When Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca appeared in the Sonoran Desert one day in 1536, he might just as well have walked out of the pages of a Biblical parable.
Having crawled, limped and staggered across much of today’s southwestern United States, Cabeza de Vaca and three companions were all that remained of 600 men who had left Spain to plunder the Americas nine years earlier.
Cabeza de Vaca wrote a fantastic account of his experience, soon forgotten by posterity. Four hundred years later, in 1936, American poet Haniel Long revived his tale with a moving and lyrical version known to scholars today as the “Interlinear.”
Last year, “Interlinear” was reprinted by Souvenir Press as “The Marvellous Adventure of Cabeza de Vaca,” a story as deserving of our attention today as at any time during the last 500 years.
Rescued from shipwreck by Capoque Indians, Cabeza de Vaca lived as a merchant, slave and fellow traveler among tribes from Galveston Island to western Mexico. Most important, he would discover that he was a gifted healer, causing a change of heart that called into question his very life as a conquistador.
Over time, Cabeza de Vaca remade himself from a common soldier of fortune into a shaman, fluent in several Indian languages. No other European explorer of the time would have the breadth of experience to give such a detailed, sympathetic and painfully honest account of Native life.
Think “Dances with Wolves” with a Spanish accent.
In Long’s version, “The Marvellous Adventure” is a blend of fact and fancy, what the Spaniard might have written if not constrained by the prejudices of his age. Closely based on the original text, this retelling gets to the heart of a spiritual rags-to-riches tale, the first “born again” narrative in North American literature.
The adventure undertakes not only the exploration of the land, but the discovery of the human spirit. Long re-imagines a different America, rescuing the legend of a reformed conquistador who roamed the West three centuries before the likes of Kit Carson, a story all but forgotten in our history books until the last 20 years.
But all did not end well. Fellow survivor Esteban, a Moorish African, was killed by Indians in the vicinity of Zuni Pueblo a few years later, an unwelcome front man for yet another Spanish expedition bent on plunder.
Even Cabeza de Vaca wandered too far. In 1540, he led an expedition to evangelize South America, only to be deposed for being too kind to his “subjects.” Returning to Spain in disgrace, he was pensioned off by the king and forgotten by historians as an odd but inconsequential footnote.
The Souvenir Press reprint is really two books in one, since it also includes Long’s account of Malinche, the Indian go-between who helped Hernan Cortes crush the Aztec empire only a few years before Cabeza de Vaca set out for America.
A Nahua (Aztec) noblewoman by birth, Malinche was captured and sold to the Chontal Maya, who later gave her to conquistador Cortes as a bribe. She would soon become his translator (and his mistress) and played a key role in subduing the Aztecs.
Like Cabeza de Vaca, Malinche learned to live by the code of another culture. Accused by many of selling out to the Spanish, she is, in one sense, a founding mother of Mexico. The mestizo child she later bore Cortes is emblematic of what would become Mexico’s “cosmic race,” the blending of European and Native blood.
It’s rare to find two such powerful – and mysterious – stories in one small volume. Long’s book is more about human transformation than historical events, and his prose reads like a poem, a dream and a play all wrapped into one.
So was Cabeza de Vaca a reformed freebooter – or did he just settle for conquest on different terms, taking up the power of the cross rather than the sword? Behind his story lies a colonial moral: Christian beliefs, adapted to Native ways, triumph in the end.
And was Malinche a traitor – or did she adapt as best she could once she found herself in the grasp of a ruthless man?
If there had been more explorers like Cabeza de Vaca, Long muses, the history of the Americas might well have been different. Read in that light, this book is an inspiration on one hand – and a depressing reminder of how many different forms the conquest took.