GENEWATCH
 
A PIECE NOT THE PUZZLE: GENETICS AND AFFIRMATIONS OF TAÍNO IDENTITY AMONG PUERTO RICANS
By Christina González
 

from GeneWatch 28-2 | June-Sept 2015

 

"Papá...

You are of cells

caught on a cotton swab rubbed on the inside of my cheek to prove that your tribe persists in the deepest part of my marrow and my red blood cells bear witness to your resurrection in the birth of each of my sons." [1]

 

So proclaimed Nuyorican poet Peggy "Guatuki" Robles-Alvarado in an impassioned ode to her grandfather, Pedro Robles Miranda, at the 7th Annual Taíno Awards held at the Bronx Museum of the Arts, in New York. The audience broke out into thunderous applause with affirming shouts from all around. Their reaction was a celebratory response typical in such a setting, to the highly touted statistic that approximately 61% of Puerto Ricans today carry "Taíno DNA." "Taíno" is the most common name for the pre-Columbian indigenous Arawakan Peoples of Puerto Rico and the Greater Antilles who are popularly imagined and depicted as "extinct." The statistic above is derived from genetic studies published by Dr. Juan Martinez-Cruzado throughout the 2000s that identified the existence of mostly mitochondrial haplogroups A and C in the maternally inherited mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) of island-based Puerto Ricans.[2][3]

These and other similar studies suggest that early colonists, unmarried Spanish men arriving in the Caribbean islands from the late 15th century, fathered "mixed" children with native Taíno women.[4] This "mixing" continued for centuries, also incorporating people brought from sub-Saharan Africa as slave laborers beginning in the early 16th century, and producing what is imagined in Puerto Rico today as a racial-cultural tri-partite society.[5] Alongside the popular view of Taíno cultural and biological absorption into an essentially "mixed" nation is the official and dominant narrative of Taíno "extinction," where - as the story goes - the people themselves were annihilated through slavery, disease, and warfare in the 16th century.[6] This erasure was exacerbated later, through the removal of indio, or "American Indian," as a census category in the late 18th century, transferring this portion of the populace into the racially ambiguous category of pardo, or "mixed." [7]

Puerto Rican consciousness of "indio/Taíno" has arguably always invoked both absence and presence, extinction and survival, through the concept of mestizaje, or mixed-raceness, and cultural hybridity.[8] Thus, the genetic studies that identified "Taíno DNA" get interpreted in diverse ways, mainly as evidence of Taíno extinction or of Taíno survival. The proponents of the former argue that modern Puerto Ricans carry the DNA of an "extinct" people, or that Puerto Ricans need not embrace one element of their racial composition in (assumed) disregard of the others;[9][10] whilst proponents of survival argue that the presence of "Taíno DNA" - in the majority of genetically tested Puerto Ricans no less - functions as just another type of evidence affirming Taíno survival despite, and even through, "mixed-ness."[11][12] The conflict between these views is reflected in the 2011 Nature News controversy where Stanford geneticist Dr. Carlos Bustamante and Nature News were criticized by Taíno-identified people.[13]

Taíno today challenge the veracity of the historical archive on the grounds of its paucity and fallibility in presuming their non-existence. And so, despite the dominant state-sponsored perception of Taíno extinction, more than 35,000 Puerto Ricans throughout the island and the diaspora self-identified as "American Indian and Alaska Native" alone or in combination with another "race" in the 2010 US Census.[14] This self-identification as American Indian was an almost 50% increase from the 2000 Census, correlating with Taíno advocacy and perhaps with the increased popularity of genetic genealogical technology used to inform, if not transform, a sense of self, history, nation and community. The results of and media campaigns from the genetic studies in Puerto Rico helped spawn an industry of Puerto Ricans pursuing DNA ancestry tests of various sorts - mtDNA, Y-chromosome (paternally inherited and passed only to sons) and autosomal DNA (inherited from both biological mother and father), through companies such as Ancestry DNA and 23andMe. The perceived authority of genetic science that these tests carry are often sought in the hope of revealing or confirming who or from where one "really" is - that is, ideally, Taíno, from Borikén (the Indigenous name of Puerto Rico).

