Born Puerto Rican, born (again) Taino? A resurgence of indigenous identity among Puerto Ricans has sparked debates over the island's tri-racial history.
Today, spurred as much perhaps by pop culture references like Touch's album as the general post-civil rights era search for identity among communities of color, young and old Puerto Ricans have increasingly looked toward the Indian component of their presumed tri-racial history for alternative interpretations of what makes them, in essence, who they are. Already--and increasingly so within the past 15 years--it is common, among both the Taino-representing and not, to self-identify using the term "Boricua"; a Taino term denoting a native to the island originally called "Boriken" (sometimes spelled Borinquen) and renamed Puerto Rico ("rich port") by Spain.
Conquest and "Extinction"
Tainos were the first "Americans" to greet Christopher Columbus and Co.'s earliest voyages, first to be mistaken for and hence misnamed "Indian." Spanish chroniclers like Bartolome de Las Casas estimated their population to be upwards of a million--as much as 8 million, when including neighboring island indigenes in the count--and yet within a 100 years of civilization-clashing, this estimate dropped dramatically until they ceased to be counted as a distinct group in the colonial census, relegated ever after to an undocumented oblivion.
The most widely held, schoolbook-promoted belief about Boriken's Tainos goes something like this: they were quickly wiped out, wholesale, by Spanish attrocities and Old World diseases, existing only in the collective memory of a glorious pre-Colombian past. The Encyclopedia Britannica apparently concurs, defining the Taino as an "extinct Arawak Indian group," whose "extinction" was complete "within 100 years of Spanish conquest."
The alternative, more accommodating explanation, first espoused during the 1940s and '50s as Puerto Rico shifted to Commonwealth from Unincorporated Territory status, promotes a mixed-race ideal akin to the raza cosmica (mixed "cosmic race") ideal conceptualized by Mexico's Jose Vasconcelos. For these philosophical adherents, the Taino continue to exist only as subsumed elements within Puerto Rico's tri-racial dynamic.
Finally the third view, oft-contested in Puerto Rican academic circles, maintains that not only is the Amerindian component far from extinct among present-day Puerto Ricans (for many of whom a distinctly indigenous Taino identity has endured), but that it can and does thrive. At the forefront of this movement have been the still-growing number of so-called "revivalist" groups, from the Taino Inter-Tribal Council to Nacion Taino to the Jaribonicu Taino Tribal Nation, whose emergence as organized bodies began to coalesce around rile 1992 Quincentennary marking Christopher Columbus' epic journey.
It was the Puerto Ricans of predominantly Spanish descent who first publicly embraced what they perceived to be a freer, land-connected Taino identity; a sharp contrast to that which the Spanish colonial power represented. "This first arose as an elitist movement," explains Gabriel Haslip-Viera, a professor at New York's City College and former director of the Center for Puerto Rican Studies. "[Identifying as] Taino was a way of separating themselves from the Europeans, and so Puerto Ricans began claiming at least some sort of Taino background whether they had any or not." In the Taino, ultimately, they believed they had found an uncontestable validation for their anti-colonialist struggle.
The quintessential Puerto Rican, enshrined in the island's official seal and by the early nationalists, embodies an inseparably-hinged triptych comprised of red (American Indian), white (Iberian), and black (West African) components. As Cuba's Jose Marti proclaimed of Latin Americans: "One may descend from the fathers of Valencia and mothers of the Canary Islands, yet regard as one's own the blood of the heroic, naked Caracas warriors which stained the craggy ground where they met the armored Spanish soldier."
Among the loudest detractors of an indigenous-centered Puerto Rican identity, meanwhile, have been those for whom a more African-centered reality speaks to their experience. Taino resurgence, for them, is seen (by some) as having been exploited as a too-convenient, less racially-problematic alternative to the island's African-derived culture and gene pool Indigenous revivalism is seen as pitting a more mythologized Indian identity against a black reality.
