Cabeza de Vaca Layerings (Fall 2002)


Timothy Guida

[1]  I agree with Galante that Cabeza de Vaca's healing work in both the historical account and the film involves a "mix" of Christian and Native, but I see an emphasis on the Native over the Christian in the film.  The Account describes very traditional Christian practices taking place in a native setting performed by the entire reluctant group of Spaniards :

We did our healing by making the sign of the cross on the sick persons, breathing on them, saying the Lord’s Prayer and a Hail Mary over them, and asking God our Lord, as best we could, to heal them and inspire them to treat us well. (62)
The film, on the other hand, portrays only Cabeza de Vaca as a healer and in a position that seems “forced” more by a native spiritual power, as Galante describes in his scene analysis.

[2]  The decision to interpret this phenomenon so differently in the film seems due to Echevarria's desire to make a point about the unity of all people.  Cabeza de Vaca's speech about “the faith” at the end of the film makes this clear:

Soldier:  We have one hundred and seventy eight captain.
Captain:  We need more slaves, eighty at least.  My God!  What is that?
Soldier:  The treasurer of the Narvaez expedition.
Captain:  A Christian?  In that condition?  The things one sees in these lands!  Treasurer, we are building a cathedral.
Soldier:  The captain trusts that you will help him find Indian slaves.  I've been told that the Indians love you.  You have won their respect.
Cabeza de Vaca:  1536 . . . eight . . . years.  Eight years.  Your request captain offends the faith more than it does me.
Captain:  What faith are you talking about?  Theirs or ours?  The Christian faith and Spain?
Cabeza de Vaca:  The only one.  The faith.  Spain?  Is this Spain?  This.  This is?  Is this Spain?  That, captain.  Is that Spain?  I have seen evidence of your justice all over this land.  Eight years!  Eight!  Three, four, eight.  Eight years!
[3]  Cabeza de Vaca's identification of one faith puts forth the idea that the variety of religious practice is all a matter of trivial dogma and that at the heart of all religion is the same idea.  This belief explains the filmmaker’s light use of formal Christian practice in the healing scenes.  By emphasizing the native ritual in the film, we see Cabeza de Vaca undergoing substantial change.  In the beginning this change seems disturbingly heretical; even in our modern society we are shocked at his use of such non-Christian practices.  After this speech, however, we are asked to consider that this alienation we feel is a result of our own ingrained ideas of clear division of religions, when, in fact, as Cabeza de Vaca sees now, these lines are determined by man and not God.  In this way the film, though inaccurate in its history, is effective in supporting a point crucial to Echevarria's purpose in the film: the unity of all religions.


Lauren Eisner

[1]  At this point in the Galante scene analysis, I am reminded of Restrepo's discussion of primitive ways and their effects on the portrayal of the natives:

The shaman figure works, then, as a metaphor for transculturation. This inscribes and present[s] peoples of the Americas.  But these cultural exchanges are represented in a way that primitivizes the Other.  (195-96)
[2]  Later in his discussion, Restrepo reiterates this same primitivizing point: "This modern look at a tribal world is nonetheless realized through a nostalgic lens that derives its power (pathos) from the suppression of the Other's historical reality (Amerindian resistance and endurance)" (205).

[3]  To primitivize the native culture is to deny the true account and culture of the indigenous people.  What is civilized is truly in the "eye of the beholder," and Echeverria should have worked to present the images of these people as strong and shown their "fight back" attitude.

[4]  Restrepo feels that the native portrayal within the film is not accurate, since, no matter what the situation, the European view is somehow infiltrated into the film's native depictions.  For instance, one of his key points is that the film yearns for and follows through with the presentation of a "primitive" world.  This clouds the film's historical perspective, for the primitivized culture is a lesser culture.  For Echevarria, the audience's desires for primitive lands are of greater concern than accurately portraying the "Other."

[5]  The use of a shaman does portray power and mysticism, however this figure may be viewed from two different perspectives.  The shaman is a key figure in the film's representation of native strength and power, yet by creating a character so involved with magic, the cultural differences become more apparent.  The "Other" is viewed by the audience as different and primitive.  Galante writes of a "spiritual bonding" that Cabeza de Vaca has with the native people, which would likely be accepted by Restrepo.  I would argue, however, that although Cabeza did seem to form a bond with the natives, the issue remains that as a transformed man, he too became viewed as the "Other."  His transformation, then, cannot transform stereotypes of the natives.


Asheroff and Joseph

Jaime Miller

[1]  The final scene of the film -- dominated by the huge cross -- is not such an abrupt break from the rest of the film as Asheroff and Joseph suggest if we remember the prominent, though subtle role of the smaller cross in the previous scene.

[2]  In the penultimate scene, one of the reasons that the death of Cascabel “tugs” at the heartstrings is because Cascabel wore Cabeza de Vaca's cross with the shaman's feathers -- the symbol of his transformation into Echevarria's "new man" -- and the cross he threw away on the brink of his return to Christian culture.  By retrieving the discarded cross Cascabel makes it yet another symbol of the brotherhood forged by two men of different cultures.

[3]  The small cross the wailing Cabeza de Vaca removes from his limp "little brother," then, strongly alludes to the overbearing cross in the final scene -- the one a symbol of unselfish love that connects, the other a symbol of selfish power that crushes.  Therefore, the cross of the final scene enhances rather than breaks the underlying goal of Echevarria's storyline.

