Cultural Discourse and Interpretation of Distressed American Indigenous Communities in Álvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca’s 1542 La relación

By Ramon Sanchez

[L]a tierra estava despoblada y sin labrarse y toda muy destuída, y los indios andavan escondidos y huídos por los montes sin querer venire a hazer assiento en sus pueblos. (Cabeza de Vaca, sig H5r) (The land was abandoned and uncultivated and damaged. The indios were hiding and fleeing through the hills. They did not want to come and settle in their towns.)1

The above quotation from Álvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca’s La relación demonstrates his awareness of the impact of Spanish aggression on the natives. In La relación que dio Álvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca de lo acaescido en las Indias . . . (1542), Cabeza de Vaca, as eyewitness, attempts to articulate disrupted indigenous communities through an imperial rhetoric. The challenge, though, in Cabeza de Vaca’s encounters with tragic-stricken natives is to be able to detect, within the official conquest conversation, traces of the indigenous voices that can lead one to an understanding of the discursive conflict involved in the transformation of the Americas. Ralph Bauer comments in The Cultural Geography of Colonial American Literatures that Cabeza de Vaca’s discourse is a reaction to questions about legitimacy, rights, and power in the Spanish empire.2 The resulting arguments between the feudalistic conqueror and the Spanish crown about who will reap the spoils of the conquest, especially over who commands the labor of indigenous people, come to affect Cabeza de Vaca’s interpretation of indigenous losses in the sense that he promotes the crown’s authority over the natives and the Spanish conquerors who seek their gain.3 Consequently, Cabeza de Vaca’s Spanish imperial narrative becomes part of the complex discourse engagement over identity constructs between españoles and indigenous people. The examination of conquerors’ and natives’ articulations reveals their expectations of each other, a process that creates a sort of mutual recognition and interconnectedness.

In analyzing Cabeza de Vaca’s accounts of the five episodes in which he encounters indigenous peoples in a region the historiography designates as “la frontera septentrional de Nueva España” (the northern most frontier of New Spain), I focus on the Bakhtinian rejoinder (respond and answer) process.4 This approach illuminates how Cabeza de Vaca transmits encoded ideological relationships and establishes categories derived from a cristiano/Hispanic cultural social milieu as well the scope of his self-awareness in the midst of numerous native nations. Taking into consideration the rejoinder in reading the continuous and constant interaction between Cabeza de Vaca and the indigenous inhabitants also leads to learning about the indigenous discourse embedded in La relación. An evaluation of Cabeza de Vaca’s ideological imperial language—through which he interprets five tragic encounters with indigenous people—dramatically and, at times, starkly displays cultural exchanges, adaptations, and changes which initially and over time affect the ethnic identity of native people and much later those who call themselves Mexican American. Juan Bruce-Novoa refers to the latter consequence by pointing out the importance of Cabeza de Vaca’s Relación as root material necessary in a cultural evaluation of Mexican Americans, for it is a “founding as well as a fundamental text of Chicano literature and culture” that can show indigenous people resisting and a Mexican American connection to an indigenous heritage (1993, 4). By attending to Cabeza de Vaca’s interpretation of encounters with natives in tragic circumstances, I gauge the impact of these events on the identity-forming process of people of Hispanic and indigenous ethnic heritages.

More specifically, I examine how Cabeza de Vaca’s 1542 Relación utilizes the Spanish imperial discourse—as revealed by terms like “Dios” (God), “Vuestra Magestad” (Your Majesty), and “indio” (Indian)—to interpret five encounters with distressed indigenous communities, four occurring when he is a castaway and one when he reconnects with Spanish forces. From a Bakhtinian language perspective, Cabeza de Vaca’s discourse does not just reveal Spanish imperial impositions, but also and more importantly it exposes contradictions, misunderstandings, lack of knowledge, and unresolved conflicts between the Spaniards themselves, who argue over conquest approaches, and the Spaniards and natives. Specifically, Cabeza de Vaca expects an indigenous answer that fits into his imperial Spanish discourse context in which the native response is categorized in terms of cristiano/Hispanic definitions of identity, position, stance, and permitted action. Spaniards and natives, though, are forced to determine and understand each other through one another’s utterances. Their exchanges are constructed in anticipation of possible responsive reactions: rejoinders.5 Since “every word is directed toward an answer and cannot escape the profound influence of the answering word that it anticipates,” the rejoinders in Cabeza de Vaca’s encounters with distressed natives make one conscious of a native speech and leads to an understanding of the discursive conflict that contributes to the transformation of the Americas (Bakhtin 1981, 280). An analysis of Cabeza de Vaca’s interpretation of tragic native situations, involving the disruption of indigenous communities along with their loss of life, allows recognition of an unintended dialogue despite the incommensurable discourses of these two very different communities.


Before examining the mentioned five encounters, I need to point out a few important aspects that will assist in comprehending the discourse practices through which Cabeza de Vaca attempts to shape the encounters.6 His discourse of empire-building defines boundaries, supplies argument structures, and creates hierarchical values in a narrative. They are intellectual tools that assist the Spanish conquerors in the implementation of policies and deeds, which silence and marginalize the indigenous community. Cabeza de Vaca does not simply describe the noted tragic events; rather his Spanish discourse ideologically legitimizes the conqueror’s acts in the midst of what he experiences at the time as a hostile and dangerous indigenous multitude. However, the Spaniards do constantly experience obstacles in their communication with native inhabitants, either practical ones or ideological ones, meaning that their imperial rhetorical instruments do not necessarily convey the explorers’ intentions or what actually transpires.

At the same time, Cabeza de Vaca needs to deal with the indigenous discourse, which cannot simply be pushed aside. The struggle over the “ownership of interpretative control and authority over words and signs” that Ralph Bauer remarks upon in Cabeza de Vaca’s narrative goes beyond the Spaniards themselves (Bauer 47). Bakhtin’s concept of the “rejoinder,” or response to the other’s discourse, assists in delineating ideological relations in the five Cabeza de Vaca incidents I examine. All discourses reflect the conditions and goals of their ideological source, which develop their own explicatory language that affects peoples’ actions. Bakhtin notes that “[a]ny utterance is a link in the chain of speech communion,” making language crucial in human interaction (Bakhtin 1986, 84). This means that since individuals continuously and constantly interact with the discourses of others, their communications are filled with others’ words (89). Consequently, in La relación, Cabeza de Vaca’s five encounters with distressed indigenous communities can each be examined as if a palimpsest on which one may read the remnants of earlier imperfectly erased discourses.

From 1492 on, the Spanish arrived in the Americas utilizing their cristiano/Hispanic cultural/ideological concepts to understand, or rather, to interpret the people and the land they endeavored to conquer. For instance, they apply part of a lived imperial and constructed history known as the reconquista history (718-1492) with its narrative and guiding terms such as “Dios” and “Vuestra Magestad.”7 In their subjugation of American natives, they followed old patterns, such as “systematic devastation of the countryside,” from their war against the Moors (Fletcher 1992, 164). Such approaches are upheld by their imperial cristiano/Hispanic historical narrative with all its self-referential cultural categories, such as cristiano and español. When the Spanish reach and enter the Americas, they expect to find large populations, whom they will convert as they expand their reach.8 Indeed, converting natives to Catholicism was important in terms of Spanish legitimacy to the land and people of the Americas. In fact, the Spanish crown’s right to the Americas rests on the issue of converting the large number of conquered indios.9 This becomes within the cristiano/Hispanic cultural framework a circular justification: you must conquer to convert and to convert you must conquer. In turn, the terms “Dios,” “Vuestra Magestad,” and “indio” specify, focus, and fuel this conquering ideological imperial belief system.

