Behind the Thanksgiving Curtain: Taíno Culture Re-Discovered

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By Robert Waddell

He was wooden; his face stern and painted a bright red, green and yellow. My mother always kept the cacique statue hidden behind a curtain in the living room near an assortment of plants and herbs that overgrew on the window sill. There was also a small glass of rum and a cigar there.

My mother once scolded me for smoking the cigar while sitting crossed-legged, like I’d seen in westerns. “Mira, deja eso. Eso no es tuyo,” she said in shock, but with a prideful smile. “Reclama, lo tuyo,” I heard her say under her breath.

My mother loved to about of our Taíno heritage, although I was always the odd man out in the family and at school. My father was Irish and from Alabama, so I looked more “Gringo” than Boricua, and every day, at Clark Junior High School in The Bronx, I’d hear someone yell “White boy, whatchu doin’ here?”

Even when we traveled to Puerto Rico on vacation — where I met people who were more blonde and more blue eyed than me — I was always “El Americano.”

My mother would say that I was like a “sancocho,” a mixture of my father’s southern Irish roots and her African, Spanish, Taíno Boricua heritage. She would come to school on November’s Puerto Rican Discovery Day singing “Que Bonita Bandera,” while my maternal grandmother insisted I wear a green carnation on St. Patrick’s Day. Meanwhile, my male relatives wore chains and rings with image of indigenous people, reminiscent of my mother’s wooden statue.

When I asked my mother about the Native American statue in the corner behind the curtain, she said he represented the ancestral spirits who watched over us and protected us, which to me sounded more Asian than Boricua.

My response was usually one of skepticism. Where were those Taínos ancestors when my father abandoned our family? Where were those Taíno spirits when I was teased in school? Were they on vacation, or doing the bidding of Columbus’s ghost? Later, I realized that I had failed to understand that they were ever present in my mother — my personal repository of all things true, artistic, and Boricua.

My childhood belief in the ancestors was less idealistic than it was with cartoon characters such as Spider-Man — who I’d hoped would swoop in on a web and save me from having to carry buckets of water up 18 flights of public housing stairs during the great blackout of 1977. And, unlike many who cling to religion, I’ve always wondered: when exactly will “The Messiah” arrive? What’s he doing, taking a coffee break?

Honores tributados a la Reina

The Taíno revival movement began in the 1980s, when The Bronx was “burning.” Just as hip hop and punk rock were emerging, so did the revelation that a part of my ancestors’ genetic make-up had survived.

The misconception that Taínos were all extinct was being shattered. I learned that although many had been massacred by Europeans in the 18th Century, others had fled to the hillsides and mountains to escape the invaders. Our mélange of African-Spain-Taíno lineage was eventually proven through advances in DNA testing.

But I never learned this in school.

As a young man, I saw strength in my friends identifying as African-American as most of them were Black. I knew of Langston Hughes and James Baldwin, and one of my heroes was Muhammad Ali.

e39adb4735a0fceacb86ea37116594d3One day, I heard about a group like the Black Panthers that called themselves the Young Lords. Curious, I investigated.

What I learned opened a whole new world for me, and I dedicated myself to exploring and discovering my Boricua culture. Eventually, the European, African and Taíno would all be revealed.

“The new Taíno movement offers an alternative that may seem culturally and racially comforting, providing a haven from the identity conundrum of displacement that especially plagues the children of immigrants,” wrote Miriam Jimenez Roman in her essay “The Indians are Coming?” published in Taíno Revival, a 2001 anthology edited by Gabriel Haslip-Viera.

The ability to mold our identity by learning our culture and history is like building a personal lighthouse against the raging sea of life. The more I write stories about contemporary Taínos, the more I am finding myself.

I will always feel a kinship to the wooden statue my mother hid from prying eyes, that stood like a sentry guarding our family. Although not overtly political, she cherished her Taíno heritage. My mother loved and appreciated being Puerto Rican, and instilled that same pride in her children.

When I think of anything Boricua — food, music, language, holidays and humor — I always think of her and how very Puerto Rican she was. Even after living in the United States for over 40 years, my mother still spoke with the accent of someone who had just arrived.

the_american_museum_journal_c1900-1918_18160275275As a scholar, I often visit places like The Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College, Hostos Community College, and El Museo del Barrio to see treasured artifacts that make Taíno culture come alive.

But, like a Palos Matos poem, it is in the memory of my mother’s voice that I can truly hear the drums, coquis, waves, and other sounds of Borinquen, envision the palm trees, and remember the smell of burning jasmine.

In celebrating my mother, I revisit my ancestral home — a sacred place for the Taíno in me.

As the Thanksgiving Day nears, I remember when firemen were called to our home because my mother’s first turkey ended in a blaze of disaster — and the time we were so ravenous that we ate our holiday dinner standing up in the kitchen holding our plates. My mother has been gone nearly three years now, but her Taíno spirit lives on.

Sadly, Thanksgiving Day is a bittersweet time as we often forget — or ignore — how Puritan immigrants repaid indigenous people’s kindness with genocidal violence. Many will eat and then scramble the next day — like ants on a hill — fighting wildly over bargains at the mall.

Still, I am thankful. Though I am partly Taíno, I am wholly grateful.

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