The Original Boricuas
I have been wanting to write an article explaining a side or founding block of Puerto Rican culture that few outside of the island know about. It is a legacy that goes back several hundred years before the arrival of the Europeans and the creation of the so say “new world”. It is a root that has been nearly forgotten outside of its scarce references, but still remains an integral part of Puerto Rican identity. I am talking about the taínos. Who were the tainos? You might question. Few realize that there are some aspects of American culture that link to the legacy of the tainos. In fact, there are several words that have fused themselves into the English language that are used almost daily.
The Taínos, were one of the major Caribbean tribes before the European arrival, although various other tribes and sub-tribes existed. Two other notable tribes were the Arawaks and the Caribs. The Caribs, ultimately being where the name of the Caribbean Sea was derived. Little is known about the taínos of Puerto Rico though outside of what anthropologists and historians have been able to piece together. Much of their culture was destroyed, or at least assimilated, as the Spanish encroached deeper into the island’s interior. Additionally, the taínos had few structures, if any, that were built to last for many years. But that doesn’t mean the taínos haven’t influenced modern Puerto Rican culture, just that the understanding of what pure taíno culture was during pre-colonial times is seemingly lost.
The Taíno Influence Visible in American Culture
There are a few words that you’d be surprised come from the taínos. One would be hurricane. Other examples are iguana, hammock, maracas (instrument), and of course the all so ‘American’ barbecue. Clearly, these words were spelled differently at the original latinization of the Taíno language when the Spanish wrote their language. However, in English we have come to know those words as they are written now. So for starters, the next time you are eating at a barbecue while relaxing in a hammock waiting for the upcoming hurricane you can think about the taínos.
What is a boricua?
If you have ever listened to any reggaeton songs or other Caribbean rhythms such as Bachata, then there is a good chance you’ve heard the name boricua uttered at least once. The word boricua specifically refers to Puerto Ricans. The word shows how the legacy of the taínos remains in some small ways and how it is such a large part of Puerto Rican identity. The word boricua derives from the name the taínos used for their island. The taínos of Puerto Rico called the island boriken (boriquen in Spanish). This name according to most translations means something like ‘land of the valiant lord’ in the taíno language. Other sources say that it may have come from the Arawak language where boricua means (in Spanish), “come cangrejos” or literally translated into English, “eat crabs”. The chosen definition is usually the former. Over time the people became known as boricuas. Although it was originally meant to signify the people who were of mixed European and taíno decent, in my experience it has now become a unification word that most Puerto Ricans use to represent the general mutli-ethnic backgrounds of the island’s inhabitants. As if to say, we all come from mixed roots, but identify with the taíno legacy. However, that is just my opinion and experience of the island; I have no sociological basis for that.
So just for clarification sake, it is quite common for Puerto Ricans to call themselves boricuas rather than Puerto Rican, but I’ve noticed more common when speaking Spanish than in English.
My Experience with Taíno Culture
Most tourists to Puerto Rico will miss out on the Taíno culture altogether. If you don’t know what to look for then you could easily pass by it. One example, is with some of the graffiti. As depicted in some of my street art pictures from Puerto Rico, the legacy still lives on in some ways. There are some that you’ll see frequently such as the sign of the coquí frog, which is the island’s trademark. You could call it Puerto Rico’s mascot in some sense. Occasionally, you’ll come across some art that appears to be sad or morbid depictions of a lost culture. Here are a few examples of what I am talking about.
This first picture, you will commonly see around the island. It seems to be a symbol of pride and you can see it everywhere from the sides of buildings to bumper stickers on cars.
There is a really neat painting under one of the bridges in San Juan, but unfortunately I didn’t take a picture of it even thought I walked by it many times. It depicted a few taínos playing batey, which was their traditional community sport game. At first glance, you will probably liken it to soccer/futbol, but it isn’t the same. Little is known about the rules of batey; they were lost throughout the years.
Another thing that I noticed with the island is that it seemed the more ‘mixed’ people appeared to be the more that they identified with the taínos, which makes a lot of sense if you think about it. Even though most Puerto Ricans appear to be either more African looking or European or a mixture there within, every once in a while you’ll see someone who looks like that could be a native. By most history accounts that I have read or heard about, the taínos were either completed defeated or at least integrated by the 1600s. Although while on the island, I did hear an urban legend of the last taíno, but I am not sure of its validity. I’ve tried to search online, but I haven’t found anything. So, it could be completely fictional:
I was told that the last surviving taíno and his wife were found in the early 21st century walking out of the forest. When the locals saw them, the wife was caught and the man ran into the forest, never to be seen again.
Whether that is true or not, I’ll likely never know. It made for a good story when I heard it. It isn’t too far of a stretch though if you have ever been deep into the island. Puerto Rico is covered with lush forests, rivers, streams, and land that appears to be impassable at times. If you imagine the island before the industrial times, before cars and concrete roads, then it isn’t too difficult to imagine why it took so long for the settling powers to completely take the island. Someone could have been living in the interior for years and no one would know it.
I saw a little anti-colonial sentiment, but only when deep in the rain-forest in a small village. I stopped at a restaurant with some friends. When handed the menus, I couldn’t help but notice the drawing on them. There was a scene from the waterfalls of the rain forest with a Spanish soldier standing over a taíno with his spear at his throat. Graphically, his [the taino’s] blood drained down the rocks into the pristine blue mountain waters where it fused to create the flag of Puerto Rico in the middle of the river. In the shadows of the trees near the rocks a helpless taíno looked on in despair.
It would have been good to have taken a picture of that as well to share with you, but I didn’t for some reason.
Perhaps the most concrete (no pun intended) legacy that we have today of the taínos, outside of possibly any existing DNA, would be the carvings and petroglyphs left by them as well as some of the ceremonial grounds and batey fields that remain. I fortunately had the opportunity to visit the Caguana ceremonial grounds where there were batey fields lined with stones etched with petroglyphs. Additionally, there were several circular fields that may have been used for worship. Unfortunately, I know little about the significance of these fields as the museum was closing when I arrived. There is another ceremonial ground near Ponce in the south central region of the island and possible others that I am unaware of.
Another interesting thing was la cueva del indio, or indian cave, in Arecibo. There were many petroglyphs at that site also. Not to mention a beautiful coastline.
Those were two sites that I really enjoyed seeing first hand, but none were as exciting to me as coming across some petroglyphs in the rain forest. I was hiking with some friends in a sparsely populated area of El Yunque rainforest and while climbing the river we came across a petroglyph. That was the first time that I had seen them. I saw them before the cave and before the ceremonial grounds.
Perhaps it was the natural flowing river with nothing but wilderness around me that made me enjoy the scene there so much. It was almost as if for a second I could imagine the lifestyle of the taínos as they played and fished in the majestic rivers and streams of the island. Many of which are to this day seemingly untouched by modernization and unchanged. So, I guess if someone asked me, I’d say the taínos do still have a special place in Puerto Rico whether you see them or not.
For more information on the tainos, I would recommend the Wiki page for the taíno. This link is in Spanish, but is much more inclusive than the English version.
Did you enjoy this article? There are a few other articles that I have written about Puerto Rico that you may enjoy as well as some posts with pictures. Here are a few of them:
Lastly, I’d appreciate it if you’d check out my videos of Puerto Rico on YouTube.
For all other Puerto Rican articles, please visit my Puerto Rican page.
*Tags: boricuavilla, taino legacy, puerto rican indians*