Two young Cuban historians, Ailynn Torres Santana and Diosnara Ortega González, discuss their forthcoming book of oral histories with Cuban women. They describe their methodology, their intellectual formation, and the reception of gender studies and oral history in the Cuban academy.
Major oral history projects have not been common in revolutionary Cuba. And while there have been several landmark books of oral history—such as Oscar Lewis’s four-volume series published in the late 1970s—these were often conducted by foreign, not Cuban, scholars. Furthermore, while oral history projects in Cuba have often included women’s voices, they have less often conceptualized gender as a relation of power or been attentive to the nuances of gender inequalities.
For these reasons, the forthcoming book Mujeres en revolución: Historias de vida de mujeres cubanas (Women in Revolution: Life Histories of Cuban Women), by the young Cuban scholars Ailynn Torres Santana and Diosnara Ortega González, is exceptionally significant. As the authors describe in the interview below, their book explores the life histories of eight Cuban women, drawn from divergent social, racial, and regional backgrounds, both to understand their life experiences on their own terms and to reflect on the portrait of revolutionary Cuba that emerges from those stories. In this conversation they discuss the status of women’s history and gender studies in the Cuban academy, the way they conceptualized their project, and the way the public history and memory of the Cuban Revolution have been constructed.
Torres Santana and Ortega González are part of a new generation of Cuban scholars committed to feminist studies, the study of gender relations, and the history and politics of Cuba and of Latin America. Like some other scholars of their generation, they have benefited from recent migratory reforms that facilitate direct enrollment in foreign graduate programs. As a result, although both are strongly rooted in the Cuban academy, they have studied and taught abroad, gaining a strong comparative perspective on Latin American history and politics. Torres Santana completed her PhD in social sciences and history at FLACSO-Ecuador in 2017. She has taught and been a visiting researcher at the Universidad de la Habana, the Universidad de Barcelona, the University of Massachusetts, and Harvard University. She was a researcher at the Instituto Cubano de Investigación Cultural Juan Marinello in Havana until 2019. Ortega González completed her PhD in sociology at the Universidad Alberto Hurtado (Chile) in 2019. She is currently director of the Escuela de Sociología at the Universidad Católica Silva Henríquez in Santiago, Chile, and director of the journal Temas Sociológicos.
Michelle Chase:How did you first become interested in the themes of gender and women’s history? How did the idea of the book come about?
Ailynn Torres Santana and Diosnara Ortega González: It can be hard to identify an exact point when ideas come in or out of one’s life. In our case, our interest in gender came about through the process of living as women. That is, by progressively gaining consciousness of what the “social mark” on and beyond the body implies. Our interest in the history of women gradually became feminist. We are not interested in women as a neutral social group vis-à-vis other groups. We are interested in observing, drawing attention to, and denouncing gender inequalities and their connection with other inequalities.
In one’s personal life there are moments of rupture, moments that lead to gender consciousness. For each of us that moment has been different. Motherhood, marriage, meeting other women, and joining feminist collectives have revealed the conditions of our existence and have helped us in the process of intellectual and political formation. One doesn’t reach feminist consciousness alone. There are always people, especially women, accompanying you. And it continues. It’s a space of constant questioning.
A shared interest in social history and Cuban politics brought us together at first, many years ago. Later, in the intellectual, political, and human links between us, we began to formulate questions about why we Cuban women live the way we live, why the things that happen to us happen, and why we occupy the roles we occupy. We came to the conclusion that the totality of the political—in the Marxist sense of “totality”—cannot be understood without [understanding] the specificity of relations of gender, race, etc. And vice versa. This is [an intellectual] process that, once begun, never ends.
In the book’s introduction you thank scholars Colette Harris and Elizabeth Dore. What influence did they have?
Elizabeth Dore has and continues to have a very special place in this journey. From her we began to understand that those who research, write, or speak about Cuba “from the outside and in English” do not necessarily know less about the history of the country and its people than those of us who live in the country. From Elizabeth we learned a professional and feminist ethic that shaped us. She taught us, among many things, to listen. In Cuba, that quality can sometimes be very rare. She became interested in our work and has been an ambassador of our goals, and we still don’t know why. Through her we met Colette Harris, who is interested in supporting an intellectual project on Cuban women, thus fulfilling a wish that her aunt—Ruth Wallis—left upon her death. So there was a community of women.
We did the research and wrote the book while we were each doing doctorates on other topics. So this was, then, a project conceived among related projects, which were born together.
In the introduction of the book you give a global overview of the way the categories of gender and oral history developed in the United States, Europe, and Latin America. Can you briefly sketch out how the history of women, gender studies, and oral history developed in Cuba? Are courses offered in the university?
Within the history major [at the University of Havana] there is no program or specific course on oral history, although sometimes there are optional courses or conferences on it.
