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History of Puerto Rico: Dubious Diego Salcedo

Cacique Agüeybaná greeting Juan Ponce de León ...

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Caribbean School

History of Puerto Rico

                                                             Dubious Diego Salcedo

            In the year 1511, on the minuscule Antilles island of Borikén, a sense of defiance and rebellion stirred within the riled Taíno Indians. The year 1511 was marked by the first account of strong devotion to their land and to its people by the inhabitants of Puerto Rico. Moreover, patriotism was cultivated in this same year.

            As the renowned conquistador, honorable admiral, viceroy and governor, Christopher Columbus penned his signature on the Capitulaciones de Santa Fe in 1492, a contract between Columbus and the Queen (Isabella) and King (Fernando) of Spain that financed his voyages, he simultaneously signed away the freedom of the Amerindians he would soon discover in the New World. In August of 1492, the conquistador’s eyes widened as he caught the first glimpse of what he would soon christen the Indies. As he saw the horizons of San Salvador, Columbus’s and the minds of others, clouded with thoughts of avarice, prosperity and vacant land. While on the other side of the warm Caribbean Sea awaited the Amerindians unaware of the malicious surprise that was fast approaching.

            On November 19, 1493 the island dubbed San Juan Bautista by the Spanish, was discovered.

“We proceeded along the coast the greater part of that day, and on the evening of the next we discovered another island called Boriquén…All the islands are very beautiful and possess a most luxuriant soil, but this last island appeared to exceed all others in beauty.”

            -Dr. Diego Alvarez Chanca, physician to Columbus on the second voyage

But it wasn’t until August 12, 1508 that the history of Borikén began with the arrival of the war veteran and Spanish conquistador Juan Ponce de Leon. With the Spanish settled into this new and fruitful land, the Taíno Indians were mistreated and pacified. They were forced to work as slaves in the encomienda system and they were obligated to assume an inferior position underneath the Spaniards. Legend tells of how the Taínos looked upon and believed the Spanish as “gods” and immortal. Within this legend, we come across the curious name of Diego Salcedo, an alleged Spanish solider and encomendero. Salcedo, a young Spaniard born only God knows when, son to unknown parents and originally from some province in Spain, is the man that created a seal of confidence in the Taíno community, was the ultimate and prime contribution to the final push that brought Taínos to the edge of their patience and was the flint that ignited the Taíno rebellion.  But how can such an obscure person with no biographical information prior to 1511 become such a prominent figure in the history of Puerto Rico? Is it logical to assume the existence of such man based on legends or stories that seem to be fiction?

            If one were to base the truth of Salcedo’s existence solely based on secondary sources, it would be clear that this young Spaniard was indeed drowned in the Guaorabo River by the Taínos, as commanded by the head chieftain Urayoán, in order to prove the Spanish’s mortality, according to legend. Noted and respected historians, Dr. Ricardo Alegría and Salvador Brau both refer to these incidents as a key component of Puerto Rican history. Dr. Ricardo Alegría, founder and past director of the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture in San Juan and founder of the Center of Advanced Studies of Puerto Rico and the Caribbean, in his publication Descubrimiento, Conquista y Colonización: 1493-1599 depicts the epic drowning of Salcedo.

“The opportunity arose in November, 1510, when Diego Salcedo, a young Spaniard, who was passing through the region, asked Urayoán to provide him with some Indians to carry his baggage across the river. Urayoán…secretly told the Indians what they must do…When they reached the deepest part, they halted, dropped him in the water, and held him submerged…Finally, the Indians knew that the Spaniards, like themselves, were mortal.”

            It seems like the farther away we leave 1511 in the past, the more the legend of Diego Salcedo seems to become a fixture in history. Furthermore, 500 years later, Salcedo is becoming less of a character in a legend and more like a murdered man of flesh and bone. We ask ourselves the mediocre question: If Diego Salcedo did not exist, then why would he appear as a concrete person in an encyclopedia? The Enciclopedia Puertorriqueña: Siglo XXI contains an excerpt from The History of Puerto Rico by Salvador Brau in which he also narrates the death of Salcedo. Brau, as Commissioner for the Provincial Deputation in 1894 was given the opportunity to travel to Seville and once there he uncovered documents penned by Fray Antonio de Montesinos (a friar present in the Indies during the time of the Borikén Taíno rebellion, who will later defend the rights of the Indians) leading the lector to believe that what Brau would write after reading through such documents is to contain legitimate and reliable conclusions. Taking the following information about Brau into consideration, is one to attest Diego Salcedo as a permanent axiom within Puerto Rican history?

Referring to the all the prior information provided, there has been nothing presented that can deter one from thinking that Diego Salcedo did in fact exist and that the Taínos indubitably murdered him in order to prove that the Spanish were mortal. Yet in the research to prove the existence of Salcedo, the religious beliefs of the Taínos seem to be overlooked.  A Catalonian friar by the name of Ramón Pané was sent to the New World to learn the language and customs of the Indians and to convert them to Christianity. Within his Relación Sobre Las Antigüedades de los Indios, he documents something key that might give insight into the improbability of the legend of Salcedo: the Taíno belief in the walking spirits. In Chapter XIII titled “Of the shape which they say the dead are” Pané explains how Taínos believed that the spirits of the dead would walk during the night in the shape of either a man or a woman. If the Taínos believed in this, then why did they not fear of the spirit of Salcedo coming back for vengeance, especially if the Spanish were to hold some type of supernatural powers?

It’s safe to say that the Taínos were aware of the important events that would occur within the island and in their sister island La Hispaniola. News of the battle of El Higuey and the Spanish causalities as a result of it must have reached the shores of Puerto Rico. The probability that a Taíno had never seen a dead Spaniard prior to 1511 is slim to none. All the primary sources available from the time were written by Spanish, hence being bias.  From the beginning Diego Salcedo has been presented as a legend and he shall continue to be. He remains in the history of Puerto Rico as the man who was drowned in the river by Taínos but his importance is one different from the superficial: Salcedo represents the embodiment of Puerto Rican folklore. Whether he existed or not will forever be a question of debate.

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