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In 1961, as the Cuban Revolution radicalized, the newly-formed Federation of Cuban Women (FMC) created training programs for domestic servants to learn tasks like typing, teaching, and taxi driving, thereby eliminating the supply of domestic workers on the island. Members of the FMC reported that they were inspired to create schools for domestics by Fidel Castro himself, who had noticed the high attendance of domestic workers at night schools already open before 1961. This chapter investigates the history of these schools from the perspective of attendees, teachers, and counterrevolutionaries, who were suspicious of the new government’s motives. The schools for domestics, along with rehabilitation programs for prostitutes and schools for campesina (farmer) women, were emblematic of revolutionary integration of the masses into its political project. The transformation of domestic service in the 1960s reflected Cubans’ deepest fears and hopes about the revolutionary future – but the way in which the government chose to address domestic service as a labor field connected back to the republican past.
Chapter 2 explores Afro-Cuban responses to stereotypes that connected blackness, dirtiness, and servitude. Using black newspapers and the legal petitions of black women in Santiago de Cuba, the chapter examines the tension between “racial uplift” – the notion that African-descended people could prove their worthiness as citizens by behaving “respectably” – and the lived realities of many black Cuban women. The chapter uses legal petitions from eastern Cuba to show how African-descended domestic workers advocated for themselves to the new national government. African-descended Cubans of the middle classes tended not to discuss the problems of their working-class counterparts, resulting in an almost complete absence of discussion of domestic service or domestic servants in black newspapers or magazines. Chapter 2 offers a pluralistic perspective on blackness in twentieth-century Cuba, showing the connections between and divisions among people in the same racial group.
The book’s conclusion considers its implications for histories of the Americas more broadly. The persistence of both intrapersonal and institutional racial discrimination in nations historically considered racial democracies has long been of interest to historians of the region. Hierarchies at Home contributes to a field of literature that uses the domestic sphere as a starting point to understand how racialized attitudes persist in and shape supposed “racial democracies.” It builds on that body of work by simultaneously considering how racial politics embedded in domestic service affects the archive and the documents to which historians have access, and by pointing out strategies to counteract the archival dearth. The conclusion also suggests directions for scholarship that builds on the book and briefly explores the complex situation of domestic service in Cuba in the twenty-first century.
Chapter 6 explores memories of domestic service and intimacy between the 1960s and 1980s. Using oral history interviews, the chapter argues that the memories of former domestic workers and former employers of domestic workers informed their racial politics in the present. These memories were almost entirely devoid of political activism, even though this book has demonstrated that domestics were politically active for all of twentieth-century Cuban history. Instead of politics, the emblematic memory that Cubans retained was “the emotional logic of domestic service,” which allowed and even celebrated harmony between black and white Cubans while maintaining a strict and often unspoken racialized hierarchy. After the official end to domestic service in the 1960s, nostalgia for domestic service became a way for anti-Communist Cubans in exile and on the island to argue that pre-1959 had not been racist, as the revolutionary government has always insisted. This chapter historicizes the emotions around domestic service and demonstrates that an institution that had always distilled racial hierarchy in Cuba into its purest form was used to argue for a horizontal equality that never existed.
Chapter 1 spans the first decade of Cuban independence and explores the juxtaposition of “modern” concerns like hygiene and ancient concerns like honor and proper behavior. At the turn of the century, domestic workers’ physical bodies were subjects of scrutiny and avatars for early republican anxieties. Wet-nursing in particular was a hugely important topic as high infant mortality rates plagued the island. The Cuban government’s focus on literal hygiene and the figurative hygiene of the new republic regularly resulted in a hostile fixation on working-class women’s bodies and movements. The chapter examines the connections between domestic service and prostitution and uses court cases to demonstrate the physical vulnerability of African-descended women and girls both before and after slavery’s end in Cuba.
Chapter 3 pairs the expansion of liberal and religious solutions to working-class problems with increasing labor radicalism in Cuba. In the second decade of the twentieth century, the Catholic church and Cuban government created institutions to help domestic servants and to institutionalize education in domestic sciences for young women. The 1910s were also marked by phenomena that challenged these charity and education-based initiatives: rapidly increasing Caribbean migration to Cuba, growing labor unrest, and the feminist movement. These contradictory trends all found expression in the experiences of and discourse surrounding domestic workers. During the revolutionary upheaval of 1933, domestic workers acted in solidarity with other workers, helping to occupy mills and demanding increased formal attention to their labor. This chapter also considers the politics of the archives and how domestic workers were written out of stories of labor resistance at the very moment such resistance occurred.
Chapter 4 explores the relationship of Cuban law and government to domestic service from the late 1930s through the first year of the 1959 revolution. A law guaranteeing paid vacation days to Cuban domestics was met with such opposition that the government reversed course almost immediately. The opposition to Decree 1754 insisted that domestic workers were like “one of the family,” a notion with a long history in Cuba and in the history of domestic service globally. Transcripts of Cuban law, the 1940 Constitution, the papers of corporate personnel in Cuba, personal speeches and papers of radical feminists, and labor publications all demonstrate, first, that domestic workers did collectively organize and, second, that the depiction of domestic service as familial and feminine quasi-labor was deliberately used as a weapon to bludgeon the collective organizing of domestic servants. The chapter traces the evolution of domestic service activism in the late 1940s, looking both at radical action by Communist Party members and more moderate reform efforts by mutual aid organizations that organized across the country.
The introduction to Hierarchies at Home presents the central argument: Although women of African descent only briefly made up the majority of domestic servants in Cuba before 1959, for the entirety of the twentieth century the archetypal figure of a domestic servant in Cuba was an African-descended woman. The centrality of the black Cuban woman to the image of domestic service mattered because the work was a primary way that racialized hierarchies reproduced in Cuba throughout the twentieth century. Cuba’s public-facing image after its war for independence was a country founded on anti-racist ideals. But the steady association between blackness and domestic service sustained and revealed a stratification that placed African-descended Cubans in positions of subservience to white Cubans and ran counter to the public image. The introduction briefly reviews literature on domestic service in the United States, the Caribbean, and Latin America, and outlines the chapters.
Hierarchies at Home traces the experiences of Cuban domestic workers from the abolition of slavery through the 1959 revolution. Domestic service – childcare, cleaning, chauffeuring for private homes – was both ubiquitous and ignored as formal labor in Cuba, a phenomenon made possible because of who supposedly performed it. In Cuban imagery, domestic workers were almost always black women and their supposed prevalence in domestic service perpetuated the myth of racial harmony. African-descended domestic workers were 'like one of the family', just as enslaved Cubans had supposedly been part of the families who owned them before slavery's abolition. This fascinating work challenges this myth, revealing how domestic workers consistently rejected their invisibility throughout the twentieth century. By following a group marginalized by racialized and gendered assumptions, Anasa Hicks destabilizes traditional analyses on Cuban history, instead offering a continuous narrative that connects pre- and post-revolutionary Cuba.
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