Document Type

Dissertation

Degree

Doctor of Philosophy

Department

History

Advisor's Name

Sherry Johnson

Advisor's Title

Committee Chair

Advisor's Name

N. David Cook

Advisor's Name

Mark D. Szuchman

Advisor's Name

Thomas A. Breslin

Keywords

Cuban History, National Identity, 1898, Republic, Women, Cuba, Cubanidad, Havana

Date of Defense

2-17-2011

Abstract

This study looks at the broader transformations in Cuban history through the case study of a single, yet symbolic, man, and proposes a new paradigm for understanding the dynamics of Cuban society and culture. It also examines the implications for Cuba’s aspiring national identity at the turn of the twentieth century, by detailing the interplay between fact and fiction in the story of Alberto Yarini: elite born; well-educated; politically and socially well-connected; powerful; and celebrated Cuban racketeer and chulo (pimp).

Yarini was described as vibrant and triumphant at a time when other nation-building forces in Cuba were weak and ambivalent. A century after his dramatic death, Yarini became the quintessential public man in Cuban lore who symbolized a cubanidad (Cuban national identity) not defined in terms of the ideological hegemony of class, race, or gender, and who through his actions dispelled the ambivalence that plagued Cuban nationalism.

Using archival documents, contemporary newspaper accounts, court records, memoirs, and published works, this study analyzes the confluence of national events and individual action in the formation of Cuban national identity. It contends that for Cuba, the failure of nation-building experiments resulted in an ambivalent national identity based on failed philosophical and political ideals of equality and prosperity. These ideals played out within the context of the realities of racial discrimination, political dissonance, and class and gender barriers. Instead of a cohesive sense of national character, for Cubans the result was a competing set of identities including a populist version that was defined through identification with antitypes and pseudo-heroes such as Alberto Yarini y Ponce de León (1882-1910), a rising politician and celebrated chulo of the early republic. The telling and retelling of his story has given rise to what has been termed the island nation’s first national myth – one that continues to evolve and grow in the twenty-first century. For many Cubans, the Yarini antitype provided an idealized national identity which in many ways was—and many argue continues to be— the expression of an elusive and ambivalent cubanidad.

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