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Jose Antonio Lopez - De Vaca's Dilemma

Jose Antonio Lopez - De Vaca's Dilemma

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TEJANOS 2010tejanos2010@gmail.comDe Vaca's DilemmaBy Jose Antonio Lopez
 jlopez8182@satx.rr.com De Vaca's Dilemma(File photo: RGG/SteveTaylor)
López: De Vaca’s Dilemma
 Last Updated: October 20, 2013By José Antonio López
 Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de VacaSAN ANTONIO, October 20 - It was April 1536. Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca andthree fellow Spaniards had walked nearly half-way through the Continent of America.
 
Finding themselves in present-day Sinaloa, Mexico, they were now face-to-face with aSpanish patrol they had met near the Gulf of California. The soldiers were the firstEuropeans that they had seen in nearly nine years. For obvious reasons, the itineranttravelers were at first elated to see their countrymen. However, suddenly Cabeza de
Vaca faced a dilemma. He wasn’t sure he was happy to see the Spanish patrol. How
come?For the answer, we must retrace their wandering through much of East and South Texasand across present-day Central and Western Mexico. Recording the first early history of America, they began their adventure as ship-wreck victims on the upper Texas Coast in1528. (Out of over 250 men, they appear to have been the sole survivors of the tragedy.)Almost immediately after landing, an indigenous tribe enslaved Cabeza de Vaca and histhree companions in a most brutal way. Not allowed to rest or sleep for any appreciableamount of time, the captives spent most of their day and night at the whim of thecollective tribe. They were constantly tormented and forced to do backbreaking work.Tribe members kicked, slapped, and poked the Europeans endlessly. The young onescr 
uelly pulled on the captives’ hair and beards. It seemed as if death was next for the
wretched foursome. At minimum, they had given up hope of ever seeing Spain again.However, as each day passed, their chances for survival increased. Slowly, they gained
the trust of tribal leaders and it didn’t take Cabeza de Vaca long to figure out the tribe’s
hunting system. Customarily, the group moved to a nearby island when seafood wasabundant. At other times, food opportunities on the mainland enticed the tribe to exploitthose food sources. To the relief of the castaways, their daily beatings and tauntingstopped. Little by little they were allowed to mingle with other tribes they met incommon feeding locations.Meeting new groups gave Cabeza de Vaca the idea to escape. His plan was to join one of the groups that travelled south. The Spaniards would then just keep on walking untilreaching safety. Over three years, the captives had lived with several tribes and werenow dispersed among four separate camps, located far from each other. Their plan wouldwork only during those times that all groups shared a common feeding ground. Duringone such occurrence, they fled.By this time, the Spaniards had built a reputation as healers, and were regarded as holymen sent to the natives by the sun. Instead of showing hostility, the tribes were honoredto have the four strangers living among them. As such, the castaways used their newfound importance to their advantage.By 1535, they had reached the Rio Grande, crossing it through what is now Falcon Lakein Zapata County. They were less than 100 miles from their goal. Yet, for reasons puzzling to historians, the travelers changed their direction to the north. Following thesouthern border of the Rio Grande, they travelled to present-day El Paso. Then, theyturned south. Their entry into indigenous territories continued to be a spectacle. After 
 
spending a few days in one camp, nearly the entire tribe escorted them to the next tribe’s
territory; a routine they were now used to.In an area close to the Gulf of California, Cabeza de Vaca was informed that there were
 people up ahead whose skin was white like Cabeza de Vaca’s. The natives added with
alarm that the group was evil. They chased their people and took captives away in chainsto work as slaves in the mines. The news concerned Cabeza de Vaca greatly.During many nights of captivity, Cabeza de Vaca had reflected on the meaning of life. Inspite of being tortured and deprived of food, he learned to accept his captors as fellow
human beings. He believed that as God’s children, Native Americans had rights equal to
those of whites. Most importantly, he believed that stronger human groups had no rightto enslave weaker ones. So, believing he could make a difference, Cabeza de Vaca promised the natives that he would stop the slaving missions. It was a promise he
couldn’t keep!Meeting the patrol awakened Cabeza de Vaca’s horror toward slavery. This was evidentwhen the patrol leader strongly implied that it was Cabeza de Vaca’s dut
y to facilitatethe enslavement of his large entourage. Angrily, Cabeza de Vaca refused!Still thinking he was an agent of change, he first took his plea for kinder treatment of  Native Americans to the Viceroy, Antonio de Mendoza. Mendoza was not swayed andneither was Hernán Cortez, by now an equally high official in Mexico. Cabeza de Vacareturned to Spain where his message for dignified treatment of indigenous people was basically ignored.Wanting to return to America, Cabeza de Vaca asked to fill the position of Adelantadode Florida. However, Hernando De Soto was awarded that position. Instead, he becamean Adelantado in South America. At first successful, his kindly treatment of NativeAmericans upset landowners in the region. He was charged with crimes, temporarilyimprisoned, and then sent to Spain for trial. In Spain, the charges were proven to be falseand he was pardoned.In summary, Cabeza de Vaca decisively solved the dilemma resulting from his rescue in1536. That encounter launched his career as the first human rights advocate in America.Of consolation to Cabeza de Vaca fans, his Native American human rights activism in part triggered later royal edicts forbidding the enslavement of indigenous people inAmerica. For doing the right thing for the right reasons, he lost power, prestige, anduntold riches. Unappreciated and forgotten, Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca died in poverty in Seville, Spain around 1558.
 José Antonio (Joe) López was born and raised in Laredo, Texas, and is a USAF Veteran. He
now lives in Universal City, Texas. He is the author of two books: “The Last Knight (Don Bernardo Gutierrez de Lara Uribe, A Texas Hero),” and “Nights of Wailing, Daysof Pain (Life in 1920s South Texas).” Lopez is also the founder of the Tejano Learning 
Center, LLC, and  www.tejanosunidos.org  ,a Web site dedicated to Spanish Mexican

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