Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Not Everyone Who Speaks Spanish is from Spain: Taíno Survival in the 21st Century Dominican Republic

Note: This is only a portion of the article. I have also left out tables and illustrations. Please go to the original article to see these items.

Taíno Heritage

Linguistic Features

The Dominican Republic often uses its indigenous name Quisqueya as a common referent. Dominicans like to call themselves "Quisqueyanos"; the name even appears in the first words of the Dominican national anthem: "Quisqueyanos valientes..."

The Spanish language has several hundred words that come from the indigenous Arawakan language of the Caribbean. These words go beyond names of objects, place names, flora, and fauna that did not have a name in the Spanish language, like canoa, hurican, hamaca, caiman, barbacoa, tobaco, maraca, marimba, iguana, and manatee. There are also many words and expressions that are indigenous in origin that are used instead of their Spanish names. Examples include: mabi, a natural juice; macana, a policeman's club; and macuto, a hand sack. The Taíno phrase "un chin" or "chin-chin" means a small amount in Dominican Spanish, and is as common as the Spanish phrase "un poquito." The use of these words suggest not simply the effect of one culture borrowing or appropriating names for things they did not know, but a more complex interplay between two cultures.

Many, if not a majority of Dominican cities, campos, rivers, and mountains have indigenous names, including: Amina, Bani, Bao, Bonao, Cotui, Cutupu, Dajabon, Damajagua, Guajaca, Guayubin, Inoa, Jacagua, Janico, Licey, Magua, Maguana, Mao, Nagua, and Samana. The majority of rivers have Taíno names, including Haina, Maimon, Ozama, Sosua, Tireo, and Yaque. Most native trees and fruits have Taíno names, including Anacajuita, Caimito, Cajuil, Caña, Caoba, Ceiba, Cuaba, Guacima, Guano, Guao, Guayaba, Guanabana and Guayacan. Beyond flora, indigenous insects, birds, fish, and other animals with names of Taíno origin may list into the hundreds. They include the Bibijagua (ant), Comejen (termite), Carey (sea turtle), Hicotea (river turtle), manatee, and Guaraguao (Dominican hawk).

Due to the process of mestizaje, whereby the Spaniard male colonists took Indian wives, it is not surprising that no Taíno surnames have survived to the present. Still, Dominicans use historical Taíno names in the contemporary naming of children. Examples include the prominent politicians Caonabo Polanco and Hatuey Deschamps, and jazz great Guarionex Aquino.

Many Dominicans can distinguish a Taíno name by its sound, though not reliably. It may be that the Cibao rural dialect's transformation of words ending in the Spanish suffix "-ado" into the Arawakan sounding "ao" is a vestige of Taíno pronunciation (e.g., colorado becomes colorao). Regardless of its true historicity, it is certain that there exists a romanticized Indian association with these campo pronunciations. Another example is the use of the "I" with words ending with an "R" (Qué calor! becomes Qué calo-i!).

It is interesting that several Taíno words that are used in other parts of the Antilles, are not used in the Dominican Republic. Examples include using the Spanish word lechosa instead of the indigenous papaya, the Spanish word pina (pineapple) instead of the indigenous yayama, and the Spanish cotorra (parrot) instead of the indigenous higuaca. However, for all these words, many people are aware of their indigenous names as well. There are several instances where both indigenous and Spanish words are interchangeable, for example, the Spanish word tarantula and the Taíno word cacata are used equally (see Figure 4).

Some indigenous words have changed their meanings over the years. For example, a batey, which originally described a Taíno ceremonial ball court, today refers to the residence location of Haitians on sugar plantations. Guacara, originally referring to a cave or cavern, now describes a place or thing of antiquity.


Many Dominican agricultural terms have Taíno origins. The word conuco, while its meaning is lost as a mixed-crop method of agriculture similar to the mainland indigenous milpa, has retained the concept as a plot of land used for farming. Unfortunately, Dominicans have not retained the Taíno use of montones, or raised mound agriculture, and suffer from one of the worst records of topsoil depletion in the Caribbean (Ferguson 1992). So too, unfortunately, Dominicans have overused the Taíno technique of slash and burn (swidden) agriculture.

