Read Conquistadora Online

Authors: Esmeralda Santiago




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Copyright © 2011 by Esmeralda Santiago
All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc., New York, and in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto.

Knopf, Borzoi Books, and the colophon are registered trademarks of Random House, Inc.

Grateful acknowledgment is made to New Directions Publishing Corp. for permission to reprint an excerpt from “Adam” by William Carlos Williams from
The Collected Poems: Volume I: 1909–1939
, copyright © 1938 by New Directions Publishing Corp.
Reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Santiago, Esmeralda.
Conquistadora : a novel / Esmeralda Santiago. — 1st ed.
p. cm.
eISBN: 978-0-307-59677-2
1. Women plantation owners—Fiction. 2. Sugar plantations—
Fiction. 3. Plantation life—Fiction. 4. Spanish—Puerto Rico—
Fiction. 5. Puerto Rico—History—19th century—Fiction. I. Title.
PS3569.A5452C66 2011

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

Jacket art:
by Julio Romero de Torres Córdoba. Courtesy of
Sotheby’s Picture Library, private collection, Madrid
Jacket design by Carol Devine Carson


For Lucas and Ila

Underneath the whisperings
of tropic nights
there is a darker whispering
that death invents especially
for northern men
whom the tropics
have come to hold

, “A

NOVEMBER 19, 1493

They came from the sea, their battered sails and black hull menacing the indigo horizon. The vessel was many times taller and longer than the people’s canoes and from them came the stench of unwashed bodies and pine tar. The men who dropped from the ship were monstrous creatures with shiny carapaces on their chests, upon their heads, and around their arms and shins. They carried spears, flags, and crosses.

The people of Borínquen were afraid to reveal themselves because their villages had been ravaged so many times that they knew nothing good ever came to their shores unbidden from the sea. The mighty goddess Guabancex often unleashed
winds and heavy rains from the ocean to sweep away their
, flood their cassava plots, and change the course of rivers. Fearsome
warriors paddled their long canoes to raid their land, steal their food, kidnap their women, and slaughter their men.

Although they were frightened,
were a brave, hospitable, and hopeful people. They called to Yucahú, the mighty god of the seas, to protect them from horrors delivered from the ocean. Then they emerged from the forests.

greeted the men from the ship with the word meaning “peace,” even though armored men who carried weapons seemed anything but peaceful.

The sailors looked at the
as if they’d never seen humans. They gaped at the tattooed and pierced bodies, and swept their eyes over the women with an especial hunger. They stared at the
’s feather headdress, at the golden disk he wore on his
breast, at his gold bracelets, and at the small nuggets knotted with cotton thread around the warriors’ necks and arms. The
was a shrewd leader and noticed the covetous glances. He told his
to give the men the adornments given to them by Atabey, the goddess of sweet waters and of rivers. The
also gave away hammocks woven by the most gifted weavers in the village, baskets full of cassava bread, sweet potatoes, peanuts, guavas, and pineapples. The
filled barrels with clean drinking water. With these gifts, the
thought, these men encased in metal who rattled every time they moved would climb into their enormous sailed canoe and disappear into the same horizon that had delivered them, hopefully never to return.

They did leave on that November day, but waves of them came back, their vessels slicing across the horizon. Wherever they landed, they demanded tribute from the
and the
, who offered more clear water, ever-larger baskets filled with food, the best hammocks, and more nuggets. The ships would leave. And more would return.

Because the first sound from the mouths of the
was the word
, the men from the sea thought the people were describing themselves and renamed them for the word “peace.” The men from the sea also renamed Borínquen, meaning Great Land of the Valiant and Noble Lord, as San Juan Bautista, meaning Saint John the Baptist. They came with weapons that severed a man’s head in one stroke. They brought animals that
had never seen: horses, pigs, hounds, goats, cattle. They trampled through the yuca fields, smoked the people’s tobacco, and raped the women.

rallied the people. They charged their warriors to poison their arrows so that when the tips entered the men’s unarmored flesh their blood would flame and boil inside their bodies. When a warrior dropped his heavy club over an unhelmeted head, the
crushed his opponent’s skull as easily as if it were a calabash. They held the newcomers’ faces down in the clear, fresh water of Borínquen’s rivers until their bodies went limp. The women fed them unprocessed cassava to churn their guts into mush.

The men from the sea were too strong, their weapons lethal. They brought enormous dogs to chase and herd the people from their villages, and after a man in heavy robes sprinkled the
water and made perplexing gestures over them, they changed the
ancestral and clan names to their own language. They forced the women to cover their breasts, their bellies, the hallowed parts from which their children reached into the sun. They called themselves
they called themselves
their chiefs called themselves
, even though none were born in Borínquen from

Their most famous chieftain was Juan Ponce de León, who lined up the
and pointed at this one, at that one, at the other. He separated men from women, mothers from children, elders from their families. He formed them into groups. Then his men led the
from their villages to other parts of the island. They enslaved the
to labor in waist-deep water in the island’s rivers, and forced them to rip from Atabey’s pebbled, sandy veins the shiny nuggets she’d so willingly gifted before the men came from the sea.

began to die from diseases they’d never known and from infected wounds opened on their backs and arms and legs from whips they’d never experienced. They died in rebellions, their numbers easily overwhelmed by men on horses carrying sharp swords. They died from exhaustion in the mines processing the shiny nuggets into blocks. They died from terror. They threw themselves into the chasms above the highest peaks of the mountains. They drowned in the sea. Sharks attacked them when rafts broke up as they paddled, searching for another island where they could rebuild their vegetable plots and their communities. They fled into the mountains, where they were chased and captured by hounds. They died of humiliation after hot irons branded their foreheads. They died in such numbers that their language began to die, too, and the names of their ancestors and most of their gods were silenced from tongues. The
culture, traditions, and history were chronicled by the conquerors who called them savages, who misinterpreted their customs and rituals, who told them that if they didn’t renounce their own gods, they would live in flames in the next life.

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