My truest self exists somewhere in an Indigenous past. A grade school introduction to American history is often led by the Pinta, Niña and Santa Maria sailing for India. Upon the accidental arrival of Columbus onto a new world he is welcomed by a nameless people.
A name kept away from popular history. The Taino are a nearly forgotten people and the largest contributor to my genetic makeup. There is an incredible irony in knowing my heritage: my ancestors were forced into giving up ownership of our homelands, and now I am their descendant, living as an immigrant in my own motherland. At times I feel invisible and powerless against the official forces that control aspects of my life. Society can feel unfamiliar, yet the trees, the rivers and the ocean always feel like home.
I am lucky that I grew up with retold stories of my ancestors with long, dark hair, but I did not know where that stood in the history of the world. Follow the trickle further down and you find the cavernous void of identity within the descendants of Taino and Carib peoples. Millions of individuals living internationally with little understanding that the systematic removal of a race is what impacts their lives today. In place of community is competition; we are filled with distrust in escaping the life allotted to us as the displaced descendants of America’s first colonized nation.
As a New Yorker I have had the privilege of viewing a number of Taino artifacts in permanent collections of various city museums. Yet without context the objects were empty, void of any understanding of the people. From what my ancestors left behind, I learned they migrated into the Caribbean sea literally in search of heaven on earth, settling on islands of paradise, believing they were living among the gods. Unifying under nature, the people created a new language, a new culture, a name, multiplied and expanded. My ancestors focused on what could be accomplished as a group, in community.
It wasn’t until I visited Caguana Park located in Ponce, Puerto Rico, that I felt truly connected to my ancestors; the park is an ancient Taino village uncovered by archeologists. The walk on the main trail is a trip through daily pre-conquest Taino life. At the village entrance is a perfect circle of quaint thatched cottages called bohios, leading to the largest home of the cacique (king/queen/chief). I could almost see the movement of the pre-conquest people through the foliage.
As I continued, I saw preserved farming plots lined by Cojobana and Mavi trees lead to the dining area and open courts of the ceremonial park. I saw the place where the entire village feasted together each evening on the abundance of seafood and island game meat. I saw the place where on occasion my ancestors would hold batey tournaments in the various courts encircled by carved stone barriers. The courts share ground with the area of sacred monuments and burial sites used during spiritual practices. I felt my ancestors there as I walked through.
Accepting and understanding my Indigenous roots has expanded my view of society as a result. A communal consciousness recognizes fundamental connections extending to the entire universe, and so I am respectful of the natural world around me. There is a feeling of community that resides in Caribbean people. The feeling is comforting.
Through art, through traditions and culture, my Taino ancestors are showing me my truest self. I know that my ancestors were the first to encounter Columbus. I have seen their artifacts in a museum far from their home. I have walked the same paths of the place they called home. Their history lives within me; within me, my ancestors are home.
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