SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — On Thursday night, the shining star of the Caribbean was buzzing. Millions tuned in to Bad Bunny’s mega concert takeover. As he sang the summer hit “El Apagón,” in which he duly references a nation plagued by corruption that has left its electrical grid devastatingly compromised, he still found a way to recognize that we are lit by our Taíno sun.
Just days before, Pope Francis traveled to Canada to apologize for the atrocities the Church committed against the Indigenous peoples of the First Nations. This validating moment in history fueled my energy to be a voice for Indigenous Boricuas as a speaker at the League of United Latin American Citizens’ (LULAC) annual conference. LULAC is the oldest Hispanic civil rights organization in the United States.
What made the moment more special was that the organization was hosting its conference in Borikén, a land that my ancestors have called home for thousands of years, known to the world by its colonized name, Puerto Rico. This would have been the first time in my career as a journalist, producer, editor, author, and documentary filmmaker that I would be speaking at an event on the land that I was uprooted from as a child.
Returning home not for a family affair but to helm a luncheon of 1,000 Latinas was a dream. As it has turned out, it became an ugly nightmare, as I was censured from reading a Taíno Land Acknowledgment and caught up in the messy political quagmire of history, denial, and, most disturbingly, at the hands of an organization that is supposed to be protecting Latino civil rights.
For those unfamiliar, the year 1492 marks the beginning of a genocide of the Indigenous peoples in the Caribbean by the Spanish Crown that was gruesome, and there were many, many casualties. It may be news to many that the native people of Borikén survived. We were killed on paper, but we continued and continue to live, protect, steward, and thrive in the territories of our foremothers and forefathers. Due to colonization and land displacement, many Taínos have been scattered to the four corners of the globe. I am from a small clan on the southern coast, what is now Ponce, Peñuelas, Yauco, and Guayanilla, the land of Cacique Agüeybaná.
When I asked the producer of the event if LULAC was going to do a Taíno Land Acknowledgement and heard no, I offered to read one on behalf of the organization. This is what we call respect—equity and justice cannot begin if we don’t acknowledge First Nations people.
For those unfamiliar, land acknowledgments are formal statements that recognize and respect Indigenous peoples as the traditional stewards of their lands and the enduring relationship that exists between Indigenous peoples and their traditional territories. This recognition, albeit with some controversy, is something that has been happening across the U.S., especially in a post-Standing Rock and George Floyd America.
When we Taínos and Indigenous people speak about land it is within the context of who we are. Our relationship to the land embraces all aspects of our existence—culture, spirituality, language, and law. It’s a mixture of our blood, our past, present, and future.
As the daughter of an Indigenous woman who traces her roots to pre-Columbian times on the archipelago, I was also eager to welcome everyone to this sacred territory.
However, I decided to pull out of the event because its CEO censured my Taíno Land Acknowledgement. Not only did the CEO remove the meat and heart of the acknowledgment —the part where I say that the LULAC gathering is on Taíno land that has been occupied, seized, and unceded since 1493— but I was told that those words were violent.
Was the invasion by the Spanish Crown, the genocide, occupation, enslavement of its native people and later, of African people, and then the selloff in 1898 to another empire, the U.S., a lovely day at a spa? I was told that I had to find less “violent” words. Does anyone know euphemisms for rape and pillage?
More insultingly, I was told that my Taíno Land Acknowledgement was political. The organization also refused to align itself as the entity doing the land acknowledgment. If I were to do this acknowledgment, I was on my own.
Notice the sly edits:
In fact, before I wrote the Taíno Land Acknowledgement (see the full version below) I consulted two respected Taíno elders, a cacique from my mother’s village, Guayanilla de las Indias, and an elder, an abuela from Orocovis. Abuela Naniki counseled that my land acknowledgment needed to be clearer —it needed teeth— and she sent me an edited version. By the time I received it, it was too late to get it into the teleprompter.
Even though my version was tame, I was nonetheless happy that I would be representing my clan and extended Taíno family in the most honorable way. But it was not to be.
LULAC’s censoring an Afro-Boricua Indigenous woman is a reminder that the paper genocide continues to plague the native people of Borikén in modernity. That the leaders of an organization founded on the mission to protect the civil rights of Hispanics in 2022 fail to protect our human rights should be shocking.
At a time when Puerto Ricans are being displaced from our lands at a heartbreaking pace, when citizens here are fighting for our beaches, wetlands, clean water, and earth, and against fiscal policies that help the very wealthy who move to the archipelago and don’t pay taxes, this censorship is even more devastating.
I also realize it’s difficult for many people —including many Latinos, Latinas, and Puerto Ricans— who grew up with the myth that Taínos were killed, to understand that they were taught lies. It’s hard for many to be confronted with a truth—modern-day Taínos are claiming our lands, declaring to the world that we are here and that we are not going anywhere. To say that we are still here is a threat to the powers who occupy this land and their settler allies.
