This unit on the Taínos of Puerto Rico is designed for a Spanish for Spanish Speakers class, but may be adapted to any Spanish class above a Spanish 4 level of proficiency. Most of the Latino students at James Hillhouse High School are Puerto Rican. Their level of Spanish language proficiency varies but they share a desire to develop and refine their Spanish skills. They also share a desire to find out more about their culture. By their culture I mean the Puerto Rican culture, which includes the indigenous group: the Taínos. Part of a Puerto Rican’s identity is the mixture of races and cultures: Spanish, African, and Taíno. Felipe Dessús captures this sentiment: “Soy indio, soy africano, soy borincano.” 1
Borinquen is the Taíno name for Puerto Rico and it means
La tierra del altivo Se–or
, or The Land of the Mighty Lord.
Although the Taínos are extinct as a separate and identifiable race or culture, they are alive in Puerto Rico in our vocabulary, music, and beliefs. As Rafael González Mu–iz noted, “
Nuestro indio vive todavía: en lo físico, los sentimientos de nuestra gente, la bondad, y la toponomía
.” (Our Indians live today: in the physical traits, the feelings and emotions of our people, our kindness, and the toponomy of Puerto Rico. ) 2
For those Hillhouse students who are not Latino or not Puerto Rican, this unit is compelling in a different way. I have found my students want to know more about the Taínos and their tragic history of oppression and genocide. Our high school curriculum and our official textbooks in Spanish language classes are consistently silent about the contributions of the Taínos. The intent of this unit is to remedy this silence.
As a Spanish teacher, one of my goals is to introduce my students to authentic literature and culture. The Taínos are now extinct as a distinct and separate cultural group, but their legacy remains in the language, customs, and culture of some of the islands of the Caribbean: Puerto Rico, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and Jamaica. Some sites still remain, such as ballparks, ceremonial parks,and caves. On some of these sites, petroglyphs remain. Some artifacts such as
(ceremonial stools) and
(household deities) can be found in museums. The language of the Taínos was not a written one, and primary sources are scarce. Some documentation of their lifestyle may be found in the writings of Spanish priests in Puerto Rico in the early 16th century. More extensive information may be found in the books by Ricardo Alegría, noted historian and author. Some of the Taíno words were borrowed by the Spanish and subsequently by the English languages, and are modern day reminders of this once proud and vigorous race of people. These words include
The information provided in our city curriculum and in our textbooks is perfunctory. The Taínos are underrepresented in the official textbooks used in New Haven.
includes a section about the Taínos and
includes a brief article in its cultural magazine. The Taínos are not covered in our foreign language curriculum in an intensive or extensive fashion. This is not surprising, considering the dearth of material in general, even outside of language classes. There does not exist a large number of reference books or material about the Taínos. We do not have in or near Connecticut a large number of Taíno art collections with the notable exception of El Museo del Barrio in New York City.The intent of this unit is to remedy this by providing teachers with some information about the Taínos that could prove useful in the classroom.
What the Yale seminar by Professor Jules Prown offers is a way or methodology of viewing and analyzing the Taíno objects or drawings. This discipline is called material culture, and it explores the formal language of objects. Objects embody the attitudes and beliefs of a culture. The techniques explained in this seminar will enable me and my students to study the information available about Taíno objects such as
, including drawings of these objects. As the objects are studied, the culture of the Taínos will be more fully revealed to my students.