But the dark-skinned one is not a stranger here.
Three years have passed since his first visit,
the most famous of four medicine men
who were said to have come straight
from the Sun, His daybreak house.
Eight years among Indians, living in
Dios, had taught them well: Esteban
& his companions knew how to make
an impression. But when they called
themselves by the dread word, here
in the soon-to-be province of Nueva
Galicia, their hosts trembled.
Cristianos had come to mean slavers,
metal-clad horsemen of apocalypse.
How could these four be cross-wielders?
They laid hands on people solely to heal,
refused all offers of payment.
The Black Shaman had sat apart
from the others as a war chief might,
though his words were never few.
Through him flowed power
that the oldest of the four guarded
like an underground lake. Together
they sought to show that the cross
could be used in more ways
than one, putting a stop to soul-
stealing by those who killed
& kidnapped under its protection.
Esteban had talked the elders down
from their mountain redoubts
for a diplomatic parlay, & Cabeza
de Vaca extracted a vow of peace
from the abominable Nuño
de Guzmán. And Guzmán indeed
waited a month or two
before sending his son to resume
their terror campaigns.
But now he’s come back, this man of power.
Bringing hundreds of native sons
& daughters, just released
from captivity in far-off Mexico.
And with him also this time
a holy man, a priest, whose headship
& hesitant way of talking
attract many who distrust
the other’s charisma.
the dark-skinned one: Esteban is described by Cabeza de Vaca as “negro alárabe, natural de Azamor.” The latest word on his origin and likely ethnicity (Sahelian rather than Berber) may be found on pages 414-422 of Volume 2 of Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca: His Account, His Life, and the Expedition of Pánfilo de Narváez, by Rolena Adolfo and Patrick Charles Pautz (University of Nebraska Press, 1999). They make a good case for interpreting “negro alárabe” as “an Arabic-speaking Black.” (For the purposes of this poem, I assume a Malian ancestry, which is highly plausible given the nature of the trans-Saharan slave trade in Morocco at that time.)
But would Indians necessarily have thought of Esteban as “black”? What would it mean if they did? For indigenous peoples of this region – Mesoamerica and the greater Southwest – red (or sometimes white) and black were sacred colors representing complementary, dual principles of the cosmos. My contention here and throughout the poem is that, since Esteban had become so acculturated and so adept a shaman, the color of his skin would have been seen as similar to, or symbolic of, the black dye or stain that many Indians applied to themselves when seeking power from the more dangerous, disorderly, male principle of the cosmos.