ALBUQUERQUE – A black Moroccan slave who explored present-day Texas, New Mexico and Arizona with Spanish conquistadors is credited with being the first person of African descent to enter the American Southwest, but he’s all but absent from the states’ histories.
Estebanico guided the shipwrecked Spaniards through Native American communities thanks to his language and healing skills before leading a second expedition, which ended in his disappearance.
But while scholars say the American Southwest likely would not have been settled by Europeans without Estebanico, there are no parks, buildings or malls named in his honor like they are for other Spanish conquistadors. Tourism agencies have informational webpages about Estebanico’s past, but there are no tourism sites around his historic journeys.
American literary studies professor Finnie Coleman of the University of New Mexico said black people “have never had a place” in New Mexico’s official heritage and the heritage of the Southwest.
“To embrace Estebanico,” Coleman said, “would be to embrace a new narrative.”
Scholars believe Estebanico, who’s known by many other names, including Estevanico, Esteban and Esteban the Moor, was born in Morocco around 1500 and likely was sold into slavery in the port city of Azemmour by Portuguese slave traders amid a famine.
Spanish aristocrat Andres Dorantes bought Estebanico and took him along for Panfilo de Narvaez’s ill-fated expedition of 1527 to colonize Florida and the Gulf Coast. A series of storms left some of the party in Florida while others sailed across the Gulf of Mexico to seek Spanish settlements.
Estebanico, Dorantes and a handful of other Spaniards landed on present-day Galveston, Texas, and began their eight-year journey to find a Spanish settlement back in present-day Mexico. Estebanico guided the last of three fellow survivors through Texas and northern Mexico as a free man while adopting traditions of the Native American tribes they encountered, according to accounts by two of the survivors.
After being located by Spanish authorities, Estebanico and his surviving party were taken to Mexico City, where authorities persuaded him to help lead another expedition into Arizona and New Mexico in search of cities made of gold. Historians believe Estebanico agreed to join the expedition to escape a life of slavery that awaited him in Mexico City or back in Spain.
During his second expedition, Estebanico, according to historical accounts, was killed at Zuni Pueblo either in confusion or because he angered elders with his mistreatment of Zuni women.
Or was he?
British scholar Robert Goodwin suggested in his 2009 book, Crossing the Continent 1527-1540: The Story of the First African-American Explorer of the American South, that Estebanico may have staged his death to escape slavery.
Coleman, the professor, said Estebanico “was like an ancient Tupac,” referring to the late hip-hop artist, who some fans believe is still alive.
University of New Mexico law professor Kevin Washburn, a citizen of the Chickasaw Nation of Oklahoma, said Estebanico is forgotten in the Southwest’s story largely because of racism.
“History can’t just be the public relation job done by the victors,” Washburn said. “It’s got to be everyone’s history.”
Coleman, who is black and Native American, said some tribes blame Estebanico for hardships they later experienced and that may be another reason he’s largely forgotten.
“A Pueblo elder once told me, ‘We never forgot it was you who brought them here,’” referring to a black person leading the Spanish into New Mexico and Arizona, Coleman said.
Some anthropologists say a Pueblo tribe spiritual being named Chakwaina, which appears in Hopi, Zuni and Keresan ceremonies, is a representation of Estebanico.
The New Mexico Tourism Department doesn’t know of any monuments or anything else named after Estebanico in the state, spokeswoman Bailey Griffith said. But the department had on its website information about him and his effect on the European settlement of New Mexico.
Texas and Arizona also have websites on Estebanico’s legacy but don’t appear to have any monuments honoring him.
The chair of the Twelve Travelers Memorial of the Southwest, a group that promotes the history of El Paso, Texas, through statues, said sculptor John Sherrill Houser had discussed doing something to honor Estebanico, but Houser died last month in Tucson, Arizona, and currently there are no plans.
“It would be nice to have something on him,” group chair Kenna Ramirez said. “He’s part of our history.”