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Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca : biography

c. 1488/1490 - c. 1557/1558

Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca (Jerez de la Frontera, c. 1488/1490 – Seville, c. 1557/1558) was a Spanish explorer of the New World, one of four survivors of the 1527 Narváez expedition. During eight years of traveling across the Southwest, he became a slave, trader and shaman to various Native American tribes before reconnecting with Spanish colonial forces in Mexico in 1536. After returning to Spain in 1537, he wrote an account, first published in 1542 as La Relación ("The Relation", or in more modern terms "The Account"The Account: Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca's Relacion, title of 1993 English translation by Martin Favata and Jose Fernandez.), which in later editions was retitled Naufragios ("Shipwrecks"). Cabeza de Vaca has been considered notable as a proto-anthropologist for his detailed accounts of the many tribes of American Indians that he encountered.

In 1540 Cabeza de Vaca returned to the Western Hemisphere, appointed adelantado of the Río de la Plata in present-day Argentina, where he was supposed to re-establish the settlement of Buenos Aires. Unsuccessful, he also came into conflict with the dominant official in the region, Domingo Martínez de Irala, who had him arrested in 1544 for poor administration. Cabeza de Vaca was transported to Spain for trial in 1545. Although his sentence was eventually commuted, he never returned to the Americas. He died in poverty in Seville.

Early life and education

Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca was born around 1490 into a hidalgo family, the son of Núñez and Teresa Cabeza de Vaca y de Zurita, in the town of Jerez de la frontera. Despite their status as minor nobility, the family had modest economic resources. In 16th-century documents, his name appeared as "Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca".Cabeza de Vaca, Prologue, La Relacion (1542). Note: The surname Cabeza de Vaca (meaning "cow head") was granted to his mother's family in the 13th century, when his ancestor Martín Alhaja aided a Christian army attacking Moors by leaving a cow's head to point out a small secret mountain pass for their use.

Film adaptation

  • The film Cabeza de Vaca (1991), a Mexican production, was directed by Nicolás Echevarría and starred Juan Diego. Based on Naufragios, the film was entered into the 41st Berlin International Film Festival. A DVD version was released in 2012.


The Relation of Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca

The Relation of Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca is Cabeza de Vaca’s account of his experiences on what is now known as Galveston Island, Texas. In November of 1528, Cabeza de Vaca and his depleted crew of three men were shipwrecked on the island and subsequently struggled to survive., Encyclopædia Britannica Online Academic Edition. They wandered along the Texas coast as prisoners of the Han and Capoque American Indians for two years, while Cabeza de Vaca observed the people, picking up their ways of life and customs.Baym, Nina. "Álvar Núñez Cabeza De Vaca," in The Norton Anthology of American Literature, 7th ed. Vol. A. New York: W.W. Norton, 2007, pp. 40–48

In 1537, Cabeza de Vaca returned to Spain and wrote his narratives of the expedition. These narratives were collected and published in 1542 in Spain. They are now known as “The Relation of Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca”. The narrative of Cabeza de Vaca is the “first European book devoted completely to North America.”, American Journeys] His account is a detailed look into the lives of American Indians of the time. Cabeza de Vaca showed compassion and respect for native peoples, which, together with the great detail he recorded, distinguishes his narrative from others.

Role of observer

In the narrative, Cabeza de Vaca reported on the customs and ways of American Indian life. Aware of his status as an early European explorer, Cabeza de Vaca closely observed the native people and noted their culture. He spent eight years with various groups, including the Capoque, Han, Avavares, and Arbadaos. He describes details of the culture of the Malhado people, the Capoque, and Han American Indians, such as their treatment of offspring, their wedding rites, and their main sources of food. Cabeza de Vaca and his three fellow survivors at times served as slaves to the American Indians to keep alive. Through his observations, Cabeza de Vaca served as a guide to early American Indian life near the present-day Mexico-Texas border.

Living octopus

Living octopus

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