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Imagined Regions


By Dr. Theresa Avila, Dr. Francisco Lara, and Dr. Sharonah Fredrick

Open to the public and viewable each weekday in the School of Transborder Studies on the ASU Tempe campus, from 9-5.


This exhibit highlights the different ways the Americas have been conceptualized by mapmakers and reflect the evolution of the United States and Mexico from the sixteenth century onwards. The maps on display tell many stories about the inventive nature of cartography: the early exploration of uncharted territories in the Americas; the land claims and disputes of nation building, and the changing social landscape of the continent. The exhibit of colonial (16th-early 19th century) maps on display shows what author Luis Weckmann termed the “medieval mindset” of Europeans in the New World. The maps, of very high visual quality, display how icons and tropes were transposed from medieval literature to new lands, and indigenous civilizations, whose resemblance to such archetypes was non-existent. Most importantly, the maps included in this exhibition showcase how territory and space have been and continue to be imagined, and how imagined regions have had the power to shape the evolution of United States-Mexico borderlands.

Imagining the Unknown

Since the fifteenth century, European powers have explored, documented, studied, and colonized the Americas. However, the challenges of sea travel across great distances, inhospitable terrains, the threat of violence from native populations, the difficulty of basic survival, and the lack of available tools and technology to accurately survey land resulted in limited knowledge about the American continent.Additionally, New World exploration was competitive among nations vying for ‘unclaimed’ land and resources. The resulting secrecy – bound by national interests – meant the most up-to-date information about the Americas was not always known or available. Moreover, many mapmakers never experienced or saw the New World for themselves. Instead, they relied on earlier maps, archives, and recent reports, as well as their own estimations. These men of science often embellished and incorporated unconfirmed and fantastic accounts into their maps.As a result, most early maps of the Americas are actually less about known geographies and more about the objectives, preconceived ideas, lack of knowledge, and imaginations of explorers and their sponsors. Often they are imagined realities. Nevertheless, they are all part of the history of discovery, exploration, and colonization of the Americas by European powers from the fifteenth century forward. Particularly highlighted in the exhibition, Imagined Regions, and here is the nature of the imagined within the production of maps.

California as an Island

In Garci Rodriguez de Montalvo’s 1510 knightly epic Las Sergas de Esplandian, the name California appears for the first time in Spanish. It describes a marvelous island that is sheer male fantasy, inhabited by beautiful Amazons, where the young knight Esplandian, son of the legendary Amadis of Gaul, grows into adulthood. The name Califerne had appeared earlier in the medieval French epic The Song of Roland, and Roland’s influence on Spanish literature was profound, lasting well into the Baroque period.Chivalry was moribund by the time the Conquistadors invaded the Americas; even though its literary masterpieces, such as Amadis and Esplandian, coincided Spain’s territorial expansion in North and South America. Hernan Cortes, the un-chivalrous conqueror of Mexico, (he abandoned his indigenous translator and concubine, Malinche, and had his Spanish wife Catalina Juarez Marcaida unceremoniously strangled), was an avid reader of courtly romances. He knew of Esplandian, because his 1534 letter to Hapsburg Emperor Carlos V is based on that literary fiction. Cortes describes his scouts as having encountered an island to the north of Mexico called California, which resembled an earthly Paradise. Subsequent expeditions to California definitively disproved the accounts of Cortes and his associates. Cortes’ enemies at court, such as his own soldiers cheated out of the spoils of a war that they had waged against the Aztecs, remarked that Cortes was prone to embellishments. Nonetheless, his delusionary description of California as an island continued in cartography of the Americas until the end of the 18th century.Franciscan Friar Juan Torquemada added to the notion of California was an island in his 1610 published account of the 1602-1603 Sebastián Vizcaíno expedition to explore the Pacific Coast. These accounts may have misdirected some European mapmakers. Many of these maps are a part of The ASU Simon Burrow Transborder Map Collection. They help to make clear the degree of what was known and imagined about this far off region.

Mythical Landscapes

Many of the fantastic stories and legends about mythical places in the Americas can be traced to the documented, published, and recirculated accounts and reports of local inhabitants, European explorers, and missionaries. Many of these tales also became a part of history when they were illustrated on maps.