Many Dominican farmers use what they call the mysterios, or the spiritual secrets of agriculture, including planting with the lunar cycle. This practice is documented for the Taíno as well. Agricultural knowledge is reported to be passed on from generation to generation. It is interesting to note that in some regions, particular days of the week are considered bad times to plant. This practice may be a creolized Catholic/Taíno manner of understanding the spiritual division of the human world. One final agricultural item from pre-Columbian times is the use of the coa, the indigenous word for a digging stick, which is still employed for planting, though today with a metal point.

Yucca and Casabe

The starchy vegetable tuber yucca is a central part of contemporary Dominican diet. Sweet yucca is a staple, boiled and served for breakfast and dinner, often with eggs or a small meat accompaniment. Yucca is well matched to Dominican soil and life ways, whereby it can grow in semi-arid climates and on hillsides, and can conserve for several months in the earth without rotting. It was the key to Taíno survival and it is no surprise that Yucahu was one of the principal deities. So too is it identified as the most Dominican of the staples.

The baking of casabe bread from bitter yucca flour is a Dominican tradition that has strong ties to the Taíno past. While common at the household level only generations ago, casabe production is today available principally from family bakeries and small factories, who truck the casabe to local stores throughout the country. The technology of casabe production has not changed much over the years, and most of the terminology is the same. The yucca is grated with guayos (today sharpened spoons peel the yucca and mechanical metal graters are used for grating), leeched of the poisonous starch (anaiboa or almidón) in canoe shaped receptacles (canoa), strained, and dried into flour (catibia). Then the flour is spread with the help of a circular iron mold, and baked on the top of an oven (buren) for about twenty minutes until solid (Figure 5). Casabe can conserve in its cooked form for several months without spoilage, making it an important food product in the tropical environment. Casabe is always served during Christmas and Easter times, and its presence on the Dominican table is expected. It is important to note that in recent years the availability of bread made from wheat flour have led to a diminished use of casabe in Dominican diets.

Alternative uses of yucca flour have declined in their importance over the years, however several food products are still made. Panesico are baked logs of yucca flour and pork fat, and are considered a specialty of the Cibao region. Dominican empanadas, deep-fried dough pockets stuffed with meat, are only made with yucca flour. Bolas de yuca are deep-fried balls of yucca flour. Jojadra are powdery ginger cookies made of yucca starch.

Foodways and Tobacco Use

Besides yucca, many fruits and vegetables of indigenous origin have remained staples in the Dominican diet. They include the guayaba, guanabana, pina, lechosa, yautia, mani, and batata. Other indigenous fruits and vegetables that are eaten but are becoming less common include the anon, mamon, caimito, jagua, jobo, and mamey. Ajies (peppers) are an essential part of daily bean preparation. The popular Dominican salcocho (stew) may be derived from the indigenous pepper pot or ajiejaco, and arepas (corn-fritters) may also be of indigenous origin. Certainly both these dishes have native connotations surrounding them. So too is seasoning with bixa (annatto seed), although this spice's use has dwindled with the availability of packaged seasoning and canned tomato sauce.

Cooking in earthenware pots, similar in style to Taíno ceramic ware, while becoming more and more rare, is known as a way of making beans more flavourful. Vega (1987:100-101) documents the use of another indigenous root, guayiga in the making of a bread-mush called cholo, popular in the south. Another root, guayaro, appears wild throughout the Cibao. The terms mabi and cacheo describe non-alcoholic drinks with indigenous origins that are still locally produced from fermented palm. Finally, the Taíno word bucán describes the technique of spit-roasting, an important element of a barbecue (Taíno word barbacoa).

Tobacco (tabaco) has a long history of use in the Dominican Republic, especially in the campo. Tobacco is an integral part of santería ceremonies, where cigar smoking is used in spirit offerings and possession rituals. Besides being big business for export, tobacco is ubiquitous as a smoking product throughout the Dominican Republic. People smoke locally made cigarettes, as well as cigars and pipes. Many traditions of tobacco use include rolling cigars (tubanos), or smoking a compacted tobacco leaf plug called andullo in a pipe (cachimba) or rolled in cigarette paper (pachuche).

