Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca was and is a dangerous man. Not because he was violent (for he is perhaps the gentlest person of the American saga), but because he stands as a challenge to our reflexive beliefs and our tidy categories. Though he was the first European on record to spend significant time in North America, and the first to write a book about this land, even most well-educated people haven't heard of him because his story is too strange, too disturbing to be taught in schools. To encounter him is to encounter our own limits and possibilities. To tell his story is to challenge our taboos. To invoke his time is to reveal our own.
Cabeza de Vaca was born in 1490 and died in 1557. To Americans, whose sense of the past fades every year, he can't help but seem remote. The media constantly enshrine the cliche that our era has seen the greatest change in human history, but judge for yourself whether or not the changes in Cabeza de Vaca's lifetime were equally transformative:
Columbus discovered the Americas for Europe, beginning the greatest mass migration the world has ever seen (a migration that created no less than, at present, 45 new nations and protectorates in the Americas alone); 800,000 Jews were expelled from Spain; Cortes conquered the Aztecs of Mexico and Pizarro the Incas of Peru, ending two civilizations; Michelangelo painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel; Leonardo da Vinci made the Mona Lisa; the painters Hieronymus Bosch, Durer, Raphael, Titian and Bruegel were active; the first modern clock was built; the first pawnshop was opened; the first political cartoon was drawn; the German priest Martin Luther and the English King Henry VIII broke from the Church of Rome, ending 1,500 years of Roman domination; Machiavelli wrote "The Prince," initiating the modern view of politics; Copernicus developed the theory of the solar system--the first huge step in modern scientific development; the slave trade began, and with it the destruction of millennia of African traditions; the first insurance policies were written; Queen Elizabeth I was born; the first theory of germs was formulated; the first game of billiards was played; the Spanish Inquisition burned Protestants as heretics, and Nostradamus wrote his prophecies.