Chautauqua focuses on Estevan the Black
FARMINGTON — While the vast majority of people who have witnessed Edward Wallace’s Chautauqua presentation of “Estevan the Black: Journey into the Unknown” since it debuted last year have been entirely unfamiliar with the character Wallace portrays, there are those who know the story of the famed Moor and Spanish slave very well.
“Actually, there is usually one person in every audience who knows more about him than I do,” Wallace said during a phone interview last week from his Rio Rancho home as he prepared to deliver his Chautauqua this weekend at San Juan College. “But, of course, 99 percent of people have never heard of him.”
Estevan is certainly worth remembering, Wallace said, and not just because he is widely considered to be the first European to set foot in the territory that later became the states of New Mexico, Texas and Arizona. Wallace assumes the character of Estevan in his Chautauqua, portraying the adventures he experienced in the New World between the time he arrived here in 1528 and his death in 1538 or 1539.
“Very little is known about him before he came to this part of the world,” Wallace said, though the website newmexicohistory.org describes him as a Morocco native who likely sold himself into slavery or indentureship to benefit his impoverished family and who was converted to Christianity after reaching the Iberian peninsula. He became the slave of a man named Andres Dorantes and set sail for the New World in 1527, according to the website.
Those years were eventful years, Wallace said, explaining how Estevan would become a renowned healer and scout for Spanish expeditions throughout the Southwest before he went on to meet his demise at the hands of the Zuni people at what is now Zuni Pueblo.
Wallace — a volunteer at El Rancho de las Golondrinas, a Spanish colonial living history museum outside Santa Fe, and an extra in several films — said he was compelled to craft his presentation on Estevan after he became interested in the New Mexico Humanities Council’s Chautauqua program.
A friend suggested he put together a presentation on Tom Tobin, a bounty hunter who lived in Taos in the 1800s. Tobin always had a reputation for getting his man, Wallace said.
“He had one weakness, and that was, he didn’t want to be troubled by taking his prisoners back to civilization,” he said. “So he would kill them and bring back proof of their death.”
In some cases, historians have noted, that proof took the form of a head in a sack. Knowing he would be making presentations in schools throughout the state if his planned Chautauqua on Tobin was accepted by the Humanities Council, Wallace thought better of it.
“I thought he was not a good role model for kids,” he said.
Instead, he settled on Estevan, a man whose ethnic and racial background made his very presence in the American Southwest of the 1500s an extreme oddity.
Wallace will be making his third trip to Farmington to perform a Chautauqua. During his previous two trips here, he has delivered a presentation on Jim Beckwourth, a one-time Missouri slave who would go on to become a mountain man and chief of the Mountain Crows. Beckwourth trapped beaver with Kit Carson and Jim Bridger, owned a hotel in Santa Fe, ran a trading post in Taos, founded the town of Pueblo, Colo., and helped found Los Angeles — after he blazed a trail for travelers over the Sierra Madre Mountains.
“He’s really a very amazing man,” Wallace said.
Wallace also has plans to compile a presentation on Bass Reeves, a one-time Arkansas slave who would become the first black U.S. deputy marshal west of the Mississippi. Reeves served primarily in the Indian Territory, now Oklahoma, during the late 1800s, where he worked for Isaac Parker, becoming one of the famed “hanging judge’s” more trusted officers.
He hopes to begin presenting his Chautauqua on Reeves within the next few years.
Wallace finds those little-known black characters compelling even if, or maybe because, so few people have heard of them. Bringing them to life through a Chautauqua is his way of finally seeing that they receive their due.
“There are quite a few black heroes who have been lost to history,” he said. “When I was doing my research, I could tell there was a lot of racism in the books and newspapers of the day. If a person was black, they were usually cast aside.”
Mike Easterling is the A&E editor of The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4610.
If you go
What: “Estevan the Black: Journey into the Unknown,” a Chautauqua performance by Edward Wallace
When: 7 p.m. Friday, Oct. 14
Where: The Little Theatre on the San Juan College campus, 4601 College Blvd. in Farmington
For more information: Call 505-566-3430