FICTION AS HISTORY IN
TAÍNO, BY JAIME MARTÍNEZ TOLENTINO
By: Jaime Martínez-Tolentino
The Spanish Chroniclers in Mexico.
When the Spanish reached the New World, they began chronicling everything they saw and did, and everything that happened. They continued writing their “chronicles of the Indies” until about the 18th century when they substituted the name with that of “history”.
As they sacked the treasures of the New World and made devastating war upon the natives inhabiting those lands, they began exaggerating, and in some cases falsifying, reports about the riches of the land and their own deeds of bravery, thus hoping to reap further rewards from the Spanish Crown and to enhance their standing in History. Such was the case with Hernán Cortés, the conqueror of Mexico, who not only skimmed the King’s Fifth, but also exaggerated his own, and some of his friends’, deeds in his five letters, or Cartas de relación, written to the Spanish king from about 1520 to 1525.
The Conquistadors also entered into internal rivalries, and, of course, in their chronicles they diminished or downright smeared the reputations of their rivals. One good example of this is Bernal Díaz del Castillo’s Historia verdadera de la conquista de la Nueva España [English: The True History of the Conquest of New Spain], begun in 1568 and never published during his lifetime. In it, he claims to have participated in 119 battles leading up to the fall of the Aztec Empire. He also openly calls Cortés a liar, declaring that much of what “the Conqueror of Mexico” wrote in his Cartas de relación was untrue.
Thus, from their very beginnings, the Spanish chronicles of Indies were not completely truthful. In fact, they contained quite a bit of “fiction”; that is, material invented by the chroniclers. Furthermore, those chronicles told the story of the clash of two civilizations, i.e., the European and the Indo-American, from just one point of view: that of the Europeans and, more specifically, that of the Spanish.
The Advantage of a Written Language.
Some of the indigenous peoples that the Spanish conquered in the New World, the Aztecs and the Maya, in Mexico, as well as the Inca in Peru, also possessed a writing system which allowed them to record the same events as the Spaniards, but from their own point of view. Although in Mexico many of the Codices and Indian histories were destroyed by the Spaniards, quite a few of them survived to our day.
In the first chapter of his 1993 novel The Orange Tree, in a section titled “The Two Shores” (page 42), the great Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes points out the great advantage of language itself. Referring to the mighty Mayan civilization which flourished until the 800 A.D.’s, Fuentes states that “Power fell. The land remained. […] Words remained.” I would have preferred for Fuentes to have concluded that quote with the phrase “The written word remained.” We shall see why shortly.
The “Vision of the Vanquished” in Mexico.
Until about the 1950’s, the history of the conquest and colonization of the New World best known all over the planet was the “Spanish version”; that is, the history written by the Spanish chroniclers. However, during that decade, a new historical movement arose, mostly in Mexico, and that movement proposed making available to the general public the “other version” of Mexican colonial history, what the “New Historians” called “the vision of the vanquished.” That term was, precisely, the one chosen by the famous Mexican archeologist and historian Miguel León-Portilla for his well-known 1959 work Visión de los vencidos: Relaciones indígenas de la conquista (translated into English by Lysander Kemp, and published in 1962 as The Broken
Spears: the Aztec Account of the Conquest of Mexico). For the present study, we have relied, preferably, on another, more inclusive edition which has still not been translated into English: León-Portilla, Miguel, ed. Visión de los vencidos: Relaciones indígenas de la conquista. 29a ed. Biblioteca del Estudiante Universitario 81, México, D.F., UNAM, 2008.
In his famous work, León-Portilla tries to counter the “official histories” of colonial Mexico written by Spanish chroniclers such as Fray Bernardo de Sahagún, Fray Diego de Durán, Pedro Mártir de Anglería, Antonio de Herrera and, of course, Hernán Cortés himself, by presenting documents written in Náhuatl, Maya, Spanish and even pictographs. He asks:
¿Qué pensaron los hombres del Nuevo mundo, en particular los mesoamericanos,
nahuas, mayas y otros al ver llegar a sus costas y pueblos a los “descubridores y conquistadores”? ¿Cuáles fueron sus primeras actitudes? ¿Qué sentido dieron a su lucha? ¿Cómo valoraron su propia derrota? (León portilla, p. xi)
What did the people of the New World, particularly the Meso-Americans, Nahuas, Mayans and others, think upon seeing the arrival on their coasts and towns of the “discoverers and conquerors”? What first positions did they take? What sense did they give to their struggle? How did they perceive their own defeat? [Translated by Jaime Martínez Tolentino]
Still, that “vision of the vanquished” remained, largely, only part of the intellectual baggage possessed by Mexican historians, scholars and literati who, consequently, developed even greater pride in their indigenous roots. Unfortunately, the majority of the Mexican population continued believing the Spanish version of the country’s colonial history and feeling little pride in their indigenous heritage.
