The Way of the Maize Road: From the 1542 Relación of Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca



Cabeza de Vaca’s account spans over nine years of his journey through America. There are many themes (religion, gender, survival, etc.) that encompass the account, making it difficult to highlight just five sections to draw from and summarize Cabeza’s journey. My goal was to choose chapters that would offer not only a summary of the major themes in Cabeza’s account, but also chapters that would lend an insight for the reader into Cabeza’s character. This is in hopes that the reader will gain an understanding of the type of narrator he is, the goals of his narration, and its intended reader. After reading the introduction by the editors Rolena Adorno and Patrick Charles Pautz, I gained a feeling that they were very cautious when dealing with the validity of the account, not only because Cabeza was charting new territory (most of the time lost), but because his claims are often met with criticism from historians and scholars who have mapped his passage, and do not agree that his intentions were always as he had planned and expressed. For many, the account raises a lot of questions and gaps  within the narration. The passages I have chosen are also to challenge some of the mystery while commending Cabeza on his observations and  care in detail that make his Relación an interesting read from the perspectives of history, writing, and anthropology.


From Prologue (page 45-47): Cabeza’s introduction for the king of Spain, the “Holy, Imperial, Catholic Majesty.” Cabeza wrote this account for the king of Spain to illustrate all that he has done in service of the king with the guidance of God. It is filled with praise for his majesty and tries to mark what made this expedition unique from those that precede it. This introduction speaks heavily upon Cabeza’s character, and prepares the reader of the summarized goals, trials, and encounters of this journey. What I found to be most interesting was that Cabeza referred to the Indians as “barbarous peoples” after having spent nine years amongst them and survived from their curtesy. This alone invokes the readers rendering of the text and the cultural customs and background of its narrator.

From Chapter Five (59-64): How the governor left the ships. The reader is given the beginning status’ of the journey (three hundred men, supples, etc.), and the already weary relationship between the European’s and the Indians. The chapter also depicts the determined and yet faulty command of the Governor whom ignores the advice of his men leading them into peril. It is important for the reader to read of these beginning circumstances and just how miraculous it is that Cabeza had survived with so little to go on.

From Chapter Twelve (85-88): How the Indians brought us food. The chapter shows the generosity of the group of Indians who aided in the survival of the men before and after a failed sea voyage killed many of them. Trade, food, death, and Indian customs are all shown with a richness in the writing. This section summarizes many themes witnessed throughout the account.

From Chapter Twenty-Four(125-128): Of the customs of the Indians of that land. Cabeza writes of his observations of the Indians and their customs. This chapter, amongst others, breaks from the narration of the journey that was focused on Cabeza and his men. The insight into these people’s customs and lives is unique and very enthralling. One can also see why Cabeza would continue to refer to the Indians as barbarians, but the emphasis he places in detail suggests otherwise. During his account he does not often offer criticism of the customs. The reader might infer that he has tried to remain purely insightful in his account, leaving out his own input, or that he has come to gain a respected understanding of the Indians. Then again I do not think he trusts them, the detail may be for battle purposes and more likely for the king to know his enemy.

From Chapter Thirty- Six (167-169): Of how we had churches built in that land. In claiming land, it is not only claimed in the name of the king, but also in the name of God. Once Cabeza had come into Christian security, he commanded the Indians to build churches, and ordered them to bring the children of the most important lords and have them baptized. Cabeza is delighted to announce (to his intended reader the king) that the Indians did as they were ordered and reported news that God’s teachings had spread over the land. Cabeza is proud to claim that by his might and those devoted to the true Lord, Christianity would continue to maintain these developments and would serve in the name of the king through all circumstances.

After viewing the selections Heath, Norton, and Wiley had incorporated into their anthologies, I was surprised by the overall choices they had made. Both Heath and Norton contributed more than five passages, but they differentiated in the overall goal of the collection. Heath chose passages that focused on the culture of the Indians and the relationships Cabeza had with them. Norton also remained heavy in passages framed around Indian culture, but tried to incorporate more of Cabeza’s journey and trials into the scope, offering a more balanced account. Wiley, only including three passages, chose chapters from the middle of the journey, and remained primarily within the theme of the culture and religion of the Indians.  It seemed that all three anthologies viewed the observations into Indian culture as very important information offered by Cabeza rather than his own personal experiences. However, although it may not be as entertaining to the average reader, I felt the overall “supposed” goals of Cabeza’s and actions taken by him, were also very important to understand the writing and its intent. From this stand point, I think it would benefit the reader if passages pertaining to the uniqueness of the writing itself were included in an anthology. Context aside, the account will probably be subjected to the fundamentals of and variables associated with  writing; more precisely that of a narration. What are the motivations behind the writer? After all, Cabeza was the only one writing of this journey with only a few others at the time capable of contesting it. The five passages I’ve chosen are meant to be a balanced collection of the context, but also five chapters that show the frame work of the narration, and would  speak of the character and narrator of Cabeza.



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