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Gaspar Perez de Villagra

by Genaro Padilla

Gaspar Perez de Villagra published Historia de la Nueva México the same year that William Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale was performed at the Globe in London. Villagra’s poem was published in Alcala de Henares, Miguel de Cervantes birthplace, and, as it turns out, is chronologically tucked between the pages of the incomparable “Don Quixote” —that is, five years after Cervantes published the first part of the novel in 1605 and five years after finishing Part 2 in 1615.

That same year, El Greco painted the haunting “Opening of the Fifth Seal.” Ruben’s painted “The Raising of the Cross.” Galileo first observed Jupiter’s satellite moons and Thomas Herriot discovered sun spots. The Academy of Poetry was founded at Padua. In far North America, Henry Hudson sailed through the straits and bay that would be named for him. And, the first Spanish settlement in Nuevo Mexico was moved from the river village of San Gabriel to a spot at the foot of the Sangre de Cristo mountain range and named Santa Fe.

Historia de la Nueva México is a poem that provides a history of the founding of what is now New Mexico, written by a soldier-scribe who made the journey with Juan de Onate in 1598. But who was this Gaspar de Villagra? We know that he was born, not in Spain but rather in Puebla de los Angeles, Mexico, in 1555, a descendent of a distinguished family from Campos de Villagra in Spain. We also know that he was sent to Spain to study at the University of Salamanca and then probably remained there for a number of years building trust in the royal court that would provide him a position of some authority in New Spain. At any rate, we know that by 1596 he was in Onate’s circle and had enlisted in the entrada, and that he was one of Onate’s captains and also a legal officer and ecclesiastical counsel. Soon after the events at Acoma in 1599, he left New Mexico never to return. He was the alcalde mayor at the mines in Nueva Viscaya around 1601-1603, spent a number of years in Spain with perhaps one trip back to Mexico in 1608, quickly followed by his return to Spain in 1609 where he began writing the Historia.

The original copy of Villagra’s book was small in size with lots of prefatory poetry, censor approvals, laudatory notes and an engraving of Villagra, the author. Fayette Curtis translated the original in the early 1920s (Curtis was headmaster of Los Alamos Ranch School. He died at 30 years of age in 1927 before his translation could be published). Gilberto Espinosa gave us a prose translation in 1933 published by the Quivira Society. And then the critical and annotated Spanish/English edition was translated and edited by Miguel Encinias, Alfred Rodriquez, and Joseph P. Sanchez in 1992.

A work of literature, in this case a historical epic poem about early Spanish New Mexico, should evoke a sense of wonder at a world created in the imagination. And, although it is usually dismissed as a ‘forgotten” literary document, Villagra’s Historia de la Nueva Mexico does create a set of likenesses/events/ideas we are able to identify and understand across a span of time, culture and geography.

When I think about my personal/cultural relationship to the poem I am immediately of two minds; on the one hand, proud to identify such an early literary text distinctly about my cultural home, an epic poem of some 11, 338 lines in 34 Cantos, it stands as the fountain head of my own cultural genealogy as a Nuevo Mexicano, and as a professor in an English department I am always proud to say that it was published 14 years before John Smith’s General History of Virginia.

Yet, as anyone who knows the poem, or at least for anyone who knows the history of Onate’s expedition of 1598, understands that the Historia relates the siege and destruction of Acoma in 1599. Therefore, I cannot and will not simply celebrate the poem as an original cultural achievement. The poem reminds me that my own ancestors, whether connected by blood, culture, language, nation—deeply hurt another people in a profoundly punitive and inhumane manner, and that as someone who has visited Acoma with a sense of awe in its majesty, I myself feel an old burden of culpability.

