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The Many Faces of Cabeza de Vaca

By Sara Asheroff and Michael Joseph, with comment by Kim Weber


[1] What is history? What makes an event historical? According to Michel-Rolph Trouillot, "History is the fruit of power." With this statement, one can infer that the historian who writes and portrays history has the power to persuade the minds of future generations. Both students and teachers often overlook this power. Do we ever stop to ask ourselves the validity of the account that we are reading? When watching films and documentaries, do we even wonder how the viewer can be manipulated by the director into believing his or her own opinions about history? It is important for us, the learners of history, to understand that through different media, we can perceive the same events in highly different lights. Writing, producing, or portraying history has the power to change the audience's perception of an event. One must keep in mind when studying history, through any media, that the subject is not completely objective. The opinions and views of the filmmaker, directly or indirectly, are shown. Focusing on four representations of Cabeza de Vaca--his own account, Nicolas Echevarria's film, a fictional adolescent book, and a poem--we will examine the discrepancies that can be observed.

[2] The majority of historians do, in fact, agree upon these facts: One of the early conquistadors, Cabeza deVaca was shipwrecked in a 1527 Spanish expedition in America. Upon arrival in Florida, where the expedition went inland seeking gold, famine and disease afflicted the 300 members of the voyage. In 1528, Cabeza de Vaca and three other survivors sailed on a "makeshift raft" to Galveston Island, Texas. The four were later kidnapped by a native tribe and forced to assimilate into their culture. For eight years, the men journeyed their way across Texas, Northern Mexico, and the Southwestern United States. On their sojourn, they met many groups of natives, some of which were hostile, and others who were hospitable. Cabeza de Vaca and his companions became healers in the eyes of the natives by using their Christianity as a means of rejuvenation. When the men were finally rescued by another expedition in 1536, Cabeza de Vaca returned to Spain. There he lobbied for the benevolent treatment of the natives. In 1542, Cabeza de Vaca released La Relacion, his account of his journey in the southwest.

Cabeza de Vaca's Relacion

[3] Relacion is the most credible source for the information we know about Cabeza de Vaca's journey. "The chief value of history," says Carl Becker, "is that it is an extension of the personal memory; and an extension which the masses can share." This statement demonstrates how valuable Cabeza de Vaca's Relacion really is. It was his history. According to Becker's definition, it was accurate history. Using this source as the "correct history" of Cabeza de Vaca, we will see the historical discrepancies in other media. Through his retelling of his life immersed in native culture, he makes it very clear that he favors peaceful treatment of the Indians. "Unlike so many of its predecessors, Relacion of Cabeza de Vaca proposes a New World order of sorts. It calls for an ethical revolution on the part of the Spanish that have designs to conquer America" (Nanfito 187). Cabeza de Vaca learned from the people with whom he lived. Laboring as a slave, forcing himself to assimilate into native culture, and still clinging to his Christianity, Cabeza de Vaca was able to walk away from his experience a changed man. He was no longer interested in the gold and other conquistador desires; instead, he better understood himself, other cultures, and, most importantly, his faith.

[4] Using Cabeza de Vaca's role as a healer for the focal point of historical discrepancies, we should first examine his own account. Cabeza de Vaca writes that he and his companions used their Christianity as a means of healing. For example, "The very night we arrived, some Indians came to Castillo telling him that their heads hurt a great deal, and begging him to cure them. After he made the sign of the cross on them and commended them to God, they immediately said that all their pain was gone" (Cabeza de Vaca 77). Cabeza de Vaca uses the sign of the cross as his symbol of healing, while the Indians used their "shamanistic" calabaza. He also writes that, "At sunset, he made the sign of the cross on them [sick Indians] and commended them to God our Lord, and we all asked God as best we could, to restore their health, since He knew that that was the only way for those people to help us. . . . And God was so merciful that the following morning they all awakened well and healthy. They went away as strong as if they had never been sick" (79). Cabeza de Vaca used his faith and hope in God as his strength to survive. He obviously held his religious beliefs very close to his ability to ease pain and illness. Through healing others, he was able to become strong enough to continue on his journey and be rescued. It was because of his healing abilities that he was released from his enslavement. Also interesting to note is that writing the previous passage in the third person increases its credibility further. The third person voice allows the reader to feel as though the narrator has a more impartial point of view and, thus, is better at telling history. Cabeza de Vaca knew his job as a historian when writing Relacion. He used this device so that he could accurately portray the history which he survived.

