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Indigenous Passages to Cuba, 1515-1900$

Jason M. Yaremko

Print publication date: 2016

Print ISBN-13: 9780813062808

Published to Florida Scholarship Online: January 2017

DOI: 10.5744/florida/9780813062808.001.0001

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Diaspora and the Enduring (and Diverse) Indigenous Presence in Cuba

(p.164) Conclusion
Indigenous Passages to Cuba, 1515-1900

Jason M. Yaremko

University Press of Florida

Abstract and Keywords

The conclusion gives brief and extended consideration to the question of transculturation as well as to the legacy of indigenous diasporas to Cuba, particularly with respect to the question of surviving descendants and communities of indigenous immigrants in the country by the twentieth century. By logical extension, it also considers the larger question of indigenous history and legacy in Cuba writ large, that is, with respect to the indigenous Arawak Taíno peoples and indigenous “newcomers.” Many intermarried among one another and created mixed, culturally rich indigenous descendant communities in the western regions (and other areas) of the country, living symbols of a multicultural indigenous presence in Cuba, whose roots delve deeply.

Keywords:   Cuba, indigenous, transculturation, legacy, descendants, diasporas

If the Maya diaspora to Cuba faded in intensity by the end of the nineteenth century, it by no means ended. As is suggested by Cuban immigration records for the late 1880s and early 1890s, the Mayas of Yucatan continued to come to Cuba until at least the end of the nineteenth century.1 In fact, according to ship manifests, Mayas also continued to arrive in Havana harbor into the early twentieth century, merely the latest in a series of journeys, indigenous passages stretching back a half millennium and more.2

The focus of this work has been the mobility, migration, and diaspora of indigenous peoples in colonial Cuba, including, where possible, the origins, identities, experiences, and struggles of the Yucatec Mayas and the Nahuas, Calusas, Timucuas, Uchises, Apaches, and other indígenas who arrived, worked, and lived in Cuba, involuntarily and voluntarily. The analytical focal point, furthermore, examines not only the presence but the diversity of this small but significant population of indigenous peoples, a varied autochthonous presence well beyond the early colonial period in Cuba. Not only did this diversity flow into and complement an already exceptionally diverse labor system; it also represented an intrinsically diverse world on its own. Further, the analytical emphasis has necessarily been on these indigenous visitors and immigrants and their relations with nonindigenous agents of the state—Spanish imperial, Cuban colonial, and Mexican republic—as well as the various employers or patrones and others.

(p.165) Implicit in this analysis is the question of the relations among the indigenous peoples themselves, immigrant and indigenous host cultures, the indigenous Arawak Taíno, and other subaltern peoples in Cuba like African and African-descended slaves and freed persons and Chinese laborers. To what extent did these various peoples interact, mix, marry, and have impacts on one another? To what extent did these indigenous foreigners interact with others at all? These are questions of transculturation on which I have attempted to shed some light with the very limited evidence at hand. Questions of the evolution of ethnicity, identity, including the retention and persistence of indigeneity, and identity formation remain important considerations for further research. The extent of adequate historical evidence with which this story can be told remains, at this writing, unclear. This is important work that has yet to be done.

Even amid the paucity of available evidence there are clues, fragments that suggest that there must have been a range of such interactions. Some of them have been noted here. The indigenous newcomers, even those Nahuas, Mayas, and others transported as convict or prison labor and who worked in the cuadrillas (work gangs), obviously had some interactions with people in their midst, even if fleeting and whatever the likelihood of its being recorded. The greater promise of mining evidence to excavate such stories may lie in the more sustained interactions like those mentioned: from labor to intermarriage and relationships in between the two. Yet even in the case of marriage, issues of masking race or ethnicity can conceal relations, as in the early colonial period, when indigenous women who married Spanish men legally became “Spanish,” and especially by the late colonial period, when racial reporting became less consistent. Still, we do have some very fragmentary evidence that can furnish us with a window or at least a scuttle into the lives of some indigenous immigrants in Cuba. Offered here are a few examples of the possibilities for further research into the next chapter of this story, one in which, again, Mayas and other Mesoamerican peoples appear to predominate.

