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First Memories

There are thi..!1gs in life 1 do not understand. Everything

'about Nature ,seems obscure to me, and the gods even more.
They're the ones who are Stlpposed to give birth to all those
things that a person sees, that I seen, and th,at do exist for
" sure. The gods are willful and' ornery. why so many
strange:things have gone on around here. I remember from
before, during slavery, I spent a lot of time looking upwards
,because I've always really liked the sky-it's so full of color.
,One time the sky turned into a glowing ember, and there
,:was a terrible drought. Another time there was an eclipse of
sun. It began at four, in the afternoon and was seen all
over the island. The moon seemed to be fighting with the
:sun. I began to realize everything going backwards. It
getting darker and darker and then lighter and lighter.
chickens perched on the tops of posts. Folks were so
they couldn't talk. Some died of heart attacks, and
were struck dumb.
I Seen the same thing other'times but in a different place.
I wouldn't ask why it happened for anything in the
'The long and short' of it is that I know everything
on Nature. Nature is everything. ,Even what you
'And we men can't do those kinds of things because
of a God-Jesus Christ is the one most talked
"Jesus Christ. was not born in Africa. He came direct
-ature herself because Mary was a virgin. The
, gods are the ones' from Africa. I tell you it's a fact
fly. And they did whatever they wanted with
their hexes. 1- don't know how they allowed slavery. Truth is
that I set myself to thinking about it, and I can't get it. In my
opinion it aU began with the red kerchiefs. The day they
crossed over the wall. The wall was very old in Africa and
went along the whole coast. It was a wall made out of palm
fronds and wicked bugs that bit like the devil. They scared
off the whites who were trying to get into Africa for many
years. But it was the color scarlet that ruined all of them.
And the kings and all the rest surrendered to it like nothing
at alL
When the kings saw the white men, 1 think it was the
Portuguese who were the first, pull out their red kerchiefs as
if they were waving hello, they said to the blacks: "Go get one
of those scarlet cloths, go on." And the blacks, excited by the
red, ran like little lambs to the boats, and they were caught
~ right there. Black men have always really liked red. That
T color is to blame for putting chains on them and sending
them to Cuba. And then they couldn't return to their
homeland. That's .the reason there was slavery in Cuba.
When the English discovered that business, they wouldn't
allow more blacks to be brought, and then slavery ended and
that other part began, the free part. It was around the 80s.
For me, none of that is forgotten. 1 lived through it all. 1
even remember my godparents told me the date I was born.
It was the 26th of December, 1860, San Esteban'S day, the
one on the calendar. That's why my name is Esteban.. My
family name is Montejo, for my mother, who was a slave of
French origin. My middle name is Mera. But that one hardly
anyone knows about. Anyway it's not right, so why use it? .
My real middle name is Mesa. What happened was that they
put it down wrong in the records, and I left it that way.: .
Since I wanted to have two names like everybody else, so 1.
wouldn't be called "jungle baby," I took that one, and there
it was. The name Mesa came from a certain Pancho Mesa in
Rodrigo. That seems reasonable since he raised me after my
birth. He was my mother's !paster. Of course,' I never seen
him, but 1 know the story is true because my godparents told
it to me. And I've never forgotten anything they ever told
" My godfather was named Gin Congo,
and my
godmother, Susana. I was to get to know them around the
,90s; when the war hadn't really started up yet. An old black
man who was at the same mill, they were, anq who knew me,
gave me details about them. He himself took'me to see them.
.. ' I gradually got into the habit of visitin them in Chinchilla,
the district where they lived, near Sa ua la Grande. Since I
:g.idn'tknow my parents, I asked about t Irst. Then I
;learned about their names and other details. They even told
,<.methe plantation where I was born; My father's name was
,a:qazado, and he was Lucumi from Oy6. My mother, Emilia
._, _ They also told me my parents had died in Sagua.
~ . ; i s that I would have liked to meet them, but because I
my. skin, I was unable to. If r had come out of the
,theywould have caught me on the spot.
I was a runaway slave, I never met my parents. r
ever seen them. But what is true can't be sad.
.all children of slavery, the criollitos, as they were
I' was born in the infirmary where they took the
It', black women to gjve birth. j' think it was at the
esa plantation, though I'm not real sure. What r do
is that my godparents talked to me a lot about
..(ttion and its owners, people by the name of La
:hat'sthe name my godparents had for a long time,
r left Cuba ..
';y-ere'sold like piglets, and they sold me right off
.don't remember anything about that place. I do
'--:0;0 ...."'7:.-.
, know that the plantation was near where I was born, which is
in that northern region of Las Villas, Zulueta, Remedios,
Caibarien, all those towns on down to the ocean. Then the
picture of another plantation comes to mind, Flor de Sagua.
I don't know if that's the place where I worked for the first
time. What I am sure about is that I ran away from there
once. I rebelled, by, God, and I ran away. Who wanted to
work! But they caught me like a little .lamb, and they put
some shackles on me that I can still feel ifI really think about
it. They tied them on me tight and put me to work and all of
that. You talk about this kind of thing now and folks don't
believe you. But I experienced it, and now I've got to talk
The owner of that plantation had one 'of those long
strange, connected names. He was a million bad things, a
blockhead, grouchy, stuffy ... He drove around through the
cane fields in the carriage with his buddies and his wife. He
would wave with his kerchief, but he wouldn't come .up dose
on a bet. The masters never went into the fields. This one's
case was strange. I remember he had an elegant black, a first
rate drive,r, with an earring and all. All those coachmen were
ass-kissers and snitches. They were what you call colored
At Flor de Sagua I first began work with the wagons ,
carrying bagazo. I would sit in the driver's seat and steer the
mule. If the wagon was very full I would stop, get down,and
lead him by the reins. The mules were stubborn, and you
had to pull them very hard. Your back would start to get
humped. A lot of those folks walking around sort of
humped over is because of those mules. The wagons went
out full, right up to the top. They were always unloaded in
trw OallZ:/, h?rl to son':,;rl O!lt ,:f;,;, rf, You
p,:dJed the :){)wn y.":;!': ,: hrq '('h:::,' ; :
bunched up and dry to the Ovens. That was done to get the
steam up. I think it was the first job I had. That's what my
memory tells me anyway. '
, All the parts inside the mill were primitive. Not like
today, with lights and fast machinery. They were called
cachimbos because that word meant a tiny mill. In those
cachimbos, cane sugar was made into muscovado. There
were some mills that didn't make sugar, just molasses and
raspadura. Almost aU those mi1Is had a single Owners and
were known as trapiches. In cachimbos there were three
'kettles. The kettles were big, made out of cop'per and wide
mouthed. In one, the raw cane juice was cooked, in another
the cachaza was beaten, and in the third the cane syrup
reached the graining point. We called cachaza what was left
Of the cane juice. It came out like a hard crust that was
healthy food for the pigs. After the cane syrup was ready,
' yOit took a trough, and with a big ladle attached to a stick,
)U 'poured the syrup into the trough, and from there to
!"crystallizing pan which was standing a short ways from
. There the muscovado set up, which was the
sugar. The best part of the molasses remained in
T..:. those days that thing you call a centrifuge didn't exist.
Once the fresh sugar was in the cooling room, you had
in there barefoot, with a pick and a shovel and a hand
One black always went in front and another behind.
" hand barrow was to carry the hogsheads to the
room, a large depository with two boards where the
Were placed so that the sugar would drain. The
that leaked out of the barrel went to the batey and
fed to rhe sheep and the piglets. It fattened them up
1",.\"1:;'/":'" "fhed ii:ugar
'Ytrt: Some big !'Ul" 11.,1,,,
Lnf:' .. .', 'VI;'t-:; oj

