Cabeza de Vaca’s Conversion
Introduction and Thesis
Over four and a half centuries have passed since Spanish explorer Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca traveled to what is now known as North America. He would later write about the eight years he spent in the strange, uncivilized land, with a particular emphasis on his interactions with the people he met there. While he does tell of a beautiful land and its many resources, the experience and the conditions he describes are anything but glamorized; the journey Cabeza de Vaca describes is often one of confusion and fighting, physical and mental fatigue, and suffering and death, and yet he never wavers in his loyalty to the Spanish Crown or in his faith in God.
The year 1991 saw the release of Mexican filmmaker Nicolas Echevarria’s “Cabeza de Vaca,” a movie based on some of the explorer’s writings. It seems intended as much more of an artistic endeavor (and psychological portrait) than as a documentary or a historically consistent film. It has a highly selective focus, encompassing probably just a handful of specific events from the narrative; many of the film’s details, characters, and their ordeals are entirely fictional. As a particular interpretation of the narrative account “Naufragios,” Echevarria’s film suggests that Cabeza de Vaca’s spiritual and cultural identity were reshaped by his new role as a shaman-like healer. The original narrative depicts his conversion of perspective, but the film exaggerates this, depicting a conversion of his beliefs and showing cultural assimilation occurring on a much deeper level—a spiritual one. While this lends to what may be read as a valid criticism of imperialistic religion, the film goes too far and sees Christianizing as fundamentally negative.
It is worth noting that the two works are not structured in the same way. The film rearranges parts of the narrative to create a more logical storyline, and the changes (such as attitudinal) that occur are seen in a clear “sequence.” The two works don’t follow the same order of events (in fact, some events have no counterpart in the other work). The film is mostly explored in the order events are seen (beginning-to-end).
“Naufragios”: The Original Narrative
Was Cabeza de Vaca’s assimilation into the native cultures really “genuine”? Some argue that it was not. Kun Jong Lee, in the article “Pauline Typology in Cabeza de Vaca’s Naufragios,” says that the explorer “adapts himself to the indigenous cultures only to survive among the Indians and escape to New Spain” (253). Lee also says that Cabeza de Vaca’s acculturation is purely “superficial” and a stratagem; that he does not actually change at all, except externally; and that he leaves “his European and Christian core intact” (253).
Such arguments are unfair because they equate necessity with insincerity. Surely it is true that Cabeza de Vaca adopted native ways largely because his survival required it. But even though his physical actions and “acclimated” new lifestyle were due more to necessity than anything else, this does not mean that he didn’t undergo any meaningful (emotional or attitudinal) change, or that his motives were (consistently) disingenuous. Nor does the fact that he eventually returned to Spain, and resumed his former way of life, support such portraits of Cabeza de Vaca as static.
To know his faith is to know Cabeza de Vaca. To him, bringing Christianity wasn’t just an obligation; it was the right thing to do. Through his unrelenting faith in God, Cabeza de Vaca survived terrible ordeals. While he represented a kind, altruistic religion, one that healed the sick and promoted compassion, other explorers were, also in the name of God, committing murder and enslaving Indians. His faith “was as genuine as the sun,” writes historian John Terrell in the book Journey Into Darkness. “Never did he abandon his code of honesty and justice” (164-5).
His Role as Healer & His Christianizing of Indians
Cabeza de Vaca’s role as a healer is quite important to understanding his faith. Through it he shows his reliance on God. Also, part of his overall purpose was to Christianize, so his role as healer was what earned the natives’ respect; it allowed him to develop a relationship with, respect for and understanding of them and their culture; it helped him to bring the natives to believe in God; and it helped him realize why the Christianizing movement needed to be kind, not savage. He describes Indians as intelligent and, generally, quite open to accepting this new religion and God.
Cabeza de Vaca did not come intending to be a healer, but the role allowed him to fulfill his missionary aims. He recalls his initial reaction to the prospect of being a medicine man: “We did not know how to heal,” he plainly states (49); they scoffed at the natives’ healing rituals. But he and the others were coerced into attempting a healing; if they refused, they’d receive no food and starve. The natives believed these “superior men” possessed great powers (49), but he lacked that confidence. Despite his misgivings, he did as told. It would probably be the most important decision he made. His methods focused on Christianity but combined some aspects of native rituals: “The way in which we cured was by making the sign of the cross over them and blowing on them and reciting a Pater Noster and an Ave Maria; and then we prayed … to God Our Lord to give them health” (49). He says that God restored health to all they prayed over, thus earning the Indians’ deep respect. These first healings, performed during his time on the Isle of Ill Fortune, gave him a confidence that stayed with him through much of his time in the foreign lands. He believed God allowed others to be healed through him and that “he survived only because God willed that he should” (Terrell 169).