From the very beginnings of Cuba’s colonization within the Spanish Empire, reports exist of an apparent wealth of Yucatec Mayas in the founding settlements and towns of the early sixteenth-century island colony,3 among them one community that helped found Havana. In turn, these reports lead us to some of the earliest instances of interactions between indigenous (p.166) immigrant and indigenous host cultures, as recorded, for example, by the cabildo of Havana. Brief passages in the actas de cabildos tell us that the “Indians of Campeche” worked with the “indios naturales” (native Indians), indigenous Arawak Taíno, likely literally side by side, on road and other public works in and around the capital.4 Further, both Arawak and Maya also likely encountered some of the many indigenous peoples from the Central America region, thousands of whom were enslaved during this period and transported to the Greater Antilles for work in the Caribbean colonies.5 This diverse indigenous labor force probably also encountered some of the first African and African-descended slaves sanctioned by the Spanish crown to labor on the defense and public works of the capital and island.6

Imperial Spain’s seemingly perpetual defense needs and Cuba’s enduring labor demands ensured a concomitant need for laborers that indigenous peoples both within and outside the island colony continued to meet. Through the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, surviving populations of Arawak Taíno peoples, those known to the colonial and imperial governments, residing in and governing over “Indian Towns” like El Caney and Jiguaní continued to serve the Spanish crown through their participation in defense and other public works in exchange for the autonomy of their communities. To the extent that there is some evidence suggesting small, scattered populations of Yucatec Mayas in eastern Cuba, it is plausible if not probable that Maya and Arawak continued to encounter one another in the context of these labors. If we do not yet know the incidence by which the descendants of the various indigenous cultures continued to encounter one another amid the social relations of labor, we most certainly know that these relations sometimes progressed and surpassed the realm of labor, toward more intimate and presumably enduring relationships after the early colonial period and into the long nineteenth century.

That these relations between indigenous Arawaks and indigenous immigrants transcended the realm of labor, though they may have been forged there, is suggested at least as early as the mid-sixteenth century. Colonial government officials of the time were aware of many indigenous immigrant peoples who were “not native born” and who had intermarried with island’s autochthons and “become so identified with the [Arawak].”7 Traces of these conjugal relations are further evident, though too often vague, in the parish registers where the descriptor “indio” is relatively consistently indicated (p.167) more often than natal location, fueling more speculation than concrete evidence. Nonetheless, fragments persist through the centuries and are at least suggestive of the continued connubial relationships between indigenous immigrants and the host indigenous peoples.

Such relations and ensuing relationships extended to other subaltern subjects of the empire. A marriage consecrated at Espíritu Santo church in the barrio of Campeche took place in the summer of 1679 between Juan Alonso de los Reyes, “native Indian” from Merida, New Spain, and Eufrasia de Coca, a “black slave” of Dona Luisa de Oporto.8 If the scale remains unclear, the endurance of more intimate social relations between indigenous immigrants, Arawak Taíno, African and African-descended slaves, and other subaltern peoples in the island colony is evident or at least suggested. Acts of resistance, for example, certainly could have provided the context or generated conditions for the mutual encounters of indigenous immigrant and host indigenous or other subaltern cultures, actions that forged alliances against abusive patrones, the colonial government, and the imperial state and that conceivably could have led to deeper relationships such as marriage. As indicated, allied with the Arawak Taíno were Yucatec Mayas and other indigenous people among the combatants behind the earliest movements of indigenous resistance against Spanish settlers and settlements during the early colonial period.9 Given the evidence for intermarriage between Arawak Taíno and Yucatec, some may even have led parties of Arawak insurrectos against Cuba’s colonizers. Indigenous immigrants also fought alongside fugitive African and African-descended slaves, as did at least one Yucatec Maya, known as Guachinango Pablo, who in 1797 reportedly led a palenque in western Cuba.10