History and Literature.
An alternative to popularizing the “vision of the vanquished” and, at the same time, making Mexicans prouder of their Indian heritage, was through literature. Mexican writers of fiction had, of course, written about the country’s colonial past before, they had included Indian characters in their works, and they had been partial to “the Indian point of view,” in poems, stories and novels dating back, particularly, to the 19th century. However, for different reasons, they had achieved little success.
After all, traditionally, “history” has been equated with “facts” or “the truth,” while “fiction” has always been identified with “that which is invented,” or even, “lies.” So, why was the general Mexican public expected to accept “fiction” over “history”?
The Orange Tree.
Such was the state of affairs until 1993 when the great Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes published his novel El naranjo [The Orange Tree]. Banking on his own talent, his knowledge of, and his pride in, his Mexican roots, and, of course, his world-wide fame, Fuentes was certain that he could achieve what other Mexican writers of fiction had not been able to. And, he proved to be right! The Orange Tree is not only one of the greatest Spanish-language novels of the 20th century; it totally turned the tables on the general notion of history, while, at the same time, it finally demythified the generally-held idea about the Spanish conquest of his homeland.
Just to give an idea about the author’s audacity, I shall mention that in the first section of the novel, titled “Las dos orillas” [The Two Shores] Fuentes presents Gerónino de Aguilar and Gonzalo Guerrero, two Spanish soldiers who, while heading back to Spain with the booty they have sacked from Panama, are shipwrecked an wind up swimming to the coasts of Yucatán, Mexico. There, Guerrero marries a Mayan woman, he has three children with her, he tattoos his whole body with Indian markings, and he becomes a Mayan warlord. Aguilar also adapts to his new surroundings, but everything takes a drastic turn when, suddenly, Cortés arrives on the beach. He has come from Cuba to attempt the conquest of the Aztecs, an illegal undertaking since he does not have permission from Governor Narváez in Cuba.
Cortés allows Guerrero to remain among the Maya, but he forces Aguilar to “dress like a Spaniard” and he makes him follow him towards Tenochtitlán as his interpreter. Along the way, Cortés comes across a beautiful Indian maiden who becomes both his lover and another one of his interpreters. Her Spanish name is Doña Marina, but because of her betrayal to her indigenous brethren, History would rather remember her by her nickname: La Malinche.
In the taking and destruction of the Aztec empire, poor Aguilar witnesses countless atrocities, and he finally realizes that Cortés no longer really needs him as an interpreter because La Malinche has learned Spanish. Therefore, in a blind fury, Aguilar comes up with a fiendishly original plan: with the aid of his friend Guerrero, he shall begin planning the Indian invasion of Spain!
Finally, after witnessing treachery of all sorts, cruelty beyond belief, and just how easily Cortés lies to the Aztecs. Aguilar dies. However, his friend Guerrero continues with the plan that the two of them hatched. Thus, the country that invaded the Caribbean and then Mexico, is itself invaded by:
An army of two thousand Maya which sailed from the Bay of the Bad
Fight on Yucatán, joined by squadrons of Carib sailors recruited and
trained by Guerrero in Cuba, Borinquén [sic.], Caicos and Great Abaco
[…] (The Orange Tree, p. 45).
In “The Two Shores,” the Indian “armada” destroys Seville, Cádiz and many other Spanish cities, they burn several Inquisitors at the stake, they revoke the edict expelling the Moors and the Jews from Spain, and, after several attacks upon the nuns in various Spanish monasteries, they help create a racially and ethnically diverse Spain, with White Christian, Moorish, Jewish and Latin American Indian roots. How about that for a good fictionalization of history?
Fiction as History.
But Fuentes doesn’t just spin a great yarn, create a “good read,” as they would say in popular literature. In “The Two Shores” he justifies the fictionalization of history, illustrating what he justifies through two questions: “What would have happened if what did happen didn’t?” and “What would have happened if what did not happen did?” (The Orange Tree, p. 47). Fuentes also ponders, philosophically: “I wonder if an event that isn’t narrated takes place in reality. Because what isn’t invented is only chronicled” (The Orange Tree, p. 48 – underlining mine).
The Spanish Chronicles in Puerto Rico.
Of course, the Spanish reached the Caribbean in 1492, before they reached Mexico. The very first organized civilization they encountered were the Taínos, Arawak Indians who had fled from the Orinoco River delta in modern-day Venezuela, had island-hopped northwards along the Lesser Antilles, and, by the arrival of the Spanish, they had settled on the islands of Puerto Rico and La Española, as well as on the eastern part of Cuba.
Since my novel is about the taínos of Puerto Rico only, I shall limit what follows to Puerto Rican history.
As in the case of Mexico, as soon as they began the conquest and colonization of Boriquén (the Taíno name for modern-day Puerto Rico), in 1508, the Spaniards began writing their chronicles which, also as in the case of Mexico, they continued doing until the 18th century.
