The Maids of Havana

The Maids of Havana covers a period of time in which the magnitude of political events could not have been greater, and yet these political developments are presented in a way that indicates both how much and how little the lives of people like Marta were affected by the changes brought about by the triumph of a Marxist Revolution on the island.

Pedro Pérez Sarduy—the Afro-Cuban poet and, to some degree, anthropologist—offers in The Maids of Havana, an in-depth portrait of over fifty years of Cuban and Cuban American experience, told from the point of view of a black woman (or women).

Sarduy is, in addition to his own work as a poet, the co-editor with Jean Stubbs of two collections of writings that examine the experience of black Cubans on the island:  Afro-Cuban Voices: On Race and Identity in Contemporary Cuba and Afro-Cuba: An Anthology of Cuban Writing on Race, Politics and Culture.

It might be worth interjecting at this point the fact that almost twice as many slaves were imported—an estimated 780,000—into a country the size of Ohio for a longer period of time than those imported to the whole of the continental United States.  This isn’t the place to go into the significant differences between life on a cotton plantation and life on a sugarcane plantation, or the fact that slaves in Cuba could hope to one day purchase their freedom, prior to slavery finally being abolished on the island in 1886.  But the presence and cultural influence of Africans in Cuba does merit stressing.

By the time Pérez’s story opens in the 1940s Cubans had been freed from Spain about a decade longer than the last slaves were freed from their masters.  The nation and society were young, but everyone knew their place.

The Maids of Havana provides a rich mine of highly specific information, from the names of songs and orchestras and brands of shoes and even cocktails—Spain in Flames, made from El Gaitero cider and Pedro Domecq brandy—popular at the time, to the names of the stores—including El Corte Inglés—that would later line the streets in Miami that came to be known as Little Havana.

What the book really provides is a portrait of the sort of women who would have worked as maids, women who were almost always black (or at least blacker than others), and without much education owing to the necessity of working as soon as possible.  In this case Marta has to leave her children and go to Havana to find work as a maid when her husband, Orlando, comes home from a secret meeting with his lover and, when Marta confronts him with her knowledge of the fact and asks him what’s going on, replies simply, “Nothing.  It’s over, right now.  You don’t turn me on anymore.”

The unceremonious ending of Marta’s marriage forces her to leave her children in the care of a relative in Santa Clara and earn her living as a maid in Havana.  But Marta is not like the other maids, she’s far from docile and accommodating, and guards her dignity as if it were her most precious possession.  Her sass and backtalk, which is more honest than malicious, endears her to some employers while creating irreconcilable problems with others.  She won’t put up with any sort of mistreatment and is quick to leave an employer—confident that she will find work elsewhere—whenever she is asked to do something she considers undignified or unworthy of her, or whenever she feels as if her services are not being fully appreciated.

The Maids of Havana covers a period of time in which the magnitude of political events could not have been greater, and yet these political developments are presented in a way that indicates both how much and how little the lives of people like Marta were affected by the changes brought about by the triumph of a Marxist Revolution on the island.

A little less than midway through the book the reader becomes aware of the threat of the barbudos, or ‘bearded ones,’ for the first time.  Pérez does a fine job of communicating the distant sense of the threat, with Castro’s militia fighting in the Sierra Maestra, over 700 miles from Havana.  When Marta overhears a police officer and friend of her employers brag about beating up a prisoner, she gives this man a bad look—this was towards the end of 1957—and her employer chastises her for this.  To which Marta replies:

Don’t you see he’s the kind of man who if it wasn’t for the uniform and the pistol he wears wouldn’t dare slap a Chinaman?

Her employer points out that Marta is her maid, in her house, and that she has “no business to look at anyone who comes to this house—at least not that way…and just so you know, he could have you killed in the short space between here and Kaslata café.”

To which Marta replies:

I don’t doubt it, señora.  But it’s true.  Do you think a man handcuffed defenseless, being beaten by another…is right?

Marta claims to be ignorant of politics although she, like everyone else, has heard the talk:

I’m not with any Fidel, and I don’t understand politics, but I do have a niece who once told me that all these abuses will stop when the barbudos come down from the hills.

Life does change for Marta after the Revolution, and Peréz’s meticulous portrait provides the reader with a good idea of both the much and the little that people like Marta gained from the victory of Castro’s fighters.  Although Marta ages throughout the book and still provides, up to the end, a lens through which everything that happens can be seen, the narrative focus of the novel shifts to the daughter of a friend of Marta’s who chose to leave the island during the Mariel crisis in 1980.  From that point on readers can see what sort of life this latest, and most despised, wave of emigrants discovered in the Promised Land of the United States, where a young black—and ‘black’ in Cuba means something very different from what it meant in the United States, where any shade of dark skin condemned you—highly trained Cuban woman could be shocked at the lack of professional opportunities for someone with her qualifications.

I personally read The Maids of Havana with an eye to mining information, and learning more about what life for someone like Marta or Gracielita was like, and therefore was not disappointed.  As fiction the novel has very little pull, and the way the novel moves—in time—was disorientating at times.  There was very little dramatic tension in the sense of wondering what would happen next.  Although I liked and appreciated the characters of both Marta and Gracielita, I never felt any anxiety about what might happen to them. 

Although The Maids of Havana is not plot driven, the plot does provide the means by which Pérez not only demonstrates what it was like to be female and black in Cuba prior to the Revolution, and through Gracielita, what it was like to be female and black and highly educated after the Revolution.  In addition to this the novel presents to the reader all of the major political events and developments on the island, both before and after 1959, in a way that assumes some basic knowledge of these events, in order to fully appreciate the degree to which they did and did not change the lives of women like Marta.