Of course, Puerto Ricans on the island and throughout the diaspora had already been exploring and claiming a Taíno identity well before these genetic studies were underway - for example, through participation and exchange in the North American Indian powwow circuit from the 1960s,[15] Puerto Rico's Paseo Taíno/Travesia Taína from the 1970s,[16] and the 1990s formation and advocacy of the United Confederation of Taíno People.[17] For many Puerto Ricans, still, genetic population studies and genetic genealogical tests work not just to ignite further curiosity in (recovering) a marginalized history, culture and identity; they also work to confirm, and even legitimize, this decolonizing work, which has already been undertaken for decades, and oriented around Taíno continuity and resurgence.

Peggy "Guatuki" Robles-Alvarado's confident yet metaphorical declaration of genetic science being able to confirm that her Taíno grandfather's presence endures in the "deepest part" of her biological composition is reflective of the general Puerto Rican public's more literal trust in a science that is itself contestable. In recent years, scientists, scholars and activists have called for greater transparency in the production and reporting of genetic science and the commercialized genetic testing industry, so that the assumptions that inform their work are shared with the consumer public, thus educating and empowering them to better engage with and interpret the science.[18] Although a belief in "Taíno DNA" may work to support the claims-making of some Taíno, there are limitations that may hinder or subvert the claims of others in the very science that creates and maintains the existence of "Taíno DNA."[19]

For one, tests oriented around mtDNA or Y-chromosome lines can only account for less than 1-2% of a person's entire genetic lineage. Thus, a Puerto Rican who identifies as (an) indio or Taíno (descendent) may still not exhibit "Taíno DNA" in a mtDNA or Y-chromosome test, even though s/he might possess DNA derived from an indio/Taíno ancestor.[20] One should note that these tests also privilege biological information in constituting family, thus undermining non-biological kin whose orientation around "Taíno-ness" may be questioned for not having a genetic "stamp of approval."[21]

Secondly, the mitochondrial and Y-chromosome haplogroups assumed to be "racially" Native American and used to ascertain "Taíno DNA" are based on inferences made from continentally-derived racial groups from the Americas and Asia. Whilst these haplogroup frequencies can be found in high degrees in a given bio-geographically determined population, they are also found in other populations throughout the world, albeit in smaller numbers. Moreover, these predetermined racialized haplogroups are present in the statistical algorithms used by genetic ancestry companies to locate "Native American DNA." Genetic studies and tests cannot unequivocally locate racial markers in our genomes that are specifically "Native American," or even "Taíno" per se, without first mapping ideas of a (continent-specific) Native American "race" onto the genetic data.

Lastly, one's genetic markers do not neatly nor decisively correlate with one's cultural groups or socio-political communities, and thus, genetic ancestry does not necessarily reflect one's identities and lived experience. In other words, DNA tests cannot tell you who you are so much as merely infer where some of your genetic ancestors might have come from, often at an unspecifiable point in time.

Consequently, one might read Robles-Alvarado's and other Taínos' confident call to genetics as examples of the scientifically-illiterate consumer of DNA ancestry tests eagerly grasping for a genetic indigeneity "caught on a cotton swab." Within such a conceptualization, consumers of genetic genealogical tests attempt to re-fashion themselves as Native American based upon limited and unquestioned interpretations of, and dubious connections made to, a single, distant, obscure "Native American (genetic) ancestor."[22] However, it could also be argued that some Taíno celebrations of genetics mirror something else; that is, Puerto Ricans accessing and using the very science regime that once declared Taíno "extinct," to declare themselves "here to stay."[23]

Indeed, Taíno survival through genetic science is entangled in a larger politics of development for Puerto Ricans: development not only within a socio-economic framework, but also socio-ecologically, through history, culture, and knowledge production. Currently, the island population suffers through a worsening and debilitating financial crisis, that arguably stems from its present-day colonial status as a "free associated state" of the United States (since 1953). Such status, while granting Puerto Ricans limited citizenship and politically unrestricted mobility between the island and the mainland, also historically opened and currently exposes the island and its people to U.S. military, scientific, and economic experimentation and exploitation.[24]

The intense industrialization of the island since the mid-20th century destroyed Puerto Rico's agricultural economy, leading to 80% of the island's current food sources being imported, and the majority of islanders being severed from a sense of survival off of their land. This consequently endangered agro-ecological knowledge that is now being actively sought and revived.[25] In this way, the consequences of Puerto Ricans' interest in and use of genetic science to legitimize (re)connections to Taíno indigeneity does not merely help demonstrate the genetic survival of Taíno. The decolonizing and (re-)indigenization politics that emerge partly through, if not supported by, the science may also offer survival strategies for a more self-determined, self-sufficient future for all island-based Puerto Ricans.

