“Reclaiming Our Heritage”: Roberto Múkaro Borrero Launches Taíno Dictionary

“It’s about the future generations,” said Roberto Múkaro Borrero at the launch party for “Gu’ahai Taíno: We Speak Taíno,” a groundbreaking dictionary and grammar guide to the Indigenous Classic Taíno language. The party, hosted by the Center for Earth Ethics at Union Theological Seminary on February 29, was an occasion of both celebration and learning. 

In her welcome, Executive Director Karenna Gore acknowledged the history of “genocide, oppression, discrimination and disrespect” that Indigenous Peoples have endured. She also affirmed that a “cornerstone” of the Center’s mission “has been to honor, learn from and support Indigenous Peoples, including uplifting their spiritual and cultural traditions, and fighting for their rights.” 

Borrero is a human rights advocate, consultant, cultural advisor, writer, artist, kasike (chief) of the Guainía Taíno tribal community and strategic advisor to CEE. Gore noted Borrero’s over “25 years of experience in Indigenous peoples’ movements,” and his engagement with the “United Nations system on sustainable development, climate change and biodiversity, as well as at the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues.”

Roberto book talk

Borrero connected the dictionary with the UN’s International Decade of Indigenous Languages (2022-2032), which supports those working to protect, preserve and revitalize Indigenous languages. “40 percent of the estimated 6,700 languages spoken around the world are in danger of disappearing,” said Borrero. “The fact that most of these are Indigenous languages puts the cultures and knowledge systems to which they belong at risk.”

The traditional Taíno homelands extend through the Greater and Lesser Antilles to the southern tip of Florida. The Taíno diaspora is vast, and the displacement from colonization is just one contributing factor to the Taíno language not surviving as a full, separately spoken language system. 

As a result, this project entailed meticulous linguistic reconstruction that spanned over two decades. With many collaborators, including the United Confederation of Taíno People, Borrero surveyed vast source materials, from ethnographic research to historical documents from the early colonial period. He engaged in numerous community consultations with speakers of related and adjacent languages. And he conducted a thorough survey of the vestiges of the Taíno language that have lived on as fragments and loan words in Spanish and English (for instance, hammock, tobacco, iguana, manatee, papaya, savannah and hurricane).

We need to look at this project as connected to a large issue. This is about reclaiming our heritage and taking Indigenous agency and power back.

Borrero’s research involved “moving past the misinterpretation” of the language and its speakers contained in other lexical volumes. In most instances, these works were produced by linguists and anthropologists who conducted research without a foundation of respect for, or real relationship with Taíno people. What’s more, these researchers have often accepted wholesale and without critical review linguistic interpretations conveyed by colonizers in their historical accounts. As such, other Taíno dictionaries, lexicons and grammars are laden with mistranslations that often encode ideas foreign to the Taíno world. Borrero rectified these misunderstandings by engaging in a community-led effort that was, first and foremost, by and for the Taíno people. 

As he “chipped away at the misinterpretations,” Borrero brought to light invaluable cultural, ethical and ecological information inscribed in the language. For instance, a myriad of words include the prefix gua-, meaning “we/our,” serving as a powerful testament to the communitarian value system at the heart of Taíno culture. He conducted an extensive taxonomical survey to uncover botanical information that could contribute significantly to ecological restoration efforts throughout the Caribbean.

Borrero concluded by recognizing that, while the dictionary is a huge milestone, “there’s more work ahead.” For now, that ongoing work entails translating the volume into Spanish (expected later this year). On a deeper level, Borrero framed this work as just one link in a larger story—a story not only of language revitalization, but also of cultural healing. Borrero and his collaborators engaged past generations to make their present contribution, and now it is the task of “future generations to take this up and continue the work.” With this cross-generational collaboration, “Gu’ahai Taíno: We Speak Taíno” is a major step towards the ultimate goal of revitalizing the Taíno language and the cultural world that it embodies. 

“Gu’ahai Taíno: We Speak Taíno” was published by the United Confederation of Taíno People in collaboration with the UCTP Taíno Language Committee. It was edited by Dr. Erica Moore, with illustrations by Alejandra Baiz, and can be purchased online from Barnes & Noble