People of Cayo Santiago

I have been dabbling in film photography for some time. Here’s some shots from a mini-project I have on the people behind the researches done on the island. These photos were taken with rangefinders and a variety of Rolleiflex twin lens cameras. For more photos, do check my Flickr page.


A Travel to the Arecibo Petroglyphs

ImageLa Cueva del Indio, Arecibo, Puerto Rico. The long stretch of sand along the eastern coast of Arecibo comes to a full stop as it meets the drab limestone terrain jutting out from the ocean. This limestone landmass appears like a calcified giant sea cucumber beached by the raging waves. By not refusing to budge, the sea carved lunar scars and little cenotes on its surface; some going down to as deep as 20-30 feet, eventually expanding to a three-chambered cave underneath. Often, if you move close enough, a gust of wind rushes out, a sigh from below, tender yet dangerous. The Tainos–prehistoric inhabitants of the island–called these sinkholes, xawei.

La Cueva del Indio hides an extensive array of Taino petroglyphs. From the sharp grey surface above, the blades of which could easily slice through skin, we clambered down a vacant space, a mini-coliseum of smooth limestone. Fronting this space and separated by a few meters from the swirling tides is a falcon-like rock outcrop whose “eye” seemed omniscient. On the right of this “mini-coliseum” is the mouth of the cave where a 15-20 ft makeshift ladder is inclined deep into the cave for the visitors to reach the bottom.

While descending into the cave, the petroglyphs started to appear. The most visible were in the upper reaches of the cave: sketches of human heads (or masks?) covered in lichens. The petroglyphs became more elaborate as we hit the cave bottom. The angle of the light from the cave entrance exposed the outlines of the series of pictographs and petroglyphs. They were of differing sizes and symbols. The artists must have used a wooden stick to carve the damp and chalky cave walls. The central chamber walls were filled with drawings of mazes, spirals, lines, and circles. Taken together, the sketches conjured a psychedelic sense, especially the figure that a friend called the Virgin Mary sketch–a human outline carved in a series of mazes, squares, and lines. Beside it was a faint drawing of a rainbow, a series of concentric half-rings. Human faces also peered out from the walls. The sketches have turned green due to cave lichens while some were getting faint due to erosion and, most likely, human interference.

The second chamber was damp and dark, illuminated only by a glimmer of light from the roof. The Taino drawings here were sparsely distributed. Using a small flashlight, I surveyed the walls and found a few of the cave drawings in the second chamber: an anthropomorphic butterfly, a one-eared figure (rabbit-like), a fish, a monkey-like figure, and a few faded human faces. The third chamber was narrower, only allowing 1-2 persons at a time inside. Maybe due to the exposure to moisture, wind, and heat, the petroglyphs were eroded and few. The most legible was the dot and line symbol.

That caves occupied a special place in the Taino cosmology have been noted by Father Ramon Pane, the priest commissioned by Christopher Columbus to study the culture of the Tainos. Recording a folklore about caves in the Caribbean, Pane in the 15th century noted that

These people, being in those caves, kept watch at night, and this one was entrusted to one called Macocael, of whom, because one day he was late in returning to the door, they say that the sun took him because he guarded badly, they closed the door to him; and thus he was transformed into a stone near the door. Later, they say that others, having gone to fish, were taken prisoner by the sun and were converted into trees which they called ‘jobos,’ also called myrobalans (from Art and archaeology of pre-Columbian Cuba By Ramón Dacal Moure, Manuel Rivero de la Calle).

Pane went on to record that the Tainos worship deities known as zemis (or cemis). Yucahu, the lord of the cassava and the sea, and Atabey, the goddess of fresh water and human fertility, were the supreme deities in the Taino cosmology. Nature spirits were believed to reside in the environment too, such as in caves, trees, rivers, streams, etc.

