- Indigenous Passages to Cuba, 1515–1900 by Jason M. Yaremko
Drawing attention to the often neglected topic of Indian migration, Jason Yaremko's book is a superb reminder of the continuing legacy of colonialist thinking that portrays Europeans and Euro-Americans as dynamic, mobile, and adaptive, and Native Americans as static, atavistic, and unchanging. Yaremko reminds us that Indians too were always on the move, seeking better opportunities and economic benefits. He envisions Cuba as a middle ground and seeks to uncover the processes of interculturation and ethnic interaction that took place there.
The book is divided into six chapters and includes an introduction and a conclusion. The first two chapters focus on Florida and the Floridian diaspora from colonization to the nineteenth century. Chapter 3 discusses prisoners of war from the borderlands of the American Southwest who were brought to Cuba. Chapters 4 and 5 turn to the migration, both forced and voluntary, of Yucatecan Maya peoples to Cuba through the mid nineteenth century. Finally, Chapter 6 addresses diasporic indigenous (Indians not native to Cuba) labor more broadly and the evolving Cuban labor system. The brief conclusion extends Yaremko's analysis to the legacy of these diasporic native communities in modern Cuba.
By the mid sixteenth century, migration was an unmistakable feature of life for Indians in South Florida. Missionaries commonly encouraged Indian relocation and effected the reducción. However, these missions were not very successful, and Spanish leaders in Florida considered bringing the Indians to "civilization" in Havana, rather than trying to "civilize" them in their own lands. These efforts, however, affected only a small number of people and gained minimal reward, but significant numbers of Floridian [End Page 404] native people did come to Cuba for trade or diplomacy. Gift-giving was an important feature of diplomatic exchanges between Indians and the Spanish crown in Cuba. Caciques and their retinues expected to receive substantial gifts upon their arrival in Havana. Both the cost of these gifts and fears of the depopulation of Florida, which was an important buffer against English expansion, became sources of tension among the European population.
Unlike many others who moved between Florida and Cuba, most "indios bárbaros" were brought forcibly from the Spanish borderlands as prisoners of war. By the late eighteenth century, Cuba was facing a labor shortage, and the influx of Apache and Pueblo prisoners of war helped ameliorate this situation somewhat. Furthermore, missionaries argued that the physical distance between the borderlands of their birth and Cuba should make it easier to "deprogram" the natives.
The Yucatecan Maya represent the largest number of people who migrated to Cuba. The story of their migration is quite complex, with the bulk of it occurring in the mid nineteenth century as a result of the Caste War in Mexico and changing imperial priorities in Cuba. While most Maya came of their own accord, many were coerced or forced into legally questionable contracts of exploitative indenture. Yaremko effectively demonstrates that some Maya used the established laws and court system to argue for fairer treatment. In his conclusion, he also demonstrates the continuity of the Maya and their presence in twenty-first-century Cuba, something he is not able to do for other native groups.
One of the book's greatest strengths is the uniqueness of its data and argument, but those elements can at times become one of its more significant weaknesses. The scale of the migrations that Yaremko discusses is quite small, most groups numbering in the hundreds, with only the Maya extending into the thousands. He sometimes misses an opportunity to help the reader place the migrants' experiences in the larger context of circum-Caribbean history, which he might have done without diminishing the importance of their individual lives. Yaremko does not typically tell the reader a story; instead, he competently discusses documents and sources. I would love to have seen the lives of these passengers to Cuba come to life a bit more. In the end, however, this book...