Taíno Symposium – Session 1 – Sherina Feliciano-Santos

Sherina. Sherina, Dr. Sherina Feliciano Santos. Please, we invite you over. You’re a hard act to follow, honestly. Thank you, Sherina. Yes, I’d tell you as a Ta na. I was going to say something different, but I will go with another type of emotion and another path. I’ve been thinking about grandmothers a lot. My grandmother Perez Quiñones, also from San Sebastián, Aterribo neighborhood, died yesterday. I got the news when I was having coffee with Anaca, with Grandmother Shashira and Brenda. And I got to thinking because these types of occasions, it’s a time for reflection also. And my grandmother was a bit jealous of Shashira. I knew that. Shashira and Yarey came to my house on one occasion. I think we were at the Orange Festival. And we stopped by my house to have some rice and beans. I think we had tostones. Typical food. And my grandmother comes down. She lived, I grew up with my grandmother living upstairs. And my grandmother asked me, why are you spending so much time with her? And I explained to her, grandmother, this is the research I am doing for my doctoral thesis, and I am learning about the Indigenous with them. You know that I learned about these issues and I wanted to write about it. And she says, what are you learning? I tell her, grandmother, right now, Shashira is teaching me to make casabe, because when I told her about my doctoral thesis topic, Shashira made me cook. And I wasn’t about cooking. And my grandmother tells me, but I know how to make casabe. If you had asked me, I’d tell you. And I tell her, well, you never told me. Well, you never asked me. And I thought about that. And at the time, that made me feel bad. I really didn’t know that grandmother knew how to make casabe, and she would just make it for my grandfather, not for me. I thought that, well, I like the Holsum brand sandwich bread. And I got to thinking yesterday what other things I didn’t ask my grandmother. What other things she might have told me that I didn’t pay much attention? And I thought about my other grandmother. She died in 2014. Her name was Adela Santiago González, and she was from the La Esperanza neighborhood, in Vieques. And her past is still a book being discovered. I don’t know everything about her. She carries in her name her mother’s last name because she wasn’t recognized. She was an illegitimate daughter. And we didn’t even know about his name. I didn’t know much about him, and it wasn’t until I began my doctoral work that I became interested in this issue and I began to look into genealogy that I asked mami, hey, listen, do you know the name of your grandfather, my great grandfather? She says, yes. She tells me the name. I won’t share it because she wasn’t recognized, and, well, I won’t recognize him. She tells me the name and I looked him up. And I kept on looking, and you know, in Puerto Rico, genealogy is not science; it’s art because not everything is written. And I learned about him a little bit, that he had family in Guadeloupe, in Portugal, all these things. I say, well, look, I didn’t know anything about that. And I ask mami, and she asks Granny Adela, because Granny Adela was a closed book. There is one here who met her; she was grandmother. She wasn’t my grandmother. I still loved her, but she was grandmother. And she says, well, yes, he was called Frenchie. He spoke French, and something that was being discovered, but she wouldn’t tell me. She didn’t know much about her stories; they hurt her. They weren’t something that she wanted to share, necessarily. And this was about 10 years ago. She briefly mentioned it, and she was gone. And when she died, I also asked myself, how many stories I will not know about. How many stories I didn’t ask, how many stories I didn’t pay attention to? When I came to the context of this research, I began to think quite a bit about these exchanges between Granny Adela and me. And yesterday, between me and Granny Esther. And I wonder about the knowledge my family had that was lost with them. If I didn’t know the name, if that day, out of curiosity, I didn’t think about the name of my great grandfather, once they were gone, would I be able to get that information? It’s not written in any book. It won’t be written in any file. I won’t find it in any census. And even with this knowledge I have, what do I do with this information? What do I do with this knowledge? What part of me would go back? Suddenly, am I someone who will research Guadeloupe or Portugal? Those are the stories that were not shared with me. At home, they were really from Vieques. In part of my mami’s house, it was the Navy, stickers, all those kinds of things. And that really stayed with me because those are the stories I was told, the ones I heard, the ones that stuck with me. And there’s more to those stories. Adela lived in Santa Cruz, like many Vieques people. She left for economic issues. Likewise, my father moved to Chicago because of the economic issues in San Sebastián. They returned anyway, but those are moves that reflect the economic, political, social story of the island. Those are not decisions that people necessarily made because they wanted to make them. Those were decisions that were made for them, that grew on them, and of which they try to make sense. And I realized that through these stories I