(Unpublished Notes from the Field)
My adventures in Puerto Rico actually began in 2005, in a private camp just north of Madison, Wisconsin. I was attending the “Priestess Gathering” put on by the Reformed Congregation of the Goddess (RCG). Women had come from all over for a weekend of workshops, drumming, rituals, and to celebrate the ordination of those who had completed RCG’s priestess training program through its Women’s Thealogical Institute. That year, a woman was being ordained from Puerto Rico, something that turned RCG into RCG-I, giving it international status. At lunch one day, I sat next to the newly ordained priestess Yamara and a friend of hers from home. They were showing photographs of their group in San Juan on May 1st, 20 women dancing joyously around a May Pole!
I couldn’t help but wonder at the time at the irony of women with a cultural history of brutal colonization reclaiming a custom of the colonizers, one with its roots in a German pagan fertility festival. But here they were in the photo, laughing and dancing around the phallic pole, and calling on a female deity, the only kind of deities for RCG-I priestesses. The Priestess Gathering was so much fun, and the ritual the first night so beautiful, that I forgot all about the photographs until months later when I glanced over my fieldnotes. This coincided with my department at school having a little extra money for research. I decided that this was my opportunity to see Puerto Rico.
I had to read a little first about the history of the island. All I knew was from my mother who had visited there years before she died and talked about hillsides covered with purple impatiens. The history books, and even the little guide book I bought before I went, all said that the inhabitants before the conquest were Taíno Indians who had all been killed off within a few years of Spanish colonization. Enslaved Africans were brought to work the sugar plantations, French settlers escaped here after upheavals in Louisiana and Haiti, landless farmers from Scotland and Ireland arrived, along with Chinese workers on the railroad. Racially, the island population was now primarily a mix of individuals of African and Caucasian descent. Puerto Rico was given to the United States at the end of the Spanish-American War along with other Spanish possessions, and inhabitants were U.S. citizens, although not allowed to vote in U.S. presidential elections.
The guidebook told about El Yunque, the tropical rainforest named after a Taíno god, “home to all the mystery and wonder that comes in the color green” and the blue cobblestone streets in front of Spanish colonial houses of Old San Juan. These images danced in my imagination alongside the memory of Yamara’s photographs and made my determination to visit Puerto Rico even stronger. I emailed Yamara and told her I would like to come there to interview some of the members of her group and possibly do ritual with them. She graciously invited me to stay at her home. I said I wanted to do some sight-seeing first, but would be delighted to spend 2-3 days at her place. We set the date for the week of the summer solstice, as Yamara said that was when they would be doing ritual. I bought my airplane ticket and began to make plans.
But then Yamara sent me an email saying she had to change the date of the ritual as it conflicted with a holiday. That meant changing my ticket and paying the extra fee. I did so and emailed her that everything was fixed. She didn’t respond right away, so I called. At that point she said that the group had gotten smaller since the photograph had been taken. I responded that if there would be 6-10 women involved, I would still come. It was set.
I stayed the first few days in a marvelous place called the Gallery Inn. It was a 300 year old rambling building, full of unexpected interior courtyards, lush plantings and Trompe L’Oliel walls, seven studios where artists worked in oil, silk screen, sculpture, and bronze casting, and brilliant mccaws that danced on their perches in the frequent rainbursts. The place is owned by sculptor Jan D’Esopo and her husband, and five of her bronze heads lined the balcony outside my room, all staring out at the sea. The last night I was there, three musicians from the Puerto Rico Symphony Orchestra came in to give a small candle-lit concert, along with a soprano who had flown out from New York. The setting and music were so beautiful and moving that I have to admit to a few tears when it was over.
During the reception for the musicians and guests of the Inn that followed, I spoke to the Mari Hutchinson, wife of the Concertmaster. She told me about a women’s spiritual group that met on the southern part of the island. They met alone, without men, something that Mari thought was selfish. I tried to explain why women may need to have women-only space, but her husband joined us and the conversation turned to the music I had been privileged to hear.
The next afternoon Yamara whisked me off to her place on the outskirts of the city. She and her partner Taina, had both been in the military and had lived in the United States. Yamara was a psychologist and, I learned later, worked with men inside prison and with substance abusers on the outside. I noticed that Taina’s home altar held two figures that were familiar to me. The first was the Millennial Gaia, a piece that I also have. I love this piece by Oberon Zell. The pregnant belly of this green Goddess is the earth; her right breast is made of nourishing plants, the left is the full moon. Carvings on her legs show the development of life in the seas, the rain and redwood forests reach up her arms. Her long hair contains the evolution of animals from land and air, all mixed in the leaves and long green braided tresses. Her face is all the human races of the earth. Seeing her there on a Puerto Rican altar gave me a sense of being at home.
