Strictly Facts: A Guide to Caribbean History and Culture

Cuban Domestic Labor: A Complex History Unearthed with Dr Anasa Hicks

October 04, 2023 Alexandria Miller Episode 68
Strictly Facts: A Guide to Caribbean History and Culture
Cuban Domestic Labor: A Complex History Unearthed with Dr Anasa Hicks
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As we continue to celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month, this episode promises to enlighten you with a deep dive into the complexities of Cuba's domestic labor history, guided by the expert insights of our guest, Dr Anasa Hicks, Associate Professor of History at Florida State University.

We journey together through the significant shifts of the 20th century, examining the enduring ties of domestic service to the history of slavery, the gendered and class structures of domestic labor, and the changing perceptions of these roles in society. From the turbulent era of the 1933 Revolution to the radical activism era between 1938 and 1959, we delve into the intricate narratives that have shaped the future of domestic service in Cuba. Hear the story of Elvira Rodriguez, a domestic servant and activist whose story embodies the power of workers' activism in Cuba. This is more than just a history lesson; it's an exploration of the power of activism and the complexities of labor history in Cuba. Tune in for a captivating and enlightening conversation.

Anasa Hicks is Associate Professor of Caribbean History at Florida State University. Her research focuses on race, gender, and labor in 20th-century Cuba. Her first book, "Hierarchies at Home: Domestic Service in Cuba from Abolition to Revolution" was published by Cambridge University Press in 2022. 

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Produced by Breadfruit Media

Speaker 1:

Welcome to Strictly Facts, a guide to Caribbean history and culture, hosted by me, Alexandra Miller. Strictly Facts teaches the history, politics and activism of the Caribbean and connects these themes to contemporary music and popular culture. Hello, hello, everyone. Welcome back to another episode of Strictly Facts, a guide to Caribbean history and culture.

Speaker 1:

I'm your host, Alexandra Miller, here to bridge all of us together through our love for Caribbean history, and so, as we continue exploring our region, particularly during Hispanic Heritage Month, I wanted to continue on our conversation in terms of Cuba and just dive a little bit deeper into some of the additional things that we brought up in our last episode, especially highlighting Cuban labor history From a perspective that you know, in my view, is not usually brought up in terms of labor history or necessarily foregrounded, and that is the work and activism of domestic laborers and their role, particularly in the 20th century, in terms of the Cuban Revolution.

Speaker 1:

And so, joining us for this very amazing discussion and to highlight some of her own research, is Dr Anasa Hicks, Associate Professor of History at Florida State University and the author of Hierarchies at Home Domestic Service in Cuba from Abolition to Revolution. Dr Hicks, it's so great having you before we even just dive into our conversation today. Why don't you begin by telling our listeners a little bit about yourself, your connection to the region and what inspired your journey into academia as a historian?

Speaker 2:

Thank you for having me very excited to be here. So, as you said, I'm Anasa Hicks. I'm a professor of Caribbean history at Florida State. I'm actually not Caribbean myself, I'm African American. So I was born in Texas. My parents are from Detroit and their parents are from South Carolina and Alabama. I got interested in Caribbean and Cuban history in college. I went to UNC and I became interested in Cuban history in particular because when I was at UNC it was one of, I think, five study abroad programs in Cuba. There were very, very few at that time. So I, you know, I studied Spanish, so I took a Cuban history class so that I could make myself more competitive to study abroad in Cuba and I just became really interested in Cuban history. I was really fascinated by what I saw as the parallels between the racial histories of the United States and of Cuba.

Speaker 1:

I really think, in terms of labor history, right, we can't discuss the history of labor, especially of people of African descent, of black people across the world, across the diaspora, without first you obviously, you know, obviously, integrating it into this longer history of enslavement, of you know, the histories of emancipation, how, in many ways, a lot of those things did not and some of the same systemic or systematic problems that really colonialism founded in our region particularly. So, why don't we start with you just briefly illustrating some of the ways that domestic labor, prior to the major focal point in your research, really is foregrounded in Cuba, and you know whether that be the gendered in class structures, things to that nature.

