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The Tainos:
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Ancient Borinquen
Taino: Pre-Columbian Art
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Ancient Borinquen:
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The Demographic Tragedy of the Tainos
Tainos

por Luis R. Negrón Hernández, jr.

Translated by Ann Shevlin

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Ilustración antigua: indios falleciendo contaminados con enfermedades importadas
por los europeos.

T THE BEGINNING OF THE 16TH CENTURY, the colonists of Puerto Rico, without concern for the demographic tragedy that others had caused in Santo Domingo with unfortunate results for the Indians, committed the same abuses and produced equally tragic results on the island of Puerto Rico.

Our Taíno Indians began to die in alarming numbers, victims of mistreatment in the mines and of diseases brought from Europe, to which they lacked immunity. [See the illustration at left].

Lacking a work force, the colonists obtained the approval of the friars of the Gerónimo and Dominican orders to replace the indigenous slaves with ones from Africa.

Later, repentant for having also given his endorsement, Fray Bartolomé de las Casas lamented:

...not taking notice of the unjust way in which the Portuguese took them and made them slaves; which, once he became aware of it, he wouldn't have allowed it for anything in the world, because he always felt that they were unjustly and tyrannically made into slaves, and that the same reasoning that applied to them should apply to the Indians...".
-- Las Casas, Historia, libro III
[See the cover of his book in the illustration to the right].

These documents do not state that all the Indians were exterminated. In fact, other ecclesiastic documents indicate that there were marriages between Indian women and Spaniards. It is a historical fact that, unlike the other Europeans (English, French, Dutch) the Spanish intermixed racially with the “Indians”. The children of these marriages are considered ‘Mestizos’ - not Spanish or Taíno, or “pure” Indian. One only has to look at the racial makeup of people from Mexico to South America, where in some peoples the indigenous features not only are common, but actually predominate, in contrast to the experience of the Indians with the English and the North Americans in the United States.

In Puerto Rico, even though disapproved of by the government, racial intermarriages were common. For example, when Sabana Grande separated from San Germán and was founded, the White and economically comfortable nucleus which made up the town council looked with disapproval on the ethnic process which was taking place on a large scale in the region, and went as far as to question the right of those Spanish citizens to marry women of color. On November 4, 1822, Mayor Francisco Antonio Nazario complained to the Governor of Puerto Rico:

It has been observed that the parochial as well as the electoral
councils have been joined by men who are themselves White
and from good families, but who are married to women who are
noticeably Colored, and that the Supreme Government should
rule on whether such persons who have disqualified themselves
by their bad marriages are properly to be considered citizens
with full rights...
[Cited in the book "Sabana Grande: Notas para su historia",
by Luis R. Negrón Hernández]
.

The Governor never replied to Mayor Nazario’s letter.

It must be pointed out in this regard that there is confusion among some Puerto Ricans born in the United States who adopt the North American racial and cultural concept that “if you have one drop of Indian blood, you are an Indian”. Over the centuries, the people of Puerto Rico have markedly continued the interaction between couples of different races. It should not be overlooked that Chinese immigrants were admitted to the Island for the construction of a military highway, so that not only were there immigrants from a long list of nations and regions of the globe, but there was also an intermixing of these peoples with the Creole men and women. Some racial characteristics are more notable than others, depending on the zone of the island that you visit. While giving talks in neighborhoods in the interior of the island, I frequently find students with naturally blond hair and blue or green eyes. Recently I was surprised to meet, in a neighborhood in Barranquitas, an adolescent with a complexion, eyes and facial features similar to those of Nordic people. Along the coasts and in what were the sugar-producing zones, the Black and Mulatto types are common, while you will find in the west not only the features of European ancestors but also those of the “Pardos”, or bronze-skinned people with almond-shaped eyes.

