UPDATE (8 September 2014): Megan originally wrote this as a guest post, but is now with us more permanently.
This post is based on stories about sex, love, tourism and identity relayed in Cuba in 2010, and is (loosely) based on, and at times excerpted from, an article of the same name just published in Alternatives: Global, Local, Political. All names, many locations, and some additional identifying details have been changed in accordance with the interviewees’ wishes.
Yakelín comes to the Hotel St. John nearly every day around two o’clock in the afternoon. Most days, Jean-Claude is already there, ensconced on the terrace with a glass of dark rum, chatting amiably with the staff, or pensively smoking a cigar as he waits. When she arrives, she kisses him discreetly before settling down for a drink on the terrace. The hotel is rather unassuming, but it sits just steps from the busy east end of Calle 23, known as La Rampa, and blocks from the historic University of Havana, and as such Hotel St. John has become a haven for tourists and foreign students who come here for strong coffee and cold beer. After an hour or so, Yakelín and Jean-Claude walk away together, hand in hand.
This same routine has been going on for more than two years now, since the day that Yakelín first met Jean-Claude, walking along Calle 23 with a friend. She was 21 years old, living in a small flat with her mother, father, brother, two sisters, aunt, uncle, two cousins and her grandmother. After spending her teenage years at a boarding school in the countryside, she had elected not to continue to university and was back in Havana with her family. Like so many others, her family worked hard to make ends meet, and Yakelín was looking for ways to lighten the burden. Not long after they met, Jean-Claude made her a proposition.
He suggested that, since I was en la lucha [struggling to get by], you know, he suggested that I no longer be in the streets [looking for leads on work, food, clothes] and that he was going to help me resolver mis problemas [solve my problems]. And since then, he’s my boyfriend.
Jean-Claude is married, but Yakelín says that in spite of that they have a “formal relationship” – she lives in a comfortable casa particular, for which he pays, and they spend every afternoon together. As a retiree, Claude lives more or less permanently in Cuba, leaving only to attend to his affairs in France and returning laden with gifts including clothing, jewellery, and even a television. He provides her with spending money and helps to support her family as well. She says she loves the independence he has given her, even though she readily acknowledges the implied contradiction – she has found her freedom in total dependence on him. Yakelín has no official work at present, because she feels that the meagre salary is simply not worth the trouble.
They make a striking couple. Jean-Claude is a heavy-set Frenchman with thinning white hair, the quintessential European tourist with a gold chain showing through the loosened collar of his guayabera shirt, an ever-present cigar, and a burgeoning self-assurance that suggests affluence and social status. Yakelín, on the other hand, is a slender, arrestingly beautiful young woman with espresso skin and hair that falls to her waist. She wears tight-fitting, stylish clothing, obscures her eyes with immense sunglasses, and her many gold bangles jingle with each languid movement – the quintessential cubanita. It comes as no surprise, then, that they attract attention as a pair; indeed, she is frequently stopped by the police and asked for her identification when they are together, at which point Jean-Claude assures the officers that she is his girlfriend, not a ‘jinetera’ – the term Cubans use to describe young women who date foreigners for money – and need not concern them. Usually, they say, that works.
Jean-Claude, for his part, speaks often about the difficulties involved in pursuing a relationship with a Cuban woman as a foreigner – the bureaucratic and administrative hurdles which prevent Cubans and foreigners from cohabiting, but also the constant attention from the police. He mentions briefly that he worries Yakelín will one day be approached in his absence, but then waves away the unwelcome thought like a bothersome fly.
“When they see us, when they see the age difference – me with a tourist – they think I’m a jinetera,” she says, but that is one thing that Yakelín is clear that she is not. She never went looking for a relationship with a tourist, nor does she know many foreigners. While Claude’s money has certainly profoundly improved her circumstances, she insists it is not central to their affective bond and that she is not seeking a way out of Cuba – she would like to see France, certainly, but she would miss Cuba far too much to leave it forever. Yakelín knows what her relationship looks like to outside observers, particularly given that she does not currently have a job, so she is very careful not to court trouble in other respects – she regularly attends meetings of her local Committee for the Defense of the Revolution (CDR), and she is a dues-paying member of the Federation of Cuban Women (FMC). Beyond that, she wants nothing to do with politics – she does not see the point in even broaching the subject.
When I ask about the future, Yakelín takes a moment to think, looking across the patio at Jean-Claude where he sits, conversing with a friend a few tables away while we talk. “I would like to get married,” she says with a wry smile, “But not to him. I love him very much, but unfortunately, he’s already married. What I would like – what I would really like – is my own house. I like my independence, you know, and I want to be beholden to no one.” She has no immediate plans for anything to change, though, and in the meantime she says she is happy spending her afternoons on the terrace of the Hotel St. John.