Speaker 2:

Yeah, so first I'll say in general, domestic service has always been definitional to slavery. Before Europeans even came to the Caribbean, of course, there was slavery in Europe and most enslaved people there were domestic servants. It was only after encounter between Europeans and Caribbean native people that slavery became so closely associated with plantation slavery. So enslaved people, like I said, in Europe were usually domestic servants. And then, of course, once plantation slavery began, domestic service continued to be really important, whether there was the kind of stereotypical division between house slaves and quotation marks and field slaves and quotation marks, or, more likely, there were enslaved people who did both domestic and field tasks outside. So enslaved people in cities were also a lot more likely to be domestic servants. So yeah, the work of domestic service and slavery were really closely tied together. And then Cuba in particular. I think the association is even tighter because, unlike a lot of the Caribbean, slavery didn't end in Cuba until 1886. It was the second latest country in the Americas to abolish slavery, the first being Brazil. So slavery ended in Cuba in 1886, then Cuba became independent just nine years later. So what that means is that there were people in Cuba well into the 20th century who could remember being enslaved and certainly people whose parents had been enslaved.

Speaker 2:

There was always this very recent, very acute memory of slavery in Cuba during the 20th century and I argue in my book that throughout the 20th century the history of slavery kind of lingered in discussions about domestic service.

Speaker 2:

Domestic servants in Cuba were stereotyped to be black women.

Speaker 2:

So there was always this idea that the kind of racial discord that slavery had introduced to Cuba and the racial aspects of the War of Independence, there was this idea that domestic servants and the institution of domestic service was kind of a balm for those racial tensions in Cuba, the logic being that well, yes, we had slavery and there was this war where there was a lot of racism, but these black women are raising essentially the children of the white elite in their home.

Speaker 2:

So a lot of the idea of the nanny, of the wet nurse, those ideas are introduced to suggest that there's racial harmony in Cuba, because how could a black nanny raise white children if she didn't love them? Therefore, black people and white people in Cuba loved each other and domestic service became a really important symbol in that conversation. And on the other side, even into the 1940s, domestic servants who were activists, who fought for labor protections. They themselves connected the work to slavery in a negative way. Of course. They said this work is like slavery. This work has not changed since people were enslaved in this country, so slavery was always really prominent in the conversation around domestic service.

Speaker 1:

You brought up a really interesting point or several in that. First off, I think, in terms of the parallels between how we can think of race and race relations in the US and other parts of the world, first and foremost, but also thinking about the ways that domestic service was thought about in a sense to sort of pin it as something that it was not right, this distinction between what is in the private sphere and what people are thinking or sharing out in public. And so in that I guess you know from your research. Could you delve a little bit more on that distinction between the private and public sphere and how this trope of you know the domestic or the nanny, etc. Really in terms of domestic laborers, what it did as a result in terms of this Cuba as the Republic before the revolution.

Speaker 2:

Yeah, like I said, I think publicly, usually talking about domestic service was a way to claim that there was racial harmony in Cuba whether that was explicit.

Speaker 2:

you know there were newspaper columnists who wrote almost exactly what I said earlier, that because these black nannies essentially raised these white elite children who would go on to become the leaders of the nation, that meant that there wasn't racial discord in Cuba, there was harmony between the races. And you know, supposedly these, these black women who raised these children, had as much power as anyone else because they were raising these children. And so that was one way in which, publicly, domestic service was used to make an argument that you know, racially everything was fine in Cuba. Of course, racially everything was not fine in Cuba. Things were very far from fine, and in moments where that became hard to ignore, I think the same argument was made. But there was this domestic service was again used to kind of subtly critique the ways in which black Cubans were making claims in terms of labor. So for example I write about I believe it was in 1925.

