Hemispheric Journal:

Jose Barreiro

In Cuba Profunda …“the Prayer Takes”

Camagüey, Cuba. 

          Some of the new cultural and intellectual empowerment in Cuba is going to the offices of the City Historians. Topics heretofore difficult to introduce now find their way to public discourse. Beyond socialist realism, a real and often inspired intellectual sector seeks multi-faceted realities.

          Cuba is rapidly changing, trending to a privatization from below as central state planning continues on the big frame. Small business is coming up with a vengeance – food and lodging, transport and other opportunities to work tourism directly are flourishing. Bed-and-Breakfast establishments have spawned by the thousands and everywhere new paladares (private restaurants), road cafeterias, even fine restaurants are runnoing well, and are, uncharacteristically, well-stocked. Diasporic intra-family investment is at an all time high and migratory law on both sides, Cuban and American, is increasingly relaxed. Lands granted in usufructory for private farms make small agricultural production a growing sector. A new futuristic genie is wrestling out of the bag; in small enterprise, the efficiency of private ownership over state-run “businesses” is obvious to everyone; for young, smart people, internet is seeping in, inexorably. A well-educated population, economically in the mud, begins to occupy public space as the revolutionary old guard inexorably releases its reins.

          In Camagüey, one of the seven founding “villas” of Cuba, and third largest city, the Office of the City Historian hosted an important forum that re-enlivened a new-old topic: Cuba’s aboriginal culture(s), particularly Taino, and its imprint in contemporary Cuban society. The event, III Jornada de la Diversidad Cultural para el Diálogo y el Desarrollo, took place from May 21-25.


          Camagüey is cross-roads to the Old Oriente region – as Cuban scholar, Dr. Jesus Guanche, called it, “Cuba Profunda.” Camagüey -- old Taino cacicazgo, later region in rebellion, then province and city, land of “tinajones,” or large ceramic pots to bank against intermittent rains, land of cattle and cane, guayaba orchards and big wheels of white cheese -- is a human product of sustained early mestizaje and much diversity. The region Camagüey-Oriente is birthplace of a “guajiro” identity, one that in its “profundidad,” forms and informs Cuban indigeneity through the generations.


          I was invited to present on my ethnographic work for twenty years with the Cuban community of Caridad de los Indios. This is a community of Indo-cuban families, the Rojas and Ramirez clan or “gens” centri-localized at La Rancheria, in Manuel Tames Municipality, Guantanamo Province.  The clearly defined kinship group is matrix of a kin-based lineage counting some 1600 people who generally respond to the moral authority of the Cacique of the Mountain, don Francisco (Panchito) Ramirez.


          Panchito, whose leadership by lineage and by community acclamation, is exemplary, is also a treasure of oral history and personal wisdom based on a true guajiro-campesino mountain philosophy. Not only is his community’s documentary history very strong, his personal charisma and elocution have established him, late in life, as a unique Indo-Cuban legacy linkage.


          With Alejandro Hartmann, City Historian of Baracoa and a research partner in our Caribbean Indigenous Legacies Project, we have documented various enclaves of Cuban indigeneity in parts of the Oriente, including Baracoa, Caridad de los Indios, Jiguaní, El Caney, Holguin, Niquero and Camagüey. This work has perhaps been more tolerated than formally permitted, yet it has been respected enough so that over two persistent decades of travel and journeys in the region, a bond of collegiality with important cultural and intellectual sources has built into a well-accepted current of research into the indigenous factor in Cuban life and culture.


          Responding in part to Hartmann’s challenge, we took the Camagüey invitation as a grand opportunity to gather and expand the scholarly circle from Cuba participating in our multi-disciplinary project. That a conference on Cuban cultural diversity would specifically focus Cuba’s “persistent aboriginal legacy” is rare. In decades past, the topic was considered too potentially divisive and the discussion of a surviving indigeneity was considered akin to “fantasy,” if not “politically capricious.” Now, formally sponsored by a City Historian Office, the opportunity for frank public dialogue on the question, in the Taino home region, was possible.


          Since 1995, our work with Panchito’s people has assisted elements of community development as well as the production of articles, books and documentaries on its history and cultural persistence. The scholarship into the Indians of Caridad de los Indios is becoming more substantial. It is not the only place in Cuba where a strong indigeneity shines through, but it is the most clearly traced Indo-cuban presence in the literature. In fact, the community’s consistent documentation and unbroken continuance of Native socio-cultural and eco-systemic identification necessarily defies the long-articulated notion of Cuban historicity that the Indo-cuban people and culture disappeared in the 16th Century.


