I remember the wistful ocean breezy voice of Glen Campbell singing all about the ¨sea winds blowin¨, a song about a young soldier remembering a dark-eyed girl by the sea wall that’s protected against devastating hurricanes since it was built and the shoreline raised in response to the catastrophic storm of 1900. That soldier’s memories of sea waves crashing lead him away from the cannon fire of his life at war. It’s a classic tune that Texans everywhere felt proud to see it receive such play on the radio waves. A country music song sung by an emblematic country singer, golden haired Texan? Well, no, Glen was from Arkansas and the song written by Jimmy Webb, from Oklahoma. It seems Galveston has drawn many wayward travelers.
I wonder if any of them know that its name came from a Mexican. Well, a Spaniard who ruled all of “New Spain” from Mexico, which included Texas as a part of the Louisiana territories, Florida, and the “northern provinces” of what is now the desert Southwest.
It took Bernardo Vicente de Gálvez y Madrid a little while to become New Spain´s 49th Viceroy. Before he arrived in Mexico to begin his tenure in 1785, he played a central role in guess what, the “American Revolutionary War”. You see, The American Revolution was, in fact, a part of what was the latest World War at the time–and you thought there’ve been only two, huh? Gálvez and Spain played a significant role in defeating the British in the Louisiana territory then owned by Spain and of Florida effectively leaving the British armies hamstrung of their primary naval superiority. Brigadier General Gálvez was so instrumental in assuring the U.S. colonies´ victory that he is considered a hero of the American Revolutionary War, which was at most one front in the efforts of Spain, France, and the Netherlands to counter the British empire after its success during the Seven Years War, known by most here as the ¨French and Indian War¨. For his efforts, the Spanish Crown made Gálvez Viceroy of New Spain, the Spanish term for overlord of their conquered territories in the New World (sic). He lasted about a year dying in 1786 but not before having commissioned a geographer to map the Texas Gulf Coast, who then named Texas´ largest bay La Bahia de Gálvezton in honor of his benefactor. Thus, the name was also given to the Island in the bay and “Gálvezton¨ was born.
As long as there have been empires, there have been world wars. It is a sleight of hand in U.S. education to think that “we” have only been involved a just a few worldwide conflagrations. When Glen is singing about “cannons crashing” and “cleaning his gun” while dreaming of Galveston, I wonder if he knew the tale it took to make this island created by the elements to be set within a history of conquest, blood . . .war?
It took Texans a while but eventually they replaced the “z” with an “s” and now we have Galveston. Good thing because I can only imagine how difficult it would’ve been for Glen to wrap his mouth around ¨Gálvezton o, Gálveztoooon!¨ with the accents on the a and then try to sing all about sea waves crashing with a Spanish accent. Probably would´ve gone to some other singer and become some kind of Ranchera song with an accordion and mariachis with the big viola guitars and brass–whole different thing! Yeah, best to anglicize the name and make it an icon of songs and beach vacationers. You know, along with colonizing the rest of Texas, convincing all the Tejanos who lived there to rebel against the “power” in Mexico and make it a haven for the Texas Rangers, King Ranchers, and ending voting rights and democracy.
Ok, I know what you’re thinking. That’s a lot attribute to changing a z with an s. Maybe it’s best to start, a little, at the beginning.
They had names, but perhaps wisely never shared them with the bearded skeletons they found washed up on the beach of their autumn fishing grounds. They did share the name for the Island. Auia was a place of swamps and oyster beds. The People would come there with reluctance–who are we kidding? Just about anywhere on the Gulf Coast to the mesquite plains in southern Texas was inhospitable and they moved with great reluctance everywhere–but it was their home if only for the winter months when fish were plentiful and the water-born roots edible. Los Carancahueses were trolling the shoals on the island in the time the strangers of beards and bones and skin called 1528 en el año de nuestro Señor. They spied him climbing down from a tree entering their chozas, it’s what he called their huts, and taking some fish, a pot, and one of the Qüeshe they loved that dog, he was such a great meal! Why would they take it?! Best to find out so they followed him to the beach where they found several more of the miserable creatures of bone and skin. What sadness The People must have felt to see these fellow humans in such a state nearly dead. The three Carancahueses went to talk to the least emaciated creature whom the others called “Capitán Cabeza de Vaca”. The befallen humans, for they appeared so to The People, seemed to be in need of help and somehow they communicated they were hungry and cold, so the three agreed to return the next day. But just in case, they also brought more of The People should these poor downtrodden be monsters in disguise. . . . Such was what was likely how the native people who first encountered the Spanish conquistadores washed up on the beach of their native Auia whom the Spanish named the Island of Misfortune and whom that surveyor renamed for his Governor, Bernardo de Gálvez.
