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Back to the “stove front”: an oral history project about Cuban housewives

We recently asked you to tell us to send us your reflections, stories, and the difficulties you’ve faced while doing oral history. This week, we bring you another post in this series, focusing on an oral history project from Carmen Doncel and Henry Eric Hernández. We encourage you to to chime into the discussion, comment below or on our TwitterFacebookTumblr, and G+ pages. If you’d like to submit your own work, check out the guidelines. Enjoy! – Andrew Shaffer

Every utopia contains dystopian spaces, places that must be destroyed and eliminated, for they represent values totally contrary to the ideals on which the new society must be built. In the particular case of the emancipatory project that the Cuban Revolution conceived for women, the kitchen—identified as the symbol of their exploitation and oppression in capitalist societies—became one of these spaces whose walls had to be demolished and, with them, the figure of the housewife. To that end, the Marxist theorists Larguía and Dumoulin proposed in 1971 from the pages of the Cuban cultural journal, Casa de las Américas, that housewives “must commit suicide as a class, through the struggle and through the merging with the proletariat” because, like other small-scale producers, they were a marginal and secondary class that lacked “the authority to lead a country” and “oppose the imperialism.” Leave the kitchen to get into the factory or the office, take the apron off to put the overalls on, drop the ladle to take the cane knife, or replace the mop with the rifle—these became some of the watchwords of this movement through which the housewife would be substituted by a model of female identity more in line with the new socialist state: the working and militant woman.

However, and despite the significant gains achieved during this process, the incitement to leave the domestic space was not always accompanied by a real attempt to challenge the cultural and ideological foundations underpinning women’s domesticity. It was quite the opposite: far from being questioned, the ideals, virtues, expectations, and values associated with traditional female roles were reinforced and transferred from the old to the new model. So, dressed in their new olive green fatigues, Cuban women were still expected to display the same spirit of sacrifice, total commitment, and absolute dedication to the party, the motherland, and the revolutionary cause that had been previously required of them within the household as devote mothers, and faithful and obedient wives. And then, when they were the first who had to give up their jobs due to the crisis of the 1990s that came with the collapse of the socialist block, they were also asked to resign themselves and go back to “the stove front,” to that kitchen where sometimes there were no children left waiting for them, either because they had abandoned the country, tired of these same causes, or because they had died fighting for them in some internationalist mission.

According to the anthropologist Isabel Holgado, during the so-called “Special Period in Time of Peace,” the State delegated its social functions to women, while at the same time certain social services were carried out again at home. Those housewives who had been forced to self-immolation had to rise from their ashes and make a great effort to solve the problems of daily life. In view of their importance in cushioning the impact of the crisisand so avoiding the collapse of the systemthese “domestic strategists” were revalued and even recognized as national heroines by the same government, which had despised them before for being economically unproductive and politically inactive.

Considering the above, the online project “It happened in the kitchen of my house” is conceived as an interdisciplinary and multimedia project. Combining the theoretical and methodological assumptions of oral history with the main concepts of art intervention, it aims to explore this difficult (and sometimes traumatic) process of “returning home” as it was lived by some Cuban woman from diverse parts of the island. Moreover, it strives to draw attention to the kitchen as a political forum for grievance and protestthat is, as a rhetorical space from and about which these women communicated their dissatisfaction, frustration, discontent, resentment, and disagreement with the ruling power. The first stage of the fieldwork was carried out between 2004 and 2008 in different places of Pinar del Río, Havana, and Camagüey provinces, where we interviewed several women of different ages and life paths, some of whom we lived with and accompanied in their quotidian chores. For this, we were granted financial support from the Spanish Agency for International Development Cooperation-Spanish Embassy in Havana in 2004, from which we would also receive the Visual Art Prize in 2006.

The material gathered during our fieldwork includes the audio and visual recording of the interviews, personal documents of the interviewees, and photographic documentation of their kitchens, all of which are now accessible on the website we created for that purpose earlier this year. Designed as chest of drawers, the website of “It happened in the kitchen of my house” offers people access to free audio files of the interviews, a series of short documentary films based on the audiovisual material collected, the fieldwork notes, and a set of postcards. Created as artistic objects using the aforementioned pictures of the kitchens, some fragments of the interview transcriptions, and personal documents, these postcards are part of an art book made from silkscreen printing, due to be published in 2016. Conceived as a work in progress and as a space for dialogue, the online project “It happened in the kitchen of my house” also includes a section for the articles that are currently being prepared by the authors of the project, as well as by others who are interested in analyzing the previously stated issues associated with the figure of the housewife within revolutionary Cuba.

This article originally appeared in the newsletter of the International Oral History Association.

Image Credit: “Documentation of a kitchen” by Hernández-Doncel. Used with permission.

Recent Comments

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    This is a terrific project. However, I would like to see a more nuanced historical contextualizing. The extreme rhetoric of the first days of the revolution was greatly tempered, and at one point, incorporated a discourse focused on the sharing of the domestic burden – even if it was never fully realized – and might have been all but forsaken during the “special period.” women’s roles as social reproducers domestic burdens

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