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Hemispheric Journal: Boriken Trails

Jose Barreiro

 “The clay calls me,” said Alice Chéverez, Boriken Indian woman of the Barahona Valley, in the mountains of Morovis, Puerto Rico. “El barro me llama.”

Alice was just finishing a clay pot she had fashioned over forty minutes of conversation. We were taping with Alice on the Taino pot-making techniques her mother, along with a Puerto Rican artist, reconstructed in the early 1970s. Alice allowed it was not easy to learn and get good at the craft. As a young girl, she watched her mother’s pottery making, learned the full craft and has never left it. Alice – of classic Taino physique and facial features – smiles sweetly. “I have walked away from it twice,” she elaborated as a rooster pecked at the ground underfoot. “But always after a few days, I want to feel the clay between my fingers.”

 We had driven for over three hours out of Mayagüez to visit her family. Puerto Rico around San Juan is heavily urbanized but go east or west out of the capital, pass up the mountains to the central and some coastal regions, and you can still meet some families of distinguishable indigenous legacy and lineage. The Chéverez are a large, extended indo-Boriken family still living in these precious mountains. Their place has the feel of the old campesino (jibaro) homestead – hanging hamocks, animals walking loose, barefoot children playing.  Alice’s parents and earlier generations held rich -- not ancient but natural growth -- forest, a portion of which the family guards to the present day and has been designated as the Cabachuelas Natural Reserve.

 Alice let us know that her mother, before she passed away, was the heart and center of a very large group of people. “Around here, she was mother chicken. When she worked her pottery, everyone worked on something around her. If she got up to go into the field, everybody followed; the little kids, even the men. Everybody wanted to be with her.”

 Alice’s mother, Doña Varin, was the matriarch of the large extended family for several decades. Of the Chéverez, Alice said: “We are not that many, but we are not a few either.”

 The family is reminiscent of large multi-family, indo-Cuban homestead caserios found in the Cuban mountains. More than a single nuclear family at the end of a long and winding road of verdant hills, the Chéverez are a multi-family lineage. Mapping preliminarily with Alice on her family’s extensions, we could count ten families with several children each just among her siblings, while the extended genealogies of a large chain of uncles and aunts and their children’s families through three living generations, took our quick kinship count to some two hundred people. “And there are others,” Alice shook her fingers. I encouraged Alice and the family to develop a count of their relations.

 That day, our last full one on the island, we would walk a long way up the hills behind their homestead, to enter huge caves that featured pictographs and petroglyphs drawn and sculpted by Taino ancestors.

 In Puerto Rico with Ranald Woodaman, from the Smithsonian Latino Center, our visit to the Chéverez family and their mountain top grounds came at the end of a week of much motoring to public encounters and think-tank at universities, visits with the Taino movement community folks and visits to numerous scholars, museum exhibitions and collections and ceremonial plazas.

 Boriken is often used, particularly among Boricuas, as the more contextually autochthonous name for Puerto Rico.  Boriken is also the Taino term heard by Spaniards at conquest. It describes this island’s branch of what is known in archeology and in the contemporary legacy movement as the Taino people of the Antilles.

 We were there to begin discussions on themes and conceptual frameworks on our Smithsonian Grand Challenges project, “Consciousness of Taino: Indigeneity in the Caribbean.” The research project explores the popular and artistic rejection of the notion of “extinction” when describing the fate of the indigenous gens in the Caribbean islands. Beyond “extinction,” it seeks to better understand the survivance of actual practice and continuity of indigeneity among, with and in the people and general geography of the region.

 There is a Taino revival and a great continuing interest in things indigenous in Puerto Rico. The revival is as intense as it is contested, but nevertheless real and extensive. Major historians and archeologists sustain vigorous research agendas, pushing the edges of knowledge and interpretation of a substantial and growing Taino material and archival wealth. We were fortunate to meet up with a few from this distinguished circle during our recent journey through the island.