By the nineteenth century, neither the massive influx of African slaves nor its augmentation by Chinese indentured laborers slaked the colonial economy’s need for labor. As I have demonstrated, labor performed by imported Maya and other Indigenous workers remained a small but significant staple of production in Cuban colonial society. The Mayas of Yucatan provided the bulk of this indigenous immigrant workforce on the island colony. At the same time, labor conditions continued to provide opportunities for intercultural interactions, as indigenous workers and African or African-descended slaves almost inevitably found themselves thrown together in the various work sites. This is not particularly surprising, as numerous agents (p.168) and patrones behind the importation of Yucatec Mayas to Cuba were, like Francisco Martí y Torrens, planters and slave owners. In one such instance likely not untypical, María Lucia Camara, the yucateca from Campeche, worked as a laundress alongside domestic slaves.11

Considering the substantial demand for indigenous domestic servants in urban centers like Havana that absorbed deported Apaches in the eighteenth century as readily as Mayas in the nineteenth, criadas who both replaced and augmented African-descended slave labor in colonial Cuban households were in a position that very likely and at several levels put them into contact with their African and conceivably Chinese counterparts. This is no less probable among the many Yucatec Maya men assigned to labor in the fields and mills of colonial Cuba’s plantation economy. We know less about these kinds of encounters among indigenous immigrants themselves or between them and surviving Arawak Taíno descendants during the colonial period.

For the ensuing centuries, fragments of evidence both suggestive and more substantial exist among the records of the island’s churches, colonial government documents, oral histories, and even the reports of archaeologists. All are suggestive of the range, complexity, and depth of more intimate indigenous social relationships and their implications for understanding Cuba’s historic cultural heterogeneity. Something of this can be discerned or at least inferred from the work (deliberately and inadvertently) of other disciplines, including evidence that strongly suggests that this relational dynamic has its descendants and endures through the nineteenth and twentieth and into the twenty-first centuries.

Half a millennium ago, many of the valleys, plains, and undulating hills in the present-day provinces of Havana, Artemisa, Mayabeque, and Matanzas provinces (formerly Havana and Matanzas) in western Cuba were covered by forests of mahogany, ebony, cedar, and pine.12 They were also inhabited by populations of indigenous Arawak Taíno people living in villages and towns organized in cacicazgos (chiefdoms) like those encountered by the Spanish throughout the island. The chiefdoms that occupied the present-day western provinces included Havana, Sabana (Sabaneque), Cubanacán, Hanábana (Hanamana), and Jagua.13 Five centuries later, colonization, shipbuilding, and sugar had registered their impacts through deforestation of the area and devastation of the indigenous inhabitants. Neither the (p.169) natural environment nor the population, however, is without survivors. When archaeologist and engineer Juan Cosculluela penetrated the region in the 1910s as part of the national government’s infrastructural development program, he encountered near the Finca Orbea a community whose members asserted their ancestral ties to the ancient cacicazgo of Hanabana. This moment turned out to be seminal at two levels, in broadening our understanding of the persistence of the indigenous Arawak Taíno from the precolonial through colonial and national periods in Cuba and in shedding light on an equally persistent multicultural indigenous presence.

Though it is tempting to label such an encounter with something like “Modernity Meets Antiquity,” we must refrain from any such suggestions of the essentialism so ingrained and enduring among that era’s social scientists. Cosculluela met Epifanio Díaz, “El Pajaro,” one of the community leaders and, like other members of his pueblo, Hanabana Quemada, an employee of the local finca. Díaz volunteered knowledge of his indigenous roots, including his family’s ancestral ties to one of the first caciques in the region, information that Cosculluela reportedly confirmed in a local “ancient cemetery.”14

The twentieth-century “discovery” of descendants of indigenous Arawak Taíno in western Cuba was both momentous and microcosmic, but the pueblo of Hanabana Quemada was and is notable for another reason. The cacique’s descendant Díaz was married to a woman of Yucatec Maya heritage.15 We do not know the name of the woman. Was she the only Maya in the pueblo nestled in a former cacicazgo or one of a number of Mayas resident in a mixed community? Was she a descendant of the enslaved Mayas of the early colony or in any way related to the Mayas trafficked in the nineteenth century or those who came later and recorded by the 1899 U.S. census as “Yucatan Indian” or as “Mexican”? While these questions may remain unanswered, it is clear that Díaz and his wife had a large family with numerous children and immediate and extended family members described by Cosculluela as “indiana clara” (clearly Indian).16 Recent studies have suggested the existence of several towns and villages in western Cuba with small populations of Yucatec Mayas resident in either insulated or mixed communities. The pueblo of Hanabana Quemada represents one instance, a microcosm of the diverse and dispersed indigenous presence in Cuba.

