Before it was known as Puerto Rico the island was called Borikén by the indigenous Taíno people. The European domination of the Americas began in the Caribbean and to this day our hemisphere’s population and civilization is a hybrid. In the early 1500s the Taíno fell victim to the invading Spaniards, armed with then-modern weapons and accompanied by creatures never before seen on Borikén, including horses and dogs. In a conflict that would be repeated from the Arctic to the Andes, the indigenous population would be conquered, a precious native culture would be overwhelmed or lost. The tenacity of that overshadowing can be felt in the work of writer Fernando de Aragón, and not just in the battle scenes and struggles depicted in his novel “Dos Santos”. It took Dr. de Aragón, a native of Puerto Rico and now a resident of Ithaca, twenty years to research and write a story that returns the Taino back onto their own solid ground.
Even today, Puerto Ricans may refer to themselves as Borinqueños and there is a growing interest in the once-thriving Taíno culture. Recent DNA tests have revealed that a good portion of the Puerto Rican population carries a trace of Taino heritage. When the Spanish arrived at the end of the 15th century after difficult sea voyages, there was a desire to establish new homesteads and, despite their gestures of hospitality toward the new arrivals, the Taino were often considered as nothing more than commodities for slavery. Antonio Dos Santos is introduced to us as a member of the crew on Columbus’s second voyage who was becoming impatient with life in Santo Domingo and welcomed the possibility of finding gold and establishing farms on Borikén. He had earlier spent years living in Africa and had largely broken his ties to Spain. Like immigrants to come, Dos Santos saw the possibility of prosperity in the New World, while the indigenous population was disregarded or exploited.
“Dos Santos” is detailed in its presentation of maritime life in the 1500s — those who enjoy a good seafaring tale will like the opening chapters — but once settled on land and into Part II of the novel, Dos Santos finds himself detained in one of the first buildings constructed by the Spanish in Borikén, the jail. He had offered to explore the island on behalf of the interim governor, Juan Ponce de Leon (he of the famous search for the Fountain of Youth) in return for an encomienda — a little land of his own. But in his exploring he also comes to know the Taíno people and develops a respect and affection, respect for a societal structure more gentle, fair and egalitarian than the Spanish and affection especially for the beautiful Taino woman Aima. A love story is woven with the conflict between natives and their colonizers and anthropological detail of a “lost” civilization. To his former comrades in arms, Dos Santos (“I have made my decision. I am Taíno”) has become little more than a traitor to Spain, and a guardian of the Taíno culture.
“The areito began around mid-day the next day. Three drums, two made from carey shells and the third from a hollowed tree stump, sat on a bed of reed mats at the north side of the batey. The drummers, two men with similar red feathered headdresses, beat a slow rhythm using stout wooden sticks. The population of the yucayeque, now swelled with visitors from the neighboring communities, began congregating around the batey…”
— from “Dos Santos”
Fernando de Aragón concludes the book with a bibliography and glossary of Taíno words that have survived to modern usage, including “hamaca” (where Tainos slept, the hammock) and the powerful storm that blows in from the ocean, “huracán”.
Fernando was born in Ponce, PR, spent his youth in central Puerto Rico amidst traces of Taina society and moved with his family to the mainland U.S. in 1975. He holds degrees in natural resources management, city and regional planning and a Ph.D. in energy management and policy from the University of Pennsylvania. He is now the executive director of the Ithaca-Tompkins County Transportation Council. “Dos Santos” is his first novel.
Photo courtesy of Dennis Jarvis via Flickr.