Cabeza de Vaca’s Constructed Autobiographical Truth

It’s interesting to read Cabeza de Vaca’s Relacion because it is seemingly a straight forward account, almost to the point of being akin to a captain’s log, of his experiences in the New World.  At the time of its publication, it’s form as a travel narrative mixed with a letter to the King must have provided it with an understood authority, almost like its factuality couldn’t or shouldn’t be questioned.  But this autobiographical truth is constructed by de Vaca and at times, he can become overbearing on his discourses.  Almost like he is defending his truth, but who is questioning it?  When read with a more cynical eye, some moments of the narrative seem James Frey-esque, either as potential fabrications or self-aggrandizements.

One such occasion that stood out to me was de Vaca’s lengthy description of the three separate “beseeching[s]” he received to leave the ship docked off Trinidad.  Conveniently, an hour after he departs, a tremendous storm wrecks the ship and kills everyone on board, leaving the question in my mind, why did he spend so much space, almost as much space as he spent describing the storm and its subsequent damage, to detail a process so trivial?  It sounded like an excuse, like something rehearsed on the way to the principal’s office, like he was covering his tracks.  When thought of this way, his departure feels more of an abandonment or a violation of conduct.  Of course de Vaca has the final say being that he was the only one left alive, a convenient position to be in when faced with scrutiny(also a convenient position when faced with scrutiny is being dead for four centuries.)  And as a side note, I think the biblical significance of the three rejections is more than just coincidence, perhaps a prelude to the healing powers he would gain later on in the narrative.

Ultimately, this makes me question de Vaca’s role as an author and his influence on the autobiographical truth of his story.  In the introduction of The Narrative of Cabeza de Vaca, Adorno and Pautz discuss de Vaca’s early readership and his influence on them, “Cabeza de Vaca’s report[to the court in Valladoid in 1537] had led the men there assembled to believe that the country that he had visited and that they were about to experience was the richest in the world.” (31)  But how could this have happened when his account in Relacion details the exact opposite, an ordeal plagued by hardships and tragedy?  De Vaca saw dollar signs, or maybe I should say doubloon signs.  I think de Vaca saw an opportunity in creating a persona, one that doesn’t fit precisely into his narrative but one that is more marketable and publicly known.  This book is perhaps the only positive he can take away from his experience, a man “who came away naked”.  And for that, for trying to make something out of what is otherwise a futile and downright depressing experience, I can’t blame him.

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