Taínofuturism, the Hope for a Better Future: On E. G. Condé’s “Sordidez”
By Taryne Jade TaylorAugust 17, 2023
Sordidez by E. G. Condé
The formal conceptualization of Latinx futurisms began with Catherine S. Ramírez’s 2004 identification of Chicanafuturism, or the ways Chicana artists and writers utilize science fictional tropes to contest ethnic stereotypes that cast Chicanxs as “primitive.” Subsequently, scholars such as Cathryn Merla-Watson, B. V. Olguín, Curtis Marez, and others have expanded Ramírez’s concept to identify Latinx futurist tendencies within speculative fiction, art, and music. One defining feature of many Latinx futurisms is the use of science fictional thinking as a method of decolonization; in this regard, E. G. Condé’s new novella Sordidez stands out as a bold example of decolonial Latinx futurist storytelling.
In Sordidez, Condé weaves a decolonial narrative that offers hope for a better future, free from the ravages of empire, even as the novella bears witness to the historical horrors wrought by US imperialism. The novel begins in future Borikén (Puerto Rico) as Condé’s transgender narrator, Vero, relates his experience of the climate apocalypse caused by Hurricane Teddy, which decimated the island and ended the US occupation there. After the hurricane, the US sells Puerto Rico (PR) to China as a penalty for unpaid climate loans. Despite the climate apocalypse, the impact of COVID-19, and a second pandemic virus (called the Androvirus), empire and capitalism reign supreme. The novel focuses on two countries in peril from climate disaster and despotic regimes, Puerto Rico and Mexico, in order to show how they remain subject to imperial influences and control. As the world is being destroyed by the Sino-American cold war, imperial powers aim to acquire territory and resources, subjugating other peoples and places despite facing climate apocalypse.
After Puerto Rico is abandoned by the US government in the aftermath of Hurricane Teddy, Vero and his friends must escape forced eviction and work camps led by the latest imperial power, the Chinese. To do so, they form a “cacicazgo,” or Taíno chiefdom. Vero and his community are inspired by Taíno ways of knowing to build a better future, repurposing damaged technology to create Taíno-inspired tech, drawing on resurrected Arawak to communicate, and fusing Taíno and Yoruba (Santería) cosmologies to build a community-based, decolonial future.
By centering Indigenous and African ancestry, Condé demonstrates the decolonial nature of Vero’s cacicazgo. The author is one of the creators of the subgenre of Latinx futurisms called Taínofuturism, “an emerging artistic genre that imagines a future of indigenous renewal and decolonial liberation for Borikén (Puerto Rico) and the archipelagos of the Caribbean,” as Condé defines it. Taínofuturism is an emerging mode of futurism that draws on Taíno cosmology and culture as a way to foreground Indigeneity in the present and recover suppressed Taíno heritage of the Caribbean. This is particularly significant; Taíno peoples are often thought to be extinct, when in fact people with Taíno ancestry still survive in the Caribbean and the diaspora. In deliberately setting out to create a Taínofuturist novel, Condé engages with global Indigenous Futurist movements by contesting the narrative of Indigenous erasure.
The first chapter of the novel is explicitly decolonial: Vero states that their sanctuary in the mountains—where they are in hiding from the Chinese empire—is also where their Taíno and Yoruba ancestors settled to escape enslavement by the Spaniards. The setting’s history as a site for colonial resistance demonstrates the continued historical impact of Spanish colonization. Additionally, by directly referencing Taíno and Yoruba ancestors, Condé rejects the legacy of Spanish colonization, particularly the anti-Black and anti-Indigenous sentiments that permeate Latin America and the Caribbean. The chapter is also a clear indictment of US imperialism: the abandonment of Puerto Rico post–Hurricane Teddy evokes the United States’ inadequate response post-Hurricane Maria. It is no mistake that the cacicazgo begins in earnest at the site of the Arecibo Observatory, a National Science Foundation observatory that was decommissioned as a result of damage from Hurricane Maria. Condé undoubtedly intends to evoke the observatory’s origins as a Department of Defense project for missile detection before it was transferred to the NSF; Vero’s repurposing of the observatory to communicate with others in resistance of further colonization and displacement is a significant indictment of US imperialism. Further, they broadcast from the Arecibo Observatory using Taíno Arawak, showcasing the power of Indigenous knowledge for decolonization.