Fifty years after Columbus’s expedition, Cabeza de Vaca’s 1542 narrative, published at Zamora, Spain, appears. His relación is about the failed Pánfilo de Narváez Expedition (1527-1536)—of which Cabeza de Vaca is one of the four survivors—and his travels from Florida westward, almost to the Pacific Ocean and finally southward into the Mexican interior. In April 1527, Governor Narváez leads an exploratory mission that consists of five ships and about 600 armed men to conquer land and people in the Americas. On 17 June 1527, as a member of the Pánfilo de Narváez expedition, Cabeza de Vaca sets sail from San Lucar de Barrameda authorized by the Spanish crown to “conquer and govern” land and people in the provinces from Río de las Palmas to the cape of Florida.10 Cabeza de Vaca represents the Spanish crown’s interests as treasurer of the Expedition. He is among the 300 armed men who enter inland Florida in 1528 but who end up unable to reconnect with the ships. Consequently, the stranded men construct barges and launch themselves into the sea and end up shipwrecked somewhere on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico, most probably the present day coast of Texas.11 From there, Cabeza de Vaca, along with three companions, tries to reconnect with cristianos and journeys inland westward. The castaways finally reach a Spanish slave-raiding party in 1536 near the Sinaloa River close to the Pacific Ocean. Before and after meeting the Spanish military forces, Cabeza de Vaca observes their violent destruction of the native communities in the region (Cabeza de Vaca, sig. H3r). He then meets and joins Melchior Díaz, Chief Justice of Culiacán, in subduing the natives of this region. He returns to Spain in 1537 to present his report of merits and service and to gain the adelantamiento for Florida.12

The general backgrounds of Cabeza de Vaca’s five encounters with distressed natives which I will examine are as follows. The first incident occurs when it looks like the Spanish castaways infect a tribal people with what appears to be dysentery and half of them die (Cabeza de Vaca, sig. C7r). The second incident is clearly not of the making of the Spaniards, who are castaways at this time. Natives die after being weakened by lack of food in the midst of a very harsh season and their adherence to what Cabeza de Vaca describes as a tribal mourning custom (Cabeza de Vaca, sig. D1r). However, Cabeza de Vaca’s incomplete conversation during the incident shows his Spanish imperial discourse incapable of effectively interpreting this grieving practice through the imperial rhetoric of “Dios” and “Vuestra Magestad.” The third incident raises the possibility of a Spanish cause. Cabeza de Vaca, still as a castaway, encounters a group of indios who, because of some disease, are mostly half-blind (one-eyed) or blind (Cabeza de Vaca, sig. F7r). It is not clear what malady did this to them nor if their condition is the result of an indigenous infectious disease or an imported one like smallpox. The fourth incident involves the death of many natives by an unknown cause, and the Spanish castaways are blamed and feared for it (Cabeza de Vaca, sig.G4r). Who or what causes the deaths is undetermined. The final incident to be scrutinized is clearly caused by Spanish imperial actions, and it turns out to be very damaging to the natives’ societies and inflicts major loss of indigenous life. This transpires when Cabeza de Vaca reconnects with Spaniards. He ceases to be a castaway and regains military backing. In this episode, he witnesses Spanish destruction of indigenous communities, whose members are either being killed, fleeing to escape being enslaved, and/or living in precarious situations (Cabeza de Vaca, sigs. H1v, H2r).

In the five noted occurrences in La relación, Cabeza de Vaca addresses his fellow Spaniards through a language that operates on the basis of a widely accepted Spanish empire-building belief system, which transmits, formulates, and frames the events. He actively employs in his reports the imperially authorizing discourse in trying to shape the painful indigenous encounters he experiences. He, as an individual, is not detached from the forces that condition his actions so his discourse is not produced in a cultural vacuum. Consequently, in an effort to validate the narrative of his accounts, he employs words that overlap with a sanctioned notarial rhetoric.13

However, despite discourse defining terms, such as “Dios,” “Vuestra Magestad,” and “indio,” with which he attempts to retain his rightful Spanish recognition, in his narrative Cabeza de Vaca struggles to interpret several incidents of native displacement and population loss. So at one level, his language presents imperially encoded ideological relationships and categories that configure Cabeza de Vaca’s understanding of events witnessed but that may not address things accurately. At another level, however, they do give him the power to explain in a Spanish imperial manner to an audience who comprehends such discourse. This means his empire-building language can have great social impact even though it may not have much if anything to do with the physical landscape or the social environment or the people with which he dealt. The term “indio” reveals this. Cabeza de Vaca recognizes the diversity of the indigenous people he encounters when he admits he cannot use the six languages he knows because there are more than a thousand indio languages.14 However, the term “indio” assists all the Spanish conquerors in forming an amalgamation of a multi-tribal world containing great physical diversity, linguistic differences, and a multitude of cultural frameworks. This is so because, as displayed in Cabeza de Vaca’s utterances, a cristiano/Hispanic functional and meaningful discourse rooted in an imperial history precedes the manner in which the conqueror defines and gives meaning to relationships in the Americas. Consequently, the Narváez Expeditionary members perceive themselves as the ones who will impose a cristiano/Hispanic imperial system on an indigenous American population, whose religious conversion they seek along with their labor, wealth, and other resources.

Like the other Spanish conquerors, even when he is attached to a military expedition, Cabeza de Vaca is a part of a minority in the sea of indigenous people. In the Americas, the Spanish conquerors’ minority status is what stands out. It plays a large and constant role in their insecurity. Cabeza de Vaca, like other Spanish conquerors, is confronted by the difficult task of placing himself in a position of dominance over a very large native population. This is always in the background, even when he observes disruptions of and deaths in the native community.

Entering the American mainland, he gambles he can conquer and dominate the numerous native people. Unfortunately for him, the Narváez expedition does not conquer. Instead, the 300-man expedition that heads inland loses contact with the ships and is unable to sustain itself (Cabeza de Vaca, sig. A8v). The expedition disintegrates and as a castaway, Cabeza de Vaca experiences two different types of native societies, one hunter/gatherer nomadic and the other sedentary, and two different situations, one in which he does not have military backing and one when he does have it. In both experiences, he always recognizes the Spaniards are a very vulnerable minority and that he needs to react to different native discourses.

For about eight years (1528-1536), Cabeza de Vaca interacts with natives, mostly from a position of weakness. He is in a subordinate, marginalized, and alienated condition, and always in danger of being absorbed into the indigenous community. In the fluidity of his castaway situation, he experiences cultural, linguistic, and religious/philosophical difficulties in understanding the land he travels and in communicating with the native people. The castaway Cabeza de Vaca journeys the land, acknowledging that it is filled with people: “es tierra muy poblada” (Cabeza de Vaca, sig. G5v). Again and again, Cabeza de Vaca notes the numbers of natives he runs into even in the harsher territories he travels. As he consistently encounters natives, he not only needs to interacts with them but also to give narrative meaning to these numerous people he labels “indios,” especially when he experiences several distressed indigenous communities. As he attempts to conquer them, if not physically at least rhetorically, his narrative language displays the Spanish conqueror engaging, accommodating, rejecting, and, as castaway, forestalling his absorption into a large indio population. He must respond, though, to the indigenous people and “make room for the other’s active responsive understanding”; such an interaction leads Cabeza de Vaca to recognize diverse relationship boundaries, forced rejoinders, and an alternate discussion concerning his and others’ identity (Bakhtin 1986, 71-72).

