Culture

Herstory: 12 Cuban Women Who Changed the Course of History

Lead Photo: Art by Stephany Torres for Remezcla
Art by Stephany Torres for Remezcla

In Cuba, most people know the stories of Fidel Castro and Ernesto “Che” Guevara. The two late commanders changed the course of Cuban history on January 1, 1959 when they triumphantly entered the capital city of Havana victorious from the war against the Fulgencio Batista regime. On that day, Castro and Guevara were celebrated as heroes by the thousands of Cubans that welcomed the pair in the streets. 

But what would have been of these men without the support of the Marianas, a small platoon of women who fought on the frontlines and protected Castro on the battlefield? Without women, the revolution would have been impossible; yet, these historic victories are often accredited exclusively to a handful of men. In the war for independence from Spain—a struggle that spanned three decades—female patriots called mambisas supported the cause as nurses, arms smugglers, propaganda authors and even soldiers. 

Revolutionary thinker José Martí once wrote: “It’s easy to be heroes with women such as these.” 

The Cuban women Martí speaks of were heroes as well—and there were many of them throughout Cuban history. In contrast to other countries, where information on historical women figures can be sparse, the stories of valiant women in Cuban history are a lot easier to find and access. There are many women who participated in the fight for independence, the suffragist movement and the Cuban Revolution. This introductory compilation includes 12 women who stood out throughout history for their admirable bravery, exceptional talent, visionary ideas and the impact they left on Cuban society and beyond. Here is a list of women who deserve just as much recognition as the men you know of—if not more:

Pilar Jorge de Tella

The 1901 Constitution of Cuba, adopted after the island secured independence from Spain, blocked women from the right to vote. By the 1920s, a mass movement of feminists had formed to fight for their rights. Pilar Jorge de Tella emerged as a leader. She co-founded one of the most influential organizations of the time, the Feminine Club and National Women’s Congress—the meeting of various feminist groups to debate strategy and policies. Jorge de Tella took controversial political stances. She supported universal suffrage, access to birth control, education, child care and better labor conditions as well as protections for children born out of wedlock. While some of these positions upset conservative women, feminists eventually rallied around suffrage and won the right to vote in 1934.

Carlota

Carlota is remembered for her part in leading a slave revolt in colonial Cuba. Not much is known about her life other than the fact that she was a Yoruba woman who was kidnapped from her West African home and subjected to a life of slavery in the sugar plantation of Triunvirato. The rebellion started when Carlota burned down the slave master’s home and the sugar mill. With the slaves liberated, Carlota and fellow leaders of the uprising communicated their plans of rebellion to nearby plantations through drums. These messages worked and by the end of the uprising, five sugar plantations, along with a host of coffee farms and cattle ranches, rebelled. Carlota died in combat in 1844. Cuban revolutionaries of the 1960s drew inspiration from the Yoruba warrior. A military mission to support an Angolan liberation movement was named after her. 

Rosa Castellanos

Rosa Castellanos was a freed slave, medic and soldier in the Ten Years’ War, Cuba’s first fight for independence and a bid to abolish slavery. At the onset of the war in 1868, Castellanos used her knowledge of native medicinal herbs to treat injured soldiers. As the fighting intensified, Castellanos and her husband (also a former slave) built a life-saving field hospital. She was also known to charge into combat with a machete in hand and later a rifle. The war ended in a truce in 1878, but in 1895, a second war for independence ignited. Castellanos directed the Santa Rosa field hospital as a newly-appointed captain of the medical corps. Her contributions to Cuban independence are commemorated today with a bronze statue, in her hometown of Bayamo.

Ana Betancourt

Ana Betancourt—a leader of the war for independence—is widely revered in Cuba. While the war in which her husband fought raged on, Betancourt sent arms and provisions to the rebel army and wrote and distributed propaganda. She eventually fled her home to escape mounting persecution and joined her husband in the battlefield. In the first constitutional convention held by the patriots in 1869, Betancourt advocated for women’s rights, proclaiming before a room full of men that “now was the time to liberate women.” After she was taken prisoner by Spanish forces, she was exiled abroad. She died in Spain in 1901. Her bravery is commemorated with the Order of Ana Betancourt medal, awarded to outstanding revolutionary Cuban women. 

Vilma Espín

Vilma Espín was a chemical engineer, revolutionary fighter and feminist, who championed women’s rights in Communist Cuba. Born into an aristocratic society, Espín was one of the first women in Cuba to obtain a university degree. Her family encouraged her to abandon her Socialist principles and even sent her to study at MIT for a year, but she ultimately returned to Cuba to fight in the Sierra Maestra with Fidel and Raul Castro, who she later married. When the rebels prevailed, she joined the government as a highly influential member of the Communist Party, known commonly as the unofficial “First Lady.” She founded the Federation of Cuban Women (FMC), which promoted women’s education and political participation. She remained FMC president until her death in 2007.

