Anasa Hicks was a 2013-2014 CHC Graduate Pre-Prospectus Fellow. A doctoral student in history at New York University, she authored the following report about her fellowship and her research on “Domestic Work in 20th Century Cuba.”
Before beginning research at the Cuban Heritage Collection, I knew that I wanted to write about domestic workers, but I was not sure exactly what that would mean. My interest in the topic stemmed from an interest in the experiences of black women in twentieth-century Cuba, many of whom had been domestics; but I was not sure what aspect or theme within the lives of domestic workers would ground my research.
The sources I found at the Cuban Heritage Collection suggest the possibility that exploring the meaning of domestic work itself—that is, asking questions about who does it and when, who never does it and why, and when legislators or charitable institutions become involved in issues surrounding domestic work—could yield a broader and more interesting analysis than just focusing on the experiences of a specific group of domestic workers. Certainly, many black women were domestic workers—but as the CHC’s extensive collection of the Gaceta de la Habana showed me, so were Chinese men. Anglophone Caribbean women migrated with their men to become domestics in eastern Cuba; and recently arrived Spanish women were often nursemaids. Sources like the Gaceta and conversations with staff members at the CHC clarified the diversity of identities among domestic workers in Cuba.
Other CHC holdings highlighted domestic work’s centrality to upholding Cuba’s class divisions. Americans travelers to Cuba regularly noted that middle- and upper-class families defined themselves in large part by their ability to hire domestic help. Employing domestic workers was definitional to what it meant to be an elite Cuban woman: one observer of Cuban culture wrote that “the well-to do Cuban will not allow his wife to do any housework. Cooking, washing or scrubbing would lower her to the level of a servant.” ¹ Early twentieth-century travelogues demonstrated that the institution of paid domestic labor reinforced gender, racial, and class identities and hierarchies.
The theme of education, specifically the need to educate (certain) young women to perform domestic work, emerged from the documents I found as well. Lyceum y Lawn Tennis Club, a women’s social club, was an intellectual and social service staple in Havana society from its founding in 1939 to its end in 1968. The women of the club hosted talks, offered vocational and academic classes, founded the island’s first public library and even had an art gallery. Education was central to Lyceum’s mission to “foment in the woman a collective spirit;” the club offered such classes as English language, Swiss cooking, and Cuban history.
In perusing the Gaceta oficial, I found detailed plans for an “Escuela del Hogar” which opened in Havana in 1919. The school, open to young women between fifteen and twenty-five years old, aimed to educate them in the art of domesticity, offering classes such as sewing, ironing, and cooking. None of the classes offered were as erudite as the selection offered at Lyceum. Elsewhere in Latin America, similar institutions were essentially feeder programs into the homes of wealthy benefactors: working-class girls attended the schools and then became domestics. It is difficult to know whether this was the case in Cuba, or for whom this kind of education was intended. Did young middle-class and elite women enroll, or would such tasks be beneath them? Studying domestic work would shed light on the reasons for which some women were educated in how to iron clothes and linens while others learned French and flower arrangement.
My findings in Miami have allowed me to think more clearly about why domestic work interests me. A study of how domestic labor got done in Cuba, when it was paid for and when it was taught and to whom, can allow historians to gain new understandings of labor, of gender, of class and race relations. My findings at the CHC were essential to my presentation at the Berkshire Conference on the History of Women in May of 2014. Additionally, what I have found at the CHC this summer will guide the drafting of my prospectus as I prepare to defend it and will guide my questions as I continue my dissertation research.
¹ Lowry Nelson, Rural Cuba (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1950): 144.