[Please note the updates to this blogpost found here.]
Reflections On When Yauco Came Calling: May the Circle Be Unbroken
Over a year ago, I wrote a blogpost about Juan Eusebio Bonilla Salcedo, my 2nd great grandfather. I dedicated that post to my father, Antonio Vega Noboa, and my cousin Madeline Castanon Quiles and her family, the extended Bonilla Quiles family. Little did I know, that almost 15 months later, I would have the unexpected opportunity to travel to Puerto Rico to film an AncestryDNA commercial to be shown only on TNT. Thanks to Nicka Smith, who gave me the name of a TNT contact of hers, I was able to travel to Yauco, Puerto Rico, on my dad’s birthday, meet my Bonilla Quiles cousins, and join with them in a circle, with all his descendants gathered in spirit, to pay homage to our ancestor, Juan Eusebio Bonilla Salcedo. On the evening of March 18th, we honored our bisabuelo/tatarabuelo, Juan Eusebio, the way he deserved to be. May the circle we made be unbroken, may HIS story be known and may we forever be connected to him ….
Bringing Darkness Into Light: Recovering Our Family History
Almost two years ago, I met my 3rd cousin Madeline Castanon Quiles. She was the AncestryDNA hint that led me to discovering our great great grandfather, Juan Eusebio Bonilla Salcedo. When I first spoke with Maddy over the phone, she told me about his assassination and, when I googled his name, there were only two references to him. One was an urban legend and one was a book reference. Maddy had grown up hearing family oral history about his death, but lacked any concrete account of his death. The day after speaking with Maddy, I went to the New York Public Library to read the book, Asesinato Politico. It was only a 50 page book that was written by the son of Juan Eusebio’s best friend, Venancio Gutierrez. Between the pages of this short book, I learned the reason why Juan Eusebio was beaten, shot in the head, lynched from a Guasima tree, gutted, his penis put in his mouth, his testicles in his pant pockets. He was then cut down from the tree, placed on the stairs leading to the cemetery behind the church, and set on fire. That is where the people of Yauco found his body smoking and wreaking of gas. Tears, tears, tears…. How many times can you kill a man?
As the great great granddaughter of Juan Eusebio that was a lot to process to say the least. I grew up with my maternal great-grandmother so a great great grandfather seemed very close to me. I went from doing a happy dance because I found his maternal surname to utter despair. To learn that he was assassinated in such an “overkill” way just because he was a member of the Puerto Rican Autonomous Party, was of Taino descent, had chosen to speak out against the abuses of the Spanish Civil Guard, and had spoken up for the rights of the Boricua people, was an eye-opener for me. It was between the pages of this short book that I found out that I descended from a true Boricua hero. However, he had been left to languish in historical oblivion. That is when I decided that I had to pay homage to him by telling his story in a blogpost. I felt a real need to bring what happened to him back to life—even if it was after 125 years. There is no time limit on bearing witness to the atrocities that were committed against him. I just couldn’t have my great great grandfather be a backdrop to an urban legend or hidden behind the covers of a book. I truly believe that, as descendants of ordinary people who have done extraordinary things, we owe it to our ancestors to remember them as they were. If we don’t, who will? We are because they were. I am because he was.
The story of what happened to Juan Eusebio was never meant to be told. I know because Asesinato Politicotells us that the Spanish Civil Guard threatened the people of Yauco if they said anything about how he died and if they mentioned that the Civil Guard was involved. But, the book also tells us that the people of Yauco, at great personal costs, still testified as to what happened to Juan Eusebio nonetheless. They did this because they knew what a good man he was and that the spectacular way in which he was found was a message directed at them. Throughout this book, Juan Eusebio is described as un hijo del pueblo, valiant, humble, dignified, religious, honorable, had a character above reproach, was a true gentleman, etc. After his death, he was remembered in songs and in poems. We were lucky to have found the book Asesinato Politicoas it is the closest thing my family has to a first person account for it was told by the son of his best friend. It told me everything we needed to know about what happened to Juan Eusebio. My family is blessed to even have such a resource despite the subject matter. And thus darkness was thus brought to light.
God’s Amazing Grace
As I was on the plane traveling to Puerto Rico, I realized that, although I am Antonio Vega Noboa’s daughter, I am just as equally Joyce Green’s daughter. I may not have been raised Catholic, but I was raised Christian—Baptist actually. I am still that girl who grew up going to Messiah Baptist Church, 80 Legion Parkway, Brockton, MA— the church of my mother, maternal grandparents, and maternal great grandfather. I never knew if my father had religion, but, rest assured, I know my mama and her family did. I grew up learning about what faith is. I grew up singing the old gospel songs “We’ve Come This Far By Faith, Leaning on the Lord”, “Going Up, Yonder,”and “Never Alone.” I will forever be Rice & Beans & Collard Greens.
