Comments on the conference “Let´s start by admiring. A sketch of feminism in Cuba”, by Dr. Teresa Díaz Canals, at Havana´s San Gerónimo University School.
Is there feminism in Cuba? Can we talk of a beginning or a systematic presence of this tendency on the island? This issue and its importance was the center of the special conference “Let´s start by admiring. A sketch of feminism in Cuba”, by Dr. Teresa Díaz Canals, at Havana´s San Gerónimo University School. According to Díaz Canals, to be able to understand our history and social evolution, we must take into consideration one of the characteristics which has marked a great deal of our historical development: “la parejería”, a term used by Fernando Ortiz in reference to the tendency of Cubans to pretend to be equals, by ignoring how to appreciate the values and the people that we had and that we have, closely tied to scorn (“ninguneo”).
When we speak of feminism, we speak of rebellion, of denial of structures, of the political and social movement, of ethics. Teresa invites us, in the context of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, to learn and look into the life and actions of certain women who express several ways of thinking with a feminist discourse. If we are to speak of the forerunners of feminism in Cuba, we must mention an exceptional woman of letters, Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda, with her polemic and censored novel Sab, of anti-slavery contents, written in 1841, where the author introduces a story of a white woman who admires a mulatto, a feeling considered unacceptable in those times. This caused a breaking point in the moral codes of her time. Avellaneda was considered a transgressor and José Martí himself expressed: “There is an arrogant man, sometimes fierce, in Avellaneda´s poetry”. “There is no woman in Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda: everything announced in her a powerful and manly spirit… there was no tender look in their eyes, always full of a strange glow and domination something like a menacing cloud”, another expression in reference to her was: “this woman is too much of a man”.
Throughout the debate, Teresa also highlights the importance of characters who, one way or another, have been protagonists in our history, like Ana Betancourt, who in 1869 broke the codes of subordination and in Guáimaro demanded equal rights for men and women; Mariana Grajales, as a model; Evangelina Cossío Cisneros, who organized an uprising in Isla de Pinos so those who were imprisoned would join the War of 1895; Edelmira Guerra, founder of the Esperanza del Valle patriotic club in Cienfuegos; Juana Borrero, who painted “Los Pilluelos”, our own Gioconda, about whom Cintio Vitier said that she turned love into something absolute; and her sister Dulce María Borrero, who in 1923 took part in the “Protest of the13” and did everything she could to change the situation of Cuban jails, participated in the struggle for the emancipation of women of her time, in Cuba´s education process and who had much to do with the field of visual arts.
Other names also stand out in her conference, such as Marta Abreu, who in spite of not having strictly feminist ideas carried out significant work in Villa Clara: she founded asylums and schools; made possible the installation of electricity and gas services; she was the woman who contributed the most money to the Wars of Independence and also founded La Caridad Theatre, among other praiseworthy deeds, which reflect her profound admiration and love for her nation. Also, Aurelia del Castillo, a writer concerned with the isolation of women who wrote an Anthology of Cuban (female) Poets, the great educator and feminist María Luisa Dolz, and Renée Méndez Capote, author of Una cubanita que nació con el siglo, and who, along with others, founded in 1929 the Lyceum, an institution which revolutionizes the country´s cultural sphere. Likewise, Díaz Canals defended women who in spite of not having been born in Cuba took part in Cuba´s historical and cultural development. Such is the case of Lola Rodríguez de Tió, a Puertorican independence fighter linked to our independence struggle, or unique Spanish philosopher María Zambrano, who wrote “La Cuba secreta” (The Secret Cuba), an essay which became a classic of Cuban thinking, who also developed impressive ties to Cuba through many of its outstanding intellectuals, such as José Lezama Lima, Lidia Cabrera, Cintio Vitier, Fina García Marruz, Virgilio Piñera and many others.
In spite of all of these actions by those mentioned and other women, Teresa insisted on comparing the image or situation of Cuban women with the anecdote of “Zequeira´s hat”, a reference to 19th century poet Manuel de Zequeira y Arango, who went mad in1821 and declared himself “invisible” whenever he put on his hat. Thus, whenever somebody wanted to demand his rights, he would say: I did not put on Zequeira´s hat. Likewise, as women, we have been made invisible; there is still not enough knowledge about the role of women during the Wars of Independence, her cultural activity, her social thinking, and in the formation of the Cuban identity.
Throughout our history, Díaz Canals says, we observe a discourse full of historical facts and actions by men, when in fact “our country´s independence wars were carried out by families”. How can one explain, in the 21st century, phrases like “ridiculous feminism”? What conditions continue to allow the stigmatization of the term, the invisibility, the repression? Our feminism still remains in very specific, quite disperse, sectors. But, this is not about a term, which is quite conventional, but rather a way of looking at life, an attitude toward differences, and a new culture. While we have been “empowered” in some social activities and have obtained certain gains as a gender, we still have a long way to go; there is still a lot of naturalization of the patriarchal model. Nevertheless, Teresa concludes that “there is feminism in Cuba”. Thinking is also fragmentation. In the still hostile conditions we have: “we understand feminism as admiration, as respect for differences, as solidarity; let´s not be islands within the island.”
Translated by Julián López