Speaker 2:

There was actually an Anglo-Caribbean union that formed in Eastern Cuba. As I'm sure you know, and probably your listeners do too, there was a massive migration of Anglophone and Francophone Caribbean to Eastern Cuba in the early 20th century, mostly to work on sugar plantations. But a lot of Anglophone Caribbean in particular, found work as domestic servants. There were a lot of Americans in Eastern Cuba and they preferred servants who spoke English. And so there was one union in particular that made a public overture to domestic servants that said you know domestic servants, you're welcome to join our union to you are also workers, please join us in our labor struggle.

Speaker 2:

And one newspaper in Santiago de Cuba was furious at this. They wrote a whole very sarcastic column ridiculing the idea that domestic servants would need protection, and they essentially saw it as ridiculous the idea that domestic servants were workers and that they could somehow become injured or need any kind of protection that labor unions offer their workers. And I don't believe in that column there was any reference to race at all. But I think it is hard to ignore the fact that, as I said, most domestic workers were perceived to be black women in the first place, and then this overture came from the union of untilian workers, so those workers were extremely likely to be black. And so there's this way in which, even when race isn't mentioned, the pushback against protections for domestic workers, I think, is often racialized and almost always gendered.

Speaker 1:

And so on, legal protections and unionization. We definitely can't talk about labor history in any regard, particularly in terms of domestic labor, is so often because, as you mentioned, they're often sort of excluded in this sense, from that major conversation around unionization and legal protections. In addition to that 1925 period, were there other ways that you know? In a sense you point out the domestic laborers being seen as an unprotected class, and what were some of the attempts during the Republic Cuba, as the Republic, to really protect these domestic laborers? If so, how did they go about? You know what were the attempts for the Republic in protecting them and kind of creating sort of standards of domestic labor, especially given, as you pointed out, the large activism that they had been largely rallying around.

Speaker 2:

Yeah, so in the vast majority of cases activism before 1959 was domestic workers trying and often failing, unfortunately, to get protections for themselves. So, like I said, there was this invitation from the Union of until we and workers in 1925, but I don't, I wasn't going to give you any information on, you know the degree to which domestic workers took the Union up on that invitation. There was a revolution in Cuba in 1933. And during that revolution, in the fall of 1933, there were lots of mill occupations where workers on sugar mills would take over the mills, essentially hold them hostage. They would hold their managers hostage and domestic workers were often involved in those takeovers. They would make demands kind of specific to their labor field in negotiating terms for releasing or ending the occupation. I found that really interesting In an instance during the Republic when it seemed that the state was interested in protecting domestic servants was a law passed in 1938, which would have given domestic workers paid vacation days and stipulated that on those vacation days of course they would be paid.

Speaker 2:

So I think it said specifically they would be given still given food and lodging on those days. So they would be, you know, essentially treated the exact same way they were when they were working, except they would have these paid vacation days, and so that law passed and then four days later the government repealed the law because it was so wildly unpopular, and eventually they came out with a revised law that was basically toothless. So there was that one attempt to protect domestic servants in that very specific way that was, like I said, incredibly unpopular and they immediately reversed course. What I find interesting is the period after 1938, between 38 and 59. I argue in my book that that's the period of the most radical activism I saw in the 20th century for domestic servants in Cuba. So all of these civic organizations formed for and often by domestic workers, and those civic organizations are on a spectrum from organizations that explicitly said that they were not political and sort of existed for the, the enrichment, the cultural enrichment or educational enrichment of domestic workers, the ones that were explicitly radical, that were forming unions demanding the kinds of labor protections that human workers in other fields received.

Speaker 2:

And I should say here I guess a lot of, a lot of people who are interested in Cuban history know this, but Cuban labor has been really powerful for a very long time. So not just after 1959, but before 1959, cuba has an extremely robust labor activism history. So it's not as though that there was no labor activism in Cuba before 59. There was a lot really strong and successful labor activism. It often just left out domestic workers. But, like I said, between 38 and 59 domestic workers were unionizing, forming civic organizations, particularly the Republican government to protect them, etc. It wasn't successful usually, but they were making a lot of noise and making a lot of demands.