One of the things that I learned from the book was just how religious Juan Eusebio was and what great faith he had. The God in him definitely spoke to me. The book tells us that Juan Eusebio was imprisoned for three years during the El Componte Era, an era when the Spanish colonial government rounded up members of the Puerto Rican Automomous Party, jailed, and tortured them. He was jailed from 1887-1890. Once he got out, he wrote to the man who tortured him and challenged him to a duel now that he was free— because he believed in an honor code among gentlemen. I am sure he relied on his faith to get him through those horrible three years and after.
The night before his assassination he was at church attending a baptism for one of the neighborhood children. That same night, his friends gathered and warned him not to go to the duel he had set up because they knew he might not return. Juan Eusebio had such an unshakable amount of faith that he left his best friend Venancio Guitierrez with an account of all the torture he had withstood in jail as well as the info about how his duel was set up. There is no doubt in my mind, and never will be, that my great great grandfather KNEW what may happen to him and was prepared to die. He clearly wanted his friend to bear witness so he left him with evidence just in case—evidence that was “lost” after being turned over to the powers that be when the investigation into his death was launched. He was prepared to die and was not afraid. Psalms 23 states, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil for thou art with me, thy rod and they staff they comfort me.” Juan Eusebio had no fear for he walked with God EVERY step of the way.
The devil’s minions wanted the people of Yauco to have the image of Juan Eusebio’s body lying down, smoking and wreaking of gas on the steps leading to the cemetery forever seared in their memories. It’s an alarming image to have indeed. But, I know that the only image that I will have is the image that wasn’t seen. It’s the image that God’s amazing grace provided. The image of the doors of Heaven opening up and the angels coming down to carry Juan Eusebio’s spirit home to meet the God he served so well. Amen! Amen! Amen!
The Making of a Libation Ceremony
I knew when I was going to Yauco that I wanted to remember Juan Eusebio with his other descendants, my Bonilla Quiles cousins, and that I wanted to have a libation ceremony in his honor. A libation is a ritual pouring of a liquid in memory of a person. Prior to this, I had never done a libation ceremony. I reached out to my cousin Luis Sanakori Ramos, whom I lovingly refer to as my “cousin preacher Taino teacher.” Luis is a Taino shaman and educator. I thank God for his presence in my life because he is the resource I go for all things Taino. When I told him that I wanted to do a libation ceremony, part of which was to celebrate Juan Eusebio’s Taino ancestry, he told me what I needed to have with me. My cousin Theresa Delgado-Tossas, when she heard that I was going to do a libation ceremony, she said she wanted to take part in the ceremony. Unbeknownst to me, she had also contacted Luis, her cousin as well, and learned the Taino welcoming song, got the items that were to be used in the ceremony, and took it upon herself to make sure things were done correctly.
Theresa and her husband Ralph, will forever be known to me as the first Puerto Rican cousins that I met in Puerto Rico and who were also instrumental in making Juan Eusebio’s honoring ceremony happen. I will never forget the songs that Theresa sang during the ceremony. She has a voice of an angel for sure. My cousin Ralph also stepped up and translated when I was speaking and I am equally grateful to him as well.
When I was off shooting scenes for the AncestryDNA commercial in Guanica, Theresa and Ralph went down to the ocean and gathered up the sacred water that was used in the ceremony. Guanica is a beautiful place. Since Luis has roots in Yauco and Guanica, we brought him gifts back from the ocean as well as the mountains of Yauco. He was with us in spirit guiding us along.
On the second day of filming we went up to Susua Alta, Yauco, the place where my paternal grandfather’s family resided for centuries. My Vega, Bonilla, Rodriguez, Gonzalez, Toro/Del Toro Del Rosario/Rosario, and Bracero lines are all from Susua Alta and Yauco. I truly felt their spirit and I am proud to have roots that are jíbaro puro.
What a great feeling it was to walk where my Boricua ancestors lived for thousands of years. Yauco is the birthplace of the great Taino cacique, Agueybana. In between filming, I looked around and found some stones to bring back with me.
On Friday afternoon on March 18th, 2016, the descendants of Juan Eusebio, in person and in spirit, gathered together. I will forever remember the day I first met my Bonilla Quiles cousins. The TNT film crew had been filming me walking up to Tia Lucy’s home over and over again to get the perfect shot. With each take, the tears flowed. Here I was getting ready to meet my cousins FINALLY!
I will NEVER forget the moment when I walked into her home. My cousins — Tia Lucy and her husband Tio Pedro, Tio Becco and his wife Tia Nilsa, and my cousins Ivonne and her son Javier—were clapping and singing in Spanish, “Welcome to the family, Teresa” over and over again. We then gathered in a circle and got to know each other. Over lunch, I shared photos of my parents, my siblings, nieces and nephews. An extended family was reunited. And as God and the ancestors willed it, so it was.
Acknowledging Family Facts and Truths
At sunset, after filming was finished at La Guardarrayarestaurant, we gathered in a circle again, on the grass off to the side of a parking lot, to begin the ceremony. This was the highlight of my trip. I began by stating that we, as descendants of Juan Eusebio, needed to acknowledge certain facts as truths. Speaking from the center of the circle, I acknowledged the following and the others nodded in agreement:
That the blood Juan Eusebio shed in 1890 is the blood that we still have and it was this blood (via a DNA test) that reunited us here today.