In those chronicles, the Spaniards wrote about their use of Taínos in the building of towns, houses, roads and churches, as well as in panning the island’s rivers for gold; about using Indian labor in some of the first sugar cane plantations in the New World; and about the occasional conflict with the natives, leading up to the 1511 Spanish-Taíno War.
The Lack of a Written Taíno Language.
Some pages back, I stated that some of the indigenous peoples that the Spanish conquered in the New World, such as the Aztecs, the Maya, and the Inca, had a writing system which allowed them to prepare their own chronicles from their own points of view. Unfortunately for Puerto Ricans, Dominicans and some Cubans, as well as for all historians, the Taínos possessed no writing system at all. When we considered the Aztecs, the Maya and the Inca, we stated that their use of the written word lent their history immanence. However, as we begin to study the Taínos, we realize, at once, that the lack of such a writing system did not bode well for their historical legacy. That is, that if, for the Aztecs, the Maya and the Incas, the possession of a written language guaranteed that their history would survive well past the Spanish conquest and colonization, for the Taínos, their lack of a written language would virtually assure a disappearance of their historical annals.
What the Taínos did have, just as other peoples of the New World had, was a rich oral history, transmitted by the bohique (a combination priest, medicine man and tribal historian) and recited to the whole tribe on special occasions. The Taínos also had a long tradition of carving figures, not pictographs, into wood, shells, bones, ceramic and stone. Of these carvings, only those etched into the harder materials would survive; therefore, the only Taíno engravings that still exist today are those in stone, along with some shards of pottery.
The figures depicted in Taíno carvings are fairly simple: men, women, spiders, the Sun, representations of some gods and goddesses, and geometrical shapes.
In their haste to catechize the Indians and move on to lands possessing greater riches, the Spanish friars did not bother to teach the Taínos how to write in Spanish, and they themselves did not really pay much attention to the stories the Taínos told them. Very few friars bothered to learn Taíno at all, and others got most Indian names and words wrong. In short, they met those Indians, were momentarily interested in them, and then just forgot about them altogether. It’s a wonder that those chroniclers recorded anything about the Taínos at all. Still, through their indifference, they sentenced the Taíno language and culture to virtual oblivion. There would be no easily-achieved reconstruction of a Taíno version of “the vision of the vanquished” from written documents.
The Taíno Population of Puerto Rico Dwindles.
In time, the back-breaking work involved in panning the rivers for gold, the exhausting labor on the sugar cane plantations, the illnesses brought to the New World by the Europeans, and warfare with the Spanish drastically reduced the already small Taíno population of Boriquén.
After the 1511 Spanish-Taíno War, some Taínos joined their former enemies, the Caribs, in forays against the Spaniards along the coasts of the island, but the Spanish sent out warships and quickly put an end to the attacks. When that effort failed, a great many Taínos decided to abandon their home island forever, thus becoming the first, in a long line of many, Puerto Ricans to be forced into exile. The tradition they began continues to this day.
So as to avoid being forced to work on the prospering sugar cane plantations, the few Taínos who remained in their country abandoned their coastal towns, if they lived near the sea, knowing full-well that all the sugar cane plantations were located on the coasts, the only area of the island with any extension of flat lands. They moved, or rather, took refuge, well inland, in cold, remote and inhospitable territory not sought out either by the Spaniards, or their Puerto Rican descendants, the criollos. Thus, sprang up the Indieras (Indian villages) of Maricao: Indiera Alta, Indiera Baja and Indiera Fría. The action of the Taínos was similar to that which, years later, would be taken by the remnants of the old Inca empire when they built their remote mountain fortress of Machu Pichu.
So few Taínos remained, in fact, in Puerto Rico by the end of the 16th century, that the island’s governor, Juan de Melgarejo, in a report to the Spanish Crown dated 1582, declares: “En el día de hoy no hay de los naturales ninguno [… ] los que hay no están en pueblo formado” (Fernández Méndez, p. 80.) [English translation: “Today, there are no Indians left [… ] those still here are not grouped into a community.”]
Melgarejo, of course, was wrong, since there were full-blooded Taínos living in the Indieras of Maricao at the time. Fray Iñigo Abad y Lasierra was also wrong when he observed that, towards the beginning of the 18th century, those Indians began racially mixing “con españoles y negros, viniendo cuasi por este medio a extinguirse la casta de los indios de esta isla” (Fernández Méndez, p. 81.) [English translation: “with Spaniards and Blacks, thus almost becoming extinct the Indian race on this island.”] The fact is that, according to the 1777 census, there were 1,765 full-blooded Taínos left in Puerto Rico, and ten years later, the census of 1787 reported 2,312 left. Either the Taíno population of Puerto Rico grew between 1777 and 1787, or the census takers did not do a terribly efficient job in one, or both, of the censuses. Nevertheless, 2,312 Taínos out of an estimated population in the millions when the Spanish arrived is still a very low number. However, it does prove that the Taínos were not extinct by 1787.
