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The Spaniard who walked across America in the 1500s

Between 1534 and 1536, Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, a conquistador who never conquered anyone, walked nearly 4,000 kilometers across the American continent, and lived to tell the tale.

pg8aAnd he told it well. His story “Naufragios y Comentarios” (Shipwrecks and Commentaries) makes for fascinating reading. Even more fascinating is the retelling of Cabeza de Vaca’s story by Andrés Reséndez, a Mexican-American professor of history at the University of California, Davis. His book, “A Land so Strange, the Epic Journey of Cabeza de Vaca,” was published in 2009 and adds much needed clarification, annotations and insights to this bizarre story, resulting in a narrative so curious, compelling and fluid, that one of his readers declared that this was “one book I would take to a desert island.”

Cabeza de Vaca was the royally appointed treasurer of an expedition meant to establish a colony of Spaniards in Florida. In 1527, 300 of them set sail from Spain, only to suffer a most amazing series of mishaps. Hurricanes, shipwrecks, near starvation and the bungling of an incompetent navigator landed the survivors on what is now Galveston Island, Texas, where their chain of catastrophes culminated in the desperate construction of a huge raft upon which they piled absolutely everything they had (including their clothes and shoes). When they pushed the raft into the sea, it broke up and sank, leaving 80 naked and barefoot survivors freezing to death.

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