In Puerto Rico, a push to save culture from long ago
In Puerto Rico, a push to save culture from long ago Wanda Ivette Diaz enunciates the Arawakan word for, "touch" during a language class for children, in San Lorenzo, Puerto Rico (AP photo / Thinkstock)
In Puerto Rico, a push to save culture from long ago
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In Puerto Rico's misty, bamboo-studded mountains, elementary school students are studying. They are learning a nearly extinct language. They beat on drums and grow native crops like cassava and sweet potato. It's part of learning about the people who lived on the island. They were there before Christopher Columbus. He is credited with landing in what was then was called the New World.

The children live in four towns. They are located on the island's southeast corner. They play a ceremonial ball game. It was called batey by the native Tainos, who were all but wiped out during colonial times. The boys and girls also learn words from the local Arawak language. It was in part rebuilt with help from linguists. The language still exists in varying forms among other native groups in the hemisphere.

Now, a group hopes to expand the Taino education program to other public schools around Puerto Rico. The island is a U.S. territory. The goal is to teach children this little known part of the territory's history.

"If you don't know your roots, you don't know yourself," said anthropologist Carlalynne Yarey Melendez. She is the director of the Taino cultural organization that runs the educational program. "There are so many communities and schools that want the classes. But I can't keep up with the demand."

Puerto Ricans' interest in the territory's past has grown in recent years. About 42,000 of the 3.7 million people living on the island identified themselves as at least partially Taino in the 2010 Census.

That is just a little more than 1 percent. But it's enough for Puerto Rico's legislature to consider a proposal. It would declare Melendez's Naguake organization to be the island's first indigenous-based community. The designation would allow it to receive federal funds. They would come from a program that aids native groups. The program could be expanded to other towns.

"As one of our elders said at one time, 'Just as they wrote us off the books, we will write ourselves back in,'" said Tai Pelli, a liaison officer for the New York-based United Confederation of Taino People.

Melendez has lobbied legislators to pass the proposed measure. She has also worked with U.S. researchers on several recent DNA studies. They have been sponsored by the National Geographic Society. The studies explore the lineage of people living in certain regions of Puerto Rico.

Before Europeans came to the New World, the Tainos also lived in nearby islands. Those included Cuba, Hispaniola, Jamaica and other parts of the Caribbean. They spoke the Arawak language. The Tainos are a subgroup of the Arawak Indians.

Historians and anthropologists believe that up to 60,000 Tainos lived in Puerto Rico when Columbus arrived. It was 1493 when he arrived in Puerto Rico. But their ranks were soon decimated. Illnesses brought from Europe, such as smallpox, killed many.

Today, many towns in Puerto Rico bear Taino names. There are few remaining traces of the culture except for several well-known landmarks. There's a massive river boulder carved with petroglyphs in the central town of Jayuya. The Caguana indigenous park in the central town of Utuado also features petroglyphs, along with artifacts and ceremonial plazas.

The program has met some resistance. A few parents are suspicious of an unfamiliar language and culture. Melendez said some parents were skeptical until their children shared what they had learned.

Maribel Rodriguez said her 9-year-old Brayan Lopez is enthralled by the classes.

Brayan is a fourth grader and one of the designated caciques or chieftains. That is because of his musical skills. He gets to blow a conch shell known as a fotuto. Meanwhile, other students gather around him. They beat on their mayoacanes. Those are small, elongated wooden drums that the Tainos used.

"He wakes up in the morning and it's all, 'The Tainos, the Tainos, the Tainos,'" Rodriguez said with a laugh.

Critical thinking challenge: How does a language become extinct?

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  • John0724-YYCA
    4/27/2015 - 09:34 p.m.

    I really think that it is great for these kids and some adults in Puerto Rico I guess are learning an ancient language called the Arawak language because later on the kids could teach people others and it is good if you know a lot of languages because if you meet people who knows this language you could be able to communicate well with them. This language is going to be hard because in the article it said that it is extinct so if they are going to learn it then they have to focus hard.

  • JaydrianR1212
    5/05/2015 - 10:24 a.m.

    I think that teacher was teaching class some Spanish words like Mrs. Garry. Some class don't know some Spanish words. I like to try that!

  • HocogJ-Sua
    5/15/2015 - 10:07 a.m.

    A language can be extinct if people don't speak it anymore. Or if your elders don't know how to speak it then how can you learn. Also if nobody learned how to speak their cultural language how would it continue? Another thing is if nobody remembers it nobody can speak it. I think these reasons are how languages become extinct.

  • CirilloP-Sua
    5/15/2015 - 11:48 a.m.

    A language becomes extinct. It became extinct because no one speaks it anymore. It also did because know one knows the language any more. Pretty much every body who used to know it don't know it any more. that is how a language becomes extinct.

  • LiCausiM-Sua
    5/15/2015 - 11:50 a.m.

    Languages become instinct when everyone who speaks that language dies. I know this because I asked my dad when I look at it he said what I wrote. Another way that languages become extinct is people start to go to different country's and they stop speaking their language. Not all languages are instinct some maybe indangered. I could go on and on but I will jest stop.

  • MangayayamB-Sua
    5/15/2015 - 12:36 p.m.

    Language can become extinct if no body speaks that way anymore. Also it can become extinct if they learn a new language they might want to switch to that new one. I think the people that wrote this summary because they wanted to teach people about culture. Also to tell the stories other people had about what they had to go through with culture to keep it alive. I think everybody should learn about there culture.

  • SinningK-Sua
    5/15/2015 - 12:38 p.m.

    Question of the Day: How does a language become extinct?

    My Answer: I think that other languages can become "extinct" by having others that have a different language like Spanish, Chinese, etc. have been taught English and doesn't necessarily speak their actual language anymore. I think that because I come from a family that can speak Filipino but now usually speaks English and I thought it would give me a clue that I thought it would be like that and it would subtract one person with less of the language. Another reason why I think that is because if a new baby in the family and it can't learn the language and during it's growth it learned English just like me. My final reason why I think that is because I had to think in my mind why languages can become "extinct," there can be hundreds and thousands of reasons why it can become "extinct" they might not like it, they want to learn as much as they can, etc. I don't know all. That is why I think languages can become "extinct."

  • ManiegoC-Sua
    5/15/2015 - 12:43 p.m.

    A language becomes extinct by the language getting endangered. Once the language is endangered it is close to getting extinct. Why I think that because if there are some amount of an animal that animal is endangered and it can be extinct like a language. By the language being extinct it can't be used anymore .Lastly, another reason it can be extinct by people not using it anymore.

  • MayerS-Sua
    5/15/2015 - 12:49 p.m.

    How a language would became extincted is no one would use that language any more. Another way how a language could become extincted is people could eras the language from the entrant. Another way how a language could become extincted is people could stop talking in that language. The last way how a language could become extincted is people could take that language off the dictionary. That is how you can make a language extincted.

  • ShecklenZ-Sua
    5/15/2015 - 02:02 p.m.

    A language can became extinct if the person that made the language doesnt speak it any more.

    1. the person that made the language wouldent talk in it anymore so it would have no meaning.

    2. if the person that knew the language died and nobody knew it then it would become extinct.

    3. if there are two people that know the language and they die then no one will know it and it will become extinct.

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