We have found documents that make mention of "Indians" from the vast San Germán region (which does not only include the town) at the end of the 18th Century and the beginning of the 19th Century. These documents do not, however, specify whether these were Indians imported from Central America for farm labor, as some historians suggest, or those who were introduced from other Caribbean islands during the colonization. After a few years, these "Indians" are no longer mentioned in the registers of San German, without any explanation at all. Nor do we know the factors that led the pastor, priest or parish official to identify them as "Indians" in their racial descriptions. It is typical, in Puerto Rican popular speech, to describe people with bronze-colored skin as "Indian-colored" or "Trigueño". The Spaniards in the 17th through 19th centuries commonly used the term "Pardo" (of dark skin, between white and black). [Photo: Indian women of the forest.]

New contributions to the theme are being made by the "Y" chromosome studies conducted by Dr. Juan Martínez Cruzado at the university campus at Mayagüez. This genetic specialist began to investigate, with a grant of $270,000 from the National Science Foundation of the United States, the Indigenous genetic presence in Puerto Ricans. Professor Martínez has been studying the DNA of mitocondria which is inherited solely along maternal lines.

His most recent results, catagorized as “preliminary”, have revealed that 62% of Puerto Ricans have indigenous ancestry through maternal lines, 27% African, and 11% White (Caucasian). These findings, even with a small sample of the ppopulation, will have to be compared with the studies of anthropologists, historians, and othere specialties in the field, and will possibly make necessary a revision of our history. These studies would confirm that the Spaniards did not exterminate the Indigenous people in the way they are accused of and that the intermixing of Iberians and natives was greater than was believed. And from these, with the African presence, the modern Puerto Rican began to emerge.

Professor Martínez’ study would have to distinguish between “indigenous” in general and the “Taínos” who lived in Puerto Rico at the time of the Spanish colonization in the 16th Century in particular. Not all of the Indigenous people of the region of the Greater and Lesser Antilles were “Taínos” or had a common culture, beliefs and language, according the documents of the era. “Here we are looking at only one side of the story and we have to look at the chromosome and at that which is inherited through the father”, added the biologist.

It wouldn't surprise me that similar studies of DNA should be taking place in Santo Domingo, and these also should reveal the presence of Indigenous blood, although with a marked Africa presence, given the invasion and presence of Haitians in Santo Domingo in the past. Another nation to study would be Cuba. I recall the photos that the esteemed Jesuit missionary Antonio Santa Ana [may he rest in peace] was to show me, and which appear in his book Frontier Mission. In the book there are illustrations of campesinos in the interior of the Santo Domingo (the Dominican Republic) at the beginning of the 20th century. In these, the "Spanish" and "Black" racial features can be distinguished, as well as a third type, very similar to that of the Indians of the region described by the colonists of the 16th century. In recent decades, while personally visiting the so-called "frontier region" (on the border between Santo Domingo and Haiti), I found these physiological distinctions to be less pronounced, with Black and Mulatto features more pronounced, and these people still living in bohíos and eating casabe.

In a recent meeting, Dr. Ricardo Alegría indicated to me that the great number of Taíno names for towns and neighborhoods on the island had always seemed significant to him. We spoke about the prominent front teeth of some Puerto Ricans which are compatible with the cranial-facial features of indigenous peoples, and about the physical features of many of the inhabitants of the area of Sabana Grande and neighboring towns. [See the detail about prominent front teeth, common in the mountain zone in the southwest of the island.]

The cultural institutions of Puerto Rico, including those of the government of the Commonwealth, have never denied the heritage of the three races, White, Black, and Indian, which have in one way or another contributed to the culture and the physical characteristics of Puerto Ricans. The seal of the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture (I.C.P.R.) clearly illustrates this. If I remember correctly, it was designed by the artist Lorenzo Homar, with whom I had the pleasure of working one summer in the old Fine Arts studio which was located in the rear building of the General Archives of Puerto Rico. [Seal of the I.C.P.R. ]

We will be updating these notes as we receive new results of historic, anthropological, archeological or biological research. If you perform research or have scientifically and historically based writings regarding this topic, write to us at
Borinquen@PReb.com.

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