Academic journal article Cuban Studies

Stretching the Limits of Gendered Spaces: Black and Mulatto Women in 1830s Havana

Academic journal article Cuban Studies

Stretching the Limits of Gendered Spaces: Black and Mulatto Women in 1830s Havana

Article excerpt

"No respectable woman allows herself to be seen in public except in mass," wrote John Howison about women in Havana in his Cuba travelogue in 1825. "Consequently," he observed, "the female members of families that cannot afford a carriage find themselves nearly always confined to their home, where they spend the better part of their day peeking out from their windows."1 The word "woman" in this traveler's notes refers to white women. But to refer to the role of white women in those times in Havana meant to refer to the accepted role of women in general.

Women of color, on the other hand, filled Havana's streets and plazas. They had to in order to survive. And they wanted to in order to better themselves economically and socially. And, even though they were not acknowledged as a female presence worth noting, their work was indispensable in the city. They constituted the majority of the city's peddlers, female artisans, and midwives. Many were preschool teachers, dancers, singers, and businesswomen. In the private realm, they were the wives and consorts of many impoverished white men, and the caretakers of many white children.

Concepts such as those of private and public spheres were still in the early stages of being developed by the Cuban modernizing elites. Though the modernizing elites may not have named these spheres explicitly, they distinguished between them implicitly. This separation was a powerful tool in dictating the appropriate role of women in society and the appropriate "place" of marginal populations: Women should not walk alone on the streets; blacks could not gather in public. Thus, the activities of free black women must have indirectly influenced the creation of these concepts as they became the very object the modernizing elites sought to control.2

Most importantly, the dynamic participation of women of color in society complicated the prevailing notions of what was an appropriate female role. In fact, in all their capacities, black and mulatto women continuously pushed the limits of old social notions regarding what was appropriate, acceptable, or even possible. This essay will explore how, through their daily practices, women of color transformed nineteenth-century Havana in profound ways.

Racial Relations in 1830s Havana

Racial relations in Cuba were the complex product of a confluence of socioeconomic factors and historical circumstances that came to a peak in the 1800s. Three factors strongly contributed to a rise in racial prejudice and discrimination in the nineteenth century. One was the introduction of a large African slave population after the first decade of the nineteenth century to serve in the booming sugar economy. Slaves had not been introduced in such large numbers in the island previously. The number of enslaved African men and women who entered the island in the second decade of the nineteenth century more than doubled that of the previous decade.1 In addition, the newly enriched sugar mill owners established a more drastic distance between themselves and their slaves than in previous centuries. Ironically, the brutal nature of slave work and the inhumane living conditions in the sugar mills became identified with the slaves themselves. Therefore a "barbaric" nature was ascribed to them and, by association, to all black men and women.

Cuba's dependence on black labor for the welfare of the island was the second factor. In addition to the dependence on slave labor in the plantations and sugar mills, the cities depended on the work of free black and mulatto men and women for their smooth functioning. This compounded the resentment and racial prejudice of the white elites against blacks, free blacks, and mulattos in particular, whom they perceived as intrusive social elements.

The third factor exacerbating racial prejudice or, rather, racial fear refers to two international political events and historical landmarks: the black takeover in neighboring Haiti in 1792 and the independence of most of the SpanishAmerican colonies in the 1820s, which brought the abolition of slavery to those colonies. …

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