Saturday, January 22, 2011

Cabeza de Vaca & Poma de Ayala

Please answer one of the following questions:

--Cabeza de Vaca is, like Columbus, writing about places that have never been seen by Europeans. But instead of a conqueror or discoverer, he is sometimes a slave, sometimes a member of a Native community and, by the end, a leader of a troupe of Natives. How does this difference affect the way he represents the land and people he encounters in the excerpt from his text we read?

--Poma de Ayala's text is a cultural oddity, an 800 page letter to the King of Spain written by Incan aristocrat. In this imagined q & a session, Poma de Ayala writes of the problems of Spanish rule and offers solutions. How does his text reflect the author's ambivalent position between Native (oppressed) and Spanish (Christian and dominant)? Compare his depiction of the divide between Native and Christian/Spanish with de las Casas?


  1. Both Columbus and Cabeza de Vaca wrote their own versions of a New World travel narrative. Columbus focused on the riches of the land, and de Vaca focused on the richness of the people.

    Columbus had the titles discoverer, viceroy, admiral, and governor general of all. De Vaca basically had one: expedition survivor. Where Columbus saw fertile lands, metal mines, honey, beautiful palm trees, and one huge population of people, de Vaca saw near starvation and dozens of fascinating separate cultures. Basically, Columbus saw the potential for profit and de Vaca saw the potential for destruction.

    While Columbus was making an obvious attempt to receive praise as the conquering hero, de Vaca’s motive was a little more sneaky. De Vaca writes a detailed account of his time with the natives that seems like a travel journal. In it he talks about how the people moved with the food, went mostly naked, slept on oyster shells, and had interesting customs, like the husbands in one tribe who didn’t speak or even acknowledge their in-laws (oh, how I wish). Columbus describes the people as childlike and simple. De Vaca calls them real men. When two guys fight, they do it without weapons, then make up afterwards with nobody worse for wear. It’s all a big set-up; de Vaca builds up the humanity of the natives and shows all of their good traits (it’s a glowing review, really), then shows the Christians who capture the natives, take their food, and imprison de Vaca. His message without explicitly saying it is: “Who are the real savages?”

  2. The first thing that stood out to me when reading Cabeza de Vaca's writings was that he had every reason to hate the places that he was in but instead gave it so much praise. Starving at all times, going naked and having his skin severely sun burned, sleeping on oyster shells, eating prickly pears, and getting his most nutritious meal from dog meat.

    Even though he suffered through all this he never seemed to have anything less than respect for all the natives that he encountered and all of their strange customs. He obviously had his eyes opened to the people he thought were the righteous ones and to the people who were supposed to be "uncivilized".

    Looking back to the readings from last class period Columbus seems like a whiny baby compared to Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca.

  3. Cabeza de Vaca was viewed as an equal to the Native people because he was immersed in their culture and went through the same struggles that the Natives faced. The problem of finding food and getting sustenance plagued Cabeza de Vaca everywhere he went. Because of this, he viewed the land as a very vital part to his life and his interpretation of the land was similar to a close bond with a mother, a provider. However to Columbus, the land was described in terms more closely related to a tool, something to use selfishly. Cabeza de Vaca had to learn to wait on the land and work with its seasons for what he needed, so in this way Cabeza de Vaca was a slave to the land. Columbus on the other hand, enslaved the land and its people by attacking it for his own gain.
    Cabeza describes the Natives in very strong detail, speaking about their rituals, characteristics of different tribe members, and also the many personal experiences he had with tribe members. The Natives he encounters come off as very welcoming of Cabeza de Vaca and his men, often times giving up their food and providing homes to them. The Natives and Cabeza de Vaca share the same struggles and hardships with food and shelter, so this makes the bond between them quite close. However, when Cabeza de Vaca encounters the Christians, there seems to be underlying animosity or uneasiness. Eventually, his encounter with the Christians leads to his arrest.

  4. In his treatise, Poma de Ayala illustrates the necessity for the rule of law in pluralist societies. His myriad examples of the ruling Spanish caste's abuses of power can be distilled into an argument that ethnic groups with competing aims forced to live amongst one another are bound to come into conflict if the pursuit of their respective economic interests and cultural traditions is not regulated by a legitimate and nonpartisan authority that commands the mutual respect of all citizens. Recognizing that Spanish dominion isn't likely to abate anytime soon, Poma de Ayala offers up in effect policy solutions contrived within the framework of the societal tradition of his Christian overlords. As a professing Catholic, it is apparent that he personally conforms to many aspects of Spanish culture and recognizes its religious tradition as superior to his ancestors', yet his status a member of the dominated ethnicity in colonial society gives him a heightened perspective of the humanity of the oppressed natives that the Spanish refuse to acknowledge.

