Gaspar Pérez de Villagrá’s Historia de la Nueva México (1610) is all but ignored in twentieth-century literary criticism. The epic, which records Oñate’s colonial expedition through New Mexico (New Spain) in Spanish hendecasyllabic verse, was often dismissed as versified history when it was mentioned at all. Some recent criticism has returned to the poem as an interesting early example of transatlantic literature, ripe for postcolonial analysis (Padilla 2010, Lopez-Chavez 2016). At the same time, the poem’s focus on indigenous Americans, and the fact that Villagrá was himself a criollo, have led other scholars to claim the poem as an early (perhaps the earliest) example of Chicana/o literature (Pérez-Linggi 2005). While these studies raise crucial questions about national literary traditions and ethnic identity, they tend to downplay or sidestep the poem’s classicizing features. In fact, the Historia adapts Virgilian models and rehearses humanist rhetoric regularly throughout its thirty-four cantos. In this way Villagrá, who received a rigorous humanist education at the University of Salamanca, attempts to assert the vitalness of humanist learning for Spain’s colonial interests in the Americas.
Some recent Hispanophone studies have begun to trace Villagrá’s strategic use of Virgilian and classical models in the Historia (Davis 2008, Martín Rodriguez 2014). This paper advances this work and puts it in dialogue with Anglophone scholarship on the relationship between Renaissance humanism and New World writing (Quint 1993, Kallendorf 2007, Laird 2010). In doing so, this paper uncovers an unexpectedly pessimistic and subversive strain in humanist thought. On the one hand, Villagrá’s poem proudly announces itself as heir to Ercilla’s La Araucana and Velasco’s 1555 translation of the Aeneid. He likewise represents communication with indigenous Americans as a logical application of humanist philology—an extension of the project to recuperate classical Latin and Greek language. On the other hand, to the extent that Oñate’s expedition spectacularly fails, the Historia also documents the limits of humanism as a means for comprehending a foreign culture. At his most pessimistic, Villagrá suggests the untranslatability of Virgil in the context of Latin America.
Subverting the Classics in the Early Modern Americas