The Taíno Indians, where are they today?
After reading a book titled Mi Pueblo Taíno, (My Taíno People), by Rafael González Muñiz, my mind was filled with curiosity. In a very inspirational yet factual way the author shares with his readers a glimpse into the Taíno culture: what they were like, their historical background as well as sharing with us some details about the extensive preservation work of the Taíno culture being done in his native Puerto Rico.
Mi Pueblo Taíno is more than an introduction to the Taíno tribes that once inhabited the Greater Antilles in the Caribbean. This is not a history book trying to teach its reader about one of the so called lost tribes of the new world. Nor is it a complicated and scholarly written anthropology tome trying to present factual information in a scholarly dry monotone. González Muñiz’s book is an invitation to get to know one of the most intriguing and neglected indigenous groups of people that inhabited the island of Boriquén.
But who were these people? How come most Puerto Ricans often pride themselves in tracing their lineage back to them? And why does their culture permeates every corner of the island of Boriquén to this day?
As a visitor to this fascinating island I can’t help but wonder: where are the Taíno Indians? Were they really exterminated by the European Conquistadors? Why do Puerto Ricans talk about them as if they were still alive? As I traveled throughout the island, I can see traces of native features amongst the general population, but finding someone who fully personifies the Taíno physical traits is hard. Puerto Rico has been a melting pot of cultures before the term melting pot even existed: from Europe to the Middle East and from Asia to the Americas, all ethnic groups across the world have left bits and pieces of their cultural makeup in this bright Caribbean island. Still, I hear the stories again and again as I travel across the island about someone’s aunt or uncle or grandfather or brother who are proof, if proof were needed, that the Taínos still live in Boriquén to this day.
Mi Pueblo Taíno aroused in me an intriguing interest in finding out more about the Taíno tribes of Puerto Rico. This book, less than 200 pages long and which can be read in one day, grabs the reader’s attention through its subtlety and poetry. Once I finished the book I was yearning to go visit what González Muñiz and many other historians consider the most important ceremonial site for Taínos in the island, Parque Ceremonial Indígena de Caguana (Caguana Indigenous Ceremonial Park). This site was discovered around 1915 and many archeologists believe it to be of foremost importance for the Taíno culture just prior to the arrivals of the Europeans. I wanted to walk were the Taínos had walked and see the place where they gathered. I wanted to connect with them by standing where they once stood.
However, I must remind myself not be deceived by the looks of the rich and vast diversity of ethnic features found throughout the peoples of Boriquén. To this day there is still much controversy about the legitimacy of Taíno ethnicity among new generations. Scholars and archeologists argue about the degree and validity of Puerto Rican ancestry traced back to the Taínos. Some say that Taínos in Puerto Rico were totally exterminated by the Spaniards. Others argue that a small number of Taínos fled the island by boat, while others secluded themselves as far away from their oppressors and hid in caves while continuing their cultural traditions.
While there is not enough scientific evidence of what really happened to the Taínos in the Greater Antilles, one has to simply ask a local from the island whether he thinks Taíno Indians are extinct. Most would argue that they’re still alive, and that many of them intermarried other races and Puerto Rican ethnicity is a product of that blending.
Now, I have traveled throughout the island of Boriquén on a number of occasions and have a fairly good understanding of Puerto Rican culture. Still, I have to say that visiting Caguana for the first time helped me experience Puerto Rican culture in new and refreshing ways. This trip gave me an invaluable experience worth sharing with others.
Parque Ceremonial Indígena de Caguana is located in one of my new favorite places in the island and, in my opinion, one of the most beautiful towns in Puerto Rico with the most breath-taking views: Utuado. Utuado is located almost in the center of the island, neighboring some of the highest peaks in Puerto Rico. Driving up to Utuado is quite an experience and one that any avid traveler must experience, but it may not be for the faint of heart.
Driving at 5 miles per hour through winding, single-lane roads and having your ears stuffed up because of the high elevation may make some folks want to turn back around in a heartbeat. But, once you find yourself immersed in the beauty of the mountainous region and see the splendors of the cloud covered mountain tops, anyone will quickly forget about the zigzagging roads. Words are not enough to describe this blissful experience. So much so that, upon returning from my trip from Utuado late that night and attempting to settle down and go to bed, my mind remained wired, savoring and re-experiencing every moment, every vista and every event, that I was hard pressed to fall asleep that night.
I visited every site whose pictures I had seen on Mi Pueblo Taíno. The beautiful ceiba trees, which I often read about in every book on Taíno indigenous tribes, were bigger than what I had read or seen before.
Anyone wanting to learn more about Taíno culture and its indigenous tribes should make the Caguana Indigenous Ceremonial Park a must-see. This is certainly the place where any researcher interested in Taíno archeology and culture should begin his or her research journey.
Soon enough, always too soon it seems, my trip to Puerto Rico came to an end. As I sat there on the plane and looked out the window I watched as the island kept getting smaller and smaller. I was in a pensive mood, evaluating, analyzing and meditating on all the wonderful experiences I had during this go around. And of course my visit to Caguana was at the top of that list. I was captivated by the Taíno culture and how much of their legacy continues to play an active, vital role in almost every aspect of Puerto Rican society to this day.
In my opinion, even though Taínos as an ethnic group do not exist today their legacy and culture remain very much alive to this day. My observations, as someone who’s not only an admirer of this great culture but who considers herself an active advocate and supporter for the preservation of our indigenous tribes, that how a person perceives himself in terms of a member of a cultural society is what counts. Most Puerto Ricans see themselves as direct descendants of their Taíno ancestors; regardless of what anyone might argue or what science is able to prove or disapprove.
Rafael González Muñiz in his book Mi Pueblo Taíno, shares a thoughtful and provoking poem from Salvador Brau. I feel this poem elegantly demonstrates why the spirit of the Taínos remains alive to this day.
“Vencido por la fuerza, es verdad;
pero, al caer vencido en la arena
del combate el boriquense conquistó
un derecho a la inmortalidad histórica.
Como aquel pueblo cayó no caen los cobardes.”
“Conquered by force, that is the truth;
but by falling down in the sands of combat
the Boriquenses conquered the right to historical immortality.
Even as these people fell to their conquerors
they never did so as cowards.”
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