Skip to main content

Indigenous roots inform author's latest work

  • Author:
  • Updated:
    Original:

An interview with novelist Tina Casanova

Editor's note: This interview was conducted in Spanish and translated by the author. Below is an excerpt of their conversation.

OLD SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico - In 2004, a DNA study of a sample of present-day Puerto Ricans found that nearly 70 percent had indigenous mitochondrial DNA. The results would force historians and others to re-examine Puerto Rican history and, eventually, Puerto Rican identity. A new fictional narrative examines this indigenous legacy.

Novelist Tina Casanova's ''The Last Sounding of the Conch'' traces a Puerto Rican family 20 generations back to their Taino roots in the context of a modern mystery. In Old San Juan, at the Center for Advanced Caribbean Studies of the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture, she spoke with Indian Country Today about her research into the indigenous history of the island and of her own family.

Indian Country Today: Ms. Casanova, how did you come across the theme of your latest novel?

Tina Casanova: My background is in historical novels. In them I am recreating our histories in a fictionalized form. They are basically not novels, but fictionalized history. What I was missing was the reconstruction of our indigenous heritage that I didn't want to touch because it's such a difficult subject. These ideas were in conflict with me because I was raised as indigenous. Nevertheless, I heard in school that Indians hadn't existed for some time [in Puerto Rico]. But then, I was born in a bohio [a traditional Taino dwelling] made of straw, I slept in a hammock, I ate yucca, malanga, nyame and calabasa. My mother made casaba bread for breakfast. I played with archaeological pieces that my father found when he was planting bushes on the farm. He dug up a stone hatchet and he said, ''Here is a stone of sunlight'' [a Taino phrase coming from the idea of stones coming out of sunrays]. I played with all those things but I had no awareness of my mother being indigenous. I had no awareness that I was Indian, because they had been ''destroyed.'' That's why it was a little hard for me to work on this theme.

ICT: Tell me about the story in this most recent work.

Casanova: ''The Last Sounding of the Conch'' is the novel in which I try to recreate what I have just been talking about: taking real historical facts as a foundation. I create a society that conforms to the historical data and I travel through it by following 20 generations.

ICT: How was it that the indigenous came to be the Boricua that you encounter in the 21st century here in Puerto Rico in Borinquen, and where does the title come from?

Casanova: I set the novel in Chimborazo, which is a place that does exist. It sits between [the towns of] Florida, Ciales and Manati. It is in the calcareous zone because that's where the Enchanted River runs. It is the longest, most completely explored subterranean river in the world. I recreate a mythic, magical place, because it has all these elements, the mountain, the calcareous zone; it has a drain that goes into the Enchanted River. It is the ideal site, with so many caves, for a culture to hide itself and wait, and to wait for a victory. So it is that they can live there or that they could leave and be absorbed. What happens is that they survived. ''The Last Sounding of The Conch'' then is the following.

Chief Aracibo - which is for whom the town of Arecibo is named - decides that the Spaniard is not God, but it wasn't he who [first] decided this. That was found out 15 years beforehand in Hispaniola, now Dominican Republic and Haiti, because it was there that some of the first Spaniards died in Fort Nativity and then [the indigenous] knew immediately that the Spaniard was not God. That was a myth that had to be broken.

It had been 15 years that the Spaniards had been dying like flies, first from the diseases and second from when the Indians started attacking them. Then Aracibo decides, in 1508, ''We know for what they have come, we will declare guasabara,'' which is to declare war. He has a cemi [ancestor statue] of gold that the greedy Spaniards wants. Aracibo says the war will start, but first he engages a medicine man to take the cemi to the Chimborazo Mountain and hide it. Then, when they have won the war - when they have killed off all the Spaniards - he would sound the conch again and the cemi Yucahu, his god, will return again to Arecibo. The conch never sounded that last time. They did not win it in the way one wins a conventional battle; but there are many ways to win ...

And now, when we find out from this study that we have 60 percent indigenous DNA in our blood ... well, then I believe we have won. It is a triumph.

Remember that the Spaniard stole our history from us on top of stealing our gold, because they wrote the history that was convenient to their purposes.

ICT: Why did they say the indigenous were exterminated?

Casanova: For many reasons, but for me there are two very important ones. One was religious; the other, economic. First, they had decided that the Indians - the indigenous - were people. The blacks, no. The black man had no soul, according to the Catholic Church, so he was not a person. For the Christian, he was not a person.

ICT: That concept of the indigenous as a human being, did that come from las Casas? [Bartolome de las Casas was a Spanish priest sent to the Antilles who was the first European to assert that ''Indians'' were human.]

Casanova: Yes. Remember that we had the Catholic kings who were closely linked to Rome. Rome named them as such by a series of deceitful maneuvers that were not very clear. They were beginning to unify Spain and they were beginning to win lands for the crown. The last thing the Catholic kings wanted was a scandal because here they were massacring Indians and it was because of that that they sent this friar, Bartolome de las Casas, whose integrity was also questionable as he had black and Indian slaves. He had a black slave given to him as part of his property. While history did not note this in any written form - there were records of de las Casas' slaves elsewhere - the chronicles say he came here and he did protect the Indians because, by then, the Indians were people to the Catholic Church. Whatever they did with the black African slave was not a problem because they were not people; they were even considered a little less than an animal. Because of this we have, all through the generations, blood on our hands.

That's how we have a clear view of that scene; when I go to the chronicles I read them with a very critical perspective ... with a perspective that is very, very selective, looking for the history behind the history. I say that I am recovering our history from the erasures of that official history.

Rick Kearns is a freelance writer of Boricua heritage who focuses on indigenous issues in Latin America.