          A good range of regional and local scholars presented on related topics. In his keynote during our session, Dr. Guanche – a high-ranking member of the Cuban Academy of Science -- reviewed the general elements of recognized Cuban indigenous origin in contemporary Cuban culture. Many currents of Cuban domestic culture, the oral culture of the guajiro families of the countryside, the sustainers of basic eco-systemic practices, come via that early formation by Taino knowledge. Dr. Guanche emphasized that the “accelerated diminishment” of the aboriginal people “did not necessarily imply the extinguishment of their cultural heritage nor its descendency.” In the same vein, the distinguished historian advocated doing away with the notion of a “pre-history.”  Cuban history, he elucidated, is “continuous over more than seven thousand years.”

          The sessions in Camagüey brought forth a strong spectrum of indigeneity. Much of the public, regardless of individual identifications, resonated with the postulation proposed by the NMAI study that rather than ascribing a so-called “racial purity” definition to the Indio legacy we would seek as well the “indigeneity quotient” of activity, attitude, agricultural practice and spiritual expression. The discussion emphasized the indigenous inheritance as both cultural and genetic with particular interest in the human-land nexus and practical eco-systemic knowledge as primary repository of “saberes,” much of which is still to be gathered.

          A paper from the city research group at Jiguani, presented by historian Hugo Armas, surprised the audience with its assertion of substantial indigenous identity still pronounced in the Jiguaní jurisdiction, strong over generations. Jiguaní is a town east of Camagüey.  “It is visible in the arts, in the ceremonies around the “Danza del Cordon,” and other practices, reported the historian. The Town of Jiguaní was registered as a well-populated “pueblo de indios” in the early 18th Century and sustained as an Indian jurisdiction into the 19th Century (1701-1818).  Founded by the leadership of Indian cacique Miguel Rodriguez, Jiguaní gathered Indian families from Caneyes Arriba, Caneyes Debajo, Guaisabana, Ovejas and the Comarca of Bayamo. By 1720, the community boasted more than fifty extended Indian families and could field 300 men under arms. Long after losing its legal jurisdiction in 1818, public papers refer to it as an “Indian community.” After loss of legal jurisdiction, many Indo-cuban families remained in the municipality and these are noted for the continuing production of casaba, basketry, pottery and other indigenous knowledge-based activity. As in Baracoa and other towns with notable Indo-cuban history, a growing base of artists identified with aboriginal cultural themes is reported.

          A session on culinary legacies presented sound papers on the persistent practice of casabe production and consumption in the region of Camagüey and old Oriente, these days represented in six provinces (Camagüey, Las Tunas, Granma, Holguín, Santiago de Cuba, Guantanamo). The old Taino breadstuff, made from yucca (manioc) powder, has notable production and dissemination in Camagüey and the region. Other food topics included the special fishing and culinary practice around the “days of tetí” in Baracoa, on the Oriente coast, on several “full moons” per year, as well as the many uses of guayaba and maize, peppers, peanut varieties and pineapple, all Taino-derived foods. Armas’ photographic portraits of Indio families of Jiguani, as in other old enclaves of indo-cuban survivals, reveal a strong inheritance of Indian physical features, often clearly blended with Hispanic and African lines. These are places continuingly forceful in kinship identity and family tradition as “Indio.”

          Surprising to most Cubans, as earlier genetic studies surprised most Puerto Ricans, the general Cuban population shows an unexpectedly high Taino MtDNA -- 33 percent. [1]  This evidences an intense period of early mestizaje by Taino women, which, we posited, played and early and lasting hand in forming and informing Cuban foundational culture. This biological inheritance is equally incorporated by phenotypes commonly identified as either “blanco” (white) or “negro” (black). The blended reality of a transcultured society evidences an indigeneity of transcending motion, not exclusionary, but offering a unifying rather than a divisive social perception.


          In Havana, I had stopped to see the preeminent Cuban linguist, Dr. Sergio Valdes Bernal. Bernal is conducting a thorough survey of all Cuban place names, to determine the Taino (insular Arawak) prevalence in the geographical memory. Linguistic studies show a quite high incorporation of Taino terms into Cuban Spanish.  The toponimy, starting with the country’s name, Cuba, a Taino term meaning “well-planted land,” appears substantial -- between 20 and 29 percent so far in four eastern provinces -- counting thousands of terms. In Cuban Spanish generally, Bernal identifies nearly 400 tainisms in common use. “This much language transfer speaks to a long period of cultural adaptation,” he says. The Taino words in our spoken language, the linguist has noted, tend to reinforce “our cubanía,” or sense of Cubanness (nationalism).

Archeological sites are tending to show a longer period of Taino-Spanish-African cohabitation. Arguably, the intense Cuban transculturation for the foundational first three centuries of the country’s modern existence threaded indigenous mestizaje into the base Cuban culture, particularly in the six provinces of the Oriente region.

