[April isn’t just National Poetry Month; it’s also National Arab American Heritage Month. So this week I’ll highlight a handful of the many compelling Arab American stories & figures I feature in the final chapter of my book We the People, leading up to a weekend post on contemporary Arab American writers!]
On the enslaved explorer who helps us revise our understanding of the earliest American histories.
One of the historical figures about whom I’ve thought the most consistently and deeply over the last decade is Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca, the early 16th century Spanish explorer who ended up wandering across North America for nearly a decade and became in the process something quite different, a multi-cultural identity and perspective that I called in my book Redefining American Identity: From Cabeza de Vaca to Barack Obama (2011) one of the first truly American identities. Beginning with that book I’ve continued to think and write a good deal about, and likewise teach quite frequently, excerpts from Cabeza de Vaca’s Narrative, but I’m ashamed to admit that it was only while writing about Cabeza de Vaca for a chapter in We the People that I started to think more fully about (and ultimately include in a separate chapter in that book) one of the three companions who accompanied him throughout his journey: Estevanico (also known as Estebanico, Esteban the Moor, and Mustafa Azemmouri, his many names themselves reflecting the fraught question of investigating his life and experiences), an enslaved Moroccan man who became through those experiences a prominent explorer in his own right. (I was greatly aided in that thinking by a wonderful recent historical novel about Estevanico, Laili Lalami’s The Moor’s Account .)
The start of Estevanico’s story was all too typical in the age of exploration: in his early 20s he was kidnapped by Portuguese slave traders and sold into slavery in the Moroccan coastal town of Azemmour; and he ended up enslaved to a Spanish nobleman, Andrés Dorantes de Carranza. De Carranza brought Estevanico with him on the ill-fated 1527 Narváez expedition to Florida, and after that expedition’s shipwreck and collapse Estevanico ended up with Cabeza de Vaca, de Carranza, and another man (“the fourth,” de Vaca writes, “is Estevanico, an Arab Negro from Azamor”). The decade that followed changed Estevanico’s life and fate just as fully as it did de Vaca’s; while de Vaca returned to Spain after the men finally encountered another Spanish expedition on the continent’s west coast, Estevanico remained in the Americas and continued his explorations, serving as an enslaved guide for both Antonio de Mendoza (the first viceroy of New Spain) and Friar Marcos de Niza. While leading de Niza’s 1539 expedition among the Zuni tribe in present-day New Mexico, Estevanico disappeared—he might have been killed by the Zuni but also might have chosen to escape to freedom and join their community (among other potential fates), one more telling ambiguity in the life of this unique contact era figure.
I’ve written a good bit (including in Redefining American Identity, but also in this space) about how Cabeza de Vaca helps us reframe that era of initial contact between European and Native cultures, but to be honest Estevenico does so even more potently. For one thing, he (like another striking contact era figure, Tisquantum) helps us recognize the central presence of slavery, and of individuals and cultures affected by it, at and after every moment of contact. And for another, related thing, Estevanico makes clear that both Arab and Muslim Americans were part of this evolving place and identity from its earliest moments—often in direct relationship to the system and experiences of slavery, but also and in any case as a set of figures, communities, and cultures that contributed significantly to the origin and development of America. I’ll highlight a few more such figures in my next posts in this series, but there are none who were present earlier or more foundationally than Estevanico.
Next Arab American story tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other Arab American figures or stories you’d highlight?
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