Chronicles of Oklahoma

Skip Navigation

Electronic Publishing Center
Oklahoma Historical Society
Chronicles Homepage
Search all Volumes
Copyright 2001
Purchase an Issue

Table of Contents Index Volume List Search All Volumes Home

Chronicles of Oklahoma
Volume 8, No. 1
March, 1930
ENTERTAINMENTS OF THE SPANISH EXPLORERS.

Winifred Johnston

Page 89

The Southwest owes a long tradition of entertainment to the Spanish explorers.

Cortes deferred to his countrymen's interest in diversions when in 1520 writing to the Emperor Charles V his enthralling tales of Mexico he described in some detail the zoological gardens and the museums of the Aztec chief Montezuma.1 There was a palace the gardens of which were overlooked by balconies from which the Indian emperor might see the ten pools of water, some salt and some fresh, to which his magnificent collection of sea and river birds had been acclimated. This palace contained an apartment occupied by men, women, and children whose faces, bodies, eyes, eyelashes and hair had been white from birth. A second palace with a courtyard paved with flagstones in checkerboard manner was devoted to animals of prey. In the gardens, in great cages half-covered with roofs of tile and halfopen to sun and sky, were all species of birds of prey, from kestrel to eagle; in the large halls of the ground floor, in cages built of heavy timber, "well put together," were lions, tigers, foxes, and a variety of the cat family: all these being fed by fowl and tended by a corps of men, three hundred in number. A third palace the Aztec had set aside for human curiosities alone. There were men and women of monstrous size, dwarfs, and the "crooked and ill-formed," each of these with his separate apartments and attendants.

"As to the other remarkable things that the Emperor had in his city for his amusement," Cortes wrote, "I can only say that they were numerous and of various kinds." That among these Cortes found Indian jugglers is known from the fact that when he returned to Spain in 1629 he took some of these with him to please and startle Europe with their wonder-workings.2

Whether the entertainers carried by Cortes on his ill-fated trip to Honduras in 1524 were Spanish it is therefore





Page 90

impossible to say. But the state and luxury shown by their presence in the troop of hundred horsemen, forty foot-soldiers, and three thousand Indians with which Cortes began the expedition across Yucatan was expressive of the nature and the policy of the conquisadores. Song and dance were part of the Spanish tradition of discovery and exploration. It was a tradition which left its mark on the conquered territory. Spanish customs still exert their influence on the Yucatan social life. To-day verse is sold in the central market of the Yucatan capital at five centavos a sheet; Mexican troubadours with dusty high-laced boots come to the Plaza del Independencia to exchange for a coin sad songs of disappointed lovers; and the Plaza de Toros with amateur toreadors and clowning banderillos dispute audiences with motion-picture houses, traveling Spanish repertoire companies, and the dancing of the American "Follies" sponsored by Merida music halls.3

It was only eighteen years after the Cortes expedition that Merida was founded by a Spanish captain and business man. Cortes had made the impossible possible in breaking the trail across Yucatan from the Aztec capital in the North. But he had done it at no small cost. So terrible was his journey to Honduras that forty years afterwards the memory of that march yet remained with his men. Hunger had been the chief foe—even yucca and agoes being often hard to find. There were no roads. Bogs and swamps stretched everywhere; marshy labyrinth, forests, and rivers made passage tortuous. They had started from Mexico City with "a major domo, a maestresala (a sort of head waiter), a butler, a chamberlain, a steward, pages, grooms, two falconers, five musicians, an acrobat and jugglers." But trouping was not easy. By the spring of 1525, according to the report of one of the party, there had been several desertions, "many soldiers were suffering from illness, there was continuous lack of food, four of the musicians, the acrobat and eleven or twelve soldiers had already died of hunger." Many times in those two years of travail Cortes' enemies at home reported the leader himself dead. No wonder that when in 1526 the Conqueror returned to Mexico City his march inland was a



Page 91

triumphal progress, "everywhere uproarious welcome and genuine rejoicings, music. dancing, singing and bonfires."4

