Conjuring up my own personal conquistador
The trip across the ocean, from Cádiz to the first outpost in the New World, is twenty-two days long and disgusting. The 1,500 men—an assembly that includes professional sailors, farmers, self-styled entrepreneurs, “gentlemen volunteers,” clergy, and maybe a hundred stowaways—are packed into a fleet of ships better suited for a third fewer people. Though Isabela and Ferdinand of the new kingdom of Spain thrill at the second voyage of Cristóbal Colón—gold and land! Catholic converts! sticking it to Portugal!—and have funneled plenty of cash into the whole affair, the church bureaucrat running things has skimped in every way possible. The food is shit; the armor is shit; the immaculate Arabian horses have been sold off and replaced with animals closer to mules. But few of the men, and none of the crush of people at the port, have any idea of these troubles as the crew prepares to leave. The sailors have performed the typical rites, and now streamers are flung from the rigging to fall lightly on the raised hands of the crowd. Pipes and trumpets and harps are played in pretty synchronicity—until the music is wiped out by a shock of military cannons. Each blast proclaims This! Is! Happening! And with that, seventeen ships are loosed from the harbor and catch the winds that they’ll ride for the next three weeks.
Once at sea, aboard a collection of naos and caravels, the passengers are kept below in a tight chamber where the movement of the ocean makes their heads ache and their faces turn bluish, greenish, uncooked pink. There is a lot of vomiting. From the moment they enter the cabin, they do not change their clothes; they cannot tell if it’s day or night; they hardly ever open their eyes in the dark. There are roaches and rats below, and streams of filthy water filled with lice, and pumps that gush a stinking foam. Occasionally, somewhere in the crowd, a voice becomes audible above the rest, reciting the Our Father and then a string of Hail Marys. When it is stormy, there is only the sound of the wind, and the waves that smash against the sides of the ship.
The horses on board, however low-rent this band, will be the first to reach the New World. There are pigs as well: their animal stink becomes married to the stink of the men themselves. And whenever it is time to eat, the pages, in a kabuki of civilized life, cover a long table with a dirty cloth, put out hard dirty biscuits and stringy beef joints, and call everyone to dinner. In this way, they eat and fart and belch and get sick, packed in elbow to elbow, thigh to thigh. And they piss and shit above deck (hopefully), hanging out over the ocean, in full view of the world. In this fetid, floating parallel universe, everything is permitted.
But the worst is the slowness of progress—so slow that the men’s lives seem to stand outside time, and the trip itself lacks any shape or limit. The sailors depend completely on the direction of the wind, hopeful when the canvas is blown out, full and bell-shaped, despondent when the ship hardly moves at all. They see no land, only the same horizon, only the unpredictable water and unpredictable sky, and nothing solid beyond the gross details of the ship itself—the ship that is always rocking—never sure of the trip’s progress, feeling it will never end. After all, this is exactly the second time anyone on the European continent has navigated this route, to the other side of the earth.
But it does end. And soon they are nearing Española, an island Colón gave its name only one year earlier, and the travelers crowd the decks. Naked men paddle out to greet them, in long canoes made from hollowed-out tree trunks. As they approach, the Spaniards can just make out the tattoos on their faces.
A self-mythologizing takes place when we assimilate the stories of our ancestors into our own—it’s automatic. We tell ourselves that their triumphs have somehow entered our bloodstream. We’re not descendants, we think; we’re heirs—heirs to intangible qualities (ambition, brilliance, endurance) through the fact of a thoroughly diluted blood tie. We allow ourselves to revise and cull from a shared history we lay claim to, every dead relation a past life lived vicariously.
My personal history is, as with so many Americans, a fiction, self-spun. I am half-Cuban and half-Greek, born in New York City. First-generation, my two halves consist mostly of whatever pieces I’ve chosen or conjured up whole, rooted only in the barest understanding of the realities of those countries and what it means to live there. The version of Greece with the most cultural heft comes from an era that ended centuries and centuries ago; for Cuba (at least if you talk to my family), that time ended in the fifties, with the Revolution. In this way, Greece does not exist, and Cuba does not exist—not the countries that live in my mind, my mostly imagined homelands.