So it is little surprise to me that when Historia de la Nueva México is discussed, Villagra’s epic is seen in terms of Spanish colonial violence unleashed upon native people of the Americas. The Historia recounts the profound trauma visited upon Acoma and other pueblo people when the Spanish trespassed upon their land and laid claim to their lives. And it recounts the violence that must ensue when one nation arrogates to itself the privilege and abuse of power. It is little wonder then that the poem is read as just another account of Spanish imperial will that traces back to Hernan Cortez’s destruction of Tenochtitlan and every incursion into native life across South and North American thereafter up until Juan de Onate led an expedition of several hundred people into what is now northern New Mexico.

To read Villagra’s epic of the siege and burning of Acoma is to tear the bandage from an old wound. Yet, Historia de la Nueva México is itself an act of un-concealing; almost an act of contrition for the violence Villagra participated in as soldier and then scribe. Indeed, Villagra the scribe exposes Villagra the soldier.  

What I want to be able to do here is absorb the hard political readings of the poem that lead to its dismissal as part of the violence it represents, and read more fully into Villagra’s own profound troubled relationship with that very representation of empire.

Hence, I will start with the psychology of verguenza (shame) rather than pride. I am resolved to read the past fully and to account for Spanish colonial violence against native people, but not as an act of ideological disaffiliation I can make from the liberal comfort of historical distance and political convenience, but rather because Villagra’s Historia is both an accounting of and, quite against the grain of my own political position, a form of atonement for that violence.

It is often noted in commentaries that Historia is not an epic masterpiece. Although Villagra is a character in his own poem, he is no Ulysses stealing into Troy in the belly of a wooden horse, there is no deft goddess protecting him, no Agamemnon or Paris or Helen, and no Penelope waiting. But Villagra knows this, notwithstanding the ritual invocation to the muse with which the Historia opens. Rather, he is always clear that these Spanish soldiers are the King’s pawns, made to carry out his authority in stretching the frontiers of empire.

What works about the poem is the disclosure of competing claims in the epic structure of intent. An epic celebrates the exploits, intelligence, and courage of the protagonist, but to do so, it also requires honoring the antagonists. The Homeric/Greek epic, for example, celebrates conquest and yet it dramatizes the agony of warfare, makes heroes of both the victor and the vanquished and creates this equal measure in order to immortalize Greece, or, in the case of Villagra, Spain. Yet, it seems to me that Villagra in some strange, and I think unintended way, immortalizes not Spain, but Acoma. Historia de la Nueva México is, it turns out, a history less of the settling of la Nueva Mexico at Ohkay Owingeh (the Spanish called it San Juan de los Caballeros) than of its unsettling at Acoma, the site where the Spanish soul was corrupted or perhaps lost and the Acoma culture ruptured, but not destroyed. It is apparent from the outset that their brief show of resistance to the Spanish must be quickly broken by a stronger military machine; the Acoma are represented much more fully than the Spanish as the heroes of this epic drama. Witness the speeches of Zutancapo/his son Zutancalpco, Chumpo, Gicombo, Bembol/his wife Lousijia. There are no speeches like these from the Spanish characters. Why is this if not because in retrospect, Villagra, the scribe, the poet, understands that the events at Acoma are yet another rupture in the Spanish imperial soul, an act of hubris and vengeance that the native people would remember and which would lead to the Pueblo revolt of 1680.

The haunting memory of Acoma also ruptures the poem. I don’t think that Villagra intended for the events at Acoma to overtake the poem so entirely, such that by the end of Canto 34 (after some 11, 338 lines) he would give up the Historia de la Nueva México (at Acoma) promising King Phillip to provide “the end of this story” presumably the long second poem that would be required to actually return to a narrative about the Spanish settlement outside of what would become Santa Fe. The epic actually ends abruptly with a scene in which two Acoma men, dispirited and angry, hang themselves so as not to survive their comrades. The last views of Acoma world of the poem are theirs, not those of the conquering Spanish. And their death seals the Spanish poem with a sense of doom as one says,

. . . of one thing we do assure you:
That if we can return for our vengeance,
Castilian mothers shall not bear,
Barbarians either, throughout the world,
Sons more unfortunate than all of you.”

