Ghosts of Oscar Lewis

December 19, 2013


In early 1969, ten years after the triumph of the Cuban Revolution, eminent U.S. anthropologist Oscar Lewis arrived in Havana to undertake an unprecedented oral history project. Focusing on former slum dwellers transferred to government-built housing, Lewis and a bi-national team of collaborators sought to test whether targeted beneficiaries of socialist state building had escaped what the University of Illinois professor called, controversially, the “culture of poverty.” Fidel Castro himself had given the research a green light. Yet after 18 months of work, and with evidence rendering less than a clear vindication of Cuban government policies, island officials abruptly accused Lewis of subverting national security, forcing him to return home. He died of heart failure six months later. His wife, Ruth, Susan Rigdon, and other associates managed to posthumously publish some of Lewis’s findings using material transported abroad prior to the project’s closure (Four Men and Four Women, both in 1977, followed by Neighbors in 1978 and Douglas Butterworth’s The People of Buenaventura in 1980). Cuban authorities, however, reportedly confiscated half of the interview transcripts and collected surveys, depriving future scholars of unparalleled sources for further study.


Notwithstanding obvious thematic and methodological differences, ghosts of the Lewis project haunt Carrie Hamilton’s Sexual Revolutions in Cuba, a provocative, if elliptical history of gender and sexuality from the early revolutionary years to the present. Hamilton bases her study on testimonies gathered with Voces Cubanas, the only large-scale, internationally collaborative oral history initiative conducted in Cuba since the Lewis effort. Launched in 2005 in partnership with Cuba’s National Center for Sex Education (CENESEX), Voces Cubanas brought together British and Cuban scholars to record, in the words of project director Elizabeth Dore, “ordinary Cubans’ life stories” (vii). Still, despite institutional and high-level political support on the island, Voces Cubanas, too, was shut down when “even those people selected via government channels talked about the Revolution’s failures” (x). Fortunately, project collaborators were able to continue their interviews informally for several more years.

Hamilton’s focus on the fraught histories of gender and sexuality in Cuba raises the specter of Oscar Lewis’s work in more indirect ways as well. For at the time authorities shut down his research in 1970, Cuban society was on the verge of its strictest period of cultural conformity, repression, and Sovietization. Cuba’s military may have already closed the Unidades Militares de Ayuda a la Producción (UMAP)—labor camps aimed at “reforming” presumed homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and others accused of “anti-social” behavior in the mid-1960s. Yet resolutions approved by the infamous 1971 National Congress of Education and Culture would define homosexuality as a “social pathology”—a clear indicator of the ostracism gay Cubans continued to face both from state institutions and in everyday life, even as the government sought to level the heterosexual gender playing field via its 1975 Family Code.

Indeed, excavating histories and memories of gay experience in revolutionary Cuba constitutes only one part of Hamilton’s ambitious project. Beginning with a general overview of existing literature on gender and sexuality in Cuban history, the book proceeds through a series of thematically oriented chapters covering such issues as marriage and domestic arrangements, changing sexual mores in the early years of the Revolution, Cuba’s treatment of AIDS/HIV patients in the 1990s, and contemporary sex tourism—all in addition to three chapters focusing on homosexuality and homophobia. Among Hamilton’s more notable contributions are her explorations of female same-sex relationships, a subject overlooked in previous literature. Likewise, the book confirms that conservative heterosexual gender norms from pre-revolutionary Cuba neither disappeared wholesale after 1959 nor reflected a particular class viewpoint. Finally, Hamilton is careful to avoid imposing identities and categories of analysis that may not readily translate to the Cuban context. First World narratives of “the closet” and urban space as homosexual refuge thus come under question.

One can only speculate whether Hamilton’s interest in these topics exacerbated or skirted tensions surrounding the Voces Cubanas project as a whole. On the one hand, the fact that gay and straight informants were willing to speak about their memories of a homophobic cultural and political landscape (where effeminate mannerisms, tight pants, even “intellectualism” were all overtly coded as homosexual and therefore counterrevolutionary) reflects the degree to which discussions of these subjects have slowly entered the national conversation since the 1990s. In recent years, CENESEX—run by Mariela Castro, President Raul Castro’s daughter—has given LGBT activism in Cuba international prominence and a domestic political pedigree. Yet as Hamilton recognizes, some younger informants’ ignorance of UMAP (professed or real), alongside their vague awareness of other state-sanctioned and popular manifestations of homophobia in the past, attests to continued silences, evasions, and gaps in knowledge surrounding the public recounting of this history on, and also off, the island. To wit, Mariela Castro has denied that authorities targeted homosexuals specifically for UMAP in the 1960s. Traces of popular anti-gay prejudice, moreover, are present in a number of the interviews themselves. In these respects, although Hamilton finds evidence that memories of repression circulate loosely within the Cuban body politic today—particularly within gay communities still combating discrimination—her contention that legacies of homophobia are no longer subject to “amnesia” falls flat.

