The Identity of Cabeza de Vaca

While Cabeza’s autobiography centers around his travels, turmoils, and exploration of the new world, he clearly forms his own identity throughout the narrative.  Cabeza’s identity is especially important, as one of his goals as an explorer, colonizer, and writer is to identify with his audience.  As noted by Smith and Watson, identities are constructed, in language, and are discursive (38).  By discursive they mean that “identity is a production which is never complete (38).  Cabeza’s identity, like many of his fantastic stories, is completely constructed and might not be completely true.  This narrative has one key audience, the king, and Cabeza would want to present himself in the best light for the king.  For instance, when Cabeza gets in an argument with the governor about whether they should stay with the ships or journey over land, Cabeza clearly shows how is argument is better than the governors.  He is in a sense proving his identity as an explorer and leader by proving his rightness, but one must ask themselves whether or not Cabeza is presenting complete and honest “truth,” or is he just creating a fictional character that looks noble and honorable to the king?  Cabeza proves himself to be a chivalrous adventurer when he states, “I preferred risking my life to placing my honor in jeopardy” (Cabeza 59).  Cabeza is clearly concerned with his honor and thus would want to present himself in an honorable way.

When discussing the identity of Cabeza, it is also important to note that identity is “marked by time and place” (Smith & Watson 39).  Cabeza’s identity is constructed by the fact that he lived during the 16th century, was an explorer and colonizer, and also was a Spaniard.  This being said, one must not assume that Cabeza has only one identity.  One could even draw distinction between the free and valiant Cabeza and the prisoner Cabeza within the narrative.  Even the way he describes things, such as the natives, seems to constantly change.  At one point he states, “They [the indians] are a people wonderfully well built, very lean and of great strength and agility” (Cabeza 68).  Later on he describes the natives as “people poor an wretched” (75).  There could be a number of reasons for these drastically different descriptions of the natives, such as the fact that as the natives become more hostile toward Cabeza, he sees them in a less favorable light, or perhaps he is trying to show the beauty of these people while also showing that they need the white man’s help.  What is important to understand is that we must allow ourselves to view the different identities of the narrator in order to create a more accurate description of the autobiographer.

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