Condé’s alignment of US imperialism with Spanish colonization sets the stage for his conceptualization of Taínofuturism in the novel. The Spaniards committed genocide against the Taíno, wiping out masses of the population and attempting to erase their existence from history. This genocide was so successful that history teaches us the Taíno are extinct, but in fact their descendants live on in the Caribbean and the diaspora. This erasure is an unfortunately common story for many Indigenous peoples, one that Condé’s novel counters. Through what Indigenous science scholar Gregory Cajete calls “remembering to remember,” Vero and his community recover and recenter the Taíno knowledge and cultural practices that were suppressed due to colonization, subsequent genocide, and forced assimilation.
However, it is Condé’s centering of Indigenous cosmologies that makes Sordidez an exemplar of a trend I am observing in contemporary Latinx speculative fiction: “ancestral futurisms,” or the use of ancestral cosmologies to reject internal colonization and the centering of European heritage. Vero, who initially embraces his Taíno heritage, falls victim to internal colonization after accepting the defeat of his cacicazgo and leaving PR with the United Nations Parliament, the latest imperial power to take PR (Vero’s internal colonization is overdetermined by the way he is treated by his community as a trans man). Vero eventually embarks on a journey of decolonization in the Yucatán, more fully embracing Taíno cosmological practices, including praying to Atabey, the Tainó mother goddess, becoming a vessel for the Taíno god Jurakán, and even changing his name to Agüeybaná (after the Taíno chief killed in battle with the Spanish in 1511).
It is particularly notable in this context that, in addition to developing his conceptualization of Taínofuturism by Taíno cosmology, Condé draws on Maya cosmology and thus also engages with Mesofuturism, which incorporates Mesoamerican mythology as a central element of world-building. Condé interweaves Maya and Taíno cosmologies to create a path to decolonization that starts in the Yucatán and spreads to PR, demonstrating the importance of Latinx unity. Like Condé’s future PR, the Yucatán is also suffering from the results of climate apocalypse after the deposed anti-Indigenous dictator, the Caudillo, created a climate disaster with a weapon called the hydrophage, which used a desiccant to dry out the lush Yucatán and cause severe drought. The Caudillo’s impetus for such devastation is to “free his people from the primitivism they refused to let go.” The Caudillo has bought into the rhetoric of the Spanish colonizers, believing that the Indigenous peoples, or, as he calls them, “savage indios,” are preventing Mexico from achieving a future as a world power. In this way, the sentiments of the Caudillo evoke the anti-Indigenous philosophies of Mexican politician and philosopher José Vasconcelos. In this nod to him, Condé brilliantly displaces the danger of internal colonization and its deleterious impact on Latinx identity. The Caudillo’s internal colonization is so impactful that he hates the Indigenous heritage of Mexico, buying into the logic that Indigenous peoples are “primitive”; thus, he embraces destructive technology to save face on the global capitalist stage where empire and extractivism reign supreme. The implication here is that the Caudillo turns away from Indigenous ways of knowing that prioritize sustainability and community, causing not only the climate apocalypse, but also weakening his own country and setting the stage for the takeover by the Chinese and later the UN Parliament. The Caudillo, aptly nicknamed after the caudillos of old, suggests that fascism is in fact an inheritance of empire, created by internal colonization, that enables further imperial powers to take control.
Several characters in Condé’s Sordidez demonstrate that there is a path to decolonization, which Vero follows, from his Yucatán heroine Loba Roja, who foments Indigenous revolution, to Doña Margarita, who never loses her Indigenous knowledge and values, reestablishing the old ways to make a home for all those healing from the trauma of the Caudillo outside of the controlled Green Zone of the UN Parliament. It is through exposure to these characters that Vero, our primary point-of-view character, begins to understand the complexity of empire. Loba Roja exposes the UN Parliament as another form of empire. The organization lies to the people of the Yucatán about neutralizing the hydrophage to restore the land while it is in fact further destroying the land. As Loba Roja explains, “In this era, conquest wears many faces.” The UN Parliament, like previous empires, is concerned only with profit and extractivism, and uses the instability created by the Caudillo as a way to gain power over the region.
