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Evelyn DeJesus

From left, Victor M. Bonilla Sanchez, president of the Asociación de Maestros de Puerto Rico; Evelyn DeJesus, and AMPR teacher Aurimar Roman at the Taíno conference in Puerto Rico.

November 29, 2023

Embracing My Taíno Heritage

Everyone should have the opportunity to learn about where they came from — that’s why the AFT works so hard to be sure educators can teach inclusive, true history.


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It’s Native American Heritage Month, and I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about my own heritage. Ever since I was a little girl, my mother taught me to be proud of our family’s history. She made sure I knew we were strong Puerto Ricans, and strong Taínos.

It’s the Taíno part of my history that makes this month so special for me. The Taíno were the Indigenous people living in Puerto Rico and the Caribbean when Europeans landed in 1492. Decimated by disease and violence, historians thought they had died out completely. But the truth is, millions of living people have traces of Taíno DNA, including a large percentage of Puerto Ricans. Like me.

I am lucky I learned about my heritage from an early age. And I am determined to pass that knowledge on to my daughters and grandchildren. Everyone should have the opportunity to learn about where they came from — that’s why the AFT works so hard to be sure educators can teach inclusive, true history.

Fight for What is Right

When we talk about Native Americans, I always think about my mom. A mother with barely an elementary school education, she stood strong, fighting to create the best life she could for me and my siblings. She passed that spirit on to us, teaching us to insist on what was right, to stand up for ourselves and make sure we claimed our rightful place in this world — even when we were bullied or put down.

We learned those lessons well. In fact, I was such a fighter that my mother nicknamed me “Apache.” We knew Apaches were fierce warriors who defended their land and their people.

This is also true of the Taíno. They fought long and hard against Europeans who tried to take everything from them. I learned more about this at the Taíno conference the AFT helped sponsor in Puerto Rico this year. There, Victor Bonillo Sánchez, president of the Asociación de Maestros de Puerto Rico, presented a familiar history, describing how the tribe rose up in a planned rebellion against the Spanish conquest. And as he spoke, something clicked. I felt even closer to this heritage than I had before.

After all, I have been a fighter all my life. It’s how I got into union work: When my daughter got sick during construction at her school, I would not back down until the toxic asbestos problem there was addressed. And another moment came back to me: I remembered standing in the Taíno museum in Puerto Rico years ago, looking at a picture of a Taíno woman. I’ll never forget it. That woman was my spitting image.

Learning Every Day

That feeling of connection continued to grow when I went to the National Indian Education Association conference in New Mexico. Along with beautiful traditions like dance, storytelling and strong community, we discussed the terrible trauma Indigenous people have gone through. The government boarding schools, where Native American children were sent to live away from their families and tribes, stripped of their culture and brutally abused. The poverty, poor healthcare and under-resourced schools in Native American communities today.

But I’m also encouraged by AFT members working in community schools that offer solutions to these problems. I’m excited that educators in Puerto Rico are developing a Taíno curriculum, and that teachers in the Midwest are reviving Native languages.

These things are worth fighting for, and the AFT is with me. It’s an honor and a privilege for me to lead the union’s upcoming Native American and Indigenous Issues Task Force; we already have so many ideas. We can promote legislation that addresses the harm done by boarding schools. We can advance curriculum that includes accurate Indigenous history and culture, like these Share My Lesson resources. We can continue our work with the National Indian Education Association and keep distributing books that tell Native stories through Native eyes.

Most important, we can listen to Native voices and hope they will lead us in this work. You can count on me as another Native voice at the table, ready to fight for justice.

Republished with permission from AFT Voices.

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Evelyn DeJesus

Evelyn DeJesus is the executive vice president of the American Federation of Teachers, AFL-CIO.

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