Masculinity and Racial Exclusion in Cuba, 1895-1902

Latin American and Caribbean Studies_Lucero1

A review of Engendering Inequality: Masculinity and Racial Exclusion in Cuba, 1895-1902, by Bonnie Lucero.

In her dissertation, Lucero tackles what has been a central issue in Cuban historiography: the paradoxical rise of racial discrimination and exclusion at the same time that growing Cuban nationalist sentiment was characterized by a discourse of racial equality. The myth of racial equality in the late colonial and early Republican period in Cuba, various scholars have argued, served to silence race-based critiques. Lucero reveals the mechanism behind such a paradox. Using the port city of Cienfuegos as her case study, she convincingly argues that by switching away from talking about race, to using a discourse of masculinity, various players in Cuba were able to perpetuate the racial exclusion that permitted them to stay in power, especially in the face of the U.S. occupation, while maintaining a discourse of racial equality that granted them legitimacy among Cubans and especially Cuban separatists. In this way, the cause of Cuba Libre was gradually transformed from one about social justice to a struggle for political power that maintained the racial order. Lucero successfully uses new or little-examined sources, detailed discourse analysis, and an emphasis on regional tensions to detail a short period that saw an overhaul of racial discourses and political power in Cienfuegos, and throughout the island of Cuba.

The first half of Lucero’s lengthy dissertation is a careful examination of how the discourses surrounding race in Cuba actually functioned, especially among Cuban Creole political elites, in the political context during and after the last war of independence. In Chapter 1, Lucero traces the Cuban insurgents’ response to the Spanish tactic of portraying the 1895 Cuban insurrection as a racialized one in order to delegitimize it and keep white Cubans loyal to the Spanish colony. Cuban insurgents, needing to unite people among racial and socioeconomic spectrums, abandoned the discourse of race, and instead used gendered critiques of the colonial system. They challenged the virtue and honor of Spaniards, especially in their treatment of pacificos (non-combatants) and women, and contrasted it with their own protection of the same populations. Separatists also portrayed the Spanish as cowardly and unmanly, since they outnumbered the insurgency in numbers of fighters and in quantities of provisions.

In Chapter 2, Lucero identifies the years of 1897-1898 as a major turning point in the discourses of race and masculinity. By focusing on Cienfuegos, Lucero reveals how racial tensions were mapped onto regional conflicts, and how both were distilled through the language of masculinity. In late 1896 and 1897, a series of defeats of the Cuban army was blamed on white chiefs in the Central provinces. Pointing out that the central provinces, where sugar was king, had less of a black revolutionary tradition and a stricter racial hierarchy than the eastern provinces, Lucero argues that white central chiefs, uncomfortable with the new racial inclusivity embodied by the black officers from the east and the black small landowners and former slaves who joined in Cienfuegos, and looking to pass on the criticism of their own military performance to others, blamed black officers for the poor military performance by calling their masculine honor into question. In this way, the white chiefs used masculinity to reinforce a racial hierarchy that had been challenged by black participation in the insurgency. Lucero productively uses court-martial records, particularly that of Quintín Bandera, to identify a social fragmentation of the army based on racial tensions and exacerbated by regional antagonisms. The courts-martial focused on sexual mores, but castigated blacks more than whites for the same behavior. Lucero argues that this double standard reveals the endurance of a racial order that had been discursively replaced by one of masculine values. The double standard of masculine honor legitimized racial exclusion without ever explicitly mentioning race.

In Chapter 3 and 4, Lucero identifies the period of 1898 to 1900 as a second turning point in the discursive history of race and gender. As the tides of war shifted again in favor of the insurgents and the United States intervened in Cuba, wealthy white urban Cubans joined the Cuban army in an attempt to access political power. These men were often less committed to racial and social equality than earlier enlistees. In Chapter 3, Lucero explores the political uses of discourses of crime. In linking blackness and criminality, white Cubans attempted to delegitimize Cuban insurgents’ claim to power by subverting the idea of masculinity into something threatening, and creating an alternative version of acceptable masculinity. In addition to preventing black veterans from accessing political power, white Cubans and American authorities also wanted blacks to return to work in the fields. Black veterans’ experience of war, however, led them to expect more social mobility. Those who didn’t return to work, therefore, were labeled bandits. Chapter 4 explores how in Cienfuegos, foreign property owners, autonomists, Spaniards, and American military officials collaborated to undermine Cuban separatists’ claim to power, again using the language of masculinity to elide a process of racial exclusion. This chapter brings to light several important details regarding the attempts to restrict black people from power. For example, though the shift in U.S. perception of the Cuban separatists following their entrance to the war is well known, Lucero reveals that in Cienfuegos, the American military officials preferred to keep in office the autonomists and pacíficos that had been put in office by Spain in the last year of the war, rather than fill the positions with separatists. Then, as the Spanish left, white veterans who had joined the army in the last year of the war began to take charge of government institutions such as the city council. These socially conservative veterans were allies of the occupying power. Still, for the U.S. military officials, these white veterans did not sufficiently uphold the racial order, since many of them had ties to blacks through patronage networks. Ultimately, in these chapters, Lucero describes a historical process of racial discrimination as the result of the confluence of conservative tendencies among certain sectors of Cuban society with the prerogatives of the American military occupation. She is careful to note, however, that while some veterans collaborated with the Americans, others remained steadfast in their commitment to a more social egalitarian project.