It should be noted that self-identified Taíno located throughout Puerto Rico and the U.S. mainland are not a homogenous community nor a monolithic force. The Taíno resurgence movement is heterogeneous and involves more than genetics or politics, demanding a more nuanced understanding than these tools alone can provide. For example, scholars such as Tony Castanha have argued that the "disappearance" of Taíno was in fact simply their re-branding as jíbaro, or the rural peasants of the island's mountainous regions, whose culture was and is recognized by some as having indio elements or a base.[26] Meanwhile, scholars such as Jada Benn Torres call for genetic data to be interpreted in combination with other evidence of Taíno survival, such as oral history, cultural traditions and materiality,[27] in order to understand calls made to contemporary Taíno existence and resurgence. Indeed, Peggy "Guatuki" Robles-Alvarado's truth in her poem, of having a Taíno grandfather and Taíno sons, is not affirmed through genetic data alone, but in combination with what she already holds to be true, through memory and embodied experience, and through other cultural, spiritual, and oral historical evidences, as expressed in her larger poem.

While genetic studies and tests may serve as a catalyst and legitimizing force for many Puerto Ricans undergoing de-colonizing and (re-)indigenizing politics, they need not be what gives power to contemporary Taíno and their resurgence movement. Celebrations of the science should not be divorced from critiques of it, which do not necessarily undermine the larger political project; nor should they be divorced from a reliance upon other forms of knowing, some of which may not correlate with genetic data, and which continue to be marginalized in the hierarchy of knowledge production. At the same time, critics should not simply dismiss the movement out of hand, but seek to understand the various reasons and justifications for affirmations of Taíno identity in the 21st century.

About 500 people from diverse backgrounds gathered at the Taíno Awards ceremony in the Bronx, a central hub of the Puerto Rican diaspora and "home" to many Taíno. Attendees included diasporic and island-based Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Jamaicans, and Haitians; artisans, students, teachers, Hip Hop artists, and nurses; multigenerational families, members of Taíno cultural groups and pueblos in restoration, allied supporters, and myself, an anthropologist, all listening attentively to Robles-Alvarado's truth-claim:

 

"Papá

I search for you

in dusty census records, immigrations logs, voter lists, call your name in empty libraries

and I am regularly disappointed by your absence on ancestry.com

I call for you and hear lies

They tell me you are gone, eclipsed your Taíno spoken word with European written records and call you illiterate, question the purity of your blood, claim your nation vanished in the 1500's, told me our people perished in a sea of canons and Christianity, bounced and buried our babies in blankets of small pox, broke our maracas, drums and caciques until we forget our songs, and mocked our accents when we finally learned to speak again

Papá

They lied"

 

Christina González is a doctoral student at the University of Texas at Austin, in the Department of Anthropology and in the Native American & Indigenous Studies Program.

 

 

ENDNOTES

1. Robles-Alvarado, P. (2016, forthcoming). "When They Call My Name." Since We Couldn't Shake Our Skin: An Anthology of Afro-Latino Poets. Melissa Castillo Garsow (ed.). Houston: Arte Publico Press.

2. Martinez-Cruzado, J.C. (2001). "Mitochondrial DNA Analysis Reveals Substantial Native American Ancestry in Puerto Rico." Human Biology 73 (4): 491 - 511.; Martinez-Crudado, J.C. (2002). "The use of Mitochondrial DNA to Discover Pre-Columbian Migrations to the Caribbean: Results for Puerto Rico and Expectations for the Dominican Republic." KACIKE: The Journal of Caribbean Amerindian History and Anthropology [on-Line Journal] (Special Issue, Lynne Guitar, Ed.). <<https://archive.org/stream/KacikeJournal_34/MartinezEnglish#page/n0/mode/2up>> Accessed on 14 July 2015.; Martinez-Cruzado, J.C., G. Toro-Labrador, J. Viera-Vera, M. Y. Rivera-Vega, J. Startek, M. Latorre-Esteves, A. Roman-Colon, et al. (2005). "Reconstructing the Population History of Puerto Rico by Means of mtDNA Phylogeographic Analysis." American Journal of Physical Anthropology. 128 (1): 131 - 155.

