Thesis: The author posits that the derivative of a tragically unsuccessful colonization effort results with an epic ten-year odyssey of survival, assimilation, and revelation as the first Old World outsiders to athwart and live in the interior of North America. The culmination of the experiences of Cabeza de Vaca, man of influence, stranded in unexplored lands, encountering and existing with countless Native American tribes as guest, slave, trader, and healer engenders an atypical ideal of humane colonization and coexistence. Summary: Resendez retells the story of the ill-fated Narvaez expedition to Florida, placing the survivors story against the context of contemporary Spanish politics, culture, and power struggles associated with colonization amid the pre-contact Native American sphere. The stage is set with a brief description of the relationships of Velazquez, Narvaez, Cortes, and the Spanish court (15,17, 22). This background information clarifies the near impenetrability of obtaining a royal charter and the complicated, perfidious, and competitive maneuverings of the Spanish explorers (30-33).
Cortes’ alleged treachery becomes heroic conquest slighting competitors Velazquez and Narvaez who after years of petitions receives an adelantamiento in the New World (73). The expedition, three plus hundred men and women, lead by Narvaez experiences a litany of encumbrances that resulted in the unrealized and in due course unpropitious landing at Tampa Bay, over nine hundred miles off course (77). A landing party of three hundred men, including Cabeza de Vaca, set out to find Panuco, encountered Native Americans that enticed the group to search for prosperous Apalachee further north (94). By this time the group was suffering severely from hunger, disease, and at the hands of Native Americans, driven by desperation rafts were built to carry the men along the coast of Louisiana, a tumultuous trek of starvation, drowning, and further Indian attacks, landed along the coast of Texas (134).
Attrition claims all but four, deVaca, Dorantes, Castillo, and Moroccan Estebanico, whose lives over the next ten years are analogous to Homer’s Odyssey. Initially treated as guests, cared for and fed by local indigenous peoples, soon to become slaves of many itinerant tribes for six years (145). During captivity, the survivors learned native languages, cultures, intertribal repositioning (146), and in the case of de Vaca became a thriving trader with autonomous travel privileges (149-151). The four escape their captors and implausibly achieve the status of healers, combining Catholicism and native traditions in their ministering, are then used by Native Americans leaders in a heal for profit scheme were passed from one tribe to the next, and achieved pseudo celebrity status (183). Contact with Spaniards and reintroduction to civilized life proved very difficult for the survivors after nearly ten years of aboriginal living and certainly suffered from culture shock, Cabeza de Vaca mentions difficulties wearing western clothes again (215).
Cabeza de Vaca, like Friar Las Casas twenty years earlier (21), shared an epiphany to defend and advocate for peaceful cohabitation and humane colonization of America, neither realizing this ambition (221). Critique: The author employs pertinent primary sources, including the narrative of Cabeza de Vaca, in chorus with reasonable speculative insertions of the conditions and behaviors to make a compelling and more authentic story. However, Resendez states that “they”, the four survivors, all left the experience with the epiphany to advocate for “humane” colonization. The author only provides direct evidence that supports this claim in the case of Cabeza de Vaca, not that for his three survivor companions.