was told, that I’m trying to recover in my memory. They help me to make sense of my place in the world, and the steps I’m going to take. But I get to thinking, how many other Boricuas, Dominicans, Cubans, Haitians, Jamaicans have been told those stories? And who says I’m going to listen to them? Who says, I’m going to ask more questions? Or who says, those are crazy things of my grandmother? I won’t pay attention to it. That’s not what I read in the books. And how do those people understand each other? And I really don’t know. I can’t predict it, and I can’t force anyone to think one way or another, but I can bring that sensitivity and empathy in the way that I listen to the ways that people listen to their stories, and do or have a time to give some time to their grandparents, and the stories they tell them and the questions they ask them. This reflection was part of the reason why I decided to initiate the studies of the tales, stories and the way to talk and communicate of Taínos. And I will admit it, in 2005, when I was at the museum, and I was looking at Sandra Kuilan Torres, the Taínos, with skepticism. I was also a skeptic. They were not the stories that I decided to listen to at that time. They are not the stories I was told, they were not the questions I asked. And when I looked at it, I said, wow. And I called this woman here, a friend of mine, Anén, and I told her, have you hear this about Taínos? And I was skeptical. And I went to the university and I talked to a professor of mine, who was my academic advisor, and she was also studying Indigenous matters. And she’s also a Native. And she tells me, you know that this is what they say about the groups in the United States, that we don’t exist. And you have also learned that, that it’s a colonial way of thinking. It is a non-complicated way of thinking. Why are you doing the same to your own people? And that got me thinking. I said, wow, I am learning all these big concepts, decolonization, hegemony, ideology, and I criticize them for other people. But when it comes to myself, my blinders come on. And that’s when this project was born for me. Actually, it didn’t begin, and I am honest with the identification. It began with empathy. It began with listening to the stories and say, the same way I want to listen to the stories of my own grandmothers that I want to give some room to these ways of understanding which are not the same as in the books. Those ways of viewing the world that perhaps with this evidence, which is not what’s being taught in the classroom. Stories that I won’t see reflected, because as someone who was raised in the fields, many times, I don’t see things like that, many times, in the general stories. They were not written from that perspective. They were written from a very limited perspective that sees the world in their own way. And that’s what they wrote; and they were not necessarily in communication with the people in the fields. So, I began to study in 2006. I continued with my interviews, spending time with Taíno organizations, talking to people. And I realized that the way many of Taínos see the world was not compatible with the ways of making story that I had learned in school. And I realized that there is also a transient nature. Many people always ask me why they mobilized publicly in the 60s and 70s. And I will always try to look at two different ways to answer. When I talked to many people in the fields or in the cities there were Taínos everywhere many people would tell me that these grandmother stories, I paid attention to them, and I kept them and I’d pass them on. But when the time comes and one has to think about what’s happening historically in Puerto Rico what is happening in the 50s and 60s. Puerto Rico is incorporated as part of ELA and along with that came projects like DIVEDCO, projects such as community education, which at that time are trying to consolidate a Puerto Rican identity based on a way to understand the three parts, the three roots, but roots are hierarchically organized in a specific way. They are hierarchically organized in a way that one sees the Spanish as not marked, African is recognized, but it’s trivialized, and the Native is extinct and celebrated. . And when you have the ideology that is formed, much of this Puerto Rican ideology was celebrated in many non-Native contexts; but it also depended on the extinction of a narrative that does not recognize anyone being able to take on that position. That is not many different to what happens in many places with Indigenous groups. It is a very common narrative around the formation of national. In seeing that, I got to thinking in which way to see that ceremonial centers become parks, seeing that they become places for archeological study. It coincides with this mobilization that one sees in political terms of visibilization as a political group outside the specificity of passing on certain traditions. So, when I think about the Native movement, and its beginnings, I feel that one can see these movements as part of them. But part of them are also the people like you who decided to listen to your grandmothers, listen to your grandmothers, and say, I will pay a bit of attention to this, and I will continue to ask questions. Thank you. Gracias, Sherina.

Glenn Chapman

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