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  • Certain Kinds of Dances Used among ThemAn Initial Inquiry into Colonial Spanish Encounters with the Areytos of the Taíno in Puerto Rico
  • E. Bert Wallace (bio)

"The earliest known performance of a European play in the Americas took place at a seminary in Puerto Rico in 1510."1 Before happening upon the above passage while looking for something else, now forgotten, I did not know much about the island of Puerto Rico other than that it had some sort of American territorial status, that Puerto Ricans are American citizens who cannot vote, and that Rita Moreno and Tito Puente came from there. The passage struck me as odd: the date seemed off and I could not find it confirmed anywhere. My curiosity was piqued; this ultimately led to several trips to the island for archival research and conference presentations. Eventually, I found conclusively that the statement could not be true (it is just too early for any such activity in Puerto Rico),2 but my interest in Puerto Rico generally and Spanish colonial theatre practice there more specifically had been sparked.

There is precious little archival information on the island of Puerto Rico itself: most of the surviving records are housed in the Archivo General de Indias in Seville, Spain. That research is ongoing, but the focus of this paper is yet another offshoot of my initial line of inquiry. Research revealed hints by chroniclers from the colonial period and contemporary Puerto Rican scholars that the Spanish friars made attempts to Christianize the areyto, a traditional Taíno performance, in their evangelistic efforts. My research interests in religion and theatre, in addition to a desire [End Page 29] to understand more about the aboriginal inhabitants of Puerto Rico, led me to investigate further.

A very brief history of the colonization of Puerto Rico is in order here. My focus is particularly on Puerto Rico, though of course the rest of the Greater Antilles and the continents of North and South America figure much more prominently in the larger colonization story. Puerto Rico was sighted by Christopher Columbus on his second, much-better-funded voyage to the New World in 1493. There were seventeen ships and approximately 1,500 men, including the chronicler Fray Ramón Pane, whose Relación de Fray Ramón is our earliest firsthand account of Puerto Rico. The Relación has value, but later accounts question its validity (along with much of Pane's works): he wrote it in Castilian (not his native dialect) and the original is lost anyway. A more comprehensive contemporary chronicle is Fray Bartolomé de las Casa's Brevisima relación de las destruccíon de las Indias. Though Bartolomé spent all of his time in the New World on Hispaniola (now the Dominican Republic and Haiti), his father Pedro was with Columbus on the second voyage. Later chronicles by Gonzalo Fernandez de Oviedo y Valdes and Pedro Mártir de Angelería ("Peter Martyr") are also valuable.3

After sailing through the Lesser Antilles, Columbus sighted Puerto Rico on November 19, though no written record shows us that he actually set foot on the island. He certainly saw it—Puerto Rico is the first land-mass of any size you hit when sailing in this direction from Spain. Early explorers found the island plentifully inhabited with people they called Taíno, based on a word the inhabitants used when greeting the white men. Various sources translate the word as "good" or "brave people" or "peace" (used as a salutation).4 The Taínos called themselves and the island Borinquen.5 Contemporaneous estimates of the Taíno population ranged from 30,000 to an improbable eight million; 500,000 to one million is likely a good guess.6 Columbus named the island San Juan Bautista, and the port city that was established was called Puerto Rico (literally, rich or bounteous port). The names switched later largely due to marketing efforts by Ponce de Leon, the island's second governor.

Among observations made by European explorers of the cultural practices of the Taíno were accounts of the Spanish-named areyto (or arieto). These were described by Oviedo y Valdez as...


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