Indeed, the tactics Sepulveda employed to elevate his position included misrepresenting and generalizing cultural expressions as well as fear mongering to incite hatred and justify violence against Indian Peoples. An example of this strategy is the allegation that Indigenous Peoples generally practiced cannibalism.
It should be no surprise that Sepulveda’s arguments were supported by agents of the “New World” colonial power structure who directly benefited from the then, recently institutionalized, oppressive regime.[1.]
Centuries after the debate at Valladolid, it does not take a degree in Sociology to confirm that Selpulveda’s racist, anti-indigenous philosophy continues to find modern-day proponents. While terminologies are a bit more polished for public consumption, the strategy remains the same - denigrate and de-humanize to justify the violation of basic human rights.
Recent articles written by Dr. Gabriel Haslip-Viera provide a significant example of this trend.[2.]
Haslip-Viera promotes the position that the affirmation of indigenous identity in the “Spanish-speaking Caribbean” is illegitimate because Governments and academics deem it to be so. To bolster this perspective he champions racists’ ideologies such as determining indigenous biological and cultural affiliation by “degree of blood”. He also manipulates and misrepresents historic and contemporary data.
Most recently, Dr. Haslip-Viera publically misrepresented indigenous affirmation in the 2010 U.S. Census asserting that a total of 19,510 individuals in Puerto Rico claimed an “American Indian” ancestry. His claim is false as a total 35,753 individuals in Puerto Rico identified as “American Indian” alone or in combination with “some other race”.[3.] The fact that Haslip-Viera personally feels the U.S. Census is “controversial” or “based on bogus U.S. concepts and categories” does not invalidate the conscious efforts by Puerto Ricans to identify with their ancestral heritage.
In further evidence of Haslip-Viera’s manipulative presentation style, the 2010 U.S. Census curiously becomes a valid tool for him to hypocritically note however that more Puerto Ricans identified themselves as “Black” than “Indian”.
Haslip-Viera also blatantly generalizes the aspirations of thousands of contemporary Taíno People by stating that as a whole “Neo-Tainos” claim a "pure indigenous pedigree.” To highlight his generalization, I as President of the United Confederation of Taíno People (UCTP) challenged him to produce any material issued by the UCTP that makes such a claim. As he could not produce such documentation, Haslip-Viera instead chose to maliciously highlight divisions among a few Taíno entities as if no other community, group, or nationality in the Caribbean, Latin America or anywhere else suffers divisions.
While Haslip-Viera smugly implies otherwise, the United Confederation of Taíno People respects the autonomy of all Taíno People and has never claimed to be the sole representative entity for contemporary Taíno concerns. It should be further noted that Haslip-Viera conveniently ignores the fact that contemporary Taíno People - regardless of divergent spiritual or political philosophies or particular group affiliation – are unified throughout the Caribbean and the Diaspora in their affirmation of Taíno identity and heritage.
True to the spirit of the 16th century conquistadors, Haslip-Viera attempts to employ the “divide and conquer” strategy, by seeking to isolate Boricua Taíno People in particular. He alleges that there are no similarities between the historic situations of Indigenous Peoples of Borikén (Puerto Rico) with those of “North America”. He cites a “no forced migrations, a lack of treaties,” etc. but his incredible claim is not only false but to use his own words “patently absurd.”
In Borikén, historians confirm these similarities in various accounts from the 16th through the 20th century. These are not “rumors” as Haslip-Viera cynically suggests but part of the historical record that he and others deliberately chose to ignore. For example, it is well-known that as a result of the abuses of Spanish colonists, many (but not all) Borikén Taíno People were “forced” to migrate to other islands in the 16th century. Historian Fray Íñigo Abbad y Lasierra affirms at least one treaty entered into between indigenous Boricua People and the colonial “Europeans”.[4.] Local tradition holds that the remnants of this treaty land is located in the island’s western region and known today as “Las Indieras” (The Indian Lands).
During the last half of the 18th century “Indios” were recorded in the island’s official census until the category was removed in the early 1800s in favor of an all encompassing “free colored” classification. There is also the case of over 60 Boricua children who were sent to the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in the United States beginning in 1899 through the early 1900s. These children were categorized in the school’s records as “Porto Rican Indians”.[5.] Even beyond the “indigenous issue” the continued colonial status of the Puerto Rico can in reality be compared to the current quasi-sovereign state of American Indians under the plenary power of the United States.