On one of these ships arriving at Española, I have a blood relation. That is, he’s someone the Cuban side of my family counts among its own, tracing our roots back a half-
millennium to take credit for the doings of at least one star conquistador. He will become one of the first governors of the New World. He will discover new territory himself and call it Florida. He will go hunting for—and find, and lose—a natural water source with near-magical powers of rejuvenation, in modern-day St. Augustine or St. Petersburg or maybe Punta Gorda. Each of these events is made more vivid for me by our shared bloodline. Each of these events is built on a lie.
A teenager named Juan Ponce, from León, is among the two hundred “gentleman volunteers” who used a political or family hookup (read: a bribe) to make their way onto one of Colón’s ships that September in 1493. He had to: though he’s upper-class enough, Juan Ponce has no money of his own. At nineteen, he’s a recently unemployed soldier, desperate for opportunity. This is a salaried job, and there’s been a lot of talk of gold. To be a conquistador means you are on the make, a hustler, the most aggressive breed of young capitalist out to win your fortune—no matter how respected your family name. Ponce, pronounced PAWN-seh.
His lineage is complicated. He is the son of a nobleman, in what is now the province of Valladolid, but he was born “illegitimate” (or whatever the put-down of the time); some put his father’s number of children out of wedlock at as many as twenty-one. Conveniently for Juan Ponce, his parents later married, after his father’s first wife died young. There is a spate of royalty on both sides—marquises, dukes, counts, lords and ladies—but it’s not an exact science, deciphering the family histories of fifteenth-century Castilla. Sometimes kids took their father’s last name, sometimes their mother’s; there were marriages between close relations (as the aristocracy likes to do); and many illegitimate children were eventually recognized. Parochial records were poorly kept or tossed away, and a family member’s records were brought to an abrupt stop if he moved to the New World. It was easier, on paper at least, to choose your relations—who you wanted to hide away and who you wanted to cling to, out of desire or political convenience. Family myths were created in much the same way they are created today.
One relation of mythical proportions was Juan’s cousin Rodrigo, the duke and marquis of Cádiz, who became known as the “southern El Cid” for driving the Muslims out of what would become Spain. This centuries-long battle was entering its final stretch in 1474, when Juan Ponce de León was born in a village in present-day Valladolid, and it would define him. At about eight years old, in typical style, he was sent to the home of a nearby knight to be his page. He helped the lord to bathe and dress, and waited on him when he ate. In exchange he was taught lordly, soldierly skills—horseback riding, hawking, fighting. Once he turned fourteen, Juan joined the war. And four years later, when the Moors were finally defeated, bringing the Reconquest to a close, both Colón and a teenage Juan Ponce were in the crowds that flooded the streets of the capital, along with so many other soldiers who were suddenly out of work. That fall, Colón would make his first crossing to the New World.
The next year, Juan Ponce travels to Cádiz to join Colón’s second voyage. Just nineteen years old, without experience at sea, he will learn how to be a sailor the hard way. We can’t be sure how much thought he put into it, but he had signed up to travel to that third of the world that had yet to be “discovered”—i.e. acknowledged, taken over, made manifest by white people. He has little idea of what will greet them when they arrive.
About a month later, Juan Ponce catches his first glimpse of life on the other side of the planet.
A beautiful synonym for “ancestral” is “consanguine,” which literally means “having blood with.” For me, this brings to mind the image of two people with blood that flows in sync, or sharing blood as if from a cup. There’s also “lineal,” or “in a line with,” evoking the linear progress of history, with each of our ancestors slotted into a long row, us at the front. As if we are somehow the culmination of all this family history—or, on the flip side, evidence of its devolution.
There’s “totemic,” too, which makes an instinctive sense: an ancestor is a totem; the representation of something larger, planted like a flag in the earth; a marker along the way. An ancestor is a stand-in for something that’s more idea than reality, a projection of our inner lives, a reminder of the Huge Thing we hope we are a part of—a greater whole cobbled together from so many lives that have passed and the lives we hope will follow our own.
In my parents’ house, we light candles in memory of the last two generations, place flowers in front of their photographs—a very Latin Catholic gesture, a remembrance, an invitation to their spirits to linger nearby. But we almost never go further back than that, past the people we’ve known and loved in this life (sometimes against our better judgment)—because what would we want from blood ties that are so much more abstract?
There has been one exception, on my mother’s side: Juan Ponce de León. The currency of his name, I guess, has made him the only distant ancestor who warrants mention. I’ve heard him spoken of in two registers: in the Grimms’-fairy-tales voice reserved for children, a tone that says, Oh yes, it’s all true and isn’t it incredible?; and in that faux-modest way of adults, that way of deliberately sounding lighthearted about a thing that makes you proud—a thing you’re convinced gives you an edge.