But I need to make myself stop and return to those earlier cantos that provide a history of the Onate entrada and first settlement: To the poem as history rather than nightmare.

Before all cantos lead to Acoma, the poem does scribe the broader history of the expedition, or entrada into la Nueva Mexico that Juan de Onate led in 1598. The first group of cantos is about the preparation for and then the three year encampment as Onate awaits final permission to make the entrada. This section of the poem is a historical critique of the political intrigues attending all such expeditions that required the King’s authority and the Viceroy’s signature. Villagra makes clear that such expeditions were hardly the material of heroic poetry (this notwithstanding Jill Lane’s argument that: there is nothing “new” in the conquest of New Mexico, all entradas being fully scripted by 1598; as though she came to this conclusion through exacting historical research instead of by just reading Villagra’s poem.

So, before we are pulled entirely into the vortex of Acoma, let us look more closely at some of those scenes Villagra draws of the actual entrada itself. This is where he records the political intrigues that almost doomed the Onate expedition, and we are able to read a bit more deeply into the concerns, fears and feelings of the many soldiers who as much as knew they were being exploited by the “King.” We are given a glimpse of the lives and hardships of ordinary people struggling not only with their own lives but also with those of the horses, cattle and other animals they brought into la provincial de la Nuevo Mexico. Villagra describes people and animals crossing dangerous fords, horses so thirsty after days of being pushed over unknown terrain that they burst, descriptions of the vast buffalo herds, and scenes of the grasslands (llano) creating an apparition of water as of a vast ocean.

Indeed, remember that many of the early cantos relate both preparation for this particular expedition and recount a history of earlier various expeditions in New Mexico throughout the 16th century—many of them illegal. Villagra appropriately opens with reference to Cabeza de Vaca’s journey across the West with a small band of stragglers who had initially been shipwrecked off the coast of Florida and who made their way by foot overland across Texas and New Mexico to Mexico. He then writes of the Coronado expedition and focuses not on the exploits of the journey, but on the wholesale demoralization and alienation the common soldiers felt, and which led to the desertion of many (Canto 3, 380-end).

Y como vieron que las claras fuentes,
Arroyos y lagunas no vertian Dorados sopas, tortas y rellenos,
Dieron todos en maldezir la tierra
Because they had not stumbled

O’er bars of gold and fine silver
And when they saw that the clear waters,
Arroyos, and ponds did not pour out
Guilded soups, tortas and rellenos
They all took to cursing the land.

Canto 5 recounts the journeys of Chamuscado and the three martyred Franciscans, that of Antonio de Expejo, and then closes with a long notation on the many unauthorized expeditions, all which were severely punished.

Then there is a chain of Cantos that slows to relate the long delay of three years from the time Onate received the initial royal charter through the political intrigues among contending minor authorities and Viceroys who try to undo the Onate expedition, even after he has brought the entire group of people together along with thousands of cattle and sheep in a camp prepared to undertake the long journey. The encampment is delayed for nearly three years, and this delay in related in Canto 6 through Canto 11. This entire group of Cantos is sluggish, and Villagra knows this, but must feel obliged to document the sorry episode, perhaps just to inform the King about how inefficient and corrupt the Viceroy’s officials were, and to show the resolve of Onate and his own trusted lieutenants in the face of this political delay while so many of the people are thrown into confusion, disarray and desertion.

It is almost ironic that the point of one canto is Villagra’s description of the livestock who seem so tired of the delay that they too fall out of order, and like many of the people, begin to wander off.