Such gaiety was part of Spanish gallantry in colonization as in exploration. A hundred-and-fifty years after Cortes, Juan Buatista de Anza and his party of thirty-four turned back momentarily from their goal of Monterey to make camp at the edge of the great sand dunes of the Colorado Desert. For some days, knowing themselves lost, they had felt terror strike to their hearts at the sands which obliterated footprints as soon as they were made, leaving no trace of passing man and beast. Yet once in camp their spirits revived; and while the friars in the party sought to convert the Yumas who thronged the camp, the soldiers, "who had a fiddler with them, held nightly dances with the Indian girls, there on the rim of the desert, defying its menaces with their jollity." Such were the men who over the waterless Devil's Highway, through the Royal Pass to San Carlos, to San Gabriel and Monterey and back to Tubac, made the trail of the first white men to cross the Sierras.5

Over that trail, two years later, in 1775, Anza led out from the Arizona post the first colony destined for San Francisco. With him he carried the seed of the Coast's future theatrical glory. Long before Bohemia arose in the port of the Golden Gate and Steve Massett warbled "Take Back the Heart Thou Gavest" at San Francisco's reputed first concert, these Spanish pioneers brought to the virgin West not only the pageantry of their religious exercises but also the click of castanets and the diablerie of twinkling toes. Spanish ranchios pre-dated by some seventy years the sand-dune tents of the Forty-Niners; and despite Monsieur Jacques Raphael and his companion exiles6, not France but Spain deserves commemoration for the transplanting of European entertainment to the Southwest.

Before the settlement of Oregon, Anza's was the longest overland migration of a colony in North American history. Two hundred people comprised the party: soldiers, friars,







Page 92

and thirty families. Ribbons for the women and children and for the hats and hair of the men were included in the list of essential provisions. A stop of six days was made at Yuma, where the first white settlement was made with the erection of a cabin for Fathers Garces and Eixarch and their servants. At the desert country the party was divided into three relays, to march on different days in order to save the scant waterholes ahead. When the detachments were reunited at San Sebastian, the two hundred cattle had been without water for four days and the colonists were ill from thirst and cold. But they were once again together and the Spanish nature triumphed. "The reunion at San Sebastian was celebrated with a noisy dance. A bold widow sang a naughty song; her paramour punished her, Anza reprimanded the man, and Father Font reproved Anza."7

Lewd and immoral songs and dances had to be to draw rebuke from the tolerant Church, which in spite of its own insistent opponents of the theatre still so generally failed to enforce its prohibitions against actors and theatricals. For several hundred years the Church was itself a participant in those gorgeous worldly spectacles known as autos sacrementales. Performed annually throughout Spain, these celebrations of the Corpus Christi festival had been introduced into the country in the fourteenth century. By the fifteenth century charge of the festivals had indeed been transferred to the guilds; and in 1554, in Seville at least, the expense of the spectacles were assumed by the city. But in the beginning all expenses were defrayed by the cathedral chapter. Very early strolling players had been engaged for dancing and representations; later, players were often attached to the monasteries. Abuse followed tolerance. Even the "licentious" cachona and the "pestiferous" zarabanda, dances much admired by Cervamtes and Lope de Vega which had become inseparable from the comedia of the Spanish theatre, gradually crept into the performances of the festival in Seville.8

With such a background of sanction for song, dance, and spectacle, it was but natural that the conquerors of the American Southwest should carry into the New World a passionate





Page 93

love of the theatrical. In the Motherland the great masters of Spanish romantic drama were writing for both church and corral. In New Spain and the Borderlands also the national devotion to the theatre flowered into drama. The play, like the song and the dance, became a part of the Spanish tradition of conquest.

Earlier than any of the other plays recorded as being given representation in the New World are these plays of the Spaniards exploring the Great Southwest. Assiduous research has found an English play given in America as early as 1665 and a French masque as early as 1606.9 Mary Austin claims the prize of the manuscript of a play performed on the soil of the United States, July 10, 1598, which is still played on Holy Cross Day within ten miles of its original performance.10 But the first play thus far discovered as being performed on the North America continent is that given by the men who followed the Canadian into Oklahoma and the Colorado to the Gulf of California: the party of Juan de Onate, first governor of Nueva, Mexico, who in 1605 inscribed in the imperishable stone of Inscription Rock his discovery of the "Sea of the South."

The play was written by one of Onate's men of means: Captain Marcos Farfan de los Godos. It was performed on April 30, 1598, on the river just below El Paso, where Onate struck camp to take formal possession of the lands to the north and west for his Lord and his King.11 The day of imposing ceremonials had begun with mass and a sermon. The Spanish tradition of entertainment which closed it with a comedia made it a day memorable in theatrical as well as political history.







Winifred Johnston.

Return to top


Electronic Publishing Center | OSU Home | Search this Site