First Encounter

The first incident occurs in 1528 on the Isla de Malhado as follows. In La relación, Cabeza de Vaca makes clear that not even when the Spanish have coercive military power can they easily absorb the native people into the empire. Additionally, as castaway, Cabeza de Vaca is in no position to implement the Spanish imperial dominion and assimilation of natives himself. This is dramatically exhibited when Cabeza de Vaca pleads to the natives that they take the castaways into their community or the Spaniards will die, “rogué a los indios que nos llevassen a sus casas” (Cabeza de Vaca, sig. C6v ). Cabeza de Vaca’s request to the natives generates a rhetorical exchange that starkly shows the words “Dios” and “Vuestra Magestad” lose their assumed full imperial referential force, revealing their weakened interpretive power. First, in the indigenous sphere, there is no way to appeal to the authority of “Dios” and “Vuestra Magestad.” Second, Cabeza de Vaca’s communication is to present the castaways as “people” who are in need and hopes a response from the natives that acknowledges this.

The natives answer Cabeza de Vaca’s plea for shelter. They take in the shipwrecked Spaniards, and then many natives begin to die of a stomach ailment for which the natives blame the Spaniards (Cabeza de Vaca, sig. C8r). During this occurrence, the terms they and we have very serious meanings, for the Spaniards find themselves in a very dangerous situation without a legitimate voice in the community. The threat of killing the Spaniards can become a fact. Again the imperial terms “Dios” and “Vuestra Magestad” are not directly central to the situation. The natives clearly identify the Spanish as the “other,” ellos, and as such, the Spaniards have no claim to authority within the native community.

Cabeza de Vaca informs that “nosotros” (we) are accused of being the cause of the deaths by the natives. Cabeza de Vaca and his companions are accused, but they do not reply. In this instance, the power relations are dominated by the indio. The cultural discourse orientation of Cabeza de Vaca’s “Dios” and “Vuestra Magestad” are out of place in the context. This is most noticeable when he presents the native who holds him as making a speech in the defense of the castaways, “que no creyessen que nosotros éramos los que los matávamos.”15 Cabeza de Vaca does not raise his voice, reflecting his lack of standing and his vulnerability in that situation. Instead, one hears the words of the indio making a case for the castaway Spaniards with what sounds like a rational argument. The castaways have no tribal validity. Nevertheless, their presence and the crisis created by the deadly disease prod a reply to them within the native discourse context.

There is also Cabeza de Vaca’s response to the Spanish reader of his relación. Through the notion of virtue that arises, the imperial discourse is brought back into the narrative, in this case, as an appeal to the Spanish reader of the narrative, which points out that the castaways having nothing of physical worth remain cristianos and are still committed to converting and correcting the errors of the indios.

The defending native speaker invokes common sense and raises the ethical imperative of doing the right thing. Nevertheless, though articulated by an indigenous person, the attention to virtue in La relación echoes back to Cabeza de Vaca’s statement in the beginning of his narrative where virtue relates to his divine trial during which his distinguished services arises.16 The native who stands up for the Spaniards points out to his fellow community members that many of the Spanish castaways have also died without them being able to prevent it: “tantos de nosotros como ellos veían que avían muerto sin que les pudiéramos poner remedio.”17 If they were the cause, he says, then why did they kill their own? In the narrative, the term “indio” is temporarily re-identified at this point. A double focus appears in the narrative, in the sense that indio has more than one acknowledged discourse orientation: one is represented by the natives who want to kill the Spaniards and the other by the one who defends them.18

In his speech, the indio verifies within the indigenous cultural context who is “we” (nosotros)—the indigenous tribal members—and that “they” (ellos; the Spaniards) are the strangers, which clearly defines the castaways as not part of the tribe who yet still have a right to be recognized. The Spaniards are accorded, through an intermediary, space for their response. Two indigenous perspectives of the castaways are articulated with both anticipating possible responsive reactions relating to their discursive context. The native who defends Cabeza de Vaca and his companions ends his statement by telling his fellow community members that the best thing to do is to leave the castaways alone (Cabeza de Vaca, sig. C8r). And his argument saves the Spaniards.19

Cabeza de Vaca’s interpretation highlights the understood notion of virtue as a functioning universal basis for resolving problems practically. This in turn alludes to cristiano/Hispanic philosophical underpinnings. However, the indio discourse that saves them demonstrates the reality of an indigenous world. The native’s speech forces a re-contextualization of the label “indio,” making the word problematic in the Spanish imperial context, for not only does indio become active and multifaceted. The native’s tribal position and words determine the appeal and authority of his discourse, and his language demands an active response from his fellow tribal members. In this indigenous dialogic process, Cabeza de Vaca’s term “indio” is undermined because that word has no place in that tribal exchange. In fact, the Spanish imperial discourse disposition, which allows the conqueror to treat what seem disparate indigenous discourse actions and reactions as actually understood by his imperial framework, is undone. At this juncture in La relación, “indio” breaks away from Spanish conqueror’s perspective that assumes it contains the authoritative word on everything. Instead, the imperial discourse cannot define and control the natives through the use of the word “indio.

Second Encounter

In La relación, Cabeza de Vaca needs to demonstrate loyalty to the emperor while under the difficult circumstances of great physical deprivation and daily hardship. La relación contains the examples of Dorotheo Theodoro and Lope de Oviedo who willingly join indigenous communities, accepting a tribal cultural context, and in the process engendering a deep and crippling sense of abandonment of the Spanish imperial endeavor (Cabeza de Vaca, sigs. C2r, D4v). Cabeza de Vaca understands that if he is perceived by his fellow Spaniards as becoming an indio—in other words, not adhering to his cristano/Hispanic imperial culture—he will be rejected and this means the end of his viability in the imperial context. One of the more grave possible outcomes could have been Cabeza de Vaca being assimilated into the native social/cultural framework and ceasing to exist as a person of cristiano/Hispanic background. In such a state, he would no longer fit in the Spanish empire-building frame of reference, except in terms of disloyalty and betrayal. He would have been another Guerrero, who, according to Stephen Greenblatt, “collapsed into the other” (1991, 141). Consequently, he clearly states practical reasons for taking on several roles in the indigenous community. For instance, he is a trader in order to get food and better treatment and also to learn about routes to be used for escaping the non-cristiano indigenous domain.20 He is the pilgrim on a journey to the tierras cristianas (Cabeza de Vaca, sig. D3v; Christian lands).21 In addition, Cabeza de Vaca informs his reader he is the chosen one who will lead his companions out of catividad (Cabeza de Vaca, sigs. D5v, E5v.; captivity). All of this is done in order to carry out his duties to God and the Spanish crown. These reasons distract, in the first place, from the sub-discourse in the text that alludes to natives’ impact on allowing or not Cabeza de Vaca to take on such roles within their community.22 What is also not usually acknowledged, as the second episode demonstrates, is that the natives at times do make it clear they will not absorb the Spanish into their community.

The second Cabeza de Vaca encounter with suffering indios occurs also on Isla de Malhado and is one in which the Spaniards bear no responsibility for the indigenous social disruption and loss of life. The discussion, though, is about how Cabeza de Vaca with the aid of his imperial discourse interprets the situation. In this case, again the term “indio” stands out, which pre-ordains a social/cultural difference that denies the indigenous population complete acceptance as cristiano/Hispanics. For Cabeza de Vaca, the indio cultural construct means turning the natives into vassals, which fulfills his duty and service and establishes relationship boundaries with the conquered. In this second encounter, though, the label “indio” raises questions about legitimate actions and obligations toward the natives. Although his words carry a Spanish imperial history, it is not easily used in this situation. For as Cabeza de Vaca attempts through his discourse to give meaning to a dreadful indigenous situation, his words respond in anticipation to indigenous statements about whether or not his assumptions concerning them are correct.