It may be a form of compensation, a way to rewind across so many generations—nineteen? twenty?—to a time before the Revolution, when the family had a country; or further back, before the crash of ’29, when the family had money. This kind of time travel allows us to cling to a simpler identity, the myth of a simpler identity. We reach back to a past so remote that its stories have lost their subtleties, become malleable—the easy makings of a collective family fantasy.
The 1,500 men set up camp. In the coming days and weeks, as they press deeper into the island, Juan Ponce sees: sprawling plains and tall, untamed grasses; wide, fast-running rivers; trees that never go bare, some tall and wild, others covered in flowers and fruit; and maybe a thousand kinds of small birds, many singing, invisible through the dense greenery. The landscape is, in other words, everything we’ve come to know as the tropics. We know it today as the combined territory of Haiti and the Dominican Republic—but for Juan Ponce, this place is Española.
And then there are the “Indians”—or, as they call themselves, Taínos. The sight of them is tremendous, naked on the beach, the women wearing only a leaf or cotton netting between their legs. Their nakedness is so striking to Colón, a devout Catholic, that he writes the word desnudos in his diary thirteen times. Meanwhile, Juan Ponce and the other settlers do as expected of them: no matter the weather, they remain strapped into their gear—heavy wool, leather, steel. They will never be able to ambush the natives, always given away by the smell of their sweat.
The Taínos have tattooed faces and straight black hair and bangs that cover their eyebrows. Some have painted their bodies, in black or white or red; some are adorned with nose rings or ear and lip plugs; some have tied ritual stone carvings around their necks or their arms. Juan Ponce visits with them in their elaborate huts, decorated in patterns of white and black bark. The women show him their pottery, letting him turn the pieces over in his hands. There are several hundred thousand—possibly close to a million—Taínos living in Española and spread across the Caribbean. Colón writes that they have a “commanding stature” but are quiet and unaggressive—“extraordinarily timid,” he thinks, “the most timid people in the world”— armed only with sticks made of cane that they don’t seem eager to use.
And the generosity! The Taínos have lost their immediate fear of the settlers—way prematurely, but this is Colón’s second appearance, and they’re eager to trade and to give. They give up their crafts and their gold in exchange for trinkets, and they hand over nearly anything that’s asked for. This creates a tempting situation for the settlers. The men put on faces (happy, or so very sincere) and extend offerings—worn leather straps, pieces of broken bowls, shards of glass, chunks of metal hoops from wine casks—knowing they’ll be accepted with excitement. These Indians will take anything . . . and their women are bare-breasted . . . and the land is lush and wild . . . and the laws are improvised . . .
Nineteen and far from home, how does Juan Ponce conduct himself? This is undocumented. Let’s say he was humane and thoughtful, that he was unlike so many of the others. If he is exempt, I am exempt. I’ll spin history to better serve myself.
A series of events, in quick succession, complicates the New World Experience.
First comes the revelation of a local cannibal tribe. Human arm and leg bones are found in the huts of a deserted village on the island of Santa María la Galante; and on neighboring Guadalupe, the Spanish sweep up a band of cannibals and their captives—mostly women, and boys who’d been castrated against their will. The women claim they’d been kept as concubines and forced to hand over the children they gave birth to for meat.
Then there is the fate of La Navidad.
When Colón returned to Spain after his first voyage, he was forced to leave thirty-nine men behind—one of his ships, the Santa María, had been wrecked off the shore of Española—in a fortress built from the ship’s recycled timber. (He called the improvised settlement La Navidad.) This was not what these men had signed up for, but the arrangement was temporary. When, on the second voyage, Colón returns for the thirty-nine, however, he learns that every one of them has either died of illness or been killed by Indians as revenge for looting and for abusing the local women.
In January, Colón chooses a location for a new colony, La Isabela. It’s another bad move, on low land a mile from any fresh water. With limited resources, they build nothing more than a collection of tiny cabins with grass roofs. Many of the settlers immediately fall ill and die. The men disobey Colón’s orders and raid Taíno villages for food, and the natives retaliate. The town lasts only four years.