However, by the end of the 18th century, so few full-blooded Taínos remained on the island, that the Spanish authorities decided not to take them into account in later
censuses. In time, those last Taínos mixed racially with Spaniards, creoles, runaway slaves, free Blacks and mixed-bloods, to the point that it was generally accepted that, as a full-blooded, pure, ethnic group, the Taínos had disappeared by the end of the 18th century.
General Public Knowledge of Taíno Culture in Puerto Rico Until the 1950’s.
During the 19th century, as well as during much of the 20th, the general Puerto public neither knew anything at all about their indigenous ancestors, or just plain didn’t care. Until the middle of the 20th century, the only history of the Taínos most Puerto Ricans knew was “the official version”; that is, the one written from Spanish sources such as Fray Ramón Pané, Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo, Juan de Melgarejo and Iñigo Abad y Lasierra, among others. While it is true that later Puerto Rican historians, such as Salvador Brau, would attempt to correct, and even reinterpret, those chronicles, a feat such as that carried out in Mexico by Miguel León-Portilla was totally out of the question.
Then, in the mid-1950’s, there was a veritable awakening of the island’s racial and ethnic conscience. Possibly inspired by the Civil Rights Movement in the United States, Puerto Ricans began organizing arts and crafts fairs, as well as dance and art exhibitions, all centered on the country’s African roots. At the same time, books about “Black Puerto Rico” began appearing. It was not difficult for the general population to accept that “Black is Beautiful,” since many Puerto Ricans are, themselves, Blacks or Mulattoes, or have relatives and friends who are. Besides, our food, our language, and, most definitely, our music, all have a strong “Afro-Cuban” flavor.
But, what about our other ancestors, the Taínos, those who never had a chance to show us what their culture was like, and who were never able to tell their story in their own words? When was their culture going to be recovered and finally recognized as an integral part of the Puerto Rican heritage?
Undoubtedly, in the earlier years of the 20th century, historians such as Salvador Brau had not ceased to study and write about the island’s history, with special emphasis on the Taínos. However, for whatever reasons, few people knew the work of those historians.
Ricardo Alegría and Puerto Rican Archeology.
Then, in the mid-1950’s, one man almost singe-handedly changed all that. In 1955, Dr. Ricardo Alegría, a Puerto Rican archeologist with a Ph.D. from Harvard, helped found and direct a brand new government agency called the Instituto de Cultura Puertorriqueña [In English: Institute of Puerto Rican Culture], a sort of Ministry of Culture, whose official seal, designed by the Puerto Rican artist Lorenzo Homar in 1956, is, quite appropriately, from left to right, a Taíno cacique (chief) holding a cemí sculpture in his hands, a 16th century Spaniard holding a Spanish grammar in his, and a Black man, apparently a former slave, sustaining an African drum and a machete, all of them enclosed within a circle. In the drawing, fruits and vegetables brought to the island appear close to the ethnic figure responsible for importing them. The name of the Instituto de Cultura Puertorriqueña is part of the circle enclosing the seal.
Influenced, no doubt, by Latin America’s “New Historians,” Alegría immediately set about establishing artisans’ fairs throughout the island, promoting the publication of volumes of poetry, essay and fiction by new Puerto Rican authors, and, above all, establishing a program of archeological excavations in Puerto Rico. He brought in experts from some of the most prestigious institutions in the world, and under his tutelage, hundreds of Puerto Rican students received hands-on training in archeology. Today, thanks to this great Puerto Rican intellectual, the island’s population can view and enjoy the splendid “Taíno Ceremonial Park of Caguanas,” in Utuado; the “Taíno Ceremonial Center of Tibes,” in the Ponce region; the beautiful “Carved Rocks of Jayuya,” and other monuments of our Taíno archeological heritage. In more recent times, Dr. Alegría founded and directed the Centro de Estudios Avanzados de Puerto Rico y el Caribe (Center for Advanced Studies on Puerto Rico and the Caribbean) to insure that, at least the archeological and historical part of his efforts, would continue.
The “New Historians” in Puerto Rico.
Perhaps even more important is the fact that, probably driven by Alegría’s work and findings, in the 1960’s an entire host of Puerto Rican historians delved into Puerto Rican, Latin American and Spanish archives until they were able to reconstruct, to a great extent, the real history of our Taínos. Of course, they at once made the results of their careful and conscientious research available to the general public in excellent publications. Both the research and the publications of those, and other, historians have continued to this day.
Among those Puerto Rican historians, some of the more renowned were Ricardo Alegría himself, Eugenio Fernández Méndez, Jalil Sued Badillo, Francisco Moscoso and Walter Murray Chiesa.
Taíno “tribes” and “nations” in the U. S. and Puerto Rico.
