UTUADO, PUERTO RICO — The journey to reach the Caguana Indigenous Ceremonial Center in the town of Utuado is a hot and humid trek across the western part of Puerto Rico’s central mountain ranges.
The only sounds are the chirping of birds and the rushing of the Tanamá river.
The land is sacred here, says Uahtibili Báez Santiago.
Báez is the leader of the Jíbaro-Boricua Indigenous Movement, a nonprofit organization that educates people about the history of the Jíbaro people in Puerto Rico. Báez says according to the oral history passed down to him, the land where the center sits once belonged to them.
“Right here, this belonged to us, to our families,” he says.
Today, that same land is part of a national park managed by the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture, a government-run institution.
Coraly Cruz Mejías, GPJ Puerto Rico
The Jíbaro-Boricua Indigenous Movement, a group of nearly 200 members, must apply a month in advance in order to carry out spiritual practices such as baptisms and naming ceremonies on that land. So the group is petitioning Puerto Rico’s government to recognize the center as a temple.
But for Báez and other members of the group, the recognition is about more than gaining unrestricted access to the land.
“If they recognize that this is a temple, then we do exist as indigenous people,” he says.
The Jíbaro and Taíno – two distinct indigenous groups that claim ancestral ties to Puerto Rico – are not currently recognized as indigenous peoples by the Puerto Rican government.
The Jíbaro-Boricua Indigenous Movement claim their heritage from Mayan Kan’ Xibalo ancestors. Members of the Taíno Council Guatu-Ma-cu A Borikén, another nonprofit organization, trace their ancestry to the Taínos, a community that they say Christopher Columbus encountered on his voyages to the Americas towards the end of the 15th century.
Ernie Xavier Rivera Collazo, a history teacher and archaeologist at the Inter American University of Puerto Rico in the southwestern city of San Germán, says that many people in Puerto Rico assume that indigenous people in Puerto Rico were exterminated during the Spanish conquest that began in 1493.
“That’s what they taught us in school,” he says.
But despite what the history books say, Rivera says that archaeological evidence shows that indigenous people on the island were resisting colonial rule even after 1700, which contradicts the belief that they were exterminated in the 15th century. That resistance, he says, continues today as those communities seek to gain autonomy in Puerto Rico.
Juan Carlos Martínez Cruzado, a biologist who specializes in molecular evolutionism, says a study he conducted in 2002 revealed that 61% of the 800 Puerto Ricans who participated had mitochondrial DNA that confirmed indigenous ancestral heritage.
Coraly Cruz Mejías, GPJ Puerto Rico
But according to Martín Veguilla, leader of the Taíno Council Guatu-Ma-cu-A Borikén, legislation in Puerto Rico does not currently recognize any indigenous organizations. The council is classified as a religious organization by the Puerto Rico State Department so the group can host spiritual ceremonies and give public presentations.
Doris O’Neill Cruzado, who identifies as a Taíno indigenous grandmother, conducts Taíno ceremonies to help educate people about the Taíno culture. For O’Neill, the lack of information surrounding Taíno history is the government’s fault for not recognizing Puerto Rico’s indigenous history.
Veguilla, who is known in the council as Cacike Caciba Opil Veguilla, which means Chief Sacred Stone of the Spirit, says that they have managed to organize a strong, committed community for the preservation of the Taíno culture. He adds that the conferences hosted by the group have helped their efforts to have some of the skeletal remains of their ancestors, currently held by the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture, returned so that the group can bury the remains in a traditional Taíno ceremony.
Báez says the Jíbaro movement is currently working with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and the Native American Indigenous Church in the United States to persuade the government to recognize the Caguana Indigenous Ceremonial Center as a temple. He says that the group has petitioned the Puerto Rico Department of Education to revise the history curriculum to include the history of indigenous people in Puerto Rico after the 15th century.
Báez hopes that through increased visibility of their culture and defense of their identity, the group will finally gain recognition and be able to recover their lands and autonomy.
“We want them to know that this is an ancient, ancestral country – that we, the people who live here, are ancestral descendants,” he says. “They did not extinguish us.”
Rishi Khalsa, GPJ, translated this story from Spanish.