3. DNA sequencing, be it mtDNA, Y-chromosome or Autosomal DNA, has revealed a substantial American Indian genetic presence in people from most of the major islands of the Caribbean, such as the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, Dominica and Aruba. See: Benn Torres, J., R. A. Kittles, and A.C. Stone. (2007). "Mitochondrial and Y Chromosome Diversity in the English-Speaking Caribbean." Annals of Human Genetics. 71 (Pt 6): 782 - 790.; Velez, A. F. (2006). Genetic Prints of Amerindian Female Migrations through the Caribbean Revealed By Controlled Sequences From Dominican Haplogrouup A Mitochondrial DNAs. M.S. Thesis. University of Puerto Rico at Mayaguez.

4. Fernandez-Cobo, M., D.V. Jobes, R. Yanagihara, V.R. Nerurkar, Y. Yamamura, C. F. Ryschkewitsch, and G.L. Stoner. (2001). "Reconstructing Population History using JC Virus: Amerinds, Spanish, and Africans in the Ancestry of Modern Puerto Ricans." Human Biology. 73 (3): 385 - 402.; Gravel, S., F. Zakharia, A. Moreno-Estrada, J. Byrnes, M. Muzzio, J.L. Rodriguez-Flores, E.E. Kenny, et al. (2013). "Reconstructing Native American Migrations from Whole-Genome and Whole-Exome Data." PLOS Genetics. 9 (12): 1 - 14.; "Laboratory of Genomic Diversity at UPR: The Taino Genome Project." <<https://sites.google.com/a/upr.edu/dna-lab/1000genomes/the-taino-genome-project>> Accessed on 14 July 2015.; Vilar, M. C. Melendez, A.B. Sanders, A Walia, J.B. Gaieski, A.C. Owings, T.G. Schurr, and The Genographic Consortium (2014). "Genetic Diversity in Puerto Rico and Its Implications for the Peopling of the Island and the West Indies." American Journal of Physical Anthropology. 155: 352 - 368.

5. Puerto Rican ancestry derived from other parts of world, from the Middle East, Asia and throughout Europe often get neglected in this racial-cultural tri-partite imagining of the Puerto Rican people.

6. Las Casas, B. (1992). The Devastation of the Indies. (c. 1552). Translated by H. Briffault. Baltimore and London: John Hopkins University Press.; Pane, Ramon. (1999). An Account of the Antiquities of the Indians. (c.1498). Introductory Study and Notes by J.J. Arrom. Translated by S. C. Griswold. Duke and London: Duke University Press.; Rouse, I. (1992). The Taínos: Rise & Decline of the People Who Greeted Columbus. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

7. Brau, S. (1983). Historia de Puerto Rico. (c. 1917). Río Piedras [Puerto Rico]: Editorial Edil.; Castanha, T (2013). The Myth of Caribbean Indigenous Extinction: Continuity and Reclamation in Boriken (Puerto Rico). New York: Palgrave Macmillan.; Figueroa, L. (1971). Breve historia de Puerto Rico. Río Piedras [Puerto Rico]: Editorial Edil.

8. Benn Torres, J. (2014). "Prospecting the past: genetic perspectives on the extinction and survival of indigenous peoples of the Caribbean." New Genetics and Society. 33 (1): 21 - 41.; Forte, M. (2006). Indigenous Resurgence in the Contemporary Caribbean: Amerindian Survival and Revival. New York: Peter Lang.

9. Haslip-Viera, G. (2008). "Amerindian mtDNA Does Not Matter: A Reply to Jorge Estevez and the Privileging of Taino Identity in the Spanish-speaking Caribbean." Centro Journal 20 (2): 228.