The growing number of island-based and internationally active Taino organizations, who insist the modern-day Taino identity is much more than myth, believe their cause has been strengthened by a groundbreaking genetic study spearheaded by Juan Carlos Martinez Cruzado, a molecular biologist based at the University of Puerto Rico's Mayaguez campus. The Taino genome project, which was initiated in 1999 through a grant from the National Science Foundation to test mitochondrial (matrilineal) DNA throughout the island, has identified a heretofore improbable-sounding 62 percent majority of Puerto Ricans today as of Amerindian, hence presumably Taino, descent.
How valid, then, are the assertions, not to mention the history books, which discount Puerto Rican claims to an identity for which so many may turn out to have direct genealogical ties?
Haslip-Viera, who edited the groundbreaking text Taino Revival, is among the prominent scholars who remain skeptical. "It might indeed be the case that somewhere in the family tree, going all the way back to the 16th century, there might have been one indigenous woman whose DNA has been carried through all the generations until the current bloodline," be noted. "And yet during all the years since that, there have been all these other peoples who have come in from Africa, from Europe, from Asia [referring to the South Asian and Chinese laborers who also came to the islands, not typically included in the Hispanic Caribbean discourse on race]."
"Why focus on this one element which is so minor compared with other elements?" he questions.
"Over the long term," contends Haslip-Viera, "that indigenous element in the genome is really quite meaningless."
For those like Roberto Mucaro Borrero, however, there is profound meaning. Borrero, a leader of the United Confederacy of Taino People, argues that, rather than deriving from an exclusionary, nationalistic posture, Taino self/community identification is about affirming the very indigeneity of most Puerto Ricans, irrespective of blood quantum--and guaranteeing the sovereign rights inherent in such claims. Borrero sees the insistent discounting of Taino revivalism predominant in academia as racism, plain and simple; the emphasis on a nonspecific, mixed-raced Puerto Rican identity as misplaced, at best. "This westernized, homogenized Latino thing is an inequitable concept where indigenous peoples are concerned," he believes.
"I have a real problem," Borrero adds, "when those people preferring to affirm an African or even a Spanish side to their history say that I can't affirm who I am as an indigenous person, as though everybody else is entitled to be who they are on our ancestral homeland, except us."
Drops of Blood
The populations of Mexico, Guatemala, Ecuador, and other South and Central American countries are overwhelmingly of Amerindian descent when statistics include those of mixed Spanish-Indian, Afro-Indian, or tri-racial lineage. The dominant mainstream culture in each, however, imposes and reinforces a decidedly Eurocentric ideal, far more Spanish than indigenous (or African, for that matter) in language, standards of beauty, and cultural mores.
In the United States, meanwhile, where individuals of native ancestry (including those of mixed race) comprise a mere single-digit percentage, more than 500 tribal nations celebrate their distinct indigenous heritage. Puerto Rico, while clearly understood to be part of Latin America, is heavily influenced by the United States in some of its collective attitudes toward race and indigeneity.
"In U.S. society, among the Anglo establishment, Indians are romanticized to a large extent," explains Haslip-Viera. "It's not this way in, say, Bolivia or Peru."
In the U.S., "one drop" became enough to certify blackness, initially in an attempt to maintain the pool of slave labor indefinitely. For Native Americans, a federally imposed concept of blood quantum was instead designed to deconstruct Indian identity as the gene pools presumably would become mixed, gradually legislating away indigenous claims to land and sovereign rights. The sooner someone could no longer legally be recognized as Indian, the sooner white settlers and government agencies could move in for the (literal or figurative) kill.
The U.S. government, meanwhile, imposed the strictest race-defining standard yet for non-white citizens upon Native Hawai'ians. In direct opposition to Hawai'ian custom, in which identity (hence, indigeneity) comes from one's genealogical links to ancestors, Hawai'ians must prove a minimum 50 percent blood quantum for certain governmental benefits. At the same time, self-identifying and community-acknowledged Hawai'ians leading the fight for self-determination may themselves also have Scottish, Filipino, Japanese, even mixed Puerto Rican forebears in their family trees. For them, without question, the tree itself remains essentially Hawai'ian.