There may be a larger issue here as well. There is about to be a coup by pro-statehood Trump Republicans as chronicled by NBC News correspondent Suzanne Gamboa. Over the weekend, LULAC was served with a temporary restraining order that prevented it from holding its national election due to allegations of vote-rigging. LULAC is fighting for its life, and it seems I was caught up in the mess.
This censorship came on the heels of the CEO of LULAC, an allegedly non-partisan organization, announcing on Wednesday that the nonprofit and allegedly non-partisan organization is supporting statehood for Puerto Rico. There are bills pending in Congress that look to determine the territory’s future relationship with the U.S. That the historic Hispanic civil rights organization is taking a political position by intervening in pending policy and using its power to push an agenda that robs Puerto Ricans of their right to decide their future is what I call violence.
Taino Land Acknowledgement
Hermanas, sisters, relatives,
On behalf of LULAC and as the emcee for today’s gathering we begin with a land acknowledgment. It is important to know that the land on which we gather today is the occupied, unceded, territory of the Boricua Indigenous People known as the Taino People who have been fighting for their right to self-determination since 1493.
The Boricua Taino People have called Borikén our homeland for thousands of years. We are the guardians of these waters and lands. When we speak about our homeland, it is within the context of the land being a part of who we are. It’s a mixture of our blood, our past, our current, and our future. We carry our ancestors within us, and they’re around us. As you all do
We pay our respects to our elders, past, present, and future, and in keeping with my ancestral ways, I pay my respects to our elder Naniki who is visiting from Orocovis and is present with us today.
I am the daughter of the grand matriarch, Lydia Gonzalez Santos, Careya, and the great-granddaughter of the grand Jeca, Mama Ramona of Guayanilla from the territory of Cacique Agüéybana.
On behalf of my ancestors, past present, and future, and my extended Boricua Taino relatives, I would like to welcome you to our motherland.
May you have a blessed gathering.
Thank you for your attention and compassion.
Seneko kakona, abundant blessings my sisters.
Land Acknowledgment from Abuela Naniki from Orocovis
On behalf of LULAC and as the emcee for today’s gathering, we begin with a land acknowledgement because it is important to understand the historical context that has brought us to live and work on the lands where we do and to understand our place and role within that history.
Colonialism is a current ongoing process that requires us to be mindful of our present participation as indigenous peoples, immigrants, and peoples of color on the lands where we live and work.
In that spirit, on behalf of LULAC and as as the emcee for today’s gathering, we begin by acknowledging that the land on which we gather today is the occupied, unceded, territory of the Boricua Indigenous People known as the Taino People who have been fighting for their right to self-determination since 1493.
The Boricua Taino People have called Boriken their homeland for thousands of years. They are the guardians of these waters’ lands and resources. When they speak about their homeland, it is within the context of they are part the land and the land is part of who they are. The land provides and sustains them, and they sustain and manage the land. Their collectively held land rights reinforce their identity as Boricua Indigenous Peoples known as the Taíno Nation. Their relationship to the land embraces all aspects of their existence – culture, spirituality, language, and law. It’s a mixture of their blood, their past, their current, and their future. They carry their ancestors within them, they’re around them all the time and they guide and protect them.
The alleged myth of extinction of the Boricua Indigenous Peoples known as Taíno raises important questions about colonization, violence, and the diseases that contributed to reduce their population within their homeland which was not and is not ownerless thus, we acknowledge the collective rights of the Boricua Indigenous Peoples know as Taino and their descendants to claim collective ownership of these lands, waters and resources and their right to self-determination.
We therefore call upon LULAC especially in light of its historical origins as an institution of settler colonialism, to undertake substantial actions to confirm itself as an anti-colonial institution that respects diversity, upholds equity, stands for gender equality, inclusion and does not discrimination based on ethnicity, ability, sexual orientation or expresión of gender.
We call upon LULAC to support the struggle of the Boricua Indigenous Peoples of this land for recognition of their identities, ways of life and the right to their traditional lands, territories, and natural resources.
We pay our respects to our elders, past, present, and future and in keeping with my ancestral ways I pay my respects to our elder Naniki who is visiting from Orocovis and is present with us today.
I’m the daughter of Lydia Gonzalez Santos, Careya, and the great granddaughter of Jeca Mama Ramona of Guayanilla, the territory of Cacique Agüéybana.
As is our traditional custom we welcome you to our homeland with the understanding that our continuing dialogue, communication, and relationship will be transparent, honest, and respectful, Bo Matum
Sandra Guzmán is an award-winning Afro-Indigenous journalist and author born in Borikén. She is a producer of The Pieces I am, a documentary about the life of Toni Morrison. Her work has appeared on CNN, NBC News, USA Today, Audubon, PBS, Netflix, HBO, Shondaland, and other outlets. She is the editor of the forthcoming anthology, Machetes Under Our Beds, An International Anthology of Words and Writings by Daughters of Latin America (Amistad, August 2023).