A Cuban-American Walks the Path of the Run-Away Slave

By Irina Echarry

Guillermo Grenier

HAVANA TIMES — On April 7, at the Cienfuegos headquarters of the Association of Cuban Writers and Artists, Guillermo Grenier looked fresh, going into and coming out of the venue, restless. There was nothing to indicate the man had walked nearly 300 kilometers in less than two weeks.

Grenier is a Cuban-America professor at the International University of Florida who makes a point of clarifying he is not a Cubanologist or an expert on Cuba, that he focuses on the relations that the island has established with different US administrations and how Cubans living in the United States have had an impact on, curtailed or encouraged these relations.

He left the island when he was very young and returned as part of the Antonio Maceo Brigade of Cuban-Americans and, since then, he has followed developments in the country closely. He had the idea for this project, to follow the route of Esteban Montejo, the run-away slave who is the main character of Miguel Barnet’s novel Biografía de un Cimarron (“Biography of a Run-Away Slave”), a little over a year ago.

During the exchange in Cienfuegos, he explained that his aim is to trace a path “that will offer a glimpse at what run-away slaves truly endured,” while allowing for real and direct contact with the types of landscapes, communities and lives that Montejo described in his testimony. To achieve this, the journey includes all of the places the run-away slave may have known, as a slave, free worker, combatant and other conditions.

Grenier believes the route could be preserved as part of the country’s heritage and publicized as an alternative itinerary for tourists. He explains that he belongs to that “community of walkers. There are paths everywhere in the world that one can traverse, going from town to town. They are followed by tourists and locals alike. It’s a way of getting away from our everyday life to get to know something real. One has to go beyond beaches in Varadero, which are part of Cuban reality but definitely not the only reality out there.”

Map of the path of the run-away slave. Illustration by vanguardia.cu

Grenier is no rookie. He has walked long miles in different countries and, in Cuba, he had a previous and unfinished initiative in which he tried to walk across the seven cities. “I started in Baracoa and got as far as Bayamo. There’s far too much road to cross. I didn’t know much about Cuba at the time. I started walking and they wouldn’t let me into Guantanamo down a certain road, or a different one…which is why I stopped in Bayamo. I only crossed three of the major cities. Later, I wanted to start a new walk at Bahia de Nipe, where they found the image of Cuba’s Our Lady of Charity.”

What’s unique about this new project is that it is based on a testimony in a literary work. Grenier says that the main idea is to follow the book and “visit the towns where the run-away slave had lived, put them on a map. I’ve seen how communities have developed along these roads, how towns become excited about the prospect of being part of a historical route.” This is the enthusiasm that drives him, having different towns become involved in their own history. In his experience, “these towns grow thanks to such commercial endeavors, their dynamic changes. They begin to sell food and other products.”

Guillermo Grenier walking the path. Photo: vanguardia.cu

The path Grenier followed was long and intense. “We began at Sagua la Grande, the run-away slave was born there, at the Santa Teresa sugar mill. The first day I walked nearly forty kilometers. I went by the place of his birth, the place he escaped from and the place he worked in for the first time as a free man, as a farmhand, at Purio. I continued towards Remedios, cut across different towns, and, while going down Zulueta, I decided to take a small detour and pass by the center of Guaracabulla. We were heading westward in a straight line and entered Cienfuegos through Potrerillo, Cruces, Lajas and other towns. In total, we walked between 250 and 270 kilometers. The only thing I asked for was for people to guide me to the next town.”

For fifty years, since the publication of Biography of a Run-Away Slave, Barnet’s critics have maintained that the novel is pure fiction, the delirious ranting of an old man – peppered with accurate recollections and omissions – which the author took as entirely true. At the other end, admirers of the work point to historical facts that coincide with the testimony offered by Esteban Montejo.

The result of this initiative is that, by following the path of the run-away slave, one can now establish a coherent, geographic route, one that, in the words of Grenier, is truly surprising. “What I’ve learned about Cuba, the inside of Cuba, is thrilling for me.” Down the route, one also comes across the ruins of slave quarters and other places described or mentioned by Montejo in his account, such as the nursery where he was born.

Book signing at UNEAC in Cienfuegos.

According to Grenier, an important part of the route in the original map were the Guayabal caves, “but no one knew of these because, in the book, the name of the caves doesn’t match anything that exists today, geographically. I asked historians, Barnet, locals, and no one knew. Then, I received an article published in 1988 titled La casa del Cimarron (“The Run-Away Slave’s House”). The information was there, so I had to change our plans again and include the caves, that was two or three weeks ago.”

Though it is a route, Grenier prefers the name of The Path of the Run-Away Slave, because the slave route was a bureaucratic procedure to transport manpower, but a “path is something you trace when you walk, as the poet said.” The walk includes rural areas that are little known, even to Cubans. In addition to the strictly historical aspect of the journey, travelers will also be exposed to the human and cultural dimension of the settlements. In the novel, Montejo joins the Congo assemblies that had gathered at Cruces, Lajas and other areas. The sugar industry brought about much social development in the vicinity of refineries, of which we can still find traces. The most important part of the journey, however, will be the contact it affords with the remains of history, a history that has changed after so many years.

Grenier says that the journey they have just completed down the center of the country is “only the first draft. Now, I am going to start and promote this, but we have alternatives. For instance, we went to Manicaragua, which could be an alternative to the mountains. There are many ways the project can be expanded, but you always have to start with the identity of the path. This way, tourists or interested people will come in search of that identity, in addition to the nice walk.”

The UNEAC headquarters in front of the Arc of Triumph of Cienfuegos.

It could be a good idea, particularly if it is to put these small communities on the map, communities that are almost always ignored or forgotten in Cuban history. It would be an opportunity to walk and feel something of what some patriots experienced, thread together names, anecdotes, nature, places. For foreigners, it would be perfect, as direct exchanges with locals could offer them a different idea of what Cuba is.

The project is interesting not only because of its historical aspects but also the fact it sets up a kind of virtual reality on the basis of facts, traditions, current reality, whatever every town is willing to share with visitors.

This is only the beginning, true, but Grenier must keep a watchful eye over the project so that it won’t fall in the hands of official government institutions that will debase it, keeping Cubans out, through absurd provisions or by making the journey too expensive. The professor must think of mechanisms to allow locals to become the main actors in the management of this cultural and tourist project, as well as its main beneficiaries, as their identity will be the one exposed to the travelers.

  • Gerard Matthews

    A very good way to see the country through the eyes of the slaves, and to get an idea of what it might possibly have like, however to really understand how and feel the slaves pain you would have to walk at least a mile in his shoes, or possibly barefooted to really appreciate his/her plight. Tourists will not walk barefooted or endure anything like the original people who undertook this incredible journey. Nice idea though, wonder who will profit from it? sorry to be a cynic but this is how life has made me!