Sunday, January 08, 2012

Controlling Identity and Its Political and Social Effects--The Debate About the Extinction of the Taíno Peoples of the Caribbean Continues

The issue of the recognition of indigenous peoples is a politically charged exercise.

(From Gabriel Haslip-Viera, The Myth of Taíno survival in the Spanish speaking Caribbean, The Venture, December 6, 2011, photo

Recognition is especially charged in the Caribbean region, where the issue is tied up with the construction of a post colonial hybrid ethnicity and its relation to dominant ethno-racial communities in larger states to the North.   I have been following the most recent set of debates about the Taíno in this context.  See, Larry Catá Backer,  The Taíno in the Caribbean, Law at the End of the Day, Nov. 27, 2011; Ibid,  Taínos and the Construction of Racial, Ethnic and National Identity in the Caribbean,  Law at the End of the Day, Dec. 15, 2011. 

The National Institute for Latino Studies (NILS) has been  facilitating a debate among Caribbean peoples and their advocates around the question of the existence and authenticity of  contemporary communities that claim to form parts of the Taíno nation, separate and distinct from the hybridity that is put forward as the modern indigenous Caeribbean person of which those who might claim some blood or cultural relation merely form an inextricable part.  That construction is useful in internal conversations about ethnicity because it supposes the absence of ethnic difference within Caribbean communities.  It is even ore useful in developing a race/ethnic discourse with North Americans, who tend to understand issues of race and ethnicity in a peculiar way that has more to do race based organization of labor under the old African slave system and its racialization of subject peoples in the drive to incorporate portions of the old Spanish Empire into the United States.  

This time the NILS has put forward two additional essays:

* "Additional notes on the survival of Indigenous Peoples in Borikén" by Roberto "Múkaro" Borrero, Jan. 4, 2012 (Roberto "Múkaro" Borrero is the current President of the United Confederation of Taíno People, the Chairman of the NGO Committee on the United Nations International Decade of the World's Indigenous Peoples and an alternative Board Member of the International Indian Treaty Council. He is a contributing author to Taíno Revival: Critical Perspectives on Puerto Rican Identity and Cultural Politics, edited by Gabriel Haslip- Viera (2001).)

* "Contemporary Taínos as a Social Construction: In Response to Mr. Borrero's Latest Commentary" by Gabriel Haslip-Viera, Jan. 2, 2012. (Gabriel Haslip-Viera is Professor and Chair of the Department of Sociology at City College and past Director of the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College. A specialist in the social history of colonial Mexico and the evolution of Latino communities in New York City, Dr. Haslip-Viera has lectured extensively on these subjects and on the relationship between invented racial identities and pseudo-scholarship)
Both add to the debate and also enrich our understanding of the forms within which arguments about race and ethnicity are carried out in contemporary discourse.  The debates are as enlightening about the structures of academic and political debate as they are about the issue of the existence of Taíno peoples in the Caribbean today or their authenticity.  More curious still is the difficulty of engaging in debate across academic and political borders.  Were the issue merely of academic interest, this debate would be reduced to a curiosity and something for students of academic discipline to contemplate.  But this is a political question as well as an academic one.  Acknowledgement of Taíno nationality undercuts the strength of the unified front strategy for engagement between Caribbean peoples and the dominant racio-ethinic communities of the United States. Within territories under the control of the United States it may also affect the rights of communities under U.S. law.  
This the debate is richer than even the substance of its issue suggest.  The arguments construct politics and academic discipline, it constructs the framework for debate and the legitimacy of approaches.  This debates captures a moment of semiotic complexity about the thing itself, its construction, and the construction of those who deploy them.