Speaker 1:

Definitely, I found the point of decree 1754, which is that 1938 law really interesting in reading your book because it seems like, you know, it's a moment of a win, in a sense.

Speaker 1:

Right, as you said, there have been, you know, decades, maybe even centuries long of protest, activism and rallying, and then it feels like a win that, you know, to your point, lasted only four days, probably in large part because many of those who are of the ruling class were those with domestic workers, who, you know, hire domestic workers and were obviously probably unhappy with these, this new set of standards that the government under, I believe, batista, was creating, I think, interestingly enough, those shifting to 59, 1959, at the hallmark of Cuban Revolution, which of course we can't, you know, separate out, thinking of labor and, you know, structures of class and how the Revolution was aiming at really changing some of those standards, in one sense at least, right.

Speaker 1:

We don't necessarily have the time to go into so much about the Revolution in itself, but I do want to really, I guess, shift in a sense to talking about how the Revolution and you know Cuba becoming this newly communist state was really more or less to sort of do away with some of these class structures that I think, in my view, domestic service is an inherent part of right. And so how did the Revolution alter this view of labor, especially considering the status of many of those who were employers of domestic service?

Speaker 2:

Yeah, I think that's a really important question. So I would say, initially the most radical domestic servants did not see their work as incompatible with the Cuban Revolution. For example, in the book of I think it's this the syndicate of domestic servants donating their dues from February of 1959 to the 26th of July movement, saying and clearly that's an indication that they see their fate as domestics as bound up with the new revolutionary movement, there was this, you know, air of excitement for everyone. But by 1961, so just two years after the Revolution, after a period of extremely rapid radicalization, the Cuban government, through the Federation of Cuban women, had created training programs for domestic servants. These were schools where domestics could. First they could attend night school and receive like a primary level education, because many of them hadn't finished their elementary schooling, I think up to the sixth grade, and then, once they finished night school, they could go on to training programs where they could learn to do things like taxi driving, bank clerking, typing, things that clearly the revolutionary government saw as more dignified, I would say, than domestic service. Also, conveniently, those were fields that had kind of been emptied out by the exodus of middle class Cubans from the island. So, like I said, I argue in my book that this actually wasn't the most radical period in terms of domestic service activism, because I think what was really radical about what domestic servants were doing in the 40s and the 50s was saying Our work is valuable and it should be protected like all other work is.

Speaker 2:

They weren't saying, you know, get us out of this, we don't want to be in this field anymore. They were saying, you know, pay us what we're worth and give us labor protections like everyone else. What the revolutionary government did was radical in that it was kind of a massive shift. But what the revolutionary government did was essentially eradicate domestic service altogether as a labor field. They took women out of private homes and put them in you know, taxicabs or offices, and that I don't mean to dismiss or diminish that. The revolutionary government in so many ways transformed the lives and the trajectories of many, many people, including black women. But I do think that you know just kind of giving up on the work, saying you know it's a vestige of this bourgeois past and therefore we have to get rid of it. I think that is less radical than trying to transform the circumstances around the work so that it could be done without making women vulnerable or subject to abuse.

Speaker 1:

Definitely it's like a catch 22 innocence, right, Because many of them, as you said, their conditions change in terms of being able to probably enter other fields and positions that they didn't readily have access to beforehand. But it didn't necessarily change the status of domestic service. I have a question in terms of, you know it sort of eradicates the position of domestic labor being integral in society. Of course, you know it didn't erase it all together in a sense, right and so after the revolution, as you know, we're going into the 60s and moving forward for those who were still potentially participating in domestic service, what was it then like for those who opted to maybe not go the route that the government was taking or offering to many domestic servants?

