Native Heritage in Puerto Rico


Puerto Rico’s history always starts with Christopher Columbus’ invasion and colonization of Puerto Rico in 1493. History books treat Puerto Rico as if it did not exist prior to 1493, as if the island was some kind of phantom that magically manifested itself in 1493 without a history. In reality, Puerto Rico (or Borikén as it was called by the Natives) already had a civilization living within its islands for hundreds of years before Columbus’ arrival in 1493. Some posit that millions of Natives lived within the islands when Columbus arrived.

Puerto Rico’s history has been the history of cultural encounters. The Spanish weren’t the only people to settle Puerto Rico after its invasion. French, German, Italian, Jewish, Chinese and Irish last names are all common last names around Puerto Rico today. However, we are taught that our racial heritage emanates from three different ethnicities. The Native Puerto Rican is a mixture of African, Spanish and Taíno as the late anthropologist and Harvard graduate Dr. Ricardo Alegría declared.

A popular story in Puerto Rico is that Columbus asked these Natives who they were, and they answered “Taíno”, which meant “good people” in their language. These Natives had their own sacred ceremonies and religion. They fished with nets, they played sports, they practiced agriculture and they practiced animal husbandry. However, before the Taíno, Puerto Rico was already inhabited for thousands of years. In fact, the Taíno, like we Puerto Ricans, were the result of multiple different cultures from South America meeting and intermixing within the islands throughout the centuries. The Arcaicos were the first, before meeting and intermixing with the Ortoroids, Guanahabateys, Huecoides, Ostionoides, and Saladoids. This lead Rivera, a researcher from the UPR, to conclude that a “Taíno culture does not exist.” Instead Rivera argues that what Columbus found was an intermixing of different indigenous cultures in our archipielago. [1]

Ethnicity Estimate

Eduardo Sinigalia Sierra, a friend and graduate student from the University of Puerto Rico, Río Piedras, had this to say: “these are contemporary problems within archaeology, that question of [cultural] mixing continues to be unsure. […] it is undeniable that there are still people with indigenous DNA, but the problem of calling the group Taíno, is also a problem, they were many people who coexisted within the archipelago, for centuries.”

While at the University of Puerto Rico, Mayagüez (UPRM), I’ve met some prominent academics from Political Sciences and English Education, who, despite their liberal leanings, always scoffed at the idea of Taíno heritage being present within Puerto Ricans. They say things like, “No, our cultural inheritance comes from Africa, the Taíno don’t exist anymore.”

So, despite being “eradicated” over 500 years ago, some Puerto Ricans in the archipelago still have the blood of the Natives flowing within them. Today, we can find people who look like Taínos, en el campo. Why? Well, the Spanish raped the Native women, and made them their slaves. These mestizo children survived the harsh conditions of slavery.

In time, many Taíno women married conquistadors, combining the genes of the New World and Old World to create a new mestizo population, which took on Creole characteristics with the arrival of African slaves in the 16th century. By 1514, barely two decades after first contact, an official survey showed that 40 percent of Spanish men had taken Indian wives. The unofficial number is undoubtedly higher.

Poole, Robert M. “What Happened to the Taíno?” Smithsonian Magazine, October 2011.

Historians have conjectured that these Spanish slavers did not report Natives as their property to avoid paying taxes and to avoid any legal problems from Spain’s government. They effectively created false and incomplete censuses that reported the Natives as being exterminated. There’s been a systematic campaign to claim the Native’s extermination since the Spanish first arrived in the Caribbean, and it’s still in effect today.

Other Natives and mestizos fled into the wilderness, settling in places like Utuado, Jayuya, Maricao and La Mona. To add to this, Fray Iñigo Abbad, reported that Native communities existed undisturbed within San German’s mountains back in 1780. However, it also seems probable that by the late eighteenth century, these communities had been shaped and further enriched by the Africans who escaped the plantation.

Through Sinigalia’s recommendation, Irving Rouse’s notions of cultural history can help us decide whether Puerto Rico’s Natives have survived. Biologically it has become undeniable that some Puerto Ricans today possess indigenous DNA, my DNA test proved this. Linguistically the Natives’ language survives in fragments, through the names of the islands and towns throughout the Caribbean. Many of their words were adapted into Spanish, and these words were adapted into English as well.  Some examples are hamaka (hammock), kaniba (cannibal), iwana (iguana), kanowa (canoe), tabako, amongst others. Culturally, their petroglyphs are still around throughout the archipelago (even though we do not understand their symbolic meanings) and we can say with sincerity that we inherited the game of baseball from the Caribbean’s Natives’, who called it batey. [2]

I think that without even mentioning linguistic and cultural components, through biology, we can declare without a doubt that the Natives have survived. Which begs the question, why aren’t we taught our entire history? What about the other immigrants? Why and when did they start moving to Puerto Rico?

First of all, if Puerto Ricans realized that we share a common ancestry with Cuba and Venezuela, the United States’ power and influence over the Caribbean would suffer. Second, possessing knowledge of our heritage gives us a sacred sense of ownership over our land. Puerto Ricans would grow to love their land, and they would refuse to sell, or even allow others to desecrate it. Third, it would connect our people to other Native cultures across America. Puerto Ricans would be increasingly sympathetic to Native Americans causes, such as Standing Rock and protecting the Amazon, especially since the Arawaks who settled in Puerto Rico came from the Amazon.

We owe a lot to the Caribbean’s Natives. Through this reflective process I felt myself falling in love with my country. Feeling that despite our size, our contributions to the world have been pretty damn significant. Now, I want other Puerto Ricans to feel the same way. I want them to realize what their lives are missing, a deeper connection with the land that has granted them their lives. It is time we start educating people with Puerto Rico’s real history. Now, more than ever, we need a generation of people who truly love their motherland, understanding that they have been living here for a very long time.

Knowing who we are gives us power.

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