Taino Indians... Or How I Bit Off More Than I Could Chew
Photography and Text By Sal Feliciano  © All rights reserved.

I've had frustrations in my life, from the toilet stopping up at the wrong time to a cop being at the corner the one time I roll past a stop sign. Frustrations abound in our life. But seldom do we ever go looking for them, they usually come looking for us.
In my case, though I did not realize it at the time, I was a glutton for punishment. This became very obvious from the start of this special photographic project. But, being a stubborn old fool and ex-soldier, I kept at it until I conquered. Ok, I did not know when to give up. Sue me.
It all started on February 16, 2004 with a very small photo shoot for some ninth graders. Living in what many would call the armpit of Puerto Rico, Castañer is a small town of approximately 8,000 souls, and that's counting the chickens, pigs and cows. The census says so.
The ninth grade class had a Hawaiian theme for their graduation. Having lived a majority of my life in the fun, friendly and sunny areas of Waipahu and Waianae, hey, I knew a bit about Hawaii. The fact that my wife was born and raised in Mililani helped a smidgen as well. Hawaiian theme it is.
We thus gathered in a small dilapidated building called "Casa del Niño". This is a small location where the community has its meetings and special events. A few of the students lived far up in the mountains and walked down for their photos. Such good kids. Everyone was excited but did not know what to anticipate. My wife had ordered the requisite lava lava dresses and Hakus for the girls, while the boys had kukui nut necklaces, all freshly imported from Hawaii via the Philipins.
The shoot actually went very well with many of the images just being exceptional. The students where happy and I was very impressed with myself. Not that much of a feat actually, not the students being happy…me being impressed with myself.
My wife and I spoke at length about the photo shoot. Should this be something we integrate into our photographic services? The images turned out very nice, especially considering the location. Actually, you could not tell the difference between an upscale location or this run down building, I was that good (read: Lucky).
During our conversation, my wife blurted out, "Too bad Puerto Rico does not have a culture like that of the Hawaiians. I think it would look nice to have the customers dress up in native attire and take their pictures like that".
Bling! Bling! The beginning of my frustrations had just given birth.
In my desire to provide a unique product to my clients, I found out a few interesting facts about the native inhabitants of Puerto Rico. First, that they were called Taino(s) and second, they basically walked around in their birthday suits. Ok, there goes the idea of dressing up the customers in native attire.
However, what little a did read gave me an appetite for even more information about the Taino culture. A search at the high school library (where I worked part time) and on the Internet revealed a very interesting culture. Yet, not many people, even the Puerto Ricans themselves, knew much about them.
Here I present a few of the many facts culled from the hours of research.
The first thing was their origin. I found out that they originated from the Orinoco and Amazon river basins. Wow. They came from Venezuela and the Guianas. That gave me much to think about and wondered how all this information was found. In researching some more, I found out that they were traced back to a village in Venezuela called Saladero. From there, they migrated up to the Caribbean area, settling amongst the islands of Puerto Rico, Santo Domingo and others.
Another fact was they were originally known as Arawak Indians. It wasn't until they settled in the Caribbean islands and developed their own culture that they became known as Tainos.
What I found interesting was that their language was written in the form of petroglyphs, much like the Pacific island cultures in Samoa, Easter Island and Hawaii. And just like their Pacific counter-parts, they carved these symbols in stone as well.
It was during this research that I found out one of the most interesting facts of all. Back in the day before the Caribbean islands were discovered, men sailed the seas in great discomfort. When they slept, they did so on the floors of their ships. That's right, no beds and no hammocks. Believe it or not, they did not exist then. Well, the Europeans did not know of their existence.
Imagine when the Europeans, who thought of themselves as smart, worldly and above other "petty" cultures; how they must have felt when they landed on an island with a bunch of savages. Here they are, bodies aching and sore, only to see the Taino Indians, relaxed, in a netting bed floating above the ground. Now, that was comfort.
Remember now, whenever you see a movie about old sailing vessels and notice the sailors sleeping in Hammocks; that was taken from the Taino Indians. Zoom to the present and ask yourself if you have ever thrown yourself in a Hammock. If you have, congratulations! You too have partaken of a Taino innovation.
Everything was just fine until I read about their dressing habits. And here is where things started getting a bit hairy.
My original idea was to offer Taino theme portraits to clients. I had to scratch that idea real fast. A different plan of attack was needed. Hey, I could have given up on this idea, but being the persuasive type, I persuaded myself into a life of misery. Well, so I thought. But at that time, I was a photo masochist.
While perusing the Internet, I noticed something odd. The first thing was that there were basically zero images of Tainos available. The ones that I did come across where drawings, paintings or photographic images of clay statues (artesanias). I found but only one actual photographic image. This consisted of a man and a woman in Taino "attire", Painted and standing inside a room with what can only be described as a prison photo stance. Ouch! You have to be kidding? A prideful race and culture, and this is the best that I could find?
I figured that something better could be done and again, there it went. Bling! Bling! Taino portraits, not of customers, but of Tainos. Hey, it was being done in Hawaii. I saw the photos all over the place over there. Why was it not being done here in Puerto Rico?
My destiny was laid out before me.
I sent out invitations to a group of girls in the high school. I figured I could dress them up in some of the attire I had seen which consisted of a loin cloth and a top…raggedy of course. I initially invited five that I felt would be perfect. Problem was, most of them had major addies. That's "attitude" for those not versed in High School lingo. Of the five invited, three showed for the initial meeting and briefing. Of those three, whom all decided would do the project, only one is still with me. And I have yet to take a photo of her…but it's coming. It turns out that she was also one of the original girls I shot in Hawaiian dress. She looked good and was more than apt for the job. The other two decided not to show up for meetings. They just faded away like good teenage girls do.
My problem, where to get more models. I obviously had to find people who were mature minded, responsible and dependable. Geez! That's a tough call for Castañer. But, being the big dummy that I am, I still had to look around town for the perfect models. Good luck, Sal. I think I would have had better luck asking the Nuns a few miles from town. I did eventually solve that problem.

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