 • Caguana – the Indigenous Ceremonial Center, at Caguana, in the mountains between Lares and Utuado, bespeaks sacrality of landscape. Featuring major ceremonial plazas -- rectangular, well defined -- it was a place where caciques, chiefstains, gathered to lead and attend the traditional Areito dance-recitals and the formal ball-game, called Batey.  Most elaborate of the more than thirty Taino plazas found in the Utuado region, one can read the visage of several important deities of the Taino cosmology in the standing stone slabs that enclose the main plaza. I had to pause at the pictograph of what we identify today, as  “Madre de Aguas,” and through the treasure of Ramon Pané’s early Taino ethnography, as Atabei(ra). I have seen this persistent image and what it represents throughout the Greater Antilles; as ancient mother of the Taine Great Spirit, this Taino grandmother is symbolic and foundational to the “Consciousness of Taino: Caribbean Indigeneity” project.

 Dr. Osvaldo Garcia-Goyco, a fine teacher on the subject of Caguana, enriched our visit with deep knowledge of the plazas, his astronomical explorations and history of the 800-year old site.  Garcia-Goyco has introduced into our project a fascinating discussion on the Taino “phosphenes,” a sacred iconography emerging from the “flight of the shamans” trance of the cohoba ceremony. Highly prevalent from a grouping of some 17 iconographic phosphenes is the concentric circle called “ojo de capá,” also identified as the cosmic,  “fecund uterus.” This concentric symbol is nearly always found with Atabei(ra) and is prevalent in Caribbean indigenous psycho-spiritual artistic tradition.

 • With Garcia-Goyco, we also visited the exhibition, “Los Huecoides en Punta Candelero,” at the “Museum and Center for Humanistic Studies Dra. Josefina Camacho de la Nuez,”
University of Turabo. Dra. Carmen T. Ruiz de Fischler, director of this Smithsonian associate museum, hosted us graciously through a tour of the state-of-the-art cultural center. Dr. Ruiz was particularly enthused to show us their clear and object-rich exhibition on the relatively new findings – over three decades -- of Puerto Rican archeology on the eastern coast of the island.

More and more the ancient Caribbean appears as point for the migrational thrust of indigenous peoples of the Americas.  A very early migration from the Meso-American coast of present-day Belize, perhaps Guatemala is now accepted; the much-recognized main populational migrations, from Amazonian origins through the Orinoco valley to navigate the island chain northeast and west from Trinidad to Cuba, is most studied as developmental of Taino. Now an additional, limited but early incursion, has increasingly revealed itself in excavations on the island of Vieques and at nearby coastal sites. This one is most intriguing, pointing a trail to the Andean region with its effigy carvings of condors and jaguar incisors originating in the South American cordillera.

 Dubbed the “huecoides” by archeology, American indigenous people lived on the site for approximately 800 years, from 250 AC to 600 AD. The fine exhibition at the Museum and Center for Humanistic Studies, designed by Edna Isabel Acosta, featured some 300 objects, including fine pottery and the increasingly noted “condors” from the Punta Candelero excavations by Turabo University. A long incisor tooth, believed to be from a jaguar, is presently being tested. There is intense anticipation about the upcoming results.

Among other visits, we stopped to see Yvonne Narganes, Archaeologist and curator at the Museum of the University of Puerto Rico, Río Piedras, who showed us many valuable ceramics, shell and stone pieces from the collection she curates. Among these, several condor heads, some in jade, from the Huecoid site in Vieques. Research by Dr. Narganes and Dr. Luis Chanlatte-Baik, as well as the work of Turabo University professor Dr. Miguel Rodriguez on the similar site at Punta Candelero, has signaled a new migratory trail to the Antilles.

 Among the great questions of Puerto Rican archeology, these intriguing early people, their trajectory and origins point to a new parallel migration into the Antilles.

First found on Vieques Island, and then at Punta Candelero, then at sites in other islands, the new work traces what appears as a new migratory pattern, linked by its inter-crossed incised pottery designs and the enigmatic condor heads to the eastern slope of the Peruvian Andes. There is an actual suggested connectivity to Chavin, one of the ancient mother cultures of the Andean civilization.

 The claim is not without controversy as, at least through its early Vieques phase, Yale’s Irving Rouse, a definitive voice in Caribbean archeology, who judged it to be simply an early version of the Saladoid culture, negated it. But as more similar sites have emerged, the Puerto Rican archeologists have expanded the argument.