Historian Pedro Mártir de Anglería, a contemporary of Colón, later has no problem blaming the Spaniards for this failure. The men of that second voyage were “for the most part undisciplined, unscrupulous vagabonds, who only employed their ingenuity in gratifying their appetites. Incapable of moderation in their acts of injustice, they carried off the women of the islanders under the very eyes of their brothers and their husbands; giving over to violence and thieving, they had profoundly vexed the natives.”
As a result, he writes, “In many places when our men were surprised by the natives, the latter strangled them, and offered them as sacrifices to their gods.” They were not, in other words, as timid as Colón first thought.
Improbable as it seems to me, some Indians accompanied Colón to Spain—Were they forced? Were they willing? Did they suffer from some kind of Stockholm syndrome?— and, having returned on his second trip, they now helped him pilot the ships wherever he liked. “They are still with me and still believe that I come from heaven,” Colón writes. “They were the first to declare this wherever I went.”
It’s one such Indian pilot who leads the fleet up to the Lesser Antilles Islands and through the Virgin Islands, finally leading them to San Juan Bautista (present-day Puerto Rico). And sixteen years later, Juan Ponce de León becomes the first governor of that place.
Is he brave? I don’t know—I’d like to think that he is brave. Spanish historians and poets and painters all had incentive to subscribe to the conquistador myth, that righteous idea that their young men were crossing the world to claim new territory for Empire and for God. The poet Juan de Castellanos, in his Elegies of Illustrious Men of the Indies, gives one of the very few contemporary descriptions of Juan Ponce, paying him the sort of compliments you’d expect for a homegrown legend: he’s well-liked, good-looking, generally heroic. He is ambitious, “grandly a sufferer of labors”—and he is envied. I benefit from seeing him this way. Otherwise, what good can he do me, by association?
But his drive came at a price to others. Within his first decade in the New World, he made his reputation by suppressing any rebellion of the local population and was rewarded accordingly: with a few hundred acres and a repartimiento—a number of Indians forced to work his land. Like all other settlers—the new breed of landed gentry—he now has the “right” to extract as much labor from them as he believes necessary, along with any other kinds of tribute.
Most historians seem to agree that Juan Ponce de León is one of the more humane of these European settlers, treating the locals he absorbs into his enterprise more like indentured servants than slaves. But what does that mean? How thinly do we have to slice these moral distinctions to see the difference? He does not foment a native uprising—he helps to crush several of them. By the end of his first term in San Juan Bautista, the Taíno population has been drastically reduced through the deadly trifecta of fighting, forced labor, and disease brought by the Spanish.
This is not an aspect of my inheritance I want to engage with. Do I have to? Can I skip this part? Do we inherit awesome accomplishments and awesome guilt in equal measure? What part of this is family? Can we pick and choose what’s ours in the present tense?
Do we inherit darkness, even at a few centuries’ remove?
Years ago, a relative of my mother—a cousin who had moved not to New York City, like her, but to the new Cuban enclave of Miami—returned to visit their shared hometown of Gibara and met an elderly man sitting outside what had been their family house. (Freshly painted, it had long ago been converted into a local Communist headquarters.) The man had spent his entire life on these few streets—did he remember anything about the family that used to live in this building? He told her the story my mother passed along to me: that the patriarch of this family, long ago, had been the first to free his slaves on that part of the island. He’d seen that this woman, my second cousin, then in her early fifties, wanted something positive to take back to her relatives in exile, and so he’d given her the kindest fact in his collection of half-memories. He’d given her the gift of this thin distinction: our family had owned slaves, like nearly all the other families that trace their roots back to the Spanish settlers—but we had freed ours first.
I used to take a certain amount of comfort in the fact that my parents arrived in the States as children—my mother from Cuba at twelve, my father from Crete at ten—because this, I thought, cut me off not entirely but just enough from whatever inhumanities America was implicated in before the mid-1950s. White Europeans on both sides, yes; but we did not step off any Mayflower. Somehow I failed to take into account that we had kept people as slaves a mere ninety miles off this country’s southernmost coast.
Ancestry is ego—how we play with it, how we spin it. In creating a relationship with our ancestors, each of us does a kind of moral math, intuitive calculations of what we are responsible for—a bioengineering of our personal character. No inheritance comes easily, sliding gracefully into our present-day lives. No legacy is an uncomplicated blessing, skill, or resource—completely free. There is always a tax. I’m drawn to the idea of some lauded “conqueror” in my bloodline, but I refuse to inherit his blame.