The island’s first inhabitants are descendants of who are known as the Carancahua Indians primarily lived there in reed and skin huts fishing the bayous and bays needing to cover their skin with mud and shark or alligator grease to ward off mosquitoes that exist in grand carpet-like swarms. Hence, the greater part of European colonization of Texas and the Southwest really begins with a half’drowned sailor washing up on a spit of land that eventually joined onto what we know today as Galveston Island. Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca was a royal appointed treasurer to the grand expedition led in 1527 by Pánfilo de Narvaez whose aim was to ¨explore and colonize¨ La Florida” (that’s right, Florida as in beaches and retirees).
It didn’t take. The 600 soldiers, colonists, including African slaves, set out in 5 ships and within a year had been beset and run aground by storms and poor navigation in a Gulf whose Gulf Stream that ran counter to their intentions was not even discovered fully until the 1770’s (by Benjamin Franklin). Their blundering about the Gulf coast did eventually yield their discovery of the mouth of the Mississippi River where Narvaez and the now wandering explorers constructed makeshift barges of the shipwrecked wood and materials losing many people in the process. Of the full complement of the expedition, about 80 people (not including Narvaez who perished at sea) washed ashore on the now Galveston Island in 1528. Of those, only 4, including Cabeza de Vaca, eventually survived.
In the time between that truly misfortunate meeting and the summer vacations on the seawall, Galveston became the Island of Demise for the Carancahua and whole regions of people from Teotihuacán to northern California.
The account of this failed expedition and along with those of the survivors is described in a report in 1537 by Cabeza de Vaca and the other two Spanish survivors, Andrés Dorantes de Carranza and Alonso del Castillo Maldonado; the fourth survivor–Estevánico the African slave–has no written record and has his own demise at the hands of Puebloans in the Southwest years later. That report played an eventual role in guiding future expeditions into the Southwest, especially of Coronado in 1540.
A Chicano Grows on a River: Following the Paths of Indio and European–Rootless Seeking Home
While Cabeza de Vaca followed–more like dragged along with–the Carancahua eventually west through the Chihuahuan and then Sonoran Desert, the strange fruit of his efforts eventually made their way to the Valley of the Rio Grande del Norte, which in turn led to me. Or at least people like me. In between then and now flows a story meandering like the river fed by many stories like torrents of rain, blood, tears seemingly too numerous to tell or distinguish one from the other.
So, I decided to begin at the end, where I began, at the mouth of the Rio Grande known as La Boca Chica. You see for a grande river, it has a relatively small mouth issuing forth waters, and stories, collected from the southern mountains of Colorado bisecting states and countries as it proceeds inexorably to the sea
Anything that happens, happens.Douglas Adams, A Hitchikers Guide to the Galaxy
Anything that, in happening, causes something else to happen, causes something else to happen.
Anything that, in happening, causes itself to happen again, happens again.
It doesn’t necessarily do it in chronological order, though.
The road to Glen Campbell waxing about Galveston is a case in point for me of things that happen but not necessarily in the order we expect. To hear that song in 1969 over the radio and the pathos it rises in me as I drive to its seawalls on a stormy weekend in May 2021 is to know that things certainly do happen but that we follow them only in the times we’re meant to understand them. These roads, this river, those beaches all had events important to knowing who it is I am. None of them came to me in chronological order but in the logic only consciousness can bring to sort it all out.
I am on this journey down a coast, up a river seemingly with brand new eyes. I’ve been to some of these before but never also knowing what and how it all happened. There are younger people, Chicano, friends, women, Indian people, sons and daughters of Africa, and sons and daughters of slave owners among them who know very little of what has truly happened. That a country had nearly 250 years of history imposed upon it before “America” ever came to be. That its unwritten history began conservatively over 10,000 years before even that. Consciousness doesn’t require us to have arrived at it on time. Only that we take the time to bring it about.
This time around I am truly like the Carancahuenses, a nomad going to the places where I can nourish. I don’t need to find prickly pears to eat when fish and nuts do not abound, but I am in search of nourishment for a soul. I am like Cabeza de Vaca, taking advantage of the gifts from strangers where I can find them. I am not desperate and starving for my physical survival but I am in dire need to see the sites where people like me actually began. In both cases, they were rootless but not homeless. As am I. For I am neither Hispanic nor am I Indian. But I am both and thus, the place I, we, hold in this world is as unique among the tribes of humans as each of us is within those tribes. If we are ever to find a global unity, I think it will not come because we found what made us similar, but how we have reveled in our differences; enjoined those differences to weave our destiny together.
I don’t know if we will make it. Cabeza de Vaca was so taken by his exploits with the people of the land that he wrote his accounts as an essay to overturn the abusive treatment of native people by Spanish representatives in Latin America. In the end, his focus to be a better colonizer earned the disdain of native people and the discredit of his Spanish peers.
As I said, we may not make it us Terrans. But the quest to see will be the stuff of legends.