In revolutionary Cuba, the first research project to use oral history was conducted by Oscar Lewis , who was invited by Fidel Castro. Just over a year later, the project was cancelled. Also in the 1960s, Eva Forest undertook a research project, which was posthumously published under the title Los nuevos cubanos (La vida en una Granja del Pueblo). It’s an excellent text. Until the early 2000s no other big oral history project had taken place in Cuba. Then Elizabeth Dore began a new project—which should be published in the near future—called “Cuban Voices,” that also faced setbacks along the way. Once published, it will be an extremely valuable work for Cuban studies.
There are other publications based on biographical studies, personal memoirs, or oral histories. For example, Margaret Randall with La mujer cubana ahora (Cuban Women Now: Interviews with Cuban Women); Daisy Rubiera Castillo with Reyita: La vida de una mujer negra cubana en el siglo XX; Eugenia Meyer, El futuro es nuestro: Ocho cubanas narran sus historias de vida; Yohanka Valdés Jiménez and Yuliet Cruz Martínez, 50 voces y rostros de líderes campesinas cubanas; Ana Vera Estrada, Guajiros del siglo XXI; Marjorie Moore and Adrianne Hunter, Siete mujeres y la revolución cubana; Yuliet Cruz Martínez, Chaparreras con luz propia; and also the contributions of the Centro Cultural Pablo de la Torriente Brau, [which publishes books that] reconstruct our history through the use of oral history, among them the anthology Piezas para armar nuestra memoria [edited by Nora Franco].1 Recently the book Emergiendo del silencio: Mujeres negras en la historia de Cuba was published, which is a compilation of works by Daisy Rubiera and Olida Hevia.2 These are not life histories, nor are they undertaken with a strictly biographical method, but they contribute to the understanding of history through women’s lives.
Our book forms part of this long-term effort and enriches it with a gender perspective that is rare. Writing about women is not the same as analyzing gender relations. The latter entails delving into inequalities sustained by the sex-gender division in a given society. That is one of the contributions of our work, which also has a general concern with social history and Cuban politics. With respect to the works mentioned above, our book is probably distinguished by contributing to a social historiography that centers the labor of memory from a feminist ethic.
In broad strokes, what do you think your interviews illuminate about the history of revolutionary Cuba?
The research and development of the book entailed a constant tension between individual lives and national processes.
On the one hand, we wanted to access the lives of women for their own value, not as a pretext to examine something “more”—more general or more important—but to [see them] as having their own value: the lives of concrete people, in micro-scale, are important in their specificity and not only for what they can reveal about general processes. As specific stories, they permit the analysis of dimensions and processes not accessible in other ways.
On the other hand, we wanted to “think Cuba”: the country that produced these lives and that was produced by them. We were interested, also, in the absent Cuba: the Cuba that these women spoke less about, and which, for that reason, is present as an absence. For example, the Cuba that one remembers and continues to live even if one is no longer physically in the country (as in the case of those who emigrate), or the Cuba of “big politics” even for those whose lives revolve around “small politics.”
The stories, and the whole book, demonstrate the tension between those two ideas. The women that appear there bear witness to their own individual realities and also to the history of a nation with its different stages, actors, dilemmas, projects, and paths.
The book also illuminates the tension between a Cuba narrated by others, a lived Cuba, and a hidden Cuba. These three Cubas hinge on the post-1959 process: the book shows how and why what happened after the triumph of the revolution is fragile, discontinuous, and diverse; and it shows how and why that process is sometimes inactive and at other times reproduces gender inequalities and intragender inequalities. The book illuminates a diversity of Cubas, and belies any account of homogenization or unanimity. Still, what we are defending in the book is not a “perspectivist” account; it is not about the perspectives of women. It is about complicating the study of social processes in which women take part, as actors, as subjects, and also as voices that narrate.
The women in the book show us coordinates different from the “classic” ones considered by History with a capital H; they allow us to question daily life, analyze the relations between public and private, politicize amorous relationships, denaturalize unpaid labor, etc. They show us another way to tell and produce history, and help understand the relationship between these histories and official histories and mainstream histories of the Cuban Revolution. The book shows that official History—including subaltern male histories—are only pieces of the events and experiences that make Cuba what it is and what it has been.
How did you design the research? For example, how did you identify interviewees and subjects to discuss? What did you learn from the diversity of the interviews?
One of the premises of the research was that women are diverse. What one woman feels depends not only on her gender; she is also conditioned by racial identifications or experiences, by regional or generational identifications, etc. For that reason we decided to integrate different voices and stories—sometimes radically different. The women in the book were, then, selected deliberately. But the voices that you hear in the book are not of women as “types.” They are entry points into diverse social groups, but they do not represent them or exhaust them. The book does not map out either Cuban society or Cuban women. It showcases the voices of diverse women, explores their social contexts, and gives us a historical look at Cuba.
In addition, we defined another element in the selection process: we wanted to include “public” women and “anonymous” women. We were concerned with thinking through “the personal is political,” but how could we make that manifest in a historical investigation about a concrete country? We tried to respond to that question. For that reason we incisively explored the dimensions of daily life and experience and the politicization—or not—of that experience. We were interested in that as well as in their public presences. We delved into their political participation as well as into their experiences of motherhood, into their public and private voices.