In Chapters 5 to 8, Lucero attempts to rescue the agency of black working class actors by looking outside the realm of the formal political sphere. Instead, Lucero zooms in on Cienfuegos further, diligently examining the social and geographic urban organization. These chapters examine regional events and sources that have been little studied, connecting them to wider trends in the U.S. occupation of Cuba. In Chapter 5, Lucero frames the summer of 1899 as a moment that resurrected Cuban unity against the American military officials. American soldiers treated both the Cuban police, who were racially mixed, and Cuban women in a manner that was widely seen as disrespectful, which led to several riots. This echoed the wartime discourse of Spanish dishonor that had inspired Cubans to demonstrate their own masculine honor and civilized behavior, and was used again by Cubans to criticize the North American occupation.

Chapters 6-8 document the post-war unraveling of the cross-class and cross-racial Cuban alliance, as well as the response by black and working class people in Cienfuegos. As U.S. military officials increasingly predicated fitness for self-government on the ability to maintain the racial order, Cuban civil authorities in Cienfuegos scrambled to distance themselves from black veterans and the black working class. Their collaboration with Americans led to a change in the idea of Cuba Libre, “as racial brotherhood was transformed from a critical component of the struggle for independence into the principle obstacle to achieving this goal” (p. 299). The transformation of the racially mixed Cienfuegos police force into a white, conservative, and repressive institution—the subject of Chapter 6—served to convince American military officials of Cuban civil authorities’ ability to maintain the racial order. It also reinforced the idea that criminality was linked to blackness, and resulted in increased violence against the poor and working-class people of Cienfuegos, especially against those of color. Lucero also explores the ways in which the murder of Cuban General Dionisio Gil by a white policeman and other examples of violence were understood by black activists to symbolize the failure of independence to overcome racial prejudice. In Chapter 7, Lucero charts the riots that erupted in Cienfuegos from 1900-1902 between American soldiers and working-class blacks, particularly over the issue of Americans presuming sexual access to Cuban women. To demonstrate to American officials that they possessed the kind of masculinity that made them fit to govern, Cuban civil authorities had to show that they could maintain social order; therefore, they reorganized the urban geography of Cienfuegos, pushing blacks to the margins of the city. The physical reorganization of the city also served to demonstrate their masculinity to their constituents by protecting Cuban women from American soldiers. Moving prostitutes and the red-light district to the edge of the city would separate the right and wrong kind of Cuban women. The physical reorganization of the city thus allowed Cuban civil authorities to prove two kinds of masculinity—keeping order and protecting women—to both the North American military officials and wealthy white Cubans. The new physical distance between the vice district and the now respectable center of the city reflected the growing distance between the urban poor and Cuban civil authorities, and served to defuse tension between the Cuban and American authorities. In Chapter 8, Lucero details a citywide strike organized by the port workers’ union, which threatened the planters’ control over the work force. As Edwin Atkins and other American planters used racialized language to attack the union, the union used the language of class and masculinity to demand concessions. Ultimately, the union’s efforts were thwarted by the collaboration of Cuban civil authorities with American intervention officials as well as property owners.

If the paradox of increasing racial discrimination amidst silence on racial issues has been well documented, the mechanism behind such a phenomenon and the consequences for people of color have not been fully fleshed out. It is in these areas that Lucero makes her most significant contributions to the historiography of Cuba. Her exhaustive empirical research combined with careful discourse analysis, and her commitment to regional and social history approaches allow her to demonstrate, step by step, how the Cuba Libre cause was transformed. In addition, Lucero has forged a methodological path for scholars who attempt to study race at a time and place when race was not explicitly mentioned, and is therefore absent from the archival record.

Raquel Alicia Otheguy
PhD Candidate
History Department
SUNY Stony Brook

Primary Sources

Atkins Family Papers, Massachusetts Historical Society
Archivo Histórico Provincial de Cienfuegos
Archivo Nacional de Cuba
United States National Archives

Dissertation Information

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. 2013. 481 pp. Primary Advisor: Louis A. Perez, Jr.



Image: “Mal Tiempo,” in Cuba y América, Revista Quincenal 3:70, November 5, 1899, p. 3.


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