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  • Beyond the MediationEsteban, Cabeza de Vaca’s Relación, and a Narrative Negotiation
  • Cassander L. Smith (bio)

In 1536 four men stumbled into the Spanish province of Nueva Galicia in northwest Mexico. They were weary, tanned, and unkempt, after having endured nearly a decade of hardships—starvation, shipwrecks, disease, captivity by Gulf Coast Indians—while trekking through regions of present-day Florida, Texas, and north Mexico. These men were the only survivors of Pánfilo de Narváez’s doomed 1527 Spanish expedition to Florida. In his 1542 narrative of the ordeal, La relación, Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca tells how the men survived by, in part, convincing native populations that they were powerful healers. Cabeza de Vaca relates that by the end of their journey they had become demigods, wielding power and influence over the natives. To maintain that stature—and a measure of mystique—Cabeza de Vaca and his two Spanish companions limited their interactions with the Indians, communicating with them most often through the mediation of the lone black African slave to survive the expedition, named Esteban. Cabeza de Vaca writes, “We had a great deal of authority and influence over [the Indians]. And in order to conserve this we spoke to them but few times. The black man always spoke to them and informed himself about the roads we wished to travel and the villages that there were and about other things that we wanted to know” (153).

This moment is intriguing for several reasons. First, it delineates three categories of people: Cabeza de Vaca and the other two Spaniards form one group; the natives compose another; Esteban alone constitutes a third, notably excluded from Cabeza de Vaca’s reference to the we who enjoyed a “great deal of authority and influence.” Also worth noting is the elevated status Cabeza de Vaca claims for himself and the Spanish. He constructs a hierarchy that, importantly, is possible because Esteban stands in the middle, his role as a mediator portrayed as service to the Spaniards. The [End Page 267] slave’s relegated position in this moment is in line with what his Spanish readers, and we today, might have expected. He stands in a subordinate position. Referenced by a generic marker, “the black man,” he is a nameless servant performing a task for his Spanish masters. It is surprising, though, and this is the final reason the moment is intriguing, that Cabeza de Vaca recognizes Esteban’s importance as a mediator, even as he writes Esteban into a servile position. Unlike traditional representations of black African slaves in early colonial texts, Esteban is not represented as marginal or incidental. His language skills enable the men’s survival. What is more, elsewhere in the text, Cabeza de Vaca represents him as being equal to the Spaniards when he assumes the role also as a healer, enjoying the same demigod status as his Spanish counterparts.1 There is a level of complexity, of inconsistency, in Esteban’s representation.

I recognize that what I have deemed as an inconsistency could be the product of my own twenty-first-century reader’s sensibility. From Cabeza de Vaca’s perspective, the slave’s representation could very well have been unproblematic, the details folding coherently into his rhetorical design. The inconsistency seems less the result of a presentist reading, though, if we consider the manner in which Esteban’s representation both reflects and counters the narrative norms of Cabeza de Vaca’s contemporaries. Consider the narratives of the earliest conquistadors, the first to introduce black African slavery into the New World. As historian Matthew Restall has pointed out, black Africans were present on every major Spanish expedition to the early Americas, often functioning as slaves or conquistadors themselves.2 In the narratives written about those expeditions, black Africans are not mentioned unless performing some duty—caring for the horses, manning boats, hauling supplies. They function more or less as a collective body, nameless, faceless, voiceless figures working for their masters in the Americas, re-creating Old World models of servitude.3 On the rare occasion when a black African is singled out for a particular deed, the moment is rendered anecdotal...


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pp. 267-291
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