The Ideological I – How a Changing Cabeza Changes God

In Reading Autobiography, Smith and Watson discuss the “Ideological I” in a way that illuminates the competition between Cabeza de Vaca’s religious/social/political beliefs and his diminishing likelihood of survival in the first ten chapters of his narrative. Smith and Watson describe the self as “steeped in ideology, in all the institutional discourses through which people come to understand themselves and place themselves in the world” (RA 76). When examining Cabeza de Vaca’s narrative for this pervasive ideological understanding of self, I found his religious ideologies to, firstly, undergo a shift as the narrative progresses and, secondly, to become increasingly explicit as danger and desperation intensify. In the following six instances of explicit religious ideology, he moves from a more inclusive recognition of God’s mercy to a more exclusive one as he shifts the protection of God from Christians as a group to particular Christians, namely, Cabeza himself. After Indian warriors lead Cabeza to their village, where there is maize, he writes, “we gave infinite thanks to our Lord for having aided us in so great a need” (60). Here, the collective group (Cabeza and the other Christians) shows religious gratitude while also demonstrating coherence to a collective ideology which holds that their God favors them above nonbelievers and thus, protects them and meets their needs. Later, Cabeza notes that a Christian avoids an arrow because “God willed that they [attackers] not wound him” (63). Here, Cabeza himself is recognizing God’s sparing of a fellow crewmember. After searching in desperation for food, he writes that, after finding oysters, “we gave many thanks to God for having brought us there” (70); similarly, upon finding a calm spot at sea, Cabeza de Vaca writes, “It pleased God, who at the time of greatest need customarily shows his favor” (76). Wanting to stay with the other rafts he says “together all three of our rafts would follow along whatever path God might choose to carry us” (81). These are the final instances of Cabeza really recognizing God as favoring the Spaniards as a group. After another raft is lost at sea, he says, “because of the great mercy God had for us, we did not sink in spite of the foul weather” (82). Here, it is Cabeza’s raft in particular that is spared by the grace of God. Interestingly, Cabeza does not provide a theological explanation after the same men that God allegedly provides for in earlier statements perish of disease, starvation, and bloody attacks.

Looking back to Reading Autobiography, Smith and Watson helpfully conclude the section concerning ideologies by stating that they are “multiple, mobile, and mutating” (RA 78). As Cabeza de Vaca’s situation becomes bleaker in the unfamiliar new world, perhaps his Euro-centric ideological I becomes more bleak as well. No longer referenced as the God of abundant help, the Christian God becomes a God who allows some to die on the journey while allowing “pagans” to live (60). Just as readers see the breakdown of political ideology when the governor releases his once central authority to every man for himself, so too can they observe the shifting religious ideology of God as a gifting God of all explorers to a sparing God of few explorers in a survival-oriented situation.

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