the site of de Vaca

In Reading Autobiography Smith and Watson bring up and the concept of “Sites of Storytelling,” in the Autobiographical Acts chapter. I found this a particularly interesting concept to apply to Cabeza de Vaca’s narrative, in that it is an eyewitness account, but yet one told many years after the events occurred. Although most autobiographies are written retrospectively, de Vaca’s personal accounts, in many ways, was a self-defense; the mission was, however, an epic failure. In Reading Autobiography Smith and Watson talk about the “site” as being a “literal place”, in this case his first return to civilization in 9 long years, of suffering and captivity. Smith and Watson also mention the “site of narration is also a moment in history, a sociopolitical space,” which in the case of de Vaca, was a return to a King whom he had sufficiently failed.

In de Vaca’s letter to King Charles V, his diction is understandably subservient for the customs Spanish court, but it seems that his intentions are to save face, in a sense. In this letter, de Vaca declares “no expedition of as many as have gone to those lands ever saw itself in such grave dangers.” His explanation for this is not utter failure and incompetence in the commanding officers, of which he was a ranking member, but instead his expeditions “wretched and disastrous end” was God’s work on account of their sins. I am not implying that de Vaca poses as reverent as a cop-out, but instead that he is acting very much the way a humble catholic servant would act, much as the King would expect.

De Vaca continues to explain that during his 9 years as he “walked lost and naked through many and very strange lands,” he was, all along, observing and studying the lands and peoples, “with respect to the foodstuffs and animals that are produced in them.” Even in the face of certain death, as he made clear to be the case, de Vaca continued to note his surroundings, observing both the “diverse customs of many and very barbarous peoples,” and the plants in order that “in some manner Your Majesty may be served.” De Vaca pleads with the King, saying regardless of the failure, he put forth the effort to learn so that other expeditions in his name may succeed. In Reading Autobiography Smith and Watson say that “in many narratives, the geographical location strongly influences the story being told,” and this is exactly what I believe of de Vaca’s narrative. Would his accounts of his 9 years have been the same had he been recording them on a day-to-day basis, or does the fact that he is writing this, originally intended for the King, as a sort of apologia? I think that the story we have received is heavily influenced by the customs of the Holy Roman Empire and Royal Spanish court.

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