“Conquistador”: literally, it means “conqueror,” but its root is the Latin verb conquirere, “to seek.” Though I have no affinity with military culture, the romantic idea of the explorer strikes at something intrinsic to me. Because when we are in grade school, learning about the history of the world through sanitized, mass-produced textbooks, we’re handed the romantic notion of “exploration” as a pastime that’s both macho and gentlemanly. No one need get hurt; any dirtiness is due to feats of physical endurance. There is no trading of one type of human life for another. But you cannot be an out-in-the-world explorer without ugliness; you can only be a conceptual, allegorical explorer—an explorer in spirit.
Eventually, Spain passes a law stating that the conquistadors must recite something called the Requirement, the sixteenth-century equivalent of Miranda rights, to any Indians before attacking—just in case these locals, who speak no Spanish, want the option to comply peacefully rather than be wiped out. It is a farce. The settlers recite the Requirement on deck when approaching a new island, while perched just outside sleeping villages, or even a few miles away from the site they plan to raid. In the name of the Spanish royal family—the “subduers of the barbarous nations”—the conquistadors announce:
. . . we their servants notify and make known to you, as best we can, that the Lord our God, Living and Eternal, created the Heaven and the Earth, and one man and one woman, of whom you and I, and all the men of the world, were and are descendants, and all those who come after us. But, on account of the multitude which has sprung from this man and woman in the five thousand years since the world was created, it was necessary that some men should go one way and some another . . .Even if the Indians could hear or understand what was being recited, the Requirement would still add up to little more than: “We are all God’s creations—but, since there are now a hell of a lot of us, get out of our way or we’ll have to hang, mutilate, or enslave you.”
This script was drafted by a group of jurists and Catholic theologians in Valladolid, not far from Juan Ponce’s birthplace—and not long after his discovery of Florida.
With his governorship of San Juan Bautista repeatedly challenged by Colón’s brother Diego, Juan Ponce is forced to move on. In 1512, King Ferdinand grants him a charter to locate and colonize territory farther north that the locals have long talked about—a place called Bimini, or Beimini, or Benimy—and Juan Ponce snatches the chance to reestablish his foothold in the New World. At his own expense, he spends months preparing three ships, and in the spring of 1513 they set out from San Juan Bautista.
They sail for a month, until they sight land somewhere near present-day Daytona Beach. (Any details of this trip come from next-generation historian Antonio de Herrera y Tordesillas, who had access to the ship’s log that has since been lost.) Now thirty-nine years old, Juan Ponce stands on the deck, and a vista stretches out before him, low and flat and covered in blossoming trees. It’s Easter, or Pascua Florida (the holiday is known in Spain as the “feast of the flowers”), and so that is what he names the place: La Florida. The men drop anchor and row to the shore. Juan Ponce walks through the fruit groves and claims the “island” for Spain. He cannot believe his luck.
Continuing on, the fleet arrives in what is now Charlotte Harbor, where an Indian rows out in his canoe to greet them—in Spanish. Let’s give this a moment to sink in: The first Europeans to officially arrive on the coast of America are greeted there in their own language—maybe something like “Hola!” or “Bienvenidos!” (though that may be a stretch). It’s been twenty years since the Spaniards settled in the Caribbean—has this Indian traveled all the way from Española? There’s been plenty of time, and plenty of desperate circumstances, in which a man might force himself to learn the language.
The native shouts up to Juan Ponce and his pilot, who stand at the railing. He asks them to wait, because a local chief, of the Calusa tribe, has gold to trade with them (he knows what the settlers want). But it’s a ruse. Soon twenty canoes packed with Calusa fighters surround the ships, shooting at them with arrows, while others saw at the anchor lines in an attempt to forcibly drag the boats ashore. The Spaniards fire their guns at the Indians until they’re able to drive them off.
The next day, as Juan Ponce and his crew consider ways to gain a foothold in this new territory, the Calusas return with even more warriors, as if to say, Was the message not received?
Juan Ponce orders the ships to return to San Juan Bautista.
The Calusas may be a particularly territorial tribe—or had that first scout traveled north, spreading news of the chaos the settlers brought with them? Or another possibility: perhaps these were not even the first Europeans the Calusas had encountered.
Because here is one of history’s lies: La Florida was discovered not by Ponce de León, but two years earlier, by European slavers who were having trouble finding any more bodies to kidnap in the Bahamas. The entire Caribbean, it seemed, had been tapped out. Imagine: the Taínos, who had lived quietly, with almost no weapons, farming and fishing and decorating themselves and their homes, had been almost entirely rounded up, horribly mistreated, forced into labor. And so these slavers—these entrepreneurs—had pushed farther north, to the southernmost coast of America, to steal more lives.