Sordidez reveals that the answer to building a truly decolonial future—one that escapes all these faces of conquest—lies in Indigenous knowledge and revolution. Doña Margarita and Loba Roja represent individuals whose thinking is decolonial and who thus embrace Indigenous ways of knowing. As Loba Roja explains to Vero, “Conquest can never be undone through Iberian thinking,” a line that evokes Audre Lorde’s infamous “master’s tools” speech. It is through decolonizing knowledge, specifically by recovering Taíno and Maya cosmology and telling the truth about the painful history of the Caudillo, that a decolonial Yucatán and Borikén are made possible. Condé’s heroine, Loba Roja, kills the Caudillo in a Maya-influenced ritual that fuses Indigenous and Western sciences. She reminds Vero and the world that the stereotypes that devalue Indigenous knowledge and science are inaccurate, explaining “that we Maya have always been terraformers,” not “noble savages,” and noting that she used divination to heal the land and its people by detonating the hydrophage at sea to bring rain as the conclusion of her ritual killing of the Caudillo, which was dedicated to the god Chaak and meant to exorcise the ghosts of the colonizers. Loba Roja represents hope, even as she exposes the UN Parliament as yet another empire.
Loba Roja also inspires Vero to undergo a journey to decolonization, traveling with her to Xibalba (the Maya underworld) and becoming part of the Indigenous revolution. As part of this journey, Loba Roja urges Vero to return to Indigenous ways of knowing, rejecting settler time and embracing decolonial Indigenous time. Loba Roja explains that the Yax Che, or four ceibas that hold up the world, “reach through time. Past-Present-Future.” The chapters set in the Yucatán continually insist on the importance of memory, personal and collective, frequently noting how attempts to destroy knowledge of the past are used as a means of control.
Loba Roja also urges Vero to re-embrace his Taíno knowledge and heritage by facing death. Vero accepts her challenge and enters the cenote. Here, Condé’s previously subtle pairing of Maya and Taíno myth becomes explicit: there are several references to Maya and Taíno deities and concepts. The chapter featuring Vero’s katabasis is titled “xibalba/coabey/underworld,” referencing the names for the Maya and Taíno underworld respectively. Furthermore, the chapter begins with quotes about each place, thereby remembering to remember Indigenous knowledge. In Xibalba, Vero is reborn as Jurakán and anointed with his new name: “Agüeybaná, cacique of the Solar Cacizazgo of the Taíno resurgent.” Jurakán is one of the major Taíno gods and is referred to as such in Taíno Arawak; notably, Jurakán is also one of the Maya gods and is called this by the Kʼicheʼ and Yucatec Maya. Through these connections, Condé creates an important sense of Indigenous unity and ways of knowing. Even though Vero/Agüeybaná is undoubtedly of Taíno descent, he and Loba Roja fuse Maya and Taíno knowledge to take back the Yucatán and Borikén. In addition to drawing on Taíno cosmology via Jurakán and Atabey and the zemis, Vero/Agüeybaná is also helped by Loba Roja to draw on Maya ways of knowing like the ilb’al and cohoba sorcery.
The novel ends with hope for an even better, Indigenous-led future that continues to insist on Latinx and Indigenous unity. Vero/Agüeybaná refuses the opportunity to become a singular king, insisting on collective rule with his cacicazgo, which will then allow them to “remake the Caribbean as the Loba had done with the Yucatán.” Here, Condé builds a vision of a decolonial Indigenous future, one that has the power to restore our planet and our minds, bodies, and spirits. Through his blending of Taínofuturism and Mesofuturism, E. G. Condé imagines a future of Indigenous sovereignty, a future where we can rebuild after the destructive impacts of empire, from extractivism and climate change to racism and war. Condé’s Sordidez offers us something we desperately need: hope for a better future.
Taryne Jade Taylor is an advanced assistant professor of science fiction studies at Florida Atlantic University.
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