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  • Mambisas: Rebel Women in Nineteenth Century Cuba by Teresa Prados-Torreira
  • Aisha Finch
Mambisas: Rebel Women in Nineteenth Century Cuba. By Teresa Prados-Torreira. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2005.

The story of the Cuban War for Independence is, like most revolutions, deeply layered, multi-threaded, and constantly evolving. In the last decade, it is a story that has been revisited in new and meaningful ways, as scholars have sought to break the silences around untold and hidden narratives. However, in all of the English-language scholarship that has emerged on this first Cuban Revolution, Mambisas is the first to unequivocally center women as historical agents. As such, Prados-Torreira opens up a critical new dimension for the study of Cuba’s struggle for independence.

Prados-Torreira chose to follow this history by weaving together multiple women’s stories; in this braided narrative, she explores how such women became involved in anticolonial struggle, and what Cuba libre meant to them. These stories form the backbone of a larger narrative that explores the gendered dimensions of the independence movement, and the way in which women helped to fashion it on multiple levels.

Delving into the elite world of colonial Cuba, the author shows how those women steeped in nineteenth-century cultures of modesty, proper domesticity, and refinement began actively seeking out - or found themselves swept up in - a new life of insurgent activity. The eruption of the Ten Years War, with its chaos and its new nationalist energy, loosened many traditional confines of womanly behavior, rendered the boundaries of permissible femininity more elastic and porous, and generally ushered in a decisive shift all that was known and comfortable. Small women-run rebel communities in the mountains of eastern Cuba became critical to the survival of the insurgency, and women of diverse backgrounds raised food there, cared for the wounded, and stored weapons and ammunition. Women who could wrote treatises and condemning letters, gathered money, and fled into hiding; others slipped food and weapons across enemy lines, bore children in rugged terrain, acted as spies and couriers, and took up arms for rebel combat. Still others engaged in those many invisible, but crucial war-time labors — sewing bandages and clothes, mending flags, cooking food, maintaining families, and opening their homes to strangers.

Whether rebel Cuban women were formerly enslaved black women, free women of color, white peasant women, Taína women, or elite white women, all of them made sacrifices. Revolution has always been a messy, bloody, and terrifying endeavor, and in the course of this thirty-year struggle, Cuban women of all races and classes women actively engaged this resistance in various ways. Many were imprisoned - and one can only imagine what transpired there - or driven into exile in foreign lands. Their husbands were killed or driven underground, often leaving the women to endure crumbling marriages, fatherless homes, and outside lovers. All in some way compromised their personal safety, comfort, time, money, labor, reputations, and loved ones for the sake of the war. But the aim of Mambisas is not to simply “find and insert the women,” but rather to illustrate the ways in which Cuba’s anti-colonial movement fundamentally relied on female participation, and was irrevocably shaped by it.

As women endured the harshest elements of the war, became openly defiant of the government, and became victims of the war’s repression, the boundaries of acceptable femininity had to be redrawn, and occasionally even turned on its head. Prados-Torreira does not suggest, however, that patriarchal norms fell away altogether; on the contrary, she emphasizes the ways in which selected notions of womanhood were retained and magnified in rebel ideology. Time and again, male insurgent leaders elevated the image of the dutiful mambisa to the level of a powerful nationalist icon. The image of this compulsively loyal, self-sacrificing rebel woman epitomized the highest level of devotion to la patria, and was often deployed to remind men of their duty, or shame them into it. Moreover, maintaining pure, the virtuous white woman, (or the noble, upstanding mulata) at the center of one’s revolutionary ideology could be useful in other ways - legitimizing the rebel cause with respectable...

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