    It is because of his ethnic status that Poma de Ayala must write as a supplicant, as opposed to de las Casas, who pens from a position of greater authority compared to his audience. In his compositions, de las Casas does not hesitate to lambaste his countrymen for their crimes against humanity, the more incendiary the excoriations the better. Poma de Ayala's words, however, are much more measured. He implies that the Indians were better off before the arrival of the Spanish, but not daring to play the revolutionary, argues that the future of native Peruvians is not one of privation if but a few changes are made in the methods of Spanish governance. His pleas reveal a theme of self-determination, however, that is absent from de las Casas' writings. Let the Indians submit to ultimate Spanish authority, yes, but local responsibilities should be left to chiefs appointed by their kinsmen. De las Casas rails against a Spanish scourge, but implies that the natives are helpless to vanquish it, that the only force that can counter Christian esurience is Christians goodwill. Poma de Ayala sees an alternative in which the Indians are able to live with the former, but moderate its impact upon their lives.

  5. Columbus and Cabeza de Vaca differ in a few ways. To me, it seemed that Cabeza de Vaca has more of a "glass half-full" approach to his situation, whereas Columbus would have seen his situation as "glass half-empty." Columbus spent most of his time trying to gain praise and empathy, while Cabeza de Vaca found a way to put a positive spin on things, even though his situation seemed to be much worse than Columbus's. Columbus saw the land and envisioned all the ways he could use it and profit from it. Cabeza de Vaca saw the land and envisioned ways to try and forage for food and survive from it.

    Cabeza de Vaca's varying roles as a slave, an equal to the Natives, and a leader of the Natives gives him a much more humble outlook. He has suffered along with the Natives and can truly sympathize with them and their struggles for food. He has lived with the people and experienced their generosity towards him, which is why his account of his travels seems more positive than Columbus's. Cabeza de Vaca experienced first-hand the struggles and problems the Natives had. He understood what it was like to have very little, yet maintained a more optimistic feeling than Columbus towards his situation because he could appreciate the value of simple possessions like food more than Columbus could. Although Cabeza de Vaca worked his way up to finally being a leader, he had also experienced the perils and discomfort of slavery, something Columbus had no idea about, which shaped Cabeza de Vaca's account of his journeys significantly by making it seem more true and genuine.

  6. For me, Cabeza de Vaca weighed more heavily on the people and the positive things that he encountered. He saw himself within the lives of the Natives, and when he wrote about them he used personal details about them and himself. Even when he talked about horrible situations that he was in, he didn't turn it into a pity party like I think Columbus tended to do. Cabeza de Vaca's approach was more about presenting the facts of what he went through but in a way that gives an impression that he's not trying to please anyone or generate a particular response.

    Columbus seemed to take every trouble and turn it into paranoia. He wrote as if he was pleading for someone to make the situation better for him. Cabeza de Vaca was much more hands on about his own destiny and the destiny of the people around him. This is probably because he saw himself within the group. I think a sense of community made all the difference in their experiences. It gave Cabeza de Vaca hope and valor while the disconnection made Columbus miserable. Cabeza de Vaca is much more of a survivalist in his words. Columbus played the victim almost.

  7. Columbus and Cabeza de la Vaca both tell an account of their travels in the New World. They read similarly, an account of an expedition into a land alien to their intended audience. Although their subject is the same, their intentions and areas of focus differ greatly.
    Columbus discusses the New World as a lush environment with rich vegetation and a multitude of natural resources. His focus is mainly on how to profit from his finds. He also writes in a way as to encourage his readers to appreciate him as the founder of this place with so much wealth to be tapped into. Columbus only discusses the natives in passing, speaking of capturing them and then about how valuable a labor resource they could be. Basically, Columbus is giving an estimate of how much wealth his discoveries could bring.
    Cabeza de la Vaca's text also carries a tone of reverence the intended audience should relate to the author, with Cabeza de la Vaca's travels told as if he was a saint, and at one point discussing Jesus' hardships in comparison to his own.His main focus is not on the land, which was a difficult place to survive for lack of food, but the natives and their customs and traditions. He travels to different villages and learns of similar customs among them, such as the mourning process for loved ones and the warmth children receive. Cabeza de la Vaca sneakily addresses how the "Chritian" slavers capture the natives following him in a discouraging manner, a tone far less cold than Columbus. Overall, Cabeza de la Vaca observes the natives, realizes their peacefulness, and condemns the Christian slavers for cruelly capturing them.