Of Domestic and Legal Offices: Working Womens Quests for Veterans Pensions in Postwar Santiago de Cuba

Saturday, January 7, 2017: 4:30 PM
Plaza Ballroom A (Sheraton Denver Downtown)
Anasa Samantha Hicks, New York University
After the Cuban war for independence ended in 1898, thousands of women were left without the financial protection of their male relatives. Poor women without land or wealthy relatives felt the desperation of Cuba’s postwar landscape most acutely. Predictably, they found work, often as domestic workers in wealthier households; somewhat surprisingly, many women hired lawyers to represent them in their pursuit of financial compensation for their male relatives’ participation in the war. This paper explores a collection of legal documents from Santiago de Cuba, mostly between the years 1905 and 1907. The women portrayed in these documents identified themselves by their work and as the sisters, daughters, wives and mothers of men who had died fighting for Cuba’s independence.

By creating legal documents and petitioning the new nation’s courts, these women were not just asking for the money owed them by the government: they were identifying themselves as active participants in Cuba’s nascent political culture. Given the way that Cuban policymakers and newspapers were portraying working-class women of color at this time—as burdens on the nation’s finances and vulnerable to descent into lives of vice and immorality—these petitions for compensation and for legal protection were potent counterpoints to stereotypes about the laziness or decadence of African-descended people. These women asserted their sovereignty and centrality to a national imaginary still in formation at the turn of the century. Even as what an independent Cuba might look like was still not solidified, single, financially vulnerable women who worked as domestics were contributing to its shape.

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