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  • Writer's pictureyannick-robin eike mirko

The Gender History of Puerto Rico, Before Colonization

Updated: Dec 18, 2023

It is hard to pin down documentation of our norms and values before the entrance of Spanish Colonization and the introduction of the use of Spanish as a dominant language and Catholic norms (including the gender binary) to mold society, but…there is enough known about gender politics to help with our fight when it comes to a greater understanding of autonomy/human rights and its history. Before the arrival of colonization, our roles were very slightly impacted by gender, unlike how the patriarchy now slices the world and its rules with a strict binary line.

So, what was it like on the island before the Spainards (considered Guamikinas, the European “covered people”) destroyed everything? Here’s what I’ve found (and of course, if you have any edits or information that you don’t see down here, do let me know):

Doing my best to make this make sense in modern terms here, using The Taino Dictionary as a guide: There was I’ro (man), I’naru’ (woman). According to the University of Florida, “Women seem to have participated at all levels in the political hierarchy, both wielding power and accumulating wealth. There were few social or economic activities that were assigned to only either men or only women. For example, constructing the conucos (raised mounds for farming, you could also call farmers by this word) was done by men, and preparing the manioc (principal crop) was done by women, but both genders tilled, planted and harvested the fields.”. A helpful look at the perception of women also lies in the native tale of the women who went with Guarocuya (a badass native who fought back against Spaniards with the initiative to reclaim as much as physically possible, including land and a native population not altered by colonizer genes…god I wish I was this guy) to the island of Matinino (which I believe is now modern-day Martinique), a considered ‘motherhood initiative’ in pushback to colonization (which involved the raping of our people). From the perspectives of many a native, the story represents one of the ‘cycles of creation in which society was reorganized (there are astronomical dimensions to this narrative, such as the rise and setting of Venus and the moon-life cycles)' they also represent to some the emergence of "women" warrior castes, whose roles were to stabilize Taino society by the fact that they patrolled the margins and ensured that survival was not just tied to pro-creation (as in the judeo-christian model) but also sovereignty and self-sustenance.

But wait…there’s more!!

There’s me, more specifically (and importantly). The maorocoti - that which is neither…and both. These two-spirits were held in high regard in our tribes, and were thought to possess special insights due to their duality.

The maorocoti, or the Yucáhuguama Bagua Maórocoti (among other namings), is represented within the deities and zemis (gods) by The three-pointed Cemi, a fundamental symbol in Taino religion, the divine connection between the sky, the earth and the waters, as well as the differently gendered possibilities. It is the masculine spirit of fertility in Taino Mythology. It appears as a triangular symbol with three points collectively called “Yocahu Bagua Moarocoti,” words that come together to symbolize the Creator: with Yocahu/Yúcahu meaning spirit or giver of cassava, Bagua being interpreted both as the sea itself as well as potentially meaning "the master of the sea", and Maorocoti meaning there is no male intervention in it's conception. The three points on the Cemi, Yocahu, Bagua, and Moarocoti, represent: the turey (sky…where Yaya, the Creator whose name means that which has neither beginning nor end and which has no male ancestor or creator), Coabey (the underworld, where Hupia - the spirits of the dead - reside. The face of Guayabe, the Chief of Coabey is represented here), and the land of the living, where Goiz (the spirit of the living people) resides.

The influence of judeo-christianity on our island led to the criminalization of polyamory, sodomy and imposed the Eurocentric, cis-hetero judeo-christian ideas of "man" "woman" and “monogamy” (typical for the same people that considered pink the color for jesus/man, as Peggy Orenstein has written, originally, “pink was considered the more masculine hue, a pastel version of red. Blue, with its intimations of the Virgin Mary” taken from the 2006 NYT piece ‘What’s Wrong With Cinderella?’. Just go ahead and assign everything a gender and a purity rank, why don’t you…Christians.). "Those who did not conform were persecuted: fed to dogs, had their genitals mutilated or their wives and/or husbands raped and kidnapped. These acts have been documented in the chronicles of the Frays and Padres who were there at the onset of Christian Spanish governance."

At this point in time, a lot of humanity knows none of this information. I didn't know for a long time, and my people on the island haven't known for longer due to how the United States has shaped the education system down there since they took over and decided erasure of indigenous culture was a part of their plan: said best by this quote from 1899 by President of the Board of Education established in Puerto Rico by the United States Victor S. Clark, found in The University of Puerto Rico – Colonialism and the Language of Teaching and Learning,

"If the schools are made Americans [sic] and the teachers and pupils are inspired with the American spirit . . ., the island will become in its sympathies, views and attitude toward life and toward government essentially American. The great mass of Puerto Ricans are as yet passive and plastic . . . Their ideals are in our hands to create and mold. We shall be responsible for the work when it is done, and it is our solemn duty to consider carefully and thoughtfully to-day [sic] the character we wish to give the finished product of our influence and effort."

In the words of Daniel Saynt in a review of the book Queer Indigenous Studies: Critical Interventions in Theory, Politics, and Literature, “if you're Taino and acknowledge that you are a they/them aka a dual-spirit, you are not only keeping our traditions alive, you've got superpowers.

Whoever you are out there: stay safe, and respect your neighbor. Because the "finished product" Puerto Rico that America created, and the world that believed them, don't want you alive, or happy.

1 comentario

Nicole Grassel-Torres
Nicole Grassel-Torres
21 dic 2023

Thank you for educating me on my culture. I have had the Taino symbol of the Sun tattooed on my body for years thinking it would keep my tied to my ancestral roots, but little did I know, there is so much of my roots I know nothing of.

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