- Capturing the Landscape of New Spain. Baltasar Obregón and the 1564 Ibarra Expedition by Rebecca A. Carte
Besides the attention given to figures like Cabeza de Vaca and Estebanico, the colonial archive related to Northern Mexico and Southwestern US has received limited attention by colonial Latin American literature scholars with few exceptions such as Maureen Ahern and José Rabasa. Rebecca Carte’s Capturing the Landscape is an excellent contribution to fill that void in colonial studies. Its environmental perspective also offers important insights into the multilayered processes of colonial and imperial inscriptions of the land.
Based on a careful close reading of the Historia de los descubrimientos de Nueva España (1584) by Creole writer Baltasar de Obregón, Carte’s study offers a critical analysis of the cultural production of landscapes. The northern frontier is “captured” by textualscapes like Obregón’s Historia, that register and appropriate the land, endow it with meaning, recodify or suppress existing landscapes and inscribe it in the colonial, imperial and Christian telos. Written twenty years after his participation in the Francisco de Ibarra “pacifying” expedition to the mining frontier in Northern Mexico in 1563, the Historia, as many relaciones de méritos y servicios, seeks to offer the Spanish Crown valuable information on the territories, its wealth, and the prospects for colonization and evangelization of the region. Stressing the hardships endured by the expedition participants, the Historia seeks royal recognition and compensation. The Historia incorporates information from the previous expeditions to the region, viewed from the new conquest paradigm developed by Phillip II in his Ordenanzas de 1573, responsive to the demands of a detailed mapping of the territory, justifications for the war against the Indians, and the evangelization project. Here, however, the imperial inscription of the land is not done top down, through the new cartographic imagination of the Renaissance, rather bottom up, from the itinerary itself, inscribing the territory traversed. Knowledge generated by the praxis of colonialism itself. The reality is that neither Ibarra nor the expeditions before him had really been successful in the northern frontier military campaigns referred to as the Chichimeca Wars. In this context, the Historia seeks to make real the imperial aspirations. Obregón’s texts oversell the Spaniards’ accomplishments, projecting the past (history) and the present (itinerary) onto the landscape and presenting the territories as a (future) possession of the Spanish empire. Carte’s study brings these issues to the forefront in a well-documented and competent reading of a lesser-known text that is placed into the wider colonial experience. [End Page 193]
The book is divided in four chapters. In the introduction, Carte outlines the conceptual framework used to examine the cultural and discursive production of landscapes, mainly through the concept of textualscapes, following Arjun Appadurai’s fluid and perspectival view of spatial constructs. Landscapes are not static backdrops but a process, a site of dynamic relationship between the land and people (11). The first chapter examines the discursive elements of the Historia and its context. The text draws from different genres, including history, the relación, heroic account, etc. It inscribes the landscapes described into a wider framework that includes the Spanish colonization and European history. The second chapter discusses how European cosmography and the praxis of colonialism shaped the vision of the land, contrasting the top down mapping project in the renowned Relaciones geográficas with the narratives emerging from the ground up with information about mineral wealth, population, and other matter relevant to the colonizing project (47–48). Obregón’s Historia is rich in the descriptions of harsh mountainous terrains versus more ‘accessible’ lands, which Carte analyzes through the concepts of topophillia and topophobia, highlighting “the affective ties with the material environment” (59). The third chapter examines the multiple perspectives that coexist of any given territory, and the power dynamics at play in their production, reproduction, negotiation and suppression. Obregón’s textualscapes write over a pre and coexisting indigenous landscape. The rough terrains that Obregón considers...