Measures of Equality: Social Science, Citizenship, and Race in Cuba, 1902-1940

Measures of Equality: Social Science, Citizenship, and Race in Cuba, 1902-1940

Measures of Equality: Social Science, Citizenship, and Race in Cuba, 1902-1940

Measures of Equality: Social Science, Citizenship, and Race in Cuba, 1902-1940


In the years following Cuba's independence, nationalists aimed to transcend racial categories in order to create a unified polity, yet racial and cultural heterogeneity posed continual challenges to these liberal notions of citizenship. Alejandra Bronfman traces the formation of Cuba's multiracial legal and political order in the early Republic by exploring the responses of social scientists, such as Fernando Ortiz and Israel Castellanos, and black and mulatto activists, including Gustavo Urrutia and Nicolas Guillen, to the paradoxes of modern nationhood.

Law, science, and the social sciences--which, during this era, enjoyed growing status in Cuba as well as in many other countries--played central roles in producing knowledge and shaping social categories in postindependence Cuba. Anthropologists, criminologists, and eugenicists embarked on projects intended to employ the tools of science to rid Cuba of the last vestiges of a colonial past. Meanwhile, the legal arena created both new freedoms and new modes of repression. Black and mulatto intellectuals and activists, working to ensure that citizenship offered concrete advantages rather than empty promises, appropriated changing social scientific and legal categories and turned them to their own uses. In the midst of several decades of intermittent racial violence and expanding social and political mobilization by Cubans of African descent, debates among intellectuals and activists, state officials, and legislators transformed not only understandings of race, but also the terms of citizenship for all Cubans.


Sometime during the uncertain months between 1896 and 1900 three scientists pored over the exhumed remains of General Antonio Maceo, who had died fighting in Cuba’s final war for independence. in 1900 they published their findings in a short pamphlet entitled El craneo de Maceo: Estudio antropológico (Maceo’s Skull: An Anthropological Study). Backed by precise statistical detail and citing the French craniometrists Paul Broca and Paul Topinard (under whose tutelage the measuring of skulls flourished as a respectable science in the nineteenth century), the three scientists claimed that their findings revealed a fortuitous racial mixture of a “white” brain capacity blended with “black” limb proportions and strength to render him a “truly superior man.”

General Maceo had joined Cuba’s struggle for independence in 1868 and perished in battle twenty-eight years later (1896), having become one of Cuba’s most respected military leaders. Maceo had taken part in a dramatic process in which a society only recently premised on slavery had attained political autonomy with a multiracial military and a nationalist ideology that transcended racial identification in its definition of a national community. His ascent through the ranks was one of many examples of the crucial participation of former slaves and descendants of slaves in the struggle against Spanish colonialism. During the course of the wars for independence (1868–98), the language of antiracism he so frequently invoked became a powerful tool on which former slaves and their descendants relied to insist on equal treatment as members of a fraternal military order.

Yet the fate of Maceo’s remains embodied a process that reentrenched racial inequalities with empiricist and positivist claims about the biological nature of racial differences. Although in the case of Maceo an understanding of race that linked physical proportions to mental and moral capacities reinforced his position as hero, other descendants of slaves might not have fared so well, as empiricism and positivism tended mostly . . .

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