Creating an Alternative Kinship: Slavery, Freedom, and Nineteenth-Century Afro-Cuban Hijos Naturales

By Morrison, Karen Y. | Journal of Social History, Fall 2007 | Go to article overview

Creating an Alternative Kinship: Slavery, Freedom, and Nineteenth-Century Afro-Cuban Hijos Naturales


Morrison, Karen Y., Journal of Social History


Introduction

In 1883, a free African laborer, Julio Fernandez, petitioned the Catholic Church of Cuba for acknowledgment of his paternity of two young children. In form, that request was typical of many others. Cuban men of the colonial period had often done the same, extending legal recognition to their children born outside of wedlock. Nevertheless, two features draw attention to Julio's case. First, Julio submitted his petition soon after he obtained his freedom from slavery. He had been enslaved when the children were born. Like many other Cuban families of the period, they faced the gradual transition to freedom together, within a general abolition process that began in 1868 and ended in 1886. Secondly, Julio's actions contradict images of uninvolved slave fathers. In slavery, he had been actively concerned with in his children's lives. With freedom, he gained exclusive charge over his children, as their mother had absented herself from them.

According to witnesses, Julio and the Cuban-born morena (black woman) Leocadia had lived together for many years, "acting as man and wife," although they never formalized their union. Both had been enslaved on the same large, rural plantation in the Cuba's nineteenth-century center of sugar production, southern Matanzas province. They raised their two children together, but Julio's legal connection to them was not recognized by the state or the Church. His name did not initially appear on their baptismal certificates. This situation changed when, with her emancipation, Leocadia fled the plantation with another man, a Chinese former indentured servant. Julio was left alone with his eleven- and six-year-old children. (1) Faced with these circumstances, Julio quite easily might have disregarded the value of ensuring a legitimate bond with his children, as many other freedmen had done. Nothing in his petition indicates that he would have been prevented from raising them without official sanction. Yet, Julio took the steps to guarantee that his name appeared on the children's baptismal certificates and to proclaim his responsibility toward them. Although one may wonder why Julio had not recognized the children earlier--whether enslavement or lack of urgency had inhibited his actions--the existence of this record forces a reconsideration of the relationship between slavery and family formation in late colonial Cuba. It challenges Cuban historian Moreno Fraginals's assessment that "a family unit within the ingenio [sugar plantation] was a foreign body, naturally rejected". (2)

The present article analyzes similar cases of paternal recognition in order to investigate family ideology and structures among free and enslaved people of color of nineteenth-century Cuba. I show that in claiming their hijos naturales reconocidos (out-of-wedlock children receiving paternal recognition), Cuban fathers formalized a kin relationship that was primarily based on the public acknowledgment of filial consanguinity and that existed without regard to the nature of the conjugal relationship between the parents. Neither legitimate marriage nor parental co-residence determined the existence of such families. The parent-child bond was more influential, and Cubans of all social categories used a legal means to give respectability to a common social behavior. In these cases, the relationship between a father and his children complemented the matrifocal family that has been the subject of much debate for post-emancipation societies in the Americas. (3)

For the African-descended populations of the region, the extent to which slavery restricted the establishment and continuity of viable families has been a central historiographic question, one related to broader concerns about race relations and cultural transformation. Examination of these issues opens a window into white attitudes toward African-descended populations and exposes the methods through which Afro-Cuban families grappled with Euro-American social norms. …

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