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New York Puerto Ricans Reclaiming Indigenous Roots


July 12, 2000
Copyright © 2000 All Rights Reserved.

For Brooklyn native Ric Montalvo, his ethnic identity has been like a huge jigsaw puzzle with pieces missing.

 Ric MontalvoRic Montalvo finds his Taino roots.

In his younger days, he was embarrassed to speak Spanish and admits he knew little of his Latino culture.

When he was growing up he thought his Puerto Rican grandmother was "una vieja loca" because she would rise at the crack of dawn and smoke cigars.

The one day, Montalvo's sister sat him down and talked to him about his cultural alienation. She explained that their grandmother wasn't crazy, but was simply following in the tradition of the Taino indians, indigenous people of Puerto Rico.

Suddenly, all of the jumbled pieces fit together. "I relearned and accepted who I was, and all this made me a better person," he said.

He immersed himself in Taino culture, learning the language and customs of a people often forgotten. Many believe the Tainos were killed off long ago by the Spanish, or integrated into the Spanish, African and Indian triad that makes up the Puerto Rican identity. Montalvo said many Tainos were absorbed, but others were shipped off to Hawaii and some escaped inland to higher ground.

Montalvo is one of a growing number of Puerto Ricans who are reclaiming their indigenous roots. Five years ago, he founded Yukayeke Guajataka, or The Village of the Gourd, which currently numbers about 80 members. He took the name "Makanaxeiti," which means black war club.

"We want to reaffirm our Taino heritage, putting together that puzzle that was handed down to us," he said.

 Neryda Gonzalez adopted the name "Guatunaru," which means fire woman.

Neryda Gonzalez works for a security company and is very much the corporate executive, gray suit and all. But she accessorizes her professional attire with a red coral necklace and feathered earrings. In the Village of the Gourd, she is a head warrior and has adopted the name "Guatunaru," which means fire woman.

"Our village loves to teach children about their lost identity. We teach them to respect and work with nature," said Gonzalez, referring to the Taino tradition of respect for Mother Earth.

To Montalvo and Gonzalez, this is all much more than New Age mumbo jumbo. It's an important way of forming a community and understanding where they came from.

In addition to taking on Taino names and aligning themselves with "villages," members of the Taino clubs also create a community of huts called bohios, which represent different households. The leadership consists of a chief's hut, a people's hut and a legal matters hut.

The group sponsors a number of activities including camping trips, participation in native American powwows, and have held ceremonies like weddings, baptisms and coming of age celebrations in the Taino tradition.

"I don't want to sound sterotypical," said Montalvo, "but we have a party for almost everything."

Gonzalez hopes to pass her Taino pride on to her family and friends. Her 14-year-old son recently participated in a coming of age ceremony in which he was required to hunt down prey in an forest upstate. Montalvo said family-oriented activities such as these ensure that the indigenous traditions are kept alive for generations to come.

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