The misadventure was so great
That lambs by thousands wandered there
And bleated for their mothers, who,
Lost, too were bleating hard to find them,
And mares, bewildered quite, went scurrying
And running through the fields, bemazed,
In neighing search of colts,
And likewise cows and heifers too
Did fill the fields with bellowing,
While tender, frightened calves
Were carried off with porcine herds,
Seeing themselves divided from the goats.
The oxen, the horses, asses, The cattle, and the heard of mules,
With all the rest that crops the grass,
All widely spread and lost,
At their own will and with no order roamed,
All strayed without their guards.
And, disregarding this calamity
And loss, anarchic, unfortunate,
Your inspector did order after this
That all the soldiers and the officers
Or serving folk who well might wish
To cease continuing with this expedition
Might freely then depart
Although all enlisted there. (Canto IX. 215-240)

This is a political commentary on the general disequilibrium created when the state is so unclear, indecisive, and fragmented that its subjects—including the livestock—fall into anarchy

Since Villagra is writing a historical epic, animals often figure into his Historia in ways that are sometimes metaphorical (in order to convey old world moral conventions, etc.), sometimes literal, sometimes both figurative and literal (or experiential) as part of the historical record.

In one scene a small exploration party has been without water for many days when they happened upon small potholes in the stone that have gathered rainwater. As they approach to drink, the thirsty horses simply muscle them away. As Villagra writes, seeing that the water was disappearing:

Two of our companions did throw themselves,
Conquered by that thirst that was killing them
And there, their very faces pressed among
The many muzzles crowding up,
The wells dry and they too dry,
Almost dead, they lay stretched out. (Canto XII, 355-360)

As Villagra remembers the scene some years later he recounts the experience in vivid detail, recalling that the horses drank until they were “Swollen like well-filled wineskins” (Canto XII, 386) while the men groveling in the mud for water disclose their elemental animal needs. The event provides material for a brief meditation on God’s relationship to man, who, on the one hand, He has raised “To be a second God here on the earth/The image of your own appearance” and, on the other, is “always subjected to/The miserable sustenance by which he lives.” (372-375) (Ser vice Dios illustre aca en la tierra,/Imagen de to misma semejanza,/Para dexar de estar siempre sugeto/Al miserio sustento de que vive?)

In another scene, another scouting party finds the Rio del Norte after 5 days of wandering and the horses cannot be pulled away from the river, “And all there, plunging in their heads,/Two of them drank to such extent/They there, together, burst and died, /And two more, blind, went in so far/That, by current snatched away,/They also died, with water satisfied.)

When it comes to Villagra’s representations of intercultural contact one can only say that the Historia is rife with contradiction. Make no mistake. Villagra is a Spaniard. The native people he and the Onate party meet are regarded as “barbaros,” a word with a long history of European ethnocentrism about the native peoples supposed cultural backwardness, their strange dress and habits, and the Spanish chagrin that the people of the Americas were not Christian, lived without the benefit of the Church’s teachings and practices, lived and died without the benefit of the sacraments and, hence, practiced superstitious ritual and worshipped demonic spirits. And, of course, at this point in time it should go without saying that religious conversion was the usual excuse given for displacing, brutalizing, and murdering native people.

Villagra makes it clear that as one of the King’s soldiers and as one of Onate’s lieutenants, he has also participated in military campaigns against the natives. Yet, a decade after his entrada into la Nueva Mexico, Villagra the poet, discloses a more complex understanding of native culture, a more self-divided or uncertain ontological sense of the very people he met on his journey.

In Canto 11 when he is relating the mythic journey of the early predecessors of the Aztecs, he alternately characterizes the mythic native figures as monstrous and fearful but describes native people themselves as containing many nations, different in language, laws, rites and customs and with those of the East very different from the rest (CII, 212-218). He also notes that, as the people tell it, the founders of the great city of Tenochtitlan originated in the north, from an area bounded by New Mexico and then, to my astonishment, Villagra theorizes at the end of Canto II that:

Acerca de la Antigua descendencia,
Venida y poblacion de Mexicanos,
Que para mi yo tengo que salieron
De la gran China todos los que habitan
Lo que llamamos Indias. . . (294-293)

(About the ancient descent.
The coming and settlement of the Mexicans
Who, for myself, I think that they did come
From the great China, all who live
In what we call the Indies. . .)

