Printer Friendly

Class, gender, and race in the Caribbean: reflections on an intellectual journey.

Introduction. Helen Safa, Professor Emerita of Anthropology and Latin American Studies at the University of Florida, spent her career studying class, race, and gender in the Hispanic Caribbean, work that revolutionized the field. As Jorge Duany (2010, 48-49) recently acknowledged, Helen has left a "profoundly liberating legacy" in a variety of fields. Indeed, her pioneering efforts have touched variously upon important political and analytic problems in the Caribbean and Latin American context, including poverty and class inequality; labour; housing, household formation, and marriage/informal unions; racism; gender inequality; and more. By breaking ground on these social issues, Helen has provided the building blocks for generations of young and even established scholars interested in the intersectionality among these various issues, including both the ways in which gender, race, and class overlap with and reinforce each another and the transnational linkages circulating around these points. Collectively, her dozens of publications--most notably The Urban Poor of Puerto Rico (1974) and The Myth of the Male Breadwinner (1995)--stand as a key node in the study of culture and society in the contemporary Hispanic Caribbean. What follows are her reflections on her career, one that spans more than six decades and has had an immense impact on our understanding of the multiple connections among social and economic inequalities, gender relations, and conceptions of race.

My intellectual journey begins in 1954, when I was invited to Puerto Rico for five weeks and remained for two years. From that moment on, I had a commitment to the Caribbean that is still a central focus of my life. But the scope of my research has evolved, from class to gender and then to race. This was not a conscious decision but the unfolding of an intellectual inquiry into inequality that revealed ever more complexity. The Caribbean has not become easier to understand as I came to know its people. But with over 50 years of study behind me, my understanding is deeper and more cognizant of its limitations than when I began.

The invitation to Puerto Rico in 1954 transformed my life. As a child of working-class German immigrants, I had always been interested in cultural differences. My first job in Puerto Rico, on the Puerto Rican staff of the Point IV program, brought foreign scholars to Puerto Rico to learn about their development programs. It gave me a wide exposure to the island and Operation Bootstrap, the Puerto Rican development program that was just beginning in the 1950s. As a young Cornell graduate with little work experience, I received far more opportunities in Puerto Rico than I would have had in New York City or elsewhere at that time. Puerto Rico also directed me toward the study of anthropology as a way of understanding and respecting cultures different from my own.

One important factor is that, beginning in 1980, I extended my research from Puerto Rico to the Dominican Republic and to Cuba. Comparing these countries taught me a great deal about their differences and commonalities. I deliberately limited my work to the Hispanic Caribbean because of its shared historical and cultural background. Although I came to know many other Caribbean islands and their scholars, I never did primary research beyond the Hispanic Caribbean, and my academic life has been at US universities.

In the pages that follow, I will outline how the three prisms of class, gender, and race emerged, by focusing on my principal publications: The Urban Poor of Puerto Rico (1974) for class, The Myth of the Male Breadwinner (1995) for gender, and my writing on Cuba and Afrodescendents in other parts of Latin America for race.

Class and the Urban Poor of Puerto Rico

My first stay in Puerto Rico from 1954 to 1956 came before I started graduate work in anthropology at Columbia University in the fall of 1956. I had been given the opportunity to help direct a research study of Puerto Rico'sparcelero program, which resettled landless agricultural workers and their families who had been agregados (squatters) on their employer's property to parcels in planned rural communities. This experience confirmed my interest in social research and expanded my knowledge of the rural Puerto Rican poor. In one of the planned communities that we studied, which was along a major highway outside the capital, the residents were beginning to commute to better paid non-agricultural jobs in the city, a reflection of the internal processes of migration then already underway. This study became the basis for my MA thesis at Columbia.

I knew that I wanted to return to Puerto Rico after graduate school and applied for a fellowship from the University of Puerto Rico, which was normally given to Puerto Rican students because the university then lacked its own graduate program in the social sciences. Acceptance of this fellowship (which covered my tuition at Columbia) obligated me to return to the island for the same amount of time I held the fellowship, which was two years. I returned to do my doctoral research in 1959 with the intention of studying one of the new middle-class urbanizaciones or subdivisions then springing up all over the San Juan Metropolitan Area. But the Puerto Rico Housing Authority, which funded the study, had another priority, which they asked me to undertake. They were having difficulty with the relocation of the urban poor from shantytowns or arrabales (as they were called in Puerto Rico) into public housing projects. The Housing Authority blamed these problems on the urban poor--they were not well educated, they did not know how to use modern toilets and other appliances, they were said to be lazy and slovenly.

After doing ethnographic research in one shantytown and one large housing project, the reality I discovered was quite different. I was impressed by the cohesion of the shantytown, which had formed 30 years earlier around a core of old timers who still lived there and had established neighbourhood norms. People knew each other and helped each other, in everything from babysitting to repairing houses, which reinforced ties of kinship and place of origin. Neighbourhood associations were quite active, especially in matters pertaining to the improvement of the shantytown, like bringing in electricity or paving roads.

All of these ties collapsed as the urban poor were moved into public housing. The selection process favoured the most vulnerable, resulting in a higher percentage of female-headed households in public housing (Safa 1965). The upwardly mobile preferred to buy a home of their own in one of the newer urbanizaciones, and in the case of the shantytown we studied, the government actually provided qualified residents with house plots in one community to facilitate this process. Residents in public housing were assigned new housing randomly, deliberately breaking up the older ties that had existed in the shantytown. Public policy at that time argued that these ties perpetuated the ills of the shantytown and had to be weakened. But the result in public housing was a much more vulnerable, dependent population that rebelled against the rules imposed on them, and in which collective cohesion and communal responsibility became replaced by individual anomie.

