In order to comprehend the reasons that Cabeza de Vaca’s pattern of contact was an exception to the general rules of Spanish expansion, we must first explore the background of the group of people that are known in the history of American conquests as Spaniards. At the time of Christopher Columbus’ first voyage, no kingdom called Spain existed. Instead, the independent kingdoms of Castile, Aragón, and Navarre were loosely unified through the marriage of Fernando (Ferdinand) and Isabel (Isabella). Isabel was heir to the throne of the combined kingdom of Castilla y León, later known only as Castile. Fernando was the ruler of the northeastern third of the Iberian Peninsula, including the domains of Aragón, Catalonia, and Navarre. On the western edge of the peninsula, the Kingdom of Portugal claimed roughly the same territory occupied by the nation of Portugal today.
The Iberian Peninsula’s rugged geography played a central role in determining the placement and growth of its societies. At the southwestern edge of Europe, Iberia is largely surrounded by water. The Pyrenees Mountains that form the present-day boundary between France and Spain are its point of connection to the rest of the continent. Yet the rugged mountains have also presented a barrier to travel and communication. The entire peninsula is relatively small. At about 225,000 square miles in area, it is roughly the same size as the states of Arizona and New Mexico together. Most of its landscape is dominated by mountains and valleys. Its various ranges separate the Iberian Peninsula into several different regions that have tended to maintain their autonomy from one another. Additionally, most of the peninsula is arid. Its inhabitants have had to learn to cope with dry conditions and isolation, similar to the types of conditions faced by New Mexico’s residents.
Although the 1469 union of Fernando and Isabel set the stage for the eventual unification of Spain under their grandson, Carlos I in 1516, Iberia was historically a place of great diversity. It was also the site of a long cycle of trade connections, conquests, and accommodations between different groups of people. Between 1100 and 800 BCE the Phoenicians found a group of people, known collectively as Iberians, along the Mediterranean coast. They established trade colonies in which they exchanged jewelry, oil, and wine for Iberian precious metals, including gold, silver, and copper. After the decline of the Phoenician trade empire, Greek sailors landed on Iberia’s shores in the 600s BCE and established colonies. In 218 BCE, Roman soldiers initiated the conquest of the peninsula, which they called Hispania. The impact of Roman language, legal systems, and architecture is still visible today.
In the fifth century CE Visigothic peoples invaded the Iberian Peninsula, capitalizing on the sharp decline of Roman imperial power. In the process, they borrowed heavily from the people who were already there. Visigoths converted to Christianity and adopted dialects based on Latin. They took up their new faith with great zeal. Catholic Visigoth leaders established a code that persecuted Jewish people within their domains. Although their anti-Jewish measures were not consistently enforced, many Jews publicly converted to Catholicism but continued to practice their own religion privately. By the period of New Mexico’s colonization in the early seventeenth century, Sephardic Jews continued to hide their true identities. Such practices made the new converts highly suspect to Christians in the peninsula, and often led to religious tensions and violence. Aside from their efforts to enforce religious homogeneity, Visigothic kingdoms were plagued by a lack of normalized means of royal succession. When one king died, wars ensued until the victor claimed his place as heir to the throne.
By the early eighth century, such internal conflicts opened the door for the Islamic conquest of Iberia. Berber Muslims of North African origins made their way across the Strait of Gibraltar and into the peninsula. By 711, most of the peninsula had fallen under the control of the expanding Islamic Empire. Over the ensuing seven-and-a-half centuries, Muslim rule shaped Iberian language, culture, religious practice, architecture, learning, and knowledge. The Basque province and Asturias in the north were the only areas that remained under the rule of Catholic kings. Their efforts to reconquer Iberia began almost immediately after the Islamic incursion and ended in 1492 when forces loyal to Fernando and Isabel emerged victorious from a ten-year effort to take control of Granada, the last Muslim stronghold.
La Reconquista continued throughout the era of Islamic domination, but the years between 711 and 1492 were not defined by constant, sustained warfare. The most active period of conflict took place between 850 and 1250, but even then peaceful coexistence characterized the state of affairs. Conflicts were also not always between Catholics and Moors (the term used to describe North African Muslims). Instead, Christian knights, nobles, and kings often battled one another with the aid of Islamic allies. The very term “reconquest” is quite loaded. It implies that those reconquering the territory had a clear prior right to the land and resources. Yet, as the history of Iberia indicates, cycles of conquest meant that proprietary rights were anything but straightforward. Also, reconquest is a matter of perspective. To Muslims living in their stronghold in Andalusia (located in the south-central section of the peninsula), their rule was ordained by Allah. From their viewpoint, the reconquest was often a contest between competing political and religious entities, rather than a crusade by a conquered group of people to take back what was rightfully theirs. Similar issues of perspective applied to the reconquest of New Mexico in the 1690s following the Pueblo Revolt.