The second figure was different. In a tourist store the day before, I had bought a small painted gourd. The figure shellacked on it was a naked female; that was clear from the pronounced pubic triangle and labial slit. But the disk around her head looked like a Christian halo and the shopkeeper had been unable, or perhaps reluctant, to tell me what or who the figure was. And there she was, on a carving on an altar in my hostess’ home. All Yamara was able to tell me is that the figure was a copy of a petroglyph called La Mujer de Caguana, the Woman of Caguana, an ancient Indian ceremonial center in the mountains. The place had been declared a national historic landmark a few years earlier, but Yamara had never been there. On her carving, it was obvious that what I had taken for a halo was really an elaborate headdress. I took a few photographs, but since I couldn’t learn anything more about the figure, the talk turned to other things.
The next morning I was visited by Pilar, a member of Yamara’s circle who was not going to be able to come to the ritual. She wanted to meet me and offer an interview. We talked for almost two hours. Pilar had been raised by nuns and talked about the repression she had experienced in the Church while growing up. Out on her own at a young age, she became a prostitute in order to survive. But even during the darkest of times, she confided, the Virgin Mary and the moon “walked with” her. They were there when she went on her “dates” and there when she struggled to forgive herself. The Virgin was her first contact with the Goddess, she said smiling, now “the Goddess is in my DNA and in my soul and in the old wise woman inside me.” Through her contact with nature, she “met” La Caguana and realized the goddesses are all manifestations of nature, and “all are within and without, there are no real boundaries. Life is a forest, but then you have the fern and the tree and the coquí and you can meditate on any one energy you need to complete yourself… I am a Witch to honor that name and tradition of female wisdom. Living with Nature, that is what gave me myself back. I started doing witchy things with Nature.” Pilar was clear that the Goddess had helped her leave the streets and connecting to that “female power” was why she now had a happy marriage, children, and a career.
After such an interesting interview, I was really looking forward to meeting the rest of the women in Yamara’s circle. Although the island is fairly small, about 32 miles deep and 100 long, it seemed that we drove for hours to get to the home where the Solstice ritual was to be held. We stopped on the way and bought flowers for the altar and food for a couple dozen celebrants. It was wasted. When we arrived at the small apartment that was out destination, we were told that no one else was coming! One woman had to get her car fixed, another had to drive to the other end of the island for something. I suddenly realized that there were only six women in the group, and that was counting Yamara and Taina, the latter who had elected not to come that day.
I’m sure my disappointment and frustration colored my experience of the ritual, a celebration of the summer sun that basically consisted of a guided meditation. I couldn’t believe that I had come all that way and the ritual participants were Yamara, the woman whose place we were at, and me! I know Yamara was disappointed as well as embarrassed. On the drive back to her home she confided that most of the circle members had been from Alcoholics Annonymous and perhaps that wasn’t the best place to find people, but those were the people with whom she had contact. She confided that she was disappointed that RCG-I hadn’t offered her more resources, that no one had come to San Juan to lead a workshop or help her. I ventured the opinion that since she was an ordained priestess, RCG-I probably figured that she didn’t need help. I asked her if she had ever considered doing anything with the local deities. After all, there were sacred sites right there on the island and they had petroglyphs of female divinity. But Yamara said no, she only did what she learned through RCG-I. In the car we discussed ways that she could serve the community as a priestess. She didn’t seem terribly enthusiastic, but then she was working several different jobs to make ends meet, and volunteer work is frequently exhausting.
I was ready to leave the island, but my ticket wasn’t for another two days. The next morning Yamara went off to work and I was left with Taina. It was Monday, and all the museums were closed and we were on the far outskirts of the city. I was trying to think of something I could do to kill time until my departure the next day when Taina made a wonderful suggestion. There was some kind of medicine woman living in the mountains whom we could visit. Apparently she had lived somewhere else, Taina didn’t know where, and she had a dream in which she saw a mountain peak where she was supposed to build a home. She searched for the place for seven years and finally found it. Taina proposed that we set out to find it as well. I figured at the very least I would get out and see more of the island, and it was gracious of Taina to make the offer, so I accepted gratefully.
On the highway before we turned inland, we passed a large painted building. It purported to be a kind of religious museum that held the “truth” about the Bible. On the side of the building were painted a large whale and a dinosaur. I guessed the whale to be Jonah’s, but for the life of me, couldn’t figure out what the dinosaur was doing in Biblical history. Taina told me that the woman whose home I was in the day before was not only a member of Yamara’s circle, but of the church that owned the museum.
I have no idea how long we drove or how far. But it was well past midday and we were deep into the mountains when Taina said she thought we were there. It was raining lightly as we got out of the car into the clearing where the house sat. There was a large garden, cultivated but not manicured, and the house was a rambling affair; rooms seemed stuck on to the main building fairly casually, and on-going construction promised that there would soon be more. Taina called out that we had come for a visit, and a woman answered from somewhere in the back, telling us to make ourselves comfortable inside; she would be out in about ten minutes.