That te,":'



. ,..... : ..
',," 'efrt nmr 'T F
:, "" .. ... _, .:Wttt'! , , ,,','"
like sugar nowadays, like .white sugar. The funnels were.
known as molds. .
I know this part of making sugar better than most folks,
who only knew about the cane out in the fields. And totell
the truth, I prefer the inside work, because it's more
comfortable. In Flor de Sagua I worked in the cachimbo's
cooling room. But that's after I was experienced with the
bagazo. That was a pick and shovel job. To my mind, even
cutting cane was better. I must have been about ten, and
that's why they didn't send me to the fields. But ten years of
age then was like saying thirty now because children worked
like oxen.
If a little black boy was pretty and lively, they sent him
inside, to the master's house. There they began to sweeten.
him up, and ...what do I know! The fact is that the little black.
boy had to spend his time shooing flies because the masters
ate a lot. And they put the little boy at the head of the table
while they ate. They gave him a big long fan made of a palm
frond. And they told him: "Shoo, so those flies don't fall in
the food!" If a fly fell on a plate, they scolded him severely
and even whipped him. 1 never did this work be.cause I
never liked' to be near the masters. I was. a cim
611 from
Life in the Barracoons
AJl- the slaves lived in barracoons.
Those living quarters
are gone now so nobody can see them. But I seen them, and I
De,Ver had a good thought about them. The masters sure did
that barracoons were boxes of gold. The slaves
didn't like living in those conditions
.. them. The barracoons were big although there
.. were some mills that had small ones. It depended on the
.J!umber of slaves in the work force. About two hundred
"slaves of all different colors lived at Flor de Sagua. The
Q;arracoon was in the form of two rows that faced each other,
a big door in the middle and a thick padlock that
;::;lockedthe slaves in at night. There w.erebatracoons made of
others. made of cement with tiled roofs. Both
had a dirt floor and were filthy as helL There certainly
modern kind of ventilation inside. A little hole in the
the room or a little tiny window with bars was aU
place swarmed with fleas and ticks that gave
re work force in fections and sickness. Those ticks
And so the only thing to get rid of them was
and sometimes even that didn't work. The masters
the barracoonsto look clean o.utside so they painted
whitewash. The blacks themselves were given that
. master would say to them: "Get some whitewash
it evenly." The whitewash was prepared in big
:Inthe barracoons, in the central patio.
and goats didn't go into the barracoons, but
always some fool dog sniffing around looking for