Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences Dedman College Research SW Center

An Interview with Sonia Kania about her book Vicente de Zaldivar’s Service to the Crown: The Probanza de Méritos (1600)


Vicente de Zaldivar’s Services to the Crown: The Probanza de Méritos (1600) by Sonia Kania.

Dr. Sonia Kania is professor of Modern Languages at the University of Texas at Arlington where she teaches courses in study of the Spanish language and linguistics. Dr. Kania is a collaborator in the Cibola Project, which is concerned with the edition and publication of documents of the Hispanic Southwest from the 16th-18th centuries. Her research focuses on Colonial Mexican and New Mexican Spanish and historical dialectology. She has published numerous articles in those areas and is author of Mexican Spanish of the Colonial Period: Evidence from the Audiencia of New Galicia (Hispanic Seminary of Medieval Studies, 2010).

Fronteras: Congratulations on the publication of your new book, Vicente de Zaldívar’s Services to the Crown: The Probanza de Méritos (1600). The book is not only a transcription and translation of colonial document from New Mexico but also a linguistic study of the syntactical and morphological features of the Spanish used in the text. Can you briefly tell us who Zaldívar was and explain what a probanza de méritos is?

Sonia Kania: Absolutely. Zaldívar was one of Juan de Oñate’s nephews. As your readers probably know, Oñate was the first governor of New Mexico. At the time of Oñate’s New Mexico campaign, Zaldívar was twenty-five. The family tree is actually quite interesting. Zaldívar is referred to as Oñate’s “sobrino” in the text, but according to English-language family terminology, he would be considered a “first cousin once removed,” since he was the son of Oñate’s first cousin (Vicente de Zaldívar I). This is through their bloodline relationship. Through their relationship established by marriage, Vicente Zaldívar II is Oñate’s nephew in the English-language sense since his father (Vicente de Zaldívar I) married Magdalena de Mendoza y Salazar, who was Juan de Oñate’s stepsister. This means that Oñate and Zaldívar I were not only first cousins but also brothers-in-law, so Zaldívar’s son would be Oñate’s nephew. The family was very important in the colonial history of New Galicia. Juan de Oñate’s father Cristóbal was one of the conquerors of the area and served as governor during the time of the Coronado expedition. He was also one of the co-founders of Zacatecas. The Oñates and Zaldívars had many mining interests there. Vicente de Zaldívar II was born in Zacatecas and returned there after the New Mexico campaign, where he became a successful miner.

As far as the text goes, the probanza de méritos y servicios is a genre of documentary text that had its origins in medieval Spain and was later brought to the New World. Since nobles were unable to pay subjects for their work on their behalf in advance, they instead offered future rewards and favors. So, subjects learned to record and certify services that they performed for their superiors. In this type of document, the petitioners first presented their méritos, i.e. their lineage and the earlier services of their ancestors, followed by their servicios, i.e. deeds and exploits that had benefitted their superior. While petitioners usually sought specific rewards or favors, such as land grants or the use of coats of arms, in Zaldívar’s case, the document appears to have been drawn up for record keeping, apparently to be used for a future claim.

Fronteras: Before we get into the specifics of some of your research findings, and Zaldívar’s career, a very basic question: if a Spanish speaker from Texas in the year 2022 could travel back in time to 1600 to speak to Vicente de Zaldívar and his contemporaries in Mexico City or New Mexico, would this bilingual time traveller be able to understand their Spanish?

Sonia Kania: That’s a great question. I think that they absolutely would, especially if they have had experience interacting with people from other cultures who speak different varieties of Spanish. Like with present-day examples of dialect-contact through travel, the biggest hurdle would probably be vocabulary. The travellers in question would have to know that frezadas refer to ‘blankets’, gallinas de la tierra to ‘turkeys’, and vacas de Cíbola to the ‘American bison’. Just like in the present time, context clues would be really helpful! Otherwise, the Spanish they hear would probably sound a little formal or old-fashioned, and they would have to figure out the proper forms to use when addressing people, depending on their social status: vuestra merced, vos, tú? In a highly stratified society, using the right form of address was very important. Finally, in other cases, they might hear forms that have fallen out of use in mainstream Spanish but that are still used by certain speakers, especially in rural areas, ansí, for ‘así’, muncho for ‘mucho’, onde for ‘donde’, truje for ‘traje’, etc.

Fronteras: Your book will be of interest to historians for many reasons, but we were struck by how it illustrates how the Spanish imperial bureaucracy worked, and what criteria the Empire used to reward and promote military officers. What are some things about these questions that readers will glean from the structure and contents of Zaldívar’s probanza?

Sonia Kania: Two immediate things come to mind. One is the importance of lineage, which harkens back to your first question about the document type called the probanza de méritos y servicios. When researching the various witnesses that took part in Zaldívar’s probanza, I was struck by the close familial ties among the witnesses, as well as the colonists more broadly. I already mentioned the relationship between the Oñates and the Zaldívars. In addition, one of the witnesses, Francisco de Sosa Peñalosa, was a soldier in Vicente de Zaldívar I’s army, and another, Diego de Zubía, grew up in Vicente de Zaldívar I’s household. These two (Sosa Peñalosa and Zubía) were also related by marriage—Sosa Peñalosa was Zubía’s father-in-law.

And yet another witness, Leonís Tremiño de Bañuelos, was the son of Baltasar de Bañuelos, who was a business partner of Cristóbal de Oñate who, as I mentioned earlier, was Juan de Oñate’s father. But I guess it makes sense that you would want your most trusted associates with you if you are going to travel thousands of miles into unknown territory and try to set up a colony. The second big theme that readers will undoubtedly notice is the propagandistic nature of the questions and answers. Almost all the witnesses have the same glowing things to report. READ MORE