- Epics of Empire and Frontier: Alonso de Ercilla and Gaspar de Villagrá as Spanish Colonial Chroniclers by Celia López-Chávez
The epics La Araucana and Historia de la Nueva Mexico praise heroes, one the anticolonial Mapuches, the other creole Spanish American conquistadors. López-Chávez maintains that these two poems, which describe the conquest of southern Chile in the 1550s and northern Mexico in the 1590s, document debates over the justice of colonization while helping to invent the “frontier” as a spatial category.
La Araucana is a strange epic. While lionizing empire, it praises the indigenous resistance to colonization. Critics have read the poem either as a version of the pro-imperial Aeneid of Virgil or as the Chilean equivalent of the anti-imperial Pharsalia of Lucan. How to understand this deeply schizophrenic poem? López-Chávez reads the poem through the debates over the justice of colonization that pitted Ginés de Sepúlveda against Bartolomé de las Casas in Valladolid in the 1540s. Ercilla, its creator, was a poet who defended the right of the Spanish monarchy to spread its empire globally while also taking issue with the legal titles of conquistadors to Indian lands and labor. López-Chávez shows that Ercilla’s celebration of Mapuche resistance was part of larger legal discourse of “defensive war.” Like a good follower of the Dominicans, Ercilla believed that natives had the right to organize armies when their lands and leadership were illegally under attack. La Araucana casts the leader of the Spanish conquistadors, Pedro de Valdivia, as a gold-hungry predator, solely interested in plundering communities. Valdivia’s death in battle at the hands [End Page 98] of Mapuche warriors like Lautaro and Caupolicán appears, therefore, as a just reward. This very critique of the conquistadors allowed Ercilla to justify the munificence and power of Iberian kingship to spread justice and Christianity. An ode to the global monarquía de España could also be a paean to native resistance.
Unlike La Araucana, Villagrá’s poem, Historia de la Nueva México, features a Spanish Aeneas. López-Chávez finds Historia unabashedly imperial. Yet Historia was no simple-minded copy of Virgil’s Aeneid. The poem, it turns out, was part of an effort by Villagrá to defend himself and the creole Aeneas Juan de Oñate against charges of having broken the Ordenanzas of 1573, which clearly barred the military conquest of indigenous peoples. Historia is a text that introduces dozens of primary sources to cast the Creole leaders of the expedition as individuals who had followed the letter of the law and every detail stipulated in the legal contract (capitulaciones) between Oñate and the viceroy. Oñate and Villagrá were eventually brought to court for their crimes against the Pueblo Indians of Acoma. Villagrá’s Historia, López-Chávez shows, was part of his own legal defense.
Villagrá portrayed Oñate’s entrada to New Mexico as the peaceful transmission of indigenous authority to the rightful representatives of the Spanish monarch who, in turn, secured the land to establish Franciscan missions, not self-aggrandizing encomiendas. Ceremonial treaties of transmission of vassalage, not willy-nilly conquistador violence, purportedly characterized Oñate’s entrada. Villagrá sought to demonstrate that the massacre of Acoma was legal, for it occurred only after the Pueblo had declared themselves vassals of the crown with the purpose of luring Oñate’s army into a trap. Oñate and Villagrá’s actions in Acoma, therefore, were not random acts of cruelty but rightful proceedings according to the doctrine of just war.
López-Chávez also seeks to present La Araucana and Historia as epics that introduced the spatial category of the “frontier,” that is, landscapes at once bountiful and barren, beautiful and repugnant, insignificant and memorable, harsh and welcoming. The book is, therefore, a study of the ideological construction of the “frontier” as a...