 Certainly, it is most intriguing to think that in the Caribbean would converge the three main regional civilizational currents of indigenous Latin America: Meso-American, Amazonian and now, Andean.

 • Public forums

 Two public forums brought up a host of questions, issues, and perspectives.

 In Old San Juan, at the Center for Advanced Studies of Puerto Rico and the Caribbean, we shared a podium with Dr. Jalil Sued-Badillo, well-respected historian and fine detective of things Taino. Sued-Badillo’s most recent book, “Agüeybaná the Brave,” a biography of the heroic early Taino cacique, is in a long-line of finely researched and elegantly written histories.

 Dr. Sued-Badillo reflected for the well-attended forum on the currents of indigenous thinking and thematics in Puerto Rican history and contemporary culture. Like many scholars, Sued-Badillo has noted the evolution and growth of Taino identity movements in the Caribbean and particularly among Puerto Rican people, both in the diaspora and the islands. “One has to grow with all this new effervescence, which is a deep search for being Boricua. We have to understand what it means.” At times Sued-Badillo has expressed the opinion that there has been no Taino biological continuity, while exploring widely cultural and ideological survivals.  He allows that since the new genetic studies have indicated a high percentage of Taino Mt.DNA for the island population, he has reconsidered this opinion.

 Sued-Badillo points out the strength of the symbology of Taino for a people in search of their heroic past, for the sense of having been an important people, which allows the possibility that “we will be so again.”

 “Our nostalgia for indigenousness becomes a political agenda. And we have a right to do this,” he asserted. “Peoples have a right to reconstruct and the Taino is an important cultural element for Puertoricans, here and even more in the US.”

 After listing a range of material culture survivals of the Taino ancestors, in language, food, agriculture, medicines, architecture – “numerous elements to maintain alive our memory” -- Sued-Badillo, at his lecture and in previous interviews, lands on the “ideologically vibrant connectivity of this past with the present.  “We do this as the Greeks of today and the Romans of today, hark back to the ancestral strengths of the Greeks and Romans of antiquity. … They may be completely different people, but ideological constructions are always built on the past.  All peoples do this. It should not surprise us from among our own people.”

 We could only agree with his admonition to the young people in the Taino movement to read and study, to visit the ceremonial sites and the museum collections, to learn from the orality of older folks. “Before you reinvent, see the reality you come from.”

 Sued-Badillo’s refreshing and stimulating attitude well reflected the projections of our own initiative and set up our presentation on the Indigenous Legacies of the Caribbean project, which touched on ethnographic approaches to indigeneity work in Cuba and announced our encompassing and comprehensive – wide circle -- approach to the subject of indigeneity in the Caribbean. A strong discussion with many questions followed. As happens most often, in the standing room only crowd, a very Native looking group, including two young families with children and several older folks, all from the Taino movement. They felt welcomed, they said, greeting the NMAI project as well.

 • A second public forum at the University of Puerto Rico, Mayagüez campus, gathered other scholarly minds on related subjects. Dr. Juan Manuel Delgado spoke on his research since the 1970s documenting Boriken Indigenous orality among Puerto Rican “jibaro” populations of the central mountains. Delgado is a mountain of information on Puerto Rican history; his work on continuities of Boriken indio identity and knowledge enclaves into the 20th Century is fascinating. Juan Manuel burrows deeply into contact and colonial times.

 • Dr. Juan Carlos Martinez Cruzado is the increasingly notable UPR Mayagüez geneticist who in searching the Antillian genome surprised himself and many more -- though not all -- by finding a 61 percent Caribbean indigenous (Taino) Mt.DNA in the general Puerto Rican population. Dr. Martinez has conducted ongoing work in Dominican Republic and stimulated similar research in Cuba. He explained his field to an audience of young biologists and social science student and faculty. For Dr. Martinez, of course, the findings of his highly regarded scientific research serve principally the question of origins, following genetic trails in the migrations and deployment of populations throughout the Caribbean region. The high Taino presence in the Mt.DNA – in the matrilineality – of the island’s population points to an extensive, early mestizaje. Iberian and African men married indigenous women in large numbers – recalling, again, the Taino grandmother, the encompassing, foundational culture. Martinez’s work always reminds me of Atabei(ra) – the inside – psycho-spiritual story that signals the genetic trail of our peoples. Martinez Cruzado’s work has anchored the discussion of Caribbean indigeneity with the weighty structure of a hardened science, supportive as it is, by the numbers, of the early and somehow lasting indigenous linkage woven in mestizaje.

