Jose Barreiro, Ph.D
Indios de Yateras
Marti, as always, guides our steps.
Four hundred years after the supposed "extinction" of Cuban Indians, in a regiment made
up of people from the Yateras Valley of Guantanamo,
in eastern Cuba, Tafno-
descendants fought the Spanish colonial government under the famous Cuban patriot,
Major General Antonio Maceo. By all accounts the troop, organized as the Hatuey
Regiment, fought valiantly in several engagements,
most notably at the Battle of Sao del
Indio, on August 31, 1895, as the War of Independence was launched by the Cuban
nation in arms/ Ignored by most researchers and written out of Cuban national histories throughout the twentieth century, it is
nevertheless a fact that Cuban Indians fought first for the Spanish army and then for the insurrection during the Cuban War of Independence of 1895.
The questions of how to assail the Indian support for the Spanish militias and how to
alliance with the Indo-Cuban community was an important one for the early
insurrection. By April, 1895, the "terrible Indians of Yateras" were already a scourge on
the Liberation army, as they were expert trackers and intensely well disciplined
fighters. As a force for the Spanish, the Yateras Indians could control the important
eastern trade area of Guantanamo-Santiago de Cuba. To disable the Indian community as
a fighting force seemed an unenviable, formidable task to
the Liberation forces as the
Cuban War of Independence got underway in 1895.
A number of Indian scouts from the municipality of Yateras, near Guantanamo, were
recruited by the Spanish army into a group commanded by the infamous local
Spanish volunteers, Pedro Garrido Romero. With its Indian scouts from the area of
Caridad de los Indios, a long-standing Taino enclave, this particular Spanish group was
deadly effective. In mid-April, shortly after they landed
to launch the insurrection, two
of the Maceo brothers (Antonio and Jose) were ambushed and nearly destroyed by the
Yateras Indians under Garrido. A third Cuban insurrectionist general, Flor Crombet, who
landed with the Maceos, was killed
in this ambush and the Garrido trackers kept up a
tremendous pressure against the incipient Cuban army.
Jose Marti, the Cuban Apostle, poet and revolutionary leader, noted the sad reality of
Indians scouting for the Spanish in his final
campaign diary. Marti, who had landed with
Maximo Gomez in the same region and was also traversing the eastern fields of battle,
writes about being tracked by "...the Indians of Garrido ... the danger is felt. Since the
have been closely following our prints." 4 In this area of the Sierra, at least
two of the turn of the twentieth century's chroniclers of the insurrection beside Marti —
Casasus and Miro Argenter — make occasional references to the
Indian population. More
recent historians, Guantanamo's Sanchez Guerra most notably, have brought out
important articles about the genesis of the Hatuey Regiment.
Shortly before he is killed by Spanish bullets, Jose Marti spends a night
in an Indian
bohio. He writes in his campaign diary about his native host, Domitila, "Indian woman,
ardent eyes, agile and good . . . jumps to the forest and brings in a garden of tomatoes,
coriander, oregano, herbs..." "Could it be true,"
he also writes, upon hearing of the
ambush against the Maceos, "that Flor Crombet, Flor the gallant, is dead? ... that the
Indians of Garrido caused the treason?"
Marti is killed on May 19, 1895, but not before requesting from the Maceo
leaders of sizable armies, that they do everything possible to recruit the Yateras Indian
trackers away from serving with the Spanish. How the Yateras Indians were recruited
away from serving the Spanish army as guides and
guerrillas is most interesting. General
Jose Maceo here relied on two trusted men and one woman, all enjoying close relations
with the Tafno-descendant communities in the mountains north of Guantanamo. The men
were Pedro (Periquito/Little
Parrot) Perez y Perez and Silverio Guerra Tellez; the woman
was the heroine captain of Maceo's eastern army, the midwife and spiritist, Cristina Perez
Trance of the Midwife
Cristina Perez, a midwife of Catalan ancestry
but married into an Indian clan via her
union to the minor cacique Ramon Ramirez Suarez, was a strong sympathizer with the
Cuban cause. She was a collaborator against Spain via her close friendship to young
Silverio Guerra Tellez, an Indian
descendent from Yateras who would become a
commander of the Liberation Army. Throughout late March and April of 1895, Cristina
spoke with the major and minor caciques of the indo-Cuban population. Many were
already allied to the Spanish army,
which had granted them new concessions of lands, in
the effort to enlist them. It was during this time, April 10, that the Maceo brothers were
attacked by the Indian troops and General Flor Crombet shot to death by a young Indian
Guadalupe Ramirez Rojas (Rojitas). This was a dangerous period for
Cristina, who anticipated attacks on her person by the Spanish volunteers, along with
their many Indian allies. Only her circle of respect as an appreciated midwife of the
and her remarkable powers of ceremony, during which sessions she entered
trances and spoke with the ancient cemis and long-gone caciques, protected her.