The incident under discussion occurs during what Cabeza de Vaca describes as a very hard season (Cabeza de Vaca, sig. D1r). Cabeza de Vaca is a castaway who is dependent for sustenance on the natives holding him. This is either because he does know how to get the food or is too weak to engage in such activity. However, both natives and Spaniards suffer from the severe weather and from hunger. The result is that natives begin to die.

In the midst of a very difficult period, Cabeza de Vaca’s cristiano/Hispanic lenses are tasked to clarify indigenous relationships with him and his to them, especially in the midst of indigenous loss of life. Cabeza de Vaca points to the following custom of theirs. When a son or brother dies the immediate family members do not seek food for three months, which means that relatives, neighbors, or friends provide them with food. In bad weather conditions, the non-mourning native members of the community are hard pressed to find food for themselves let alone for the mourners. During this difficult period, the mourners are not receiving sustenance and are not breaking the ritual observance in order to get food, which, consequently, result in them getting weak and sick. The rest of the native group cannot feed them, and so the weakened mourners cannot fight off the elements and illnesses. This leads to mounting deaths. However, Cabeza de Vaca points out that the natives do not have to adhere to the patriarchal custom as he informs that the indios who hold him decide to leave the island, taking him along, and head to the tierra firme (mainland) where they can find sources of food (Cabeza de Vaca, sig. D1r, D1v).

There are, at least, two cultural conversations being conducted in this incident in La relación. One exchange is between Cabeza de Vaca and his cristiano/Hispanic audience, during which he anticipates their questions. The other exchange is between Cabeza de Vaca and the indios. In this first cultural exchange, he addresses the reader of his text, attempting to reconstruct for them an unknown native people, who are identified as gente de ellos (“others”), and their relationships (Cabeza de Vaca, sig. D1r). As he gives information, his discourse attempts to codify the indio discourse, which is recognized as a different form of representation that requires clarification within the cristiano/Hispanic context.

A major Spanish concern that is in the background and informs his reactions entails the fears that the Spanish conqueror can be absorbed into an indigenous culture or, at least, have his cristiano/Hispanic cultural distinctiveness eroded in time. In his text, he observes, interprets, and responds to the indigenous cultural actions by contrasting himself (as cristiano/Hispanic) with the indio. The natives are ellos, the other, and he is the español who serves Dios and Vuestra Magestad. He points to their custom and his powerlessness at that moment because he is held by the natives. Even though Cabeza de Vaca is without a Spanish army and vulnerable as a castaway, he rhetorically informs the reader he is continuing the imperial mission, his imperial discourse implying that eventually the indios will be subdued and made useful in the Spanish imperial framework. However, in that harsh weather situation he, too, is suffering along with all the natives from hunger and bad weather (Cabeza de Vaca, sig. D1r).

The second cultural exchange between Cabeza de Vaca and the indios presents a complex mix of different discourses over which Cabeza de Vaca has no say. The natives know stories about these strange castaways, and one associates them with cannibalism and another with an unfortunate ailment that strikes natives, which makes all the Spaniards “them” (Cabeza de Vaca, sigs. C7v, C8rindio,” specifically that they cannot be a part of the legitimate native community.

Within the cultural social network of the indigenous community, the native deaths and disrupted community generate levels of meaning for all involved that cross back and forth between discourses that define who “we” and “they” are. For instance, Cabeza de Vaca’s use of the word “estuvimos” (we were) seems to merge the Spanish castaways and the natives in the text, making the “us” unclear in terms of group distinctions and implications of status (Cabeza de Vaca, sig. D1r). The Spanish imperial discourse frame thereby loosens and leads to some ambiguities.

During this life-threatening situation, indio custom dominates and carries meaning, and there is much narrative silence from Cabeza de Vaca. As noted, Cabeza de Vaca cannot assert control and is in no condition to subjugate the natives. After all, he acknowledges that he is under the control of the tribal people he is with at that moment with the phrase “los indios que a mí me tenían” (the natives who held me). He comes across as a marginal and silent observer in the indigenous debate about what to do about the survival of the group. The imperial weight of words like “Dios” and “Vuestra Magestad” is not felt because such terms are not part of the tribal dialogue. The facts are that the indios hold authority over him and that he depends on them for survival. On the surface, it appears the natives do not communicate with him at all except when he is informed by his group of natives they are leaving and he departs with them.

Despite all this, Cabeza de Vaca remains a constituent part of the situation. The natives communicate with him, for he imparts to the reader the indigenous patriarchal custom that he points to as contributing to the tribe’s difficult situation. He interacts with the natives, knowing some of the ones who die. He goes where the natives go and experiences their areitos y fiestas (ritual songs and dances), and eventually they demand he take the role of físico (Cabeza de Vaca, sig. D1v; physician). Despite the fact that the conversation is dominated by the natives, one discerns a complex multi-faceted system of relationships that make it impossible to deny the existence of others, including that of the castaways.

Cabeza de Vaca is involved in a complex dialogue involving anticipated responses with two audiences: the native one and the projected cristiano/Hispanic one. However, in cultural/political terms, his imperial interpretive categories do not function well. In actuality, crucial Spanish imperial terms, such as “Dios” and “Vuestra Magestad,” remain outside the native discussion. In practical terms in this situation, Cabeza de Vaca’s relationship to the indigenous members of the group is one of being a subordinate, which is highlighted by his lack of voice in the tribal community. The natives make it clear they will not absorb Cabeza de Vaca as a member of their community. His physical dependence on the adversely affected natives and his outcast status leave him struggling to make things fit in the existing imperial frame. This situation also exhibits indigenous independence.23 Although Cabeza de Vaca attempts to incorporate the indio’s acts and perspective into his imperial discourse, the result is an incomplete discourse between him and the natives. This is one of many impaired exchanges in the narrative that discloses limited and/or distorted understandings between Cabeza de Vaca and the natives.

Third Encounter

After 1534, Cabeza de Vaca and his companions commend themselves to God, they escape from the natives who are holding them and head out in search of tierra cristiana.24 All the castaways have already taken on the role of físico (physician). It is a role the native discourse constructs, which demands tribally-defined responsibilities and accords rights within the indigenous community. In a third incident with suffering native people, tribal people who have been in contact with Cabeza de Vaca deliver to him natives who have been ravaged and are marked by a disease that leaves the majority of the survivors partially (in one eye) or completely blind (Cabeza de Vaca, sig. F7r). The disease-ravaged indigenous people horrify Cabeza de Vaca and raise questions about what caused the disease and what to do, for it is an illness that Cabeza de Vaca and the healthy natives do not recognize. Before the afflicted wretched people, the tribal people and Cabeza de Vaca lack words that will transform the painful sight into an explainable event within their separate discourse contexts.

The possibility arises that this is an imported disease like smallpox that is preceding the Europeans’ physical arrival and devastating the indigenous population. Smallpox, for instance, is spreading across indigenous communities in a deadly manner, and it is known that in the north of New Spain, the conqueror Guzmán is introducing diseases into the Culiacán region (Voight 2009, 75). In addition, during the late 1520s and early 1530s, Spanish slaving expeditions and the spread of non-indigenous diseases for which the natives did not have immunity devastate large areas to the north such as the Pánuco and San Miguel de Culiacán regions (Reff 1996, 121-122).

