The ‘Other’ America: de Vaca and Diaz Inhabit the Borderlands

The borderland is a place where lines are drawn, physically and socially, that differentiate one culture from another. No, this isn’t Oxford’s definition, but after a little cultural-anthropological research it’s what I’ve synthesized. Borders are human creations. They are arbitrarily and socially constructed, and they cause great confusion for those who inhabit them. Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, a Spanish explorer and survivor of the nearly doomed Narváez expedition, is recognized as America’s first borderland personality. (Such a term is not to be confused with borderline personality, a different ballgame altogether). After a hurricane-induced shipwreck, de Vaca makes close and extended contact with the Natives on the island of what is now Galveston, Texas. He observes, begins to understand, and finally identifies with native culture. During his roughly nine-year stint in the borderland, de Vaca doesn’t just sympathize with his ‘captors.’ Instead, when he is finally found and essentially arrested by other Spaniards, he is appalled by the greed of his own people. De Vaca is both a displaced Spaniard and a transplant Native. He grapples now with two distinct selves.

Now, fast forward nearly five hundred years.

Galveston is still considered a borderland today, a place where two cultures collide and try to make sense of each other. The United States, in fact, contains many psychological borderlands in unexpected places. One of them is Paterson, New Jersey, an urban ghetto and also one of the settings of Junot Diaz’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Diaz, a first-generation immigrant from the Dominican Republic, writes extensively not only of the immigrant experience but also of the immigrant identity. Like de Vaca, Diaz’s characters also live as outsiders caught between cultures. This modern borderland, however, is far more cloudy and complex place than it was when de Vaca made contact.

De Vaca and Diaz may seem unlikely bedfellows for a borderlands discussion. De Vaca comes to America as a Spaniard in search of riches and property. He leaves with an understanding and love for its apparently ‘savage’ natives. Diaz’s characters in Wao come to America under harsher circumstances and must grapple with natives whose savagery lies in separation, misunderstanding, and prejudice. Unlike de Vaca, Oscar deals with the borderland by escaping to an imaginary, post-apocalyptic world outside of it. Analyses of both authors and texts reveal how borderlands and the people who occupy them have radically evolved in American Literature. Closer reading also shows us how de Vaca has unconsciously informed contemporary borderland personalities.

De Vaca and Diaz came to America under entirely different circumstances. Although their surnames both sound Hispanic, the two could hardly be considered related in any sense, culturally or otherwise. It should be noted I am choosing to discuss biography here with attention I do not normally pay it. I think the author is, for the most part, dead. But this is a blessay, if you will, about borderland personalities. And you can’t have personalities without people. Understanding where de Vaca and Diaz came from is integral to understand how they navigate the borderland.

This article from PBS’s New Perspectives on the West offers a brief yet comprehensive biography of de Vaca. I will hit the highlights: de Vaca is born into Spanish nobility. In fact, the Norton Anthology’s introduction to de Vaca’s Relation indicates he may be one of many to see “the disgrace of Columbus as he passed in chains through Cadiz in 1498.” On the heels of Columbus’s disgraceful return from ‘the New World’ de Vaca joined a royal fleet on a voyage to occupy North America’s mainland. De Vaca is down to occupy already-occupied lands until his fleet is nearly decimated by a hurricane in what is now the Tampa Bay. The leader of the expedition still wants to claim the land for Spain. He does, and he decides to divide his remaining forces so they can explore ‘their’ new territory. Bad idea, Narváez. Almost eighty survivors are well-received by regional natives, but they bring with them a bowel disease that kills many natives. De Vaca and three others are the only members of the expedition to survive. In the following years, de Vaca will live among the natives. They will believe him to be “from the sunrise” and his fellow retrieving Spaniards to be “from the sunset” when the adventure is said and done.

Diaz comes to America from entirely different circumstances. Here is an Independent piece that picks Diaz’s brain about what migration meant to him when he was “wrested” from the Dominican Republic at the age of six. “Migration was so hard for me; I felt I’d lost so many worlds that I didn’t want to lose to another,” Diaz tells his interviewer. As he tries to bridge the geographical and cultural gap between his homeland and the pandemonium that is New Jersey, Diaz turns to creative expression, particularly when he recalls the oppressive Dominican Republic and relates it to fantasy elements as he so often does in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.

