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March 14, 2013

Hemispheric Journal: Boriken Trails

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Prize-winning potter Alice Chéverez creates ceramics inspired by much older Taíno vessels. Her mother reconstructed Taíno pottery-making techniques in consultation with archaeologists working in the caves near her family's house. Morovis, Puerto Rico, 2013. Photo by Roger Hernandez.  

“The clay calls me,” said Alice Chéverez, a Boriken Indian woman of the Barahona Valley, in the mountains of Morovis, Puerto Rico. “El barro me llama.” 

Alice was just finishing a clay pot she had fashioned during forty minutes of conversation. We were taping with Alice on the Taíno pot-making techniques her mother, along with a Puerto Rican artist, reconstructed in the early 1970s. Alice allowed that it was not easy to get good at the craft. As a young girl, she watched her mother’s pottery-making, learned the full craft, and has never left it. Alice—of classic Taíno physique and facial features—smiles sweetly. “I have walked away from it twice,” she elaborated as a rooster pecked at the ground underfoot. “But always after a few days, I want to feel the clay between my fingers.”

We had driven more than three hours out of Mayagüez to visit her family. Puerto Rico around San Juan is heavily urbanized, but go east or west out of the capital, up the mountains to the central and even some coastal regions, and you can still meet families of distinguishable indigenous legacy and lineage. The Chéverez are a large, extended Indo-Boriken family still living in these precious mountains. Their place has the feel of the old campesino (jibaro) homestead—hanging hammock, animals walking loose, barefoot children playing. Alice’s parents and earlier generations held rich—not ancient, but natural growth—forest. A portion that the family guards to the present day has been designated as the Cabachuelas Natural Reserve.

Alice let us know that her mother, before she passed away, was the heart and center of a very large group of people. “Around here, she was mother chicken. When she worked her pottery, everyone worked on something around her. If she got up to go into the field, everybody followed—the little kids, even the men. Everybody wanted to be with her.”

Alice’s mother, Doña Varin, was the matriarch of the large extended family for several decades. Of the Chéverez, Alice said: “We are not that many, but we are not a few either.”

The family is reminiscent of large multifamily, Indo-Cuban homestead caserios found in the Cuban mountains. More than a single nuclear family at the end of a long and winding road of verdant hills, the Chéverez are a multifamily lineage. Mapping with Alice her family’s extensions, we could count ten families with several children each just among her siblings, while the extended genealogies of a large chain of uncles and aunts and their children’s families through three living generations took our quick kinship count to some two hundred people. “And there are others,” Alice shook her fingers. I encouraged Alice and the family to develop a count of their relations. 

That day, our last full one on the island, we would walk a long way up the hills behind their homestead, to enter huge caves that featured pictographs and petroglyphs drawn and sculpted by Taíno ancestors. 

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Top: Juan Manuel Delgado, guide Felix Chéverez, and Jose Barreiro at the Cabachuelas Natural Reserve. In the mountains near Morovis, Puerto Rico, 2013. Photo by Ranald Woodaman.
Above l
eft: Entrance to one of several large caves at Cabachuelas. Right: Faces in the stone—Taíno cave pictography. Photos by Roger Hernandez.

I was in Puerto Rico with Ranald Woodaman, director of exhibitions and public programs of the Smithsonian Latino Center. Our visit to the Chéverez family and their mountaintop grounds came at the end of a week of much motoring to public encounters and think-tank discussions at universities; visits with the Taíno movement community folks; and visits to numerous scholars, museum exhibitions and collections, and ceremonial plazas. 

Boriken is often used, particularly among Boricuas, as the more autochthonous name for Puerto Rico—the name of local origin. Boriken is the Taíno term heard by Spaniards at conquest. It describes this island’s branch of what is known in archaeology and in the contemporary legacy movement as the Taíno people of the Antilles.

We were there to begin discussions on themes and conceptual frameworks of our Smithsonian Grand Challenges project, Consciousness of Taíno: Indigeneity in the Caribbean. This interdisciplinary research initiative explores the popular and artistic rejection of the notion of “extinction” when describing the fate of the indigenous peoples in the Caribbean islands. It seeks to better understand the survivance of actual practice and the continuity of indigeneity among, with, and in the people and general geography of the region.

There is a Taíno revival and a great continuing interest in things indigenous in Puerto Rico. The revival is as intense as it is contested, but nevertheless real and extensive. Major historians and archaeologists sustain vigorous research agendas, pushing the edges of knowledge and interpretation of a substantial and growing wealth of Taíno cultural and archival material. We were fortunate to meet with a few from this distinguished circle during our recent journey through the island. 

