UC Merced Professor's Research Could Rewrite History

MERCED - Combine an obscure, centuries-old work of literature, an international hunt for documents long thought lost and a race to reveal information and what do you get?

It's not the next "DaVinci Code," but the research Manuel M. Martin-Rodriguez has been doing could rewrite portions of American history.

Martin-Rodriguez, a literature professor at University of California, Merced, was holed-up in Spanish and U.S. libraries and archives, digging through 400-year-old documents to trace aspects of the life of an author many thought had disappeared into oblivion.

No one had been able to reveal many details about the author's life and death. Historians had 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. When Villagra returned from his expedition, he wrote an epic poem describing his exploits to the King of Spain.

Turns out, 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 for some would not be bestowed until 1650 on Anne Bradstreet.

"Villagrá is certainly not Shakespeare, but there are many people who are not Shakespeare who are still recognized in literary histories," Martin-Rodriguez said.

Martin-Rodriguez, who is also a literary critic, said Villagra's "History of The New Mexico" has been read off and on over the past four centuries in different ways by different people. The poem tells the king about the daily lives of soldiers, the lives, legends and languages of Native Americans, talks about the first Thanksgiving in America - not the 1621 celebration that children in the United States learned about in elementary school, but the one Villagra and his expedition had when they crossed the Rio Grande into New Mexico in 1598, on the verge of starvation.

"Everyone believed Villagra had disappeared and that no one was reading his poem," Martin-Rodriguez said. However, Martin-Rodriguez documented more than 200 references to the epic - a number that has increased since an English translation was released in 1992.

Now, 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 beloved by many New Mexicans, and Gov. Bill Richardson has proposed making it the state poem.

Martin-Rodriguez found original, 16th century university records bearing Villagra's name that span four years and show he studied law. He found documents indicating Villagra didn't disappear, but rather served as the mayor of one Mexican city and was on his way to serve as a Guatemalan mayor when he died.

Martin-Rodriguez also found 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.

Since "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 a researcher like Martin-Rodriguez.







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