The efforts of Ricardo Alegría and the many excellent Puerto Rican historians who had recently published on the Taíno theme had the desired effect of reawakening many Puerto Ricans to their indigenous roots, although that effect was limited to the usual academic public. However, a certain portion of the population not previously and publicly known to favor the cause, arose and made its presence felt quite visibly. By the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, groups of Puerto Ricans claiming to possess Taíno blood and bent on having their Taíno identity recognized, banded together in “tribes” and “nations.” Then, they proceeded to request from the U. S. Bureau of Indian Affairs the same rights as, say, the Navajo Nation, they published manifestoes, they set up websites, and most importantly, they began sponsoring lectures and cultural events. By far, the most attended of these events is the annual “Festival de las Indieras,” regularly held in Indiera Alta, Maricao, Puerto Rico which normally draws large crowds of spectators.
With headquarters both in Puerto Rico and on the U. S. mainlaind, that “pro-Taíno” movement includes groups such as The United Confederation of Taíno People; the Taíno Sovereign Nation of Boriken; the Jatibonicù Taíno Tribal Nation of Boriken; the Jatibonicù Taíno Tribal Band of New Jersey; and the Tekesta Taíno Tribal Band of Bimini, Florida.
Still, all this activity aimed at recuperating Puerto Rico’s Taíno heritage had not obtained the same results as parallel efforts carried out in Mexico. Therefore, in the 1990’s, it seemed logical to take what, for Mexico, had been the next step: to utilize prose fiction as an adjunct.
The Taínos in Puerto Rican Literature up to the mid-1990’s.
In a strange parellelism with what occurred in Mexico, it was also in the 1990’s that Puerto Rican writers of fiction gave the “pro-Taíno” movement a needed push.
As a matter of fact, in 1992, a year before the publication of Fuentes’ El naranjo, I, myself, published a book of Taíno short stories titled Desde el fondo del caracol y otros cuentos Taínos [in English: From Deep Inside the Seashell and Other Taíno Short Stories]. Personally, I cannot judge what effect, if any, my 1992 book had upon the general Puerto Rican reading public, but upon reading my unpublished manuscript, Dr. Ricardo Alegría wrote me a letter in which, among other things, he states that “En sus cuentos nuestro indio tiene la dignidad que a veces no alcanza en otras obras de nuestra literatura indigenista” [English: In your short stories our Indians possess the dignity that is sometimes not given to them in other works of our Indigenist literature]. To this I may add that, shortly after it was published, my book quickly sold out.
Furthermore, to my great surprise, in the early 2000’s, Haydée Ayala-Richards presented a Ph. D. dissertation at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in which she devotes 24 of the 177 pages to a study of Desde el fondo del caracol y otros cuentos Taínos. In 2003, Dr. Ayala-Richards published that dissertation in its Spanish-language version with The Edwin Mellen Press under the title La presencia Taína en la narrativa puertorriqueña [The Presence of the Taínos in Puerto Rican Narrative].
Unfortunately, as far as I know, my example of bringing the Puerto Rican Taíno theme to fiction in the early 1990’s has not been thereafter imitated by any other Puerto Rican writers.
This does not, in any way, imply that before me, no Puerto Rican had written fiction about the Taínos: such famous writers as Alejandro Tapia y Rivera (La palma del cacique) and Eugenio María de Hostos (La peregrinación de Bayoán) had done so in the 19th century; so, too, had Cayetano Coll y Toste (Leyendas puertorriqueñas); María Cadilla de Martínez (El tesoro de don Alonso); Manuel Muñóz (Guarionex); José González Ginorio (Tanamá); the great Juan Antonio Corretjer (Agüeybaná); Luis Hernández Aquino (Isla para la angustia); Enrique A. Laguerre (La resaca); Manuel Méndez Ballester (Isla Cerrera); Guillermo Gutiérrez (Sonetos indígenas); the famous René Marqués (“Tres hombres junto al río”); and Salvador López González (Ensoñación taína), among others. However, until the appearance of my 1992 book of short stories, the topic had not been recently approached, either in prose (which tends to draw more readers than verse), or utilizing the most recent literary techniques developped or popularized during the “Latin American Literary Boom.”
Still, when 1998 was over, the general Puerto Rican population had only a slightly more enhanced view of their indigenous roots than before. That population continued asking itself “So what? How does our Taíno heritage affect me, personally?”
The reply to both questions came in 1999 when a geneticist at the Mayagüez Campus of the University of Puerto Rico, Harvard-trained Dr. Juan Carlos Martínez Cruzado, carried out a research project aided by some of his students. In his study, Dr. Martínez Cruzado studied the (maternal) mitochondrial DNA of over eight hundred Puerto Rican women, from every single town and city on the island. Reported first in the Delaware Review of Latin American Studies, and later in the Puerto Rican newspaper El Nuevo Día, the results were truly impressive: more than 61% of all modern-day Puerto Ricans still have Taíno blood flowing through their veins!