Cabeza de Vaca met many tribes during the eight years, and Terrell (more than once) makes a key point: Cabeza de Vaca was not a healer among all the tribes he found, nor did he did bring Christianity to all of them. Some were savage, brutish tribes whose immoral ways made clear they wouldn’t care about his faith. For example, the explorer concluded of tribes along the Southwest coast: “All the people there are very evil” (90). On a related note, as Terrell adds, “the cultural and intellectual levels of different tribes were at great variance” (169), which he says Cabeza de Vaca came to realize. Some groups, then, simply wouldn’t have grasped a complex religion like Christianity.
Nonetheless, the narrative report of Cabeza de Vaca encompasses a myriad of healings performed by the explorer and some of his companions. To many tribes, his role was that of a shaman, albeit an amazing one. Through God, he says, he relieved all manner of ills; he performed a miraculous surgery (Terrell 199); he even revived a man who was presumed dead, which “caused great astonishment … and in all the land no one talked of anything else” (Cabeza de Vaca 72).
Many Indians, he writes, came to believe not only in Cabeza de Vaca as a great healer and doctor, but in the God to whom he credited the restoration, and they seemed convinced that his was a far more powerful deity than those of their native religions. He also tells how Indians, in great numbers, came to ask him to bless them and their children with the sign of the cross (72, 104).
Conversion of Perspective
In describing how he shared his faith, Cabeza de Vaca once wrote:
We told them … that there was a man in heaven whom we called God, who had created heaven and earth … and that we did what he commanded us to do, and that from his hand came all good things; and that if they would do this they would be much better for it. And we found in them such a disposition to believe, that if there had been a language in which we could have understood each other perfectly we would have left them all Christians. (Cabeza de Vaca 105)
It is significant that he affirms the Indians’ ability to comprehend and willingness to accept. Not all explorers thought natives intelligent enough to grasp the Christian concept of God. Cabeza de Vaca, however, shows a belief in a God who created and loves all people, without exception. And unlike the others, Cabeza de Vaca came in peace, with the intent to explore and to convert, not to conquer. (He may well have been also invested in extending the Spanish empire, but he certainly offered a different approach to building colonies.) There is no doubt that, as he came to more fully understand and appreciate the native cultures, Cabeza de Vaca became more aware of the death and destruction the Indians suffered at the hands of other Christians. He writes how saddened he is to see this beautiful land ruined and its inhabitants tormented, and that many Indians fear outsiders because of the cruelty inflicted on them by other Christians (107-8). “We told the Indians that were we seeking [other Christians] to tell them not to kill Indians, nor to make slaves of them, nor to take them from their lands, nor to do them any other harm at all,” he says, and “they rejoiced very much to hear this” (107).
Over time, Cabeza de Vaca did what he could to help the natives and keep them from harm. He took a stand for the Indians and their right to freedom from enslavement and violence. He implies a certain dissociation (from the other explorers) that his earlier writing clearly lacks: “We had many and great altercations with the Christians,” he says, “because they wanted to make slaves of the Indians” (112). He even once addresses the King of Spain directly: “All these people, if they are to be brought to be Christians and into obedience of Your Imperial Majesty, must be led by good treatment, and … this is a very sure way, and no other will suffice” 108). The remark exemplifies what has gradually become his new perspective toward Indians and the Christianizing movement.
He told the natives they would not endure the cruelty they had before, and yet, in spite of all his efforts, Cabeza de Vaca saw that the other explorers had largely ignored him and his efforts to promote a better, gentler Christianity: “We wanted only to seek freedom for the Indians, and … the exact opposite occurred, for the Spaniards had agreed to fall upon those whom we had sent away reassured and in peace” (115). Adds Terrell, “The white men who came after him soon forgot both him and the words he had spoken. They ignored his counsel and his message. They tortured and killed and robbed and desecrated until at last the whole land was swept by the flames of war” (224).
Here was a man who lived among the Indians for so long, and in so doing, came to know the value of their ways. He generally found the native peoples to be bright, friendly and “apt to follow any doctrine were it well prepared” (105). Through his role as healer, he gave them “a greater God to worship than any they had ever known” (Terrell 224) and, in turn, received new insight into his own set of principles and beliefs.