Early on during my fieldwork in Cuba, I had begun frequenting the terrace of the Hotel St. John as a place to take stock after a day of research and to write my field journal. There were a number of regulars there, mostly foreigners, but one couple caught my eye in particular – a young woman and her older companion, easily thirty years her senior and clearly foreign, even to my untrained eye. A friend of mine, over coffee at the St. John, had once glanced pointedly in Yakelín and Jean-Claude’s direction and said wryly, “Fieldwork.” I finally spoke to them on a sweltering afternoon in June.
The ‘jinetera’ – that controversial term that Yakelín attempts to avoid – is something of a spectre in contemporary Cuba. The word, which literally means ‘jockey’, rose to prominence in local parlance during the profound economic crisis of the 1990s, when it was pressed into service to describe the Cubans’ interactions of all kinds with foreigners to alleviate economic hardship. When it came to sexual liaisons with said foreigners, the Cubans in question were (and continue to be) presumed to be women of colour. Noelle Stout argues that, far from being a “misnomer for prostitution”, the term ‘jineterismo’ is indicative of a more emancipatory paradigm that challenges traditional notions of the victimised prostitute and recasts them with greater agency and power. Or, as Teresa Marrero somewhat more colourfully puts it:
the word prompts the nature of the exchange; jineteras […] mount and control the animal being ridden. This worldview suggests a rearranging of standard notions of the nature of (sexual) consumerism. While contemporary marketing notions hold that the buyer of goods and services reigns supreme, here Cuba’s jineterismo suggests that the provider of services can play and manipulate to its advantage the relation between consumer and provider.
Thus, while there are those who argue that a ‘jinetera’ is nothing more than a prostitute, its use in Cuba suggests something more fluid, indeterminate, and contingent. In the early days of the crisis, ‘jinetera’ distanced young women from the perceived criminality and low morality of prostitution, speaking instead to their shrewd ability to manipulate their circumstances and support themselves amidst adversity. Today, the ‘jinetera’ has become a folkloric figure in post-Soviet Cuba, appearing in brightly-coloured naïf paintings for sale in the tourist markets, serving as muses to the underground music scene, and coming to embody the deeply-engrained fantasy of Cuban mulata sensuality. Perhaps Coco Fusco said it best: “I got the sense,” she noted on visiting the island in the mid-1990s, “that on the street these women are perceived as heroic providers whose mythical sexual power is showing up the failures of an ailing macho regime.” With time, the word ‘jinetera’ has taken on some crassness and become a less elegant descriptor – one of several reasons Yakelín prefers to avoid it, and she’s not alone in this – but for many, and often depending on context, it still holds considerable power.
What drew me to Yakelín and Jean-Claude was outside appearances: they could not have fit the stereotype of a ‘jinetera’ and her foreign date better in their respective ages, racial difference, and perceived social capital – he a white and palpably affluent senior citizen, she a young and attractive woman of colour. On closer examination, however, they gave the impression of genuine and utter normality. Outside observers regularly presuppose their relationship to be purely transactional and devoid of genuine emotional attachment, basing this judgement on the assumption that money and love are antithetical, mutually repellent concepts – and that sex can only occur in the context of one (prostitution) or the other (a ‘real’ relationship), and never the twain shall meet. Yakelín herself, however, is secure in her understanding of their relationship as genuine and affectionate. Jean-Claude supports her and pays her way in life, but she contends that he does this out of love for her and solidarity with her circumstances. Their relationship challenges the notion that any liaison between a Cuban (especially a Cuban woman of colour) and a foreigner (especially a foreign white man) must necessarily be construed as ‘jineterismo’, in the sense of it being purely a financially interested relationship, or even ‘prostitution’.
‘Jinetera’ is often a label applied from the outside by others, as a sort of judgement on the veracity and legitimacy of a pairing. It is one that Yakelín does not feel describes her experience at all, having never sought out liaisons with foreigners. Her current relationship is stable and based on mutual affection, whereas ‘jineteras’ are meant to be young women who specifically seek out tourist men, and who flit from one man to the next both frequently and easily – this is, after all, how they are presented in the state-run media. Yakelín’s story goes a long way towards demonstrating that there is no one type of woman who becomes romantically and sexually involved with a non-Cuban man. Her behaviour and her relationships do not conform to the received knowledge on ‘jineterismo’ as a sexual practice in Cuba.