Speaker 2:

I think into the 1960s and 1970s, domestic service became work that was essentially done under the table. A lot of Cubans make reference to saying things like oh, tango and I'm a who had came out with that. Like I have a, I have a woman who helps me. That was the euphagism for saying that you had a servant, but it was no longer appropriate to acknowledge that you had a servant Even though, as you acknowledged, people still did not at the same rates they used to, but the work certainly persisted. I don't have a lot about that in my book because it's very hard to find evidence of right because it wasn't supposed to be happening. So people, especially revolutionary media, certainly wasn't talking about it because it should not have been going on.

Speaker 1:

One of I think, in my view, one of the most telling parts of your book and just in thinking of how history is written, is the point that there are stories that are difficult to find and negotiate based off who has written them.

Speaker 1:

And so one of your main points, you know, looking at that, the fact that domestic workers have been basically written out of the narratives of this time and their activism is kind of been erased, especially, I think I don't want to say it makes sense, but you know, when we look at the longer histories of enslavement and things to that nature and how sometimes that's often diminished, it kind of tracks in a sense right.

Speaker 1:

And so for me, just thinking of the irony of that being done increasingly post revolution, I think it was a little ironic just because it should be, in a sense of, or in my mind, right if we're thinking about labor and some of the work around changing class structures and things. It would be, in my mind, something that might have wanted to be amplified a little bit more, but it's not, or it wasn't rather, and so could you talk a bit about what that shift was like continuing post revolution, and you know, in the 60 years since, what has it done in sort of the memory of the revolution and the work that domestic workers really paved for the changing times?

Speaker 2:

So I do think, in Cuba at least there are some people, well, I shouldn't say some people.

Speaker 2:

I think a lot of people who are kind of interested in revolutionary history know about the training schools for domestic workers. That is something that the revolutionary government is really proud of, I think you know I didn't know about that before I started really researching this book and I think probably the largest. The story of the training schools for domestic has kind of gotten lost, in the US at least, because there are, you know, much bigger stories about the Cuban Revolution. You know, like the missile crisis, that whole thing, and I think the stories about domestic workers didn't necessarily make the US news. But I think I think possibly part of the reason why it's not a larger story now is because to talk about the training schools for domestics and how the government was able to eradicate the violence, the elephant in the room is the fact that domestic service has returned to Cuba in a big way.

Speaker 2:

A parallel that I talked about in my book is the trajectory of sex workers in Cuba.

Speaker 2:

The revolutionary government also created what were essentially rehabilitation programs for sex workers and eradicated sex work in Cuba and then in the 1990s sex work returned to and it's kind of uncomfortable to talk about the revolutionary programs that eradicated these two fields because you would then have to talk about the fact that they have returned and that could be interpreted as a failure of the revolution, essentially as far as the activism that existed before the revolution. You know, the women I interviewed who had been domestic workers before the revolution, none of them were aware of any activism on the part of domestic workers before 1959. And I think that I don't know the degree to which that's intentional, but I think it's kind of convenient for the revolutionary narrative right that before 1959, these women were just, you know, trapped in the houses of the bourgeoisie, isolated, unable to better their circumstances, and the revolution rescued them. That's a very convenient narrative that's complicated by the idea that, no, even before 1959 these women were trying very hard to improve their own circumstances.

Speaker 1:

And we're engaging in activism, based on some of those stories and oral histories that you collected, what were some of the lessons to be drawn upon? Or, you know, the kind of bigger picture things that you could contend with in terms of thinking about that earlier 20th century moment to you know, moving into the latter 20th century. Even today, as you're saying, you know domestic context, we're returning to the island, whether that is, you know, for Cuba or even the greater region diaspora itself.

Speaker 2:

I think the the narrative of domestic service that's in my book complicates the timeline of the 1959 revolution.

Speaker 2:

And I'm not the only person who has done this.