[4]  The glaring symbol of all that is wrong with "conquest" stands in stark contrast to the symbol of the cultural brotherhood that could have been.  Echevarria consciously prepares us for the enormous cross that seems so surreal.  When we "see" in our mind's eye the big cross in the final scene paired with the small and modified cross in the earlier scene, we have in a visual nutshell the meaning of the movie.


Jason Sebok

[1]  The reason Echevarria puts this scene in at the end of the film is to concisely summarize the fate of the Natives in a short, powerful, very symbolic scene.  The scene opens with all Natives carrying a large, heavy metal cross through the desert with no real goal or direction.  It is very reminiscent of Jesus carrying the cross in his final days, a symbol of sacrifice often used by the church as a metaphor for the way to salvation.  The way to heaven is to pick up your cross and follow Christ.  Since all Natives are carrying it while a Spanish man is supervising, one can conclude that the Spanish are forcing the Natives to bear Spanish misery as well as their own -- hardly a shared sacrifice.  The Spanish and the Catholic Church seem to be using the Christian morality system as an excuse to enslave and control Native populations, a sharp contrast to the “enslavement” Cabeza de Vaca endured.

[2]  The Indian version of enslavement was quite different and seemed to have different goals than the Spanish version of enslavement.  Cabeza de Vaca was enslaved to Hechichero for a period of time, where he was treated as an inferior.  After Cabeza de Vaca’s attempted escape from his captors, however, they seemed to form a common human bond.  After a trust was built, Hechichero taught Cabeza de Vaca survival skills and, most importantly, the art of shamanism.  This is how Cabeza de Vaca applied his Christianity to the Natives, by healing the sick and performing miracles.

[3]  The Spanish “conversion” to Christianity, on the other hand, has two different versions displayed in the film, death or enslavement.  Towards the end of the film Cabeza de Vaca and his party find a whole village murdered and a Spanish musket ball in a body, proving Spanish murder.  Cabeza de Vaca then abandons his party, citing death will follow because he realizes the Spanish will use the faith as an excuse to murder Natives.  Finally, at the end of the film Cabeza de Vaca finds the body of Cascabel on a death cart, Cabeza de Vaca’s own cross draped around his neck.  Even though this Native was clearly marked by the universal sign of Christianity, the Spanish murdered him, revealing their true motives.

[4]  The other version of Christianity is displayed in the Spanish camp scene when Cabeza de Vaca is talking to the captain.  Surrounding the pair are many Natives trapped in large, iron cages, dehumanizing the Natives as if they are on display at the zoo.  Cages are also used to house and keep dangerous objects, implying that the Natives are vicious savages on the level of animals.  Cabeza de Vaca asks why they are in cages, and the captain replies that they are slaves being used to build the cathedral.  This application of Christianity contains nothing of the healing powers but is simply downright slavery in the name of the church.  The Natives are not even being taught the good side of Christianity Cabeza de Vaca showed them earlier.  They are simply construction workers being used to erect a building, ironically, in the name of Christianity.


Megan Snyder

[1]  It is interesting to me how Echevarria is using the weather in the final scene as analogous to the sentiments that the natives hold about the Spaniard’s and the Christian religion.  Not only does he use starkly contrasting black and white colors in the sky, but also, as noted by Asheroff and Joseph, he uses the “European view of religion with the natives' attitudes by inserting sounds of crashing thunder and pouring rain, which negatively connotes a walk into the destructive storm of Christianity."  It is evident that Echevarria’s point is to convey the sentiments of confusion and pain within the natives.  While they are befriended by this “hybrid” compassionate “new man” Cabeza de Vaca, they are also “slapped in the face” by the arrogant and overpowering nature of the other Spaniards.  That proverbial “slap” is mimicked by Echevarria’s use of the thunder, further signifying the stormy conditions that lay ahead between these two obviously different cultures.

[2]  Furthermore, this contrast is accentuated by the sky’s coloration.  It is almost as if Echevarria has taken a paint brush or a ruler and drawn a line down the middle of the movie-set sky.  On the left you see the white, signifying the once pure nature and life that natives once lived; and then on the right you see the black sky, signifying the harsh Christian religion they are walking head-strong into. The once “steady” group of natives who peaceably co-habited with the metamorphosed de Vaca are now being shaken into the thunderous and dark sentiments of Spanish oppression.


Rosanny Bello

[1] This part of the scene (and Galante’s analysis) is reminiscent of Jesus’ baptism.  As if in a similar trance, the heavens opened up to him, and he saw the Spirit of God who said to him

 “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” (Matt 3:17)
In this same way, Cabeza de Vaca seems to be lifted in the “illuminating smoke,” a symbol, as Galante notes, of resurrection.  Cabeza de Vaca’s “conversion” into shamanism is also portrayed as if a calling from God.  Although the two beliefs and cultures may be quite different, both are rooted in a reverence to a higher power that brings “people from different cultures [as] part of a brotherhood of man” (Ebel 95).

[2] Galante also notes that Cabeza de Vaca seems to be spreading his arms as if like a bird.  The native belief in spiritual possession by an animal spirit (often a bird) again is mixed with the symbolism of birds in Christianity.  At Jesus’ baptism, the Spirit of God appears as a dove, which throughout the Bible is a messenger of peace, love, and, as in this shaman ritual, spiritual healing.