Another piece of Juan Ponce’s legacy becomes muddied, darker, altogether less elegant. Recalculating yet again, what is the value of having his blood mixed with my own?
There is another take on why he accepts Ferdinand’s challenge to go north—a reason that’s more existential than political, more romance than commerce. It’s a legend that becomes closely married to his story, and it goes like this: Juan Ponce de León is searching for a “fountain of youth.”
Three centuries earlier, the legend of a supernatural fountain had spread through Europe—by way of The Romance of Alexander, a collection of over-the-top tales of Alexander the Great’s exploits written by an unknown author. Translated into several languages, The Romance was so popular, it likely would have caught Juan Ponce de León’s attention. Alexander the Great is, after all, in spirit, the godfather of all conquistadors.
In The Romance, as he and his army travel across the deserts of India, Alexander is depicted as an imposing, awesome sovereign, a person of enormous ambitions; and such a man, according to the rules of mythology, must frequently be tested.
First, he encounters strange savages, and wrestles from them extraordinary information—about a prize he could never have anticipated. These savages—in this case, tall, hairy humanoids with antlers on their foreheads—have traveled far in search of magical springs they’re sure exist in these deserts. There are a few kinds of waters, they explain, but Alexander is especially interested in the spring that they promise will make him young again. He and his army head out on the hunt.
Next come trials and tribulations. For days, he and his men search the desert without luck. And then, as they ride under a bright, clear sky, the earth beneath them becomes volcanic, begins “belching fire.” They rush on—and the ground is now shaking so violently they are convinced it will fall out from under them. All night, they ride to escape this place, while snakes of every size rise up from the dirt and attack the horses. At dawn, they see sunlight only for a moment, because the sky almost immediately begins to darken again; and there is thunder and lightning, and the clouds burst open with rain that’s “red as blood, so red that the army and everything in it—humans, animals, and all their gear—looked as if they were covered in gore.” At this point, the men are ready to mutiny: Alexander, they believe, has angered the gods with his hubris. But the king jumps from his horse, falls to his knees, and prays—until the storm ends.
Having passed this horrible test, his ambition is rewarded. Alexander and his men emerge into a beautiful, placid place, a grassland covered in flowers and small trees heavy with fruit. The air smells so sweet, the men feel drunk on it, and these warriors walk through the tall grasses picking roses and violets and forgetting what they’d been through. They pitch camp, and Alexander sends a few of his knights out to explore the territory. There, at the center of a cluster of trees, they find “a beautiful spring, a surging gush of clear and shining water.” The water pours out of a pipe that passes through a gold lion, and that lion is guarded by four more, plus a pair of once-living dragons that have been turned to stone. The surrounding pool is encased in crystalline stone and rimmed with gold and filled with water whose source is, somehow, “the earthly paradise that lay between two rivers called the Tigris and Euphrates.” Every one of Alexander’s men who is sick or wounded bathes in the stream and emerges completely restored, as if “no older than thirty!” Soon, “the whole army was so full of health that there wasn’t the slightest trace of illness to be found.”
If Juan Ponce has heard of Alexander’s fountain, that tale is now echoed in the New World by the stories of the Taínos, or other Caribbean natives. Apparently, they believe there are healing waters somewhere north of Cuba, in that place they call Bimini—at least according to a rare history of the Indians of that period.
Hernando de Escalante Fontaneda, a next-generation Spaniard, survived a shipwreck onto the coast of Florida, where he was then forced to live among the Calusas for the next seventeen years. In his memoir of that time, he writes of a magical water source—he calls it the River Jordan—as “a superstition” of the Indians of Cuba and Santo Domingo. Many Indians from Cuba went searching for such waters, he says, and word spread to the tribal leaders in Florida. They joined the hunt, jumping into rivers and lakes and ponds, trying to find the water source that “did such good work, even to the turning of aged men and women back to their youth.” But it’s nonsense. “[T]o this day they persist in seeking that water, and never are satisfied . . . [And] to this day youth and age find alike that they are mocked, and many have destroyed themselves.” He writes of the whole pursuit—especially on Juan Ponce’s part—as “cause for merriment.”
