The Amazon of Matinino

A Personal Legacy of Female Empowerment in the Greater Antilles

Despite the notable research by social scientists on the impact of colonialism on current gender relations in the Caribbean, little is known about the indigenous (Taino) history of female empowerment in the Greater Antilles prior to the arrival of Columbus, and its possible echo impact on the lived experiences of island women, both in the Caribbean and the diaspora. The overall image that emerges from most of the literature is negative: indolent, easily subjected, immoral and savage. Lesser known accounts tell a very different story. In 1493, Christopher Columbus wrote to Queen Isabella about a group of women he encountered while sailing in Caribbean waters. He referred to these women as Amazons. “These women, moreover, perform no kind of work of their sex, for they use bows and darts…” (Paiewonsky 1991). There are several historical accounts of attacks on Columbus and his crew by these “warrior women.” Prior to the arrival of Columbus in the Caribbean, Taino culture was based on a matrilineal system, which determined inheritance, residence and succession. This was a society in which women could and did attain leadership positions. This article recovers some of the earlier history of the Amazon women of the Greater Antilles through archival research, and seeks to use this knowledge to frame the lived experiences of a contemporary Puerto Rican mother and daughter, who survive difficult circumstances as a result of a maternal empowerment rooted in a cultural heritage and history of strength and resilience.

The climb up the makeshift steps leading to the stage seemed to go on forever. I lifted my robes so as not to accidentally trip over them and embarrass myself on this, the most “significant” day of my life. When I finally reached the top, I paused to catch my breath and quiet my agitated nerves before advancing to receive my Bachelor of Science degree from the Dean of Education of New York University. It was a moment I had often despaired would never come and I found myself suddenly overcome with a bittersweet sadness. Before stepping off the stage, I looked out at the crowd seated in Washington Square Park searching for a familiar face. Through the glare from the mid-day sun I spotted her, face tense, eyes moist. Even on this proud occasion, she was not smiling. Years of worry had carved permanent lines into her forehead and there was that deep familiar sadness in her eyes. She held my daughter firmly in her lap. The child sat very still, as always mature beyond her four years. I realized then that today was just as much their day as it was mine. For my daughter this moment represented her own future possibilities—for my mother, a validation of her sacrifice and struggle.

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