01 February 2014

Educating Gabriel Haslip-Viera

We are publishing this response, in part to counter the unprofessional reviews to which Gabriel Haslip-Viera has taken to writing (with the now usual distortions on his part, a signature of what emerges as a a pattern of sloppy thinking, overweening prejudice and poor scholarship that must embarrass his colleagues and students), and in order to feature an exciting and important new book by Tony Castanha that helps to clean up some of the damage done to Caribbean studies by the perpetuation of colonial dogmas of "Indigenous extinction":

My Response to Gabriel Haslip-Viera’s Review of 
The Myth of Indigenous Caribbean Extinction: Continuity and Reclamation in Borikén (Puerto Rico) 
Tony Castanha 

Dear Editor: Guatiao.

I am writing to express my concern regarding a review published in your journal last year (CENTRO Journal 24(1): 192–7, 2012). The reviewer’s name is Gabriel Haslip-Viera, and the book reviewed is titled, The Myth of Indigenous Caribbean Extinction: Continuity and Reclamation in Borikén (Puerto Rico) (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011). I would not normally comment on a book review, but because this one directly targets my own work and is unprofessionally done, I feel compelled to.

I am choosing to reply back, not so much because of the content, arguments, and opinions of the reviewer, which are mainly spurious as touched on below, but because Haslip-Viera misquotes, misrepresents, and thus takes my work out of context throughout the review. When it comes to contemporary material on the indigenous Caribbean, the reviewer is well known by some as a scholar who belittles and degrades any mention of native survival and continuity. He has contempt for descendants who rightfully chose to self-identify with their indigenous past and ancestors. When writing the book I was well aware of the controversial nature of the subject matter, the possible scrutiny it could invoke, and polemic neocolonial scholars like Haslip-Viera, or those who continue to uphold colonial ideologies within a supposed post-colonial era. What I did not expect was that my work and interviewees would be continually misquoted, misrepresented, and taken out of context. This is unacceptable.

For instance, on the bottom of page 196, he misquotes an interviewee by deleting the word “indio” and inserting in its place the name “Taíno.” He misrepresents her because this is not a term she used or meant to say. Her family and others throughout mountain and rural regions of Puerto Rico have little conception of this name because it was introduced from outside of their communities and is not a part of family histories. The name “Taíno” is also not an accurate word to describe indigenous Caribbean peoples of the northern Antilles as it was never used by inhabitants as a term of self-ascription, at least prior to its nineteenth-century anthropological invention. 

Haslip-Viera misquotes another interviewee by again inserting the same word where it was not said or meant to be said: “We (the Taíno) were a great empire” (p. 194). Is this scholarship? That sentence is not written anywhere in the book. He further should have known to use brackets instead of parenthesis when inserting words within quotations. In the Preface of my book, I provide an in-depth explanation of the terms used and how I arrived at using them. I personally do not use the word at all in the book except when it is cited or quoted by someone else. Haslip-Viera chooses to ignore this, thus misrepresenting the intent of my work in the process. (See other misquoted or incorrectly quoted sentences in the review on page 193 [second and fourth paragraphs and at the bottom of the page], page 194 [number 3 in the middle], page 197 [at the top], and use of incorrect page numbers on the bottom of page 193).

The reviewer also inserts whenever possible the fanciful name “Taíno revivalists,” basically placing myself and my interviewees into a misguided stereotype. He is enamored to using this term because he is apparently the one who coined it in order to be able to conveniently mock the subject. His edited book, Taíno Revival (1999), elevates the name and concept in a largely demeaning way. This is demonstrated by titles such as “Making Indians Out of Blacks: The Revitalization of Taíno Identity in Contemporary Puerto Rico” and “The Indians are coming! The Indians are coming!: The Taíno and Puerto Rican Identity.” Most of the material in the book essentially minimizes a modern-day indigenous presence and continues to perpetuate the extinction of “real” indigenous Caribbean peoples. This falls right in line with an almost five hundred year precedence of writing the original peoples of the region out of the history books. Much of the content of this work can only be seen as an orientalist neocolonial roasting.