It’s unclear at what point el fuente enters the mythology of Ponce de León, but historians who are his contemporaries will, soon after his death, tell and retell this version of events as a way of undermining him, of promoting an idea of the conquistador as an ego-drunk fool. Among them is the Spanish historian Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo, who, in his Historia general y natural de las Indias (1535), writes of Juan Ponce’s hunt for a magical fountain as spurred by “his vain belief in the nonsense he heard from the Indians.” Oviedo frames it as a high-cost endeavor that risks the lives of many men out of Juan Ponce’s desire to return to his youth. But if anyone had rejuvenation on the brain it would have been King Ferdinand himself: While Juan Ponce was only thirty-seven when the king first encouraged him to seek out and settle Bimini, Ferdinand had just turned sixty and had taken a new queen thirty-five years his junior. Besides, Herrera’s account of the discovery of Florida, based on the original ship’s log, doesn’t even mention the fuente until 208 days into the trip.
But this story of the search for a “fountain of youth,” no matter how spurious, no matter how derided, has survived. And as the decades and centuries have passed, the legend has taken on the gravitas of an epic, an obvious fiction that many would like to will into truth. If only you were a pure, complete explorer—our most romantic, outsize imagining of what it is to be a conquistador—you could push your way into unclaimed territory. You could sail for weeks, past the edge of the known world, encounter naked people with tattooed faces, ride through storms of blood and swarms of snakes, and eventually find yourself in a tangle of trees guarded by gold lions. And there you would find it: an answer to death, a way to trick time. It’s a story that mines the same part of the adult imagination that refuses to let go of the idea of heaven. How different, really—how much more pragmatic—is “heaven” from a “fountain of youth”?
It would frustrate Juan Ponce’s political enemies to know that the very story they used to undermine him, to reduce him to a grown man chasing after Caribbean fairy tales, became essential in guaranteeing his legacy. His search for the fountain—and the smallest chance that he might have found it, unreported, before his death—became the most magical strain of his DNA. It elevated him above conquistador-as-hustler and into the metaphysical realm. It raised him above death, beyond the mundane fear of our own mortality.
To rise above death: this is how we use our “ancestry,” supporting the fantasy of a continuum of which we are a part. To soften the knowledge that each of us is built from one strip of time, finite. To soften that hard fact through the use of memory—through the construction and the echoing and the exaggeration of memories that are often, at best, half-true. This is also why some (or many?) choose to have children: as a form of life extension, through the memories and the storytelling of others. To extend ourselves—some idea of ourselves—into a future when the tangible us will already be gone.
In Herrera’s recounting of that trip to Florida, there is one detail that stands out to me, in an often bare-bones narrative. He writes of the ships stopping to stock up on water, at either present-day Memory Rock or Sandy Cay (in the Little Bahama Bank), and discovering that the entire small island was inhabited by only an old Indian woman referred to in the ship’s log as La Vieja. For some reason, they agreed to her request to take her aboard. Perhaps she offered to act as their guide; perhaps she claimed to have information about the fountain.
That’s pure conjecture, but it’s perfect for our collective myth: Settlers discover a tiny, never-before-seen island, completely abandoned save for one elderly woman, their Caribbean sphinx. (In many of the classic adventure stories of white Europeans, there appears a person of color who possesses unique intuition—the Old World version of Hollywood’s “magical Negro.”) And in what state did they find her, this Vieja? Did she have that slight air of desperation, that exhaustion, of a person nearing her life’s end? Would magical waters have had a natural appeal for her? Or did she know more than these ambitious Spaniards, and find their hunting and their dreams of gold and land ridiculous, beside the point? Did she meet Juan Ponce and, almost immediately, imagine his death—like the deaths she’d likely witnessed of so many others (hundreds?), Indians and settlers alike? Did they frighten her, the Europeans with their bloody reputation? Or did she see what the men themselves were in denial of: that they weren’t much more than walking shells, moist skin and packets of blood that would someday drain out, melt into the grass? Had her life in this swampy, tropical terrain conditioned her to assume, to accept, that the forces of the land were greater than any four-legged or two-legged animal and would eventually swallow every one of us up, leaving very little—or nothing—behind?
I was raised in Manhattan, with many more comforts than La Vieja (though she might have disagreed) and without the fear of marauding cannibals, on the one hand, and marauding Spaniards, on the other. But I did have the experience of losing family as a child, and then, after college, losing very young friends to illness and freak occurrence. If I’m honest, however, any real awareness of my own mortality was the result of something far more narcissistic and drawn out.
