December 26, 1860
February 10, 1973
Esteban Montejo was born into slavery on a plantation in the Las Villas region of Cuba (now the province of Sancti Spíritus). Montejo quickly realized the limitations of his status and opted for the perilous existence of a cimarrón, or runaway slave. Nearly a century later, in 1963, at the age of 103, Montejo narrated his life story to Cuban anthropologist Miguel Barnet. Barnet published the interview in 1966 as Biografía de un cimarrón (Biography of a Runaway Slave). Ever since, Montejo's account has served as one of the few narratives of nineteenth-century Cuba told from the perspective of a former slave. Montejo describes a salient moment in Cuban history, the transition from slavery to wage labor. His story also illustrates the complexities and nuances of a young Afro-Cuban coming of age during Cuba's wars for independence. At the start of the first revolutionary war, in 1868, Montejo was eight. Consequently, the thirty years of fighting, which finally ended with independence from Spain in 1898, shaped and influenced how Montejo envisioned both the Cuban nation and himself.
Slavery separated Montejo from his biological parents at an early age, and he was left to grow up without any immediate family on the Flor de Sagua plantation. His first job was as a mule driver; he began working in the cooling room of a sugar mill when he was about ten. Within a couple of years, he attempted to escape but was captured and forced to wear shackles on his feet as punishment. Montejo's desire for freedom outgrew his fears of being caught, however, and he ran away again a few years later. He succeeded in remaining free, albeit in hiding, until Spain abolished slavery in 1886. Emancipation allowed Montejo to renounce his life as a cimarrón, yet he quickly learned that little had changed. As a cane cutter on various sugar plantations after emancipation, Montejo experienced the limited options available to newly freed people of African descent. Trained for little more than harvesting cane, many former slaves continued to live and labor under the same harsh conditions as they had before abolition.
Montejo served in the revolutionary forces during the Cuban wars for independence. He enlisted with a regiment in the eastern region of the island in 1895, at the age of thirty-five. He fought under the leadership of two prominent Afro-Cuban generals, Antonio Maceo and Quintín Banderas, in the battle of Mal Tiempo, and noted the large number of blacks involved in the rebellion. For Montejo, Afro-Cuban participation in the war demonstrated a sincere investment in the nation and justified Afro-Cubans' demands for equal rights. However, when Montejo arrived in Havana shortly after the fighting ended, he discovered that some white Cubans wanted to deny the role blacks had played on the battlefield in order to limit Afro-Cuban influence in the new government. Disappointed with the outcome of the war and with only one peso in his pocket, Montejo returned to Las Villas. For the remainder of his life, he supported himself by working as a wage laborer at various odd jobs, including positions at a sugar mill, as an auctioneer, and as a night watchman. When Barnet interviewed Montejo in 1963, he lived in a nursing home, where he died in 1973 at the age of 113.
Barnet, Miguel. Biography of a Runaway Slave. Translated by W. Nick Hill. Willimantic, Conn: Curbstone, 1994.
devyn m. spence (2005)