By late April and early May, Cristina convinced two of the lesser caciques and
cacique of the community of the justice of the Cuban cause. But many others were not
convinced and the threats of death continued, as did the warnings to Cristina by friends to
desist in her mission and leave the area. It was then
that, at the invitation of the caciques,
Cristina decided to hold her ceremony, inviting all caciques and main leaders, where she
would decipher the wishes of the ancients through her trance.
On the night of May 13, 1895, by the light
of an open fire, the ceremony is conducted. An
eyewitness, Dr. Luis Morlote, noted her words, which are cited by historian Sanchez
Guerra: "Listen," she said in her trance to the assembled chiefs. It was the voice of an
ancient cacique speaking:
"In the great timepiece of the universe, it is signaled that the
hour of Cuban national independence is at hand. Only a few leagues from here one of the
most famous generals of the liberation war is encamped, the great Antonio Maceo. I am
him, and since you are with me, I request that, fortified by the memory of the
persecutions felt by our victimized race, instead of continuing to war against him, you
join his forces, brave and decided, to struggle for the redemption of Cuba, your
because the hour is near and it is necessary that Cuba be free."
The caciques retired to the mountain for an all night meeting with their people. Cristina
waited in a local bohio, fearing the worst, perhaps even execution, if
the Yateras Indians
decided against her intent. The knock came at daybreak. The caciques were ready with an
answer: their contingents lined up before Cristina, armed and ready to join the revolution.
Within forty eight hours, they were at
the camp of Antonio Maceo, some taking part
immediately in the Battle of El Jobito on May 15th and constituting a remarkable
addition to the Liberation Army until 1898, when the war ended. Both Cristina Perez and
her husband Ramon Ramirez
received the rank of captain. In a letter dated July 21, 1895,
Jose Maceo writes to insurrectionist junta treasurer, Benjamin Guerra, in New York, that
the Indians of Yateras have passed into the insurrectionist ranks.
Sao del Indio
Naturally, the Yateras combatants would be incorporated into a Regimiento Hatuey,
claiming the name of the first rebel Taino cacique in Cuba, who was executed by the
Spanish in 1513. The name had yet to be formalized as a regiment,
under the command of the Dominican rebel officer, Dionicio Gil, and with the young
Lieutenant Silverio Guerra incorporated into its ranks, the group fought in the important
battle of Sao del Indio, August 31, 1895. The Indian
group from Yateras mountains, the
Ramirez and Rojas clans, as well as other descendant families, marched with the Pineda
Regiment, later the Hatuey, under which command it entered that pivotal conflict of the
early war that became known as
the Battle of Sao del Indio.
The Indian Regiment was one of several dozen to fight under Jose's illustrious warrior
brother, Antonio Maceo, the loved "Bronze Titan" of the Cuban forces. General Antonio,
whose army numbered some six
hundred armed men at that time, was in operations near
Santiago de Cuba in late August, 1895, when he received word that some twelve hundred
Spanish troops with two pieces of artillery had his brother, General Jose and thirty men,
near Guantanamo. Antonio ordered a forty-mile overnight march through the
mountains and arrived early next morning as the Spanish began their attack.
The Battle of Sao del Indio lasted thirty six hours. The Cuban troops, fighting on empty
stomachs and after the grueling sleepless overnight trek, charged on horseback with
swinging machetes against Spanish cannon and infantry. Two long Spanish cannons took
their toll with twenty-three well-placed shots. Antonio Maceo ordered
and the emerging Hatuey Regiment to take the Spanish artillery, which they did with a
machete charge that drove off the battery crews. Padron Valdes, 217: "The Hatuey
regiment attacked from the right flank ... composed
in its majority by the aboriginal
guerrillas of Yateras, who with their arms had crossed over to our side ..."
Numbering about one hundred men at this time, the Hatuey regiment tied ropes to the
cannons, attempting to pull them out
in the heavy mud. It proved an impossible task and
the regiment was pinned down while defending the artillery pieces most of the day. . It
suffered heavy losses. "These guerrillas behaved heroically in their debut as patriots ...
the cannon crews and took the cannon, but could not move them from
their place, which gave the Spanish troops time to reinforce the area . . . [the]
reinforcements decimated the Hatuey regiment . . . until el General Jose could see what
going on and ordered help by forcing that enemy flank to retreat to its center ..."
(Padron Valdes, 218). The battle produced 327 Spanish dead and some forty Cuban
Survivors of the Battle of Sao del Indio, such as Lieutenant Silverio
Guerra, born in
Yateras, and others from the Hatuey regiment, continued to serve in the insurrectionist
armies to the end of the war against Spain. Along with the engagement at Peralejo, the
Battle of Sao del Indio was pivotal in the early
building of confidence and discipline of
the forces that would spearhead General Maceo's grand campaign west to Habana over
the next year.
While a few of the Yateras combatants went west with Maceo's historic campaign, the
of the Hatuey Regiment, under the direct comand of Silverio Guerra, sustained
operations in the Guantanamo-Santiago de Cuba zone. Guerra had been selected for the
western "invasion" by Maceo, but a serious battle wound in the Battle of Los Platanos
(November, 1895), incapacitated him and he was in recovery as Maceo's army got on its
Nevertheless, Silverio Guerra's service with the Indo-Cuban contingents of the Hatuey
Regiment continued throughout the Liberation War.