Speaker 2:

I think there's a big part of historians of Cuba who are starting to complicate that narrative and not just divide human history into pre 1959 and post 1959, in terms of, in my case, labor and domestic service, but also in terms of medicine, race, all kinds of topics. I think that's important because thinking about Cuba you know right now things are really hard in Cuba Currently the island is going through, has gone through a lot, which is, of course, true of a lot of Caribbean islands. And I think constantly looking through this lens of pre and post 59 can lead to kind of black and white thinking and thinking about everything in terms of, like, the government succeeded or the government failed, the government is good or the government is bad. I think when thinking about trying to change things, how things could change, whether they need to change, what could be made better, that kind of dichotomous thinking is really unhelpful and I think it can lead to kind of feeling hopeless, like, well, the revolution try to do this, but you know it failed and like here, look where we are now.

Speaker 2:

Things are bad and I think that's really the only one fact about the revolutionary government is necessarily untrue, but for me at least, thinking about you know, activists who's I haven't. You know? There's a woman in my book named Elvira Rodriguez who was a domestic servant and an activist. I haven't been able to find reference to her and any other secondary source on Cuban history and she wrote this really amazing article in 1944. I don't remember whether it's called fascists of the patio or she refers to employers of domestic services, fascists of the patio, but that's just such an amazing phrase. When I think about people like her in the mid 1940s, coming from a labor perspective, that would be like fresh right now. I think thinking about people like her and activists like her in the 1940s in Cuba really disrupt the idea that we have to just think in terms of, like what the revolutionary government did or didn't do. There were and are all kinds of possibilities in terms of what can be done and what kinds of people can initiate change.

Speaker 1:

Definitely. I think that was a point that definitely stood out to me to write in terms of historiographies of places and memory. Even there are so many other agents on of change that are often or sometimes neglected and of course, that can be due to race, class, gender, several other things, of course, but one that it was a pleasure to read about in your book hierarchies of home. So, wrapping up today's episode, as my listeners will know, I'm always considering ways that I think we can learn history in its parallels, as seen through whether that's music or literature. So are there any ways you think this really pertinent part of Cuban labor history has been highlighted in pop culture for our listeners to check out?

Speaker 2:

Yes, unfortunately, maybe both of the book recommendations I have are in Spanish, although one has been translated into English. That one is a novel called Las Criadas de la Havana, or the Maids of Havana, by a writer named Pedro Perez Sarduy. I think that came out in around 2012. And then there's another novel that I don't think has been translated, called Domingo de Revolución, by a writer called Wendy Guerra and the Maids of Havana, as evidenced by the title is about a circle of maids.

Speaker 2:

to elite Cubans living in Havana in the pre-1959 20th century that's just a really interesting look at their kind of social circle and how being a maid shapes their lives and how they see themselves. And then Domingo de Revolución is a novel in which the protagonist is a writer who finds herself kind of under surveillance by the Cuban government after she accepts an award in Spain. So this is taking place in the 21st century. But one of the main supporting characters is her family's maid who had been with her family since she was a child and she kind of goes back to her childhood home in Havana and feels like she's constantly under surveillance. And it is her, her childhood maid, who is really kind of a solidifying grounding force in her life, who's constantly trying to help her, even when she is pretty obviously going completely insane. So both of those I think are really interesting portrayals of domestic service in Cuba.

Speaker 1:

Definitely. I will be sure to add them for our listeners to check out. So definitely keep track of the episode and where it is on social media and the strictly facts website, of course. So thank you for your time. In closing, thank you so much, dr Hicks, for sharing some of your brilliance with us. Again, if our listeners are really interested in learning more, I definitely can't do more than to recommend checking out hierarchies of home as a great resource to, additionally, just dive into Cuban labor history a little bit more from the perspective of domestic servants. So thank you again, dr Hicks, of course, and thank you to the strictly facts family for tuning into this episode. And, of course, we'll be back in two weeks, so be sure to stay tuned and follow us on all social media platforms, thank you, thank you for tuning in to Strictly Facts. Visit strictlyfactspodcastcom for more information from each episode. Follow us at strictlyfactspod on Instagram and Facebook and at strictlyfactspd on Twitter.

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