In the narrative, Cabeza de Vaca conveys the sadness of the encounter but communicates little about what occurs during his encounter with these physically disfigured and suffering natives. In fact, emphasizing his need to continue on his way out of the non-cristiano world, he quickly shifts the narrative to talk about the mountains that become visible, writing, “[a]quí empeçamos a ver sierras” (Cabeza de Vaca, sig. F7r). These natives stand before Cabeza de Vaca, and he admits to being aghast. In this instance Cabeza de Vaca’s discourse representations from “privileged literary models such as the Bible and hagiography” do not arise in his attempt to articulate the situation.25 Miraculous cures or cures of any kind are not considered.26 Cabeza de Vaca does not mention trying to assist the disease-stricken natives as he has done for some others before this. The restriction of Cabeza de Vaca’s utterances implies that he cannot assist the ravaged natives as físico (physician), as Spanish conqueror, or as missionary.

The limiting of his words is reinforced by a pillager/victim pattern that is at play when a tribal group, led by principales (important native leaders), escorts the castaways to another indigenous community.27 Once there, they take the wealth of those natives to whom they transfer Cabeza de Vaca and his companions.28 Then the castaways are conducted by the pillaged group of natives to the next indigenous community, where they steal from that community in order to make up for their lost (Cabeza de Vaca, sig. G3r). Adorno observes that the looting natives’ rhetorical construct of the castaways involves skillful manipulation of the dread associated with them and succeeds in the purpose of acquiring possession of the other’s property (178-79).

As part of the pattern, Cabeza de Vaca notes that he and his companions are under the control of the indios who rob and then the former victimized ones who become plunderers (Cabeza de Vaca, sigs. F6v, F7r, F7v).29 The tribal group that steals always demands that the victimized natives hand over their wealth or the menacing Spaniards, who they claim have the power to destroy or save, will be offended.30 The different indigenous groups, which follow the pillager/victim pattern, use their discourse to label the castaways as not simply healers but as potentially harmful and damaging people. Cabeza de Vaca does not mention if the healthy tribal people who present the blind or almost blind people to him have or have not appropriated the diseased weakened natives’ property. His comments are limited.

The ideological arena for social interaction that governs how a conversation is to proceed is left in the air by Cabeza de Vaca. His narrative silences leave an unclear and unfinished conversation, in addition to making his discourse ineffective in transmitting, formulating, and orienting the native incident into a Spanish empire-building narrative process. The incident reveals Cabeza de Vaca is lacking cristiano/Hispanic cues about how to understand the unexpected meeting, for blessings and Christian appeals cannot unfold the situation, and the saving element of an imperial addressee (the emperor), who understands and validates the situation, is weakened. He is left with is his need to use the native discourse of him as a threat to the indigenous communities as a way to find a trail and guides to convey him to the tierra cristiana.

In the incident, a fragmentation of discourses is palpable. An appalled Cabeza de Vaca focuses on the horror of the situation and the result is a prevailing awkward silence that interferes with an exchange with others. Cabeza de Vaca fails to construct a response. The uncertainty in Cabeza de Vaca’s imperial rhetoric during this circumstance displays a dispersed authority and the limits of his empire-building language. In the account, there is for Cabeza de Vaca no formal imperial structure. There is a lack of words, which are needed for the purpose of transforming the painful sight into an explainable event through his discourse. The imperial discourse that imparts authority and meaning does not construct an adequate setting for his cristiano/Hispanic audience. Consequently, the articulation of the dreadful situation is a hazardous undertaking for Cabeza de Vaca because things may not be understood or can be misunderstood, or, worse, no one will listen, leading to no response at all. In addition, the Spanish imperial interpretation is set against indigenous ones, pressing with a juxtaposition of various points of view that are there but not given clear and significant voices. What comes across is Cabeza de Vaca lacking a common language, common cultural touchstones, and accepted common knowledge, making it difficult for him to orchestrate the voices involved in this dismaying event.

Fourth Encounter

This leads to the fourth incident with its complex discourse situation. At one level, Cabeza de Vaca’s discourse makes him a físico who transforms cultural symbols to fit the imperial endeavor. However, at a second level, his attempt to incorporate others’ utterances into the discourse of the Spanish imperial endeavor is not effective. Although his statements do bring information and knowledge that can be useful to the conqueror, his account reveals indigenous people’s independent existence and their power to give meaning to the castaways: strangers who can disrupt and kill.

Although Cabeza de Vaca labels himself and his companions as físico, the indigenous people have other impressions about them, such as being cannibals and bringers of disease. First, as noted earlier, Cabeza de Vaca and his companions are traveling the region where tales of them have preceded them or natives who accompany them transmit the stories. This means that they are associated not only with healings but with cannibalistic acts and episodes of disease. Second, also noted before, natives led by principales (important native leaders) promote the narrative that the castaways are dangerous to the tribal communities, for they speak of the strangers as beings who can disrupt and kill.

The fourth event involves natives falling ill and some dying. This deadly incident occurs when Cabeza de Vaca and his companions ask the group of natives who are with them to guide them to the west (Cabeza de Vaca, sig. G3r). The guiding natives come up with excuses for not taking them in that direction, which angers the castaways. Afterwards many natives become ill, and eight die. The natives blame the Spanish for those deaths but also fear them because they see the castaways as the cause of their state of extreme distress, which is reflected when they plead with Cabeza de Vaca and his companions to stop their angry and to cease desiring to kill more of them (Cabeza de Vaca, sig. G4r). This gives the castaways an opportunity to take advantage of the natives’ fear as a means of getting them to lead them to tierras cristianas. Nevertheless, the castaways dread that the terrified indios will all die or abandon them, for they desperately need the assistance of the indigenous people.

Cabeza de Vaca once more witnesses the disruption of a native community produced by an illness that suddenly strikes and that Cabeza de Vaca and the indigenous people do not recognize but to which both have to accord meaning. In the context of this dramatic event, when survival is at stake for Cabeza de Vaca and, it seems, also for the natives, the discourse interactions between the different groups reveal various organizing narrative categories. For the natives, the issue is how to coexist with these very different people who are associated with painful and tragic consequences for those who make contact and cohabit with them. For Cabeza de Vaca, his empire-building discourse presents the físico role as a means to perform and lay the ground for the natives’ conversion to Christianity and acceptance of Spanish governance, opening the way for imperial expansion and transformation.

In this incident, the native groups respond to Cabeza de Vaca, but their discourse transformation of him is based on their knowledge of his short known history, his much unknown one, and their demand that he take on a useful tribal role. It is important to remember that there are two verbalized native perceptions about the castaways, which are based on the pillager/victim pattern that makes it difficult for Cabeza de Vaca to codify the event through his empire-building discourse. This native fashioning of the castaways establishes clear-cut boundaries and relationship within the indigenous context for all involved that determine their references to preceding utterances and responsive options. Rhetorical assimilation and the supplanting of the natives’ views appear not to be possible here for the castaways. In this instance, he does not even give the santiguar (blessing) as a minimal sign for communicating his commitment to his imperial discourse (Cabeza de Vaca, sigs. G4r, G4v).

The shocking swiftness of the illness that kills tribal people frightens both natives and castaways, who proceed to be involved in an unfolding mutual process of interpretation. Cabeza de Vaca’s demand to the natives for guides to take him west under the deadly situation reinforces views that two oppositional groups exist. Nevertheless, although Cabeza de Vaca gets the indios to guide him after the deadly illness experience, he needs to respond to the natives, whose perspective—even if incomplete and/or not clear—expresses and reproduces itself alongside that of Cabeza de Vaca’s discourse. He embraces the tale that makes the castaways dangerous beings in order to proceed westward, acknowledging this indigenous discourse construct whose rhetoric carries weight. At the same time, he struggles to justify his act within the Spanish imperial enterprise, raising a narrative doubt concerning whose perception is valid.

