Indigenous Cuba

Indigenous Cuba: Hidden in Plain Sight

For a country that experienced severe food shortages, and near-starvation conditions just a generation ago, it is a message that resonates. Many well remember that when the highinput Soviet style farms went defunct with the whole socialist bloc, it was in fact the old Taíno crops and endemic herbal medicines, applied along with new organic farming technologies, that saved the country from starvation.

In Cuba, the discussion goes beyond acknowledging the Indian kinship group of the Rojas-Ramírez people of the Oriente. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, a broader debate on Cuban identity issues has intensified as well. Things ancient and traditional, practical and high-minded constitute a current of discussion. A vigorous urban agriculture, a green or agro-ecological movement grew and has matured in the past 30 years.

As elsewhere, the discussion of indigeneity is impacted by new genetic studies, which for Cuba reveal that 34.5 percent of the general population is inheritor of Native-American mitochondrial DNA. The highest levels are found in the eastern region of Cuba: Holguín (59 percent) and Las Tunas (58 percent). This news has dealt a frontal blow to the historical dictum of early Native extinction.

A current of scholars and, more interestingly, of young activists is finally excavating not only archeological material but intangible cultural elements of indigenidad en la cubanía. A new direction is suggested; writes new generation Cuban scholar Robaina Jaramillo: “[Academic thinking] limited... our self-concept in the Cuban cultural identity... by omitting...the first transculturation process in the genesis of the Cuban nation, [that] between Indian and Spanish and Indian and African.”


After years of modest traveling through Cuba rekindling the Native family bonds, the old campesino Cacique Panchito, mostly non-literate, formally broke through the historical extinction barrier in 2014, when his community was acknowledged at a formal national-international conference on Indigenous cultures of the Americas. He got to bring his message there, and to introduce his daughter, Idalis, to help him represent their community.

As always, Panchito’s message was about working, loving and dreaming Mother Earth. Very simply, very consistently, he frames his words around the most important issue: invoking the proper farming and forestry techniques, and the spiritual values that underpin such a philosophy, to produce food and other natural gifts for the people. His consistent representation of the spiritual values that can still inform Cuba’s strong movement of ecoagriculture has resonated with currents in the new generation ready to engage the issues of people and the land.

Today, one of Panchito and Reina’s daughters has requested a community baptism for her newborn granddaughter. The job belongs to Doña Luisa, 94, oldest woman in the community. A circle is formed, outside, and under the midday sun. Doña Luisa bundles herbs with which to bless with water and leads a long prayer. The baptism has Christian elements but it is not merely so. A signal song and prayer of the community, appreciation to the Sun and the Moon, is intoned.

The grandmother requests a tobacco prayer circle. She asks Panchito and Idalis to lead it. The rolled cigar is lit and smoked to the four directions. Panchito calls on his prayer to the natural potencies of the world. As he ends, the elder woman of the community sanctifies the baby and presents her to her parents, she reminds them, “now no longer just of the monte, and as casi, or almost-Christian.”

I asked Panchito later why the term almost-Christian? “Because we respect everything,” he says. “The nina belongs to her parents, and she belongs to us, she belongs to the nation, she belongs to nature, and she belongs to God.”

Doña Luisa says. “Yes, we have our own way of being (“nuestra manera de ser”).”

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.