None of this, of course, means that Yakelín is not regularly brought under the rubric of the ‘jinetera’ by virtue of appearances. She is regularly stopped by police officers for identification checks, and she and Jean-Claude have struggled to find permanent accommodation where they can legally reside together. Yakelín’s careful observance of some of the other tenets of Cuban socialism, such as the CDR meetings and membership in the FMC, is also noteworthy – being with a foreigner and not having a state-sector job both count as strikes against, so it becomes increasingly important to tick all the other relevant boxes. While she did not lay claim to any particular political views, even seeming to have despaired of the possibility, Yakelín is a savvy actor within the current political system and acutely aware of her precarious position. Her experience is marked in particular by her race and her gender, and by assumptions about her sexuality based on these factors, which together ensure that her relationship will never be taken at face value and will continue to place roadblocks in her path.
If words such as ‘jineterismo’, ‘jinetero’ and ‘jinetera’ are in fact empty signifiers, then what purpose do they serve? Viviana Zelizer argues that, far from necessarily contaminating an intimate relationship, financial support often plays an affirmative, reinforcing role in intimate relationships: “money cohabits regularly with intimacy, even sustains it.” Furthermore, the people involved, particularly in scenarios where the stakes are high and confusion is likely, are usually vigilant about clarifying “whether the relationship is a marriage, courtship, prostitution, or some other different sort of social tie” – what Zelizer calls relational work. One of the ways in which they do this is by marking relationships with titles and labels that speak to their intended meanings, be they long-term or fleeting, serious or light-hearted; however, outside actors are equally likely to assign meaning to what they see.
In Cuba, this has led to a discursive tug-of-war, heavily laden with normative assumptions about women’s sexuality, promiscuity, and moral integrity. Practices of naming allow everyone involved – from government officials and police to journalists, mass organisations, and society at large – to situate young Cubans on either side of various binaries of good/bad, right/wrong, virtue/vice (conversely – and tellingly – the global standard terminology of ‘sex worker’ has never caught on in Cuba). Labelling is far more than a semantic issue – labels do work, they support and reject, they build up and break down. Using a different word (or no word at all) can radically change the game, allowing young women to avoid some of the stigma of being branded as criminals or whores on one hand, and to maintain the open-endedness of their encounters by denying a client/prostitute relationship – in that sense, words like ‘jinetera’ underline the incompleteness and mutability of lived experiences. But perhaps most crucially, changing the terms of the game matters because it allows individuals to say not only what they are not – that is, prostitutes and criminals – but also to effectively articulate what they are, to create a new form of subjectivity.
The state-led discourse of prostitution, in which certain women are classed as ‘good’ or ‘normal’ and others as degenerate, dangerous, pathological or immoral, forms part of a binary that seeks to control, regulating the behaviour of an ever-increasing sector of the population through surveillance and even violence. When words like ‘prostitute’ or ‘whore’ are used uncritically by state actors, in conjunction with a racialised profile, it serves to depoliticise the process by which certain women are deemed to be in need of – and available for – state intervention. The use of terms that go beyond this binary relation, or – perhaps most importantly of all – the act of denying any terminology at all, destabilises the simple opposition of ‘good woman’/prostitute, opening up possibilities for new relationships, identities and subjectivities. In this way, language has become a key battlefield for young Cubans seeking to resist prescriptive ways of being.
Yakelín’s story was echoed by dozens of the other young people whom I met and interviewed in Cuba. She paints a conflicted and ambiguous picture of how contemporary youth in Cuba view their role in society and their futures. They defy those who would depict them as victims or whores, as well as restrictive understandings of who they are and what they want. By and large, Cuban youth contend that the socialist ideals with which they have grown up, and to which many still ascribe, need not be seen as diametrically opposed to material wellbeing, nor even to international pop culture and fashion. By crafting new subject positions and identities that destabilise traditional notions of race, gender, and even class, young Cubans are mediating their own circumstances in ways previously unavailable to them. The economic adversity experienced in the 1990s, which is still felt today, has opened up new spaces to enact new political subjectivities, new sexual identities and practices. This is not to say that so-called ‘jineteras’ have created an entirely emancipatory space without repression or retribution; indeed, the racialised bodies of young women in Cuba have become the objects of state-led violence – physical, sexual and symbolic – in the struggle to control and ascribe meaning to ‘jineterismo’, a situation which I continue to explore in my writing. It does, however, merit recognition that young Cubans, and especially young Cubans of colour, are finding new ways of resisting the life prescribed for them through sexuality and the crafting of identities, sometimes at great personal risk, and thereby carving out a new space for themselves.