More than 10 years passed between the completion of my PhD thesis and its evolution into The Urban Poor of Puerto Rico published in 1974 (and later in Puerto Rico). (1) My first academic job was at Syracuse University, and I married and had a child, then moved to Rutgers University in 1968. In the interval, my growing political awareness helped me to see the problems of the urban poor in a new light. Following dependency theory, I saw Puerto Rico as a colonial dependency of the United States in which the Popular Party of Puerto Rico played a key role. The aim of slum eradication and urban renewal programs under Operation Bootstrap was never greater equality, but to help the poor with public programs that the government deemed to be in their interest. Many of the social welfare programs that Governor Munoz and the Populares developed in Puerto Rico could be seen in this light. Increased educational levels and occupational mobility under Operation Bootstrap convinced the poor that opportunities abounded and that they personally were to blame if they did not advance--they were lazy, alcoholics, single mothers, and so on. Increased migration to the mainland posed an alternative, especially for the young, who left in large numbers. The poor were so nationalistic that they identified with the progress evident on the island, with new shopping malls, bridges, and highways, and a modern airport. Hence the subtitle of The Urban Poor: A Study in Development and Inequality.

The class dimensions of this analysis are clear. The primary basis for solidarity in the shantytown was the sense of shared poverty. But this solidarity did not extend beyond the shantytown's boundaries. Through its process of co-optation, the state succeeded in forestalling any major political protest by the poor to change the political-socioeconomic order of society. I tried to explain the lack of class-consciousness among the urban poor in Puerto Rico with an analysis informed by dependency theory and political economy (Safa 1974). Political parties and labour unions became vehicles for controlling the poor rather than channelling protest. I noted briefly (108) the absence of a racial awareness as a basis for solidarity, as appeared to exist in the Anglophone Caribbean. Gender was also not a mechanism for solidarity. Women were active members of the shantytown, but few were employed full-time and they left leadership issues to men. They felt the immediate oppression of men in their daily lives more than the more abstract sense of class oppression (Safa 1975).

But this process of co-optation was predicated upon continued economic development, which became more difficult in succeeding decades. As unemployment soared and experiments with different types of industrialization programs failed, the poor lost their optimism while still seeming to accept the status quo (Safa 2011). Urbanization and modernization deepened Puerto Rico's dependency on the United States, convincing most of the poor that independence was not a viable option. They cling to US citizenship as a form of salvation that protects them from the fate of neighbouring Dominicans, whom are now a substantial minority living mostly undocumented on the island. And US citizenship assures Puerto Ricans open access to the mainland, which became increasingly important as the economy stagnated. More than half the Puerto Rican population now lives on the mainland.

Structural inequality has deepened and contributed not only to the economic crisis now facing the island, but also to rising crime, drug addiction, and other social ills. The focus of much of this unrest is the public housing projects, which are now considered dens of iniquity as the shantytowns were earlier. They are hemmed in by barbed wire and police patrols, although even the police are said to be reluctant to enter an apartment. I attribute much of this to the anomie latent in the physical and administrative design of the projects (Safa 1964). The grassroots leadership gap has been filled with criminal elements linked to powerful brokers outside the projects who control the supply and demand for drugs. And although placed in well-off residential neighbourhoods, public housing has increased class segregation rather than ameliorating it--a sad ending to a bold public experiment.

Gender and the Myth of the Male Breadwinner

At Rutgers I became increasingly involved in administrative responsibilities, first as Director of the modest Latin American Institute, then in 1974, as New Brunswick Chair of the Department of Anthropology. I had left the Department of Anthropology in 1970 for the interdisciplinary Department of Urban Planning, where I obtained tenure and promotion to Full Professor. So moving back to Anthropology posed its challenges. The department grew to have a full-fledged graduate program, and I served on over 20 graduate student dissertation committees, including students in other social science departments. Livingston College of Rutgers, where I was based, was notorious for the radical leftwing bent of its faculty, and taught me a great deal about progressive academic politics.

I also became involved in the Marxist feminist movement in New York City, through which I met June Nash, a distinguished anthropologist and Latin Americanist then teaching at New York University and later the City University of New York. She was on the board of the Social Science Research Council, and asked me to help her organize a seminar on Feminine Perspectives in Latin America, for which she obtained SSRC funding.

June and I undertook a three-week tour of Latin American countries in 1973 to see who the principal feminist researchers were, what they were researching, and where the seminar might be held. The trip was an eye opener, because it revealed the fear and even animosity toward feminism, even among well-established women researchers. Hence the title of the seminar, "Feminine [and not Feminist] Perspectives on Latin America," held in Buenos Aires in 1974. The Instituto Torcauto di Tella agreed to give us a small meeting room, but the interest in the seminar forced them to open it up to a much larger, largely female audience. It should be remembered that these were volatile times in the Southern Cone, with military dictatorships taking over in Chile, Brazil, and Argentina. Despite these difficulties, this seminar and its publication as Sex and Class in Latin America (Nash and Safa 1976) became a landmark in the history of Women's Studies in Latin America (Navarro 1979).

The seminar was my introduction to feminism in Latin America and the international women's movement. I went on to co-direct a Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research seminar with Eleanor Leacock that analyzed the gender division of labour, from which we published a special issue of Signs (1981) as well as a second volume on gender with June Nash (Nash and Safa 1986). I also helped organize the Wellesley conference on Women andNational Development, published as an issue of Signs (1977) and later as a book (1978). This activity increased my exposure to the international women's movement, enhanced by participation in the UN World Conferences in Copenhagen in 1980, in Nairobi in 1985, and in Beijing in 1995. This wider perspective helped me to place Latin American and Caribbean (as well as US) feminism within a comparative framework and kept me cognizant of Eurocentric biases in the analysis of class and race.