(p.170) Archaeological expeditions headed by Cuban and Soviet scientists in the 1960s and 1970s lent further credence to this mixed Mesoamerican-indigenous presence. Yucatec Mayas were encountered at the foot of the hill Loma del Grillo, in the community of Madruga in Mayabeque (formerly Havana) province. The residents identified themselves as Yucatec Mayas and practiced milpa agriculture, and at least the elder members of the community still spoke the Yucatec language. This community, if isolated and insulated early on, became less so with time. According to local elders, as time progressed, many of the youth increasingly interacted and intermarried with outsiders.17

Another component to this dynamic is represented by Mayas resident in Guanabacoa, originally a settlement established by the Spanish for indigenous Arawak Taíno since the colonial period who may have surviving descendants in the Havana suburb of the contemporary period. Again, through early colonial records like the actas de cabildos we do know that these indigenous residents of Guanabacoa and the barrio of Campeche interacted, at minimum, through the social relations of labor. Further, reports of Yucatec Mayas in Cuba, in communities either integrated or insulated, persist through the early and mid-twentieth century, predominantly in Cuba’s western regions. During the mid-to late twentieth century, various Cuban, Mexican, and North American scholars and scientists have commented on the Yucatec Mayas of Madruga, believed to be descendants of the nineteenth-century traffic of Maya laborers as exiles of the Caste War. These Mayas represent one of several similar communities scattered throughout predominantly western but also eastern Cuba, including Nueva Paz just south of Madruga as well as Los Palos and a number of other towns, some more or less isolated than others, stretching as far west as Cabo de San Antonio and east to Holguin.18

Among numerous such communities that persist in western Cuba, Madruga has in recent years received most of the attention of North American and Latin American observers. This may be so for several reasons. My informal discussions with Cuban friends and colleagues suggest the popular reluctance of Cubans to acknowledge the existence of descendants of indigenous Arawak Taíno on the island, as the historian Felipe Pichardo Moya encountered decades ago. They are more likely, however, to acknowledge the endurance of descendant Mayas. This interest has recently grown (p.171) at popular and academic levels. Madruga may be under the spotlight in part because, although difficult to access, it is nonetheless among the more accessible. Finally, the Mayas of Madruga may also stand out because of the persistence of certain characteristics, both physical (as distinct from physiological) and cultural, that are quintessentially Maya, enduring for centuries, while also adaptive. In order to shed some light on these questions, social scientists like Mexican anthropologist Victoria Novelo and Cuban archaeologists Karen Mahé Lugo Romera and Sonia Menéndez Castro visited the pueblo, respectively, in the 1990s and the first decade of the new millennium. Their findings, through observation and interviews with residents, are instructive, throwing light on this case study of contemporary descendants of indigenous immigrants in Cuba.

Founded through the gradual gathering of Yucatec Maya families at Loma del Grillo at the turn of the century, by the beginning of the twentieth century and in the decades before the 1959 revolution, the pueblo existed on a precarious foundation—precarious in part because of rampant lati-fundism—of milpa agriculture and coal production.19 For more than a half century, largely isolated and illiterate in the Spanish language, the Yucatec Mayas of Madruga interacted minimally with the rest of society.20 Conditions of relative isolation tended to reinforce the endurance and persistence of Yucatec Maya identity, therefore, well into the twentieth century. Isolated as they were, however, the Mayas could not insulate themselves from the sea change generated by the social revolution of 1959. Characteristically, pueblo residents remember this as a time of both substantial change and continuity. Change came in the form of agricultural reforms and literacy movements in the countryside, the former resulting in relocation of the Mayas not far from their original locations to parcels of land designated by the revolutionaries and the latter in the form of education and health care, a clinic and a school.21