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Upper: Jose at Caguana Ceremonial Park. Lower: The main plaza at Caguana. Utado, Puerto Rico, 2013. Photos by Ranald Woodaman. 
The Indigenous Ceremonial Center at Caguana, in the mountains between Lares and Utuado, bespeaks the sacredness of landscape. Featuring major ceremonial plazas—rectangular, well defined—it was a place where caciques (chiefstains) gathered to lead and attend the traditional Areito dance recitals and the formal ball game, called batey. At this most elaborate of the many Taíno plazas found in the Utuado region, one can read the visages of several important deities of the Taíno cosmology in the standing stone slabs that enclose the main plaza. I had to pause at the pictograph of what we identify today as Madre de Aguas—and through the treasure of Ramon Pané’s early Taíno ethnography, as Atabey or Atabeira. I have seen this persistent image and what it represents throughout the Greater Antilles. As ancient mother of the Taíno Great Spirit, this Taíno grandmother is symbolic of and foundational to the Consciousness of Taíno project.

Dr. Osvaldo Garcia-Goyco, a fine teacher on the subject of Caguana, enriched our visit with deep knowledge of the plazas, his archaeo-astronomical explorations, and the history of the 1400-year-old site, construction of which began with the pre-Taínos (AD 600) and climaxed with the Taíno (AD 1200–1500)  Garcia-Goyco has introduced into our project a fascinating discussion on the Taíno “phosphenes,” a sacred iconography emerging from the “flight of the shamans” trance of the cohoba ceremony. Highly prevalent from a grouping of some 17 iconographic phosphenes is the concentric circle called ojo capá, Taíno’s most important symbol, also identified as the cosmic fecund uterus among Amazonian shamans. This concentric symbol is nearly always found with Atabey and is prevalent in the Caribbean indigenous psycho-spiritual artistic tradition.

According to García-Goyco's theory, the mountain that dominates the sacred landscape of this enchanted place, which takes the exact shape of a gigantic three-pointed cemí, recalls the site of the cave where, according to Pané’s translator and chronicler Pedro Martir de Angleria, the Taíno believed they where born; the sacred region of Caunana might be a corruption of Caguana or Caguama, which means turtle in Arawakan Taino language. Mainland Arawaks tend to search for replicas of their sacred landscapes every place where they migrate, so there might be other sacred caves and mountains reminiscent of the cosmic cave/womb of origins in each of the Greater Antilles.

With Garcia-Goyco, we also visited the exhibition Los Huecoides en Punta Candelero at the Museum and Center for Humanistic Studies Dra. Josefina Camacho de la Nuez, 
University of Turabo. Dr. Carmen T. Ruiz de Fischler, director of the museum, which is an affiliate of the Smithsonian, hosted us graciously throughout a tour of the state-of-the-art cultural center. Dr. Ruiz was particularly enthused to show us their clear and object-rich exhibition on the relatively new findings—made during the last three decades—of Puerto Rican archaeology on the eastern coast of the island.

More and more the ancient Caribbean appears as the point of the migrational thrust of indigenous peoples in the Americas. A very early migration from the Mesoamerican coast of present-day Belize is now accepted. The much-recognized main population migrations—from Amazonian origins through the Orinoco Valley to navigate the island chain northeast and west from Trinidad to Cuba—are most studied as developmental of Taíno. Now an additional, limited, but early incursion has increasingly revealed itself in excavations on the island of Vieques and at nearby coastal sites. This one is most intriguing, pointing a trail to the Andean region with its effigy carvings of condors and jaguar incisors originating in the South American cordillera.

Dubbed the Huecoids by archaeology, American indigenous people lived on the site for approximately 800 years, from 250 BC to AD 600. The fine exhibition at the Museum and Center for Humanistic Studies, designed by Edna Isabel Acosta, features some 300 objects, including fine pottery and the increasingly noted condors from the Punta Candelero excavations by Turabo University. A long incisor tooth, believed to be from a jaguar, is presently being tested. There is intense anticipation to learn the results.

We stopped to see Professor Yvonne Narganes, among other colleagues, archaeologist and curator at the Museum of the University of Puerto Rico (UPR), Río Piedras, who showed us many valuable ceramic, shell, and stone pieces from the collection she curates—among these several condor heads, some in jade, from the Huecoid site in Vieques. Research by Professor Narganes and Dr. Luis Chanlatte-Baik, as well as the work of Turabo University Professor Miguel Rodriguez on the related site at Punta Candelero, has signaled a new migratory trail to the Antilles. First found on Vieques Island, then at Punta Candelero, then at sites on other islands, the new work traces—via its intercrossed incised pottery designs and the enigmatic condor heads—what appears as a new migratory pattern to the eastern slope of the Peruvian Andes. There is a suggested connection to Chavín, one of the ancient mother cultures of the Andean civilization.

