This article is dedicated to the families and people of Puerto Rico who are still suffering from Hurricane Maria. Consider making a donation to Save the Children or other reputable organizations like the American Red Cross to offer your help.
Only now do I understand how the face of Helen of Troy could launch a thousand ships. The Da Vinci-like smile of a young waitress in a place barely large enough to call a town sent me on a mind-boggling journey in San Juan, Puerto Rico. It happened when I asked if I could take her picture, innocently thinking I’d use it to punch up a travel article someday about Puerto Rican women. Little did I know this chance meeting and request would help me to meet one of Puerto Rico’s pre-eminent artists, the discovery of the legend of Yuiza – an Indian Cacique Chief and a dozen interesting questions about a culture of people I had never heard of.
This all started as a long weekend vacation with a group of friends traveling to San Juan, Puerto Rico (PR). It’s the familial homeland of my good friend Naomi who was excited to show us PR’s history, amazing culinary wonders and wondrous landscape of pristine beaches, colorful bright rows of houses and interesting shops, and lush greenery. We had stopped for lunch after a late morning visit to El Yunque National Forest to enjoy a meal at a restaurant owned by Naomi’s friend; a woman who had sold her popular Brooklyn restaurant to move back to Puerto Rico. For readers unfamiliar with El Yunque, it the only tropical rain forest in the American park system. At night, the coqui tree frogs sing Puerto Rico lullabies and ancient petroglyphs dot the south side of its 29,000 acres.
I don’t know if it was the rainforest tour and the visceral connection I felt to its earthly splendor pulsating through me well after the forest disappeared from the car’s rearview mirror. Or, maybe my meeting with a Six Nations woman just before this trip that had sparked a deeper desire to connect with indigenous peoples, particularly the women whose families continued to struggle from the scourge of land expulsion and the loss of so many inalienable rights. But even if it was simply Genesis’ beautiful face and this strange connection to our natural world, the sum of these experiences captured my imagination. Her face was heaven sent.
We enjoyed great food and a cold frosty in the patio area with a view to a big white Buddha head nestled in the middle of modern white furniture. It was surrounded by rich greenery and trailing purple florals that were more delicate but similar in shape to wisteria but much looser like blue-bell flowers. Genesis had served us and I asked if I could take her picture after we paid the bill. We exchanged stories and I learned she was a singer and actress.
She told me I needed to see the work of Puerto Rican painter Samuel Lind before I left the island. His art celebrated women and one painting, “Yuiza – the last Taino Queen,” became an overnight sensation when a biologist named Loir Pachter suggested that Puerto Rican women were genetically ideal human beings.
A Berkeley writer who read Pachter’s study of the genetics of the perfect human drew attention to Pachter’s HG00737 genetic code – a perfect blend of the Spanish, African and Taino heritage found in Puerto Rico. Lind’s painting became hugely successful. I wanted to meet Lind and see his interpretation of Yuiza.
Naomi and I talked our spouses into “popping by” Lind’s gallery on the way back to the hotel, assuring them we’d be back on the beach in no time and they’d soon see the froth of a cool beer. My research started en route to Samuel’s studio. Genesis described his place as a tree-house on a small dirt road off the town’s main street. Finding it proved to be more difficult than we thought, but inside was a treasure chest of amazing sculptures and paintings.
I learned the legend of Yuiza stemmed from her role as a Cacique Chief of the Tainos. Yuiza was one of only two female Taino Cacique Chiefs of the Caribbean, and the only one from Puerto Rico. The Tainos were Indigenous Natives or American Indians, who were divided into three classes: working (naborias), the sub-chiefs or noblemen (natianos) that included priests and medicine men, and the village chiefs (caciques). The Tainos were a subgroup of the Arawakan Indians who lived in northeastern South America and areas that included Cuba, Jamaica, Dominican Republic, and Haiti.
When Columbus and the conquering Spanish invaded the Caribbean around 1508, they enslaved the Tainos. Sadly, their population quickly dwindled from disease, maltreatment and unsuccessful rebellion attempts, and tens of thousands of indigenous natives were wiped out less than forty years later. Yuiza (also known as Loiza) tried to protect her people as Chief of the Jaymano area, the largest Puerto Rican area along the Caryban River. When Yuiza married Pedros Mejias, a mulatto Spanish conquistador, some of her people thought she was a traitor and killed her.
Lind’s painting isn’t a portrait of Yuiza since historical information about her doesn’t really exist. It was unusual for a village to have a female Chief, so you can imagine that she must have been a great leader. Lind’s painting does, however, hint at the mix of cultures that have influenced Puerto Rico’s past and the blended heritage that Pachter’s references.
Years after the Spanish settlements were established, runaway slaves from the British colonies were brought to Puerto Rico and resettled in an area called Loiza Aldea, which also happens to be Lind’s town. As indigenous people of the Caribbean and some southern parts of Florida, Tainos are not Latinos or Hispanics; they are indigenous natives that are neither European nor Spanish. The Spanish language is obviously prevalent in Puerto Rico, but many Taino words persist and have influenced many names for types of food, plants, animals and other things. Taino superstitions and legends like that of Yuiza’s live on in the art, stories and lifestyles of the Puerto Rican culture.
In fact, there is a growing movement to embrace the lost Taino language, identity and history. Spanish speaking people in Puerto Rico and across America want to know more about the oppression and conditions that obliterated Tainos. They are banding together to embrace their heritage even though school programs and classroom studies have yet to catch up. Thanks to the internet and social media links, there are sources of information and videos sharing the history and legends of Tainos. Until I met Genesis, I had never heard of Tainos and didn’t understand the binary difference between the Latinos and Hispanics.
Maybe something from the spirit world of the Tainos helped me to meet the beautiful young woman named for the beginning of time. I wonder if mother nature isn’t calling out to each of us. Whether we hear or are even attune to her voice, we are facing social justice questions about our respect for each other. The stakes increase as our natural world struggles to maintain its healing foothold against the challenges of urbanization and increasing environmental threats. Artists like Lind and legends like Yuiza’s are critical for helping us to celebrate our connection to our world and remind us of its beauty.