I’m here to neither bury el Almirante, as Dominican protocol insists he be called, though the one time I went looking for his remains I couldn’t find them, nor to praise him. I leave history to better minds. So whatever you want to call today is fine with me. Raised as a Spanish Catholic from a former colony, I grew up with Descubrimiento mythology, but also with Cuban republican ideology which insisted that Spaniards were a bunch of shits, never mind that Cubans like me were Spanish criollos, under whose boot we suffered until we rose against them. The first to rise, however, were not criollos; they were the people el Almirante called ”indios.”
The Black Legend, an exaggerated (but only exaggerated) tale of Spanish cruelty toward natives spread by Spain’s European enemies, took hold with Cuban republicanism, and if we hacked Spaniards into picadillo with machetes in our wars of independence, it was their comeuppance for all the shit they’d done since they landed, again never mind that I was as Spanish as the picadillo’ed imperialists.
But what about the indios? The first Americans, way before there were Americas or indios, are all over the hemisphere, nations that have refused to die in spite of massive linguistic and cultural loss. Here in the north they present a quandary that extends to nomenclature. Native Americans? First Nations? Indigenous people? Indigenous? Natives? Or to yield to el Almirante, who wasn’t quite right in the head I’ve heard, Indians. Years ago, I gonzoed my way into a closed (no whites) powwow in Albuquerque. The only word I heard was “Indian.”I suppose the only correct, meaning not politically but courteously, way of referring to those whose DNA and cultures precede the rest of us in this hemisphere is to use their nation’s name in their national language. Anyone who has studied a foreign language knows how difficult that would be, and we are talking here about many languages.
They are called “Indians” in Sherman Alexis wonderful stories, which feel natural to me, but what do I know? Is it noble savage myth that makes me sympathize with Indians? Why, when I hear the cadences of Indian English among the Hopi and Navajo I feel comforted? Some kind of chill flows through those cadences that tamps down my neurotic overheat. Is it because I want to believe in shamanic powers? We got plenty of that in the culture I grew up and partially live in. But, like everything from that culture, it’s not chill.
I was at a sweat lodge once and I didn’t do so well. To my shame, I had to exit in the middle of the ceremony because I was feeling claustrophobic from the cramped quarters and the extreme heat. What I did like was sitting outside under the Southwestern night sky and later sharing a bong with the Indian shaman or whatever he was as he looked at me with a twinkle in his eye that asked, are you high enough yet?
My own culture was no stranger to shamanism or purifying rituals, but I wondered . . . Is the spirit world of the American Southwest as imbued with pícaro tricksterism as the world of afrocubano orishas? I imagined such Indian spirits conspiring: let’s fuck with this Caribbean white boy’s head, he who fancies himself more authentic than the Anglo hippie types who sweat in the lodge because he, after all, knows a thing or two (mostly bookish) about animism.
Still, no orisha came to my rescue from indio embarrassment as I slinked out of the sweat lodge. Or maybe it was one of them who whispered in my ear, don’t be such a comemierda, you’re going to have a heart attack because you want to stay macho and hip. I punked out to party with the spirits another day. Actually, that very night, as the shaman looked at me with great encouragement while I sucked on the bong.
An hour or so later I was in my rented car from pre-GPS days, driving from the house in whose back yard lodge I had tried to sweat away the toxins of Western civilization and failed, in a city I did not know, stoned as a goose, wondering which way was my hotel. How I found it, I have no clue. Other than the spirit world that had threatened to roast me alive, like the Spaniards did with the first Caribbean chieftain who rose against them long ago in my native island, took pity on me and showed me the way.