Academic journal article Centro Journal

The Myth of Indigenous Caribbean Extinction: Continuity and Reclamation in Borikén (Puerto Rico)

Academic journal article Centro Journal

The Myth of Indigenous Caribbean Extinction: Continuity and Reclamation in Borikén (Puerto Rico)

Article excerpt

The Myth of Indigenous Caribbean Extinction: Continuity and Reclamation in Borikén (Puerto Rico) By Tony Castanha New York: Palgrave-Macmillan, 2011 200 pages; $89.00 [cloth] ISBN: 978-0-230-62025-4 Reviewer: Gabriel Haslip-Viera, City University of New York-City College

In this book, Tony Castanha tries to establish a connection and a mostly unadulterated physical and cultural continuity between the pre-Columbian indigenous population of Puerto Rico and those individuals on the island and within the Diaspora who claim an exclusive or privileged indigenous or "Taíno" identity. In this endeavor, Castanha is generally unsuccessful because the evidence is either lacking or is presented in an unconvincing manner. The title of the book is therefore inappropriate because pureblooded Taínos (100 percent Amerindian mix) became extinct probably by the late sixteenth or early seventeenth century as survivors mixed biologically and culturally with Spaniards, Africans, and others who came to Puerto Rico in the succeeding decades and centuries.

Castanha claims that his "work is an attempt to draw on alternative sources of written and oral information to allow most importantly, the indigenous Caribbean voice to speak and to be better recognized, for this voice has remained silent for too long" (p. 1). Unwittingly, the last part of this statement reveals the very serious limitations of his approach to the subject matter. Castanha has not been able to locate the indigenous voice of the sixteenth to early twentieth centuries except (on those very rare occasions) when it has been filtered by the Spaniards, Anglo-Americans, and other Westerners. He is therefore obliged to focus on the very problematic voices of the more articulate leaders, activists, or spokespersons of the contemporary Taíno revival movement among Puerto Ricans, along with a few of their supporters in academia and elsewhere.

In a section on "mythmaking" (pp. 21-50), Castanha relies on academic sources that he would otherwise reject to show that modern scholars who claim that the Taínos became extinct in the sixteenth century have been allegedly misled or duped by the deliberate lies and distorted accounts of the chroniclers and officials of the Spanish colonial period and should therefore not be trusted. However, when it comes to stories that are told to him by Taíno revivalists, his consistent reaction is to accept them at face value with little or no reservation.

His sources among the contemporary storytellers can be bizarre. In addition to the Taíno revivalists that he interviews among "elders," artisans and residents of the interior regions of Puerto Rico (the alleged traditional homeland of indigenous people since the late sixteenth century), he relies heavily on a few individuals he deems are experts on the history of the island and its peoples. An important source among these alleged experts is a mysterious fellow by the name of Oki Lamourt-Valentín, who is described as a "Carib...scholar" and "preeminent linguist of the native language of the island," who also "was basically ostracized by the academy...because his work and views did not conform to the main academic line" (pp. xiv-xv, 17).

As a result of the reliance on Lamourt-Valentín, Castanha's book is peppered with false or crudely exaggerated claims, as revealed by the following quotations:

1. "We are Jibaro." "We are Indians." "We are Caribs." "...and refer to ourselves as, within the context of a nationality, 'Boricuas'" (pp. xiii, xiv).

2. "We (the Taíno) were a great empire" (p. 51).

3. "[T]he Spaniards were astounded at the major civilization they had encountered." "This was a major civilization." "It freaked the Spanish out" (p. 73). "They [the Spaniards] were kicked out of all the major islands. They only had Havana and the western part of Cuba." He claims that the Spanish had only "two or three trade outposts" in Santo Domingo and makes no mention of Puerto Rico in this regard (p. …

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