The folktales of Puerto Rico reflect the culture of the people who have lived or influenced the lifestyle of those people living there, the Tainos, the Spaniards, and the Africans. The historical reality of Puerto Rico is that it became part of the modern world as we know it today after Cristobal Colon encountered the island on November 19, 1493. Taino stories, which would be the only authentic and pure expression of pre-Columbian natives of Puerto Rico, are non-existent. It is believed that the Tainos were Arawaks who migrated northward from South America and had been living in Boriquen for nearly 1,000 years when the Spaniards arrived.
There had been other cultures in Puerto Rico before the Tainos, but they were nomads and left little evidence of their time and life on the island. The Tainos were fishermen, who eventually became farmers or hunters and established villages in different points of the island they called Boriquen. They did not have a written language and there are no written accounts of their culture or history passed on by them to future generations. Archaeologists are still trying to piece together what their lifestyle must have been like before their rapid and almost total extinction in the early sixteenth century due to illnesses and inhuman treatment given to them by the first colonists, the Spaniards.
There are, however, records written from oral tradition by the early Spanish settlers, especially by religious order members. Following orders given to him by Admiral Cristobal Colon (Christopher Columbus) Friar Ramon Pane wrote in 1505 a series of detailed descriptions of the Tainos that lived on Hispaniola, now Haiti and the Dominican Republic. These natives had the same customs and beliefs as those of Boriquen (Puerto Rico). In his lengthy report, Friar Ramon wrote of Taino myths, such as; where the Tainos came from, how the sea came to be, the origin of the Sun and the Moon, and where the dead go and what they look like. There are descriptions of the Taino medicine man and many of the religious beliefs of the Tainos.
With the rapid extinction of the Tainos and as the Spanish colonization of Puerto Rico continued, black and white slaves were brought to Puerto Rico in the late sixteenth century to provide brute labor in the new colony being set up by Spain in Puerto Rico. They were needed to work in the sugar plantations, the mainstay of Puerto Rico for many years. Their legacy can be found in their music and dances. Like the Tainos before them, they have added some words to the Spanish vocabulary but did not make a strong impact in the developing culture of the colony. In general, with the passing of time, the black population of Puerto Rico assimilated into the Spanish culture. Stories from this group of people reflected their struggles and often futile attempts to be free.
The culture of the Puerto Rico of today is predominantly Spanish with traces of Taino Indian and Black influences. According to the
American Heritage Dictionary
, “culture” is defined as “the arts, beliefs, customs, institutions, and all other products of human work and thought created by a people or group at a particular time.” The Spanish acculturation process of Puerto Rico began almost five hundred years ago; three cultures (possibly multiple cultures) came together in Puerto Rico soon after that fateful day of November 19, 1493. The folk tales that are told in Puerto Rico today reflect basically Spanish themes with island adaptations and very little Taino or African participation. The tales, in general, have undergone changes in numbers, names, or settings which are more tropical or similar to Puerto Rico.
Among some of the other products of human work or thought are stories in different forms, such as myths, legends, folk tales, and fairy tales. A folk tale is simply defined in
Webster’s New World Dictionary
as “a story, usually of anonymous authorship and containing legendary elements, made and handed down orally among common people. “
In the early twentieth century, an extensive survey and collection of Puerto Rican folklore was carried out by J. Alden Mason and Aurelio M. Espinosa. In Volume 29 of “The Journal of American Folklore” (October-December 1916), the first of several articles was published. In this collection of Puerto Rican folklore, there are riddles, rhymes, games, folktales, tales of enchantment, animal stokes, songs, and other types of oral expression. According to J. Mason;
“Many of those folktales are evidently versions of the European riddle-tales, but a large number are new creations, with traditional elements confused and mingled. In a special cycle, the Juan Booboo, or John the Simple, tales, the traditional riddle-tales have been especially utilized.”
Professor Aurelio M. Espinosa spent seven months in Spain (June 1920-January 1921) researching the roots of the tales told in Spanish America. He concludes that:
“. . . I have verified fully some of the theories which I have always held relative to the sources of some of the important folk-lore material found in New Mexico and other parts of Spanish America . . . After our material is published, I am sure that some of our Negro and Indian folklorists will have to revise some of their theories as to the sources of many folk-tales found among the Negroes and Indians.
Greater and more important, may be the question of the relation of many of these Spanish folk-tales to the actual material from which they certainly come;namely, the Celtic, Germanic, Arabic, . . . and ultimately the greatest and most important fountain of European tradition, India. “
J. Alden Mason and Professor Espinosa see Spain as the source of the vast majority of tales in Spanish-America with little Indian or African contribution. Espinosa even doubted the origin of the Tar Baby tale as African but believed it to be Spanish.
In their monumental collection of Puerto Rican folklore, Mason and Espinosa printed several versions of the same tale. Juan Booboo, a popular character in Puerto Rican tales, can be traced to the Spanish picaresque tales of “Pedro de Urdemales”. In another Spanish colony, the Philippines, there is another Juan, who is just as silly and dumb as Juan Booboo and many of their tales are exactly the same or very similar to the Puerto Rican versions. In the Philippines, however, the tales are traced to Indonesia, India, and Ceylon. Could it be possible that the Juan Booboo tales have come around full circle and reached their point of origin?
After many years of collecting and classifying folktales from Spanish-America, Aurelio M. Espinosa concludes:
“We use the term Spanish-American to denote folk tales collected from regions where the native languages are extinct or on the way to extinction. But we also call Spanish-American folk tales those collected from regions for the most part racially Indian, where the people or most of them speak Spanish, but have not absorbed completely what we might call European Spanish culture or even colonial Spanish culture.”
Dr. Ricardo Alegria, the Director of the Center for Advanced Studies of Puerto Rico and the Caribbean, and a renowned authority on Puerto Rican culture, especially Puerto Rican folk tales, who I interviewed on April 20, 1993, expressed his concern about the lack of interest on behalf of Puerto Rican students and educators on the island and on the mainland in their rich cultural roots. At the same time, he was very happy to hear that the Yale-New Haven Teachers’ Institute was holding this seminar and specifically the interest in Puerto Rican tales. In the interview, he pointed out the recent change of political power in favor of statehood, the powerful influence of American businesses, television, and educational practices in Puerto Rico as some of the factors involved in the decline in the interest and protection of the Puerto Rican cultural heritage.
Children need to hear folktales, fairy tales, myths, and legends told by their ancestors. They receive their cultural legacy through these stories. By integrating Puerto Rican tales into the classroom, the Puerto Rican students will be exposed to cultural and historical aspects of their heritage. Folktales are stories that transmit culture and values, if children are deprived of these stories, a very important and crucial element of their growth and development has been left out.
Many of these children are unaware of or have never heard fables, legends, or folktales from Puerto Rico. This may be due to lack of time to tell stories, interest in, or knowledge of these stories on behalf of their parents or relatives. Another possibility may be total immersion into the North American mainstream lifestyle and assimilation into it, which excludes any learning: of native roots and culture. Besides learning English and the ways of the people of the United States, however, these children also need to fill a native culture void in their lives.
The regular students will also benefit because these stories are from the island where many of their friends and classmates come from and[ they will be enriched with the stories because they show a different way of seeing things, life, love, etc. or give another viewpoint on an historical event.