Today, Sept. 15 is the first day of Hispanic Heritage Month. So, what is it all about? To answer that we can first explain that “Hispanic heritage” also includes Native American heritage because so-called Hispanic people are almost always a mixture of Spanish and Indian blood, culture and history. Unfortunately, the Indian side often gets short shrift in the history books. This distorts Latino/Mexican/Chicano history because we are incomplete as a people unless we reclaim our native heritage. It’s vital to understand that as Latinos we incorporate a unique blend of Spanish and Indian culture.
We can realize this by going way back to Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca. In 1528, Cabeza de Vaca and other Spanish soldiers were shipwrecked on Galveston Island off the coast of Texas. Galveston is now famous as a spring break destination. But this was no spring break. It was in November, it was cold, and the Spaniards, conquistadores who had started exploring North America in Florida, lost their crudely made boats in which they had hoped to reach Mexico after having been abandoned by their ships. In trying to launch the boats they lost them in the heavy surf, with all their clothes and weapons. They were then defenseless and as naked as Adam and Eve. Nakedness for Europeans renders them psychologically vulnerable and they soon despaired, gave up and began to drop like flies.
On top of that they were then at the mercy of the local Indians, Karankawas, tall, robust people who did not brook nonsense from the newcomers. Cabeza de Vaca, which means head of the cow, was called by his title, given to an ancestor who had rendered service to the king. This man, a peasant, had led a Christian army by a secret path marked by a cow skull to the rear of a Muslim army which the Christians then defeated.
This was the battle of Las Navas de Tolosa, in one of the endless wars between Moors and Christians, which had such strong influence on the history of Spain.
Only Cabeza de Vaca and three other men survived. The others were Andres Dorantes, Alonso del Castillo and the slave of Dorantes, a man called Esteban, or Estevanico. Esteban’s identity is uncertain. Some believe he was a Moroccan Berber, others believe he was a sub-Saharan black man. At any rate, the subsequent epic journey of these four through what is now the U.S. Southwest marked the beginning of Spanish possession of the vast lands and the beginnings of Mexican American (Chicano) history in the United States. It is significant to note that this history includes the first person of color to be memorialized in the history of the region. C. de Vaca is careful to note Esteban’s role in his memoir of the expedition, La Relacion, an account of the shipwreck and misfortunes which they endured during eight years with the Indians, wandering with the native tribes in what are now the states of Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, and the Mexican states of Chihuahua, Coahuila, Durango and Sinaloa.
During his sojourn C.de Baca undergoes a profound transformation. From a conquistador mentality, a racist attitude of superiority over the natives common to Europeans in the New World, from the brutal, exploitative policies of Spain and all the other European countries who invaded this hemisphere, he changes to a “medicine man” who heals the Indians with Catholic prayers and a loving manner.
He effectively becomes an Indian, learning their languages and customs, understanding that the natives were just as human as he was, identifying with them and becoming a true friend. So closely does he identify with the Indians that he prohibits Spaniards in Mexico, when they finally reach Spanish-ruled lands, to brutalize, pillage, rob, enslave or kill the trilbespeople. So different does he become from other Spaniards, but at the same time remaining a Spaniard, that he is known as the first “mestizo,” not in blood but as the first man to blend European and Indian cultures, to accept equally and make a new, third culture out of them.
Joe Barrera, Ph.D., is the former director of the Ethnic Studies Program at UCCS, a lecturer in U.S. Southwest history, and a combat veteran of the Vietnam War.