Posted by: | 7th Sep, 2008

Violent Storms and Stones for Dinner

In the first half of Naufragios, Cabeza de Vaca makes many intriguing statements about the people and environment he observes in Latin America. A topic that fascinates me is how people represent natural environments that are not their own, how seemingly objective descriptions of nature have moral undertones, and how judgments made on the nature of a place blur into judgments of the people who live there.

Cabeza de Vaca expresses awe, terror, and frustration in his encounters with the natural world in Latin America. Repeatedly he mentions the destructive power of the climate and the staggering size of the environment. Storms happen frequently and forcefully; when a storm hits the port in Cuba, “todas las casas e iglesias se cayeron, y era necesario que anduviésemos siete u ocho hombres abrazados unos con otros para podernos amparar que el viento no nos llevase” (79). Cabeza de Vaca often mentions the immense trees which have fallen and constantly hinder their path (94, 96). Nature in Latin America is depicted very unlike nature in Europe by Cabeza de Vaca and his contemporaries, it is not pleasantly picturesque and dominated by humankind, but is haphazard and destructive. One could go so far to say it is inherently evil. Cabeza de Vaca describes how anything could happen in “tierra tan extraña y tan mala” and on one occasion, as the footnotes so helpfully point out, he chooses to say that the vipers “matan” instead of merely saying that they are venomous, suggesting malicious intent (103, 144).

Cabeza de Vaca paints the people he encounters with the same brush – they have exaggerated features, are unpredictably dangerous, and have bizarre habits. In one odd passage describing the indigenous people he has seen, he states: “como son tan crecidos de cuerpo y andan desnudos, desde lejos parecen gigantes.” It is hard to say exactly what Cabeza de Vaca was seeing in this moment, but later he reports seeing other indigenous people “no tan grandes como los que atrás dejamos” perhaps indicating that he had finally got his imagination under control (100, 144). Cabeza de Vaca likes to speculate, however, such as in his description of the indigenous diet. As well as roots and grubs, he believes that “si en aquella tierra hubiese piedras que comerían” (144). What would the people back in “civilized” Spanish society think of that?

These descriptions have their purposes of course. It must be established that Latin America is an inherently strange and wild place in order to justify the civilizing mission. Furthermore, such colonial reports back to the king needed to have selling points for further expeditions, thus Cabeza de Vaca stresses that the land is “pobre de gente” and that “sería tierra muy fructífera si fuese labrada y habitada de gente de razón” – how ideal for Spanish colonization! (98, 149)

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