- Mapping an Occidental History in Baltasar de Obregón's Historia de los descubrimientos de Nueva España (1584)
Stories . . . carry out a labor that constantly transforms places into spaces and spaces into places.—de Certeau, Spatial Stories, 1984
In the mid-sixteenth century, the landscape that lay beyond the ever-shifting northern frontier of New Spain was still largely an imagined space to European settlers, a mysterious landscape that was mostly a source of legend, lore, gossip, and inauspicious stories of failed conquest and bellicose savages. The dreams of golden cities that had once fueled a desire to explore and conquer the lands to the north had waned significantly after the return of the Coronado expedition from New Spain in 1542, and Spanish explorers, loathe to be saddled with expedition costs or diminished status, largely viewed the banda del norte (edge of the north) as an unwelcoming periphery, a land of indomitable tribes containing little of worth.1 Furthermore, no maps existed for the area yet, and aside from documents produced by members of a few expeditions, the landscape to the north remained largely unknown, mysterious, and imagined rather than controlled or "pacified." In 1584, however, the first Mexican criollo historian, Baltasar Obregón, sent a text to the Consejo de Indias in Spain, arguing in very practical terms for the establishment of mining settlements in the region and providing valuable itinerary information, including routes passable by horse, water sources, and locations of population centers with cultivated land and "gente de policía." This text attempted [End Page 279] to provide a concrete discursive foundation upon which to imagine the region, casting the landscape to the north as (potentially) a valuable part of the larger Spanish Empire.2
Obregón's Historia de los descubrimientos de Nueva España paints a discursive landscape that takes shape in the mind's eye of the reader, providing extensive, even chapter-long descriptions of the lands stretching from Nueva Vizcaya (which included the area north of Zacatecas and most of the modern Mexican states of Chihuahua and Durango) farther northward to present-day Sonora, New Mexico, and Arizona. He claimed to provide "verdadero testimonio de lo que vi, anduve y experimenté en seiscientas leguas de diversas tierras, lenguajes y naciones que yo anduve en su compañía; y en lo demás que tratare, daré autores fidedignos con historias y relaciones de sus casos y verdaderos hechos de las tierras que han visto y descubierto, haciendo relación de las que son buenas o malas" (43). The result is an exhaustive description of the unfamiliar, alien landscape that serves a practical reconnaissance purpose. Yet this text, which at its core purports to provide a comprehensive history of northward expansion, also serves another, perhaps more subtle function: it provides a stage upon which the Spanish protagonist emerges as the active agent in a larger narrative because it historicizes, from a Spanish or criollo perspective, a theretofore "history-less" space, while infusing the indomitable landscape with a particularly "Spanish" presence. In relating stories generated from his own participation in the expedition led by Francisco de Ibarra in 1564 into the northern borderlands of New Spain, along with accounts from previous and subsequent expeditions to the same region, Obregón provides a textual retelling of the landscape's "role" in the history of New Spain and that of the larger Spanish Empire. In this retelling, the Spanish protagonist is at least potentially successful in his campaign to "populate, pacify, and conquer" lands that had remained beyond the firm grasp of explorers and officials alike.3 As Michel de Certeau (1984:123) has argued, the primary role of the story is to document the founding, opening up a legitimate theater for practical actions. This article examines how the criollo historian-explorer Baltasar Obregón constructed such a theater on the northern landscape with tales of knight-errantry, but also—through the deceptively benign [End Page 280] act of telling stories—fusing setting and situation, infusing the landscape and history with a sense of thickness and stability that might have been lacking theretofore.4 By employing a discourse that literally "takes place" in present...