"The Colonel of the Mountains," as
he is known in his region of Guantanamo, and the Hatuey Regiment, participated in
several other major assignments and battles to the end of the war in 1898. In March,
1896, the Hatuey regiment saved a crucial
shipment of three thousand rifles that had
landed on the coast to Spanish pursuit. In May, they defeated the forces of the dreaded
Spanish commander Garrido. In July, they were at the side of General Jose Maceo as he
was shot off his horse
and killed in Loma del Gato. In October, in the Battle of Revancha
de Romelie, the regiment, with their revered midwife Capitana Cristina fighting in the
ranks, defeated a Spanish Volunteers Troop.
The United States entered the war
in 1898 and with the defeat of Spain only months later,
the Liberation Army was confined to quarters near Guantanamo. It was not allowed to
march into Santiago after the Spanish surrender. This undignified treatment from the
command created much resentment. Months passed before the Cuban
Army of Liberation was allowed to enter the city. Along with the rest of the Liberation
Army, the Hatuey Regiment was disbanded in 1899.
The Yateras Indian community
has been documented by professor Manuel Rivero de la
Calle (Havana) and others. There are other, less studied, enclaves of native population
throughout eastern Cuba. In addition, the guajiro folk culture of Camagiiey and Oriente
is deeply steeped in Taino traditions and culture.
Among the Taino descendents met by Rivero de la Calle in his earliest expeditions in
1964 was the elder Ladislao Rojas, known by his Indian relatives in the Guantanamo
of Caridad de los Indios as "Cacique Ladislao." Cacique Ladislao,
photographed in 1964 at ninety-two years old and a grandfather of the present cacique,
Francisco (Panchito) Ramirez, was a veteran of the War of Independence. Ladislao
in Carlos Roloff's registry of veterans from that war.
The history, culture and identity of Indo-Cuban ancestry is certainly alive in the eastern
mountains of Cuba. Erudites that casually use the word "extinction" when referring to our
Taino heritage should reconsider their incorrect denials of the Indian presence within the
Cuban nation. As Marti wrote: "They should quiet, and learn."
1 Abelardo Padron Valdes, "El General Jose, Apuntes Biograficos,"
Editorial de Arte y
Literatura, Instituto Cubano del Libro, La Habana, 1973, Pp. 217-218
2 Manuel Rivero de la Calle,"Supervivencia de descendientes de Indoamericanos en la
Zona de Yateras, Oriente," Cuba Arqueologica, Editorial Oriente,
Santiago de Cuba,
1978. Rivero amply documents the long-standing existence of the aboriginal population
of the Yateras mountains.
3 Juan J.E. Casasus, "La Invasion: Estudio Critico-Militar, Academia de la Historia y
de la Republica, La Habana, 1950. "En el 'Alto palmarito,' en un
encuentro con los indios de Yateras . . . perece . . . Flor Crombet. . . . Su matador, el indio
Rojas de 17 anos, a los pocos dias se incorpora al Ejercito Libertador." P. 48-49
4 Jose Marti, Diario de Campana, en "Marti En Los Campos de Cuba Libre," por Rafael
Lubian y Arias, 1982
5 Jose Miro Argenter, "Cronicas de la Guerra," Instituto del Libro de la Habana, 1945,
1970. "A Crombet lo mataron los
indios de Yateras, mientras defendia el campamento de
Jose Maceo." P. 33.
6 Jose Sanchez Guerra, "La Capitana del Regimiento Hatuey," El Mar Y La Montana,
revista de Guantanamo, October 30, 1998, Pp. 48-53. In this excellent piece of
research, the official historian of Guantanamo details the story of Cristina Perez.
7 L.Primelles La revolucion del '95, segun la correspondencia de la delegacion cubana en
Nueva York, (Biblioteca Historica Cubana",)
Tomo I, Editorial Habanera, La Habana
8 Bartolome de las Casas, Brevisima Relacion de la Destruction de las Indias. Fray las
Casas recounts the heroics and execution of Hatuey, who became a major hero in Cuban
history and whose legend
sustains in a live spiritual tradition for people in the
southeastern region of Cuba.
9 Major General Carlos Roloff Mialofsky, Indice Alfabetico y Definiciones del Ejercito
Libertador de Cuba, Datos compilados y ordenados por el Inspector
General del Ejercito
Libertador.Habana, Imprenta de Rambla y Bouza, 1901, lists a total of 81 Rojas and
Ramirez that appear in the Hatuey Regiment, Pp. 74 .
10 Padron Valdes, Pp. 217-218
1 1 Leopoldo Horrego Estuch, "Maceo:
Heroe y Caracter," La Milagrosa Imprenta, La
habana, 1952, P. 212
12 Manuel Rivero de la Calle, " Los Indios Cubanos de Yateras," Cuba Arqueologica,
Santiago de Cuba, 1978