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The Sacred Ceiba

  b2ap3_thumbnail_ceiba-in-rain.jpg b2ap3_thumbnail_ceiba-vieques.jpg

    "Why is the ceiba sacred?"  I learned in school that the ceiba pentandra was Puerto Rico's official national tree.  Mrs. Flores, my elementary school teacher, explained that the Taínos, the island's Native Indigenous habitants, considered the ceiba a sacred tree. 

   "I will explain it during our visit to la Ceiba de Ponce," Abuela Petra promised. I got very excited because traveling with Abuela was always fun.  After a long ride in a carro público (communal taxi), we arrived to Ponce, the island's second major city.  Known as La Perla del Sur (the Pearl of the South), Ponce welcomed us with a beautiful spring day.  We quickly got into another público at Plaza Las Delicias, and traveled to el barrio San Antón, where we would see the almost 500-year old ceiba. When we reached our destination, the ancient tree was impossible to miss.  I leaped out of the car and ran towards the ceiba. When I reached the tree, I felt like a dwarf. The tree's gigantic wide roots were almost five feet tall.  I sat on the ground and looked up.  A huge umbrella-shaped crown of branches protected me from the hot afternoon sun.  A mild breeze whisked away my tiredness from the long trip.

    Abuela took a while to join me. "We are lucky," she said as she sat next to me.  "The ceiba flowers are in bloom." I admired the small clusters of pale pink flowers that adorned the tree's new branches.  The lovely flowers seemed to dance to the gentle breeze's rhythm.  I stood up to smell the flowers.  Suddenly, a foul odor hit me.  Abuela giggled when she saw my twisted face.  She explained, "The flowers' pungent smell attracts bats, and the bats pollinate the flowers.  Do you remember when I told you that the Taínos believed that after death they became bats?  This is the cycle of life, death, and transformation."

   "Transformation?" I asked. My ten-year old mind did not understand.  Abuela continued, "Regardless of their smell, the flowers have a great medicinal value.  You can crush them and make a tea to relieve stomachache."

   "Can I take some flowers home?"

   "No," Abuela replied with a kind smile.  "This ceiba is ancestral."

    Abuela's expression told me she was dead serious.  She added, "The ceiba tea is also used to increase women's fertility, and to stimulate their maternal milk.  This is why the ceiba has a special connection to us: She is our mother and we are her children.  If the ceiba dies, we die," Abuela said in a deep voice.

   A cold sweat covered my forehead.  "Why do we die if the ceiba dies?"

   "Listen to your heart, " Abuela instructed.  "You will find the answer there."

    I did not know how to listen to my heart.  "I cannot find the answer. " I said in a low voice. 

    Abuela pulled out a small white handkerchief from her bosom and wiped the sweat off my forehead.  She looked into my eyes.  I recognized her expression: it was the look she had when she was about to say something important.

    "Our Taínos venerated the ceiba tree. Like a caring mother, the ceiba protected them against hurricanes. The Taínos sought refugee in the ceiba's tall and wide roots during the storms.  


   We honor the ceiba as sacred because she is a life giver."  Abuela stopped speaking for a moment.  Then she bowed her head, as if paying her respects to the tree.  Instinctively, I followed her example.  Abuela continued, "The Taínos carved their sacred drums out of the ceiba's trunks. They celebrated their sacred areítos under the ceiba's huge branch canopy.

   "I learned about areítos at school, " I interrupted. "The areítos are the religious ceremonies where the Taínos sang and danced."   

     Abuela nodded her head and added:  "They communicated with their gods during the sacred areítos.  The African slaves also revered the ceiba.  They danced ceremonially under the tree canopy at the end of each harvest."  With a twinkle in her eyes, she added:  "Legend says that lovers who kiss under the ceiba canopy remain lovers for the rest of their lives."  I smiled coyly.

    "Let's have a picnic," Abuela said.  She opened her bag, took out a big handkerchief,  and placed it on the ground.  Next, she pulled homemade ginger cookies and a thermos full of maví out of her bag.  I began to salivate.  Maví--a fermented drink made from the maví bark, with cinnamon, ginger, and brown sugar---was my favority beverage.  The maví satisfied my physical thirst, but it did not ease my mind.  My question,  "Why do we die if the ceiba dies, " remained unanswered.

     Back home, I continued to wonder about the ceiba.  I visited the local public library, where I learned that the ceiba, one of the tallest trees in the tropical Americas, could reach 180 feet high.  However, it was the ceiba's religious history that really intrigued me.  In ancient Mayan cosmology, the ceiba was venerated as the tree of life.  Therefore, the ceiba connected heaven (where the Mayan gods reside) earth (where humans live), and the underworld Xibalba (where the dead dwell).  Even more, the Maya believe that the ceiba was a channel for reincarnation.  I was amazed to find how similar the Mayan religion was to Abuela's explanation.

    Years went by, and my interest in the ceiba receded.  I migrated to the continental Untied States.  During a trip back to the island, I spend time with Abuela, who was not feeling well.  Towards the end of my trip I visited the Museo de Arte in Ponce. I went alone because Abuela could not longer travel.  As I wandered around the museum's halls, I found myself in front of a glorious painting: Ponce Grand Old Ceiba Tree (1887-1888) by Francisco Oller.  The magnificent image brought fond memories of my visit to the ceiba de Ponce.  I asked a museum employee about the ceiba's condition.

    "Our grand ceiba sustained severe damages under the fury of multiple hurricanes, but the ceiba is alive," the employee said with a broad smile.

     The cycle of life and death continued.  Years later, Abuela died at the seasoned age of 92.  To honor her memory, I decided to visit another ancient ceiba.  I chose La Gran Ceiba de Vieques.  I invited my family to join me.  Our visit to Vieques was enchanting.  We navigated the bioluminescent bay in kayaks during a moonless night, ate delicious local food, and danced on the streets during a barrio festival. We even "got lost in the jungle," according to my niece Isabel.  We devoted our last vacation day to the ceiba.   As we drove to the Vieques Ceiba Tree Park, savage horses joined us on the road running in a paso fino (a smooth and easy gait).  More savage horses welcomed us at the entrance of the park.

    When we arrived to our destination, it was impossible to miss the three-hundred-year-old tree.  I ran out of the car, camera in hand.  The majestic ceiba stood like a queen crowned with an enormous tiara.  Its' umbrella-shaped crown was full of aerial plants.  Countless animals, including many birds, and insects, made their home in the ceiba.  A mild breeze from the near-by beach rustled the branches and refreshed me.  We took family photos while the songs of the coquíes (tiny frogs indigenous to Puerto Rico) serenaded us.  


   As we returned to the car, I gazed one more time at the ceiba.  There, on a new tree branch, I spotted a bat flying around a bunch of pale pink flowers.  I wondered if Abuela, just like the Taínos, was reborn as a bat. Instinctively, I bowed my head to pay my respects to the tree. 

   On September 20, 2017, Hurricane María, a category five storm, and the worst natural disaster on record, devastated Puerto Rico.  I painfully remembered my unanswered question from decades ago: "Why do we die if the ceiba dies?"

      This time, I listened to my heart.  The answer:  As a sacred tree, the ceiba embraces life, death, and rebirth.           


Photographs by Frederick M. Jacobsen


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As a psychologist, healer, and writer Lillian Comas is interested in spirituality, feminism, and multiculturalism.


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