In celebration of National Poetry Month, our latest "Rare Book of the Month" explores one of New Mexico’s earliest contributions to the American literary tradition.
Although the seventeenth-century Puritan writer Anne Bradstreet is generally considered the first published poet to have lived in what is now the United States, she was hardly the first poet to draw inspiration from the history and landscape of North America. In fact, by the time of Bradstreet’s birth in 1612, an epic poem about the foundation of New Mexico had already been in print for two years.
Its author, Gaspar Pérez de Villagrá, was born in 1555 in Puebla de los Angeles, the "second city" of New Spain. In the late 1590s, he participated in Juan de Oñate’s expedition to colonize the lands north of the Rio Grande. Because Villagrá never settled in New Mexico, he has not been considered an American writer in the same sense as Anne Bradstreet, who lived most of her life in Massachusetts, but he was certainly a forerunner of Latino literature in the United States and also one of the first people to write poetry on a distinctly American topic.
More than a decade passed between Villagrá's return from New Mexico and the publication of a poem in thirty-four cantos narrating his experiences in the present-day Southwest. In 1605, he left Mexico for Spain, where he had once been a student. Although little is known about his life there, his intention was probably to seek a position at the royal court. Spain at that time was at the height of its literary and artistic golden age. Recognizing that poetry and patronage went hand in hand, Villagrá began writing a chronicle of Oñate’s expedition.
Titled Historia de la Nueva México, the book-length poem was published in 1610 in Alcalá de Henares, the hometown of Miguel de Cervantes and site of the production, in 1514-17, of the famous Complutensian Polyglot Bible. Like writers of epic poetry from Virgil to Tasso, Villagrá preferred blank verse to rhyme. The poem’s title, however, suggests that he may have foreseen that he would be remembered primarily as a historian rather than a poet. Today, Villagrá's work is valued not for its literary qualities, but as an eyewitness narrative. Despite exaggerations and a one-sided Spanish point of view, scholars believe the work is generally a reliable source of historical information.
Villagrá did not succeed in his plan to win favor with king and court by writing poetry celebrating what he saw as the valiant deeds of conquistadors like Oñate (a now-controversial figure because of his cruel treatment of Indians). Following a lengthy trial between 1612 and 1614, Villagrá was found guilty of various crimes committed during Oñate's campaign and was temporarily banished from New Spain. In 1620, he died en route to Guatemala, where he had been appointed alcalde mayor of the town of Zapotitlán. The poem for which he is now remembered was virtually forgotten for many years. A few excerpts appeared in a book published in Madrid in 1892, but it was not until 1900 that the entire poem was reprinted in Mexico City. An English translation by Fayette S. Curtis—a Yale graduate and headmaster of the Los Alamos Ranch School—was published by the Quivira Society of Los Angeles in 1933.
UNM’s Center for Southwest Research & Special Collections owns an original copy of the 1610 edition of Villagrá's Historia de la Nueva México. Interested in viewing it? Stop by the Anderson Reading Room and we will be happy to get it out for you.