Jennifer Lambe

History, Yale University
2011 Graduate Fellowship Report
Baptism by Fire: The Making and Remaking of Madness in Cuba, 1899-1980


Thanks to the efficiency, enthusiasm, and professionalism of the faculty, staff, and student workers of the Cuban Heritage Collection, I was able to make meaningful progress in my dissertation research during my tenure as a Graduate Research Fellow. I am grateful to have had the opportunity to conduct research at
an institution of such high caliber. My time spent at the CHC has contributed significantly to the development of my dissertation on the history of psychiatry and psychology in twentieth-century Cuba.

My dissertation traces this history through two overlapping narratives. The first examines the institutional history of the Mazorra Mental Asylum from the time of independence from Spain through the 1970s. In particular, it examines the hospital as a microcosm of regional and national events of political, social, and cultural importance and as a touchstone in the popular consciousness of Cubans. As the largest and, until the 1959 Revolution, only public psychiatric facility in Cuba, Mazorra represents a site of enormous symbolic significance and psychic charge. The revolutionary reconstruction of Mazorra undertaken by Sierra Maestra veteran Dr. Eduardo Bernabé Ordaz heightened the political potency of the site, now renamed the Hospital Psiquiátrico de La Habana.

While Mazorra constituted a focal point in political and social geographies of Havana and the nation at large, it was only one node in a broader network of mental health practices. My project thus aims to unpack both institutional and non-institutional forms of mental therapeutics. Espiritismo, santería, and other religiously-oriented treatment regimens represented key sites of mental healthcare, particularly in the context of chronically insufficient institutional care during the pre-revolutionary years. In many cases, these alternative networks of mental therapeutics existed in a tense relationship with institutional psychiatry, but, at certain junctures, competition could yield to collaboration.

While in residence at the CHC, I was able to consult a wide variety of print, published, and manuscript sources that enabled me to flesh out both elements of the dissertation project. The CHC’s extensive newspaper and periodical collection, both in print and on microfilm, was a key resource in the development of a chronology of events and a broader sense of the representation of Mazorra and Cuban psychiatry over time. The opportunity to examine dailies and weeklies, including many rare ones, greatly advanced my understanding of the texture of daily life at Mazorra, in addition to the interpenetration of national and institutional events. The CHC also contains key academic, scientific, and cultural journals, such as the Revista Bimestre Cubana and the Revista de la Facultad de Letras y Ciencias of the University of Havana, which allowed me to trace the development of psychiatry and psychology as academic disciplines. In this vein, the CHC’s excellent collection of published sources from the Hospital Psiquiátrico de La Habana was a critical source base for my research in the collection. Moreover, in preparing a Colloquium on Mazorra under the Machadato, I consulted a wide range of print and published sources, including accounts of the Revolution of 1933 and official publications on healthcare and beneficencia.

In my time at the CHC, however, the manuscript holdings consistently offered the most exciting research moments. I particularly enjoyed working with the Diana G. Kirby collection, which contains the published and unpublished records of an ethnographic study on drug use among the Cuban population of Miami, conducted by the Center for Social Research on Drug Abuse at the University of Miami in the mid- to late 1970s. There, I found documentation of the mental health attitudes of Cuban women, whose discussions of té de tilo, Valium, and nervios offer invaluable access to mental health practices outside institutional walls. The Lydia Cabrera Papers also provided insight into mental therapeutics in religious settings and the complicated feedback loops between bewitchment and madness.

Overall, the Cuban Heritage Collection has proven to be a very valuable stop on my research agenda. Beyond the virtues of the collection itself, I found the CHC to be a truly invigorating place to work, where the enthusiasm of faculty, staff, and fellow researchers energized the intellectual and human dimensions of my research. I am grateful to all of them for enriching my project in innumerable ways, and I am certainly looking forward to returning to the CHC in the future.

This report was authored by Jennifer Lambe to fulfill one of the requirements of the CHC Graduate Fellowships.