Dissertation/Thesis Abstract

Hierarchies at Home: A History of Domestic Service in Cuba from Abolition to Revolution
by Hicks, Anasa, Ph.D., New York University, 2017, 299; 10260816
Abstract (Summary)

The labor performed by Cuban domestic workers from the abolition of slavery in 1886 to the radical revolution of 1959 did not just sustain the comfort and well-being of countless families: it also sustained a social pyramid that held servants themselves close to the bottom. “Hierarchies at Home” historicizes the tension between the legacy of enslavement and free labor by focusing on the field of domestic service, which I define as the paid labor of such tasks as childcare, cleaning, cooking, and laundering for private homes. In colonial Cuba, a large contingent of domestic slaves was one of the most important markers of wealth and status among elites, and slavery’s specter hung over service long after full abolition. Well into the twentieth century, landed Cuban families could proudly trace the ancestry of their families’ domestic servants through their own ancestors’ purchase of enslaved people.

In the 1920s and 1930s, as other workers gained minimum wage protection and maximum workday hour guarantees, domestic service remained unprotected by labor laws. Protesting against their labor conditions in the 1930s, Cuban domestic workers compared their work to slavery. Notions of domestic service as the natural lot of women, especially women of color, were so deeply embedded in Cuban culture that the work emerged untransformed from such dramatic historical moments as slave emancipation, the 1933 Revolution, and the ratification of the 1940 Constitution. With the revolution of 1959, the new Cuban state led by Fidel Castro also declined to offer labor rights to domestic workers, opting instead to eliminate the work and retrain domestics in occupations more appropriate to a revolutionary society ostensibly transcending class.

Throughout the twentieth century, Cuban lawmakers, Cuban media, and Cubans who relied on domestic service actively barred domestics from inclusion in traditional definitions of labor. They were so successful that domestic worker activism has been virtually erased from popular histories of Cuban labor movements.

This dissertation works to rectify that erasure. It demonstrates that this erasure occurred because of domestic service’s association with family, privacy, and naturalized racial hierarchies. Equally important, it highlights the ways in which domestic workers themselves and radical activists put significant pressure on the government to protect all kinds of labor, including domestic service. Beginning before the abolition of slavery and ending only once the 1959 Cuban Revolution had almost totally transformed the island, domestics rejected their exclusion and announced themselves as worthy participants in Cuba’s democracy.

Indexing (document details)
Advisor: Ferrer, Ada
Commitee: Milanich, Nara, Morgan, Jennifer, Thomson, Sinclair, Weinstein, Barbara
School: New York University
Department: History
School Location: United States -- New York
Source: DAI-A 79/01(E), Dissertation Abstracts International
Subjects: Latin American history, Caribbean Studies, Womens studies
Keywords: Cuban history, Domestic service, Gender, Labor, Race, Spanish caribbean
Publication Number: 10260816
ISBN: 9780355128178
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