There is something refreshing about a book on nineteenth-century Cuba that does not deal with the politics of anticolonialism, battles, and exile—and not because those developments were secondary, but because those well-trodden subjects do not capture the whole of the Cuban story. Intimations of Modernity: Civil Culture in Nineteenth-Century Cuba, Louis A. Pérez Jr.’s latest contribution to Cuban history, focuses on how the Creole middle class embraced cultural and technological changes and brought about a transformation as radical as did any political or military struggle. Following the Haitian Revolution, Cuba took the lead as the world’s sugar producer. That, along with the growing popularity of two other Cuban exports, coffee and tobacco, created an expanding market economy, which in turn led to the creation of a consumer society that offered an appealing alternative to the colonial traditions Spain embodied. Driven by exhilarating economic growth, the island introduced technological innovations in transportation, such as the railroad, which was inaugurated in Cuba earlier than in Spain, and volantes and quitrines, two-wheeled carriages that increased mobility for the urban middle class, easing their access to stores, paseos, concert halls, and plazas. Signs of progress and modernity were everywhere: better roads, paved streets, the telegraph, gas street lighting, and electricity, which was installed in Havana as early as 1885. Increasingly numerous and sophisticated forms of print media facilitated information and knowledge that enlarged Cubans’ world view. The expansion of foreign trade, especially with the United States, resulted in an avalanche of new consumer products that helped reshape middle-class habits, offering Cubans a way to differentiate themselves from the stagnant official colonial culture. Women played an important role in this cultural transformation. Rather than cloistered and passive, as many historical sources have portrayed them, Cuban middle-class women were highly involved with and willing participants in reshaping the island’s customs. These women welcomed the expanding opportunities to become consumers, overcame many of the limitations their mothers had encountered, and, in doing so, contributed to the ultimate collapse of the colonial system. Women’s new visibility could be observed in multiple ways, including their active presence in tertulias, cafés, philharmonic societies, and other public spaces. As consumers, their choices in fashion and in creating a material culture turned them into agents of change, and contributed to the building of a new civil society that included a more flexible definition of gender roles, to the utter despair of the guardians of the status quo. Several fascinating chapters address how Cuban women used their abanicos, or fans, immensely popular at the time, as a means of self-expression and communication. Though the abanico was also the quintessential symbol of the traditional Spanish lady, Pérez argues that in the Cuban context, it represented the emerging identity of the female middle class. Women took their fans everywhere: when they attended concerts, church, the theater, and social gatherings. Opening the abanico, closing it, holding it in this and that way developed into a code, or language, by which its holder could subvert conventions and convey feelings and messages to friends and admirers “without ever speaking a word.” Maybe reliance on the subterfuge of the complicated language of the abanico to communicate was instead a sign that change was coming gradually, and was filled with contradictions. Intimations avoids the subject of slavery, an institution that was central to the Cuban economy and society into the 1860s and continued until 1886. Cuba’s bustling plazas, streets, and markets were full of slaves, their presence also contributing to shape the island’s civil society. Many of the women fanning themselves in church owned slaves, so did many of the store owners selling the new consumer goods, and their customers. The fruit sellers and peddlers “striking deals and making bargains” in Havana streets either owned slaves or were themselves rented slaves (24). Newspapers daily advertised the sale of slaves. Many of those who fought against Spain during the Ten Years’ War owned slaves. Even many abolitionists owned slaves, such as Anselmo Suárez y Romero, author of the abolitionist novel Francisco. And many of those travelers, quoted in the book, who admired Cuba’s prosperity and sophistication, also commented on the horrors of slavery. It is to be assumed that Pérez, who has written extensively on nineteenth-century Cuban history, chose to downplay this topic in order to highlight his main point, which is an exploration of progress and modernity. But it would have been helpful to capture the contradictions of Cuban society, and of the Creole middle class as it embarked on the project of creating a modern world while still relying on enslaved workers. Pérez convincingly argues that an emerging social class, armed with a modern ethos and sensibility and equipped with a set of new cultural ideas, began to question the colonial moral order and its dysfunctional political system. In 1895 this modern, sophisticated, and cosmopolitan middle class defined by consumerism willingly took to the battlefield to support a crusade that would decimate the lives and bank accounts of many of its adherents. Yet, despite its weakened state, the middle-class commitment to progress as an important aspect of Cuban identity endured. Intimations of Modernity is the perfect example of why historians should pay as careful attention to culture as they pay to other factors that shape social change. And embedded in its arguments is perhaps the suggestion—or “intimation”—of a political message: at one time on the island, access to consumer products became a source of happiness, a platform for self-expression, and even an instrument of rebellion for the Cuban population. © The Author 2018. Published by Oxford University Press.
The American Historical Review – Oxford University Press
Published: Feb 1, 2018
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