In the fourth incident, the interaction between different groups results in conflicting conversations among the natives and the Spanish castaways. As Cabeza de Vaca articulates his situation, he develops contextual ambiguities, as exemplified by the term físico, which is “shot through” with both Spanish and indigenous cultural intentions and meanings (Bakhtin 1980, 293). In the process of learning about each other, the castaways and indigenous people understand cultural differences. There is the fearful discourse construction of the físico used by principales who manage and develop the identity of the Spanish castaways in order to gain the goods of others. One reaction of the assaulted people to the pillaging natives’ articulation of the threatening nature of the castaways is to ritually attempt to contain the físicos. This is enacted by physically separating the strangers from the community. On the other hand, Cabeza de Vaca and his companions at times appeal to the dark perception communicated by the tribal people. All of them do grasp that the discourse common ground is that dictated by the indigenous people.

The natives fear a complete connection with the castaways, for in their discourse they are equated with misfortune and suffering. Cabeza de Vaca requires guides in order to reconnect with cristianos, an act which will confirm his loyalty to God and the Spanish crown by avoiding assimilation into the indigenous community.

Fifth Encounter

When the castaway Cabeza de Vaca reconnects with Spaniards in 1536, he sees the results of the destruction of indigenous communities by Spanish slave raiders. The indios are either being killed by the españoles, or they are fleeing to escape being enslaved and/or are living in precarious situations (Cabeza de Vaca, sigs. H1v, H2r). This fifth encounter from Cabeza de Vaca’s narrative clearly shows the disastrous effects of Spanish warfare on the indigenous communities which suffer population losses and the ravaging of social and economic relationships.

The status of Cabeza de Vaca definitely changes at this point, for he re-acquires military support. He confirms that the Spanish conquerors constitute a minority of the population in the region, and their military attempts to conquer the mass of native people bring about the problems of holding and governing them. In addition, Cabeza de Vaca criticizes the Spanish slave raiders, who are causing the devastation for the sake of short term gain. He points out that their personal profits from their enslavement incursions result in an inefficient manner of conquest which does not achieve the incorporation and religious conversion of the natives into the empire, for the raids inflict deaths on the natives and cause them to abandon their settlements (Cabeza de Vaca, sigs. H3v, H4r). Therefore, he proposes a different manner of dealing with the indios. In order to end the social turmoil that the Spanish conquerors have initiated, they must engage the natives in a less destructive process, one that pacifies them.

In this episode, two different groups of cristianos are identified, which reflect the split in the Spanish “we” concerning who is a true cristiano. Cabeza de Vaca’s discourse also becomes problematic as it functions within the Spanish imperial codes that dictate the possible options required in fulfilling the enterprise for both españoles and indios. For instance, the conqueror’s language arises from a cristiano/Hispanic cultural and ideological frame, which evokes layers of imperial categories and experiences, some of which, for instance, justify the Spanish slave raiders’ use of violence against the indios by classifying them as barbarians, and war against them is promoted as needed to rectify and punish their idolatry and facilitate their conversion to Catholicism (Cabeza de Vaca, sig. A1v). Cabeza de Vaca’s discourse of pacification, which commits him to vanquishing and controlling the natives in a non-violent manner, rejects that conquering approach, for he sees the killing, enslavement, and destabilization of the indigenous community by the Spanish forces in the region as contrary to the imperial project.

Echoing back to the first incident on the Isla de Malhado during which an indio defends him and tells his tribal members to leave the castaways alone, Cabeza de Vaca makes the point that the “cristianos” have to leave the indios alone, for they are undermining justice, hurting the innocent, and hindering their incorporation into the empire. However, this restriction pertains to “[la] culpa de los cristianos” (Cabeza de Vaca, sig. H4v; the Christians who are guilty of the destruction). Cabeza de Vaca, though, can intrude on the tribal people because he is bringing the empire and religion through the natives’ free will. For Cabeza de Vaca, his approach involves the indios voluntarily coming under His Imperial Majesty: “atraídos a ser christianos y a obediençia de la Imperial Magestad” (Cabeza de Vaca, sig. H1v; They are drawn to be Christians and to obey Your Imperial Majesty). As in the opening of La relación, he acknowledges the basis of his authority and action, “Sacra, Cesárea, Católica Magestad,” (Sacred, Imperial, Catholic, Majesty) who validates the legitimacy of his non-violent discourse-sanctioned endeavor. Consequently, he seeks to demonstrate he can accomplish in a better fashion than other conquerors the religious mission and imperial duty of converting and turning the natives into vassals.31

In practice, Cabeza de Vaca agrees to assist Melchior Díaz in pacifying the assaulted indios, presenting his aid to him as contributing a great service to “Dios nuestro Señor y Vuestra Magestad” (Cabeza de Vaca, sig. H5r; God our Lord and Your Majesty). However, the tribal people’s discourse orientation divulges a different perspective. They are under immense pressure and in serious trouble. The Spanish acts of war and the resulting disease and hunger cause losses that affect the natives’ personal and social relationships, tax their support networks, and undermine their political associations. While some natives become enemigos (enemies) of the invaders, fighting them and continuing to completely reject the Spanish, others seek accommodations with the invaders (Cabeza de Vaca, sig. H7v).

Melchior Díaz and Cabeza de Vaca negotiate with the natives who wish an arrangement with the invaders. They push to formalize imperial relationship boundaries through a discourse that claims truth, right, and the duty to empire building. Díaz and Cabeza de Vaca seek jurisdiction over the natives. The tribal people seek an agreement that will safeguard them from cristiano attacks. Díaz and Cabeza de Vaca enter into a conversation with the natives and declare that the indigenous people have to comply with what is best in the service of “Dios nuestro Señor y de Su Magestad” (Cabeza de Vaca, sig. H6v). However, the Spanish lack of numbers forces them to allow indigenous governance of their communities, which leads to the adaptation of dual institutions: the república de indios (republic of Indians) and the república de españoles (republic of Spaniards).32 This type of governing adaptation is an attempt to retain the existing indio order so the Spaniards can govern through it. Díaz and Cabeza de Vaca present this system at the negotiations, in which it is clear that the república de españoles is considered supreme, as the Spanish-imposed cultural and social relationships exclude the indio from the cristiano/Hispanic “we.”

For Cabeza de Vaca, the Spanish assault that is the cause of the tragic indio situation is not conducive to their pacification. He makes it known to his reader that his cristiano “we” is the suitable group to liberate the natives and thus provide a great service for “Dios nuestro Señor y a Vuestra Magestad” (Cabeza de Vaca, sigs. A6r, H4v, H5r). Consequently, he seeks to assure the natives they are now safe from the other “cristianos.” However, he and Díaz demand they accept their requirements for the offered peace. Consequently, Díaz pronounces that the tribal people are obligated to accept and use the Spanish imperial language, which binds them to the conqueror’s representation of the situation. The natives, for instance, must in all things conform to the required practices of the cristianos/Hispanics as did the baptized Moors. In the name of the emperor, they take possession of land and people with the intent to restore the indigenous communities under Spanish control, which requires the indios to display subservience to their conquerors.33 Díaz and Cabeza de Vaca, cristiano promoters of pacification, order the natives in the name of God and Your Majesty to settle and till the land: “mandássemos de parte de Dios y de Vuestra Magestad que vineissen y poblassen en lo lano y labrassen la tierra” (Cabeza de Vaca, sig. H5r). They now portray themselves as the ones who bestow legitimacy based on an imperial discourse that cues their ideological expectations and interpretations, erasing the native voice.

