Hidden Story of the Daughters of Galicia
CULTURE-CUBA. Dalia Acosta
HAVANA, Sep 20 (IPS) - They were poor women from the northern Spanish province of Galicia. They came alone to Cuba in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and like so many Latin American women now emigrating to Europe, many of them ended up in poor-paying jobs as domestics or on the fringes of society as prostitutes.
More than 60,000 Galician women settled in this Caribbean island nation, where they founded the Daughters of Galicia Association and the hospital of the same name, which continues to provide services in Havana.
But very few people remember how and why that institution emerged.
”If history books serve a purpose, it is to reflect on the past,” says Cuban historian Julio César González Pagés, author of the book 'Emigration of Galician Women to Cuba: The Daughters of Galicia'.
”History continues, emigration continues, Spain is no longer a source but a destination of emigration, and today's immigrant women are treated the same way the Galician women who arrived back then in Cuba were treated,” González Pagés told IPS.
”We must not be complacent. Since my days as a student (at the University of Havana), I was concerned that our national history was very male, very white, very city-oriented,” adds the researcher, who was born in the Cuban capital in 1965.
An advocate of women's rights and the author of several gender studies, González Pagés coordinates the ”gender debates” section on the CubaLiteraria portal and a forum on ”masculinity and diversity” organised by Cuba's National Centre for Sexual Education.
Journalist Isabel Moya, director of the Cuban magazine 'Mujeres' (Women), said the book on the Daughters of Galicia is anything but a rosy tale: ”It's a heartbreaking story, that some people still today refuse to acknowledge.”
The book delves into the real lives that many women did not talk about in letters home to their families, and which the Galician Centre, from its position of power in the Havana of that era, consistently glossed over and hid because it was ”the ugly face” of the story, a ”stain” on the honour of the Spanish immigrant community.
”If the Galician Centre did anything, it was to boycott the Daughters of Galicia, which was on the verge of bankruptcy from 1912 to 1919,” says González Pagés.
The association emerged as a sisterhood, with the aim of helping prostitutes. ”The idea was to provide assistance to many of those women who were turned away by the hospitals and died of syphilis in homes for destitute women,” he writes.
Chance -- or fate -- led González Pagés to the research project that absorbed 10 years of his life.
It was the early 1990s, and he was working in an office in the Great Theatre of Havana -- formerly the Galician Centre -- where he ran across a couple of old books that contained birth and death certificates from the Daughters of Galicia Association.
At that time, at the peak of Cuba's severe economic crisis -- which broke out in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union and East European socialist bloc --- the halls of the Theatre were being used to hand out donations of economic aid to the members of Cuba's Galician community.
”These were 70 or 80-year-old women who sat or stood for hours on the stairs, waiting their turn. I had a big office full of seats and, bored, I would invite them to come in and sit. Around 120 interviews came out of that,” he says.
The most difficult part was to find the Daughters of Galicia Association's original birth and death certificates. González Pagés hunted around for them in the Cuban and Galician archives, and ended up finding them in the Daughters of Galicia Hospital, where they had been carefully preserved for decades.
During his search, the historian interviewed the daughter of the Galician woman who served as the model for the sculpture of a pregnant woman that stands at the entrance to the hospital, and which over time has been venerated as a statue of the virgin Mary by many patients.
He also visited Havana's Galician district, a little-known area for most residents of the Cuban capital, located in the municipality of Diez de Octubre, and which, according to González Pagés, merits an effort to salvage and recognise its history.
The hidden stories of Galician women in Cuba also remained hidden to Spain until the book was published there last year.
”I was totally shocked when I found out that there was hardly any knowledge of or research into this history,” said Roberto Relova Quinteiro, a music history professor from Spain.
Relova Quinteiro played a key role in getting the book published in Spain with the sponsorship of the Cultural Council of the city government of Vigo, in Galicia. Last August he travelled to Cuba to deliver a donation of a number of copies to several libraries.
'Emigration of Galician Women to Cuba: The Daughters of Galicia', which has not yet been published in Cuba, may soon have a sequel.
”When I was in Galicia for the presentation of the book last year, a lot of people came up to give me letters that had been sent home to their families in Spain by Galician women living in Cuba. That could be another story,” says González Pagés. (END/2004)