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 a nearly extinct language, beating on drums and growing native crops like cassava and sweet potato as they learn about the indigenous people who lived on the island before Christopher Columbus.

The children in four towns in the island's southeast corner play a ceremonial ball game that 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, which was in part rebuilt with help from linguists and still exists in varying forms among other native groups in the hemisphere.

Now, a group of academics and educators hopes to expand the Taino education program to other public schools around the U.S. territory in an effort 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, 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 indigenous past has grown in recent years, with 42,000 of the 3.7 million people living on the island identifying themselves as at least partially Taino in the 2010 Census.

Even though that's just a little more than 1 percent, Puerto Rico's legislature is considering a proposal to declare Melendez's Naguake organization to be the island's first indigenous-based community. The designation would allow it to receive federal funds under a program that aids native groups and expand the program 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 sponsored by the National Geographic Society to explore the lineage of people living in certain regions of Puerto Rico.

Before Europeans came to the New World, the Tainos also lived in the nearby islands of Cuba, Hispaniola, Jamaica and other parts of the Caribbean and 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 in 1493, but their ranks were soon decimated by infectious diseases, such as smallpox, brought from Europe.

Today, many towns in Puerto Rico bear Taino names, but 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 resistance from parents suspicious of an unfamiliar language and culture. Melendez said some parents in the program here 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 because of his musical skills. He gets to blow a conch shell known as a fotuto while other students gather around him and beat on their mayoacanes 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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COMMENTS (8)
  • SydneyL-Kut
    4/26/2015 - 12:52 p.m.

    I think it's good to have them learn about the Taino culture, so that way the culture doesn't become extinct. If not enough people are interested in the culture, then people will forget about it; maybe even the people who are part Taino. Although, it seems like the teachers are spending too much time teaching the students about this. If they spend too much time learning about the Taino culture, then they might not have time to learn about their own culture.

  • haileyr-Koc
    4/27/2015 - 02:48 a.m.

    I think it's a great idea to bring cultures from way back when back to now so that children can learn what it was like many years ago, and really understand their culture a little better. When I went to Puerto Rico many years ago you could really feel the culture and you could also really understand it. So, for hem to bring back a culture nobody is really used to is great and will leave a mark on the children learning it and they will hopefully teach their kids this culture someday too.

  • karlytorres74
    4/27/2015 - 12:42 p.m.

    This is a very intriging article. How could a language go extinct? I am Puerto Rican and Tiano Indian. So this article made me wonder if they will eventually bring back their culture and language. I did some research and it said that the closest language to Tiano is believed to be the Goajiro language. Perhaps they can use the Goajiro language to help bring back the Taino language.

  • BJMiosotis-Cas
    5/02/2015 - 09:15 p.m.

    I'm part Taino and to hear that our language is going extinct, saddens me. I do not know our language well, for I can only say a few words, but it makes me glad to hear that there are still a few school teaching it. More schools in PR should.

  • austinw-Goo
    5/04/2015 - 10:13 a.m.

    A language becomes 'extinct' when the culture isn't as popular or celebrated as much as it used to. Puerto Rico's culture isn't as celebrated as it was and I think it is good that schools are still teaching their culture because it is important that children know their culture.

  • aidenawmsteam1
    5/08/2015 - 01:23 p.m.

    I had no idea that Puerto Ricans have so much passion towards their culture,nor did I realize that their native language was so widely spoken in the Caribbean.

  • MDesmond-Cas
    5/26/2015 - 12:07 p.m.

    I'm glad they have a resurgence of the Arawaken language in this school. It's important for everyone to get in touch with their ethnic roots, particularly Peurto Ricans because their culture is deeply rooted and rich. This language was wiped out during colonial times, along with their sports. I find it incredibly important to bring this language back and the kids will get a lot out of it.

  • misheelu-Fit
    6/03/2015 - 07:55 p.m.

    In this article, I loved the quotes that were put in, because it's purpose is to show history matters and even though it was way long ago, it's very possible to take it back and teach it to our future generation. Because I know my father would love for me to keep passing down the ethnicity of Mongolian people, thus he wishes for me to marry a Mongolian man. The language becomes extinct by three key factors. The first one, mixed heritage such as mestizos that live in the banks of the locations listed. The second key factor is globalization that takes over, the diffusion of a popular language and religion and passed on, and soon the culture changes. The culture changes over time just like science. In science, there is natural selection which animals change over time in order to adapt to their environment. The third factor is sort of linking to the second one, the language disappears because of the popularity level of the, "world's pyramid of globalization."

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