A centuries-old work of literature, an international hunt for documents long thought lost, a race to reveal information - it’s not the next “DaVinci Code,” but the research of Professor Manuel M. Martin-Rodriguez could rewrite portions of American history.
No one had been able to reveal many details about an author thought to have disappeared into obscurity. Historians said the information couldn’t be found. But Martin-Rodriguez found it, and he’ll publish his findings this fall.
Gaspar de Villagra, a Spaniard born in Mexico around 1555, served as a captain on a Spanish military mission to explore and settle what is now New Mexico. Villagra wrote an epic poem describing his journey for the King of Spain.
Villagra’;s historical epic, printed in 1610, is actually the first published history of any portion of the United States, pre-dating John Smith’s “A Description of New England.” Villagra’s “History of The New Mexico” and his short residence in the future state also makes him our country’s first poet - a title that has long been accorded to Anne Bradstreet for her work that began in 1650.
“Everyone believed Villagra had disappeared and that no one was reading his poem,” Martin-Rodriguez said. However, he documented more than 200 references to the epic - a number that has increased since an English translation in 1992.
The poem is embraced by Spaniards, Mexicans, Americans in general and Chicanos in particular as a work of literature they each claim as their own. It’s also loved by many New Mexicans, and Gov. Bill Richardson has proposed making it the state poem.
Martin-Rodriguez found original, 16th century university records; evidence of Villagra’s political life; Villagra’s will, dictated the day before he died in 1620; and a list of his assets, which included a ream of blank paper and many printed books.
“History of The New Mexico” ends with a plea to the king to let Villagra rest before he writes the second half of the tale. It’s anyone’s guess what that paper would have been used for.
Or perhaps the second part was written, and remains to be discovered by another researcher someday.