Indigenous Cuba

Indigenous Cuba: Hidden in Plain Sight

Cuba is picturesque everywhere, but most visitors trek to the more accessible western end of the island – Havana and the nearby white-sand beaches, the historic bay and its boardwalk (malecón). This is the tourist mecca of colonial architecture and burgeoning arts, old time cars in a modern metropolis.

But Cuba the island – in the popular imagination and poetry – is a long crocodile (caiman). The west – and Havana – is the tail. The head of the caiman, my old people always said, is in the rugged east, the craggy mountain cordilleras of the fabled region called Oriente.

“Tierra soberana,” sing the troubadours – “sovereign land.”

Cuba begins through the Oriente, where the most settled Indian territories or cacicazgos, held sway. Through here the Spanish arrived in their conquest of Cuba in 1511 and here it was that the early Indian rebellions later evolved into the independence movements and wars of the 19th century. José Martí, the “Cuban Apostle” in the war against Spain was killed in battle near here. Teddy Roosevelt fought Spanish infantry nearby, at San Juan Hill. Even Fidel Castro’s revolution of the 1950s emerged in the history of these eastern mountains.

“Cuba profunda,” Alejandro Hartmann, calls it, “Deep Cuba.” Hartmann is city historian and director of the Matachin Museum, in the town of Baracoa, an ancient Native (Taíno) coastal village that became the first Spanish settlement in Cuba. Baracoa is still considered the gateway to indigenous Cuba. When Hartmann refers to Cuba profunda, he is signaling this reality: despite all the claims of Native people’s extinction in the Caribbean, in this region, encompassing the thick mountain chains inland from Baracoa to Guantanamo, and through the wider sierras, a Cuban indigenous presence is still recognizable.

I recently trekked with Hartmann up the coastal hills to the mountain cordilleras and the Indian community of La Rancheria. We went to visit our old friend, cacique Francisco Ramirez Rojas, “Panchito.”

La Rancheria is one of numerous small caserios or homesteads of the Native descended clan of Cubans known as the Rojas-Ramírez, called by anthropologists “la Gran Familia,” or the largest family in Cuba. The Rojas-Ramírez families are descendants of the Native Caribbean people that today are popularly and academically known as the Taíno. There are numerous caserios of Rojas-Ramírez families in over 20 localities in the Cuban eastern mountains and coasts, a kinship with upwards of 4,000 people.

The particular community of La Rancheria is nestled high up the wooded mountains of a pueblo called Caridad de los Indios. Nearby, about half an hour by horse, is another Native community of La Escondida, or “the hideout.” These were the most remote refuge areas – called palenques, in Cuba – where numerous Indian families migrated after losing lowland farms and their last Indian jurisdiction, El Caney, as late as 1850.

After four hours of riding up the mountain first in a jeep, then a large open truck, we find Cacique Panchito in good health. At 81, he has taken up using a cane, but has good mobility and is lucid as ever. Healthy and mobile too is the family matriarch and Panchito’s wife of 60 years, Reina. They are busy today with a visit from several related families. A pig has been butchered by sons and grandsons, who are making fire and roasting it in a pit. Several of their daughters and granddaughters chat and cut up tubers such as malanga, boniato and yucca – all original Indian crops – and sort rice, corn and beans to cook for the feast.

Panchito Ramirez is a born and bred Indio campesino, whose deep roots in the teachings of his elders singled him out for respect and recognition as main authority – cacique – of his community for more than 40 years. Other caciques had come before him in these remote mountain communities, but were so marginalized and out of sight that the national society assumed all Cuban Indians extinct. The reality of actual small communities was obscured by the fog of national scholars who predicated a strict Spanish-African origin for the Cuban population, repeatedly denying the indigenous strand in the national braid.

José Barreiro, Smithsonian Scholar Emeritus, retired from the NMAI in 2016. He is a contributor and early curator for the upcoming exhibition, Taíno: Native Ancestry and Identity in the Caribbean.