Native Heritage in Puerto Rico

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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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Reaction to Cheers’ “Strange Bedfellows” (1982)

“You have to make some choices, some commitments, it’s called growing up” (“Strange Bedfellows: Part 3”).

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I like watching Cheers because it reflects how I see my life. I identify myself with Sam, even though we are almost complete opposites. I’m not a retired relief pitcher for the Boston Red Sox, nor do I run a bar in the city. I’m a teacher that plays music in his spare time, and don’t care much for sports. However, Sam has qualities that identify him with every man. He is an exaggerated example of our cultural masculinity, he shows us how good-looking and successful men would behave during the eighties, and men still behave like this today.

Sam is promiscuous as hell. He hits on every pretty thing with two legs. He doesn’t care about their personalities or their smarts, at least, until he meets Diane. I also identify with Diane, she is a neurotic and brilliant university graduate, who doesn’t know what she’s doing half of the time. Sam hires Diane as his new bartender at Cheers despite her complete lack of experience. He hires Diane because he thinks she is physically attracted to him, and hopes to sleep with her. Sam has slept with many of his former employees, and always ends up breaking their hearts.

So, despite being polar “opposites,” with different perspective on relationships, Sam and Diane fall in love with each other. They engage in a classic “on-again and off-again” relationship. The whole “will they or won’t they” trope. Diane criticizes Sam’s exaggerated masculinity and Sam criticizes Diane’s romanticism. When they finally kindle their relationship, it falls apart, and sparks back when Cheers “jumps the shark”; Sam and Diane have a near-death experience in a small airplane. Their airplane pilot leaves the cockpit for shits and giggles, and pretends to be dead, leaving Sam and Diane to panic by struggling to fly the airplane. After this, Sam and Diane reflect on their lives, by thinking about the experiences they never had before dying. Sam tells Diane that one of his major regrets was never getting to marry her.

This declaration culminates in a passionate conversation between Sam and Diane, which is not consummated when Diane blows Sam’s advances off. She blows him off because she believes that a “night of passion” would ruin any chances of them developing a serious relationship. She doesn’t seem to remember that their romantic relationship developed after their first night of passion. This is Diane’s mistake, which I believe many women repeat in today’s society and culture. Women believe that men like Sam, who sleep around will only break their hearts. Reality is different, many guys are like Sam, they just want to have sex, but that doesn’t mean they are incapable of creating a relationship out of sex. Sleeping with a person helps us develop deeper relationships with them, to spend time together in bed. Your partner might not turn out to be the “love of your life”, or even suitable for a long-term relationship, but you learn from them. Nights of passion are good.

So, Sam decides to start sleeping with other women, and Diane gets upset at him. Their feelings cause them to compete with each other by dating other people. Diane, a former psychiatric patient, becomes more neurotic than usual and starts to spy and ambush Sam. Even Woody, who is not the sharpest tool in the shed, observes how Diane’s behavior is crazy (11:42). Sam settles for an intelligent and good-looking congresswoman named Janet. Their relationship makes Sam change and behave like a different person (15:37). At a press conference, Sam starts talking about politics, which he is clueless about, instead of talking about baseball. Diane’s neurotic behavior culminates when she fires a water gun at Sam, disrupting the press conference. Janet breaks up with Sam because she recognizes that he still loves Diane. She’s the one who tells Sam that he needs to grow up.

So, Sam decides to propose to Diane in a romantic evening in a sailboat under the stars. After everything that has happened, after leading Sam on about wanting to get married, Diane rejects Sam’s proposal. “What if getting married was a knee-jerk reaction to losing her [Janet]?” (“The Proposal” 13:41). So, Sam dumps Diane in the ocean and abandons her in middle of the ocean. We can argue that this event seals their relationship’s fate. Diane’s neuroticism and overthinking and Sam’s promiscuity has cost them their future together.

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So, why did I write about Cheers? I like Cheers because it acts as a surrogate for our own experiences. It helps us reflect on our own lives. It helps us experience this fleeting relationship between Sam and Diane as our own. It spoke volumes to me. When I heard Janet’s words to Sam, “you need to grow up” it was sacred to me. It was a message that arrived just as I was struggling thinking about my own future. There comes a time when we need to choose, when we need to commit to something. Our lives are not infinite, and if we fail to commit, we might end up like Sam. Happy on the outside, yet empty and alone inside. Failing to leave a lasting legacy in our world.