Digital Mapping Project Rethinks Spanish Explorer Cabeza de Vaca

Thursday, January 14, 2021 - 4:15am

A University of Arizona researcher is turning to digital mapping technology to reveal new insights about a nearly 500-year-old text and shed assumptions about early exploration of what is today the United States and the legacy of European power in the New World.


Anita Huizar-Hernández, associate professor of border studies in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese, seeks to re-evaluate The Narrative of Cabeza de Vaca, creating an interactive website with thematic filters that draw on additional sources to present a fuller picture of the impacts of European colonization in the Americas.


The aim of the “Decolonizing The Narrative of Cabeza de Vaca” project is to open a new interpretive window on this influential text, allowing students to visualize complex geo-tagged data drawn from the narrative, alongside contextual background information, Huizar-Hernández says.


“As a travel narrative, the text is very spatial, so I started thinking about a digital story map to present the narrative and the events described in a way that’s tied to the space,” she says. “By using technology to take a fresh look at that narrative, we can better visualize what impact it has on society today. As recent debates about, and removals of, statues of colonial figures such as Christopher Columbus and Juan de Oñate demonstrate, there is an urgent need to understand the role European colonialism plays in the U.S. today.”


Spanish explorer Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca spent eight years of traveling across what is now the U.S. South and Southwest, initially sailing from Spain in 1527 as part of the Narváez expedition. One of four survivors of the original 600-person expedition, Cabeza de Vaca journeyed west from present-day Florida to the New Mexico-Arizona area, before turning south to Mexico City. His narrative was the first European account of what is today the United States, published in 1542 in Spain.


It’s a text that Huizar-Hernández teaches often, one with potential to combine with other sources in a way that enables students to explore the narrative in more innovative ways.


With $14,999 in Faculty Seed Grant funding from the Office of Research, Innovation & Impact, Huizar-Hernández will launch the project in a pilot phase, examining The Narrative of Cabeza de Vaca in the context of flora and fauna, contrasting the text with other historical and contemporary primary and secondary sources.


“This filter will dramatically visualize how Cabeza de Vaca’s interpretation of the landscape is shaped by colonial power relations,” Huizar-Hernández says.


For example, Cabeza de Vaca prized precious metals like gold above other resources like prickly pear that were vital to the communities he encountered. That perspective introduced by Cabeza de Vaca shaped the way countless readers of his text would see the world in the decades and centuries to follow.


“As someone who was totally new to the area, he was not familiar with the plants and animals he encountered, so he describes them in interesting ways,” Huizar-Hernández says. “As a typical traveler, he’s not fully aware of how these plants and animals function in terms of food systems for indigenous people living in the area. The actual broader ecosystem is not readily apparent to him.”


Huizar-Hernández designed the project to include research opportunities for undergraduate students, with an interdisciplinary focus. Spanish and Portuguese doctoral student Carmella Scorcia Pacheco will assist Huizar-Hernández in managing the project team, which includes three undergraduate student researchers who will begin in the spring semester with data collection, and continue through the fall semester working hand in hand with the Tech Core team of undergraduate developers directed by Ash Black in the Eller College of Management. The project will utilize StoryMap, an interactive platform Tech Core initially developed to explore ancient Greek literature.


“One of the biggest reasons I chose flora and fauna is I wanted this to be an interdisciplinary project that shows the relevance of the text beyond Spanish literature or humanities,” she says. “I wanted to bring in environmental science and foodways in the southern and southwestern United States. The eventual goal for the StoryMap will be to link out to other resources.”


After the pilot phase, Huizar-Hernández will seek additional grant funding to expand the project, which will be entirely bilingual, to include additional thematic layers, such as religions, languages and waterways. 


“The heart of the project is working with undergraduate researchers, so I want to be able to bring in students from all over campus,” she says. “The humanities students I have can learn more about the scientific aspects and the science students can think more critically about how the way we describe things is embedded in our own cultural perspective.”

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