With so much co-editing, I became anxious to conduct my own gender research, which would prompt my return to the Caribbean (never completely abandoned, as Caribbean colleagues also collaborated in these publications). In 1980 I obtained an National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) grant to do research in Puerto Rico on women garment workers, who were a key but often underestimated component of Operation Bootstrap. Together with some Rutgers graduate students, I had done some research on women garment workers in New Jersey, part of a comparative study with Heleieth Saffiotti on women textile and garment workers in Sao Paulo, under a small SSRC grant. One of the most notable findings was the older age of most New Jersey garment workers, resulting from a slow process of attrition in the United States as production moved abroad. We were among the first to discover "runaway shops" (Safa 1981), and two of my graduate students, Lynn Bolles and M. Patricia Fernandez Kelly, went on to write their PhD theses on related themes, the first in Jamaica and the second on the Mexican border. Puerto Rico had been one of the first overseas locales for garment production, at that time still unionized by the ILGWU (now UNITE), who helped me gain access to the plants.

Thankfully I chose Puerto Rico, because the NIMH study coincided with a job offer from the University of Florida (UF) as Director of their Center for Latin American Studies. Fortunately, Carmen Angelica Perez, a Puerto Rican graduate student at Rutgers, was interested in this research and, with some guidance from me, she conducted the field research in 1980-81, the same year I moved to UF. In 1983, we extended the study to the Dominican Republic with the cooperation of CIPAF (Centro de Investigacion y Promocion de Accion Feminist), a feminist NGO directed by Magali Pineda that had conducted a previous study of women working in the free trade zones, as the export processing zones came to be known. Several graduate students at UF helped analyze the data that CIPAF provided, and I compared these results with the Puerto Rican research.

The opportunity to do comparative research in Cuba presented itself in 1986, with the cooperation of the Federation of Cuban Women. Through my role as President of LASA (Latin American Studies Association) and other activities, I had established credibility in Cuba, and they offered me a team of researchers to carry out the study. This collaboration was also necessary because of US government restrictions, which did not allow me to pay or otherwise compensate Cubans who helped with the research. So my research expenses were covered by a grant from the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research. It was also an invaluable opportunity to work with Cuban researchers and learn from their insights into a very different Caribbean society than Puerto Rico or the Dominican Republic, as well as to help train them in anthropological techniques.

Fortunately, this Cuban opportunity presented itself after I had stepped down from my five-year tenure (1980-85) as Director of the Latin American Center at UF. This time also gave me the opportunity to return to Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, and Cuba to conduct in-depth interviews with a select sample of women factory workers, an essential component since my participation in the survey research had been limited. I taped over 50 interviews, which were later transcribed and analyzed and are assembled along with other research materials in the WID (Women in Development) digital collection of the UF Library's Latin American Collection. (2) Analysis of all these data resulted in delays in full publication of the book, The Myth of the Male Breadwinner, until 1995. I also did extensive secondary research on state policy and economic development on each society, a perspective I learned through participation with Carmen Diana Deere and our colleagues in the research and writing for In the Shadows of the Sun: Alternative Development Strategies in the Caribbean (1990). This work helped me understand how women's paid employment fit into the bigger developmental picture. One reason for choosing garment workers is that garment work represented, for most of these women, their first experience with salaried employment and was thus invaluable in examining the impact on women's lives and family structure.

It became even clearer to me as I analyzed the data that a true gender focus was necessary. In each of these Caribbean societies, the increase in women's paid employment had been accompanied by a decline and deterioration in male employment, due largely to a shift in development strategy from agriculture (principally sugar) and some import-substitution industrialization to labour-intensive export promotion. One of the primary reasons women sought employment was to supplement the family income, but they often became the principal earners rather than supplementary. We were witnessing the erosion of the myth of the male breadwinner, which had previously governed all of these societies, in which adult men were expected to be the principal breadwinner and ultimate authority. The growth of female employment challenged male authority in the home, contributing to greater equity in marital relations in all of these islands. This increase in women's authority in some cases contributed to an increase in female-headed households as men abandoned support of their households or were forced out by women who had assumed the provider role (Safa 1995).

But export-promotion industrialization proved short-lived, especially in labour-intensive industries like garments, despite the stimulus provided by the US government's Caribbean Basin Initiative, which provided special US tariff reductions for US products assembled in the Caribbean. Limited assembly operations did not provide for linkages into the local economy to stimulate further growth. The Puerto Rican case is classic, because it was one of the first overseas locations for runaway shops. Now the Puerto Rican garment industry is moribund, as cheaper production areas opened in the Dominican Republic and elsewhere, whereas federal law bound Puerto Rico to the minimum wage. Younger Puerto Rican women now work in the higher-tech pharmaceutical industry, which is also declining. But male unemployment continues to be much higher. The garment industry is now collapsing in the Dominican Republic due to loss of its preferential status for export to the United States.

In Cuba the story is much more complex. The textile factory we studied has also closed, following the economic crisis brought on by the break with the former Soviet Union, initiating the Special Period beginning in 1989. From 1989 to 1994, the gross domestic product declined 40%, aided by the tightening of the US embargo. A dual economy evolved, based largely on foreign investment in tourism and joint ventures, along with a dual currency in pesos and official foreign exchange. Those with access to foreign exchange through work in tourism, remittances, or self-employment have much higher incomes than approximately half the population dependent on Cuban pesos. Full employment for men or women is no longer guaranteed, and state jobs are also being cut. The real value of wages in the state sector has fallen precipitously, and can no longer assure Cubans of an adequate standard of living.