Martínez Cruzado’s study was only of female mtDNA, since a similar study of male-transmitted DNA is much more complicated, but it didn’t matter; since everyone has a mother, it affected all Puerto Ricans. 61% is a rather high percentage, but no one expected 100% since everyone knows that women have emigrated to Puerto Rico in large numbers, especially during the early 20th century, and everyone is aware that those women intermarried with native-born Puerto Ricans.
As was to be expected, Martínez Cruzado’s study also confirmed that the greatest percentage of maternal Taíno DNA was to be found in certain interior, mountainous areas of Puerto Rico, specifically Maricao, where the “Indieras” are located.
Therefore, after 1999, Ricardo Alegría, the many Puerto Rican historians who believed in the importance of our Taíno heritage, and the “tribes” and “nations” of the new “pro-Taíno” movement, were all vindicated. Those “Taínos” currently celebrating their indigenous past in New York, New Jersey, Florida, San Juan or Maricao, are, indeed, more “Taíno” than they ever imagined! In fact, now it has been confirmed that most Puerto Ricans alive today are also part Taíno.
Living Cuban Taínos?
What’s more, as if to bolster Dr. Martínez Cruzado’s findings, in the January 24, 2001 online edition of IndianCountry.com, there is an article narrating an eight-day tour of Cuba made by some 42 researchers, historians and archeologists, some from Puerto Rico, and the rest from the U.S. mainland. What most interested the researchers was a visit to the eastern part of Cuba, to the enclave of La Ranchería, in Guantánamo, and specifically to the town of Caridad de los Indios, where they found a community of at least 350 Taíno descendants who have lived there since colonial times. Their herbalist and cacique, Panchito Ramírez, gave the interview appearing in IndianCountry.com.
As things stand, in the early years of the 21st century, most Puerto Ricans are finally convinced of the importance of the Taíno people in the formation of our cultural legacy. Moreover, studies of our Taíno roots have not only continued, but, indeed, increased. As a matter of fact, as I write this introduction to my novel, Puerto Rican intellectuals are reading two recently published studies on the subject: Francisco Moscoso’s Caciques, aldeas y población taína de Boriquén: Puerto Rico, 1492-1582, and Jalil Sued Badillo’s Agüeybaná el bravo: la recuperación de un símbolo.
However, a great gap in information still exists in our knowledge of that Taíno history which took place between the years 1508 and 1513. It is, in an important way, that gap of information which has motivated the writing of my novel Taíno.
Why Puerto Rican Taíno History Must be Invented.
Returning to the question of “fiction as history,” I am more convinced than ever that the history of the Puerto Rican Taínos can best be told through fiction, following the example of Carlos Fuentes and his The Orange Tree. Just think about it: many of the most important events in Puerto Rican Taíno history were, either not witnessed by the Spanish, or if they were, were not deemed important enough to chronicle. And even when they did chronicle events which they had not witnessed, the Spaniards relied on second or third-hand sources. That’s certainly not very reliable history.
For their part, the Taínos were not able to chronicle any of the events which only they witnessed because they had no writing system.
After Columbus departed from the island in 1493 after “discovering” it, what Spanish chronicler remained behind to record the Taínos’ reaction to the arrival of the Europeans? None. And what Spanish chronicler remained behind in 1508 to record the Taínos’ reaction to the meeting between Guaybaná and Juan Ponce de León in which the island was practically ceded to the Spaniards? Again, none. Neither Diego de Salazar, nor Juan de Suárez, knew exactly what plans Cacique Aymamón had when he captured the latter, nor what he contemplated doing after Suárez was liberated. Therefore, they only left sketchy information concerning Suárez’s near-brush with death. No Spaniard was present to record the event when Cacique Uroyoán’s warriors drowned Diego Salcedo in the Guaorabo River, nor did any Spaniard have any knowledge of Uroyoán’s aims thereafter. How did the Taínos feel after their 1511 defeat at the Battle of the Yagüeça, both those who fled the island, and those who remained? No one knows.
I could go on and on, but the point should be clear by now: if there are no Taíno documents to corroborate them, and if we know anything at all about the events just listed, then it was because the Spaniards recorded them, utilizing second and third-hand sources and with the “fidelity” to the facts for which the Chronicles of Indies are known.
The question arises: Is what we know about those events any less fictitious than what any modern-day fiction writer could invent? To which we could reply: Anything is possible, just as long as it is believable and even likely, in the face of a lack of proof to the contrary.
The Modern Historical Novel.
