Conquistadors, part 2

Louis Proyect lnp3 at SPAMpanix.com
Thu May 17 13:39:21 MDT 2001


I have to tip my hat to Michael Wood, director, writer and star of the PBS
documentary. (http://www.pbs.org/conquistadors/) Last night's concluding
episode dealt with Orellana and Cabeza de Vaca, two Spaniards who broke
with existing patterns and aligned themselves implicitly with Bartolomé de
las Casas, the monk who accompanied Columbus and then dedicated his life to
defending indigenous peoples (granted, with some hangups that must be
understood in historical context.)

Orellana was part of band led by Gonzalo Pizzaro, the notorious brother of
Francisco Pizzaro and exterminator of the Incas, that set out eastward from
Peru to discover El Dorado, a mythical city laden with gold. When their
food was running short, Orellana went downriver to bring back supplies. But
the river kept going and going until it merged into the Amazon. His trip,
which eventually led him to the Atlantic, was marked by reliance on and
admiration for indigenous peoples who it is estimated numbered in the
millions. Now, there are only 250,000 left, harrassed on all sides by oil
companies and ranchers.

Cabeza de Vaca (cow's head) was even more remarkable. After being
shipwrecked near Galveston Island in Texas in 1528, he hooked up with local
Indians who not only kept him and his small band alive but helped him
traverse a long, winding path into Mexico. In the course of his travels
alongside them, he began to adopt Indian ways. Finally, when he met up with
a bunch of Spaniards in Mexico, they attacked his band and took the Indians
as captives to sell into slavery, despite his best efforts to defend them.

Apparently there is a whacked-out film based on his voyage:

Nicolas Echevarria's 1991 Mexican epic is based on the memoirs of Alvar
Nunez Cabeza de Vaca (Juan Diego), the Spanish explorer of the American
southwest. Shipwrecked along the gulf coast, he's enslaved by a Native
American shaman and his assistant, an armless dwarf (Jose Flores), who
teach him magic, and eventually he earns his freedom and travels west.
Hampered somewhat by hammy acting, this picaresque adventure plays for long
stretches without dialogue, and much of its interest rests with its
ethnographic treatment of Native American rituals--as well as with the
explorer's coming to value their culture more than his own.

--Jonathan Rosenbaum, Chicago Reader

I think I'll pass that up and go straight to Cabeza de Vaca's journal.

Louis Proyect
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