Change under the revolution offered opportunities but also new struggles for the Maya community that challenged the maintenance of Yucatec Maya identity, as Maya children and youth went off to school and returned, having been exposed to new ideas and people. The revolution appeared to introduce a duality to the existence of the formerly isolated Mayas. While the pueblo remained relatively physically isolated, the members of the community became increasingly divided in relation to the larger revolutionary (p.172) society. An informant observed that “the old ones resisted … but these people, the young ones saw possibilities in change.”22 For the Mayas of Madruga, as, no doubt, for other Maya communities in western Cuba, the revolution transformed the lives of the youth as the sons and daughters of Maya farmers and coal burners became nurses and teachers, some remaining in the community, others moving to the cities.23 Under such conditions, the ramifications for the maintenance of Maya identity appear potentially foreboding. Novelo observes several factors that conspired against the reproduction of the group, including the internal migration of youth to the cities, mixed marriages, and the disappearance of community elders and the ancient knowledge and language they possessed and traditionally transmitted to younger generations.24

Half a century of social revolution later and more than a decade after Novelo’s encounter, the Mayas of Madruga endure, still struggling with many of the same forces that challenge the integrity of their community and, by extension, their identity. Mahé and Menéndez have observed that Mayas both persisted and adapted. Having received modern housing in urban areas, many chose to remain in their traditional dwellings on their land; if traditional dishes were no longer quotidian practice, they were reserved for special days of celebration; and if Yucatec Maya was slowly giving way to the Spanish language, the Mayas of Madruga and surrounding communities continued to identify themselves as Yucatec Maya.25

In a news article published in June 2014, the Mayas of Madruga were characterized by the Cuban state media as “the last Mayas in Cuba.” Yet it is clear that they are no more the last than other long-lived indigenous community in the country, whether descendants of Maya or Arawak Taíno. The Arawak Taíno, not incidentally, have in recent years become more evident and active in educating the Cuban and international community on the persistence as well as diversity of the indigenous presence on the island nation.26 It is also important and remarkable that over the centuries a sense of indigeneity has endured among indigenous and diasporic indigenous peoples in Cuba, technically and perhaps ironically including the Arawak Taíno. Though no doubt abated over time—despite almost universal observations of the appearance and practices of contemporary “Indians” being indistinguishable from the general population—the persistence of an indigenous identity still manifests itself in the endurance, in varying (p.173) degrees, of autochthonous languages, traditional forms of agriculture, and the relationship to the land, foods and food preparation, and even housing construction, combined with at least some of the modern amenities. As of the new millennium, therefore, descendants of indigenous immigrants like the Mayas of Madruga endure, as do some of the traditional practices maintained and adapted, a dynamic shared with their relations in Yucatan and Guatemala, as visiting Guatemalan Mayas recently observed.27

Though descendant Yucatec Maya and Arawak Taíno communities are becoming better known as distinct communities and peoples, it is likely that lesser-known contemporary mixed or hybrid communities also exist. Further, recent genetic studies have revealed the substantial indigenous make-up of Cuba’s population, one considerably more diverse and substantively more indigenous at the roots than previously known.28 In any event, the indigenous heritage of Cuba is possessed of substantially broader and deeper roots than has heretofore been understood, let alone recognized. Indigenous peoples, both insular and continental, have played significant roles in the historical development of Cuba and have made noteworthy contributions to the island’s social, economic, and cultural development. Continental indigenous peoples, along with their African, Chinese, and indigenous Arawak Taíno counterparts, whether as voluntary immigrants or involuntary forced labor, made their mark, facilitating, in varying degrees, the evolution of Cuba’s economy and society. With too few exceptions, their migrations, diasporas, and struggles remain shrouded, unlike the understandably more comprehensively documented diasporic experiences of African, African-descended, and Chinese peoples. Future research, which the present study hopes to encourage, should open more windows into the historic and contemporary multicultural or multinational indigenous presence in Cuba.

This ancient and enduring presence possesses dimensions that in turn broaden and deepen our understanding of indigenous peoples—and subaltern peoples generally—and Cuban history. Their presence reminds us of the adaptability and resourcefulness of indigenous peoples like the Yucatec Mayas who have, for the most part, not only been forced to contribute to Cuba’s development but also have struggled through various regimes and generations, to the present day, to defend and protect their interests. That determination, negotiation, and resistance, again, along with that of their (p.174) Arawak Taíno counterparts and relations, account in no small part for the persistence of indigenous peoples and a multicultural indigenous presence in Cuba through the centuries to the current period. Their history, of its own accord and as a part of the larger history of Cuba, has barely begun to be told. When this multifaceted story is more completely and definitively related, it will tell us of a more diverse Cuba and Caribbean that include not one but a number of indigenous American cultures, then and now. It will also tell us that Cuba more closely represents a microcosm or, more accurately, a mirror of the continental cultural kaleidoscope than previously understood or appreciated.


