Thursday, December 15, 2011

Taínos and the Construction of Racial, Ethnic and National Identity in the Caribbean

I have written about the process of construction racial, ethnic and national identity in the Caribbean, centering on the relationships between immigrants from Africa and Spain, and the remnants of the indigenous population that survived the colonization.  See,  Larry Catá Backer,   From Hatuey to Che: Indigenous Cuba Without Indians and the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (March, 27 2009). American Indian Law Review, Vol. 33, 2009.  

 (From Conchi's Law: Reflexiones sobre mi vida, la política de Puerto Rico, y la cocina, Hasta Siempre DonRicardo, July 10. 2011)

That process has become more complicated with the emergence of a movement to recapture a living indigenous identity in the Caribbean.  See, Robert M. Poole, “What Became of the Taíno?: The Indians who greeted Columbus were long believed to have died out. But a journalist’s search for their descendants turned up surprising results,” Smithsonian Magazine, Oct. 2011 

All of this is complicated because the conversation is undertaken in a hemispheric context in which   Caribbean racial, ethnic and national identity hierarchies in the Caribbean region were in turn subordinated to those of the English speaking North.  The Caribbean conversation, then, is both quite distinct from those Americans are accustomed to in the rhythms and tropes of the conversations about race, ethnicity and identity in the United States, but also subject to the subordinating and context shaping conversation.
This polycontextual conversation was well illustrated recently in a debate between Roberto Mukaro Borrero (TAINO) and Dr. Gabriel Haslip-Viera on the issue of the Taino identity hosted by the National Institute for Latino Policy (NILP).


1. Gabriel Haslip-Viera, The Myth of Taíno Survival in the Spanish-Speaking Caribbean, NiLP Guest Commentary, Dec. 6, 2011.

2. Roberto "Múkaro" Borrero, A Taíno Response to "The Myth of Taíno Survival in the Spanish-Speaking Caribbean," NiLP Guest Commentary (Dec. 11, 2011).

3.  Gabriel Haslip-Viera, Rejoinder to Roberto "Mukaro" Borrero's A Taíno Response to "The Myth of Taíno Survival in the Spanish-Speaking Caribbean," NiLP Guest Commentary, Dec. 14, 2011.

The debate is worth the time.  Underlying the specific issues debated, most of which recall the sort of presumptions that ultimately led to scientific racialism of mid twentieth century Europe, are issues are political ones in the shadow of the English speaking giant to the North--Latino solidarity, and the political need to construct a Caribbean indigenous "type" as an important ingredient in the racial and ethnic politics of the United States. This debate illustrates the complexity of the issue of the political, cultural, racial, and social meaning of the "indigenous" in the Caribbean today.

Since the time of the conquests by Spanish and Portuguese adventurers in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, indigenous peoples have generally been quite useful to political elites in Latin America. But they have been most useful dead. Or, where the vestiges of Taíno culture are hard to avoid, at least erased from living and contemporary national memory. In the place of live Indians, Caribbean political and revolutionary elites have, over the course of the last several centuries, deployed a political and uni-racial mestizaje and mulatería as a new standard of purity, which was first used against Spanish race hierarchies of the colonial period. They then used these against the racial purity of politics deployed by North Americans in their quest to replace Spain as the dominant colonial power in the Hemisphere. Its continued utility in Cuba stands out in contrast to its abandonment in much of Latin America after the 1940s.

Dead, the Indian could be transformed, generalized, denatured, and repackaged for the benefit of emerging elites. The Indian became a key ingredient in the construction of a new indigenous people in the Caribbean. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, indigenous people supplied the foundations for a trope, both literary and political, which is essential for the construction of cultural, ethnic, racial, and political identities distinct from the traditional colonial masters of emerging Latin American states, as well as from that great power to the north. This trope, in turn, was part of a larger discussion within Latin America pitting a mestizaje-based political and literary theory against nations with large mixed populations. It also placed a more North American perspective in places like Argentina and Chile with smaller indigenous and African populations. Indigenismo thus fractured in meaning—pointing to original peoples, the blended post-conquest populations, or the indigenous characteristics of a dominant European population in its new territory. (From Backer,   From Hatuey to Che, supra at 202-204)

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