My book has nothing to do with “revivalists.” Many of the sources used came out before the creation of such a term and a so-called “Taíno revival movement” popularized by Haslip-Viera and others. As I note, addressing past and present issues related to Western imperialism in Borikén are vital to the book. “As the oldest colony in the hemisphere, Puerto Rico fits this description and model quite well. Therefore, this is a very serious matter. It is not a depiction of a ‘romanticized’ past but of a people struggling right now under Puerto Rican criollo [elite] and American ‘gringo’ domination and control” (Castanha, p. xii). Many of my interviewees are hard-working, respected members of their communities. A number of them are elders. So when Haslip-Viera trivially puts the name in quotations (“elders”), he displays an utter disdain for those who are most knowledgeable about the past and shows how far removed he is from understanding the subject matter of my book. Should such a reviewer be taken seriously?

Another way he misrepresents my work is by mentioning how I rely on “journalistic sources,” in addition to academic ones. This is ridiculous. I cite three or four newspaper sources in the entire book. His real argument is with Stan Steiner’s book, The Islands: The Worlds of the Puerto Ricans, which is a scholarly narrative that is sufficiently cited with an assay of sources used. Haslip-Viera conveniently labels him a “journalist,” assuming one cannot engage in different forms of writing. This would logically make María Teresa Babín, who co-edited a book with Steiner, a petty journalist too. Steiner actually wore many hats. He was a historian, journalist, consultant, and taught extensively at the university level. He authored many books over the course of his career. The comment the reviewer makes about whether or not Steiner “actually believed” there were still indigenous peoples on the island when writing the book is beside the point. The abundance of evidence he provides for a contemporary Indian presence is clear and supports my thesis. This is a good reason evidencing how and why scholarship is done—to arrive at an understanding or dialectic of important and controversial issues through a variety of sources.

What is interesting about the arguments and opinions Haslip-Viera brings out is how most of them are addressed in the book, often in detail, despite his assertions to the contrary. For instance, since I don’t quote to his satisfaction a passage from Steiner about African slavery and influences in Puerto Rico, a “major claim” is “undermined” (p. 195). In fact, I go to considerable lengths to explain and discuss these issues in numerous places, including ethnic intermarriage and integration, but one would have to read the book to really know this. As examples, I write, “Accordingly, this book is not meant to disparage the African element of our heritage, which has been influential and strong . . .”; “African slaves also often fled, alone or in groups, into the forests and mountainous interior.”; and “The African presence and influence in Borikén has been significant ever since” [the late 1520s and 1530s] (p. 6, pp. 69–70). I acknowledge African, Spanish, and other influences, but Haslip-Viera’s review blankets this and gives the impression that history is frozen in time and that only so-called “pure blooded” Indian people really count. This is, not surprisingly, his central argument for upholding the entrenched notion of Caribbean Indian extinction.

The reviewer writes that the title of my book is inappropriate “because pure-blooded Taínos (100 percent Amerindian mix) became extinct probably by the late sixteenth or early seventeenth century as survivors mixed biologically and culturally with Spaniards, Africans, and others who came to Puerto Rico in the succeeding decades and centuries” (p. 193). Firstly, the time frame for this “extinction” is conjecture based on self-serving colonial Spanish accounts. Moreover, it is an anachronistic statement based on the discredited social Darwinian concept of “survival of the fittest” as applied to humans, where “pure” identities were thought to have the best chance of survival. As Richard Grounds explains, “Rather than being a statement of fact or representing a scholarly analysis, the language of extinction is an expression of a social idea. This is the language of social Darwinism” (in Grounds, Tinker and Wilkins, eds., 2003: 302). Haslip-Viera’s statement infers that any human being on the face of the earth who is not “100 percent” pure is extinct, which is of course absurd. “Racial purity” has long been biologically proven to be a scientific abstraction. I go in-depth in examining issues and processes of active and passive resistance, cultural survival, adaptation, absorption and continuity, and convoluted notions of “purity” to show how indigenous Caribbean peoples, particularly the Jíbaro of Puerto Rico, are present today. This process has been similar to the survival and continuity of many recognized indigenous groups around the world.

In closing, maintaining theories of extinction and the issue of identity go hand-in-hand. Using “racial purity” and “blood quantum” to determine “extinction” is reductionist, racist, and a denial of one’s human right to self-identification. Continuing to erase the presence of a people invariably denies them this right. It is thus hard to believe that any scholar in the twenty-first century would be taken seriously for rationalizing such a thesis that denies a people’s existence and has been so damaging to countless numbers of peoples throughout history. Therefore all that is left to do now is to publish this rebuttal letter in your journal so your readers can judge for themselves the accuracy of the review and merits of all the arguments presented.