In the first chapter we offer some suggestions for how to read the book. We think they help clarify two things. On the one hand, intragender inequality: inequalities that are structured according to gender but also according to class, region, generation, or racialized experiences. And that is very clear in the text. But, on the other hand, the stories in the book very consistently reveal the persistence of specific gender inequalities that are verified across very different women.
What place have women had in the memory or history promoted by the revolution or the Cuban state?
The history of the revolution has been narrated primarily by men, although men were not its only protagonists. Women’s voices are rarer in the history constructed from social sciences and in those that appear in traditional “history places” (school textbooks, for example). That reflects men’s dominance in academic research and in the institutionalization of the social sciences, and also the limited presence of feminist movements in the country. That does not mean that there is an absence of women historians. In fact, there are many very notable women historians. We are referring to the scarcity of analysis of the roles of women in history (especially in post-1959 history), which is something different.
In Cuba after 1959, the recognition of the presence of women has taken place, a great number of times, through men’s voices. Saying so does not deny the growing feminine presence in educational spaces, in political institutions, or in science and technology, or the benefits that accrue to women in the universalization of rights. That is true. It is also true that there is a pattern of masculine power that sees authorizing women’s agendas as part of its duties. We recall that Raúl Castro, in the closing ceremony of the last Federation of Cuban Women’s Congress [March 2019], said, “The instructions of the Chief Commander [Fidel Castro] have been carried out.” It would seem that this is the goal of the only officially recognized women’s organization.
Describe the reception of this type of project in Cuban intellectual circles.
Projects in the field of oral history can be viewed with a kind of suspicion or reluctance, or attributed with a lack of rigor. But, as we say in the first chapter of the book, that is only one way—a positivist way—to assess historic research. Certainly, oral history and life stories have been fields of methodological debate, just as social, cultural, or political histories have been. But these criticisms have also generated responses and reevaluation; the debate has been processed. In the Cuban intellectual field it is still a marginal debate. With very few exceptions—among them the space offered by the Instituto Cubano de Investigación Cultural Juan Marinello—[oral history] does not have a lot of presence or reach.
We should remember that, ever since the experience of Oscar Lewis and his project about the life history of Cuban men and women in the difficult year of 1968, there has been a certain fear regarding what work with memory might reveal. Collective memory has a potent power of interpellation with respect to dominant history. It threatens the hegemony of the latter. This was the case with Lewis, as already mentioned, but also with Marel Gladys García’s project about the process of insurrection in Matanzas province from 1952 to 1959. We mention these two examples but there are others.
Who do you think will be interested in these memories? What expectations do you have for the book?
This is a book with women’s voices that speak to all of society. A book for people interested in social history and Cuban politics. Through women’s life trajectories, we try to show Cuba as a whole. At the same time, it is a book for people interested in thinking through inequalities in general and gender inequalities in particular. In the academic field, we hope that the book supports research on memory in Cuba and stimulates gender studies. But we do not want the book to be destined for academic circles only. It is important for us to contribute to the formation of students and to the feminist debate in Cuba.
What intellectual intervention would you like to make with this book?
We took care to avoid “remaking” the stories narrated by women with our own analysis. It is a text where they, the protagonists, speak and . . . sometimes remain silent. It is a book to be heard. That may be the most difficult task: to train ourselves to hear other voices, rhythms, silences. That may be the challenge and mystery of the volume. That is, we are not offering one more version of the facts; we are offering a filter through which to see reality and history. We hope to contribute to a civic and political exercise that is very deteriorated in our political culture: to learn to move forward without binaries, without being guided by a single truth, but knowing that there are no futile relativisms but rather powers at play. We try not to appeal to exclusion as a recourse, nor to unity as a refuge. The book is provocative in that sense. It has been for us.
We hope to contribute to a social historiography that centers the labor of memory from a feminist ethic. We hope to contribute to understanding the relationship between social change and the persistence of inequalities. We hope to illuminate diversities and commonalities. We hope the women in the book, and others, will recognize themselves collectively as an exercise in the formation of political consciousness. But above all we strive to uncover a Cuba that sometimes surprises us, and that sometimes exhausts us with its repetition. A Cuba that nonetheless keeps unsettling.
Translated by Michelle Chase
Ailynn Torres Santana is a postdoctoral fellow with the Global Dialogue Program of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation/FLACSO-Ecuador. She is coauthor, with Diosnara Ortega González, of the forthcoming book Mujeres en revolución: Historias de vida de mujeres cubanas.
Diosnara Ortega González is director of the Escuela de Sociología at the Universidad Católica Silva Henríquez in Santiago, Chile. She is co-author, with Ailynn Torres Santana, of the forthcoming book Mujeres en revolución: Historias de vida de mujeres cubanas.
Randall, La mujer cubana ahora; Randall, Cuban Women Now; Castillo, Reyita; Meyer, El futuro es nuestro; Jiménez and Martínez, 50 voces y rostros; Estrada, Guajiros del siglo XXI; Moore and Hunter, Siete mujeres; Cruz, Chaparreras con luz propia; Franco, Piezas para armar nuestra memoria.