Those of us who survived were as naked as the day we were born and had lost everything we had.
(Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca 56)
The most important theme that I have touched upon in the film is the creation of a new man--a man who is not European, who is not Indian, who is right in the middle. This is like the beginning of the newborn American or Latin American. (Nicolas Echevarria qtd. in Della Flora H2)
Cabeza de Vaca's conquest lay in the realm of the spirit rather than that of territory and treasure. (Pilkington 145)
Imagine "Dances With Wolves" retold by Gabriel Garcia Marquez and filtered through a mystical, psychedelic haze. Imagine the absence of mellow frat boy Kevin Costner as the outsider who learns to love Indians, and insert Juan Diego, a gaunt Mexican actor with searing, gut-wrenching intensity. That's the recipe for "Cabeza de Vaca," a Mexican historical epic about Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca, the Spanish explorer who was shipwrecked off the Florida coast in 1528, walked for eight years to the Pacific Coast of Mexico and became a respected shaman / healer along the way. (Guthmann D5)
Cabeza de Vaca dramatizes a moment in the colonial process that forced a reconsideration of the relation between conqueror and conquered, between self and other. (Hershfield 9)
Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca is the sign of the lost American dream, the ideal of a life forever remaking itself in the process of the adventure, never limited by national borders or monolingual territories in which anyone can be everything or even everyone desired if he or she is capable of convincing others of his or her usefulness--the dream of succeeding on the basis of hard work, adaptability, and even cultural assimilation. (Juan Bruce-Novoa 17)
They said the man who was dead and whom I had healed in their presence had gotten up well and walked and eaten and spoken to them, and that all the people we had healed had gotten well and were very happy. This caused great wonder and awe, and nothing else was spoken about in the entire land. (Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca 80)
Unlike so many of its predecessors, La Relacion de Cabeza de Vaca proposes a new world order of sorts. It calls for an ethical revolution on the part of the Spanish that have designs to conquest colonize America. His ideals and vision could only be those of one who has traveled a good distance and has learned to see this phenomenal landscape with the eyes of the heart. (Nanfito 187)
The abstraction of myth gives way to ambivalence and contradiction, and the conquistador, no longer a mythical, powerful hero, appears in all his frail humanity. (Pastor-Bodmer 136)
My attention wanders from the perfunctory narrative to the thing he refrains from confiding to the royal ear. That thing is a mysterious feeling about the increase of life in man from effort and taking thought of his fellows. The weather-beaten explorer of the sixteenth century, lost in a thorny land among copper-colored savages and facing a bleak future, discovered religion to be a reality of which he had never dreamt. His effort, his feeling for others, takes novel paths; but underneath, quite apparently, lies an ageless and universal experience. (Long 9)
And it's hard not to feel that in this intermingling of Christian and Indian religions, cruelty and piety, there lies some clue to the modern Latin American consciousness. (Denby 59)
But Cabeza de Vaca's more lasting significance has been literary and cultural, not historical. The report he published in 1542 under the title La Relacion has fascinated and puzzled readers for centuries. A backward glance at that work reveals that Cabeza de Vaca was not only a physical trailblazer; he was also a literary pioneer, and he deserves the distinction of being the Southwest's first writer. (Pilkington 146-47)
Now that both silly Columbus movies have come and gone, we have a film that does wonderfully what they failed to do--namely, make us see the New World with all the terror and wonder of a Spaniard totally unprepared for what he found. (Carr 32).
Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca was and is a dangerous man. Not because he was violent (for he is perhaps the gentlest person of the American saga), but because he stands as a challenge to our reflexive beliefs and our tidy categories. Though he was the first European on record to spend significant time in North America, and the first to write a book about this land, even most well-educated people haven't heard of him because his story is too strange, too disturbing to be taught in our schools. To encounter him is to encounter our own limits and possibilities. To tell his story is to challenge our taboos. To invoke his time is to reveal our own. (Ventura 22)
Copyright (c) 2000 by Paul Galante, Graduate Student at Lehigh University.
This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of the U.S. copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that the author is notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of the author.