Archaeologists suggested that caves were used for spiritual than practical purposes. Irving Rouse cautioned however that the presence of religious artifacts in caves may have been due to the colonial encounter:

Zemis have also been found in caves, but they may not all have been worshipped there. Some may have been taken there to save them from destruction by the Spaniards, who considered them heathen idols. (The Tainos: Rise and Decline of the People who Greeted Columbus by Irving Rouse)

Irving Rouse (1992) further added:

…they carved or painted outlines of the natural spirits in places where they believed them to live, especially in caves and on rocks along streams or coasts. These so-called petroglyphs or pictographs were not necessarily objects of worship…

Before communing with their zemis, owners purified themselves by fasting or inserting a stick in their throat to cause vomiting. They then took snuff (cohoba) in front of the zemi. The worshiper put the snuff, made by crushing seeds of the piptadenia tree, on a platform surmounting the zemi or in a separate receptacle and inhaled through a forked tube. It caused hallucinations, through which the zemi made known his or her will.

Some anthropologists noted that cave sites figured prominently in Taino mythology. William F. Keegan and Lisabeth A. Carlson in their book, Talking Taíno: essays on Caribbean natural history from a native perspective, said that

The Tainos used caves as sanctuaries for ritual purposes. Taino cosmology has three main divisions: the skyworld, the land world of living people, and the world of subterranean water. Caves were the portals to the subterranean world…They had emerged from Cacibajagua (Cave of the Jagua), a reference to the jagua tree, whose edible fruit produces a black vegetable dye used for body painting. In contrast, the cave of the Amayauna is translated as the “cave without importance.” Apparently, the Tainos are the one true people who emerged from the sacred cave, while the rest of humanity came from some place of no importance.

I am not aware if anthropologists have a complete record or study of the cave drawings and petroglyphs in the area or if measures have been made to address the conservation and preservation needs of La Cueva del Indio. But if the etched name of a certain RAFFY over a Taino petroglyph is of any indication, then the task of Taino heritage conservation is all the more glaring and urgent.

Read also my previous post on Taino sites: A Visit to a Taino Archaeological Park

Boy Aims Gun at Two Men Graffiti

I found this graffiti on a wall of an abandoned building in Hato Rey, featuring a boy aiming a gun at two men. I imagine this artwork as a critique on the pervasive violence in the island. Local authorities reveal that 70% of the 994 murders in Puerto Rico (2011) were all drug-related.

The location of this artwork is in a two-storey building near a Walgreens pharmacy and the San Juan mayor’s campaign office. The main railway of the city train also passes next to the structure. On occasion, a troupe of street performers ply their trade by the intersection.

in a random san juan street
jugglers throw bowling pins in the air,
heroin-addled human statues across them,
to entertain strangers in their cars
so you get
the dark carnivalesque humor and look away:
‘such beautiful caribbean skies..’







The sea is calm today, good enough for fishers casting a line along the dock. Their poles stand erect for now and their buckets empty. I saw a man hauling his net with a couple of small fries caught in the tangle.

How Lolo Pedro Swatted a Toratora and Died

While browsing the internet, I chanced on a science news article on the genetic susceptibility to schizophrenia among Han Chinese. The Nature article revealed  two independent studies that identified “sections of the human genome that, when deleted, can elevate the risk of developing schizophrenia by up to 15 times compared with the general population.” I won’t go into the details of the article because, aside from my lack of expertise on the subject matter, the popular version of the two articles is good enough for non-technical readers like myself.

This blog article however will share a cultural correlate to the science news article. While mental diseases are biological, these are expressed in specific cultural and historical circumstances. I take the medical anthropologist’s cue therefore of differentiating disease, which is biological, from illnesses, a cultural concept. It is within this light that I share my maternal relatives’ reckoning with pagkabuang (roughly translated as insanity). All behaviors or mental states that deviate from the “normal” is considered buang in Cebuano. Psychological illnesses, such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorders, dementia, etc, are all subsumed under this general word category.