There does come a moment when the difference between Cabeza de Vaca’s true and non-true cristiano appears to lose its distinction. Melchior Díaz and Cabeza de Vaca demand that the natives, as Spanish vassals, “creyessen en Dios y lo sirviessen” (comply by converting to Catholicism) or else “los christianos les tratarían muy mal y se los llevarían por esclavos a otras tierras” (Cabeza de Vaca, sigs. H5v, H6v, H6r; they will be severely punished and taken away as slaves). Their imperial discourse raises the threat of violence against the tribal people. Their jurisdiction is being imposed by the use of intimidation to force compliance. The natives are required to demonstrate submission by building a house with a cross over the entrance for Dios, feeding and sheltering the cristiano conquerors, and in addition the sons of the principales are required to be baptized (Cabeza de Vaca, sig. H5v, H6r). The continued possible use of military violence against the indios remains, but what Cabeza de Vaca’s discourse emphasizes is the merit that he is not harming innocents. The land is resettled, and the indios are friendly, for they are now “assegurados” (secure) and serve the Spaniards, who he mentions are “Espantados de tal novedad” (Cabeza de Vaca, sig. H7r; amazed at the result). Again, though, the distinction between true and non-true cristiano becomes unclear because among the conquerors the indigenous people have to serve are the same ones who were causing them great harm and Díaz and Cabeza de Vaca uphold the use of violence against them.

Díaz and Cabeza de Vaca’s language strikes at the indigenous discourse spoken during the negotiations, for they aim to change their status to subordinates.34 Nevertheless, there is no assurance for Cabeza de Vaca that his imperial rhetoric, mirrored in terms such as “Dios” and “Vuestra Magestad,” can overcome the indigenous cultural discourse. In the process of imposing the Spanish imperial authoritative perspective on the natives, Díaz and Cabeza de Vaca recognize and reply to the victimized natives’ speech. The tribal people make their voice heard, demanding that the Spanish attacks stop and that their community and land rights be recognized. Their voice has not been effaced, and the españoles have to acknowledge it, for they do not have the numbers to truly impose their rule.

Both parties promote their interests, but what hinders adequate understanding between the two groups is that the Spaniards are intent on conquest. There is also the complication that españoles and natives each draw on different bases of authority and merits, producing between them an uneven conversation. The end of the negotiations does create a respite for both parties, but it is one that leaves a precarious set of relationships between Spanish conquerors and native people. For the Spanish, conversion and civilizing duties still justify interference in the affairs of the tribal communities. As for the indigenous people, the Spanish “Dios” and “Vuestra Magestad” imply that they will experience recurrent cristiano/Hispanic coercion, which will lead to continued indigenous tragedies such as native social dislocation, negative economic shifts, forced native labor requirements, and a decline in the population.

Discursively, in Cabeza de Vaca’s imperial restructuring of relationships, the suffering of the natives is not lost, though its meaning is changed to emphasize a conversion and vassalship process. His discourse shift cannot hide the complex and contending perspectives being raised in truncated forms in the narrative. The natives’ counter-discourse asks who the Spaniards are and what is their authority, their utterances indicating the existence of a non-cristiano/Hispanic formal structure that is etched into the episode. This brings forth the unstated but understood native questions about why do “we” suffer and why do so many of “us” die. Cabeza de Vaca recognizes in his account the indigenous people’s voice through their questions and the answers he gives. However, his dominant language presupposes the single closed context of the Spanish enterprise, and this limits his interpretation of and response to the indios’ discourse to what is required in fulfilling the imperial task. His account does retain traces, though, of the other’s speech, enough to grasp portions of indigenous people’s perspectives and their regeneration in the midst of suffering.


Bauer’s work gives insight into Cabeza de Vaca’s promotion of the crown’s authority in the ideological discourse clashes between Spaniards who represent “two distinct ideas of empire” (56). This, in turn, illuminates a complex español/indio struggle over identity constructs with rejoinders being critical in delineating this conversation. Even though Cabeza de Vaca himself attempts to develop with the natives an exchange that “does not cancel a project of colonial character,” the indigenous voices reverberate with their anticipated replies which do not recognize his imperial endeavor (Pastor, 142). His discourse supports the establishment of a Spanish conquering hierarchy that subordinates interpretation to imperial goals, giving the conqueror discursive control over how to perceive land and people. Nevertheless, in actuality, Cabeza de Vaca is responding to indio discourses because as a castaway, and even later when he again has military power, his survival is not possible without native assistance.

Starting in 1492, significant changes occur to the indigenous population of the Americas through a fragmented and turbulent Spanish conquering onslaught, whose discourse silences or marginalizes all who are defined as “other” (Pastor 122, 157). One consequence of this is an evolving demographic change that gives a new shape to both the histories of the Spaniards and the indigenous people of the Americas. Cabeza de Vaca’s discourse communicates the centrality of the Spanish imperial perspective in La relación in connection to the developing demographic shifts and alterations; however, the episodes’ understanding and coherence shift and drift when the indigenous people’s discourse is admitted into the conversation.

Even as Cabeza de Vaca attempts to incorporate the indigenous people into his imperial context, he is answering their utterances. His account, in fact, reveals the resilience of natives who are experiencing very deadly situations. Consequently, Cabeza de Vaca’s narrative encounters with distressed indigenous communities highlight an inconsistently forced re-structuring of native identity by his imperial cultural discourse, which contains contradictions and is disrupted by the voices of the natives.35

Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, in his 1542 La relación, employs the mentioned imperially authorizing discourse to interpret the dismal encounters with distressed indigenous communities. However, at times, his application of the Spanish imperial interpretation on his encounters with suffering natives does not function adequately, but instead reveals dissonant and ambiguous patterns. The discourse terms that emphasize and propel empire building obfuscate the indigenous trauma in the encounters whether caused or not by the Spanish, for the issue of imperial authority makes it difficult to hear the native voice. In addition, discordances and disjunctions arise in the Spanish and indigenous exchanges, not allowing a fully developed conversation between the Spanish themselves and the Spanish and indigenous people about the dismal indigenous incidents Cabeza de Vaca reports. This type of Spanish imperial discourse does solidify a conqueror’s identity in the midst of a numerous native people and their suffering. However, words such as Dios, Vuestra Magestad, and indio force connections between two worlds which are incommensurable, and in such a discursive context, the cultural conflicts of interests between the Spanish and the natives are irreconcilable. Cabeza de Vaca needs to interpret the encounters with distressed natives, but the translation is flawed, for it leaves Cabeza de Vaca struggling to make sense of anguished indigenous communities who suffer loss of life.

My rejoinder analysis focus on Cabeza de Vaca’s attempted ideological interpretation of the five encounters with distressed indigenous communities accounts for an important dimension of the Spanish/indigenous interaction, exposing in La relación the incomplete imprint of the dismembered but retained indigenous voice. The deciphering of the Spanish conquering process in La relación is crucial for indigenous people and Mexican Americans because this narrative documents part of the traumatic invasion of the Americas that alters native people’s identity and sets the foundations for those later categorized as the Mexican American ethnic group.36 This study seeks to promote a scholarly conversation about cultural exchanges, adaptations, and changes that over time affect indigenous and Mexican American people and their significance. By recognizing the rejoinders in Cabeza de Vaca’s encounters, the opportunity emerges to detect indigenous traces partially erased by the official conquest conversation, making one conscious of a native speech and leading to an understanding of the discursive conflict involved in the transformation of the Americas. The battle over rhetorical perspectives persists. Consequently, indigenous people continue to liberate themselves from the legacy of European subjugation, represented here by the Spaniards, while Mexican Americans persevere in understanding their identity as a people whose origins lie in that violent conquest. The awareness of the discourse exchange during the conquest period presents to the silenced and marginalized people the possibility to transcend the imperial limits set then.