(1.) Immigration records, Ministerio de Ultramar, January 1, 1889–December 31, 1893, Torrelaguna, 297, Sección Nobleza del Archivo Histórico Nacional, AHN.

(2.) Ship passenger lists, 1900, “Passengers Data Base,” CubaGenWeb, http://www.cubagenweb.org/ships/index.htm; accessed 2014.

(3.) Cited in Julio Le Riverend Brusone, “Relaciones entre Nueva España y Cuba (1518–1820),” Revista de Historia de América, nos. 37–38 (1954): 97–98.

(4.) Cabildo de 14 de febrero 1575, Actas Capitulares del Ayuntamiento de La Habana, February 14, 1575, 93, AMCH.

(6.) Cabildo de 14 de febrero 1575, Actas Capitulares del Ayuntamiento de La Habana, February 14, 1575, 93, AMCH.

(8.) Cited in Antonio J. Valdés, Historia de la isla de Cuba y en especial de la Habana, vol. 1 (Havana: Oficina de a Cena, 1813), 342.

(11.) “Declaración de Da. María Lucia Camara,” July 13, 1861, Gobierno Superior Civil, leg. 640, no. 20224, ANC.

(12.) Reinaldo Funes Monzote, De bosque a sabana: Azúcar, deforestación y medio ambiente en Cuba, 1492–1926 (Mexico City: Siglo Veintiuno Editores, 2004), 36–45.

(13.) See the map in Ramón Dacal Moure and Manuel Rivero de la Calle, Art and Archaeology of Pre-Columbian Cuba (Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1996), 26.

(14.) Juan A. Cosculluela, Cuatro años en la ciénaga Zapata (Havana: Imprenta La Universal, 1918), 239–40.

(15.) Ibid., 239.

(16.) Ibid., 238. For more on this encounter, see Jason Yaremko, “‘Obvious Indian’—Missionaries, Anthropologists, and the ‘Wild Indians’ of Cuba: Representations of the Amerindian Presence in Cuba,” Ethnohistory 56, no. 3 (2009): 449–77.

(17.) See Milan Pospisil, Indian Remnants from the Oriente Province, Cuba (Bratislava, Slovakia: Univerzita Komenskeho, 1976), 32, and Karen Mahé Lugo Romera and Sonia Menéndez Castro, “Yucatán en La Habana: Migraciones, encuentros y desarraigos,” La Jiribilla: Revista de Cultura Cubana, September 22–28, 2007, http://www.lajiribilla.co.cu/2007/n333_09/333_04.html.

(18.) The extent to which these other sites represent communities of Yucatec Maya descendants from the nineteenth century is unclear. The late distinguished (p.220) Cuban anthropologist Manuel Rivero de la Calle suggested that those resident in Madruga and Nueva Paz, to name two, may be descended from the nineteenth-century generation; Las culturas aborígenes de Cuba, 60. A recent study by Mexican anthropologist Victoria Novelo on Yucatecans in Cuba also mentions these and other communities; Yucatecos en Cuba (Merida, Mexico: Casa Chata, Centro de Investigaciones y Estudios Superiores en Antropología Social, Instituto Cultura de Yucatán, 2009), 117.

(20.) Interview cited in ibid., 113–14.

(24.) Ibid., 117.

(26.) See Lisandra Díaz, “Los últimos mayas en Cuba,” Mayabeque, June 3, 2014, http://diariomayabeque.cu/2014/06/los-ultimos-mayas-en-cuba/.

(28.) Beatriz Marcheco-Teruel, Esteban J. Parra, Evelyn Fuentes-Smith, et al., “Cuba: Exploring the History of Admixture and Genetic Basis of Pigmentation Using Autosomal and Uniparental Markers,” PloS Genet 10, no. 7 (2014): 1–13.