“Cabeza de Vaca”: The Film
Despite the considerable disparity between the film and the novel, it would be inaccurate to claim the two have nothing in common in their portrayals of the explorer and how his experiences affected him. Like the narrative, the film shows him as one whose attitude and values (‘perspective’) are transformed by his years spent immersed in native cultures. There is no question as to whether a conversion of perspective (or social perspective) occurred. What differentiates the two works, then, is the conversion of belief that exists in the movie. In fact, the film implies that a conversion of belief is necessary for one to have a conversion of perspective. The idea is that only by his spiritual ‘awakening’ does Cabeza de Vaca become able to be fully integrated into the native culture and genuinely have a change of perspective.
The early scenes of the movie make clear Cabeza de Vaca’s feelings of kinship with other Christians. After he and the others are shipwrecked and start to explore, they suddenly discover a crewmate who has been savagely killed by Indians. The friar who travels with the expedition says to burn the body, but Cabeza de Vaca objects: “Why don’t you burn my blood? It’s the same blood as his” (0:17). He feels the Christian man deserves a proper burial, and his remark suggests the connection he feels as a sort of brother in faith.
Soon after, he is taken captive by two natives, one of whom is a shaman. They take his cross and treat him cruelly. After having been enslaved for some time, he tries to escape his captors but is thwarted by the shaman’s magic, and he finds himself precisely where he was just moments before. He is frustrated by his subjugation to the natives, bewildered by the control their magic has over him, and severely tested in his beliefs. Breaking down, he curses the two with remarks that typify the cultural prejudices of his day. “I speak and speak and speak … because I’m more human than you” (0:34) is among comments he makes before collapsing to the ground and lamenting his condition.
Cabeza de Vaca does become a healer, but under different circumstances than in the narrative. For example, no explanation is given for why he participates in a healing ceremony for a wounded Indian, though he is apparently forced to do it. (Presumably, the reason he’s involved is that, as a slave, he can be ordered to assist with any task.) It is noteworthy that the film gives no signs that the natives (at this point) think of Cabeza de Vaca as a “superior” man. In fact, they’re the ones who initially wield the strong magic by which they enchain him.
The healing ritual itself is key because it provides the film’s interpretation of the explorer as a man who is spiritually assimilated and changed. Cabeza de Vaca and his captors share a mysterious drink just prior, which seems to disorient him. When he and the others enter the room where the wounded man lies, the shaman begins the ceremony. After watching for a few moments, Cabeza de Vaca kneels by the man and seems completely overtaken by an external force. His hand moves toward the injured eye, as though the hand were guided there, and he places it over the eye. His body trembles. When he is finally able to stand, Cabeza de Vaca remains in an almost delirious state, and he looks up to the sky, perceiving the room to be swirling in blurry circles around him.
Whatever had taken hold of him isn’t made known, but the suggestion is clear that he experiences some sort of native, spiritual power or influence when he becomes a shamanic healer. The native is, in fact, cured, and in return, Cabeza de Vaca receives both his cross and his freedom. The small cross now has feathers with it, representing a native, shamanic symbol and the Christian one joined together. What’s more, both the explorer and his former captors now acknowledge in each other a common humanity, and they feel a bond that crosses cultural bounds and unites people.
Of course, no such event ever took place in the original narrative. There is never one specific occurrence that Cabeza de Vaca cites as having a particularly profound effect on him, and as stated, he believed that he could only heal because God saw fit to allow it. He was a shaman, or medicine man, only in the eyes of the Indians. Cabeza de Vaca, in the film, undergoes a conversion of belief through his initial healing, though it is through the rest of the events that follow (such as other healings) that further make clear that he experienced that conversion.
It is important, though, to make clear what’s being referred to by this notion of “conversion of belief.” The idea is not that his experience removed his faith or substituted some other one in its place, but rather that it completed it and created a sort of hybrid of the two. Throughout the film, as Cabeza de Vaca becomes even greater and more proficient in his powers, his changed faith becomes more evident. There is always evidence of both Christianity and shamanism in his healings, though the movie actually gives more emphasis to the latter. Some of the “qualities” of Cabeza de Vaca’s faith (in his narrative account), particularly giving thanks to God, are nowhere to be found.
The film also addresses the matter of conversion in a less-direct way. Early on, as stated, Cabeza de Vaca associates himself with Spain and with other Christians. When he is in captivity, fear and frustration cause him to echo society’s cultural biases toward Indians, and he says his captors are less human as he is. He “lived in an age when ‘Indian divinations, cures, beliefs, and ritual practices were commonly regarded as inspired by the devil’” (Lee 249), and so he reaffirms that he has a God, as if to remind himself of his superior nature. After he has been spiritually moved by the healing he performs, though, his faith is “reconstructed.” His faith has become a fusion of Christianity and shamanism, and it is also purged it of its impurity, its imperialistic and politically charged prejudices. Through his later healings, as he becomes more and more close to the Indians, he distances himself from certain other Christians; they represent a form of Christianity he is no longer connected to. At one point he says of a native who is near death, “With the life of this Indian … goes all our lives” (1:07), which is just one example of the sort of spiritual bond he feels; it stands in contrast to his earlier remark that suggested a closeness with the Christian who had been killed. “My brother, please go now,” he later says to one of his close native friends when he is forced to separate from him and the others. “Together always, Little Brother … together always,” he adds (1:31-32).