1. The Cabeza de Vaca translations are my own, and for the Spanish quotations, I follow the original orthography. Throughout the essay, translations of Spanish terms are represented parenthetically within the document upon the first introduction of that term. On occasion, I will also provide in the notes Spanish originals for transliterations within the text the essay.

2. See, for instance, Bauer (2003, 56, 62- 63, 75).

3. In La relación, there arises a struggle that pits decentralization tendencies against centralization of authority in the person of the emperor. In general, Spanish conquerors press for traditional feudal prerogatives while the Spanish imperial administration seeks to strengthen the emperor’s powers (Bauer 2003, 51, 52). Bakhtin observes that “the utterance is constructed while taking into account possible responsive reactions [of others]” (Bakhtin 1986, 94).

4. Roughly speaking this region today encompasses Northern Mexico and the Southwest United States. For an insightful discussion on how historiography has approached the region see Alfredo Jiménez Núñez (2001).

5. The rejoinder has its beginning in the preceded “utterances of others, and its end is followed by the responsive utterances of others” (Bakhtin 1986, 71).

6. There is a body of scholarship that deals with the demographic impact of the Spanish conquest. Livi Bacci (2008), a demographic scholar, for instance, concludes that Spanish economic and social policies along with imported diseases contribute to the drastic indigenous community trauma and population decline.

7. La reconquista (718-1492) refers to the struggle between Christian forces and Moorish forces for the Iberian Peninsula that is crucial in the development of the Castilian ideological basis for what becomes the Spanish Empire. See Taboada (2004, 43).

8. See Livi Bacci (2008, 5-6).

9. See Seed (1993, 635, 639).

10.con poder y mando de Vuestra Magestad para conquistar y governar las provincias” (Cabeza de Vaca, sig. A3r).

11. Although there is much discussion still about where exactly Cabeza de Vaca and his companions were shipwrecked at this time, many scholars, including Adorno and Pautz, point to the area of present day Texas (Adorno and Pautz 1999, vol. 2, 156, 163).

12. Cabeza de Vaca seeks the appointment to be in charge of the Florida expedition, but it is granted to Hernando de Soto (Adorno and Pautz, Vol 1, 379,-380).

13. “As Roberto González Echevarría argues in ‘The Law of the Letter,’ sixteenth–century novelists and New World chroniclers alike appropriated the notarial rhetoric employed in such documents [relaciones de servicios and información] in an effort to legitimize ‘the voice which narrates the story’” (Voight 2009, 75).

14. According to the text, “más de mil diferencias” (Cabeza de Vaca, sig. G7v).

15. The native said that his fellow tribal members should not believe that we (the Spaniards) were the ones who were killing them (Cabeza de Vaca, sig. C8r).

16.sino por sola voluntad y juicio de Dios, donde nasce que uno salga con más señalados servicios que pensó” (Cabeza de Vaca, sig. A1v ; however, by God’s will and judgment that it happens that a person comes away with more distinguished services than expected). Agnew remarks that the “misteriosa profecía” of the mora de Hornachos, which appears toward the end of La Relación, is conveyed by one of the women of the expedition and predicts that through the survivors of the ordeal God would perform great miracles. Agnew comments that this “reafirma lo que era implícito en el resto de la narración, es decir, que Alvar Núñez había participado en un viaje supuestamente bendecido por la Providencia” (2003, 234; reaffirms what is implicit in the rest of the narrative, that is that Álvar Núñez has participated in a supposedly Providencially blessed journey).

17. Cabeza de Vaca informs one that the native said the following: As they saw, many of us as well as them had died without us being able to prevent it (Cabeza de Vaca, sig. C8r).

18. Voloshinov observes that “[s]peech becomes a battlefield for opposing intentions” (1973, 198).

19. Bakhtin notes that through the “other” one can see and know what one does not see and does not know. One becomes aware of a different perspective (Bakhtin 1990, 87).

20.[Y]o buscava por dónde me avía de ir adelante” ( Cabeza de Vaca, sigs. D4r, D3r, D3v).

21. Michael Agnew points out two types of pilgrimage that are in Cabeza de Vaca’s account: the march to freedom and the journey of religious devotion (222).

22. Mariah Wade states that “Cabeza de Vaca, a male, is compelled to perform native women’s chores,” such as those involving the trader role (1999, 333).

23. This indigenous independence ironically will be used later in the criollo independence discourse. See Earle (2001).

24.nos encomedamos a Dios nuestro Señor y nos fuimos huyendo” (Cabeza de Vaca, sig. E3r).

25. Daniel Reff comments that Cabeza de Vaca represents “his New World experiences using privileged literary models such as the Bible and hagiography” (117). One hagiographical model, for instance, is Saint Paul’s life. Kun Jong Lee argues that Cabeza de Vaca “reconstructs his experience in parallel with the major moments of Paul’s life thereby represents himself as the Spanish Paul among American Gentiles” (242).

26. There are at least two other occasions when Cabeza de Vaca does not attempt cures. One is when he is with the Mariames from whom he eventually flees from and when he is with the Arbadaos where life is very difficult for all and finds that they are very ill and emaciated and swollen (muy enfermos y flacos e hinchados). See Cabeza de Vaca, sigs. D7v, D8r, E8r.

27. The principales show successful leadership through their forceful theft of others’ goods. From the victimized native group other principales rise and take up the looting group’s discourse and seek the success that comes by providing for the tribal group.

28. For clarification purposes, let me point out the following about the two verbalized native perceptions. One is expressed by the indios who get assaulted by others when the castaways reach them. The other perception is articulated by the native manipulators of the Spaniards’ identity, whose goal is to persuade others to give up their property. This gets complex dialogically because the victims then become looters and use the language that sanctions the plunder. From the view of the natives who get raided, the castaways are the cause of community distress and possibly the deaths of tribal members. Consequently, they are interpreted as outsiders and as dangerous. The second group, the looting natives, are led by principales, who convey the Spanish “healers” to tribal communities from whom they demand that they hand over their wealth. If they do not, they threaten that the dangerous strangers will disrupt and kill.

29. Cabeza de Vaca admits he does not have the authority to stop the pillaging group of natives who arrive with him and are directed by the principales from taking the property of the other natives. He states, “más no éramos parte para remediallo” (we had no power to remedy it). He also admits he turns what is offered to him to the plundering natives.

30. Cabeza de Vaca informs that the plundering natives said, “[D]ezían que éramos hijos del sol y que teníamos poder para sanar los enfermos y para matarlos” (Cabeza de Vaca, sigs. F6v, F8r.; “They said we were children of the sun and had the power to heal the sick and to kill them).

31. A contrasting example is Columbus, who sets the pattern of the conquest, for he accepts violent subjugation (e.g., enslavement) of the natives he encounters in what becomes known as las Indias. For instance, he expresses this as a given when he speaks about gold and about Christian security and certain domination of the indios along with the great hope of glory and the spread of Christianity (Columbus 1994, 153).

32. For more on the establishment of these dual institutions, see Castro (2007, 55).

33. Guillermo Serés comments on la tercera redacción (C 1532) del Orlando furioso by Ariosto, pointing out the Providential view of Charles V as the one pastor and the one monarch who will bring peace and justice (2011, 331- 332).

34. According to Nan Goodman, the only way for Cabeza de Vaca as royal treasurer to recover his initial outlay of money is through the collection of royal revenue, which is only possible after a territory is pacified and controlled (2005, 235- 236).

35 Bruce-Novoa remarks that Cabeza de Vaca attempts to return to the center of signification at the Court of Charles the V but fails (15).

36. The discourse clash over the ethnic identity of indigenous people and Mexican Americans reveals in their responses “the medium of the surrounding ideological world” whose roots go back to the Spanish conquest (Bakhtin and Medvedev 1985, 14).


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