I took the time to examine the front room. There were cages filled with birds, some sitting on small nests, walls lined with photographs, and open shelves filled with large bottles. Each was labeled. Taina had confided in the car that she wanted to return to school and get an advanced degree in herbology, so she was fascinated by the bottles, assuming correctly that they were used for healing. My eye was caught by something on a shelf near the birds. There she was, a small copy of the Mujer de Caguana.
I don’t remember exactly what Taina said when our “hostess” arrived, how she explained why we were there. But the woman introduced herself as Naniki and asked us to sit down and have some tea. She made it clear that she did not call herself a healer, and that the bottles didn’t contain medicine but tonics. She had collected herbal recipes that had been passed down for generations and gave them away free to people who needed them. She was working to resurrect Taino language and customs.
Taina said she had been taught in school that the Taino were extinct. Naniki shook her head and said the schools had lied. When the Spanish arrived, various groups of Taino had withdrawn into the mountains. Recently, the U.S. National Science Foundation had funded a random testing of mitochondrial DNA in Puerto Rico, which Naniki referred to as Boriken, the Taino word for the island. In fact, the study found that 61 percent of all Puerto Ricans have Amerindian mitochondrial DNA, 27 percent have African and 12 percent Caucasian. The Taino DNA had withstood 20 generations, through five centuries of conquest and colonization. She studied Taina’s face and said she could recognize the Indian influence in her features. With that, she told her what part of the island Taina’s parents came from, correctly saying they were from two different areas. Taina sat there with her tea, struggling with the idea that her heritage was not what she had always believed it to be. She wasn’t just black and white, she was Indian as well.
I took the opportunity to ask if I could tape the conversation. Naniki asked me why. I really didn’t know why, it just seemed that this was important information that I ought to be recording. She said no, and referred to the anthropologists who took knowledge from indigenous people and gave nothing back. As I am familiar with this argument and the ethics involved, I quickly put the tape recorder away. Naniki talked more about the movement for indigenous rights on the island, the struggle to protect their heritage. It wasn’t a reclamation, she said, but a resurrection. That word sets out the reality that there was a taking and now they are taking their heritage back.
It was a good opportunity to ask her about the Mujer de Caguana. Naniki told me the figure was Atabey or Atabiera, the Grandmother of the Moon and Waters, the Earth Mother, the First. She had two son, one was Huracan and the other Yucahu. Legend had it that once Huracan became angered because the Taino tribes where warring among themselves, so he sent a flood and terrible storm to destroy them. His brother felt compassion, so he hid some of the people in a cave, covering the entrance to the cave with his own body while the storm raged. At the ceremonial center in Caguana, the petroglyphs depict the Taino mythical universe. Atabey stands between her sons, one whose role it is to create and the other whose role is to destroy. She represents the beginning of all creation and the position of high honor and respect held by women in Taino society. Images of her and the coqui, the tiny rain frog, were frequently found at the stores where tourists shopped. They represented Puerto Rico.
Taina and Naniki got into a long discussion about herbs, heritage and national identity. As the afternoon grew late, Naniki turned to me and asked why I was there. I explained that I had come to do ritual with Yamara’s group, but the group had fallen apart.
“You came to teach them how to do ritual?” Naniki asked somewhat coldly. I rushed to explain that I came to learn from them how they did ritual and what it meant to them, not to teach them anything. Frankly, I confided, since the whole thing had fallen apart, I no longer knew why I was there. Taina announced she believed I had come to Puerto Rico to somehow lead her to Naniki, so that she could study herbal medicine with her. While that explanation would have given meaning to my trip, it didn’t seem very likely to me. I had no idea what my purpose was in Puerto Rico at that point. Naniki studied me for a moment and then told me she would ask the elders if I could tape her and that I should return the next day. Of course, I was flying back to California the next day. I thanked her for her time and hospitality, feeling genuinely grateful to her. I handed her a business card in case she ever wanted to get in touch with me. She looked at where it listed my university and said Department of Women’s Studies, smiled, and then told me she had a law degree from New York and had run a women’s center on the east coast.
Things are rarely what they seem.
It wasn’t until I was on the plane that I realized what had happened. I had come to Puerto Rico to talk to women and meet the Goddess there. And I had succeeded.
 I have changed the names.
 Actually, the Taíno civilization flourished from about 800-1500 until the Spanish arrived. According to the guide book, the first inhabitants were probably from The Rio Orinoco delta area of Venezuela.
 In retrospect, I should have listened more carefully to her, as she was loath to disappoint me.
 Unfortunately, I was never able to connect with this group.
 Now Oberon Zell Ravenheart, cofounder of the Church of All Worlds and the individual who reportedly first used the term Pagan or neo-Pagan to describe the emerging nature-based polytheistic spiritualities.
 A tiny tree frog found only in Puerto Rico. Its singing means it is going to rain.
 I learned much later that she was Grandmother Naniki Reyes Ocasio, a highly respected Taino elder and activist. She simple introduced herself as Naniki.
 I believe she said CUNY, but since I wasn’t taping, I’m not sure.