Indian roots of eastern Cuba

Jose Barreiro
10/26/05

Editor's note: Indian Country Today Senior Editor Jose Barreiro traveled to
his native Cuba in September. This is the second and final part of his
journal, "In Cuba the cry was for rain."

JIGUANI, Cuba -- Indigenous roots and identities in Cuba, as elsewhere in
the Caribbean, were both assimilated and layered into the growth of
national consciousness. Recent research by Alejandro Hartmann and others
shows that it did not dissipate.

Jose Antonio Molina, of the National Library of Cuba, has recently
published historical literary evidence of many early Taino practices that
are still in use by the guajiro population. As Taino agricultural and
medicinal practices transferred to the new campesinos, both Spanish and
African, the families of Indian ancestry blended into various valleys in
the extensive eastern mountains, a few small communities held together but
mostly dispersed as regular country folk who still lived a great deal of
their material culture and important pieces of their spiritual systems, but
not noticeably so.

Families with long roots in the Taino pueblos of the early conquest -- once
thought extinct by the late 1600s -- are now showing up, represented by
caciques (leaders), in land disputes right into the 1840s. Areitos
(dances), condemned and thought forgotten at the conquest, now show up in
19th-century records, apparently incorporated into spiritist cults dating
from the same era.

In local church records in Camaguey, new research reveals cases of
marriages of "Indios" to "Blancos" (whites), "Negros" (blacks) and other
listed "races," for instance, up to the 1880s -- some 300 years beyond the
supposed "extinction" of Indians. Curiously, once married to a white, an
Indian no longer was listed as an Indian but was passed to the "white"
designation.

Still, the families clearly value their ancestry and are inclined to engage
the dialogue encouraged by the new research.

"For 50 square kilometers around us," said one of the diminutive elders who
met with us at the Calixto Garcia Library in Jiguani, "every other family
has Indian roots; our families have oral tales and much knowledge of the
land, a strong Cuban people." The old man remembered the public carnivals
of the 1930s, when the "Indians of Jiguani" provided their own dancing and
music groups.

The agriculture in the region, by guajiros of various ethnic backgrounds,
has deep Indian roots. Among the most enduring sufferers of the horrendous
drought are these natural farmers who still plant many crops by hand, who
use the organized "conuco" concept -- the traditional Indian science of
inter-cropping. The "coa," or ancient Taino planting stick, is much in use
among farmers in the mountains.

Cycles of weather, as the United States so plainly has experienced, can do
huge harm. Highly dependent on direct and market agriculture, the farmers
of eastern Cuba saw three crop seasons disappear and two normally
rain-laden seasons pass without a drop.

In Santiago, we met and visited with the old man, the cacique Panchito
Ramirez, whose first topic was also water. "The drought hit us hard, hard,
hard. I thought, 'My Virgen, is this the end of us, the Indians of the
mountain?"

In Cuba and even outside of Cuba, Ramirez, from the province of Guantanamo,
is well-known for his participation in the international event "Indigenous
Legacies of the Caribbean," and through the book "Panchito: Mountain
Cacique," which was an "as-told-to" narrative. Panchito's mountain
community of Caridad de los Indios is possibly the most-documented of the
Indian enclaves. Guantanamo historian Jose Sanchez Guerra has traced the
migration pattern of Panchito's community from the valley lowlands to the
more remote mountain region.

At the altar of the Virgen del Cobre -- the major Cuban Catholic deity also
represented in Taino and African traditions -- Panchito made a wonderful
prayer. Panchito prayed for rain -- water -- to slake all the thirst in
nature and he prayed for the waters of women in labor, an ancient
intonation that gathered nearly everyone walking through the revered chapel
before he was done.

Panchito was happy to hear about the Indian families of Jiguani. Hartmann
got the old chief going by repeatedly praising the cassava torte produced
at Jiguani, so a cassava bake-off appears in the works. Panchito was quite
happy about the recent rains that had replenished his crops.

From all three regions, the Indian folks wished and sent each other good
rains.

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