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José Barreiro Bridges Two Realities and Two Worlds With Taíno: A Novel

The Taíno were the first to greet Christopher Columbus when he arrived in 1492 and were thus some of the earliest Indigenous Peoples to be decimated by colonization. But these original peoples of the Caribbean live on, and more and more of them are discovering their heritage. Scholars, too, are beginning to study the Taíno. 

Against this backdrop comes the paperback edition of Taíno: a Novel (Fulcrum Publishing, 2012) by José Barreiro, assistant director for research and director of the Office of Latin America at the National Museum of the American Indian. 

Originally published in 1993 by Arte Publico Press, Taíno debuted just as a movement of Puerto Ricans, Cubans and other people with West Indian roots was gathering momentum. The book was “scooped up by the Taíno rediscovery wave,” Barreiro said in a recent interview, and the reason is clear. (Related: I Am Taíno: Exploring the Indigenous Roots Throughout the Caribbean)

The 328-page book tells the story of Guaikán, a Taíno youth taken by Columbus from his homeland, the Bahamian island of Guanahani, during the first voyage in 1492. Concurrently it tells the story of Columbus, who adopts the boy after they arrive in Spain and names him Diego, and Father Bartolomé de Las Casas, a Spanish friar who takes Guaikán under his wing. All three tales are told through the eyes of the Guaikán people.

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The main story is Guaikán’s, because it is he who weaves all three narratives. He does so in 1532 (in his 40s) at the request of the friar, who tries to build a case to end the enslavement of ­Taínos through a series of journal entries that span the first 40 years of the post-­contact West Indies. Key events unfold: the conquest and colonization of the islands, including Columbus’s arrival and the 1493 attack on the Spaniards occupying Fort Navidad on Hispaniola, the first colony; the long, drawn-out rebellion of Enriquillo, a Taíno cacique (chief), which ended with the first treaty between Indigenous Peoples of the Americas and the Europeans, in 1533. The reader is drawn into Guaikán’s reality as the conquest forever alters his beloved homeland, his people and himself.

Guaikán was not only adopted by Columbus but also served as an ­interpreter during the navigator’s subsequent voyages to the islands. It was a unique and powerful relationship but doomed from the start. Upon the first encounter, Guaikán is enchanted by the flaming-­haired admiral’s presence and his command of the sea, arriving with his followers in “huge canoes with wings like seagulls.” 

But with every atrocity committed against the Taínos, Guaikán’s image of his adoptive father darkens. No less striking is his relationship with Las Casas, which ends up declining as well. Nevertheless the Taíno man seeks to please him because the friar has taken up the cause of his people, and Guaikán needs him to protect them. 

As an interpreter, Guaikán serves as a bridge between two worlds. Similarly, this novel links to a culture that has mostly been ignored by mainstream historical literature, and Barreiro masterfully weaves in the Taíno language, traditions, foods and cultural bond with the sea and other natural elements. The book also bridges realities during a time and place that is almost always viewed through the lens of the conquerors.