Scholar Spotlight: Alexis Baldacci

Alexis Baldacci was a 2013-2014 CHC Graduate Pre-Prospectus Fellow. A doctoral student in history at the University of Florida, she authored the following report about her fellowship and her research on The Haves and Have-Nots: Material Culture in Revolutionary Cuba and the Cuban Diaspora, 1959-1980.

bonnie2_thumb2Thanks to the generous funding of the Goizueta Foundation and the Amigos of the Cuban Heritage Collection, I was able to spend one month between July and August 2013 reviewing a wide array of materials at the Cuban Heritage Collection. Though preliminary in nature, the research that I conducted at the CHC proved enormously helpful in establishing the viability of my project. The Pre-Prospectus Fellowship enabled me to explore my rather large research questions to a degree to which I had not yet been able, and I now have a much better sense of the kinds of sources available dealing with material culture and consumption in revolutionary Cuba. I not only came away from the experience with a wealth of documents that will no doubt prove foundational to my dissertation, but also with a clear conceptual framework and sharper focus for my project.

My dissertation research centers on material culture in revolutionary Cuba from 1959 to roughly 1989. I am interested in experiences of consumption and scarcity prior to the Special Period of the 1990s, and I hope to explore the social, cultural, and political ramifications of both consumption and scarcity in the distinct environment of revolutionary Cuba, where revolutionaries struggled to create a classless society and state rationing promised, but not always delivered, access to basic goods. The official discourse found in speeches and the state press is only one part of the story, and I intend to use film, oral history, and correspondence to counterbalance the top-down version of events. My aim is to better understand the everyday experiences of the Cuban revolution though the tripartite lens of basic necessities: food, housing, and clothing.

It would be impossible to detail all of the sources that I consulted at the CHC – which ranged from cookbooks to fashion magazines – in the limited space available to me. Instead, I will focus on two collections that were especially rich for my purposes. The first, the Burdsall Papers, is a collection of letters exchanged between Lorna Burdsall, an American dancer who married a Cuban revolutionary and lived on the island from 1955 until her death in 2010, and her family, for the most part located in the United States. The Burdsall Papers span the entire three decades that I am interested in, and form a particularly unique window into revolutionary Cuba for two key reasons. The first is that the Burdsalls were from the United States. This led Lorna and the family members that visited her in Cuba to write their letters with an eye toward their American audience, explaining things in great detail that many Cubans would have taken for granted or expected their audience to be familiar with. The second is that Burdsall was married to Manuel Piniero, a high-ranking Cuban intelligence officer, which granted her privileged opportunities to receive packages from the United States through the Ministry of Exterior Relations and to travel abroad and purchase goods unavailable in Cuba, despite the travel restrictions placed on the greater populace. Burdsall’s letters are a fascinating window into both scarcity and privilege, and the benefits that she received through her husband’s political position cast doubt on the sincerity of Cuban officials’ efforts to build a classless society.

The second collection that was especially useful for my purposes was the Jose Lezama Lima Papers. The often beautiful letters that Lezama Lima wrote to his sisters in Florida clearly reveal preoccupations with scarcity and the changes that it wrought on everyday life in Cuba; however, his concerns are quite different from Burdsall’s, throwing her privileged lifestyle further into relief. Lezama Lima’s discussions of the colas and line culture provide especially interesting insights into the stress that everyday tasks, such as waiting in lines to pick up the dry cleaning or buy groceries, put on the elderly and infirm.

I think it only fair to conclude by thanking the staff of the CHC, as they are one of the Collection’s finest resources. Were it not for their helpful suggestions, challenging questions, and fascinating stories, my project would be a very different one.