Cubanet, Miriam Celaya, Havana, 7 June 2016 — I recently read an internet article published by Martí News (Bogus Taíno1 Dance in Cuba Shocks an Intellectual Canadian Native), which — as the title indicates — is about a Canadian tourist’s experience during his stay in Cuba. He witnessed an imaginary Taíno show, choreographed in the Matanzas province by a group of dancers “with bare-breasted women, painted skin and wearing wigs,” who “talked about a dubious native Cuban rite on the force of a river.”
The scene that the tourist describes was a mixture of contemporary dance movements and alleged ritual representations, performed by… artists(??) supposedly dressed in Taíno costumes, including white bullseye circles painted on the women’s bare breasts.
The greatest indignation of the Canadian tourist, who is himself a native North-American, was the amusement of his fellow travelers, who were so pleased with the scam that they even took pictures with the fictitious natives. The Canadian regarded – and with reason — that this ridiculous representation conveyed a false image of “a Caribbean Indian culture.”
On the subject, Martí News comments that this “picturesque” show was previously criticized by the “Castro regime’s organic intellectuals” but that now, “cash is king, and so is the tourist industry, which the authorities want to turn into a locomotive to drive the economy, taking advantage of the murky waters of the thaw with the US.” So the government “does not hesitate to use the pseudo-culture as bait for unwary tourists.”
This, however, is only a half-truth. Ancient culture farces is a universal practice and not exclusively Cuban. In addition, the use of nonexistent native expressions in Cuba as a tourist hook to catch foreign currency is a reality, but far from being a novelty. In fairness, it predates the current avalanche of American tourists and, without a doubt, existed for a long time before President Barack Obama decided to restore relations with the Castro dictatorship. Though some find it hard to understand, not everything that is taking place in Cuba today stems from the new framework of relations between the two governments.
The interest in selling an “indigenous” tourism product beyond rum, cigars and the most affectionate prostitutes in the world has numerous precedents, ranging from apocryphal legends -like the love stories of Hatuey and Guarina in the eastern region of Cuba or that of the Indian lovers of Jagua, to chimeras, such as the treasure of Guamá, which, according to the oral folkloric tradition, lies at the bottom of the lake by the same name, in the current Matanzas province, where it was thrown by the Taíno rebel so the Spanish conquistadores could not find it.
In fact, Matanzas1 is one of the provinces with the highest record of aboriginal legends, even though it had low Taíno presence compared to the south-central and eastern regions of Cuba. There is, for example, the legend of the Yumurí — another romantic saga of love between a young Taíno couple — and the massacre of Spaniards by natives (or of natives by Spaniards, depending on who’s telling the story) which took place in the ample bay. Both the province and the bay were named after the incident.
All these sagas, more or less whimsical, come from pre-1959 Cuban traditions, and were compiled from the work of archaeologists, anthropologists and other scholars of pre-Columbian Cuba from the country’s practices. In particular, stories on these topics collected by members of the National Board of Archaeology around 1940 and 1950 stand out.
Such traditions, like so many others considered by the Castro regime as hoaxes and unenlightened thinking, typical of “colonialism and neo-colonialism eras” were almost completely erased from popular memory by the overwhelming thrust of decades of “revolutionary” indoctrination, but quickly unearthed starting in the 90s’, when the boom in tourism from foreign capital investments — mainly Spanish — took place, which saved the Cuban regime from asphyxia in the early post-Soviet crisis.
And it was precisely during that period in the 90s’ when the debauchery in search of dollars made possible the miracle of the existence of nothing less than a whole “Taíno community” in eastern Cuba, specifically in the town of Caridad de los Indios, in Yateras, Guantánamo province, whose population, though predominantly descended from the ancient Taíno people of the same region and with the same visible physical traits of that original ethnicity has not preserved the Arawak language of their native ancestors, nor their customs, arts, traditions, or belief systems.
In fact, residents of Caridad de los Indios, as in other remote villages in the region, have mixed equally with peasants of Spanish and African descent, and do not differ substantially in habits, customs and standard of speech of any other peasant population in the eastern region.
However, this did not prevent the cultural authorities and other astute provincial officials from recreating a semblance of a Taíno village with all the components of the stagehands out of those very poor locals in order to attract foreign exchange earnings for themselves and for the province in the depths of the 90s’.