But there does not seem to be any resurrection of the myth of the male breadwinner in Cuba, Puerto Rico, or the Dominican Republic. Women have become too educated and autonomous to return to this subservient role.

With the publication of The Myth of the Male Breadwinner, I turned my attention increasingly to female-headed households, a topic that had interested me since my early days in Puerto Rico (Safa 1965). I tried to examine economic situations in which there had been a dramatic contrast between the growth of female employment and a decline in male employment, in order to see if this contributed to the growth of female-headed households. In 1997 I obtained a grant from the North-South Center to do research in Villa Altagracia in the Dominican Republic, a community where sugar production had shut down and been replaced by garment factories. We could not conduct a full-scale survey of the town, but it was clear that men resented being dislodged as breadwinners and replaced by young girls (Safa 1995, 1997, 1999). Young men migrated out, often leaving children and women behind. Female factory workers profited from new sources of employment, but the full burden of family support now often fell on them. Working conditions were poor, forcing women to work long hours without adequate compensation, while unions or other forms of worker solidarity were suppressed. Single mothers did support their children with these wages, but often a grandmother or other extended family looked after the children, either in the town or the rural area. I began to see the extended family as a key survival strategy, not only for single mothers but also for many of the poor. We were able to show statistically through a national sample that female-headed households were able to raise their incomes to a level comparable to male-headed households through the presence of additional wage earners in the extended family household (Safa 2001), although per capita income may still have been lower.

My interest in female-headed households forced me to examine their history and evolution in the Caribbean, where they have long been prevalent, especially in the Anglophone Caribbean. Starting with Melville Herskovits, many have identified female heads with race or African origins, because of their prevalence among blacks under slavery and in colonial times. In our Cuban sample of women factory workers, female heads of household were more prevalent among Afrodescendents. I would argue that there is a Caribbean cultural tradition, stronger in the black community, that places less emphasis on the marital or husband-wife tie (as does our Eurocentric model); women rely more on their female kin group for stability and mutual aid. In much of the Caribbean working class, this extended form of family structure has clearly been a major survival strategy, especially for single mothers. In Cuba, consensual unions are now becoming more common, even among professional women. Legal marriage is losing its legitimacy among all class levels.

A comparison of female-headed households in Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, and Cuba also highlights the role of state policy in the growth of female headship. In Puerto Rico, the percentage of female-headed households has been held down, which I attribute to the high value placed on marriage in Puerto Rican society. In part, this stems from the fragmentation of the extended family through decades of urbanization and migration, which deprives single mothers of their support. But the value placed on marriage is also due to US influence on public policy in Puerto Rico, which dates to the US occupation in 1898 (Findlay 1999). In order to curb the growth of single mothers in Puerto Rico, the United States instituted civil marriage and divorce, and subsequently made it easier for legally divorced women (as opposed to those in consensual unions) to obtain federal benefits like a husband's pension, social security, or veterans' benefits.

No such incentives to legal marriage are provided in either the Dominican Republic or Cuba, where the extended family is still a principal resource for the poor, and for single mothers in particular. However, the Cuban state did facilitate the growth of female headship, despite the official encouragement of civil marriage. Unlike Puerto Rico, there is no difference in legal benefits between legally divorced or separated women and those resulting from consensual unions, which are very common in Cuba, especially among the young. After the 1959 Revolution, consensual unions have increased at all class levels, and for many years, only civil unions were officially recognized. As in Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, the increase in women's educational levels and in employment has given women more autonomy and ability to sustain their own household. The deterioration in employment during the Special Period in Cuba made female employment and income-earning even more necessary. Women try to earn dollars by operating paladares (small restaurants), renting rooms in their homes, or even in prostitution. Tourism and some joint enterprises provide access to dollars, which are worth much more than the Cuban peso. Afro-Cubans have been really disadvantaged in employment in these newer growth sectors, as well as in the receipt of remittances, which are sent to relatives from the largely white Cuban population on the US mainland. Remittances have become increasingly important in Cuba during the Special Period, and continue to play a dominant role in the Dominican Republic as well. Because women are often the major recipients of remittances, this may be another factor contributing to the growth of female headship.

It is clear that the female-headed household needs to be understood within the prism of class, gender, and race. Such households are found primarily among the poor, where women have always played a special role in supporting the family and in maintaining family solidarity. I would argue that single mothers are not confined to the Caribbean or to the black community, but have become a common global survival strategy where people, and especially men, face decreasing prospects for employment. Despite the erosion of men's authority as breadwinner, much of state policy in the United States and in the Caribbean implicitly continues to reinforce the myth of the male breadwinner.

Just as I was completing the manuscript of The Myth of the Male Breadwinner for publication, there was a major change in my own life. My husband of 32 years, Manouchehr Safa-Isfahani, died in December 1994. It was a terrible blow to my family, including our daughter, Mitra, and his two children from a previous marriage, Kaveh and Arya, and their children. I now faced life alone, because none of them lived in Gainesville. It was one of the factors that prompted my retirement from UF in 1997. I no longer could face the constant volume of work at the university, and decided to dedicate myself to writing and research. I have never regretted my decision.

