Cabeza de Vaca, Alvar Núñez (c. 1490–1564)

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Cabeza de Vaca, Alvar Núñez (c. 1490–1564)

Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca (b. ca. 1490; d. 1564), Spanish explorer, conquistador, and author. Cabeza de Vaca was most likely born in Jerez de la Frontera, Andalusia. He was treasurer and marshal of Pánfilo de Narváez's expedition to Florida (1527–1537) and was appointed governor of the Río de la Plata, in present-day Paraguay (1540–1545). For different reasons, both enterprises proved disastrous for Cabeza de Vaca, the first beginning in shipwreck, the latter ending in political failure.

After accidentally landing south of Tampa Bay in the spring of 1528, the ill-fated expedition of Narváez progressively deteriorated. It was not until eight years later that Cabeza de Vaca, Andrés Dorantes de Carranza, Alonso del Castillo Maldonado, and an African slave named Estevanico, the only four survivors, encountered a party of Spaniards on the west coast of Mexico. Cabeza de Vaca's account, known in Spanish as the Naufragios (Shipwrecks), tells the story of his travails and coexistence with the Mariame, Avavare, and Opata peoples. He became a merchant and, with the three other survivors practiced shamanism with such success that hundreds of Indians formed a cult about them and traveled with them across the continent. The Naufragios is at once an account of an officer of the crown and the story of a European who penetrated and was penetrated by Native American cultures. On his return to Spain, he was given the governorship of Río de la Plata. The Comentarios, written by his amanuensis Pedro Hernández, tells of Cabeza de Vaca's journey from the island of Santa Catalina (Brazil) to Asunción (Paraguay), and the subsequent rebellion of Domingo Martínez de Irala that ended with Cabeza de Vaca's return to Spain in chains in 1545. He died in Seville.

Although a pirated edition of Naufragios appeared in 1542, while Cabeza de Vaca was in Paraguay, the authorized version was published with the Comentarios in 1555. The Naufragios is the more compelling of the two in its narration of a complete loss of material civilization and total dependence on the Indians. In this regard the Naufragios manifests the dubious nature of Western civilization's claims to superiority, since it is the Spaniards who are naked and unable to feed themselves or build boats, who fall into anomie and resort to cannibalism.

Cabeza de Vaca's story is the antithesis to Robinson Crusoe as it testifies that the Western individual does not embody the knowledge of European civilizations and must learn from Native Americans to survive. His account of cannibalism among the Spaniards includes a condemnation of the act by the Indians and a description of a highly ritualized consumption of the ashes of dead shamans. Thus, Europeans come to embody the savagery conventionally attributed to Indians.

See alsoCannibalism; Conquistadores.


The most complete edition of Cabeza de Vaca's writing is Alvar Núñez Cabeza De Vaca, Relación de los naufragios y comentarios, edited by Manuel Serrano y Sanz, Colección de libros y documentos referentes a la historia de América, vol. 5 (1906); volume 6 of this collection contains other documents by and on Cabeza de Vaca. For a more recent critical edition, see Alvar Núñez Cabeza De Vaca, Relación, edited by Enrique Pupo-Walker (1992). For an English version of the Naufragios, see Alvar Núñez Cabeza De Vaca, Castaways, edited by Enrique Pupo-Walker and translated by Frances M. López-Morillas (1993). The standard biography still is Morris Bishop, The Odyssey of Cabeza de Vaca (1933). More recent studies are Rolena Adorno, "The Negotiation of Fear in Cabeza de Vaca's Naufragios," in Representations, no. 33 (1991): 163-199; Maureen Ahern, "The Cross and the Gourd: The Appropriation of Ritual Signs in the Relaciones of Alvar Núñez and Fray Marcos de Niza," in Early Images of the Americas: Transfer and Invention, edited by Jerry M. Williams and Robert E. Lewis (1993); and José Rabasa, "Allegory and Ethnography in Cabeza de Vaca's Naufragios and Comentarios," in Violence, Resistance, and Survival in the Americas: Native Americans and the Legacy of Conquest, edited by William B. Taylor and Franklin Pease G.Y. (1994).

Additional Bibliography

Adorno, Rolena, Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca, and Patrick Charles Pautz. Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca: His Account, His Life, and the Expedition of Pánfilo de Narváez. 3 Vols. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1999.

Howard, David A. Conquistador in Chains: Cabeza de Vaca and the Indians of the Americas. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1997.

Montané Martí, Julio C. El mito conquistado: Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca. Hermosillo, Sonora, México: Universidad de Sonora, 1999.

                                        JosÉ Rabasa