Medicinal Knowledge

Dominican natural medicinal knowledge makes use of many indigenous plant species and healing techniques. Many remedies have a Taíno association to them, and it is probable that this association is not coincidental but was handed down over the generations as seen in Cuba (Barreiro 1989). Examples of natural medicine using indigenous products are numerous and include the use of calabaza leaves for toothaches and swelling, ingesting maguey juice for the flu, and eating guayaba for nausea. There are herbalists and curanderos in every campo, and it is often common to see greater reliance on natural medicines further away from industrialized city centers (Weeks et al. 1994). However, due to the increased use of pharmaceuticals, natural medicine has also declined in recent years.

Fishing Techniques

Fishing techniques of indigenous origin have been well documented by Vega (1987:105-106). These include the use of fishing corrals, the temporary poisoning of small rivers or pools (sometimes with the almidón leeched from bitter yucca), the use of fiber fishing nets (nasas), and techniques for localizing fish and shellfish in shallow waters. The following fish and marine animals all have Taíno names: carite, menjua, cojinua, jurel, dajao, guabina, macabi, tiburon, guatapana, lambi, burgao, carey, juey, hicotea, and jaiva. Fishing has become a less important food procurement strategy in recent years, as dams, soil erosion, and pollution have dramatically lessened the quantity of fish in rivers.

Crafts and Technologies

Locally made ceramics use basic forms with transculturative origins. Most popular in contemporary campo use today are tinajas, large amphoras used for water storage, and rounded cooking vessels called oyas. With the availability of imported plastic and metal containers and cooking pots, however, the use of ceramics in Dominican culture is waning.

While the Taíno had a strong tradition of woodworking, Dominicans seem to have been progressively losing their woodworking skills. This may be, in part, due to deforestation and the unavailability of many of the fine woods like caoba (mahogany). There is, however, in the contemporary Dominican Republic, industrial production of fine furniture. Rocking chairs are well known as Dominican cultural items and chairs are available for guests in even the poorest of households.

Bateas are flat wooden containers that are used to carry fruits. Their origin is Taíno, and often associated with their use for washing gold in rivers. Indeed, bateas are still used for this purpose today, for example in the Rio Chacuey. Bateas, like ceramics, are becoming less and less used, with the importation of cheap alternative plastic containers and receptacles. Many traditional makers of bateas have had to use less durable trees in recent years, making their products of cheaper quality. Some have expanded their product line into the tourist market by making decorative wooden spoons and forks. It is interesting to see that the word batea has been extended to the ponchera, the Spanish word for a large plastic bowl.

Dominican boat craft are still made along the coast, but have lost much of the technological features used in making Taíno canoas and cayucos. The method of making a canoa from a hollowed-out royal palm as a feeding and watering trough for cows is still found in some campos (Figure 6). This technology is becoming increasingly rare due to the limitations put on the cutting of larger trees, on the number of craftsmen who still know how to make a canoa, and on the increasing availability of used tractor tires as watering troughs.

Calabashes, called higuero, made of various sizes and shapes, are still used by rural Dominicans as water receptacles, bowls, and food containers (Figure 7). Macutos, handbags of guano or cana fiber are also still made, but are less prevalent due to the availability of plastic and paper bags. Baskets (canasta) made of bejuco (vines), palm, caña, guano, and other native fibers are used for clothes hampers and food containers, but are of relatively poor quality. Cabuya fibers are still used as cordage for ropes and whips, but synthetic fibers have become more popular in recent years. The use of native cotton (algodón) has all but disappeared with the importation of woven fabrics. Hamaca (hammocks) are today made with nylon cord mostly for sale to tourists. Beds have wholly replaced the hammock for sleeping. Finally, the use of large lambi (Strombus gigas) shells, called fotutos, by butchers to advise people what meat is being slaughtered by the number of blasts on the trumpet has indigenous origins, but is also disappearing as a cultural form.


The word bohío describes a country house, often with a caña roof and yagua palm siding, and is identified for its Taíno origins. It also describes the prevalent ranchos, patio or field structures with cana roofs used to shade the sun. Bohíos are built like the circular indigenous caney, or in a rectangular manner. Caña is used for its availability, its ability to withstand water, its durability (lasting up to twenty years in a tropical climate), and its breathabilty. Caña is also appreciated for its decorative beauty, and is often chosen for discotheques, restaurants, and cock fighting rings (galleras). The only negative element of using caña is it is not good for rainwater collection. Bejucos (vines) are sometimes still used to bind together ranchos, although nails are much more common. Another style of house building that also reflects Taíno heritage are those that use the royal palm yagua fronds for walls and roofing (see Figure 8).

Folklore and Religion

Folklore and religion have many associations with indigenous heritage. Taíno Indian spirits are commonly reported to dwell in rivers and caves throughout the country. Many sites of natural beauty or geological rarity have become associated as Indian places or sacred sites. Pools in rivers are often named "charco de los Indios" as are caves "cueva de los Indios", even if there is little artifactual evidence of indigenous use or occupation. Folklore often surrounds these places as spiritually dangerous or as sites where healing may occur, and are used accordingly.

Folk syncretic belief systems combine Indian imagery and spirit blessings into their ritual and belief structures. Herbal shops, or botanicas, often sell Indian statues and candles which are thought to bring good luck and fortune to a person using them. Indigenous herbs and flowers like copey are burned in spiritual contexts. Small bracelets are worn by new-borns for protection. Indigenous axe-heads or "piedras de rayo" are sometimes put into tinajas to protect a house from lightning.

Many stories about supernatural beings have indigenous origins, including the Ciguapa, a woman-beast with long hair and inverted feet.

Art, Poetry, and Literature

In the field of the arts, poetry, and literature, Dominicans have made great use of indigenous themes. Work by Cibao artists such as Luis Munoz, Bottin Castellanos, and Gina Rodriguez use Taíno imagery and technology in their artistic expression. Indigenous themes also appear in works of poetry and literature, theater and modern dance. Merenguero Juan Luis Guerra uses many indigenous themes in his music; a recent album of his was titled areito. Many Dominican folksongs, as well, make reference to Indians of Quisqueya, including the caciques Enriquillo and Anacaona.

Popular Identity

Perhaps the greatest association with the indigenous past comes with the biological feature known as the "Indio" skin color. While some official identity cards use the term "trigueño" to describe the majority of Dominicans, "Indio" is the commonly held concept for the color of Dominican skin, and the "race" of the Dominican people. The term, popularized by Trujillo to distance Dominicans from darker skinned Haitians, skirts the issue of Native American inheritance, which is referred to by the word indígena, and simply defines the physical manifestation of being of mixed race.

Dobal (1989:25) writes about indigenous physical qualities, temperaments, and sexuality of Taíno origin, and suggests that the long, straight-hair, large brown eyes, and soft skin of campesinas is Taíno in origin. While such observational criteria appear straight forward, subjective traits have proven to be unreliable in making larger cultural generalizations. So too, is it problematic to use early Spanish descriptions of physical beauty to generalize what the Taíno looked like in the 15th century. However, it is acknowledged that biological "racial" features are recognized by members of a cultural community and often form the basis of assessing cultural difference. Dominicans, certainly, would agree with Dobal's description of Indios.

Dobal further suggests that the Dominican has inherited the indigenous love for liberty, the appreciation for the esthetics as opposed to the functionality of objects, the lack of ambition or greediness, and the love for their homeland and place of birth (Dobal 1989:26). Indian strength and bravery is often a quality assumed by many Dominicans, and many campos which are known for the courage of their people are cited as places where there is a lot of Indian blood. Matrifocality is a cultural trait described in ethnohistoric documents about the Taíno, and can be tied to some degree to the present. Perhaps, it is a matrifocal love for homeland, that Dobal comments on, a love to be in the place where you were born and raised.

In the Dominican Republic, it is difficult to attach a clean ethnic category to the whole population. The amount of historical and contemporary miscegenation between individuals of different African, Indian, and European blood has been very high, and has produced a multitude of biological mixes. There is a tremendous range of so-called "racial" features, for example, in hair texture, skin color, and facial shape. Basically, the way Dominicans recognize and talk about biology, some Dominicans look more "Black", some more "White", and some more "Indian". In this sense, Dominicans appear as a multi-biological people. On top of this, however, many Dominicans have combinations of "racial" features that make it difficult to pinpoint their exact biological ancestry. Dominicans have invented names for over 20 different physical mixes including trigueño, indio, indio claro, trigueñooscuro, canelo, pinto, etcetera. Thus, the Dominican Republic appears a "melting-pot" as well as a place of many separate biologies.

Ultimately, though, when simple biology—the way people look—is put aside in favor of discussions about culture—what people do—the Dominican Republic displays a common denominator, uni-cultural identity that has little correlation with the physical appearance of its people. Indeed, there is no such thing as a distinct Black Dominican culture, White Dominican culture, or Indian Dominican culture. Regional difference do exist but for the most part, cultural differences appear between rich Dominicans and poor Dominicans, and between "city" Dominicans and "campo" Dominicans, and even these differences dissolve in discussions of a unifying national identity.

While it is true that Dominicans with more European ancestry and culture represent the group which historically have had more access to money and power, they represent a small fraction of the demographic whole. While their influence in controlling the production of national identity has been strong, I will be focusing on the cultural realities for the majority of Dominicans, who are poor and without access to power.

Popular Culture

Finally, Taíno imagery is often found in a romanticized form in various elements of Dominican capitalist and nationalist culture. Strong Taíno caciques, who appear portrayed as national heroes, appear on stamps and coins. Indians are found as sculpture and bas-relief on buildings, often in positions of subservience or in chains. Indians are often denigrated to the level of mascots hawking the following products: Enriquillo soda water, Guarina saltines and cookies, Siboney rum, and Hatuey soda crackers. The name "Taíno" adorns businesses from pizza parlors to delivery services. A popular beer is called Quisqueya. For many Dominicans these product names are their most familiar association with the Taíno past.

While nationalist Hispanic imagery has had a constraining effect on how Dominicans view the Taíno past, there are also unofficial alternate expressions that resist the dominant discourses. For example, many Dominicans claim that it is bad luck (fuku) to say the name Christopher Columbus aloud and that La Isabella, one of the first Spanish settlements on the north coast of the island, is haunted by Spanish ghosts. These may be considered signs of struggle against dominant history and rejections of official ways of speaking about the legitimated glory of the Spanish past. During the Columbian quincentennial a large multi-million dollar lighthouse monument was built in the Dominican capital of Santo Domingo. Surrounding it is a tall stone wall that blocks poor barrio residents from crossing the Faro's grounds. This wall, built to hide the realities of Dominican poverty from the visiting dignitary or tourist, is known by everyone as the Muro de la Verguenza, or the Wall of Shame. It is an apt metaphor for the official national vision of Dominican identity represented by the Faro: available only to those who have the power and wealth to access it (see Figure 9).

With the murder of human rights lawyer Rafael Ortiz during a quincentennial protest march, attention was called to the repressive, manipulative way the government was controlling the celebration of its national history. Ortiz's assassination proved to be a successful governmental tactic to quell further resistance to official quincentennial activities. Posters and simple graffiti reading "No al Quinto Centenario!" became the only visible form of organized resistance. Several critical articles in national newspapers did appear but had very little influence on the national quincentennial programs.

The quincentennial inspired Pilgrimage for Human Dignity was held on 5 December 1992 as a protest against the official Columbian celebrations. Literature distributed at the march read "... vamos a conmemorar la resistencia indígena, negra y popular en el día de la llegada de Colón..." On this pilgrimage from Santiago to Santo Cerro (La Vega), various banners were unfurled with anti-governmental imagery. One banner satirized the typical San Miguel image, dramatizing an Indian as San Miguel, slaying Columbus as the devil, his wings the flags of Spain and the United States (see Figure 10). It is no coincidence that San Miguel is also the “Captain of the 21st Indigenous Division” in syncretic religious belief. That is, Saint Michael has been transformed in folk belief systems to represent the Indian spirit who struggles against oppression (of all negative forms represented by the devil).

The active work of individuals like the organizers of the Columbian quincentennial protests opened many eyes to the realities of the Dominican past and present, which were exposed as intricately connected. So too did many educators, teachers and parents engage in their students and children a critical response to the national celebrations. A librarian from a private Santiago school encouraged students to work on projects concerning the indigenous past. The work they produced was well researched, informative, and edifying.

Ferbel, P. J. (2002). "Not Everyone Who Speaks Spanish is from Spain: Taíno Survival in the 21st Century Dominican Republic". KACIKE: The Journal of Caribbean Amerindian History and Anthropology [On-line Journal], Special Issue, Lynne Guitar, Ed. Available at:

1 comment:

JM said...

This is phenomenal! I enjoyed learning the origin of what constitutes a majority of the Dominican culture.