Student guide: excerpt from la relacion about the author

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Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca was a Spanish explorer who set out for the New World to occupy North America and discover riches for the king but found himself stranded and defenseless in the vast wilderness with only a slim chance of surviving. Many of his 600 men died, while the rest found themselves among the Apalachee tribe. Later, after that relationship had soured, he lived among the nomadic Native Americans of east Texas. His writings detail the unique customs of many tribes, as he lived among many of them before they became influenced by European culture. La Relacion was the first European account of the inside of what is now the United States.

Point of View: is the relationship of the narrator to the story.

Bias: an author’s inclination toward a particular opinion or position.

Point of View (p.56) How might another person on the boat have described the scene differently than the way described by Cabeza de Vaca?
Others may have been too sick to describe anything beyond their own

feelings. Even the sailing master was asleep and ill for awhile.
Big Idea (p.57) How does Lope de Oviedo’s assumption reflect the Spanairds’ expectations of the New World?
Because he finds something that seems familiar to him, such as land

trampled by livestock, he assumes that the people who live there must

be like him – Christian.
Point of View (p.57) How does Cabeza de Vaca use his own experience to illustrate the state of his crew?
His description of his own food rations can be generalized to apply to

all of the men.
Bias (p.57) Cabeza de Vaca gives accounts of suffering throughout the excerpt. Toward the end of page 57, he tells how the explorers were cold and naked, and so hungry that their bones could be counted. Based on this, do you consider him a credible witness?
We are told that Cabeza de Vaca wrote this account for the king of

Spain. He probably wanted to please or impress the king with his

bravery, so he may have exaggerated these events.
Big Idea (p.58) What does the final sentence of this excerpt imply about the Spaniards’ ideas about people in the New World?
Cabeza de Vaca and the other Spaniards are only guessing about the

meaning of the Native Americans’ actions and rituals. He mistakenly

thinks he is observing a “celebration” and a preparation for the

Spaniards’ sacrifice.


  • How do Cabeza de Vaca and his men reach the island? Why might their landing seem like a miracle to them? They reach the island when a huge wave pushes them aground. This may seem like a miracle because they did not expect to survive.

  • What do the sailors do when the first reach land? They crawl to shore, light a fire, toast corn, find rain water and revive.

  • Why does Lope de Oviedo think he is in a Christan country? He sees land that appears trampled by livestock.

  • Why do the Native Americans chase Lope de Oviedo? How does the behavior of Oviedo and his pursuers reveal each group’s assumptions about the other? They chase him because he is a stranger, and perhaps they know he has stolen from them. The behavior reveals that the Native Americans assume that the Spaniards are thieves, while the Spaniards assume that the Native Americans are savages.

  • In what ways do the Native Americans help Cabeza de Vaca and his companions? What do you think prompts them to give assistance? The Native Americans help by giving them food and water, they build fires to warm them, and they care for them in their homes. They probably do this because they believe that the explorers mean them no harm, so they pity them.

  • What happens when the explorers set out the next night? Waves cause the boat to capsize, and three men drown.

  • Why do the native inhabitants light fires along the way to their lodges? They do this to provide warmth along the way.


  • How do Cabeza de Vaca’s descriptions of his own and his men’s suffering contribute to the effectiveness and emotional impact of this account? His descriptions stir feelings of sympathy and courage. By using phrases such as “we looked like the picture of death,” he underscores the seriousness of his own and his men’s condition. The consistent threat of death creates tension and suspense.

  • How do Cabeza de Vaca’s references to God’s mercy affect your impressions of him and his mission? He seems to be a highly religious man, and he may feel that his mission has been approved by God.


  • What does Cabeza de Vaca’s narrative indicate about the difficulties of first encounters between Native Americans and Europeans? Some of the difficulties of the first encounters include language barriers and different social customs.


  • How might the story told in La Relacion have been different if one of Cabeza de Vaca’s men had told it? How about if one of the Native Americans had told it? One of the men might have shown frustration with the conditions of the voyage. A Native American might have provided details about the strangeness of the explorers’ behavior.

  • Cabeza de Vaca portrays himself as a heroic character. What details create this image? His mention of his hunger, his ability to survive hardships, and his decision to go to the lodges create this image.


  • Identify two examples of bias in Cabeza de Vaca’s narrative. Examples include emotionally charged words, such as “picture of death,” “misery,” and “pity,” to describe the crew, and his characterization of the Native Americans as “crude and untutored."

  • Identify all of the incidents the Cabeza de Vaca includes in his account that describe the Native Americans in a positive way. They did not attack the Europeans when they arrived, even though they far outnumbered them; they brought them food and water several times; they were moved to tears by the Europeans’ misfortune; they took them to their lodges; they lit fires for them, they escorted them; they danced and held a celebration for them.

  • Identify particular words in the selection that indicate how the author felt about the Native Americans.
    “They felt such great pain and pity,” “they began to cry … sincerely,” “they feared that someone might faint or die on the way.”

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