Women in Colonial Havana

El Quitrin, Federico Miahle, 1800

El Quitrin, Federico Miahle, 1800

“Women’s contributions to the emerging discourse of national identity have all but been ignored”.

This bold assertion, I have found to be largely true through my research. During the 19th century women in colonial Latin America were largely confined to home and hearth. Colonial women had roles that were largely metaphorical at the time. They raised children, kept households and stood in the background as men waged wars, made fortunes and made history. Women left a legacy in Latin American history through “private texts” such as letters, diaries, travelogues or personal memoirs. Most of these texts have been ignored throughout history however many of them regard the affairs of state, the governing of new countries and emerging nationalism in Latin America. This works are of great historical significance and give an entirely new perspective, rather than the male experience, on colonialism and independence. Women not only existed in colonial Latin America, they thrived, actively participated and contributed greatly to history.

Horas Felices, Guillermo Collazo, 1850

Horas Felices, Guillermo Collazo, 1850

 

Retrato de la familia Manrique de Lara, Juan Bautista Vermay, 1800s

Retrato de la familia Manrique de Lara, Juan Bautista Vermay, 1800s

The population of Havana grew rapidly after the sugar boom that occurred on the island in the mid-18th century. From the year 1754-1760 the Cuban exports of sugar more than tripled. This caused an influx of capital, which led to the urbanizing of Havana during the beginning of the 19th century. Women during this time played a variety of roles however most notably they lived in Havana and grounded themselves to their home. In addition to writing “private texts” women during the colonial time period were prevalent in works of art, which gives insight into their daily lives. There was an art academy, Academia de San Alejandro founded in Havana in 1818, which provided rigorous training in the traditional European style. The advent of the academy provided an influx of European artists in Havana during the 19th century thus an influx of European style portraits including many of women, some of these are presented on this page.

Retrato de Justa de Allo y Bermudez, Vicente Escobar, 1800

Retrato de Justa de Allo y Bermudez, Vicente Escobar, 1800

In “Gender and Nationalism in Colonial Cuba: The Travels of Santa Cruz y Montalvo, Condesa de Merlin”, Adriana Mendez Rodenas describes colonial Havana through one woman’s eyes as it relates to female, creole and aristocratic identity. This book first introduces feminist theory regarding the colonization of Latin America and women’s place in history. Then it reviews a book written by a Cuban-creole woman during the 1800s after she had lived in Europe for most of her adult life married to a French general. She compares her aristocratic lifestyle in France to what she witnesses on her return to Cuba. Her book called “La Havane” (in French) gives a female and European perspective on events occurring in Cuba at this time. The people born in Cuba of European decent she refers to as Creoles. Creole woman are portrayed in different ways but all as a representation of feminine identity; “ranging from the carefree unmarried youth to the still blooming wife and mother culminating in a portrait of the stately matron who rules over her extended”. Creole woman and European women on opposite ends of the spectrum, Creole’s were tied to the home watching over their stock while European women traveled the world. This book is one example of the aforementioned, travelogues but there are many lesser-known works written by women that give excellent insight into colonial life in Cuba and all of Latin America. This book demonstrates the roles of women through the eyes of a woman; it also presents ideas of national, gender and ethnic identity. All of these themes are very important when studying the history of nationalism and nation forming in Cuba and all of Latin America.

Juliet Waters