I spent the first half of my twenties as a Young Artist (that insufferable category of person), trying to calculate what might add up to my “legacy,” my endowment, any trace of self to leave behind. If you can feed yourself and pay your rent and your life is not in immediate danger, it seems that the next human imperative is always this: to figure out if how you spend your days has any meaning, any lasting value. Working in the visual arts then, I started to obsess over the impermanence of the work—large, heavy pieces of sculpture, complicated installations, drawings I could already imagine fading on the page. I began to fear that I too might disappear, that I too would remain site-specific, never universal (what human is?).
And then I returned to words. Words, I decided, were the easiest things to pass down—the lightest, the simplest to transport, the most durable, the most replicable. I could send them out across time. I put my stock in words—and this overwhelming existential anxiety was transformed, once again, to the far more manageable, more mundane, anxiety of the now.
If I were superstitious, I’d say that the old woman Juan Ponce’s men took on board had pictured him dead—perhaps wished him dead—and that her wish sank its teeth into him and was realized. If I were someone prone to an idea of karmic comeuppance, I’d say that the actions of the Spaniards for those twenty years had predestined the conquistador for an inglorious death.
But, at least on the surface, it is everyday ambition that leads to his end. Eight years have passed since the fiasco in Florida, and the man most talked about now is Cortés—Hernán Cortés, who has conquered Tenochtitlán and scored the gold of the Aztec Empire. In 1521, Juan Ponce—frustrated, politically undermined, a man of uncertain legacy—asks the emperor Charles V for permission to try, once again, to settle Florida, and it’s granted. If he succeeds, the governorship is his.
With the sudden energy of a man given a last chance, he loads up what he can—about a hundred men, a dozen horses, farm animals, planting seeds, and just enough Catholic missionaries onto two ships—and sails once again to Charlotte Harbor. Once again, the Calusas surge forward in their canoes and attack. Once again, the Spaniards are forced to retreat. A stone-tipped arrow remains lodged in Juan Ponce’s thigh. They sail to Cuba, where he dies in the first week of July from a festering wound.
The body of Juan Ponce de León is eventually shipped back to San Juan Bautista and placed in a tomb near his house. Some 340 years later, it is moved to rest below the high altar of the Dominican Church in the city of San Juan.
This brings to mind the church in La Isabela. Isabela and Ferdinand had given instructions that all natives be converted to Christianity no matter the stakes (see: Spanish Inquisition), and, in a grand gesture, the queen gave Colón a massive bell to take back to Spain’s first colony. It hung in the tower of La Isabela and, when the town failed only a few years later, it was moved to the cathedral of Colón’s second settlement, a place he named Concepción de la Vega. Half a century later, that town was also abandoned after it was destroyed by an earthquake.
About three hundred years passed, and then this happened: locals saw the bell emerge from the ground, carried in the branches of a growing tree that had pushed it up and out of the buried ruins. It was as if the dirt had given birth to a relic of a very different time.
Fixation on our ancestry is a fantasy of personal survival—the idea that something intrinsic to us-and-only-us has survived down a bloodline, captured in the strands of our DNA. This something makes us uniquely equipped to act, to create, to master, to conquer. This is our secret advantage. This is part of what makes our story more important, more special. More.
What is the story, and how does it take shape? What part is earned, what part imagined, and what part (if any) will be passed along later, repeated long after the proof of us is used up?
Here may be the final lie—or, let’s say, imaginary truth: Though my family has always counted him as a piece of our inheritance, I’ve never seen proof of my relation to Juan Ponce de León. But I don’t feel the need to search for evidence. As complicated as is his world of associations, he gives my life a dimension that spans centuries, through the ultrathin, imagined thread that connects us.
It is 1493 again, on that gross voyage, Colón’s second to the New World, and the pages take turns watching the hourglass, marking the otherwise shapeless passage of time as they cross that terrifying expanse of black ocean. Whenever the sand runs out, a page, respecting superstition, calls aloud:
Good is what’s past,
and better what comes.
One glass is past,
and the second is filling.
More will be filled
if God be willing.
Over and over the glass is turned. At first the sand is packed into the head, pure potential; eventually it runs to the bottom. The glass is set upright again, and it becomes a series of such glasses, filling up and running out and filling up again. This is how we count the hours, how we pretend to make sense of the passage of time. Half a millennium later, this is still our best trick.
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