I Am Taíno: Exploring the Indigenous Roots Throughout the Caribbean
Extinguished. Vanished. Wiped out. These are just some of the words historians have used to describe the fate of the Taíno, the indigenous group that greeted the Spanish when they first set foot in the Americas in 1492. Even dictionaries define them as an “extinct Arawakan Indian tribe of the West Indies.” But try telling the growing number of people living in the Caribbean—Cuba, Dominican Republic, Haiti, Puerto Rico and other islands—as well as the United States mainland who identify themselves as Taíno that they no longer exist.
Frank Bosch Jr., identifies himself as Taíno. Born and raised in Brooklyn, New York—with the accent to prove it—he is outraged over what he believes are lies in most mainstream history textbooks. “My ancestors are being labeled as dinosaurs—[the] museums and texts are wrong,” he says.
For most of his childhood, Bosch had no real awareness of his indigenous roots. All he knew was that he was Puerto Rican. But there were other traditions that were always present in his household, like the Santería that his grandmother practiced. A mixture of African, Indian and Spanish religious beliefs and practices, Santería is, he says, a form of voodoo. “She had little figurines, rocks with chalk written on it and stuff like that in the closets. There are two sides. They say one is good, and one is bad,” he says. A devout Catholic, Bosch says he was frightened by what his grandmother was doing.
When he was 16, after being asked “Where you from?” one too many times, Bosch decided to learn more about his Puerto Rican heritage, and he discovered it was a blend of three groups: African, Spanish and Taíno. He read every book, article or study he could get his hands on. One of the most significant works was a mitochondrial DNA study conducted in the early 2000s by Juan Martínez Cruzado, a genetics professor at the University of Puerto Rico, which found that nearly 62 percent of Puerto Ricans are Amerindian. Now 30, Bosch, a UPS worker, photographer and competitive bodybuilder, continues his quest, which will soon have him taking a sample of his DNA to be tested. He says he just wants confirmation and to pinpoint where the bloodlines are.
“You know about the Puerto Rican Parade in New York? It’s a tremendous parade—almost 100 blocks long—and a ton of Puerto Ricans come out, millions,” Bosch says. “They don’t even know their history.”
That history has been told by Irving Rouse in his book, The Taínos: Rise and Decline of the People Who Greeted Columbus. He says the Taíno people—whose ancestral origins have been traced back to the Guianas, the Orinoco Valley and Amazonia in South America—emerged in the West Indies in the latter part of the first millennium a.d. and reached their heyday at around 1200 A.D. Those who welcomed the Spaniards used the word Taíno, which translates to good or noble. This was not to identify the name of their race but to explain who they were not—their neighbors inhabiting the Windward Islands, the fierce Island-Caribs. They had different names for themselves: in Puerto Rico, for example, they were the Borinquen (also Boriken), and in the Bahamas, the Lucaya. Theirs was a society of villages ruled by a cacique (chief) and regional chiefdoms and that thrived on an economy based primarily on agriculture—growing such crops as cassava, sweet potato, beans and peppers—along with fishing.
The Taíno population and way of life deteriorated rapidly following the arrival of the Europeans. The men were forced away from their farms and into the gold mines, where, brutally overworked, many perished. There was starvation, and the lethal diseases the Spanish brought with them, including a small pox outbreak in 1519, and rebellions against the colonizers. The Taíno were further diminished by suicide, interbreeding with Spanish people and slaves brought in from Africa and other Caribbean islands, and by flight. When Columbus arrived, chroniclers of the day estimated they numbered more than 1 million on Hispaniola and Puerto Rico alone. “By 1524 they had ceased to exist as a separate population group,” writes Rouse.
Roberto Borrero identifies himself as Taíno. Named by Taíno community members Mukaro (translates to “Owl”), he grew up in New York City’s Spanish Harlem. He says he was more fortunate than most other inner-city kids in that his parents—who were born in Puerto Rico—started bringing him to the island and exposing him to his indigenous heritage at a young age. However, he stresses, there was never a focus on being Taíno. It wasn’t denied, but it wasn’t explored. “When my mother mentioned our Native heritage,’ he says, “for me, as a young kid in the city, it didn’t feel real because the only images I was getting of indigenous identity were from TV, and that was cowboys and Indians, and we didn’t look like that. We didn’t live in tipis. We didn’t ride horses. Who really wanted to be associated with that—they always seemed to be losing on TV.”
As Mukaro matured, he began to appreciate his Indian ancestry, the agricultural heritage of his father’s family, who lived on the island’s southwestern coast; the Native creation stories his uncle recited; his mother’s traditional cooking style, like the pasteles made from yucca; and the fermented drink made from tree bark that sat in the window sill of his family’s apartment when his grandfather visited them.
Mukaro’s interest in his Taíno background blossomed in high school. He recalls a history class that covered Columbus, the Aztecs and Mayans, without as much as a footnote on the Taíno. “I’m like, Wait a minute! Don’t we have a part in this story? Didn’t he meet our people first? At least that’s what I heard in my family. When I approached teachers on this, they said, ‘Oh, no. These people were wiped out.’ ” [I wondered], How could they be wiped out when I am here?”
Mukaro blames the disparity in the way history is taught in school—how the Taíno people have been dismissed—on who has, for the most part, told that history: the victors or the conquerors. There are not many books on Taíno history written from the Indian perspective, which he believes has added to the confusion in its own communities.
For Mukaro, now president of the United Confederation of Taíno People, a group devoted to promoting and protecting the human rights, cultural heritage and spiritual traditions of Taíno and other Caribbean Indigenous Peoples, there is no confusion. There is nothing to debate. The Taíno, he says, “never ceased to exist.”
Evidence of their survival can be found in the West Indies, where a few communities have held onto their Taíno heritage. Mukaro says they are located in undeveloped, mountainous areas in Cuba and the Dominican Republic. The same can be said of Puerto Rico before all of the development and industrialization. “Operation Bootstrap in the 1940s kind of pushed people out of these rural areas so it could be developed,” Mukaro explains. “Many of these folks were coming from this rural heritage, from this heritage that retained many of the Taíno traditions. So, they brought a lot of that with them to the urban areas.”
There is also proof in the movement of people reclaiming their Taíno identity. José Barreiro, assistant director for research and director of the Office of Latin America at the National Museum of the American Indian, identifies himself as Taíno. He was born and raised in Cuba, and moved with his parents to the United States in his teen years. He says the movement started in force in the early to mid 1980s and exploded with the birth of the Internet. His Taíno, a novel that recounts the life of a historical character, Guaikán, a Taíno, who as a boy is taken to Spain and adopted by Columbus after his first voyage and returns to the islands to serve as the navigator’s interpreter, was scooped up by the Taíno rediscovery wave when it was released in hardcover in 1993 (it was published in paperback in 2012).
“The identity itself has picked up a lot of strength,” Barreiro says. “Among our people, we are seeing families reuniting around these ideas.”
Just as exciting is a recent thrust by scholars to explore the survival of the Taíno. The national museum, for instance, has a project under way in conjunction with other museums and institutions in the contiguous United States and the Caribbean to explore Caribbean indigenous cultures, with a focus on the Taíno. Over the past two years, it hosted two workshops to explore sustaining cultural elements, such as language, tools, the construction of homes, medicine, identity and the various enclaves of Taínos in the Caribbean. Barreiro said the research will culminate in an exhibition at some point in 2015 or 2016.