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 journey in San Juan, Puerto Rico that still boggles my mind. 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 lead to a meeting with 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 small party of four traveling to San Juan, Puerto Rico (PR), the familial homeland of my good friend Naomi. Naomi was excited to show us PR’s history, its amazing culinary wonders and its 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 Yunique 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 Yunique, it the only tropical rain forest in the American park system. At night, the coqui tree frogs sing Puerto Rico lullabyes and ancient petrogylphs dot the south side of its 29,000 acres.
I don’t know if it was the rain forest tour and the visceral connection I felt to its earthly splendor pulsating through me well after the forest disappeared from the car’s rear view 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 I felt to our natural world, I believe 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 surrounded by greenery rich with trailing purple florals; the flowers were more delicate but similar in shape to the wisteria except they were much looser like blue-bell flowers. Genesis had served us and when we paid the bill, I asked if I could take her picture. We shared our stories briefly, and I learned that 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 and I knew I had to meet Lind and to see his interpretation of Yuiza.
Naomi and I talked our spouses into “popping by” Lind’s gallery on the way back to the hotel, suggesting they’d be back on the beach in no time and the cool beer wasn’t in danger of losing its froth. My research started en route to Samuel’s studio, described by Genesis 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.
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 Mejius, 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.