The Taíno Culture’s Keeper

After a twenty hour plus trip on a charter bus from Havana to Baracoa (see posts from 2016), a small group of us visiting or doing research in Baracoa checked in to our rooms around 1 a.m. at El Castillo Hotel, an 18th century former fort.  The next day in the outdoor dining room where they served a complimentary buffet breakfast of tropical fruit juices, eggs, sweet breads and, of course, Cuban coffee (that will wake the dead!) I met with my Florida friend who had arranged a meeting with the region’s archeologist, Roberto Ordúñez, a renowned expert on Taíno culture.

It was a short walk from our hotel to Roberto’s house a few blocks from the Caribbean Sea. My friend explained that Roberto could only spare at most a half an hour to meet with me because he was busy with a new archaeological dig in the nearby town of Maisí.  I was happy to have any time with this amazing person.

It was close to 9:00 a.m. when Roberto welcomed me inside his home.  My friend left on her errands.  We sat in Roberto’ small living room and as we chatted he was surprised to learn I lived in northeast Florida and not Miami.  However, the greater shock came when I said I lived on an island called Amelia, in the city of Fernandina. Roberto had never met anyone from Fernandina but knew it well.  Over the next weeks as I spent time with my new Cuban friends in Baracoa I learned of the esteem they have for Fernandina, which they call the birthplace of the real battle for Cuba’s independence from Spain through the efforts of José Martí.

I remember feeling that Roberto and I connected, and suddenly felt comfortable enough to share with him how I had prepared for my trip. I pulled out my Mark Harrington book from my backpack and told him it was my ‘bible’ in learning about the Taíno culture.  Roberto held the book and incredulously asked: “¿Tú conoces a Harrington? (You know Harrington?)”  Our friendship was sealed.

Not surprisingly, Roberto and I spent more than the originally scheduled 30 minutes together.  We finally said good bye at 4:00 p.m. after talking Taíno archeology all day in his recently completed cave museum and with plans to meet over the weekend.

Roberto in his living room holding a clay replica of a pre-Columbian Taíno cemí (spiritual god) figure he had found in one of the region’s cave.