The reply I have just given to the previous hypothetical question, in summary, constitutes the basis of the modern historical novel, and proof of that may be found in the mere existence of the many works of historical fiction, written by both Latin American and Spanish writers, dealing with the 16th century Spanish conquistador Lope de Aguirre who betrayed King Philip II of Spain. (On this topic, see my book Dos crónicas desconocidas de Lope de Aguirre, Colección Ciencia, Serie Antropología # 340, Madrid: Editorial Fundamentos, 2012.) The greatest proof is, without a doubt, Fuentes’ The Orange Tree.
The point is that if we wish to truly popularize the Taíno version of the “vision of the vanquished,” then we must resort to fiction; that is, we must imagine and/or invent what really could have happened. My novel, Taíno!, has as its goal to present the flip-side of Puerto Rican Taíno history. If anyone were to ask me “How do you know that’s what really happened?” I would simply reply with my own question: “How do you know that’s not what really happened?”
Is Taíno! Really a Novel?
After reading my novel, or even partially through it, readers may ask themselves “Is Taíno! really a novel?” That question should not even arise at all, because the Latin American literary “Boom” shattered all previous notions of the genre’s characteristics. Still, there might be a reader or two out there wondering why I have given this work its classification.
To begin with, let me make it clear that Taíno! most definitely has a plot: the story about how two cultures meet, forcibly, and how one is subjected, again by force, to the other. In that respect, Taíno! not only resembles the section “The Two Shores” in Fuentes’ The Orange Tree, but also recalls Alex Haley’s 1976 novel Roots. However, where Taíno! differs from both The Orange Tree and Roots is in that, in my novel, the two clashing cultures are joined by a third, brought to the island by force, and that in Taíno! all three cultures begin to blend. I refer my readers to the novel’s chapter 8, titled “Love In the Time of Slavery.” In Fuentes’ novel, though the ethnic groups blend, there are only two of them, and in Haley’s Roots there are also only two ethnic groups in question, but they rarely blend sexually.
Also, in both Roots and my novel, someone carries out research in order to discover the distant past of their ancestors. In Haley’s novel, that someone is the author-narrator, a very educated man. However, in Taíno!, the research is conducted by children as well as by adults, by highly educated intellectuals and by barely literate individuals. In other words, in Taíno! the search for the lost roots is a collective rather than an individual effort. Fuentes’ The Orange Tree, like all of his novels, is also a search for the Mexican roots, but in “The Two Shores” it is carried out by a 16th century Spanish soldier who, to top it all off, is dead! That soldier, of course, is really the voice of the author himself. Therefore, as in Roots, in The Orange Tree, the researcher is a very educated individual. In other words, as far as the plot is concerned, Taíno! is just as much a novel as The Orange Tree and Roots. All three novels deal with a search for the collective identity of a people, and all three hope to instill in the author’s countrymen a certain pride in their roots which traditional history has largely ignored.
As for its structure and the period of time covered, Taíno! covers a period of 501 years, beginning in 1508; Fuentes’ novel covers a period of some 490 years, beginning in 1519; and Haley’s Roots covers a period of 242 years, beginning in 1767 when the African Kunta Kinte is taken by slave hunters in Gambia. The difference in time covered doesn’t matter; all three novels begin at the point of contact between two different civilizations.
In the case of Taíno!, in order to cover such an extended period of time, I decided to, first, concentrate on the first five years (1508-1513) of the clash between Taíno and Hispanic cultures because, generally, that is the period about which most Puerto Ricans know the least. From there, my novel leaps to the mid-19th century, where a crucial event occurs: the racial mixing between Taínos and runaway slaves. Although that racial mixing, had already, no doubt, occurred in some isolated cases, I chose the mid-19th century because it is a period in which a great quantity of African slaves are imported into Puerto Rico. Such a concentration of African slaves brought to the island to work on the prospering sugar cane plantations and mills, allowed for the plotting of rebellions, and in fact resulted in revolts against the Spaniard and creole slave owners. When those revolts were eventually quelled, the slaves remaining at large became runaways. And, since the only isolated places where the Spanish and creoles rarely went were the Indieras, they were the only relatively safe places where the fugitive runaways could go. The resulting forced meeting between Taínos and Africans led to another fairly large-scale racial mixing in Puerto Rico, which then included a new element: Taíno-African offspring.
From the mid-19th century, my novel jumps to the beginning of the 1950’s when the island is not only going through a period of economic hardship, but is also at a low point in its national pride and its search for identity. This is just before the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture is founded, and the general public knows next to nothing about Taíno culture.
If there is one chapter devoted to that period on the island, there is, likewise, another chapter devoted to life off the island, in the exile of New York City’s Puerto Rican ghetto. Obviously, the 1950’s is when another transcendental event in Puerto Rican history takes place: the mass emigration to the U. S. of thousands of Puerto Ricans looking for better economic conditions. (On this topic, see my memoir The Other Island, Melbourne, Australia: ASJ Publishing, 2013.) The chapter devoted to that period and that location is used as a parallel to the chapter taking place at the same time, but on the island, to show the continued search for identity of the Puerto Ricans.