Race and Afrodescendents

During my last years before retirement at UF, I was able to initiate a Rockefeller Fellowship Program, which enabled us to bring two scholars a year as visitors to the Center for Latin American Studies. Both were designated scholars in Afro-American Studies and Identity, which I saw as a unifying theme bridging the Atlantic world, as it is now called, and includes the Caribbean, Brazil, and Africa. The scholars we brought were from all these areas, and contributed to the formation of a core of scholars at UF interested in this theme. In 1996 we held a major conference, which resulted in the publication of a special issue of Latin American Perspectives titled "Race and National Identity in the Americas." The Rockefeller Foundation was kind enough to give me a month's stay at their fellowship centre in Bellagio, Italy, to edit the papers and prepare the introduction to this volume.

My personal life also changed. I married John Dumoulin, a US historian who had lived many years in Cuba and whom I had known since the 1970s. His wife, Isabel Larguia, had been a leading feminist in Latin America, and also a good friend, before she died in Buenos Aires. John came to the United States, and after spending a year in New York City we married in August 1999. We are very happy and share a love of Latin America and other parts of the world, to which we travel when we can.

My interest in race and in South Africa prompted me to participate in the 2001 UN World Conference Against Racism held in Durban, where I participated in an anthropology panel on race organized by Faye Harrison, now at UF, and later published in a collection (Safa 2005b). The enthusiastic participation by thousands of Afrodescendents from all parts of the world, especially women, aroused my interest.

Through this conference, I made contact with officials from the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) in Washington, DC, who later invited me to conduct a brief study of Afrodescendent women in Latin America, focusing on Brazil. Brazil is the Latin American country with the largest Afrodescendent population and where the movement for the advancement of Afrodescendents is most advanced. My husband and I made a whirlwind two-week trip to Brazil, funded by the IDB, to talk to activists and gather data. On our own, we later visited the Atlantic coast of Central America, including Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica, to observe a very different Afrodescendent population, living as minorities in essentially mestizo countries. I completed a report for the IDB with the assistance of Nathalie Lebon, a former graduate student in anthropology at UF, who was an expert on Brazil. All of these activities continued to spur my interest.

My first major article on Afrodescendents, "Challenging Mestizaje: A Gender Perspective on Indigenous and Afrodescendent Movements in Latin America" (Safa 2005a), was published in 2005 in the journal Critique of Anthropology. I realized that mestizaje was the key to understanding the difference between race relations in Latin American and the Caribbean and in the United States.

Mestizaje, implying both cultural and racial mixture, was the basis of Latin America's claim to racial democracy. Mestizaje blurred distinctions between racial groups rather than setting them apart as had the one-drop rule in the United States. Mestizaje also implied blanqueamiento, or whitening, a bias in favour of white or European skin colour and culture. In short, Afrodescendents were encouraged to assimilate into the colonial Spanish or Portuguese population and culture, but were also told Afrodescendent culture was inferior and that they should therefore adopt colonial European norms and values. It was this bias that the Afrodescendent movement sought to attack, in order to validate Afrodescendent culture and its people in its own right. This was a tall task because, after centuries of discrimination, many Afrodescendents were convinced of the inferiority of their black culture and reluctant to openly espouse blackness. Mestizaje implied that mulattos or pardos were better than blacks because they were further along on the route to whiteness, setting up invidious distinctions that the term Afrodescendent tried to overcome.

I also argued that Afrodescendent and indigenous women share a different gender ideology from most white women. They never believed in the myth of the male breadwinner because Afrodescendent and indigenous men found it difficult to earn a living to support a family, and women had to work to add to the family income. However, I argued that Afrodescendent women were even more autonomous than indigenous women, who were confined to their villages for work and marriage by the system of gender complementarity and ethnic solidarity. This autonomy also contributes to greater gender consciousness among Afrodescendent women, who rely heavily on their female kin group for support.

This analysis took me out of the Caribbean to research Afrodescendents in many parts of Latin America, particularly Brazil. In a later article (Safa 2008b), I recognized there were substantial differences between Afrodescendents in mestizo countries, such as Colombia or Central America, and in Latin American and Caribbean countries in which they are a substantial segment of the population, such as Brazil or Cuba. Afrodescendents in mestizo countries tend to follow the lead of the indigenous movement, which is often older, better organized, and more fully recognized internationally than the Afrodescendent movement. Afrodescendents in Brazil and Cuba, however, are more assimilated and share with whites a strong sense of national identity. It is difficult for Afrodescendents to form a unified national movement, as the indigenous have, because they are very heterogeneous and divided by strong regional and class differences. Rather than forming a political party, as some indigenous groups have, many Afro-Brazilians support a national program of affirmative action designed to correct some of the severe socioeconomic inequities to which Afrodescendents are subject. Affirmative action policies in Brazil expanded under President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, along with other highly effective social welfare programs such as bolsa familia, a cash assistance program that reduced the worst levels of poverty in Brazil's Northeast, where many of the most impoverished Afrodescendents still live.