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Boriken 15 Boriken 16Top: At the Center of Archaeological Investigation, University of Puerto Rico–Rio Piedras, Prof. Yvonne Narganes explains ceramics styles to Jose Barreiro and Ranald Woodaman. Above left: Prof. Narganes holds a griddle, or burén, from a Saladoid village on the island of Vieques. The griddle, which is 2,000 years old, has the abstract design of a frog on it. It was used to cook a very fine type of cassava bread, or casabe, reserved for the elite. Right: One of several enigmatic amulets from Vieques Island identified as representing an Andean condor. Photos by Ranald Woodaman. 

The claim is not without controversy. At least through its Vieques phase, Yale’s Irving Rouse, a definitive voice in Caribbean archaeology, judged it to be only an early version of the Saladoid culture. Still, as several similar sites have emerged, Puerto Rican archaeologists have strengthened their argument. The suggestion that the condor effigies are actually representations of the Caribbean vulture (zopilote rey), thus not Andean, has also been well refuted: The Huecoid effigy condors feature the fleshy caruncle between forehead and beak that characterizes the Andean condor. Some of these hold a human head in their claws, another Andean linkage.

However archaeology ultimately resolves the issue, certainly it is most intriguing to think that in the Caribbean would converge the three main regional civilizational currents of indigenous Latin America: Mesoamerican, Amazonian, and now Andean. 

Two public forums brought up a host of questions, issues, and perspectives.

In Old San Juan, at the Center for Advanced Studies of Puerto Rico and the Caribbean (CEAPRC), we shared a podium with Dr. Jalil Sued-Badillo, a well-respected historian and fine detective of things Taíno. Sued-Badillo’s most recent book, Agüeybaná the Brave,—a biography of the heroic early Taíno cacique—is in a long line of his finely researched and elegantly written histories.

Dr. Sued-Badillo reflected at the well-attended forum on the currents of indigenous thinking and themes in Puerto Rican history and contemporary culture. Like many scholars, Sued-Badillo has noted the evolution and growth of Taíno identity movements in the Caribbean and particularly among Puerto Rican people, both in the diaspora and the islands. “One has to grow with all this new effervescence, which is a deep search for being Boricua,” he pointed out. “We have to understand what it means.” At times Sued-Badillo has expressed the opinion that there has been no Taíno biological continuity, while exploring widely cultural and ideological survivals. He allows that since new genetic studies have indicated a high percentage of Taíno mitochondrial DNA (mDNA)—inherited from the mother—for the island population, he has reconsidered this opinion.

Sued-Badillo points out the strength of the symbology of Taíno for a people in search of their heroic past, of the sense of having been an important people, which allows the possibility that “we will be so again.”

“Our nostalgia for indigenousness becomes a political agenda. And we have a right to do this,” he asserted. “Peoples have a right to reconstruct, and the Taíno is an important cultural element for Puerto Ricans, here and even more in the U.S.”

After listing a range of cultural survivals of the Taíno ancestors in language, food, agriculture, medicines, and architecture—“numerous elements to maintain alive our memory”—Sued-Badillo, at his lecture as in previous interviews, lands on the “ideologically vibrant connectivity” of this past with the present. “We do this as the Greeks of today and the Romans of today hark back to the ancestral strengths of the Greeks and Romans of antiquity. . . . They may be completely different people, but ideological constructions are always built on the past. All peoples do this. It should not surprise us from among our own people.”

We could only agree with his admonition to the young people in the Taíno movement to read and study, to visit the ceremonial sites and the museum collections, to learn from the orality of older folks. “Before you reinvent, see the reality you come from.”

Sued-Badillo’s refreshing and stimulating attitude well reflected the projections of our own initiative and set up our presentation on the Indigenous Legacies of the Caribbean project. We touched on ethnographic approaches to documenting indigeneity in Cuba and announced our encompassing and comprehensive—wide circle—approach to the subject of indigeneity in the Caribbean. A strong discussion with many questions followed. As happens most often, we noted in the standing-room only crowd a very Native-looking group, including two young families with children and several older folks, all from the Taíno movement. Inarunikia Pastrana, a very active elder, was with the group. They felt welcomed, they said, greeting the NMAI project as well.

A second public forum at the University of Puerto Rico’s Mayagüez campus gathered other scholarly minds on related subjects. Dr. Juan Manuel Delgado spoke on his research since the 1970s documenting Boriken indigenous orality among Puerto Rican jibaro populations of the central mountains. Delgado himself is a mountain of information on Puerto Rican history; his work on continuities of Boriken indio-identity and knowledge enclaves into the 20th century is fascinating. Juan Manuel burrows deeply into contact and colonial times.

