Close to 20,000 people in Puerto Rico identified themselves as “American Indian” in the 2010 U.S. Census report, a 49 percent increase in the number of island Puerto Ricans to do so.
In 2000, the number was 13,336 and there is some agreement over the meaning of this increase, but the conversations are just beginning.
Some Boricuas on the island are seeing this reporting as yet another reflection of a growing awareness of the indigenous root or Taino aspect of Puerto Rican identity – more and more people are joining Taino organizations and attending Taino-related celebrations. Others are seeing it as also a signal that Puerto Ricans are asserting their own identity, separate from the influences of first the Spanish and then U.S. colonizers. Still other observers have not finished interpreting the meaning of the figures but at least one scholar is noting that the 2010 Census report marks the first time that the number of Puerto Ricans who identify themselves as white has decreased.
For activists like Roger Guayakan Hernandez, Director of the United Confederation of Taino People’s (UCTP) Borikén (the original Taino name for the island) Liaison Office, the increase in the census count can be attributed to expansion of information and communications technologies available today.
“We have always been here but recently there has been an explosion of pertinent information regarding Borikén’s indigenous heritage. The difference is that now there are more ways to get the information to the people,” stated Hernandez.
Hernandez noted that the Confederation, an official Census partner, used the increased focus on Taino heritage as well as new technologies like social networks in its campaign to raise awareness about the census process. The UCTP was founded in 1998 and seeks to “protect, defend, and preserve the Taino cultural heritage and spiritual tradition” according to it’s website, and has members in Puerto Rico, the U.S. and other countries.
“I am very thrilled about the outcome of the Census,” said Dr. Ana Maria Tekina-eiru Maynard, a leader of the Taíno Guatu-Ma-cu A Borikén Council in Puerto Rico, a non-profit organization that promotes Taino culture on the island and in the U.S. and Europe. “Thanks to changes in the 2010 Census, as well as the increased world-wide reach-ability of the internet (since 2000), Taino finally had a way to be counted again among the living.”
“For me, this is all very personal,” Dr. Maynard continued. “I feel like I am putting my family back on track. After 500 years since the time my ancestors had gone to the mountains to hide from the conquest — I have the privilege and responsibility to put my family back to where they belong; and you have no idea how meaningful that is to me.”
The importance of the Puerto Ricans’ sense of indigenous identity is reflected in the new numbers according to observers such as Tina Casanova, a historical novelist whose work includes “The Last Sounding of the Conch” the first novel based on generations of a Taino family from Puerto Rico. Casanova often speaks at scholarly events focusing on Taino history and culture.
“We have seen through the centuries, that when our identity was threatened,” Casanova asserted, “the primary element, the strongest root of Boricua is his indigenous identity, despite the debated theory of extinction, the indigenous sense comes to our rescue to reaffirm the spiritual essence of our nationality.”
The novelist contends that both during the time of Spanish control and then U.S. ownership, the Puerto Ricans sense of identity was fortified and protected against the various types of repression by the knowledge of their indigenous roots. Even during the time when the U.S. tried to force Puerto Ricans to only speak English, or when the flying of the Puerto Rican flag was prohibited, “as part of their effort to ‘Americanize’ us, the indigenous sense helped us retain our unique identity.”
Casanova is among many Puerto Ricans in the Taino cultural restoration movement who say the new figures support their efforts but for Professor Jorge Duany, a prominent anthropologist and author based at the University of Puerto Rico, the “American Indian” category is not the most important aspect of the Census report.
“I think the increase in the number of persons who classified themselves as ‘American Indian or Alaska natives’ in the 2010 census of Puerto Rico is a significant and intriguing new trend,” Duany stated. “Even more significant, however, was the increase in the number of self-classified blacks (from 8 to 12.4 percent of the population). Correspondingly, the proportion of people identifying themselves as white decreased from 80.5 to 75.8 percent of the total… This is the first time that the proportion of white persons officially diminished since the first U.S. census was conducted on the Island in 1899.”
“Some have speculated that it reflects an increasing awareness on the part of the ‘nonwhite’ sectors of the local population, namely, persons of African, indigenous, or mixed heritage,” Duany continued. “Others have noted that such racial statistics are highly suspect, arbitrary, and unreliable because they are based on people’s subjective responses to a questionnaire. There was certainly a substantial public and academic debate about the use of U.S. racial categories in the 2000 census of Puerto Rico, which did not allow many Puerto Ricans to describe themselves according to local categories such as ‘trigueño’ or ‘moreno,’ referring to ‘brown’ or ‘dark’ skin tones. Even the folk term ‘indio’ (rather than American Indian or Native American) as used colloquially on the Island often describes a certain physical type, intermediate between white and black, instead of a direct descendant of the Taino population.”
“Frankly, we still don’t know the reasons or implications of this shift in the responses to the racial question in Puerto Rico,” the professor asserted. “How and why Puerto Ricans responded in the way they did to the 2010 census is something that needs to be researched more carefully on the Island, as well as in the United States.”