Cabeza de Vaca survived a series of misfortunes for almost nine years, each one of which would make an elephant stagger, and on his return home, he wrote his story in Naufragios a work as realistic as it is incredible. The chronicle of the adventure lived by this conqueror of Jerez de la Frontera has been described by many as a work of fiction, given the impossibility of his trip, and because, as in all texts with political objectives, also here ornaments are perceived by from Cadiz. But even if the less positive parts of his adventure had been omitted to be liked by King Charles V, to whom the text was directed, this does not detract from the importance or drama of the odyssey of the first survivor of America, the first to cross the territories. that today make up the United States of America, from Florida to California, and from there to Mexico.
18,000 kilometers of unknown routes plagued with adverse elements were his only spoils. He lived with the Seminole tribes, the Sioux, the Pueblo Indians, and learned half a dozen languages. As happened to Ulysses on his return to Ithaca, the gods of Olympus blew hard to drive away from the Spanish adventurer when he was already touching the limits of New Spain with his fingertips several times, but even then he did not hold a grudge against the Indians who they had retained and done a thousand doggies. His story, like that of so many conquerors, is outside the cliche of the perverse Spaniard who had only traveled to America to torture Indians and steal their gold. Starting because Cabeza de Vaca was already wealthy in Spain, if he had crossed the pond he had done it more for adventure and fame than for material reasons; and continuing because, back to the Peninsula, he still wanted to return to that America that so many years had stolen his life. As Obélix would say if he lived in the 16th century, “these Spaniards are crazy!
On June 17, 1527, Cabeza de Vaca left Sanlucar de Barrameda, bound for America, as treasurer and chief constable in the expedition of Panfilo de Narvaez, an old rival of Hernan Cortes, who had proposed to fully explore Florida. The adventure was a disaster and ended with hundreds of men killed at the hands of the Indians or the elements themselves. Only four members of the expedition survived, among them Cabeza de Vaca, who took advantage of his fame as a shaman and merchant among the Indians to reunite with the other surviving companions.
In early May 1536, the Andalusian led the group to Culiacán after traversing all of southern Texas and probably part of present-day New Mexico, along the coastline of the Gulf of Mexico. Melchor Díaz, Mayor of Culiacan, entertained them upon their arrival, cried with them and, once they had recovered from the long journey, sent them to Mexico City so that Viceroy Mendoza could learn about their history. From there they moved to Compostela, the capital of Nueva Galicia, during a journey of almost 500 kilometers, as plagued by hardships and hostile Indians as the routes in Texas.
The viceroy was fascinated by the experience of those four survivors. He interrogated them insistently about the stories heard from the Indians about rich cities with tall houses. Like the search for El Dorado in South America, the north also had its fable of a wonderful land designated as the Seven Cities of Cibola, whose legend said that during the Reconquest, in 1150, the Muslims took Mérida and other Extremadura cities causing a flight. of seven bishops and several noble families to the westernmost part of the world. After embarking in Portugal, they sailed to North America, and there they would have founded seven cities in which gold and precious stones were abundant.
The descriptions made by Cabeza de Vaca and the other survivors of the stone cities brought this myth back into force, in such a way that different adventurers went in search of the Seven Cities of Cíbola, without achieving great finds; which suggests that the legend referred to seven minor settlements of the Zuni peoples, an ethnic group originating in western New Mexico. Immediately after hearing the testimony of Cabeza de Vaca, Viceroy Mendoza sent three Franciscan friars, in the company of the Negro Estebanico, one of Cabeza de Vaca’s companions, to gather more information on these cities. The results were not as expected and the behavior of Estebanico, who used the story of the healer to get the Indians to give him turquoise, cost him his death at the hands of a distrustful tribe.
Fearing that they would be next, the friars returned to Mexico and, perhaps out of fear of returning empty-handed, one of them said that he had seen in person large cities in which gold and silver vessels were used more abundantly than in Peru. The viceroy gave credit to the friar and continued to sponsor new searches. In 1540, Francisco Vazquez de Coronado believed he had arrived at this wonderful place when he confused the Grand Canyon of Colorado with the golden roofs of the Cities of Cibola. An equally impressive discovery.
Upon his return to Spain, Cabeza de Vaca wrote and published, in 1542, the account of his adventure in Naufragios, a text addressed to His Sacra, Cesarea Catolica Majestad Carlos, where he detailed the life of the southern Indians, the use of some of them made out of a “drunken smoke”, religious beliefs and everything he saw during his coexistence with them. The customs of some of the North American Indians astonished and puzzled Europeans in equal parts.