Dr. Juan Carlos Martinez Cruzado is the increasingly notable UPR–Mayagüez geneticist who in searching the Antillian genome surprised himself and many more—though not all—by finding more than 61 percent Caribbean indigenous (Taíno) mDNA in the general Puerto Rican population. Dr. Martinez has conducted ongoing work in the Dominican Republic and stimulated similar research in Cuba. He explained his field to an audience of young biologists and social science faculty and students. For Dr. Martinez, of course, the findings of his highly regarded scientific research address principally the question of origins, following genetic trails in the migrations and deployment of populations throughout the Caribbean region.

Martinez’s work always links in my mind to the cemí of Atabey—the psycho-spiritual story that signals the cosmological message in the genetic trail of our peoples. His research anchors the discussion of Caribbean indigeneity with the weighty structure of a hardened science, supported as it is by the numbers, of the early and somehow lasting indigenous linkage woven throughout mestizaje. The high Taíno presence in the mDNA—the matrilineality—of the island’s population points to an extensive, early mix of peoples. Iberian and African men married indigenous women in large numbers—recalling, again, the Taíno grandmother, imprint of our most encompassing, foundational culture.

Some misinterpret Martinez’s very clear scientific interpretations, hearing in all genetic work some kind of fantastical quality to determine “race” and derived concepts. One such concept is the exalting of a Puerto Rican raza unica, a dangerous, slippery slope into outright racism, voiced recently in the Puerto Rican media by a politician who could use a good speech editor.

At the Mayagüez podium Dr. Isar P. Godreau brought this example forward, among others, encouraging our research project to sustain encompassing yet discerning lines of inquiry on confusions inherent in the topic. Dr. Godreau wondered about the impact of the Taíno revival movement on the image and standing of Afro–Puerto Ricans. She gave several examples of how the Afro–Puerto Rican image is denigrated in Education Department texts and readers. In some of these, the Indian image (following the Spanish image) was positioned more positively or prominently than the Africano. These curriculum representations clearly require analysis and challenge.

Dr. Godreau pointed out the danger of lining up any kind of hierarchy of “races.” This is important most of all, as evidenced in the political rhetoric that misconstrued genetics (DNA) to be synonymous with race and antiquated racial essentialism. The “unique race” touted by the politician who misunderstood genetic science needs always be confronted.

All these good questions by Dr. Godreau enrich the thinking on Consciousness of Taíno: Caribbean Indigeneity. She reminded us to sustain our emphasis on the history shared by indigenous and Afro–Caribbean communities throughout the Americas in response to colonization. 

As in San Juan, the audience in Mayagüez included several Taíno people. An Indian woman and her son represented a Taíno presence. She spoke well about her strong sense of her Boriken Indian heritage and her pride. As it became more possible, she said, she opted to wear more Native symbols and motifs in her clothing and hair. She spoke of her African ancestry as well, but it is incorporated into her Indianness: “It is as an Indian that I carry myself.”

An artist, also Taíno, had driven hours to get to the forum. He showed us several well-labored stone and shell pieces. When I inquired after a particular wooden maraca (rattle), however, he said, “I could not sell that one. It’s private.” When I admired it some more, he whispered modestly, “Lo siento, but I need that for my prayers.”

Thinking later on the trip’s many commentaries, I recalled someone’s citation of Roland Barthes, on how “ethnicity should focus on the ethnic boundary which defines the group—not the cultural stuff that it encloses.” The point was that ethnic or indigenous identities “are forged in a context of conflict and power struggle with other groups.”

True enough, I thought. Being or signaling the “other” no doubt partly defines a Native identity. But it’s not the whole story. There is also the “inside”—cultural, eco-systemic, spiritual, familial—that defines identity and drives a lot of behavioral aptitude (and attitude).

I was taken with the young artist at Mayagüez, who drove half the country to show his wares, then could not bring himself to sell something because it had private use.

“The clay calls me,” said Alice Chéverez. No matter that her pottery was revitalized by her mother and a trained culture teacher. After centuries, still, the internal connectivity. “The clay in my hands, it calls to me.”

Her young nephew, Felix, was our guide that day deep into the mountain, in and out of several large caves, deep and somber. He took us to the “cave of the twins,” proudly pointing out various ancient carvings and drawings and grimacing at a couple of graffiti words, dated in the 1970s.

Quiet, relatively shy, still the young man expressed a connection of respect with place: “Nobody is ever sorry to have come here.” 

 —Jose Barreiro

Jose Barreiro (Taíno) is head of the Office of Latin America within the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian.


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That art looks so interesting! It's cool to see the real thing, rather than a re-vamped modern imitation. Both are great, but there's always something better about an original.

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