Prostitution, Modernity, and the Making of the Cuban Republic, 1840–1920

Prostitution, Modernity, and the Making of the Cuban Republic, 1840–1920

Prostitution, Modernity, and the Making of the Cuban Republic, 1840–1920

Prostitution, Modernity, and the Making of the Cuban Republic, 1840–1920


Between 1840 and 1920, Cuba abolished slavery, fought two wars of independence, and was occupied by the United States before finally becoming an independent republic. Tiffany A. Sippial argues that during this tumultuous era, Cuba's struggle to define itself as a modern nation found focus in the social and sexual anxieties surrounding prostitution and its regulation.
Sippial shows how prostitution became a prism through which Cuba's hopes and fears were refracted. Widespread debate about prostitution created a forum in which issues of public morality, urbanity, modernity, and national identity were discussed with consequences not only for the capital city of Havana but also for the entire Cuban nation.
Republican social reformers ultimately recast Cuban prostitutes--and the island as a whole--as victims of colonial exploitation who could be saved only by a government committed to progressive reforms in line with other modernizing nations of the world. By 1913, Cuba had abolished the official regulation of prostitution, embracing a public health program that targeted the entire population, not just prostitutes. Sippial thus demonstrates the central role the debate about prostitution played in defining republican ideals in independent Cuba.


Deviance is not a quality that lies in behavior itself, but in the
interaction between those who commit an act and those who respond to it.

—Howard Saul Becker, Outsiders (1963)

Cities … are made of desires and fears, even if the thread of
their discourse is secret, their rules are absurd, their perspectives
deceitful, and everything conceals something else.

—Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities (1974)

A city map offers a glimpse into a society’s hopes, dreams, fears, and desires. the way a city is organized reveals a great deal about how its residents view their relationship to the outside world and to one another. Maps are never mere facsimiles of established spatial relationships but rather they serve as a means of symbolically and visually ordering space, of overlaying the chaos and bustle of urban life with the veneer of order, purpose, and meaning. With compass and pen, state-appointed mapmakers transform isolated, loosely defined, or geographically impenetrable areas of the city into rigidly bounded zones offering the promise of perfect state control over the lives of groups and individuals living therein. the projection of an ideal, maps rarely correspond to any true lived experience. Static lines of demarcation and grids of meaning superimposed upon urban areas characterized by shift ing populations and rapidly expanding infrastructures quickly become anachronistic when a city enters a new cycle of growth or change. As growing cities push against, and ultimately burst, the seams of geography and meaning, state officials are forced to construct new maps keyed to new political, social, and economic relationships within the city. More than a mere redrawing of lines on a map, these large-scale reimaginings of urban landscapes can have a profound effect on the myriad sociospatial relationships contained within those spaces. Ultimately, both urban geography and the lives of urban inhabitants are shaped by the constant tension between state efforts to define, contain, and control urban areas, and peoples’ determination to move unfettered across those imposed boundaries.

Between 1840 and 1920, Cuba experienced three wars of independence (1868–78, 1879–80, and 1895–98), abolition (1886), U.S. intervention (1898– 1902 and 1906–9), and the founding of the first Cuban republic (1902–33). Throughout this tumultuous time, Havana not only served as the island’s . . .

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