[5] Cabeza de Vaca's testimony in Chapter Fifteen, "What Happened to Us in the Village of Misfortune," is the simplest explanation of his healing methods. He makes it very clear to the reader that he and his companions possess no magical powers but do value their faith. (This point becomes important in Cabeza de Vaca's portrayal in other works). "They wanted to make us physicians, without testing us or asking for any degrees, because they cure illnesses by blowing on the sick person and cast out the illness with their breath and hands. So they told us to be useful and do the same. . . . We did our healing by making the sign of the cross on the sick persons; breathing on them, saying the Lord's Prayer and a Hail Mary over them, and asking God our Lord, as best we could, to heal them and inspire them to treat us well" (62). Cabeza de Vaca, in his own words, makes it very clear that he was a healer. He was able to do this through his faith in Christianity. He used his religion as a means of survival.

Nicolas Echevarria's Cabeza de Vaca

[6] In the 1991 film Cabeza de Vaca, Nicolas Echevarria focuses on portraying a figure in history who, by removing himself from his constrictive Christian views, "went native" and learned the ways of the shaman. "Echevarria says that the movie's portrayal of the force that turned him [Cabeza de Vaca] into a mystic is the main story of the film, the transformation of the man" (Della Flora H2). Just as portrayed in the Relacion, Cabeza de Vaca is connected to a shaman. Echevarria, however, added a character, an armless dwarf named Malacosa, who would prove to belittle and humiliate the trapped, enslaved Spaniard. Cabeza de Vaca is forced to live and serve these men; he has to feed Malacosa, who, in return, spits in his face. He carries the shaman's oversized medicine bundle and only once stands up for his rights as a human. It is then, after he savagely screams at his slaveholders, that he is first introduced into the actual process of shamanism. Cabeza de Vaca is taken to a shoreline where the shaman draws a large outline of a native in the mud. While the shaman is drawing this figure, Cabeza de Vaca is helping to bathe and feed the helpless Malacosa. Cabeza de Vaca applies mud to both his skin and hair. The shaman, who is chanting, suddenly strikes the "eye" of the outline with his staff. Simultaneously, the film flashes to a scene where a native emerges from another pond, clutching his wounded eye and screaming in pain. When the shaman, Cabeza de Vaca, and Malacosa arrive in the village where the wounded man is, they make their presence known by shaking the sacred calabaza. While the shaman "works his magic," Cabeza de Vaca becomes almost possessed and reaches out to the wounded man. He places his hand over the man's eye and goes through a radical self-transformation. The wounded man walks away from the accident completely unharmed and safe. The viewer sees the fatigue that healing this man has caused Cabeza de Vaca but also how his cultural assimilation provided his freedom.

[7] It is in this scene that Echevarria shows his opinions and views of the Cabeza de Vaca story. He changes the sacred, religious healing story that Cabeza de Vaca wrote in Relacion and, instead, glorifies shamanism. More important, however, is how Echevarria shows that cultural assimilation was key to Cabeza de Vaca being freed, yet in Relacion Cabeza deVaca himself clearly shows that his faith in Christianity is what gained the respect of the natives. "Cabeza de Vaca may be seen as an effort to narrativize the production of a New World identity through the process of assimilation and identification with the other. Echevarria's film explores what Maciel calls a dramatization of the ‘reverse acculturation of Cabeza de Vaca'" (Hershfield 9). The film's obvious main focus is the self-transformation of Cabeza de Vaca, while his Relacion aimed at glorifying the power of healing through faith in Christianity.

[8] A symbol that is obviously important to Cabeza de Vaca is his crucifix. In the film, the shaman is quick to remove Cabeza de Vaca's only symbol of Christianity upon purchase of his slave. The shaman himself wears this medallion, not because he knows what it symbolizes but more so because he sees it as a source of strength for Cabeza de Vaca. Once his slave shows he is ready to heal and successfully becomes a shaman, the crucifix is returned. It is, however, now decorated with feathers, a symbol of crossing beliefs. It demonstrates Echevarria's idea that through cultural assimilation Cabeza de Vaca became both a shaman and freed. The director, in doing this, strays from Relacion's emphasis on Christianity.

[9] Echevarria says that his goal with the film was to express his view that Cabeza de Vaca was the first Latin American. He wanted to portray a hero who embodied the qualities of an assimilated man, a man who had combined his own culture and that of the natives. "The most important theme that I have touched upon in the film is the creation of a new man--a man who is not European, who is not Indian, who is right in the middle. This is like the beginning of the new American or Latin American" (Della Flora H2). Though he may have felt that Cabeza de Vaca did stand for this, it is not historically accurate. It is correct to say that Cabeza deVaca's healing method is symbolic of a faithful Christian. It is important to note such discrepancies between the book and the movie because it shows how Echevarria's film demonstrates how history can be, in a sense, changed. "In the movie theater we are, for a time, prisoners of history," says Robert Rosenstone. While watching Cabeza de Vaca, the viewer is almost forced to believe what Echevarria believes: that Cabeza de Vaca became a great shaman, healed many natives, and, by the end, resented the Spanish. In reality, however, Cabeza de Vaca healed many natives through his faith in Christianity, not his "shamanistic" ability. Instead of seeing an accurate portrayal of Cabeza de Vaca's own account, we see what Echevarria wants us to see. He instead focuses the film on his points of interest about Cabeza de Vaca's life, namely his role as a shaman.