In addition to verifiable historic data, there is the compelling oral tradition of Indian descendant persons and families throughout the island. While Haslip-Viera views this tradition as insignificant and “weak”, a respected island scholar, Professor Juan Manuel Delgado Colon of the Centro de Estudios Avanzados de Puerto Rico y el Caribe feels differently. Dr. Delgado Colón began recording testimony of Indian descendant families in Borikén in the 1970s.
At this point readers might ask themselves if it is possible that Dr. Haslip-Viera, an academic who prides himself on his research expertise has not had the pleasure to read any of Professor Delgado’s selected works? Readers might also ask why they themselves have perhaps not heard of Dr. Delgado Colón considering Haslip-Viera claims serious research is not ignored by “professional social scientists”. In any case, this research is available and following the results of DNA studies on the island, many in the academy are beginning to look at Dr. Delgado Colón’s work more seriously. In my opinion, the oral tradition research of Dr. Juan Manuel Delgado Colón should be declared a national treasure in Puerto Rico.
It is important to also clarify that while Haslip-Viera claims that it is an “exaggeration” to suggest that oral tradition in Borikén is not ridiculed or ignored, the facts on the ground reveal otherwise. For instance, local tradition holds that during the 19th century many Indian descendants took part in “el Grito de Lares” along with other “Jibaros”. One local hero mentioned during these times is a Jibaro woman known as “la India Maria”.[6.] Currently, the academy ignores this particular aspect of the island’s history.
There is also ample testimony by contemporary Taíno People who stress that they themselves or their family elders have been ridiculed by school teachers and other professionals when attempting to affirm their indigenous heritage in Puerto Rico. This discrimination has occurred so often that many elder family members have urged younger members simply not to discuss their aboriginal heritage in public. Haslip-Viera and his supporters would have readers believe this is all an elaborate fantasy “invented” by a few socially challenged New Yorkers desperately “craving” to some how “fit in”.[7.]
The debate concerning the survival of Indigenous Peoples in Borikén beyond 1550 is not new. Haslip-Viera knows this yet he would like readers to assume that historically Puerto Rican scholars have promoted the “Taíno extinction” theory in lock-step formation. Sober research reveals that the actual scenario is far more complex as many well-respected scholars actually have acknowledged indigenous survival in Boriken well-beyond 1550. Curiously however, those who vehemently promote “Taíno extinction” have controlled the discourse and academic standard-setting since the time of the establishment of the Free-Associated State of Puerto Rico. The record shows that these scholars, working under the auspices of the government, consciously decided to officially confine the national discourse on Indigenous Peoples of Borikén to the archeological record.[8.] In other words, keep the “Indios” in the past.
Considering this connection between academics and government in Puerto Rico, it should be no surprise that there is a well-resourced opposition to indigenous affirmation on the island.
Like Sepulveda in the 16th century, it is clear that those expressing anti-Taíno sentiment are not opposed to manipulating data or using malicious tactics to denigrate and dehumanize contemporary Taíno People individually or as a whole. During the 2005 peaceful occupation of the Caguana Indigenous Ceremonial Center in Utuado the then Director of Puerto Rico’s Institute of Culture, Lola Rodriguez de Tio attempted to denigrate the goals of local Taíno activists in the local media by suggesting that the group wanted to conduct “ritual sacrifice” there.
In a further example of Sepulveda-like “fear-mongering”, Haslip-Viera is now ominously calling for the public to “prepare” themselves for “increased controversy, racial polarization and conflict if the [Taíno] get their way”. This rhetoric is coming from a scholar who continues to attempt to polarize the discussion on “ethnic” identity in Puerto Rico to a “Black and White” only issue.
One is only left to ponder if Haslip-Viera considers Puerto Ricans of Asian or Pacific Island descent “myths” as well.
Roberto "Múkaro" Borrero is the current President of the United Confederation of Taíno People, the Chairman of the NGO Committee on the United Nations International Decade of the World's Indigenous Peoples and an alternative Board Member of the International Indian Treaty Council. He is a contributing author to Taíno Revival: Critical Perspectives on Puerto Rican Identity and Cultural Politics, edited by Gabriel Haslip- Viera (2001). He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.