Irene Herrera Laferté

In the 1930s, Cuba witnessed a surge in the popularity of all-female big bands. At a time when women were told to stay home, these orchestras inspired many to pick up an instrument and perform in open-air cafés. Many believe the famous Anacaona Orchestra, in which Celia Cruz sang, started the trend, but in reality, Irene Herrera Laferté, an Afro-Cuban widow with four daughters, spearheaded this movement in 1928. Her orchestra was called the Charanga de Doña Irene. The quintet, composed of Herrera and her daughters, got its start performing in her neighborhood of Santo Amalia, interpreting the classic, Cuban danzon traditions. She was known as the Virtuosa del Timbal, an African percussive instrument, and mastered the accordion, flute, and harmonica. Her daughter continued her legacy and founded the all-female band known as the Eden Habanero

Asela de los Santos

Asela de los Santos Tamayo is known for her contributions to the Cuban Revolution and the island’s world-renown education program. She pledged her support to the revolutionary cause after Fidel Castro and his men led the notorious attack on the Moncada Barracks. De los Santos aided rebel survivors, smuggled arms for guerrilla fighters and joined the revolutionary army in the mountains, where she instructed illiterate soldiers and rural children. Education was her lifelong passion. In the new Communist government, de los Santos had a part in the Cuban Literacy Program and served as Minister of Education. 

Celia Cruz

Celia Cruz is a household name in just about any Latin American and Latinx family. A natural singer, Cruz is said to have discovered her talent at a young age, singing in school assemblies and neighborhood parties. Her first taste of fame came as the front singer of Sonora Matancera, an acclaimed orchestra known for its repertoire of Afro-Cuban styles. Their success led to contracts abroad, including the U.S., which prompted the post-Revolution government to ban Cruz from returning. But demand for Cruz’s vocals only increased in the following years. She recorded with Tito Puente and joined the Fania All-Stars. She pioneered and represented Afro-Latina women in the nascent Latin music industry. Before she died from a brain tumor in 2003, Cruz won her second Grammy and entered the International Latin Music Hall of Fame.  

Merceditas Valdés

Proclaimed as the “Queen of Afro-Cuban music,” Merceditas Valdés introduced Santería music to the world. Despite family pressures to become a nun, Valdes turned to Santería, an Afro-Cuban religion based on West African beliefs. She sang spiritual chants to Yoruba deities and ancestors in her music at a time when Santería was stigmatized. In 1949, she was one of the first Santería singers to record music. She toured internationally, performed in Cuba’s leading clubs and debuted in Carnegie Hall in 1954. After the Cuban Revolution ended in 1959, the new government restricted the practice of all religions, including Santería. Valdez recorded a debut album of religious and secular songs before taking a 20-year hiatus. She died at the age of 73. 

Martha Frayde

Martha Frayde was the founder of the Cuban Human Rights Committee, an NGO that monitors human rights violations on the island. Frayde sympathized with the Cuban Revolution early on and took high-ranking government positions following the rebels’ victory. But, as Cuba progressively grew close to the Soviet Union, her faith in the government faded. She abandoned her post as UNESCO ambassador and returned to Cuba to establish the Cuban Human Rights Committee, focusing on arbitrary detentions and the release of political prisoners. Before she could flee Cuba, Frayde was detained on espionage charges and sentenced to 20 years. Under international pressure, the government released her in 1979. She lived in exile in Madrid until her death in 2013.

Belkis Ayón

Belkis Ayón was one of Cuba’s most prominent artists, known best for her stark black-and-white images based on the age-old Abakua society. The strictly-male secret club, which originated in Nigeria and traveled to Cuba through slavery, intrigued Ayón, who resignified its myths and symbols in her art to comment subtlely on society and machismo. Her prints, imbued with feminist undertones, were displayed internationally, including the Venice Biennele, although the Afro-Cuban artist attracted more interest after her death. She committed suicide in 1999, at the age of 32.

Mariela Castro Espín

Mariela Castro Espín is a renowned LGBTQ activist on the island and directs the Cuban National Center for Sex Education (CENESEX). She’s also the daughter of Raul Castro, Fidel Castro’s brother and Vilma Espín. While homosexuality was previously perceived as capitalist decadence and punished with terrible conditions in labor camps, the LGBTQ rights movement have helped to change this reality. At CENESEX, Castro proposed a law that would provide free gender confirmation surgery and hormone replacement therapy. It was approved in 2008. As a member of Cuba’s Legislature, Castro voted against a labor bill that didn’t include protections against gender identity or HIV status discrimination, possibly making her the first person in the National Assembly to oppose a bill.