From their capital city of Córdoba, Muslim leaders influenced Iberian culture, learning, art, and architecture. Al-Andalus (the Arab name for Muslim-ruled Iberia) was also connected to the larger Islamic Empire that stretched eastward across northern Africa to Baghdad. The Umayyad Dynasty, which held power in Islamic Iberia between 756 and 1031, established political stability and promoted advances in education and literature. Muslim scholars brought classical Greek and Roman texts, preserved in the Arabic language, to Iberia and, by extension, to Western Europe. Due to early Catholic prohibitions on secular learning and knowledge, combined with political instability, such texts had not been preserved in Western European kingdoms. Additionally, Muslim scholars made breakthroughs in medicine at a time when European physicians had a hazy understanding of the workings of the human body. The Alhambra in Granada and the great mosque of Córdoba are two of the iconic Islamic contributions to Iberian architecture that still stand today.
In many ways, Islamic culture brought enlightenment and advancement to Iberia. Although the era was generally a period of convivencia (coexistence) between Christians, Jews, and Muslims, at times cooperation broke down. Jews made important contributions to Iberian society as tax collectors, physicians, merchants, and bankers. Christians at times visited Jewish and Islamic houses of worship with friends or associates, despite their refusal to participate in the rites of “infidels.” Even in the moments of most cooperation, however, Jews and Christians were required to recognize Islamic superiority by accepting the political power of Islam and adhering to certain aspects of Muslim law, including the payment of a head tax called the jizya. Additionally, as Christian conquests advanced, Jews were forced to wear badges of identification and were subject to higher rates of taxation.
By the 1030s, Muslim political unity began to erode and Christian reconquest efforts intensified. Within two hundred years, the reconquest had been all but completed as Muslim peoples were pushed back to the southern province of Granada. By 1200 smaller Christian domains had coalesced into the larger kingdoms of Portugal, Castile, and Aragón. In 1249 forces loyal to the Portuguese crown gained control of Algarve, the last Muslim holdout in the western section of Iberia. At about the same time, Castilian forces loyal to King Fernando III captured Andalusia, Álvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca’s future birthplace. Andalusia was the population and political center of Al-Andalus. The important port city of Seville and the capital city of Córdoba were its key urban centers. To mark the conquest, Castilian Catholics built a cathedral at the center of Córdoba’s great mosque. Although they maintained most of the original structure, Muslim prayers and observances were banned in favor of Christian rites.
Even at its height, however, La Reconquista was not solely focused on issues of religious difference. A desire for land and resources to support growing populations, as well as for plunder and slaves, provided the impetus for conquest just as often as religion. Reconquest kings did not typically possess large amounts of wealth, so adelantados (from a phrase meaning “go-ahead men”) with the ability to finance and outfit expeditions completed most of the military campaigns. Due to feudal vassalage, or sworn loyalty, to their specific king, adelantados did not typically attempt to construct their own individual kingdoms. Instead, they continued to support their monarch because their rights to lands, wealth, and titles of nobility were guaranteed by the king in return for their dedicated service. Such patterns subsequently facilitated the relatively rapid expansion of the Spanish Empire throughout the Americas in the 1500s. Motivated by the desire to gain wealth, status, and glory through service to God and king, adelantado conquistadores led the charge to subdue native peoples.
La Reconquista forged a hyper-masculine and hyper-Catholic society and culture based on a rigid social hierarchy. Members of the titled nobility, including dukes and counts, remained at the top of society. Many laid claim to descent from Visigothic kings, and others established their notoriety through service against Muslims. They typically owned large tracts of land and enjoyed the loyalty of many different vassals. Men of lower social rank pledged their services to kings and nobles in exchange for financial, political, or religious support for themselves and their families. Untitled nobles, known as hidalgos (meaning “sons of something”), were among those that entered into such pledges of vassalage. In return, people of still lower status pledged loyalty to hidalgos. All nobles, whether titled or not, claimed limpieza de sangre (purity of blood) to underscore the idea that their ancestors had never been Jews, Muslims, or heretics tried by the Inquisition.
In Europe, such claims were at times based on detailed documentation (here’s an example of such documentation from eighteenth-century Granada). In the Spanish Americas, however, limpieza de sangre was often based on lifestyle, wealth, patterns of speech, and dress because documents to prove status typically were not available. Noble title did not always accompany wealth, and at times common folk who worked as merchants, physicians, teachers, or small farmers possessed more worldly goods than hidalgos. Despite a lack of wealth, nobility provided men with exemptions from some taxes and protection against arrest by anyone except the king’s representatives. In the years just prior to contact, nobles comprised only about ten percent of the total population of Castile, but their decisions and actions drove their communities.
The significance of the reconquest to New Mexico’s histories stems from the ways in which it created unique patterns in Iberian society that then carried over to the Americas following contact. By connecting status and social influence to bestowals of royal authority, kings consolidated their power and ensured the allegiance of the nobility. Many times during the reconquest, Christian forces relied on Muslim allies to outflank their enemies. Such was the case during intermittent conflicts between Castile and Portugal between 1200 and 1450. Additionally, the use of violence as a means to power was a hallmark of the period. Attempts to create religious conformity and the perpetuation of a heavily patriarchal society that accepted sexual double standards and based women’s honor on their chastity and life in the private sphere also defined Iberian societies by 1492. These patterns were tested and reshaped in the desert environment of New Spain’s far northern frontier between 1540 and 1821, when Mexico gained its independence from Spain.