Legal Rights

Puerto Rican Indigenous Communities Seek Recognition, Return of Their Ancestral Lands

 

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Martín Veguilla is the leader of the Taíno Council Guatu-Ma-cu-A Borikén, a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving Taíno indigenous culture. Legislation in Puerto Rico does not currently recognize any indigenous organizations; so the council is listed by the Puerto Rico State Department as a religious organization, allowing them to host spiritual ceremonies and give public presentations. Coraly Cruz Mejías, GPJ Puerto Rico
Puerto Rico

The Jíbaro and Taíno indigenous communities are not recognized by the Puerto Rican government. But two organizations dedicated to preserving their respective history and traditions are working to gain recognition as indigenous groups, as well as unrestricted access to their ancestral lands.

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.

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Uahtibili Báez Santiago walks through the Caguana Indigenous Ceremonial Center in Utuado, Puerto Rico. 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. On his shoulder, he carries a piece of clothing used by the Jíbaro people.

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.

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Guariboni joined the Taíno Council Guatu-Ma-cu-A Borikén four years ago. Here, he holds a mahogany seed carved to represent Yocahú, a Taíno deity of protection.

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.

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Photo by Iris González Román, GPJ Puerto Rico

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Photo by Iris González Román, GPJ Puerto Rico

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Photo by Iris González Román, GPJ Puerto Rico

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Photo by Iris González Román, GPJ Puerto Rico

The complex financial relationship between the U.S. and Puerto Rico dates back to the Merchant Marine Act of 1920, commonly referred to the Jones Act. The Jones Act requires that all goods be shipped to Puerto Rico by a primarily U.S. crew on a U.S. vessel. Based on a 2018 survey by Advantage Business Consulting, the Jones Act greatly increases costs of everyday items for Puerto Ricans, including food. Shipping containers to Puerto Rico costs $3,027 compared to a similar international shipment, not subject to the Jones Act, which would cost $1,206 for the same distance.

Photo by Iris González Román, GPJ Puerto Rico

Puerto Rican politics is dominated by the question of Puerto Rico’s relationship to the United States. The Popular Democratic Party supports Puerto Rico’s current status, while the New Progressive Party hopes to make Puerto Rico the country’s 51st state. A small third party, the Puerto Rican Independence Party, strives to make Puerto Rico an independent country.

Photo by Gabriela Ortiz Díaz, GPJ Puerto Rico

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