10. For an argument which attempts to link contemporary Taíno resurgence to statist uses of Taíno as a symbol of the (preferred) "first root" of Puerto Rican culture and society, often over the colonizing "Spanish root," and to the effacement of the enslaved "African root," see the volume edited by Gabriel Haslip-Viera (2000) Taino Revival: Critical Perspectives on Puerto Rican Identity and Cultural Politics. New York: Latino Scholars Press.

11. Estevez, J. (2008). "The mtDNA Debate: A Diàlogo on 'How Important Is It?'" Centro Journal. XX (2): 218 - 228.

12. For debates on recovering indigeneity through mestizaje and specifically mestizo genomics, but focusing mostly on Mexico, Colombia and Brazil, see: Wade, P., Lopèz-Beltràn, C., et al (eds.) (2014). Mestizo Genomics: Race Mixture, Nation, and Science in Latin America. Durham: Duke University Press.

13. In October 2011, Nature News published an article on studies conducted by Dr. Carlos Bustamante on the Taíno Genome Project that controversially claimed to have discovered genes of the "extinct" Taíno in people throughout the present-day Caribbean. The article was titled "Breathing Life into an Extinct Ethnicity," which was quickly changed to "Rebuilding the Genome of a Hidden Ethnicity" with an apology issued by Dr. Bustamante after a firestorm of complaints by Taíno-identified people and cultural anthropologists online. See: Bardill, J. (2012). "Science as Empire and Resistance: The Case of Taino Genomics and Indigenous Identity." Paper presented at the American Studies Association Annual Meeting, San Juan, Puerto Rico.; Hawks, J. "Watch who you call 'Extinct'!" John Hawks Web blog. Published 26 Oct 2011. <<http://johnhawks.net/weblog/topics/race/taino-extinct-1000-genomes-2011.html>> Accessed 29 July 2015.; Kahn, R. "Blog: Gene Expression: The Perils of Human Genomics." Discover Magazine Online. Published 25 Oct 2011. <<http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp/2011/10/the-perils-of-human-genomics/#.Vb9-rflViko>>. Accessed on 18 July 2015.; Young, S. "Rebuilding the Genome of a Hidden Ethnicity." Published on 14 Oct 2011. Corrected on 17 Oct 2011. <<http://www.nature.com/news/2011/111014/full/news.2011.592.html>> Accessed on 15 March 2015.

14. Norris, Tina, P. Vines, E.M. Hoeffel (2012). The American Indian and Alaska Native Population: 2010 Census Briefs.  C2010BR-10. << http://www.census.gov/prod/cen2010/briefs/c2010br-10.pdf>>.                 

15. Moya-Smith, S. (2014). "NYC 'Gathering of Nations': Hustle, Bustle, Tainos, and No Buses." Indian Country Today Media Network. Published on 9 June 2014. <<http://indiancountrytodaymedianetwork.com/2014/06/09/nyc-gathering-nations-hustle-bustle-tainos-and-no-buses-155220>>. Accessed on 01 July 2015.

16. Consejo General de Tainos Borikanos, "Origenes del Movimiento Taino en Boriken," Trujillo Alto, Boriken, Anacaotoao@yahoo.com. This document prepared by the head of the organization, Elba Lugo, identifies the earliest Taino resurgent activity in Puerto Rico to 1978.

17. United Confederation of Taino People, (2008). "About: UCTP Declaration and Articles of Confederation." Published on 26 June 2008. << http://www.uctp.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=12&Itemid=26>> Accessed on 14 July 2015.

18. Bolnick, D., D. Fullwiley, T. Duster, R.S. Cooper, J.H. Fujimara, J. Kahn, J. Marks et al. (2007). "The Science and Business of Genetic Ancestry Testing." Science. 318: 399 - 400.