Overall, Hamilton’s hybrid, interdisciplinary approach to oral history moves between historical and ethnographic registers of analysis without achieving the full potential of either. Her treatment of the continuities and ruptures in pre- and post-revolutionary gender relations, for example, would have benefitted from placing oral testimony alongside more detailed analyses of government policies, state rhetoric, media representations, and other forms of gendered public discourse (e.g. “Women’s” sections in numerous revolutionary-era periodicals replicating the bourgeois lifestyle concerns of their pre-1959 precursors). Short of this kind of contextualizing work, testimonial evidence loses some of its historical specificity. Conversely, as “ethnography of memory,” Hamilton’s assemblage of excerpts from over 40 informants at times makes it difficult for the reader to gain a complete picture of the life story of any one subject. (Chapter 5 provides an exception, revolving around the testimony of a single informant.)

Oscar Lewis’s work again provides an instructive point of comparison. While Lewis’ collaborators ultimately published a handful of subjects’ life narratives more or less in full (all of whom hailed from the same local community), Hamilton’s wide collection of oral testimonies from Cubans of different walks of life, racial backgrounds, and regions on the island (thus avoiding the Havana-centric nature of most work on Cuba, including Lewis’s) proves both impressively rich and diffuse. Though Hamilton skillfully highlights the “intersectionality” (5) of gender, sexuality, class, and race in shaping her subjects’ identities, the book’s targeted approach to testimonial evidence risks isolating particular memories and experiences from the wider texture of informants’ daily lives, let alone the broader historical and cultural contexts in which those individual stories are enmeshed.

By all indications, many of Hamilton’s informants were incredibly candid about deeply personal matters. Still, given the unique circumstances surrounding the Voces Cubanas project—Elizabeth Dore references not only securing early informants “via government channels” but also a “contentious” selection process overall (viii)—a more forthright discussion of the ongoing methodological and political complexities of this work seems warranted. Indeed, such day-to-day negotiations with Cuban partners and institutions might reveal as much about the politics of historical memory in Cuba today as do the oral testimonies themselves. On several occasions, Hamilton notes that interviewees appeared more comfortable discussing some subjects with her than with Cuban colleagues affiliated with the Communist Party. This does not invalidate the work of her Cuban collaborators any more than Hamilton’s status as a foreigner may bias testimonies in other directions. But it does highlight the importance of probing hidden and public transcripts potentially at work in these interviews. Hamilton’s circumspection on this front does not go far enough. Instead, she latches on to informants’ abstract invocations of “revolutionary values” (68) or “the Revolution” (capital R) without interrogating those terms as evolving, contested, and always historically situated constructs. “Revolution,” she states rather tautologically, “ taken to mean an ongoing process instigated by the revolutionary victory of 1959” (13).

A final comment relates less to Hamilton’s work than to the broader veins of scholarship to which it contributes. Sexual Revolutions in Cuba complements a handful of forthcoming or already-completed dissertations and books (from young scholars like Michelle Chase, Rachel Hynson, Susana Peña, and Julio Capó Jr.) that place oral testimony in dialogue with other forms of evidence to construct more deeply historicized accounts of women’s activism, homosexual life, and shifting gender norms in revolutionary Cuba and its diaspora. Yet in its more ethnographic modes, Hamilton’s text also intersects with a wave of recent anthropological scholarship focused on gender and sexuality in the island’s post-Soviet period (e.g. Nadine Fernández’s Revolutionizing Romance: Inter-Racial Couples in Contemporary Cuba, 2010; Jafari Allen’s ¡Venceremos?: Sexuality, Gender and Black Self-Making in Cuba, 2011; Noelle Stout’s After Love: Queer Intimacy and Erotic Economies in Post-Soviet Cuba, forthcoming 2014). Such works take on important and compelling areas of inquiry. But is it not worrisome that writing about sexuality and sex in Cuba—an island long the exotic playground of U.S. and European imaginations—seems to have itself become sexy? Even while working to expose Cubans’ sophisticated negotiations of and resistance to the “foreign gaze,” might such texts unwittingly reinforce a widespread tendency to see Cuba’s past and present through the prism of “passion” alone, whether political or erotic? Surely these are questions worth mulling as a new generation of scholars, like Carrie Hamilton, continues unearthing hidden histories of everyday life in Cuba from 1959 to the present.



Michael J. Bustamante is a Ph.D. Candidate in Latin American History at Yale University.



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