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. They beat on drums and grow native crops like cassava and sweet potato. They do this as they learn about the indigenous people who lived on the island before Christopher Columbus.

The children live in four towns 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 of academics and educators hopes to expand the Taino education program to other public schools around the 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 indigenous 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.

Even though that's just a little more than 1 percent, Puerto Rico's legislature is considering 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 in 1493. 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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COMMENTS (53)
  • MichaelaJ-3
    4/24/2015 - 08:13 p.m.

    In Puerto Rico, citizens push for the culture their ancestors used. I think it is great how a place is trying to get its past life back. Form children to elders, this change would change Puerto Rico and the people living there. It could make it better.

  • KageF-Kut
    4/26/2015 - 08:13 a.m.

    I think it is amazing that these schools is bringing back the Arawak language and the Taino culture. I was kind of confused when the text first said "nearly extinct language" but as I kept reading I understood that the Taino culture was dying down and while they are slowly fading away so is their language.

  • ceciliarivasfuentes
    4/27/2015 - 02:19 a.m.

    SUMMARY
    the text is about how a program that teach in schools of Puerto Rico the native tradition of Tainos, the origins of Puerto Rico's people.
    this program is directed by Carla Lynne Yarey Melendez, and consist on recreate and learn more about traditions and language of Tainos' indigenous. Students are excited with this programs, for instance, represent and play native plays in order to show colonial games, because most of the population are identified with those indigenous.
    the History demonstrate that the population of Tainos was so big and takes all central zone of america, but the population decreased due to all the illness bring from europe.
    This program has become so popular and students are so connected with their past.

    OPINION
    I think that it is a big example of valuation of the past of a community or country. Media has been one of the principal destructors of native culture, through television or internet, fashion and principal tendencies play against native culture and learning , so, for me is great that people implement this kind of program on schools, because it is necessary to keep the origin of an determined country.
    in the case of Chile, we don't have the culture of Mapuches, and we don't value it, and if you ask in the street about your origins, a lot of answers will be My origin is European , we don`t have a Mapuches senator or deputy and our country don't take care our principal and most beautiful origen, the origen of a fighter people, so I thin k that chilean schools should create this kind of programs to cooperate with the preservation of our native culture.

    CRITICAL THINKING
    I think that a language become extinct principally with the no valuation of an native identity of people or community and with the continuous bombing of new tendencies and fashion from other countries, everything helped by new medias like internet and television of other countries that completely change the thinking of new generations, and for instance the origins are left behind.
    if we made a comparison with other countries that conserve their identity, we can note that chilean people don't conserve it, for exemplo Mexican People wear their principal colour like green, red and yellow; they use their characteristic dress and are recognized for their music and food around the world, but Chilean People just wear their typical dress or listen our music on september 18th.

  • DarbyC-Kut
    4/27/2015 - 04:57 p.m.

    Loosing cultures is a big problem and a language is an even bigger problem. Of course
    It exists before

    Christopher columbus came over to south america. This is also an example of what is happening in Mongolia where nomadic herders population count is decreasing rapidly.

  • MailanN-4
    4/27/2015 - 08:25 p.m.

    I think it is great how these children are still learning and keeping with their native cultures and are being taught their ways and religions from before Christopher Columbus came to Puerto Rico and it's just really great how they are getting this kind of education and knowledge from their original cultures and religious practices.

  • Eric0221-YYCA
    4/27/2015 - 09:15 p.m.

    I think that it is cool for Puerto Rico's language to become extincted, but it is kind of common to latin which is almost not spoken to a person or around the world because I think that people doesn't wanted to use latin language Because I think that it is confusing. Well if Puerto Rico's language is almost extincted, I think that people didn't want to use the language because I think that people in Puerto Rico is confusing too same thing as latin.
    Critical thinking challenge: How does a language become "extinct?"
    Answer: A language could be extincted because if a city or the whole population doesn't speak it anymore, that language is going to be extincted or be forgotten by a person.

  • JaydrianR1212
    4/28/2015 - 11:40 a.m.

    I think the teacher teaches class some Spanish words but, she was like a Spanish teacher Ms. Garry. Some students don't know some of these Spanish words. I like to see that!

  • BrynnDani
    4/30/2015 - 09:36 p.m.

    I think it is very true when they say that if you don't know your roots, you don't know yourself. Knowing your history can completely change how you act or how you think.

  • SoleilE-5
    5/01/2015 - 01:52 a.m.

    In Puerto Rico, there are efforts to revive the Taino culture and language amongst new generations. The Tainos were the native people of Puerto Rico. However, they were wiped out by small pox once Colombus arrived. Recent programs aim to educate Puerto Rican children on the history of their ancestors which was previously ignored.
    I think it is amazing that children are able to learn about their history in an enjoyable way. In a sense, the children will be in charge of reviving their culture. I wonder why any parents would resist this education, however. Plus, a lot of the activities seem like fun.

  • devynw-McC
    5/01/2015 - 12:42 p.m.

    I think it is amazing that these schools is bringing back the Arawak language and the Taino culture. I was kind of confused when the text first said "nearly extinct language" but as I kept reading I understood that the Taino culture was dying down and while they are slowly fading away so is their language.

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