Thus, they built caneyes2 in the modest village and created spaces. From the dressing rooms, they invented body adornments (necklaces made of shells and stones and polychromatic paintings on the skin), and even the feathers to be worn by locals, imitating the style of the colorful headdresses of certain continental native cultures. The animators staging the scenes probably copied from old Cinemascope western movies that were once shown on Sunday matinees at any neighborhood cinema.
So that nothing is missing and tourists will enjoy the unforgettable experience of an encounter with the true Taínos of Cuba, in the cacique4 village, there were medicine men [behíques], drugs smoked through the nostrils [cohoba], “Taíno princesses,” ceremonial dances and rites [areítos], bows and arrows (just props, of course) and even songs in an unintelligible “Arawak” language that probably made more than one venerable ancestor of the new Taínos of pastiche turn in his grave.
Arawak names also became more frequent — though they retained their Castilian surnames — so “Hatueys” and “Guamás” and even some “Atahualpas” and “Monctezumas” proliferated. At the end of the day, when it comes to profits, chauvinist concerns are non-existent.
Incredibly, the Taíno fraud worked for a while, and there was more than one visitor who, amid the obligatory areíto ritual — in which foreign tourists participated alongside the natives — was possessed by the spirit of some bellicose aboriginal great-great grandfather and fell in a kind of trance, in the style of spiritualism that is practiced in the eastern region of Cuba. Of course, this was very Taíno-like emotional and truthful.
The locals played their new roles with enthusiasm worthy of better causes, and got used to wearing their Taíno costumes before each group of visitors, and embodying the ambiance of what they believed would be a typical Taíno village, plenty of musical gourds, [guayos], feathers, loincloth, stoves for cooking cassava bread, campfires and a battery of artisanal tools created for this purpose. Everyone was happy: the new Taínos felt important for the first time in the history of their community; cultural and tourism dollars flowed into the official coffers — and especially into their thirsty pockets — and collaterally, the “Indians” also benefited financially and materially. They had discovered that it was more lucrative and less fatiguing be a Taíno than a peasant.
But behold, the unwary villagers came to believe they were genuine Taínos. So, when at one of the annual meetings of the Caribbean Festival — hosted in Santiago de Cuba, one of the sources with the most tourism influx to the “Taíno” village of Yateras — a group of similar “Taínos” appeared from Puerto Rico, representatives of a so-called “Taíno Nation” created to vindicate their rights as authentic West Indian natives and to demand compensation and return of land seized from their ancestors from the time of the Conquest, those from Yateras didn’t want to be left behind and decided to join the aforementioned pipe dream.
Numerous forms were filled out, with photographs and personal details of the alleged Taínos, and each were obstinate to “prove” tenaciously their aboriginal pedigree, to have the honor of belonging to the intangible nation and to have access to the appropriate compensation. The foreign press, meanwhile, had unleashed a whole tendentious campaign on the existence of “ethnic minorities” in Cuba, thus triggering the demons of censorship and repression on the Island.
It was, without a doubt, a “political problem” and a counterrevolution crime to encourage these Cuban peasants to acknowledge themselves as members of a particular ethnic group, and especially encourage them to claim ancestral rights. It was a crime to thus divide the Cuban nation and manipulate so perversely the goodwill of the people of Yateras.
As might be expected, there were purges. The official heads of those in charge rolled, provincial political authorities pretended to ignore the “diversionary” phenomenon that had developed in the face of the unsuspecting ideologues of the Cuban Communist Party (PCC); villagers were visited and warned by the censors about the dangers of such temptations of autonomy. As quickly as it had sprouted, the myth of the aboriginal village in remote eastern Cuba vanished.
Or, rather, it was transformed, since, even today, tourist excursions to Caridad de los Indios remain, so that foreign visitors may get to know the descendants of the original inhabitants of Cuba close-up, and see how much the Castro revolution has benefitted them. It is rumored that “areíto” rituals are carried out discretely. That is a peculiar spiritualist ceremony in which – in the afternoons — the spirit of mythical Hatuey comes to dance among the living, of which the locals are very proud, because, since now nobody deceives them, the leaders of the PPC have made it very clear that they descend from him: “the first Cuban revolutionary.”
1-The Taíno were an Arawak people who were indigenous to the Caribbean and Florida. At the time of European contact in the late 15th century, they were the principal inhabitants of most of Cuba, Jamaica, Hispaniola and Puerto Rico in the Greater Antilles, the northern Lesser Antilles, and the Bahamas They spoke the Taíno, one of the Arawak languages.
2-Matanzas in Spanish means massacre
3-Caney (plural, caneyes) Village chief hut
4-Cacique: Tribal chief