That, while we stand here in person, we also represent all the descendants of Juan Eusebio who couldn’t be here today in spirit.
That the book Asesinato Politico must be included in our family history because this book is the closest thing we have to the truth for it was written by Juan Eusebio’s best friend’s son. It is between the pages of this book that we learn about who our bisabuelo/tatarabuelo was. That he was a humble man, valiant, dignified, religious, above reproach, etc.
That Juan Eusebio was a good Christian. That he had a remarkable faith in God. That it was his faith in God that caused him to fear no evil. Blessed be the name of the Lord. How great thou art!
That our Bonilla line is our Taino line.
That we are here in Yauco today honoring Juan Eusebio, un hijo del pueblo.
That Yauco is, and will always be, the birthplace of the great Taino cacique, Aguebana, and our ancestral homeland.
After I acknowledged all of the above, I returned to my spot in the circle of descendants. Ralph then played a song using a Peruvian pan flute and Tunisian tarbuka drum. After which, Theresa sang the Taino welcoming song for the Cemi, the Taino ancestral spirits. While she sang, I returned to the center of the circle and greeted the Cemi in all directions and offered up tobacco to them. This is the way Luis instructed us.
The video clip below is the full Taino welcoming song as sung by our cousin Luis Sanakori Ramos.
After Theresa finished welcoming our Taino ancestral spirits, I again stood in the center of the circle and gave thanks to Juan Eusebio in this manner.
Thank you, Juan Eusebio, for the blood you spilled in 1890 for it is the blood that still flows through our veins and the blood that was instrumental in reuniting your descendants today.
Thank you for showing us how to be a good Christian. By your example, you showed us how to walk with God and fear no evil. Your faith in God was remarkable and we know that you earned your wings to fly. Blessed are the pure at heart, for they shall see God. May you always enjoy being in the presence of God.
Thank you for speaking up for the social, political, and economic rights of the Boricua people despite paying the ultimate cost. We are forever indebted to you and other Puerto Rican freedom fighters for having the courage to speak truth to power.
Thank you, Juan Eusebio, for being our Puerto Rican patriot.
Thank you for leaving us with the blood of the Taino …blood that will never be exterminated as long as we are here. It was because of you that we are, that our children will be also.
Thank you for having been born in Yauco, the birthplace of the Taino and our ancestral homeland.
With that, I returned to the outer circle and we had a moment of silence in his honor.
We then began the libation ceremony. We only recorded part of it. I began by pouring water inside the circle we made. I also decided to pour water outside our circle to signify that, as we honor the memory of Juan Eusebio, that we also recognize how we, his descendants, have been reunited and are now bound to each other. We may not have grown up with each other, but we can now grow old with each other knowing who brought us together. Theresa then sang Amazing Grace as a tribute to his Catholic faith.
After Theresa sang Amazing Grace, she started the Taino ceremony in honor of Juan Eusebio. We first called out and acknowledged the Cemi Makatarie Guayaba, the Lord of the Underworld, to pay our respects. She then dug three holes in the ground and buried guava. Guava (guayaba) is the food fed to the departed. In this case, we buried guava in honor of Juan Eusebio. Theresa then placed tobacco over the holes and lit the tobacco on fire. The smoke from the tobacco is the vehicle that allows the message to be sent to the ancestors. As the tobacco was lit, we called his name. Juan Eusebio, Juan Eusebio, Juan Eusebio….
We then hug each other and said goodbye for now…..
But There Are No More True Goodbyes, Only Hellos….
When I got back to Ponce later that night, I couldn’t stop crying tears of joy . Gratitude was all I felt. What was seemingly lost was found.
I took my first DNA test three years ago. I will always tell people that the greatest thing ever was finding my Puerto Rican side of the family. To go from knowing only my dad to having cousins in the thousands was beyond anything I ever imagined. To have lived in NYC for over 20 years thinking the I had no relatives here to now being able to hang out with my NYC cousin crew all the time is awesome. That some of my NYC cousins live only blocks from me makes it sweeter. Now, I have connected with my PR cousins in Puerto Rico— cousins who will welcome me back with open arms. My Boricua branches continue to expand each day.
When I left Puerto Rico, my cousins Pedro and Kelly sent me off. Meeting Pedro and Kelly completed my visit. We shared a quick visit and I showed them part of the libation ceremony as well as family photos. I also learned that Kelly may also be related to me twice— such is Puerto Rican endogamy. There will never be any goodbyes, only hellos until we meet next time. Because of all my cousins, I was able to come home….finally.
May the circle be unbroken!
PS: Before I left, my cousin Emma told me that the Guasima tree was a healing tree, a medicinal plant. She said my visit would be a healing visit. Emma, you were right. My soul has been healed.