For the film, all of this lends itself to a valid criticism of imperialistic religion. Indians have been forced to flee, villages are raided and destroyed, and murders are committed because of it. It is shown to be so oppressive that even Cabeza de Vaca is threatened by it. “We better stop talking about magic … if we are going back to Christian lands,” says Dorantes (1:29), because he and Cabeza de Vaca know that if they so much as mention magic, much less show signs of having practiced it, they too will be killed. Near the end of the film, Cabeza de Vaca meets a Spanish captain, who asks him to help capture and enslave Indians. The two exchange words:
Cabeza de Vaca: 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? […] That, Captain … is that Spain?
It would have been far better, the film suggests, if the explorers had come with the intention of peacefully coexisting with the natives, not replacing them or their religion. When the film blends Christianity with native religion in Cabeza de Vaca, it portrays him as a man who is made whole and more “pure” by the merger and coexistence of these two faiths. His conversion of perspective is made most evident near the end of the film, when he takes a stand against the other explorers’ treatment of natives, and his attitude could be further read as representing the belief that the two cultures could have coexisted peacefully and complement one another as well.
But the film takes this a step too far when it suggests that all Christianizing is inherently oppressive. Maybe the movie is trying to say that the Indians didn’t need to be Christianized, which also would have been a fine point if it was made clear. Instead, the final scene shows a multitude of natives being forced to carry the overwhelming weight of a huge metal cross across the land—a message that runs counter to the original text. Why? The real Cabeza de Vaca came partly as a missionary, and clearly he didn’t force his religion on the natives; he says they freely accepted it. He was Christianizing, but he wasn’t oppressing the Indians. In fact, “The Indians gave him their pledge that they would be true Christians and serve God,” writes Terrell of the time shortly before Cabeza de Vaca left to return to Spain. “He asked them to build a house for Dios, and at its entrance to place a cross, and they told him they would do as he commanded” (260). He adds: “The Indians were baptized, and they went back to their burned fields and razed villages with hearts full of gratefulness and love for the barefoot man who had come out of the sun to help them” (260-261).
In the end, a comparison of the two works shows that the two have similar messages at times, though they take completely different routes to get there. As a film, “Cabeza de Vaca” is interested in perceiving a spiritual rebirth in the explorer and then using that as a means to proclaim its verdict on imperialistic religion—which it later claims is the inherent nature of Christianizing. But Terrell writes that explorer Antonio de Espejo, who came nearly 50 years later, encountered some Indian tribes of New Mexico. “They (Cabeza de Vaca and his companions) were remembered,” he says. And “their teachings were remembered. The sign of the cross, the doctrines of a Christian God, from whom came all life and the blessings of the earth, were not forgotten” (216).
To rewrite Cabeza de Vaca
as a man who is spiritually assimilated into another culture, that is
acceptable; cinema is quite free to do or say almost anything. It bends reality,
rewrites the past, questions the present and ponders the future. Creativity and
storytelling are the basis of film. The film crosses the line, however, when it
suggests that such a transformation is the only way for one to change his
perspective as Cabeza de Vaca did, and the film does an injustice to him,
too. To Cabeza de Vaca, the cross meant redemption and victory for others, like
the Indians. To the other explorers, the cross stood for victory—except it was
victory over the others. To not finally differentiate Cabeza de Vaca from
the others simply is not fair to the kinder Christianity he brought.
Cabeza de Vaca,
Castaways: The Narrative of Alvar Núñez
Cabeza de Vaca.
Pupo-Walker. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993.
“Cabeza de Vaca.” Dir. Nicolas Echevarria. Concorde Pictures, 1991.
Kun Jong. “Pauline Typology in Cabeza de Vaca’s Naufragios.” Early
American Literature 34 (1999):
241-62. Academic Search Premier. EBSCOhost. Benedictine Univ. Lib., Lisle, IL. 20 Oct. 2006.
Terrell, John. Journey Into Darkness: Cabeza de Vaca’s Expedition Across
North America 1528-36.
London: Jarrolds Publishers, 1964.