Among the conference’s several strong presentations on Caribbean indigenous legacies in this region of Cuba, one seemed to have been waiting for just this kind of public opening. Amparo Fernandez, Catholic Church archivist, researching in the parish’s matrimony records through the 18th and 19th Century, presented history-challenging findings of numerous Indian individuals and families married into white and free black families, as late as the 1880s, again, nearly 300 years after their supposed extinction.  “Upon marriage,” reported the respected Catholic researcher, “the Indian identity passed into becoming either “blanco” or “negro” or “pardo,” as the identity of “Indio” was purposely absorbed. Again, the Taino ancestry is seen to be not only genetically blended by both Iberian and Africans, but also legally disjointed of indigenousness by the white-black binary imposed in Spanish colonial law.

A half-dozen artists and art scholars reviewed the impressive and growing trend in Taino contemporary art. Several cities and styles were presented, from fine leather sculpture to quality work in carving, paint, sculpture and other arts. Interestingly affirming, a group presentation by the documentation group, Kaweiro (Taino for “changeling”) provided a view of not only development of ready-for-use curriculum materials – in demand by Cuban teachers -- but also a declared youth movement in “search for a new conception of ethical existence on the land.” The growing and influential group’s discussion is based on principles derived from, centrally, the Cuban and international Indigenous discourse. Interestingly, the Camagüey public responded strongly to these new conceptions of indigenous topicality, particularly as they encompassed familiar practices, carried through the generations even if not often identified by their indigeneity.  

          My own review of work with Cacique Panchito Ramirez and his elders at Caridad de los Indios, and also among the guajiro families of Camagüey, focused on natural world healing ceremonies and on the range of fabulousness in story narrative still shared with youngsters. We have reported elsewhere on don Panchito’s comprehensive and sui generis orality.[2] There is much uniqueness to the culture of La Rancheria, although to the inexperienced eye it may be indistinguishable from the generalized “guajiro” lifestyle. However, close examination reveals rich indigeneity. Not only belief and practice but also attitude signals this context of being. One notable attitude is deep and abiding respect for the elders of the extended clan.  Another one is a resonant sense of inherent belonging. Race (or skin hue), along with remembered lineage, is often noted, but is not a determinant or an element of exclusivity. Another important shared attitude is a humble respect and appreciation for “la naturaleza.”  But probably the most unique characteristic of Panchito’s community is the commonality of ritual and practice of a special or central prayer, they call, “la Oracion del Tabaco,” or “The Prayer of the Tobacco.” 

          Old Panchito, his son Inoel, daughter Idalis and granddaughter, Mariulkis, joined us in Camagüey, happily supplanting the need for us to present too much about their community, and so introduce them to speak for themselves. The direct word of Panchito, his mastery of ceremony and expression, the easy active support of his family, evidenced a high degree of unique cultural knowledge to the Camagüey public.

          While at the conference, Panchito was sought after by a caserio (homestead) of his mountain people, now settled in northern Camagüey. Motoring there for a day, we take his group to the rendezvous with the long-distanced relatives, nearly sixty cousins, nephews and nieces not visited for nearly 20 years. The  moving reunion is noted and documented by the young Mariulkis, who has been assigned the task of community historian by the cacique.

          One early morning at the Camagüey conference, Panchito agrees to put through a “tobacco prayer” for participants.  A large circle forms. He squares away in the patio of the fine old building, finds the four directions and faces east to the source of daybreak. Lighting his cigar, he calls to the elements as daughter Idalis blows a hoarse whistle to the winds. Panchito’s prayer and message is to elevate a thanksgiving to the seven major elements of the world, the cosmic family (The Four Directions, Mother Earth, Father Sun, Mother or Grandmother Moon; the Faces of the Stars) plus Wind and Water. From the first time I heard him intone this ceremonial oration, I was impressed by its message and how much it corresponds with other Native cultures of the hemisphere. This old acknowledgement, clearly of his own community tradition, is reminiscent of a range of deities within Afro-Cuban Santeria called The Seven Potencies. However, in Santeria, these don’t refer to the natural powers mentioned by Panchito.

Panchito’s is a long prayer. In the wake of fifty years of socialist revolution and global conflict, it offers people from this embattled island an appreciable commonality. Everyone smokes the rolled tobacco. Of whatever blended origins, the obvious and modest sincerity of Panchito’s prayer transcends. Tears of belonging flow down several faces. His words are deeply accepted, as enveloped in the smoke of the cigar, a sense of cubanía permeates. “La oración prende,” Panchito whispers to me. The prayer takes.


--  Jose Barreiro


[1]  “Genetic origin, admixture, and asymmetry in maternal and paternal human lineages in Cuba,” Isabel Mendizabal, Karla Sandoval, Gemma Berniell-Lee, Francesc Calafell, Antonio Salas, Antonio Martínez-Fuentes and David Comas, BMC Evolutionary Biology 2008, 8:213doi:10.1186/1471-2148-8-213

[2] Jose Barreiro, “Panchito: Cacique de Montaña,” Ediciones Catedral, Santiago de Cuba, 2001.