Plenty Canada’s Caribbean project, Cuba Indigeneity: Values and Knowledge, is based in the remote mountain and coastal region of eastern Cuba, the Oriente. It partners with a significant population of Taino-guajiro (rural) Indigenous kinship families under the leadership of a traditional cacique (chief), women elders, and a new generation of leaders.
A recent visit to the community of La Rancheria found the folks active and in good spirits, despite coping with a difficult economic and public health moment on the island. Cacique Panchito and Grandmother Reina received us warmly, and we had a chance to hear from a good variety of voices on the situation and conditions of life in Cuba this season.
It takes a rugged jeep and transfer to a soviet-era tank-like truck to traverse the steep and deeply rutted mountain roads to reach the valley enclave that is La Rancheria. This is the village (yucayeque) of the cacique, recognized as an “autochthonous community,” and considered a model agricultural community.
In the past year, Plenty Canada’s project with the Gran Familia has focused on community-building activities. The harsh United States policies of economic blockade, plus the pandemic of the past two years have made life exceedingly difficult, causing many shortages in food, medicines, transportation, and other items. The communities’ leadership circles have now coalesced as a working group among six communities (Cajobabo, Veguitas, Yateras, La Rancheria, Fray Benito, Tames). Forming into a mutual-help collective, the working group has led and assisted projects among several core Taino communities.
This was precisely the early instruction and aspiration of the Native community elders in Cuba. Urged by Cacique Panchito, they spoke of the need to tie back together the dispersed large families of the Taino kinship group, the Rojas and Ramirez families. Over forty years, from the 1980s, this main clan of Native people in Cuba, has been gathering its elders into discussions about “weaving” the communities. They prioritized the passing of, “Values and Knowledge,” (Valores y Saberes) among the generations. Large annual gatherings and many local workshops over the years achieved a remarkable revitalization of consciousness of indigeneity. It also spawned a growing circle of mature family and community leaders who have enthusiastically organized volunteer working groups, “brigades,” that have focused on generating sustainable development projects.
At La Rancheria, a water project is underway that taps into more voluminous sources, and the group is building tanks and piping to the twelve houses in the community. Some weeks ago, they assisted the community in fully rebuilding their “caney,” or circular, thatched-roof structure where meetings and ceremonies are held. Beans and coffee are occasionally dried on the concrete floor of the caney.
In the cities, availability of basic foods is scarce and always worrisome. No one starves but people struggle seriously to find affordable food for their tables. But in these mountain communities, the instruction to plant large crops and to raise more food animals was taken up and food self-sufficiency is much stronger.
In the planting and harvesting, recently the bean crops, the working groups travel by foot or horseback, to spend several days assisting each other in useful work. This tradition of multi-family work parties, originally known as “guateque,” (which refers to the accompanying feast and party) was diminishing but is now growing again. Larger, more productive fields are now possible within an indigeneity tradition of reciprocity.
At the Fray Benito community, the current project is in rebuilding a casaba-producing complex that has been in the family for generations. This ancient Taino food, product of the yuca or manioc, is presently more in demand. Groups of women in Cajobabo and Tames are starting home-based enterprises, in fashioning textiles and clothing, and in setting up home-based small animal husbandry for home consumption and commerce.
As the COVID-19 pandemic comes under control and public transportation becomes more available, the tourism industry is again growing. Plans are underway in the Gran Familia for a large gathering to dialogue with educators. National stories are breaking in Cuban media about the surprisingly high rates of Indigenous DNA in the Cuban population. The highest rates of Cuban Indigenous DNA are reported among Cacique Panchito’s folks.
— Jose Barreiro