With the strong feminist movement in Brazil, gender inequality has been reduced considerably more than racial inequality, benefitting primarily middle-class white women. Brazilian women have made great educational and occupational gains in past decades, virtually eliminating gender gaps in schooling and illiteracy, but the illiteracy rates for poor black women remain much higher. Afro-Brazilian women have made greater educational gains than Afro-Brazilian men, but their wage levels are lower. This wage gap actually increases with education for both men and women, suggesting that affirmative action in education will not alone solve racial inequality. The increase in racial discrimination in Brazil at higher education and class levels also underlines the importance of class as an important factor in analyzing racial inequalities in Brazil and Latin America generally, a point to which I return in the conclusion. Unlike the United States, where racial discrimination is attenuated at higher class levels, the opposite occurs in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Where does the Caribbean fit into this pattern? I shall confine my discussion largely to Cuba, where the documentation is better. Cuba and the other Hispanic Caribbean islands share with Brazil a strong history of mestizaje, which promoted the assimilation of Afrodescendents into the national culture. Historical factors facilitated this process. The slave plantation developed slowly in the early colonial period and did not flourish completely until the 19th century in the Hispanic Caribbean, while in the Anglophone Caribbean and Haiti, the large-scale sugar plantation reigned supreme as early as the 17th and 18th centuries. The number of slaves imported into the Hispanic Caribbean was lower, resulting in a lower percentage of Afrodescendents than in the Anglophone Caribbean even today. Mintz (2010) argues that this prevented the development in the Hispanic Caribbean of a creole society like that which developed in the rest of the Caribbean. His primary evidence is the development of creole languages which became the popular vernacular in the Anglophone and Francophone Caribbean, as opposed to standard English or French. Afrodescendents in the Hispanic Caribbean all spoke Spanish, though with African influences.

Mintz (2010) also argued that the plantation was a far more destructive force in human culture than the peasantry and other forms of servitude in which Afrodescendants lived. The plantation forced together different African peoples speaking different languages and practicing different religions. Slavery imposed on them a uniform code of conduct and stripped them of most of their cultural and spiritual resources. This also helps explain why the Afrodescendents of the Caribbean and northeastern Brazil differed from those along the Atlantic coast of Central America and the littorals of Colombia and Ecuador, most of whom, while once slaves, are now peasants or uprooted urbanites. Some of them also lived on plantations and were enslaved, but not in numbers comparable to the large-scale industrial sugar combines of Brazil and Cuba or other parts of the Caribbean. Even within the Caribbean there were historical differences between the Anglophone and Hispanic Caribbean, creating subcultures noted by Mintz.

Mestizaje was far more prevalent in the Hispanic Caribbean, where in the early colonial period both the Catholic Church and the state encouraged interracial couples to sanctify their unions, unlike the strict opposition to miscegenation in the Anglophone Caribbean. As large-scale plantations developed in the 19th century, Cuba also adopted stricter rules against intermarriage of "status unequals" (Martinez Alier 1974). A dual marriage system developed, in which legal marriages were confined to a white elite while the rest of the population lived largely in consensual unions. This pattern strengthened class differences in marriage patterns and persisted until the Cuban Revolution of 1959.

The matrifocal family that developed within the Cuban working class grew out of slavery in which women were expected to fend for themselves and their children. Consensual unions were often unstable and led women to rely more on their female kin group than on their partners for economic and emotional support. This gave rise to extended three-generation families, often with a female head, that remain strong in Cuba to this day.

The number of matrifocal and female-headed households has risen rapidly in the revolutionary period, due to these historical roots as well as revolutionary policies that promoted Cuban women's equality, such as sharp increases in educational and occupational levels, free health care and education (which made it easier for women to raise children on their own), and legislation that made consensual unions legally equivalent to legal unions. The influence of the Catholic Church, which always promoted institutional marriage, also waned. The state tried to promote civil marriage through mass weddings and the 1975 Family Code, which laid out the basis for a more egalitarian marriage. But despite these state efforts, legal marriage is losing its legitimacy in Cuba and consensual unions have become common, even among professional women. As early as 1981, racial differences in marriage patterns were converging, as legal marriage declined among whites (de la Fuente 1995). This was accompanied by a sharp decline in the birth rate, which now stands at below replacement levels, as the Cuban population is aging.

The focus of the Cuban Revolution on reducing class inequality had a marked levelling effect on racial inequality in various aspects, including marital patterns, fertility, mortality, life expectancy, and educational and occupational levels (Catasus 1999). Racial equality is also shown in the decline of racial endogamy and in the growth of interracial unions, especially among the young. Rodriguez (2008) found a high rate of interracial marriage in several working class neighbourhoods in 1990s Havana, which he terms "mestizaje from below." Telles (2004) found similar results in Brazil, where interracial marriage is much higher among the poor than in the middle class. Telles observes that horizontal relations among class equals, especially the poor, are much less race-conscious than vertical relations between the classes, in which whites try to maintain their racial and class superiority.

The levelling of gender, class, and racial hierarchies in post-revolutionary Cuba is evidence of the erosion of the dual marriage system that sustained these hierarchies in the past (Safa 2009). Legal marriage is losing its legitimacy as consensual unions, female-headed households, and interracial unions grow. Some of these hierarchies began to reappear with the economic crisis of the Special Period starting in 1989. Afro-Cubans are particularly affected, because of their limited access to dollars in both the profitable tourist sector (which prefers white employees) and in remittances from the largely white Cuban community in the United States, which have become increasingly important as a source of income. Remittances are also an important source of income for the increasing number of self-employed, who again are largely white and have the wherewithal to establish paladares and other small businesses.

However, the Afro-Cuban population is strong enough to withstand this adversity. It is thriving in sports and music, areas in which they have long excelled, and which are receiving increasing international recognition. Because of improved educational levels, there is a growing Afro-Cuban middle class, whose members are public functionaries, university teachers, and writers. They are prepared to defend their revolutionary gains and are supportive of activities in the Afro-Cuban community.


