Cabeza de Vaca? Or Cabeza de Mentiras?

When reading the first part of The Narrative of Cabeza de Vaca, the concept of Authenticity as found in Smith and Watson’s text, strikes some curiosity in the reader.  This specific aspect of autobiographies focuses on who tells the story and what parts of the story they consider to be significant.  Smith and Watson also question if this person’s life may be of interest to a broad public, or if it could be a popular read.  Another part asks how and at what points in the text is the narrating “I” asserted.  All of these different aspects of an autobiography can help unfold the authenticity of what was written.  These aspects question the motive of what has been said and to what extent the readers can hold the author truthful.  While this appears as one of the only texts from this adventure, there can be no way now to ensure what actually happened on this voyage, but one can be sure that Cabeza de Vaca has gone down in history memorably as somewhat of a hero in this horrible adventure-tragedy.  However, how much of The Narrative of Cabeza de Vaca can be called authentic?  Now this could just be my own irrational opinion, but reading his stories I got the feeling that all Cabeza de Vaca told may not have been truth. And for this I question the authenticity of his historical autobiography.

The question of authenticity arises as parts of the narrative seem to me a bit, well, flattering to Cabeza de Vaca himself.  In his letter to the King he writes, “For myself I can say that on the expedition that by command of Your Majesty I made to the mainland, well I thought that my deeds and services would be as illustrious and self-evident as those of my ancestors,” (45-46).  In this quotation, Cabeza de Vaca alludes to the grandeur of his family name.  He admits that during this expedition he had all the intent to do great things, to gain his spot in the family honor.  Could this then have had an influence on what he reported to the King and in this narrative?  It’s very possible that he exaggerated a few things, in hopes to make himself look better.  He writes later in that letter that he makes great effort and care to remember everything as precisely as he can and tell it as briefly as he can, all that happened in those nine years, after the fact.  This brings into question to what extent what he writes about is true.  It would be no easy feat to remember everything that happened, precisely as it did, during this great span of time.  In his effort to make his stories brief for the King, he also makes it easier for himself to fudge on a few of the things he says.  It’s easier to tell a fast lie than to think up and drag out a long one, isn’t it?

Some reasons for this doubt appear in a few of the first stories he mentions, where he himself seems to make it out on top.  One example appears in his relation of one of the fleet’s arrivals on shore, when the governor decides to move inland to find a more suitable port for the men.  Cabeza de Vaca objects this plan and explains that his idea of staying would be superior.  This all seemed to me some kind of ruse on his part to impress the King in the beginning and make himself stand out.  This part is told in a noble fashion and is far more lengthy than any other part in the story, up to the point where the four men get captured.  He writes, “I. . .requested on behalf of Your Majesty that he not leave the ships without their being in port and secure, and thus I asked that my request be certified by the notary,” and that, “He [the governor] responded. . .I had no right to make these demands of him,” (58).  Cabeza de Vaca makes himself out to be the only man in the entire fleet that thinks this idea foolish, explaining the governor proceeded with the majority vote.  He recounts this experience and asks that his opinion and ideas be written down to show the King, to which the governor declines.  All of this could be read in earnest, but this could also be a grand tale, as his request for recognition was declined.  What better way to get international and historical fame by claiming that if the entire fleet had just listened to him, none of the bad stuff would have happened.

Apart from the letter and the official disagreement, other examples appear in the story that make me question Cabeza de Vaca’s total authenticity.  He uses the words “conquered,” “took,” and “captured” throughout the text to describe actions committed upon the Indians by him and his men, making it appear as though it were a breeze, that there was not much struggle from the other side.  He relates to the King that the Spanish are the more powerful group, leaving out some victories that may have occurred on the side of the Indians (the more physically fit and aggressive group). After the crisis in the bay, he writes that the same governor that once declined him now comes to him asking for guidance.  How predictable.  Shortly after this incident the men find themselves floating on rafts out at sea.  Cabeza de Vaca writes of his raft, “there were not five men left standing. . .only the helmsman and I were still able to guide the raft.  And two hours into the night, the helmsman told me that I should take charge of it, because he was in such condition that he thought he would die that very night,” (82).  Maybe it be so that he found himself in the raft with most of the wounded men left in this fleet.  And then he found it that he was the only man left standing.  However, I find this a little peculiar.  How he comes to be in this raft lost at sea the only man that isn’t painfully wounded or on the verge of death strikes me as inauthentic. He makes himself a hero here.  Did he fib a little when writing this account, in hopes to impress the King and the entire public who would read this, to make himself a hero in this great tragedy?  No one may ever know. . .except maybe that helmsman, but well, it’s a bit late for that.

[[After all is said and done, I will admit that I lack quite a lot of knowledge yet about this particular text and know nothing about the incident itself apart from what I read in here.  So, it may very well be authentic, in which case I forfeit my argument on the contrary.]]

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