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Sunday, 21 March 2004

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Personal Travel
(Part I)
Several years ago, I began a haphazard search, equipped with a stack of maps and gazetteers, of eponymous place names. My plan was to visit these municipalities, hoping in small ways to gain an insight into how my family name, Carreño, figured in their founding and development. In all, I discovered three, seemingly disparate small villages named Carreño. So far I´ve travelled to one.

My first stop in this quest -- I was living in New England at the time -- was to the well-respected map library at Clark University, in Worcester, Massachusetts, followed by subsequent ''research'' (really, if truth be told, just spotty checks of old maps, globes, gazetteers and, at one point, a quaint, early 1950´s Mobil touring map of Cuba) at libraries at Harvard and Brown, two places where I was then teaching.

In short order, at Clark, I discovered that the oldest Carreño is the capital village of Candas, located in northern province of Asturias, Spain. This wasn´t really surprising as I knew that the 18th century court painter, Juan Miranda de Carreño, was a native Asturian. At Harvard, I came across an Mobil auto map, listing Carreño as a small port town, on the Gulf of Cazones, in the Matanzas province of Cuba. ''Matanzas'' also rung a bell, in that I recognised the place as from where my paternal grandfather, Toribio, had emmigrated when he left Cuba for New York City in the 1920´s. (We Carreños were light years away from being Castro refugees). The trickiest Carreño I uncovered was also cited in a map I found at Harvard. Until that find, I had been seeking place names without prefixes, but when I switched my emphasis, I bumped into Puerto Carreño, located deep in the Amazon, a Columbian border town just within spitting distance of the Brazilian frontier. (This discovery also had some personal appeal in that my paternal grandmother, Maria Elena, was Columbian by birth -- but from Bogatá).

The three finds were pleasingly serendiptious, especially given my grandfather´s direct association with one of the locales. The Spanish connection? The family name, of course, is well-rooted in Spanish nomenclature. But whether our family has any direct relation to Carreño, Asturias, remains to be seen -- and researched, undoubtedly, more thoroughly than these my initial efforts. Despite this, I´d like to think that it -- whatever ''it'' is -- started in Asturias. I suppose this gives us a sense of place and identity.

Our family´s connection to Cuba is far less tenuous. Toribio was born in Cuba, in 1872. But born in Havana. But emmigrated, according to travel documents, whilst a resident of Matanzas province.

Other than any putative ancestral relationship Carreño, Matanzas, what also draws me to the place is that it has been erased from Cuban geography. The town no longer exists.

This was obviously a ''Revolutionary'' thing. Maps prior to the Cuban Revolution, in 1957, (as did the old Mobil map, incidentally) clearly listed Carreño. After the Revolution, Carreño was bestowed -- and presumably honoured -- with the Revolutionary name of ''Primo de Mayo,'' recognising the date of the Revolution´s first salvo. (Interestingly enough, that first shot was fired not far from Carreño/Primo de Mayo -- in the Santa Clara Mountains not far away to the east.

Of course, the name change was intriguing. But why, as well, was Carreño selected for the make-over? Were other towns similarly retitled, or was Carreño singled out? I had noticed that ''Washington,'' a smallish town to the north of Carreño, had survived. (In fact, in a later map I pored over, the place name had expanded to ''George Washington.''

I made a stab at finding out what had to Carreño in a letter to the Cuban mission to the United Nations. No answer.

For several years, I dropped the inquiry -- until one day I was roaming the halls of the old British Library, in Great Russell Street, when I wandered into the Map Library. Now, there was a place -- the venue of arguably the world´s most extensive map collections -- which surely could resolve the ''mystery of Carreño.'' This was not to be case. The librarian who diligently assisted me could only confirm what I already knew -- the name change and its time line.

The librarian held out some hope, however. That, he noted, was a little-known research arm of the Royal Georgraphical Society, whose single-minded mission was to track down, record, and account for place name changes, wherever they might occur worldwide. This time, as well, my inquiry came to naught, even after my RGS contact had made her interest known to the Cuban Embassy in London.

Nothing further came of my overall search until about a year later, when I planned a visit, in October 1998, to Bilboa, Spain, to attend to the opening of Frank Gehry´s new Guggenheim Museum. Since I would already be in northern Spain, I decided to extend the trip, racing my car over the Europas mountain chain -- to Carreño.

(To be continued)