From the island of Mal Hado, all the Indians that we saw up to this land have a habit from the day their wives feel pregnant, not sleeping together until two years have passed after they have raised their children, which they suckle until they are pubescent at the age of twelve. All these tribes usually leave their wives when there is no conformity between them, and remarry whoever they want; more those who have children stay with their wives and do not leave them until they grow up. The account has been scrutinized by historians and philologists to determine its verisimilitude. The events narrated seem those of an adventure novel, but the detail of the environment described is almost that of a naturalist and demonstrates, without a doubt, that Cabeza de Vaca traveled much of the southern United States. That he did so without shedding a single drop of blood is as unlikely as it is likely.
The author himself and protagonist of the adventure that he wrote “with so much certitude that although in it some very new things are read and for some very difficult to believe, they can undoubtedly believe them: and believe it is true, that before I am in everything is shorter than long, and it will be enough for this to have been offered to Your Majesty for such. Cabeza de Vaca could not afford fictional episodes in a book dedicated to the Emperor. He could embellish or hide the most negative points of his performance, without directly lying about what happened in his harrowing adventure. Shortly after his return to Spain, the Monarch offered him the position of advance and governor of the Río de la Plata and Paraguay. Alvar agreed to return to the New World and during the two years that he was in charge of the Río de la Plata he undertook several expeditions, in which he explored the course of the Paraguay River with the guidance of indigenous Tupi-Guarani and became the first European to see Iguazu Falls.
The river jumps through some very high rocks below, and the water hits the ground with such a great blow that it is heard from far away and the foam of the water, as it falls with such force, rises raised two spears and more. However, he did not find a suitable place for new settlements in the Paraná jungle, or populations with great wealth. On the contrary, what the man from Cadiz and his men found was a long succession of epidemics, ambushes, and famine. The good treatment is given by Cabeza de Vaca to the Indians, even when he subdued various tribes, and his efforts to enforce the Laws of the Indies were not objectives shared by his troops. On the way back from one of their expeditions, the Spaniards, with the excuse that Álvar was permissive with the indigenous people, organized a mutiny headed by Domingo Martinez de Irala, which ended with the capture and imprisonment of the man from Cadiz.
The conspiracy against him resulted in a year in prison and, in 1545, he was transferred to Spain and accused of very serious charges before the Council of the Indies. Condemned to exile in Oran, the Crown ended up pardoning him of his sentence eight years later. As on other occasions, the efforts of the Castilian Crown to defend the rights of the indigenous people clashed with the greed of some conquerors, who behaved as if the continent and all its beings belonged to them. Bartolomé de las Casas, a well-intentioned liar (the figures for the deceased Indians are completely impossible), and Cabeza de Vaca were considered at that time the most prominent defenders of indigenous rights in America.
The same year that the man from Cadiz published “Naufragios”, the best jurists and theologians in Spain carried out the so-called Laws of the Indies, which theoretically equated rights and guarantees to all subjects of the new empire. This shows that the voices of these Spanish nonconformists were heard by the Hispanic monarchy and contributed to a positive exercise of self-criticism, unlike what would later happen during the colonial period led by other great European nations. While in Spain the debate arose almost at the beginning of the discovery and colonization of America, while Bartolomé de las Casas traveled to the Indies in 1500; the savage colonialism of England and Belgium took a long time for a genuine critique to emerge. It is no coincidence that even today “The Jungle Book” (1894), an evening criticism of British imperialism written by Rudyard Kipling, is absent from UK school readings.
The final years of Cabeza de Vaca’s life are shrouded in imprecision. After the pardon, he settled in Seville and served as a judge. In 1555, he published in Valladolid “Relationship and comments”, his second book, where he narrates what happened in his adventure in Río de la Plata. Some later place him as a merchant in Venice or as before a Sevillian convent. Without forgetting that, in 1522, he had married a woman well placed among the Andalusian nobility – his particular Penelope – although the long pilgrimage in the New World makes it impossible to trace what happened to this marriage. In any case, he died in his early seventies in Seville and did not return to America for the third time, a territory from which, after two failures and so many years, he had to retain a bittersweet taste and outstanding accounts.
It is known from his companions that Estebanico was murdered by the Indians on his return to Texas; while Castillo and Dorantes settled in Mexico and spent the rest of their lives there. The three showed the same physical and mental strength, almost inhuman, that Cabeza de Vaca and they pulled with equal audacity to get out alive, unarmed, enslaved, hungry, sick, and naked, from which the rest of their companions perished. However, they did not have the ability or the talent to write a book about their adventure as Cabeza de Vaca did, making a good thing about an Argentine song that if history is written by those who win, that means there is another history.