from achiote

by Craig Santos Perez



the achiote plant is indigenous to central and south america and the caribbean. it was transported across the pacific to southeast asia by the spanish colonialists

the achiote has been traced back to the mayans, who used it as a food spice and dye, as body paint for war and rituals, and as pigments for arts, crafts, and murals. the leaves, roots, and bark have been utilized for their medicinal qualities

you can find achiote powder in the ethnic foods aisle of most grocery stores



my grandmother leans over the achiote plant and picks its ripe “shells”          our hands

among the red

veined leaves          

“an attractive pink flower made it a popular hedge plant in colonial gardens”                   

“ahi” she says when i touch the flowers            



                                    “don’t touch your eyes”



            —the frail blind body of father sanvitores [1672]

is led around by a rope tied to his waist         
he refused glasses because “if the poor were too poor for glasses” etc        

a small satchel: a breviary, a new testament, lumps of sugar for children who could
recite their prayers and catechism lessons            

flagellation physics            disciplina          a cilice 




he is always “i fi’on-mu” : a sunday school warning: if you don’t say your prayers you wake

            with bruises  [no : ahi]     






[achiote can be used to treat skin problems, burns, venereal disease, and hypertension]








we carry the shells to her porch and deseed their red hearts                  place them in
aluminum trays shining beneath the territorial sun—               


annatto, in english            “a poor man’s saffron”            “lipstick tree”  


our hands stain red—

our nails— 

he baptized children in “agua bendita”                       and other waters become no longer    holy—

“teach them the way to heaven”             

he built a church in hagatna where i was baptized

my grandfather buried renee surrounded by plumeria


             he named us—
                        —hale’ta  —haga’ta  


and when I rubbed my stained hands on my face and threw stones at the sky my
grandmother called me “mata’pang”



                                                [achiote can be used to treat heartburn, fever, and sore throat]



the shrine of father sanvitores shows him baptizing chief mata’pang’s newborn daughter, despite the fact that mata’pang did not give him permission. the baby is held by her mother and mata’pang is shown from behind wielding his machete. 



[*after the death of sanvitores, the native population dropped from 200,000 to 5,000 in two generations as a result of spanish military conquest]

                                                                                                                                         [near you : i fi’on-mu]




they dragged his body into a proa and sailed to tumon bay          tied stones to his feet and threw him beyond the reef          they say he rose three times before finally drowned




tumon    from tomhom, from “ti apmam homom” [our roots : hale’ta]

            [our blood : haga’ta]


spanish soldiers erected a small chapel of coral masonry and a cross where san vitores was
not far from where magellan landfallen



every april, a red tide of unialgal blooms covers tumon bay          they say it is the miraculous appearance of the blood of san vitores! apuya pale’!      

i gima as pale’ [at father’s house] it’s  [getting dark : ti apmam homom]


[achiote can be used to treat liver and blood disease, eye and ear infections, and digestive problems]




my grandmother helped wash my face in her outdoor sink that she used to clean chickens         

she told me her father held her hand and took her to the cliff’s edge overlooking tumon bay
to see his blood that looked to her like hair


in tumon, you can stay at the Hilton, Westin, Grand Plaza, Marriot, Hyatt, Holiday Inn—the
hotels are located off “Pale’ San Vitores Road” which runs parallel to “Marine Drive” now
renamed “Marine Corps Drive”

the shrine of father san vitores nestled between Guam Reef Hotel and Sails Restaurant—


“motives for not delaying further the conquest and instruction of the island of the


my grandmother used the achiote to make chalikiles and hineksa agaga           so young when the japanese invaded and renamed hagatna “akashi” 


—the “red city” “bright red stone”  

later “reports” claimed that mata’pang sold the ivory crucifix for thirty bags of rice 


“mata’pang” used to mean “proud and brave”       used to mean “alert eyes” —he led the
rebellion against the spanish before he was captured and killed—

now it means “silly” or “rude” or “misbehaved” or “uncivil”



[achiote was used to stop bleeding. was used as an antivenom for snake bites. was used to heal wounds]


Craig Santos Perez's poem "achiote" first appeared in from unincorporated territory [hacha] (Tinfish Press, 2008).