is on YouTube, since Netflix doesn't have it. I learned about him from my high school history teacher, who was... eccentric, shall we say. We spent several days learning about the Hottentot Venus but skipped both world wars because "we don't have time for that." We did a whole unit on Cabeza de Vaca and watched the movie, and I was sort of obsessed with him for several months after that.
posted by skycrashesdown at 8:35 PM on October 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

From the Silva paper link with its Bhabha-influenced analysis:
Cabeza de Vaca has to balance multiple identities within a nascent "Indianized" European self. This transformation minimally presents two central challenges to the identity and function of the colonizer in the New World: How can the newly formed ethnographer-self situate his cultural relativism both with the discoverer-self who was more concerned with conquest and subjectification of the natives and the missionary-self whose reduction of ethnocentrism and the conquest motive serves only to strengthen his desire to Christianize the Other? And if the hybridized colonizer assimilates into native culture and views the indigenous population not as "evil" or "diabolical," then what happens to the colonizing impulse?

Bhabha & co's analysis is all very well, but I'm pretty confident that de Vaca was a bit more preoccupied at the time with 1) somehow escaping enslavement 2) somehow surviving against the odds in a strange land 3) somehow finding his way home .
posted by Bwithh at 9:02 PM on October 13, 2013 [2 favorites]

I just finished the Relación. It makes for some amazing reading. Worth it for the description of the natives of Galveston Island alone.
posted by perhapsolutely at 9:08 PM on October 13, 2013 [2 favorites]

This is great.

Thanks, filthy light thief.
posted by Ice Cream Socialist at 9:12 PM on October 13, 2013

Right, and in doing so de Vaca would have had to reevaluate a whole host of assumptions and preconceptions about the world he found himself in, the world he had come from, and the person -- with all THAT entails -- he thought he was. IOW, "balancing identities," although as you suggest, he would not have understood his adventure in those terms.

Although, his success suggests that had his travels taken him to a humanities graduate seminar, he would have understood it in those terms (and rapidly), and lived to tell the tale.
posted by notyou at 9:13 PM on October 13, 2013

His relations to the native populations he met and spent time among are pretty widely varied. I'd be hesitant to characterize them too broadly. I really appreciated that this was not some shallow, cartoonish encounter with stereotyped good guys and bad guys, but really nuanced and human--people of vastly different backgrounds interacting unpredictably and sharing unimaginable, never to be repeated predicaments. Reducing it to its historic political significance in a way really deprives everyone involved of their humanity.
posted by perhapsolutely at 9:20 PM on October 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

This is a fine post, however the de Vaca story isn't really complete without mention of Estevanico, or Esteban, the Moorish slave who not only survived that entire adventure, but then went on to lead another party from Mexico up into what's now New Mexico.

Many accounts credit him with being the true go-between in this meeting of Spanish and Native American cultures. His story is told at length by John Upton Terrell in Estevanico the Black (1968), and dramatized in the historical novel Black Ulysses, by Daniel Panger (1982).
posted by LeLiLo at 9:26 PM on October 13, 2013 [7 favorites]

LeLiLo, thanks for the link on Estevanico. I was not aware of that facet of the story.
posted by Mei's lost sandal at 9:56 PM on October 13, 2013

Thank you, flt. I'd only heard of him in the Lord Buckley monologue.
posted by zorseshoes at 10:35 PM on October 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

In large parts of New England, it wasn't so much an invasion as it was moving into a power vacuum. European diseases (especially smallpox, but even things like measles) had found the natives with no resistance at all, and many native villages were completely wiped out. Europeans found cleared land and the beginnings of settlements waiting for them, with no one living in them.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 10:40 PM on October 13, 2013

You read that account of the Narvaez expedition and it's very clear that Cabeza de Vaca was the real MVP and you wonder how Narvaez got a command like this (although politics and business were greater factors in this sort of thing than merit). Foolish error after foolish error, splitting the land and sea components, not establishing a viable method of reconnection or communication, and what seems like a lot of marching around the worst marching terrain possible and only barely succeeding in keeping themselves alive, let alone finding any major civilizations to conquer or booty to claim.

Although on the one hand we're getting mostly Cabeza's own account of things, he's also the only one alive to tell it, which says something.
posted by dhartung at 12:08 AM on October 14, 2013

Bonus points for Gratuitous Dude Ass (GDA) in the youtube link! Also some killer beards and we're only like, five minutes in! Oh man my day is already shot. I gotta switch to beer.
posted by hobo gitano de queretaro at 12:48 AM on October 14, 2013

For some reason castiliano always makes me break out into spontaneous giggling. I don't think I can finish this film, between the ludicrous overacting and the natural flamboyancy of their native accent, my ribs ache.

Also, strong yet nonsensical homoerotic overtones. I think that, as a mexican catholic, this may be the greatest historical drama ever randomly encountered at 4AM.
posted by hobo gitano de queretaro at 12:57 AM on October 14, 2013

"Discovery" is such a loaded term nowadays ... We tend to prefer "invasion" or "dispossession" or "conquest" ...

Which aren't loaded terms at all.

Why not "introduction" for the initial encounter?
posted by ZenMasterThis at 5:41 AM on October 14, 2013 [1 favorite]

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