The Ever Changing Identity of Cabeza de Vaca

Categories: Native Americans

Ten years is no short span of time.

Entire World Wars have been fought in that stretch of time, incredible structures have been created in that period, and amazing discoveries have been procured in that such an interval. With all those great feats happening within ten years, it wouldn’t be unprecedented to see a person’s identity change in that time period. Cabeza de Vaca can be considered one of those people whose identities doesn’t just change, but changes vastly in this relatively short span of time. Cabeza de Vaca was an explorer that was part of the failed Narvaez expedition to conquer the areas in between the Rio de las Palmas and the Cape of Florida for the Spanish Crown. In the course of this expedition, Cabeza de Vaca comes across many different natives, explores lands previously unknown to the Europeans, and returns as one of the four survivors of the three-hundred man trip. Throughout all of this, Cabeza de Vaca’s identity changes tremendously throughout the course of the narrative.

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While at the beginning, Cabeza de Vaca sees himself as a conquistador going on expeditions to secure land for Spain, he later views himself as a spaniard endeavouring to survive, an observer of the natives, and finally, a healer and advocate of peaceful conversion of the natives rather than the pure conquest of these Amerindians.

To show how De Vaca’s perspective towards the natives and his identity changes, we must first note that Cabeza de Vaca “departed… to conquer and govern the provinces… from the Rio de las Palmas to the cape of Florida” (p.

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48). His main goal at the beginning, therefore, was less of getting information on Amerindian cultures rather than conquering these natives. That is why Cabeza de Vaca does not describe this aspect of the natives in the beginning that he later chooses to address; he simply may have not been interested in the culture of Amerindian life at the time as he was more interested in simply conquering these people. Nevertheless, he does choose to describe the land, the multitude of battles with the natives, and the natives’ military habits such as that “all of the Indians we had seen from Florida to here are archers” (p. 68). These aspects of the journey seem to be what a conquistador would be interested in detailing: the glory of battle and the discovery of new lands. It is also important here to mention that Cabeza de Vaca wrote this narrative not while he was experiencing these events firsthand, but after he finishes the conquest (after which he seemingly becomes more respectful toward the cultures of the Amerindians). Still, he chooses to only mention the war-related aspects here because even though Cabeza de Vaca may have witnessed the cultures of the natives at the time, he may have only been able to physically remember the natives’ warlike aspects because that is what his conquistador mindset was focused on at that time. This idea is supplemented by the fact that we see the natives being described as just as an obstacle in conquering these new lands. Cabeza de Vaca specifically says this when he casually mentions an attack where “the governor ordered that the horsemen dismount and attack [the natives] on foot… and thus they attacked [the natives]… [and] won the passage from them” (p. 68). In the beginning of this narrative, Cabeza de Vaca and the other Spaniards, blinded by all of the riches delineated by the previous adventures into the New World, saw themselves as Conquistadors in a quest to secure more land for Spain and didn’t view these Amerindians as people, but simply as guides to be exploited or as enemies to be defeated.

Cabeza then viewed himself as a Spaniard endeavouring to survive in a failing expedition and later on as an observer. As the expedition progressed, Cabeza de Vaca comes face to face with the truth that his fellow conquistadors are dying at a rapid pace, due to either sickness, starvation, or native attacks. They are losing the sense that their adventure is heroic and now they are struggling merely to survive. We come across many descriptions of the horrible conditions that Cabeza de Vaca asserts that “there was not one among us who did not take death to be a certainty” and that they “were so thin that with little difficulty [their] bones could be counted, [and] appeared like the figure of death itself” (p. 76 and p. 86). They refashioned the tools that were supposed to be utilized for conquering this new land: the armor, the weapons, and even the horses, to simply try to survive through the land (p. 72). This idea of the conquistador identity evolving into the struggler identity reaches the climax when Cabeza, finally shipwrecked, comes face to face with Amerindians. While at the beginning of the narrative, Cabeza de Vaca was focused on trying to extract the land and the riches from these natives, the natives are less miserable than the Spaniards at this time. At time time, there is a complete reversal of the conquistador mindset that Cabeza had in the beginning of the narrative because to survive, Cabeza de Vaca has to be subordinate to the natives, the people he once may have felt were inferior.

This leads to Cabeza de Vaca adopting the changing from this struggler mindset into the observer mindset; to live in this new world, Cabeza de Vaca has to understand and communicate with the natives. This is most evident when we look at Cabeza de Vaca’s descriptions during this part of the narrative. While at the beginning, De Vaca only describes the military prowess of the natives and doesn’t go into detail about their customs, De Vaca now not only delineates the cultures of the natives but also goes into detail about why their culture is the way it is. One example of this is when Cabeza de Vaca describes the natives of Malhado and their mourning traditions. He asserts that these natives “mourn all the dead in this manner, except for the elderly, to whom they pay no attention.” While this is a habit that many Europeans would consider unnatural, Cabeza de Vaca doesn’t seem to just consider this at face value. He goes into detail about why the natives do such a thing: “”

Cabeza de Vaca finally ended up viewing himself as a healer and an advocate of not “conquering” the Indians in the traditional sense, but assimilating them within the Christian Culture.

Updated: Aug 06, 2021
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The Ever Changing Identity of Cabeza de Vaca. (2021, Aug 06). Retrieved from

The Ever Changing Identity of Cabeza de Vaca essay
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