From the mid-1950’s, Taíno! leaps to the 1980’s, back on Puerto Rican soil, where another event of great importance takes place: the struggle between the inhabitants of the Puerto Rican island-town of Vieques and the combined forces of the U. S. Navy and the U. S. Marines, who have appropriated most of Vieques and its surrounding waters for military war games.
Finally, my novel arrives at the early years of the 21st century when a milestone in Puerto Rican Taíno history is reached through DNA studies, and also when the output of works on our Taíno past reaches an all-time high. Any other organization, my novel would have required my writing a work several thousand pages long.
Not surprisingly, Taíno!, The Orange Tree and Roots, all have, basically, the same organization, although Haley’s novel doesn’t make the huge leaps in time that Taíno! does and, consequently, it is much more extensive. Fuentes’ novel makes even greater leaps in time than Taíno!, but it has, approximately, the same length.
With regard to the literary techniques employed in Taíno!, I must confess that I purposefully used a great variety of them: what, in his Introduction to Desde el fondo del caracol y otros cuentos taínos Carmelo Rodríguez Torres has classified as:
filmic sequences, monologues, stream of consciousness, multiple points of view
(second and third-persons, simultaneously), characterizing distortions, commu-nicating vessels, plays of words upon literary texts, the suppression of time, nightmares, dreams, and the powerful point of view of consciences rarely seen in our literature (Introdución, Desde el fondo del caracol y otros cuentos taínos, p. 9 – translation mine)
Each technique was chosen because it appeared to be the most appropriate for the chapter or section of the text.
Although not as varied, Fuentes’ The Orange Tree employs some of those techniques with, of course, the mastery of language possessed by its great author. Haley’s Roots, on the other hand, employs only straightforward narration, and that may be attributable to the historical moment in which that novel was created: 1976, several years before the upheavals of the Latin American literary “boom” which, most definitely, helped shape my own, and Carlos Fuentes’, writing.
As for the characters in my novel, they are as varied as those in Roots and in The Orange Tree, although, as would be expected, there is greater unity among them in the first seven chapters where the same characters appear and reappear. This is so because those chapters cover a limited period of time, and because the individualized main protagonists are relatively few: the same caciques, the same bohique, and the same Spanish captains.
That appearance and reappearance of characters is not possible in the ensuing chapters, those dealing with the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries, because by that period the island’s population has grown immensely. Today, Puerto Rico has a population approaching five million people, with about three million more ethnic Puerto Ricans living in the continental United States.
Also, in Taíno!, after the seventh chapter, the main characters are more varied; instead of being just Taíno caciques or Spanish captains, they become poor Taíno descendants in the mountainous Indieras, or runaway slaves; children on the off-shore island of Vieques or in the ghettoes of Spanish Harlem; confused young men or weather-beaten fishermen in Puerto Rican coastal towns, or writers, academics and scientists, both in and out of Puerto Rico. In general terms, the characters in both Roots and The Orange Tree are just as varied, although those in Haley’s novel resemble those in mine closer than do those in Fuentes’ The Orange Tree.
Nevertheless, in spite of the huge differences in space and time in which they appear, there is a general relationship and continuity among all the characters in my novel, and that general thread running through Taíno! is an idea: that Puerto Ricans, no matter where they may be or when they live, continue to exhibit the same character traits as their Taíno ancestors. There is a great similarity between Caciques Yaureibo and Cacimar, who set out from the off-shore island of Vieques to harangue the Spanish conquistadors after the defeat of the Taínos in 1511, and the brave fishermen of modern-day Vieques who, in their fragile outboard-motor boats, square off against huge U. S. warships conducting wartime practices in the very waters where those fishermen cast their nets in order to make a living; there is a bit of the Caciques Agüeybaná and Uroyoán in those modern Puerto Ricans who also struggle for the independence of their country; and there’s no denying the bravery, the suffering and the stoicism of all those modern Puerto Ricans who have made their way in the world, struggling against incredible odds, because, after all, they are the rightful descendants of the Taínos and the Caribs who carried out a David and Goliath struggle, doomed from the very start, against an unconquerable enemy.
That same search for a people’s identity is certainly present in Haley’s Roots and Fuentes’ The Orange Tree, but the theme, which has been at the heart of all Puerto Rican literature and thought since the mid-19th century, is even more important to Puerto Ricans than it may be for African-Americans or Mexicans because it is at the center of an on-going political problem which has yet to be resolved. Furthermore, it is a current cultural and philosophical dilemma constantly on the mind of all Puerto Ricans: Just who are we, anyway?
In my novel all the characters constantly ask themselves: Do we still possess the nobler qualities of our Taíno ancestors, or have we lost them along the way? Hopefully, Taíno! will provide an encouraging and racially liberal answer to that question.
Jaime Martínez Tolentino
Ocala, Florida, U.S.A.