De Vaca is a white man entering native territory; conversely, Diaz is a native man entering white territory. Despite their entirely different borderland experiences, both use written expression to preserve and decode their experiences. Below is my favorite Diaz quote, like, ever:

Both de Vaca and Diaz use their writing as forums in which their experiences can be discussed and decoded. In essence, their accounts are efforts to preserve the safety of their souls. In The Relation, de Vaca wants to relay the New World expeditions to the Spaniards from an outsider’s perspective. In doing so, he recounts his own borderland battles with morality and ethics. He urges all who want to go to the New World in order to “subdue these countries and bring to them a knowledge of the true faith” read his account of native life before they “bring them under imperial dominion.” Here , de Vaca is bearing witness by bringing not only his own story but the natives’ stories back to the European continent. “My only remaining duty,” he writes, “is to transmit what I heard and saw…”

And what de Vaca hears and sees shapes his borderland experience. The initial ‘otherness’ of the natives, especially evident in their nipple and lip rings, shocks de Vaca. Nevertheless, when he describes the Malhado way of life, he calls the natives “the people we came to know.” Such a phrase implies that de Vaca’s acclimation to the borderland was not an instantaneous process. Instead, during his nine-year period in the New World, de Vaca established with the Malhado relationships informed by patience and understanding. Ultimately, de Vaca calls the Malhado generous, loving, and highly organized according to cultural custom. Of their family dynamics he writes, “These people love their offspring more than any in the world and treat them very mildly,” and “Those who have children never abandon their wives.” In these phrases, de Vaca moves beyond observation and into identification. The more time he spends with the natives, the more he realizes how similar he and they are. Eventually, de Vaca separates his identity from his own Spanish roots and becomes America’s first borderland personality. Upon his ‘rescue’ de Vaca rightfully fears his fellow Spaniards’ intentions to ‘subdue’ the Malhado. “Thus we often misjudge the motives of men; we thought we had effected the Indians’ liberty, when the Christians were but posing to pounce.”

As de Vaca separates himself from his homeland and integrates into the borderland, he begins to realize how socially constructed borders truly are. In the same way, Oscar in Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao copes with his virtually shipwrecked American life by creating his own world above the chaotic borderland he inhabits. An overweight, awkward teenager with a fierce affinity for sci-fi, Oscar deals with his migration from the Dominican Republic to Paterson, New Jersey in many of the same ways Diaz himself did. By incorporating fantasy realms into his own experience, Oscar alters his reality. Rather than creating a “strictly factual” account as de Vaca does, Oscar imaginatively alters the borderland. Yunior, Wao’s narrator, takes us inside Oscar’s comic book mind. As Oscar plays the game Champions with his friends, Yunior tells us, “Oscar had to retire his famous Aftermath! campaign because nobody else but him was hankering to play in the post-apocalyptic ruins of virus-wrecked America.” For Oscar, these ruins do not only exist in the game; they are evident in his multilingual, low-income neighborhood. They are evident in the high school he must navigate as a homely, portly, immigrant ‘other.’ Throughout the novel, as Oscar travels between his homeland and Paterson, he continues to make sense of his world with sci-fi references in a not-so-subtle homage to Diaz’s own borderland experience.

What, then, do we make of de Vaca, Diaz, and his character Oscar? Is it enough to say they are both borderland personalities, or is one unconsciously informed by the other? Diaz, who hails from an island claimed by Columbus as Hispañola, came years after de Vaca to a nation born from cultural contact and mixing. Like de Vaca, Diaz and his Oscar must make sense of America’s still existent borderlands, where arbitrary cultural lines are confused and blurred. De Vaca, in his factual account of contact, understanding, and identification, paved the way for the borderland personalities and artists who would follow him. Among them, Diaz incorporates the fantastic into the factual. He makes the confusion and terror of leaving one’s homeland magical. But before he came to an America freckled with its own pocket borderlands (like Paterson), de Vaca made sense of and identified with his own borderland, fostering unprecedented understanding between of himself and the apparent other.


Cabeza de Vaca’s The Relation (Norton Anthology of American Literature)

Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2008)

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