19. I draw from the following scholars to highlight some of the methodological limitations and assumptions of the genetic science and genetic genealogical tests: Bamshed, M., S. Wooding, B. Salisbury, and C. Stephens. (2004). "Deconstructing the Relationship Between Genetics and Race". Nature. 5: 598 - 609.; Benn Torres, J. (2014). "Prospecting the past: genetic perspectives on the extinction and survival of indigenous peoples of the Caribbean." New Genetics and Society. 33 (1): 21 - 41.; Bolnick, D., D. Fullwiley, T. Duster, R.S. Cooper, J.H. Fujimara, J. Kahn, J. Marks et al. (2007). "The Science and Business of Genetic Ancestry Testing." Science. 318: 399 - 400.; Condit, C.M. "How Culture and Science Make Race 'Genetic': Motives and Strategies for Discrete Categorization of the Continuous and Heterogeneous". Literature and Medicine. 26 (1): 240 - 268.; Kolopenuk, J. "Wiindigo Incarnate: Consuming 'Native American DNA'." GeneWatch 27 (2): 19 - 21; TallBear, K. (2013). "Genomic Articulations of Indigeneity." Social Studies of Science. 43 (4): 509 - 533.; Pollack, R., P. Williams. (2014). "Who You Really Are." GeneWatch. 27 (2): 4 - 7.; TallBear, K. (2013). Native American DNA: Tribal Belonging and the False Promise of Genetic Science. Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press.

20. Unlike mtDNA and Y-chromosome sequencing, tests that examine genome-wide markers are more likely to identify even a small percentage of indigenous genetic ancestry. TallBear, K. (2013). Native American DNA: Tribal Belonging and the False Promise of Genetic Science. Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press.

21. Kolopenuk, J. "Wiindigo Incarnate: Consuming 'Native American DNA'." GeneWatch 27 (2): 19 - 21; TallBear, K. (2013). "Genomic Articulations of Indigeneity." Social Studies of Science. 43 (4): 509 - 533.; TallBear, K. (2013). "Genomic articulations of indigeneity." Social Studies of Science. 43 (4): 509 - 533.; TallBear, K. (2013). Native American DNA: Tribal Belonging and the False Promise of Genetic Science. Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press.

22. Kolopenuk, J. "Wiindigo Incarnate: Consuming 'Native American DNA'." GeneWatch 27 (2): 19 - 21; Kolopenuk, J. (2014). "Becoming Native American: Facializing Indigeneity in Canada through Genetic Signification and Subjection." Paper presented at Native American & Indigenous Studies Association Annual Meeting, University of Texas at Austin, Austin, Texas.; TallBear, K. (2013). "Genomic Articulations of Indigeneity." Social Studies of Science. 43 (4): 509 - 533.; TallBear, K. (2014). "From ACTGs to NDNs: Dear Dr. TallBear, Help Me Find the Indian in My Molecular Tree?" Paper presented at the Native American & Indigenous Studies Association Annual Meeting, University of Texas at Austin, Austin, Texas.

23. Bardill, J. et al. (2012). "Collaboration and Reclamation through Genomics in Uruguay, Canada and Puerto Rico." Paper presented at the Institute for Genomic Biology at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign, Urbana, Ill.; Bardill, J. (2012). "Science as Empire and Resistance: The Case of Taino Genomics and Indigenous Identity." Paper presented at the American Studies Association Annual Meeting, San Juan, Puerto Rico.; Kent, M. (2013). "The importance of being Uros: Indigenous identity politics in the genomic age." Social Studies of Science. 42: 534 - 556.

24. Morales, E. (2014). "Puerto Rico's Dance with Debt. Puerto Rico is mired in debt and facing default. And US colonialism is one of the main culprits." Jacobin Magazine. Published on 16 June 2015. << https://www.jacobinmag.com/2015/06/puerto-rico-garcia-padilla-debt-austerity/>>. Accessed on 21 June 2015.

25. Allen, G. M. Penaloza. "Puerto Rico is Sowing a New Generation of Small Farmers." NPR. Published on 06 May 2015. << http://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2015/05/06/404649122/puerto-rico-is-sowing-a-new-generation-of-small-farmers>> Accessed on 06 May 2015.

26. Castanha, T (2013). The Myth of Caribbean Indigenous Extinction: Continuity and Reclamation in Boriken (Puerto Rico). New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

27. Benn Torres, J. (2014). "Prospecting the past: genetic perspectives on the extinction and survival of indigenous peoples of the Caribbean." New Genetics and Society. 33 (1): 21 - 41.; Feliciano-Santos, S. (2011). "An Inconceivable Indigeneity: The Historical, Cultural, and Interactional Dimensions of Puerto Rican Taino Activism." Unpublished PhD. University of Michigan.

 
 
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