 • Some misinterpret Martinez’ very clear scientific interpretations, hearing in all genetic work some kind of phantastical quality to determine “race” and derived concepts. One such concept is the exalting of a Puerto Rican “Raza Unica,” a dangerous slippery slope into outright racism, voiced recently in the Puerto Rican media by a politician who could use a good speech editor.

 At the Mayagüez podium, Dra. Isar P. Godreau, brought this example forward, among others, encouraging our research project to sustain encompassing yet discerning lines of inquiry on confusions inherent in the topic. Dra. Godreau wondered on the impact of the Taino revival movement on the image and standing of Afro-Puerto Ricans. She gave several examples of how the Afro-Puerto Rican image is denigrated in Education department texts and readers. In some of these, the Indian image was positioned more positively or prominently than the Africano. These were poor curriculum representations all around.

 Dra. Godreau challenged any lining up of a hierarchy of “races.” This is important most of all, as evidenced in the political rhetoric that misconstrued genetics (DNA) to be synonymous with “race.” The “unique race” touted by the politician who misunderstood genetic science needs always be confronted.

 All these good questions by Dr. Godreau enrich the thinking on “Consciousness of Taino: Caribbean Indigeneity.” She reminded us to sustain our emphasis on the mutual history with Afro-Caribbean communities, throughout America, in response to colonization.

 As in San Juan, the audience in Mayagüez included several Taino people. An Indian woman and her young man son represented a Taino presence. She spoke well about her strong sense and pride in her Boriken Indian heritage. As it became more possible, she said, she opted to wear more Native symbols and motif in her clothing and hair. She spoke of her African ancestry as well, but it is incorporated into her Indianness.

 A man artist, also Taino, had driven hours to get to the forum. He showed us several well-labored stone and shell pieces. When I inquired after a particular wooden maraca (rattle), however, he said, “I could not sell that one. It’s private.” When I admired it some more, he whispered modestly, “Lo siento. But I need that for my prayers.”

 Thinking later on the trip’s many commentaries, I recalled someone’s citation of Roland Barthes, about how, “ethnicity should focus on the ethnic boundary which defines the group  – not the cultural stuff that it encloses.”

 Ethnic or indigenous identities, it was claimed, “are forged in a context of conflict and power struggle with other groups.”

 True enough, I thought. The “other” no doubt helps define us. And it will be good to run an exercise with Taino folks on how they see themselves relative to the many “others” – Americanos, Africanos, Hispanos, etc.

 

But it’s not the whole story. There is also the “inside”  -- cultural, eco-systemic, spiritual, familial -- that defines identity and drives a lot of behavioral aptitude (and attitude).

 

I was taken with the young artist at Mayagüez, who drove half a country to show his wares, and could not bring himself to sell something because it had “private” use.

 “The clay calls me,” said Alice Chéverez. No matter that her pottery was revitalized by her mother with a trained teacher, after many generations, still, “the clay in my hands, it calls to me.”

 One thing for sure: Across the Americas, wherever you go, the Dream of the Earth runs deep.

 

Historian Jalil Sued-Badillo reflects on the islands Indigenous Legacy for the C.I.L.P. at the Centro de Estudios Avanzados de Puerto Rico.
Anthropologist Isar Godreau (University of Puerto Rico, Cayey) talked about racism and racial hierarchies in Puerto Rico in our forum about indigenous heritage, held at the University of Puerto Rico, Mayagüez.— at UPR Mayagüez.
Taino pendant depicting a Condor, a bird not known to be native to the region.
Master Clay worker Alice Chevere-Chevere- Photo by Ranald Woodaman of the Smithsonian Latino Center
Dr. Juan Manuel Delgado. Alice Chevere-Chevere and Jose Barreiro- Photo by Roger Hernandez and Nichole Bodin
Ranald Woodaman, Juan Manuel Delgado, Jose Barreiro and Roger Hernandez- Photo by Nichole Bodin