Mary Beth Writes

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I’ve been thinking about Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca for years and I’ve also been thinking about him for a week.

It’s crazy out there in the world right now and people are, I think, kinda sick of each other. Racism, sexism, and classism are the muck we walk through to get to our cars while our climate is turning into flying monkeys. And the rich keep getting richer.

So let me tell you about a guy I admire.

I have been trying to get his story straight in my head so, of course, I read so much I overwhelmed myself. I am just going to tell you who Cabeza de Vaca is and why I think he’s a guy for times like these and people like us. At the end of this essay, I will suggest ways to learn more.

His name was Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca and he was born in 1490 in a small city in Spain. Yes, Cabeza de Vaca does mean “cow’s head.” His family received the name when his lowly 13th century great grandpa, who was a shepherd, helped Catholic King Sancho (which sounds like a brand of sardine) rout resident Muslim citizens of Spain. He did this by posting a cow’s skull at a place Sancho and his army should turn. Sancho awarded Grandpa shepherd with noble status.

The family belonged to the Spanish Hidalgo class, people of minor nobility. There was incredible social pressure throughout much of Europe at that time because so much money was being spent on wars between the royal families, led by sons of the middling noble families, and fought by conscripted peons of the lowest classes. Sound familiar?

Young Alvar hears stories of his family’s nobility and bravery, yet by age 13 his parents have died. He is sent to be a page in the household of another noble family. For the next 20 years Alvar works for important families and acquires stature in his society. He serves well in some of Spain’s many wars (fueled by riches stolen from the New World), marries a well-born lady, earns a reputation as a smart and reliable soldier and administrator.

In 1528 he is hired as the administrator/treasurer for a fleet of sailing ships that will carry 600 people, mostly men of the hidalgo class, to the New World. Their purpose is to conquer Florida i.e., everything on the Gulf of Mexico from the tip of Florida to the Yucatan peninsula. They are supposed to conquer and enslave the locals, convert them to Catholic Christianity, find gold and silver and send it back to Spain. Those who succeed at this can become as important and rich as Hernan Cortez who invaded, conquered, and enslaved Mexico. BTW, Cortez was a monster.

Here the story gets complicated. Long story short, the Conquistador admiral over this whole shebang makes unwise choices and within a year of arriving in the New World, only four of the original 600 guys made it to Florida and are still alive. It’s too long to write, but if you like poor decisions, Hispaniola, Cuba, shipwrecks, men eating their horses and then weaving ropes from their tails, and 50-man rafts trying to sail the coastline in a hurricane, and an unanesthetized surgery to remove an arrow from a man’s chest  – it’s all there and more.

The survivors include Cabeza de Vaca, a Black enslaved man named Esteban (Steven) by the Spanish but whose Berber name was Mustapha Zemmouri (enslaved as a child when Portuguese conquered Morocco). There were two other guys, one the owner/master of Mustapha.

These men disappear into the desert wilderness of south Texas for eight years. The first six years they are enslaved in native societies. Occasionally they are treated well, mostly they are harassed, overworked, and beaten. Along the way they learn some of the language of the people with whom they live. Mustafa is the most talented and adept at these new languages. They also learn what life feels like as a beaten, disrespected, and enslaved human being.

After six years the men escape. They soon encounter a few unknown-to-them indigenous people. One man is suffering a terrific headache and pleads for healing from these strange men. Cabeza de Vaca; soldier, administrator, and survivor, kneels to pray over the suffering man while making the sign of the cross.

The man gets better.

He becomes known as a healer. Native people pay him for his touch and prayers with their beads, art, deerskins, and food. Sometimes Alvar sells these items further down the road. In effect, he has become a traveling healer and peddler.

They are close to Mexico City when they encounter Spanish men on horses who are flabbergasted by these skinny men in raggedy clothes who speak to them in upper class Spanish.

The men are slave hunters although at first Alvar doesn’t understand this. Cabeza de Vaca and his cohorts have been walking through empty villages, not understanding why the people disappeared, not understanding that violence and slavery is happening where they are.

When the Spaniards ask if they know where to find are some “natives” they answer that of course they do. They have made trusted native friends from Texas to Mexico. They go back to tell their Indian friends to come to where the slave catchers are, but as they realize what’s happening, they tell and help the indigenous people to run away. The Europeans are furious and haul them to Cortez. Cortez is astonished to meet these men who are still alive eight years after a failed conquistador expedition.  

At this point, the owner of Mustapha SELLS him to a different conquistador who wants to find the Cities of Gold in Arizona and New Mexico. Mustapha will serve as translator throughout the southwest and to this day no one is completely sure what happened to him. Some claim he was killed in a battle. Others claim he escaped and joined a native tribe.

Cabeza de Vaca returns to Spain where he continues working as an administrator. Soon Spanish royals appoint him to be the ruler of a huge Spanish colony in the middle of South America.  He rules about five years until the former ruler of this area raises Spanish colonizers to oppose him. The Spaniards do not like Cabeza de Vaca because, as they say in their legal briefs, he is too lenient and compassionate on behalf of the enslaved people. 

Cabeza de Vaca returns to Spain, loses his legal battle, and dies in poverty a few years later.

It has never been easy to be a compassionate person of some privilege. It’s never been simple to figure out how to use the education and experiences one has in order to make one’s own life happen against a time and culture that says to “back off, take it easy, don’t be so sensitive.”

But here was this man, a person of his time and not ours, who ended up in dire circumstances and then survived by luck, skills, and determination. In order to live, he had to learn the ways, language, and culture of people vastly different from himself. He paid attention. He realized that all humans, not just the ones he grew up with, act in ways that are evil and good, complicated and amazing. 

He lived among people who were white and brown and also with Mustapha who was some North African shade of tawny-skinned. Stripped of privilege, these men lived by observation, hard work, and watching for opportunities to move forward.

He turned his tough experiences into respect and compassion for others. He tried to rule with some respect and leniency. He identified with their enslavement.

For his pains he was banished from power and returned to the obscurity from which he arose.

Here we are, more than 500 years later, still working at being good humans in a complicated time.


I first encountered Cabeza de Vaca in “The Forgotten History of America” by Cormac O’Brien. This is a fascinating collection of 15–20-page stories of amazing people and times in our history. The book includes many photos, illustration and insets and would be great in a setting where there are kids who are curious and who can read well. If you live in my town, I would be glad to lend you my copy.

For the longer story than I’ve written - Google Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca and/or Estevanico. Here is an interesting piece about connections between Mustapha/Estavanico and the Zuni people. 






Leonard's picture

It seems as if de Vaca would have met with many native american tribes at a very early time, and many of those tribes have since disappeared. Did de Vaca write about them, and is there is list of tribes and the places where they lived before Europeans arrived?
Mary Beth's picture

You betcha... "Cabeza de Vaca reported on the customs and ways of American Indian life, aware of his status as an early European explorer....he writes about the Capoque, Han, Avavare, and Arbadao people. 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. Through his observations, Cabeza de Vaca provides insights into 16th-century American Indian life near the present-day Mexico-Texas border. Cabeza de Vaca, Álvar Núñez. Cabeza de Vaca's Adventures in the Unknown Interior of America, Translation of La Relación, Cyclone Covey. Santa Fe, NM: University of New Mexico Press 1983.

Always learn something new with your writing, and your insight. And yes," still working on being good humans in these complicated times. " Thank you, Patricia
Mary Beth's picture

Thank you for this. I know this was sort of an odd topic and I really appreciate that you read it!

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