Our ancestors came to Trinidad from South America more than 7000 years ago. To them Trinidad was Caeri, meaning simply “the island” as distinct from the mainland which had been their original home. By the time Columbus arrived on our southern shores in 1498 there were more than 40,000 Amerindians living here. These belonged to five distinct groups: Arauca, Garini, Nepuyo, Shebaio and Yaio.
Columbus claimed Caeri for the Spanish Crown giving it the name La Trinidad: the Trinity. This single event initiated the most violent and destructive period in our history. For almost a century Amerindians resited the Spanish conquest of the island. However, in 1592, the first Spanish settlement, San Jose de Oruna was established on the foundation of a village of the Garini chief, Goanagoanare. The cost to our ancestors of this century-long resistance was enormous: war, enslavement and migration to the safety of the South American mainland reduced the indigenous population to less than 25% of its pre-Contact levels.
The Santa Rosa First Peoples Community is the only organized area of First Peoples Survival in Trinidad and Tobago. Our community was formally recognized as representative of the Indigenous First Peoples of the twin-island state by the National Government in 1980.
Their Historical continuity is remarkable. As a community we have existed since the early Spanish period, and before that archaeological and proto-historical data indicate almost 5000 years of settlement in the island. This extraordinary continuity despite the extraordinary ruptures of Spanish Conquest and Colonization is the fundamental factor in our continuing and powerful indigenous self-identification.
The Community consists of at least 400 members of which probably only 80 are active in this everyday life. It is urban and based in Arima. All members are identified on the basis of lineage and residence. The Lineage component is the most significant marker of belonging and elders in the Community have remarkable genealogical memory. Certain family names are associated with those of First Peoples ancestry – Boneo, Campo, Calderon, Castillo, Hernandez, Martinez, Peña.
The Community is essentially egalitarian in its decision-making. It has always had a Council of Elders who are seen as bearers of traditional knowledge. The Council is led by the Carib Queen, presently Jeanifer Cassar, Chief Ricardo Bharath-Hernandez and Shaman Cristo Adonis.
The most important event in the life of our community is the annual celebration of the Feast of Santa Rosa de Lima, the Patronal Feast of the Parish. This event is central to the Community’s sense of historical continuity and unique ethnic construction. It has been celebrated since the establishment of the mission in 1786 and in fact has the distinction of being the oldest, continuously celebrated feast in the island’s history. It has its direct antecedents in the celebrations of the Patronal Feasts of the Nepuyo encomiendas which were amalgamated at the Arima Mission. These celebrations allowed indigenous spiritual and cultural elements to survive in an almost pristine form within overtly Catholic Spanish mode. It therefore exerts a strong normative influence on the community.