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Taíno leader Francisco "Panchito" Ramírez Rojas offers a prayer to the sea near Baracoa on Cuba's eastern coast. (Maggie Steber)

What Became of the Taíno?

The Indians who greeted Columbus were long believed to have died out. But a journalist's search for their descendants turned up surprising results

“My father used to tell us we were descendants of the Indians,” said Meregilda Tholia Johelin.

“My ancestors were Indio,” said Rosa Arredondo Vasquez.

“My grandmother said we came from the Indians,” said Gabriela Javier Alvarez, who appeared with an aluminum guayo, Taíno for the grating boards once fashioned from rough stone and used for shredding yuca roots.

Jurda Arcacio Peguero wandered by, eavesdropped for a moment, then dashed next door to fetch a batea, Taíno for a long wooden tray for fruits or vegetables. “It’s an old one,” she said, handing over an object fragrant of garlic and worn buttery smooth from use.

The villagers did not call themselves Indian or Taíno, but they knew how Indian traditions had shaped life in the community. Most had kept a long silence about their indigenous heritage for fear of being ridiculed: Indians were country people—uneducated campesinos stereotyped as gullible or backward. The bigotry has softened somewhat, but nobody wants to be considered a rube.

It was late in the day when we said our farewells and turned for the capital, back down a rutted road through lumpy green hills. “I’m sorry we couldn’t find an Indian for you,” Abréu said, sensing my disappointment. Brooding in the passenger seat, I wondered if the prevailing academic wisdom might be true—that the Taíno had been extinct as a distinct people for half a millennium, existing at best as hybrids in fragments of their old homeland. Did any pure Taíno survive?

That question was the wrong one to ask. It took a nudge from Jorge Estevez, a self-described Taíno from New York City, to remind me that notions of racial purity went out the window with Adolf Hitler and the eugenics movement. “These concepts are really outdated,” said Estevez, who coordinates educational workshops at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in New York. “There’s no such thing as a pure Taíno,” he continued, “just like there are no pure Spaniards. It’s not even clear about the ethnicity of Christopher Columbus! The guys who came with him were mixed with Moors, with Sephardic Jews, with Basques—a great mixture that was going on. That story continues.”

Even the Taíno evolved as a distinct people only after centuries of traveling and merging with other populations in the Antilles. “So when people ask if I am pure Taíno, I say ‘yes,’” said Estevez, who traces his roots to the Dominican Republic and has the shovel incisors to prove it. “My ancestors were from a plethora of different tribes. They mixed with a lot of others to become Taíno. What you have to look at is how the culture persists and how it is being transmitted.”

Estevez, a former pugilist who retains a boxer’s brawn and grace, unzipped a black suitcase and began unpacking objects to bolster his argument for the survival of a Taíno culture: a feather-light makuto, a basket woven from palm fronds; ladles, cups, plates and a musical instrument known as a guiro, all made from gourds; a wooden batea for carrying produce, like the one I had seen in the Dominican Republic a few days before. These were not dusty artifacts from a museum but utensils made recently by Antillean villagers who still use them and call them by their Taíno names. “My mother knew how to weave these things,” he said, holding up the makuto. “We also made casabe.” As he got older, Estevez steadily collected Indian lore and objects from a network of uncles and aunts in the islands, adding new evidence to his suitcase every year. “All my life I’ve been on this journey looking for all these Taíno things to see how much survival is there,” he said.

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