[10] Echevarria glorifies shamanism to such an extent that his only option is to condemn Christianity. His lack of representation of Cabeza de Vaca's obvious faith in Christianity, in conjunction with the film's final scene, is not an accurate portrayal of this conquistador but is, instead, a means for Echevarria to display his resentment of the "Christianization" of the New World. In this scene the director chooses to have approximately thirty natives carrying an extremely oversized metal cross into a severe thunderstorm. The underlying symbolism here portrays Echevarria's feeling that by colonizing America, and thus converting natives to Christianity, the true and pure innocence of these people was lost. Christianity was the omnipotent storm that washed away these helpless victims of religious conversion. Cabeza de Vaca, however, would probably not have agreed with Echevarria's opinion of Christianity, which takes away from the film's credibility.

[11] What the film does rightly portray, however, is the Spaniards' lack of preparation for the New World. It shows the shock and horror that the Spaniards felt when they first saw natives. The film demonstrates how the few survivors of the expedition lacked supplies and, in turn, became very ill. "We have a film that does wonderfully what they [other New World- based movies] failed to do--namely, make us see the New World with all the terror and wonder of a Spaniard totally unprepared for what he found" (Carr 32). Echevarria uses Cabeza de Vaca's Relacion as a bridge to create a film based on self-transformation, shamanism, and cultural assimilation. He manipulates the viewer into believing aspects of Cabeza de Vaca's life that are false. We, as viewers, must ask ourselves, how does this affect the "legend" that surrounds Cabeza de Vaca? (see comment by Kim Weber)

Frank G. Slaughter's Apalachee Gold: The Fabulous Adventures of Cabeza de Vaca

[12] We might answer that question by examining how the young adult historically fictitious novel, Frank G. Slaughter's 1954 Apalachee Gold: The Fabulous Adventures of Cabeza de Vaca, only enhances the image of Cabeza de Vaca as a legendary figure rather than the true conquistador that he was. Slaughter depicts Cabeza de Vaca as all-knowing and, in some ways, all-powerful. This novel, aimed at Christian audiences, thus better demonstrates Cabeza de Vaca's true religious faith. In contrast to Echevarria's film, Apalachee Gold belittles shamanism. For example, in Chapter Nine, "The Healing," Slaughter alters a sacred healing ritual into a competition between Cabeza de Vaca and his nemesis, the village shaman.

Altogether it was perhaps half the space of an hourglass' turning before Areytas finished his ceremony of drawing out the devil that was supposed to have taken up habitation in the sick man's body and invoking the healing power of the Great Spirit he worshipped. Sweat was dripping from the medicine man's face and he seemed exhausted, when finally he stood erect and indicated with a guttural cry that he had finished. (102)

This demonstrates how the author has, in a sense, included his own opinions about shamanism and biased some readers' perceptions of true history. Slaughter has, in his quest to write a didactic Christian novel, overlooked the obviousness of Cabeza de Vaca being an approachable moralistic teacher. He has almost altered his appearance in the novel to be more of an authority figure than he truly was, which, again, discredits this representation of Cabeza de Vaca.

[13] Also interesting to note is the invention of the character Pedro. Not only is this figure completely fictitious, but he also continues to make the representation of Cabeza de Vaca less credible. Pedro is the realistically false nephew of Cabeza de Vaca. Pedro is the quintessential young man seeking the companionship and wisdom of an older, respected figure embodied in Cabeza de Vaca. Pedro almost idolizes his conquistador companion. For example, he uses Cabeza de Vaca as his standard of excellence: "Pedro was very fond of the stocky soldier who had proved his strength for the troubled men, second only to Cabeza de Vaca himself" (105). This fictitious character might also be a ploy to distract the reader's attention from Cabeza de Vaca's amicable role in order to enhance his role as an authority figure. It helps to persuade readers that Cabeza de Vaca was more of a leader and savior to these tragically savage natives rather than a slave.

[14] Slaughter's lack of emphasis on Cabeza de Vaca's internal power struggle centering on the transformation from a once-respected captain to a menial slave is quite striking. "In unequal relations of power, such as the Conquest, those in the inferior position are forced to learn the language of the oppressor in order to communicate. . . . In a reversal of the historical relationship between the conquerors and the conquered, it is the Spaniard in this case who is treated as the ignorant savage, laughed at, humiliated, given the most degrading tasks, and stripped of the essential elements that define his identity" (Hershfield 18). The "real" Cabeza de Vaca lost his authority and was forced to be a slave; he was forced to communicate with foreign-speaking natives. His inability to speak with the natives thus makes his position menial. Slaughter, however, completely disregards this fact in order to make Cabeza de Vaca into a strong leader whose only intention is to Christianize the natives. By characterizing Cabeza de Vaca in such a light, he thus alters history. He changes the readers' perceptions of who Cabeza de Vaca really was and turns him into the hero of the "legend."