This brief summary of my research leaves many questions, with which I am still grappling, unanswered. Where do Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic fit into this pattern of racial inequality? We know that historical and contemporary factors differentiate them from Cuba, but we do not have adequate census data to compare them. Maria del Carmen Baerga's research on colonial 19th-century Puerto Rico (2005, 2005-06) shows clearly that, as in Cuba, race was a negotiated status, in which sexuality played a major role. Racially mixed mulata women were assumed to be sexually suspect and perhaps illegitimate, but they could improve their status by proper behaviour such as hard work, thrift, and an orderly family life. Marriage itself was a form of validating whitening, because the Spanish Crown discouraged the church from marrying persons of unequal status, and gave parents permission to petition to disqualify a marriage. Church marriage along with legitimate birth were the cornerstones of proof of proper sexual conduct and "whiteness," sometimes to the exclusion of phenotype and descent.

Baerga argues that 19th-century notions of race in Puerto Rico are very different from the modern 20th-century notion, in which phenotype and descent predominate. It is possible that the strong US influence on race relations in Puerto Rico has made biological factors more important, but I would argue that, in the Caribbean generally, class factors still heavily influence racial status. Acquiring a good education and a stable job is one way of whitening, or as they say in the colloquial Puerto Rican putdown, "pintarse de blanco" It is one of the rewards of upward social mobility.

Marriage continues to be important in Puerto Rico at all class levels, which I think helps account for the low percentage of consensual unions. But this turns out to be a relatively recent phenomenon, due primarily to US policies in favour of legal marriage instituted after the US occupation in 1898 (Findlay 1999, Safa 2001). In contrast, my research shows that Cuba and the Dominican Republic maintain high rates of consensual union, which in Cuba includes professional women, for some of whom marriage has lost its legitimacy (Safa 2009). Here again Cuban revolutionary policy has played a role.

In Cuba and Latin America generally, there is more racial democracy among the poor and working class than among the elite. For me, the clearest sign is the much higher frequency of interracial marriage among the poor, which further blurs racial boundaries. Even in Cuba, the elite remains largely white and there is less interracial marriage than among the poor. This is one way for elites to cement their status and draw boundaries.

Racial inequalities are also stronger among those of higher socioeconomic status in Brazil, where wage discrimination among the races is more acute among professionals than in the working class. This is one reason why affirmative action policies in Brazil have focused on expanding the number of blacks among the Brazilian middle class by preferential admissions to public universities and other measures. Educational expansion and other factors reflecting the growth of the Brazilian economy have contributed to a significant increase in interracial marriage in Brazil since the 1960s (Costa Ribeiro and do Valle Silva 2009). Both racial and educational endogamy have diminished overall, except among those with a university education, where endogamy has actually increased. This increased endogamy reflects the higher educational levels of Brazilian women, who now marry spouses with a university education like themselves. The relationship of gender to racial and class inequality can also be seen by the way in which educational expansion primarily benefitted white middle-class women.

Why is the relationship between class and racial and gender inequality apparently so different in the United States from that in the Caribbean and much of Latin America? In the United States racism is apparently as prevalent among the poor and working class as among the elite. The frequency of interracial marriage is still very low, and is more frequent in the middle class than below (Kaba 2011). Here again class, racial, and gender factors, both historical and contemporary, are at play. All of these are issues I still hope to address.

Select Bibliography of Helen I. Safa

1964. From shanty town to public housing: A comparison of family structure in two urban neighborhoods in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Caribbean Studies 4.1: 3-12.

1965. The female-based household in public housing: A case study in Puerto Rico. Human Organization 24.2: 135-139.

1974. The urban poor of Puerto Rico: A study in development and inequality. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston. Published in Spanish as Familias delArrabal. Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico: Editorial Universitaria, 1980.

1975. Class consciousness among working class women in Latin America: A case study in Puerto Rico. Politics and Society 5.3: 377-394. Republished in abbreviated form in America's working women: A documentary history, 1600 to the present, edited by R.F. Baxandall, L. Gordon, and S.M. Reverby. New York: Vintage Books, 1977. Also published in Peasants and proletarians: The struggles of Third World workers, edited by Robin Cohen, P.C.W. Gutkind, and Phyllis Brazier. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1979. Reprinted in Spanish in La mujer en la sociedadPuertorriquena, edited by Edna Acosta-Belen. Puerto Rico: Editorial Huracan, 1980. Also published in Sex and class in Latin America: Women'sperspectives on politics, economics, and the family in the third world, edited by June Nash and Helen Safa. New York: J.F. Bergin and Garvey, 1980.

1977. Women and national development. Signs 3.1. Published as Women in the informal labor sector: The case of Mexico City, in Women and National Development: The Complexities of Change, edited by the Wellesley Editorial Committee. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978.

1981. Runaway shops and female employment: The search for cheap labor. Signs 7(Winter): 418-433. Published in Spanish in Debate sobre la mujer en America Latina y el Caribe vol. III, edited by Magdalena Leon. Colombia: ACEP, 1982. Reprinted in Women's work: Development and the division of labor by gender, edited by E. Leacock and Helen Safa, 58-71. Westport: J.F. Bergin and Garvey Publishers, 1986.

1990. In the shadows of the sun: Alternative development strategies in the Caribbean, edited by Carmen Diana Deere, Helen Safa, et al. Boulder: Westview Press.

1993. The new women workers. NACLA 27.1: 24-29. Reprinted in Free trade and economic restructuring: A NACLA reader, edited by Fred Rosen and D. MacFayden, 129-140. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1995.

1994. Export manufacturing, state policy, and women workers in the Dominican Republic. In Global production: The apparel industry in the Pacific Rim, edited by E. Bonacich, L. Cheng, N. Chinchilla, N. Hamilton, and P. Ong. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

1995. Economic restructuring and gender subordination. Latin American Perspectives 22.2 (Issue 85): 32-50. Published in a revised Spanish translation as Restructuracion economica y subordinacion del genero. Caribbean Studies 28.1 (1995): 197-222. Also published in Spanish in El trabajo de las mujeres en el tiempo global, edited by R. Todaro and R. Rodriguez. Santiago, Chile: Isis Internacional and Centro de Estudios de la Mujer,

1995. Reprinted in Rereading women in Latin America and the Caribbean, edited by Jennifer Abbassi and Sheryl Lutjens. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2002.

