This story of survival is the first major narrative of the exploration of North America by Europeans (1528-1536). The author, Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca, was a fortune-seeking Spanish nobleman and the treasurer of an expedition sent to claim for Spain the vast area of today's southern Unived States. A shipwreck forced him and a handful of men to make the long westward journey on foot from the present day Florida via Louisiana and Texas to California. In order to survive, Cabeza de Vaca joined native peoples along the way, learning their languages and practices, serving them as a slave and later as a physician. The narrative is a trove of ethnographic information, with descriptions and interpretations of native cultures that make it a powerful precursor to modern anthropology.
Ilan Stavans is Lewis-Sebring Professor in Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College and the author or editor of numerous books.