While by no means suggesting that either he or the bulk of today's Tainos are of racially-pure Amerindian stock, Borrero contends that the multi-hued genetic mix of the island and its diaspora does not erase the indigeneity of Taino-descended Puerto Ricans. Rather than Taino being merely absorbed within other groups, he believes, "All of those people who came to Boriken after Columbus ... they became part of our genealogy, our Taino narrative."
The Puerto Rican narrative, in a literary sense, does have a real history of romanticizing the Taino to suit the aforementioned nationalist ideal--that Puerto Ricans' sovereign right to a fully autonomous homeland are strengthened by an inherent indigenous connection to the land.
In his essay "Making Indians Out of Blacks," scholar Jorge Duany of Puerto Rico's University of the Sacred Heart, notes that prominent writers and intellectuals from Eugenio Maria de Hostos to Juan Antonio Corretjer "have employed the Taino figure as an inspiration in the unfinished quest for the island's freedom." At the same time, Duany reinforces the prevailing assertions in academia when he argues, "The indigenista discourse has contributed to the erasure of the ethnic and cultural practices of blacks in Puerto Rico."
David Velasquez Muhammad is one young Puerto Rican for whom a black identity is paramount to his understanding of self. His "beef," says the Madison, Wisconsin-based youth organizer for the Nation of Islam's growing Latino Ministry, lies not with Taino groups themselves or their assertions to legitimacy. Rather, Muhammad sharply derides "the Puerto Rican Institute of Culture and other bourgeois institutions, for their promotion of a conceivably less-threatening, mystified Taino, specifically to devalue and exclude the predominant African influence in our history."
This institutionalized exaltation of the Taino is itself patronizing, promoting Taino culture not through living, breathing, modern people but exclusively through objects and artifacts--including human remains--on display behind glass-cased exhibitions. Perhaps those who publicly refute the validity of a contemporary Taino identity could better direct their arguments toward these institutions themselves, rather than the so-called Taino revivalists.
While the DNA research suggests, encouragingly, the persistance of Taino genealogy into the present, what of the less-quantifiable, more-abstract components commonly understood to characterize and denote a distinct people? Unquestionably, the Taino have suffered periods of disconnection and loss from much of their culture, their language, and spirituality under both sword and Church. This initial victimization under colonialism need not necessarily be understood as a perpetual state of loss for the Taino.
New Zealand's indigenous Maori, for example--often as genetically diverse as the Taino-identifying Puerto Ricans--have achieved great success in the reclamation and renewed promulgation of the same Maori language once presumed near death by the mid-20th century. From the establishment of "kohanga reo" Maori language immersion schools, to dual-language hip-hop video shows on broadcast TV, to an all-Maori radio network, New Zealand's example proves that it can be done. Maori achievements in language revival have subsequently inspired similarly intensive undertakings by Native Hawai'ians in Hawai'i and the Blackfoot Nation in the continental U.S.
Modern-day Tainos seeking the same kind of rebirth do so at an apt time. The recent formation of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, a body representing indigenous peoples on all continents, has focused on exactly these concerns. High-level contributions of Tainos to this and other indigenous forums, including Roberto Mucaro Borrero's co-chairing of the NGO Committee for the International Decade of the World's Indigenous Peoples and Cuban Taino Jose Barreiro's editorship of Cornell University's prestigious Native Americas journal--has increased the public profile of Taino discourse in activist, academic, and social circles.
In the years to come, Puerto Ricans of varying extractions will surely continue to contemplate, perhaps even re-evaluate, what being Boricua means for them. Today's Taino are enabled as never before to ensure they remain essential to this process.
Cristina Veran is a journalist, historian, and educator who is also a United Nations correspondent. Her work has appeared in Ms. Magazine, Vibe, Oneworld, and News From Indian Country.