Still Here: A Taino History Lesson

BrGOL Guest Contributor: Ana Velez

Let the water run over your bare feet.
Tilt your face to the sky.
Close your eyes and listen.
Their voices, a low hum almost a whisper in the wind as it tickles your ear.
Let their arms embrace you in the warmth of the sun.

-Ana Velez

It is difficult to search your history and see such pain and anguish.  For many, reading about historical conquest and the obliteration of the conquered feels entertaining, almost enjoyable.  It might come from the centuries of disconnect, as if it was just a story being told of characters in a book.  However, this book tells the story of my people.  My people existed,  we lived, and survived atrocities.

Atrocities you can only repeat in hushed and unsteady whispers.

The Tainos (an Arawak people) were the first in the Western hemisphere to encounter Europeans.  A thriving, peaceful society on the Caribbean island, became nothing more than a footnote in the annals of history.  But they were so much more.  In A People History of the United StatesHoward Zinn tells a story of a peaceful beautiful people who were equally friendly and generous.  More significant were the freedoms and strengths of the Arawak women.

Bartolome de las Casas as told by Zinn writes…

Marriage laws are non-existent men and women alike choose their mates and leave them as they please, without offense, jealousy or anger.  They multiply in great abundance; pregnant women work to the last minute and give birth almost painlessly’ up to the next day, they bathe in the river and are as clean and healthy as before giving birth.  If they tire of their men, they give themselves abortions with herbs that force stillbirths, covering their shameful parts with leaves or cotton cloth; although on the whole, Indian men and women look upon total nakedness with as much casualness as we look upon a man’s head or at his hands.

This description of the indigenous women on the islands was magnificent, almost magical.  The strength they had to endure pregnancy while working, giving birth with ease; Remaining healthy while returning to their regular routines quickly after labor and delivery is remarkable.  How liberated they must have been living as equals to the men. Deciding who they love and discarding them if they so choose. Living free, as their skin was bare, and exposed to the warmth of the sun.  This must have been empowering.

This all changed once the Europeans arrived on the island.  Men and women were separated so the men could mine and the women dug for the cassava plant.  This separation from their partner and the harsh labor was destructive.

Las Casas highlights the horror indigenous women faced at the hands of the Europeans,

Thus husbands and wives were together only once every eight or ten months and when they met they were so exhausted and depressed on both sides…they ceased to procreate.  As for the newly born, they died early because their mothers, overworked and famished, had no milk to nurse them, and for this reason, while in I was in Cuba, 7000 children died in three months.  Some mothers even drowned their babies from sheer desperation….in this way, husbands died in the mines, wives died at work, and children died from lack of milk…and in a short time this land which was so great, so powerful and fertile…

That last line might have been a description of the land but I envisioned my ancestors, those women so great, so powerful, and fertile faced with the unprovoked wrath of the white man and his attempt to annihilate my people starting with the womb.  I hear the pain, the cries, and suffering of the women unable to feed their own child, without hope choosing to release the infant from its own suffering, choosing to end their own lives as well.  To many, it appears, Europeans successfully conquered the Caribbean islands and eliminated the indigenous people but I know they failed because I am still here.

We are still here.

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Ana Velez is a mother, wife, activist and educator.

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