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The Orlando Sentinel

Tainos Recover Identity

by Iván Román

October 16, 2000
Copyright © 2000 The Orlando Sentinel. All Rights Reserved.

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- With her long brown hair in all its glory, she stood in a green body suit and chest armor, pointing her bow and arrow with dangling feathers at the Colonial doors of City Hall in Old San Juan.

Surey, this super-heroine of the Tainos, Puerto Rico`s inhabitants when Christopher Columbus arrived in 1493, will protect the women and children from evil, and shield Mother Nature from pollution and the damage humans wreak on her.

With the character of Surey, Nelida Baez hopes to appeal to Puerto Rico`s children, to make them learn about and feel proud of her Taino heritage. As the children in the public square on Columbus Day looked on, Baez, her family and friends also sent a more militant message, denouncing the pillage and death brought upon their ancestors by the Spanish conquerors.

"The Tainos have been pushed to the side or belittled," Baez said, pointing to her friends holding signs stating "Spain, We Demand Your Repentance" and "Taino Power."

"They can`t do that to us anymore because there are more of us than people think. We want people to know we are Taino, too," she said.

The criticism of Spain and other settlers, now common on Columbus Day throughout the world, carries in Puerto Rico the added layer of getting its own people -- seemingly proud of their mix of Taino, Spanish, and African cultures -- to give more than lip service to the island`s indigenous roots.

There has been a small but growing, decades-long fight to get people to recognize that Tainos are still here, not wiped out during the first century of Spanish conquest as portrayed in school textbooks.

"They used to call me crazy 30 years ago, but now there are many of us, and there is even a General Council of Tainos," said Edelmiro Baez Santiago, Nelida Baez`s father.

Tainos and Arawaks from throughout the Caribbean have come together to make their case in the United Nations. In Puerto Rico, besides the rise in educational and cultural-preservation groups, some people have organized their tribes to claim a distinct identity and space.

And they`re getting a little help from science. A year-old study has revealed that 60 percent of the people in Puerto Rico have Taino DNA of the kind passed intact from generation to generation. In two more years, scientists at the University of Puerto Rico`s Mayaguez campus should have a more complete picture of the racial components that make up Puerto Ricans.

For members of the Taino Tribal Council of Jatibonicu, science is key to proving their existence and determining who gets into the tribe. Established in 1970 in Puerto Rico`s central mountain range near the town of Orocovis, the tribe decided to become more public in 1993, the 500th anniversary of the Spaniards` arrival on the island. That`s when prophecy says their people would return and re-establish themselves.

The tribe`s estimated 300 families are now in Puerto Rico, Florida and New Jersey. Eventually, they want the federal government to recognize them as a tribe and give land in the island`s central mountains back to them as a sovereign nation, similar to the reservations in the United States.

"We hold fast to the island of Boriken [the Tainos name for Puerto Rico]," said Chief Pedro Guanikeyu Torres, who now lives in Vineland, N.J. "We hold fast that we are not Puerto Rican and Puerto Rican is not us. There is some of us in the Puerto Ricans."

Guanikeyu Torres, whose name means "noble bird of the white earth," insists people need to know that Tainos have always been here. Artificially wiped out in historical records, relabeled, given another language, assimilated into another culture maybe, but they have always been here.

"We will turn the lies around because there has been a cover-up," he said. "My main quest in life is to vindicate the dishonor done to our people."

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