1995. The myth of the male breadwinner: Women and industrialization in the Caribbean. Boulder: Westview Press. Published in Spanish as De mantenidas a proveedores: mujeres e industrializacion en el Caribe. San Juan: Editorial Universitaria de la Universidad de Puerto Rico, 1998.

1997. Where the big fish eat the little fish: Women's work in the free trade zones. NACLA Report in the Americas 30.5: 31.

1999. Free markets and the marriage market: Structural adjustment, gender relations and working conditions among Dominican women workers. Environment and Planning 31.2: 291-304.

2001. Changing forms of U.S. hegemony in Puerto Rico: The impact on the family and sexuality. Itinerario: European Journal of Overseas History 25.3/4: 90-111. Republished in Urban Anthropology 32.1 (2003): 7-40.

2005a. Challenging Mestizaje: A gender perspective on indigenous and Afrodescendant movements in Latin America. Critique of Anthropology 25.3: 307-330.

2005b. Welfare reform, racism, and single motherhood in the Americas. In Resisting racism and xenophobia: Global perspectives on race, gender and human rights, edited by Faye Harrison, 105-122. Lanham, MD: Altamira Press.

2008a. Globalization, inequality and the growth of female-headed households in the Caribbean. In Women on their own: Interdisciplinary approaches on being single, edited by Rudolph Bell and Virginia Yans McLaughlin, 239. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press. Published in Spanish in De Lo Privado a lo Publico: 30 anos de lucha cuidadana de las mujeres en America Latina, edited by Elizabeth Maier and Nathalie Lebon. Mexico: Plaza y Valdez, 2006.

2008b. Igualdad en la diferencia: genero y ciudadania entre indigenas y afrodescendientes. In Mujeres y escenarios ciudadanos, edited by Mercedes Prieto, 57-82. Quito: FLACSO Ecuador.

2009. Hierarchies and household change in Cuba. Latin American Perspectives 36.1: 42-52.

2010. Female-headed households and poverty in Latin America: A comparison of Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Dominican Republic. In Women's activism in Latin America and the Caribbean, edited by Elizabeth Maier and Nathalie Lebon, 60-75. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.

2011. The transformation of Puerto Rico: The impact of modernization ideology. Transforming Anthropology 19.1: 46-49.

Works Cited

Baerga, Maria del Carmen. 2005. Cuando el amor no basta: matrimonio y racializacion en el Puerto Rico del Siglo XIX. Op. Cit. 16: 51-98.

Baerga, Maria del Carmen. 2005-6. Cuerpos calificados, cuerpos negociados: sexo ilegitimidad y racializacion en el Puerto Rico decimononico. Historia y Sociedad 16-17: 3-26.

Catasus, Sonia. 1999. Genero, patrones reproductivos y jefatura de nucleo familiar por color de piel en Cuba. Paper presented at the Red de Estudios de la Poblacion ALFAPOP, Center of Demographic Studies, Bellaterra, Spain. < PDF/ Text 151.pdf>

Costa Ribeiro, Carlos Antonio, and Nelson do Valle Silva. 2009. Cor, educacao e casamento: Tendencias da seletividade marital no Brasil, 1960-2000. Dados 52.1: 7-51.

De la Fuente, Alejandro. 1995. Race and inequality in Cuba, 1899-1981. Journal of Contemporary History 30: 131-167.

Duany, Jorge. 2010. Anthropology in a postcolonial colony: Helen I. Safa's pioneering contribution to Puerto Rican ethnography. Caribbean Studies 38.2: 33-57.

Findlay, Eileen. 1999. Imposing decency: The politics of sexuality and race in Puerto Rico, 1870-1920. Durham: Duke University Press.

Kaba, Amadu Jacky. 2011. Inter-ethnic/interracial romantic relationships in the United States: Factors responsible for the low rates of marriages between blacks and whites. Sociology Mind 1.3: 121-129.

Martinez Alier, Verena. 1974. Marriage, class and colour in nineteenth-century Cuba. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Mintz, Sidney. 2010. Three ancient colonies: Caribbean themes and variations. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Nash, June, and Helen Safa, eds. 1976. Sex and class in Latin America. New York: Praeger. (Paperback edition: J.F. Bergin Publishers, 1980.)

Navarro, Marysa. 1979. Research on Latin American women: Review essay. Signs 5.1: 111-120.

Rodriguez Ruiz, Pablo. 2008. Espacios y contextos del debate racial actual en Cuba. Temas 53, 86-96.

Safa, Helen, ed. 1998. Latin American Perspectives 28.3 (Special issue: Race and national identity in the Americas).

Telles, Edward E. 2004. Race in another America: The significance of skin color in Brazil. Princeton: Princeton University Press.


University of Florida
COPYRIGHT 2012 Canadian Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Studies
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2012 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Safa, Helen I.
Publication:Canadian Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Studies
Geographic Code:5DOMN
Date:Jul 1, 2012
Previous Article:Est-ce que l'environnement a une influence sur la migration internationale au Canada? Note de recherche sur le cas de la diaspora Haitienne a Ottawa...
Next Article:Angel Rama: Writing Across Cultures: Narrative Transculturation in Latin America.

Terms of use | Copyright © 2017 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters