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Island of Tears

Río Grande de Loíza! ... Great river. Great tear. The greatest of all our island tears, But for the tears that flow out of me Through the eyes of my souls for my enslaved people. Río Grande de Loíza! - Julia de Burgos

When I remember my mother’s mother, I remember a very beautiful woman with dark indian features. Her Taíno roots were shown in her high cheekbones and nose. She had a deep affinity for nature and medicinal plants. My grandmother's grandmother would tell her stories of when the Spaniards drove the Taínos into Mona and the mountains, and how they would ride long canoes to visit their relatives. Puerto Rico’s first indigenous people, the Taíno Indians, were a peaceful, skilled people. They lived in relative harmony until 100 years before the Spanish invasion that is when another indigenous tribe, the Caribs, invaded Puerto Rico. The Caribs were a fierce, warlike tribe from South America. The Caribs were aggressive, sadistic people using poison on the end of their arrows, invading and taking mostly Taíno women as slaves, and practicing cannibalism as a way of life. When Ponce de Leon decided to explore the beautiful island of Puerto Rico in search of the fountain of youth, he arrived on an island that was already filled with tension and battle between the Taíno and Caribs. The indigenous people would shed many more tears with the invasion of the Europeans.

Disease and being forced to work in copper and gold mines took away their time spent to harvest. Not being able to grow their food led to starvation, and coupled with illness and cruel treatment by the Spaniards, an estimated 3 million Taíno died by the 1500s. The Carib and Taíno joined together to try to fight off their European invaders, but they were no match. By 1850, 40 percent of the Spaniards had married Taíno women and with the introduction of African slavery there was even more intermixing of the races creating a mestizo population. Still, despite what we have been told for years, the Taíno didn’t disappear. The Spanish, while not respecting them, adapted to their way of life, living in huts and sleeping in hammocks. They grew their crops, corn, yucca and beans. The Taíno lives in all of us today.

If you have ever eaten at a barbecue, smoked a cigar, eaten sweet potato fries, eaten a dish made with beans ,you are seeing glimpses of the gentle Taíno. I remember as a child being in upstate New York with my grandmother and listening to her point out medicinal leaves and I can still see her today in the green forest, her Taíno blood flowing in her as she walked quietly ahead of me. The tears of her ancestors are not wasted. They live in me today.

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