The problem of finite definitions of the colonizer and the colonized
The colonizer and the colonized are the obvious subjects of discovery narrative. Viewed through a modern lens, it is easy to equate the colonizer to the offender and the colonized to the victim. However, this is a large oversimplification that forces the reader to ignore many opposing factors of the story. In order to regard oneself as superior to another being, you must be able to clearly distinguish yourself from your inferiors. However, in order to “convert” or subject people, you must also be able to find a common ground on which they can relate, in the Conquistadors’ case: Christianity, or more simply, the ability to worship a god. It is precisely this contradiction that limits our ability to truly discriminate between the colonizer and the colonized.
Cabeza de Vaca’s narrative further complicates this characterization the longer he lives amongst the natives as he inevitably begins to become aware of inherent shared characteristics, and even more so as he is forced to live in their culture. The line between conqueror and conquered is dependent on maintaining distinction and a firm definition of identity and position. This line is unavoidably blurred in the narrative because as the “conquerors” are themselves conquered and subjected, it becomes impossible for Cabeza de Vaca to maintain a firm otherness when he shares one of the most basic human characteristics with the “others:” suffering.
While all of the Spanish men in Cabeza de Vaca’s narrative are able to hold fast to their superiority to a certain extent through Christianity, the tone of the account becomes undoubtedly less dominant as the narrator becomes subjected to those he attempts to subject himself. Being stranded in a foreign land for so long, it is only natural that Cabeza de Vaca begins to feel affinity to the natives who treat him well, particularly when other natives treat him so poorly. It is human nature to unite against a common enemy, and although many times this factor unites many groups of natives against the Europeans, it also unites the Europeans with the natives against other hostile natives.
This, however, strips the colonizer of his role as conqueror. Cabeza de Vaca no longer fits our description of colonizer. Not only is his status as a “superior” identity lowered, but his identity in itself is constantly evolving as he makes connections with the natives and comes to live a certain way in certain circumstances. In many discovery narratives, such as that of Christopher Columbus, it is easier to maintain this distinction because of level of separation between the Europeans and the natives that is sustained throughout the entire story. However, in Cabeza de Vaca’s narrative, we can no longer consider the Europeans and the natives to have no ties at all.
As modern readers we tend to refer to the Europeans as group A and all of the natives together not as group B, but simply as “not group A.” It is a deep-rooted preoccupation with race that makes this natural for us. Race is an easy distinction, and since we recognize the natives as natives and not by their separate tribes, it is only natural for the modern reader to group all natives together. However, this causes us to place more emphasis on the points of the narrative where the Europeans are pitted against the natives than on those where the Europeans and some natives are pitted against other natives.
Cabeza de Vaca’s narrative differs greatly from other colonization accounts because the roles of the colonizer and the colonized are diminished, and the narrator no longer holds a role of authority but rather a more passive role. As a storyteller who exists within the story rather than a third person, some level of distinction and otherness is definitely maintained as we are told the story from one perspective. Also, Cabeza de Vaca’s identity of a European, a Christian, and to some extent a superior, can never be erased fully. However, it is impossible for this identity to remain “pure.”
There isn’t necessarily one particular point where this identity begins to become muddled. However, to choose a relatively discernible turning point could be when the governor finally states “that it was no longer time for one man to rule another, that each one should do whatever seemed best to him in order to save his own life” (82). In saying this, the Europeans no longer exist as a group, and without this definitive support we can no longer consider each individual as part of the offenders. Without the strength of the group and becoming susceptible to subjugation themselves, we can no longer consider them solely victimizers. Cabeza de Vaca’s narrative challenges our stereotypical ideas of every colonist and every native as similar. Without the company of other Europeans, because humans are indeed social beings, the narrator will naturally find ways in which he relates to the only other humans around him and inescapably evolve. As this forced evolution unfolds, the colonizer and the colonized no longer have fixed definitions.