Puerto Rico - 500 Years of Oppression

By Thomas, Piri; Dod, Suzie | Social Justice, Summer 1992 | Go to article overview

Puerto Rico - 500 Years of Oppression


Thomas, Piri, Dod, Suzie, Social Justice


The indigenous roots of Borinquen (the original name for Puerto Rico) were trampled from the beginning of the European presence, when a lost sea captain named Christopher Columbus landed on the island and renamed it Puerto Rico 500 years ago.

The Arawak-speaking natives who greeted Columbus were Taino people, members of a larger island world that was the Taino civilization. (The people of the Arawak language family today still comprise one of the more widespread American indigenous cultures, with relatively large kinship nations in the Amazon and Orinoco river basins of South America [Barreiro, 1990a].) The Tainos were a peaceful people, living mostly on the shores as fishers, although they also developed agriculture, were seafaring, and had a cosmology. Generosity and kindness were dominant social values and their culture was geared toward sustainable interaction with their natural surroundings (Ibid.). The Tainos had been designated as "primitive" by Western scholarship, yet their way of life prescribed both feeding all the people and respecting spiritually, in ceremony, most of their main animal and food sources, as well as natural forces such as climate, season, and weather. Nature was bountiful to them, and they, in turn, were generous (Ibid.).

Columbus met this generosity with untrammeled greed. In the name of Spain he claimed the Taino's land and opened the door for Western exploiters to colonize the island. They came in droves: soldiers, money-hungry entrepreneurs, priests, and opportunists, all burning with a fever that only gold could cool. The native men, women, and children were forced to build huge fortifications and to dig for precious gold. Within 50 years, Columbus and those who followed him had reduced the native populations to near extinction through murder, enslavement, and disease, although not before some interbreeding took place, largely through the rape of Taino women. Speaking of Puerto Rico and Jamaica, Bartolome de Las Casas wrote:

Before the Spaniards there had lived on these islands more than six

hundred thousand souls, it has been stated. I believe there were more

than one million inhabitants [current research establishes the number

at closer to eight million -- eds.], and now, in each of the two islands,

there are no more than two hundred persons, all the others

having perished... (1992: 43).

Puerto Rico and Jamaica are "both now deserted and devastated" (Ibid.: 30).

To replace the indigenous people, enslaved Africans were brought to the Caribbean islands in the same European-forged chains that dragged other native Africans to the cotton fields of the South of the United States. Later, large numbers of Chinese were also brought to the Caribbean as cheap labor, one minuscule step removed from the bonds of human slavery. This combination of races began forming the cultural basis for nationhood.

Ethnically, Puerto Ricans are a mixture of Mediterranean (mostly Spanish), African, Chinese, and what elements survived the genocide of the Caribbean Taino/Arawak civilization. In Puerto Rico, no pure Tainos are known to exist today, although there are some groups of Indian descendants living in caserios (public housing projects) in both Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic (Barreiro, 1990b). Moreover, throughout the Caribbean, usually in remote mountain regions and coastal promontories, remnant groups and communities of Taino-Arawak (and Carib) descendants survive to the present. In Puerto Rico, the only extant cultural remnants are to be found in the names of locations and certain foods still consumed by the now more Spanish-identified population. Moreover, some aspects of the Taino animistic and material culture have been interwoven into the Euro-African fabric of the islands' folk universe (Ibid.).

These few strands of indigenous culture were not perceived as such in the consciousness of the Puerto Rican people until anthropologists and members of independence movements began to rescue Puerto Rico's indigenous roots in recent years. …

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