I am no anthropologist, but I thought that the theory of Asian migration and population of the Americas was fairly recent proposition. So, I was stunned to see this theory articulated in 1610. It seems to me that this position alone was beginning to inform Villagra’s intellectually inquisitive consideration of native life, and is what throughout the narrative produces what I think of as an retrospective internal struggle, a tension between his Spanish worldview and a haunted sense that they had destroyed an honorable people. Villagra peoples the narrative with native characters who are seen as noble and courageous in the face of Spanish military power, loyal to each other, capable of great kindness, capable of great love, and capable of great grief.

For instance, Villagra dedicates the entire Canto XIII to a story of filial devotion in which a native woman, Polca, demonstrates her great love for her captured husband, Milco. Villagra provides a vivid description of her grace, beauty, passion, and her willingness to sacrifice herself for Milco:

And as with love she then did blush
When showing us her lovely face,
Her eyes tearful, she made us understand
That Milco, who we held captive,
Was her husband, her soul, her life and the father
Of the innocent child she held to her breasts.
. . .
Offering sincerely for her part
That she would go wherever we took her
Serving us all as our slave
If only we would grant his life.

Why Villagra would devote an entire Canto to this story of a pueblo woman’s faithfulness rather than recall a Spanish wife declaring her love for a husband in danger. In fact, there are no such scenes of Spanish domestic affection. On the one hand, one can argue that the new world epic—as in the case of Ercilla’s “La araucana”—as much as requires a native romance, an pastoral idyll that creates a ruse of shared humanity; all rhetorically camouflaging bitter conquest. On the other hand, for Villagra the poet (1610) remembering the soldier (1598), maybe using the experiential retrospective of the epic maneuver to camouflage his own regret, guilt, a sense of an opportunity for cultural exchange lost in destroying the idyll of the native world.

Of the Santo Domingo people, he is explicitly affirmative when providing a kind of ethnographic account:

Throughout that land where we saw
Very good towns set out
Evenly divided and with squared plazas,
. . . their houses.
Rose up in three, five, six, and seven stories
. . .
They are extremely skillful laborers.
They spin and weave, the women cook,
And build and take care of the house
And wear seemly cotton mantles
Of divers colors, many-hued.
They are a simple, peaceful folk
Of good face, all well formed,
Restless, quick, bold, and spirited.
No cripples, no helpless, no maimed
But of complete and robust health (Canto XV, 305-370 for entire)

In the Historia there are representations of pueblo people that I didn’t expect to find in a poem that is recalled primarily for its legitimizing of the Spanish destruction of the great sky city of Acoma. I remain unclear about how to understand Villagra’s intentions. As other critics have pointed out he often follows the epic convention of romanticizing characters and lifting to idyllic level the actions of the story. And I while I understand this as a scholar, there is still something in the structure of Villagra’s memory of the journey that seems haunted, or unresolved, troubled, almost contrite.

What is hard in this kind of a project is that so many of our own structures of belief insinuate themselves into our readings that we incline to the political or ideological positions we inhabit, especially those of us who read from the isolation of the university, and once taken we are hard pressed to alter our views, even of the past.

I am not entirely satisfied with post-colonial readings that set a template for the colonial encounter that seems more and more monolithic, and worse, disinterested in the viability of alternative readings that I believe widen our understanding of the multiple, and often openly contradictory positions/feelings the Spanish soldier discloses. This is an argument that even in this case could only be made after an exhaustive reading of all that we know about Villagra (et al Spaniards) that would pry open space for the kind of reading I want to bring to this text. I am simply trying to understand why a Spaniard would represent the Pueblo and other Native people in a romantic fashion. For someone who was there, as they say, this is, perhaps as close as he can come to reciting an act of contrition, or even if no, we certainly witness an act of contradiction that we must try to explore more fully.