Stephen Haven's "A Geography of Movement"

[15] A final representation of Cabeza de Vaca that we, as learners of history, will examine is a 1995 poem by Stephen Haven. "A Geography of Movement" portrays Cabeza de Vaca as a cultural savior. Haven displays in his poem the view that it took Cabeza de Vaca losing his country and identity to discover his faith in Christianity. For example, "He found that he could heal them, found he was a Christian, and grew to love them and God and the laying on of hands. A kind of Messiah to them, naked, bearded, he led masses of those first Americans" (48). This view persuades readers to not only view Cabeza de Vaca as a prophet to the Indians but also demonstrates that the natives were the first true Americans. This allows us as readers to infer that our patriotic history as colonizers is wrong. In Haven's depiction of Cabeza de Vaca, history is once again changed. The ideals that Cabeza de Vaca wrote of in his Relacion are paradoxical to the depiction in the poem. In it, Cabeza de Vaca does not discover his Christianity but rather clings to it. He uses his faith in God to find the strength to survive. He does not, however, find again his spiritualism as Haven depicts.


[16] History is learned through many media and has the power to influence even the most accurately educated individuals. Echevarria's film, Slaughter's book, and even the Haven poem change the audience's perception of a figure such as Cabeza de Vaca to the "legendary" hero we like to remember. Stuart Hall once said, "In the notion of representation is the idea of giving meaning." This can be applied to these "producers "of Cabeza de Vaca. Each author, director, and poet uses his own medium to portray the Cabeza de Vaca that HE wants the audience to see. It is their opinions and passions that shine through in these representations. We, as learners of history, do not comprehend the most accurate depictions of historical characters. We, rather, absorb the beliefs and attitudes of the artists. It is THEIR illustrations that we call history. It is THEIR history that we are learning. In order to be completely accurate, we must first discover the "correct history" and use artistic representations as secondary aides in our learning of history.


Kim Weber 2/21/12

In answer to the question posed, this portrayal has a huge effect on the way Cabeza de Vaca's legend is portrayed, especially for those who have Echevarria's film as their only resource. In the relationship with the shamans and the renunciation of his Christianity in the film, Cabeza de Vaca does not come across as the religious figure that his personal writing illustrates. To me, Cabeza de Vaca's true story is laudable. He used his Christianity to attempt to better the people he encountered and eventually returned to Spain and advocated for those he met. Echevarria has done Cabeza de Vaca's legacy somewhat of a disservice in failing to bring this across in the film. When standing up against historical figures like Columbus (figures who have well-known historical facts of abuse tarnishing their legacies), Cabeza de Vaca's historical account would be more of a celebration of a commitment to Christian values that many historical figures preached but seemed to lack. Although Cabeza de Vaca's tolerance of and participation in shamanistic traditions is laudable as well for different reasons, I would have liked to see his Christian values come across more prominently in the film, especially to educate those who have no other knowledge of this historical figure.

Cabeza de Vaca, Alvar Nunez. The Account: Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca's Relacion. Trans. Martin Favata and Jose Fernandez. Houston: Arte Publico P, 1993.

Cabeza de Vaca. Dir. Nicolas Echevarria. Perf. Juan Diego, Daniel Gimenez Cacho, Carlos Castanon, and Gerardo Villareal. Producciones Iguana and Television Espanola, 1991.

Carr, Jay. Rev. of Cabeza de Vaca. The Boston Globe 21 September 1992: 32.

Della Flora, Anthony. "Film Follows Life of Cabeza de Vaca." Albuquerque Journal 14 June 1998: H2.

Haven, Stephen. "A Geography of Movement." The American Poetry Review 24 (1995): 48-49.

Hershfield, Joanne. "Assimilation and Identification in Nicolas Echevarria's Cabeza de Vaca." Wide Angle 16 (1995): 7-24.

Nanfito, Jacqueline C. "Cabeza de Vaca's Naufrigios y Comentarios: The Journey Motif in the Chronicle of the Indies." Revista de Estudios Hispanicos 21 (1994): 179-87.

Slaughter, Frank Gill. Apalachee Gold: The Fabulous Adventures of Cabeza de Vaca. New York: Doubleday, 1954.

Vaughn, Stephen. "History: Is It Relevant?" The Vital Past: Writings on the Uses of History. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1985. 1-19.