The family lore goes that at least one member, usually male, of every generation will succumb to a mental illness. I don’t know if there’s a biological basis to this story or whether a professional diagnosis was availed of (except for one), but as far as my mother is concerned, our “schizophrenia” simply runs in the blood–no need to question it, you just keep the grip on what’s real and what’s not and you won’t lose it. This story has been used as a warning to all my relatives to not overdo things or do drugs, because “we got craziness in our blood,” one slip and off we go to Lalaland.  Like us, my mother’s generation too had been told time and again to fear this supposed “genetic tendency” and thus must learn to negotiate life’s challenges with calm and ease. I believe this is not simply an old wives’ tale that older relatives concocted to keep us in check. Aside from the logical fact that they could’ve just scared us off with the usual monsters and the roasting pits of hell, my maternal relatives saw how a grandfather, an uncle, and two cousins were blighted by this illness.

The origin of the “schizophrenia” myth started with the unusual death of my mother’s maternal grandfather who was shot by Japanese soldiers in the dying days of World War II. When the villagers heard that the soldiers were on patrol, they fled to their mountain hideout except for Lolo Pedro. The soldiers spotted Lolo Pedro on top of a coconut tree cursing at toratora or zero fighter aircrafts flying overhead. He also brought with him a long stick to swat at these flying jetfighters, flaying at them everytime they passed by the coconut tree. He was an easy target for the patrolling soldiers. They trained their rifles towards Lolo Pedro, placed him in their rifles’ crosshairs, squeezed their triggers, and took the crazed man down from the tree.

You see, the tiny island of Po’o at that time was right smack in the middle of the largest naval battle in world history, The Battle of Leyte Gulf. This was the naval war when Allied forces first witnessed Japanese toratora planes diving straight at enemy warships and gunboats. The Allied Forces however routinely defeated the Japanese forces in less than a week. For older island residents, the impact of this war was such that time and history were only divided into three episodes: before the war (wala pay gera), during the war (panahon sa gera), and after the war (pistaym). Personal events, like birthdays, are remembered more along this organizing principle of time than the actual dates.

The war was a shock to many island residents. From a sleepy fishing village, the place had been converted into a battle zone. The villagers were rounded up and their movement monitored and restricted. Many were subjected to abuses. Rumors reached that children were flung to the air and then stabbed with bayonets. Some of those who escaped the encampment were pursued and killed. A relative of mine, who was then a child, escaped a gruesome death when she pretended to be dead after getting stabbed with a bayonet. With her guts spilling out of her abdomen, adult relatives sneaked the child out of the island on a canoe. They traveled a full day to the neighboring island of Leyte where she was nursed back to health.

Coconut Fiber Dress. My grandfather didn’t quite sew something as grandiose as this, but yes you got the point of him sewing clothes from coconut fibers.

Those who escaped the Japanese garrison fled to mountain hideouts. While there, they lived a semblance of a normal life, far from the reach of the occupying forces. My late maternal grandfather, a Chinese immigrant tailor (whose timberland-owning family scampered out of China because of the Nationalist Revolution of Sun Yat Sen–yet another interesting story to pursue!), remembered sewing clothes from coconut fibers for the refugees (see photo on the side to give you an idea). The violence spiraled that whenever there was a chance for retribution, the island residents grabbed every opportunity for revenge–Japanese soldiers, who survived the naval battle and found themselves beached on the island, were routinely attacked and killed.

If you’ve been to the island of Po’o, you would not imagine that this place had once witnessed so much bloodshed. Your day starts with a rooster’s call and ends with the warmth of bahalina down your throat. Yet World War II was a crazy time. And, apparently, we still feel the insanity of war in our “genes.”


Palawan: Indigenous People and Mining Corporations

Palawan is arguably the most beautiful island of the Philippines for its mountainous terrain, powder white sands, and endemic fauna and flora. Unlike the rest of the Philippine islands, Palawan broke off from the Asian plate and stayed isolated for tens of millions of years. Hence, Palawan’s endemic fauna are different from the rest of the Philippine islands.

This unique habitat however is under threat as mining corporations identified areas of the island as suitable for mining. This short video feature offers a glimpse of the threat of species and cultural endangerment happening on the island brought about by big mining corporations.