Photos of Cuban women in the 19th century

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Front page. Design by Modesto Arocha. Daguerreotype of Candelaria, photographer Andrés I. Estévez, Key West, Florida, c. 1895.

As you read and see the illustrations of The beautiful Cuban, – faces of women in Cuba in the 19th century (Alexandria Library Publishing House, Miami, 2022), by Teresa Fernández Soneira, I felt shaken. I remembered my experiences in front of the camera, in the photographic studios in Havana, to which my mother took me from a very young age on every important date.

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María Luisa Sánchez (future wife of the patriot and politician Orestes Ferrara). In exile from Tampa. Photographer R. Testar, Ybor City, Tampa, c. 1898. Courtesy/Teresa Fernández Soneira

This traditional custom was to keep an exact memory of the effigy at that time. As can be admired in this book, in which there are 162 old color images of girls and nannies, young people and married women and grandmothers, of various skin tones, because they are of the Creoles of the island of Cuba in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

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Girl in costume. Albumen photo by A. Sainz, Reina 69, Havana. Courtesy/Teresa Fernandez Soneira

It is clear that Fernández Soneira has experienced those same feelings of wonder that she expresses so well in her book, because she has told me how she inherited her love for this art from her own family, and learning photography from them. “The one who was a professional photographer was my grandmother Rogelia Fernández Santalices, when my grandfather Manuel Fernández Losada died,” she declares. “I have done photography, especially when I wrote travel articles for the weekly Success! and the photos of my books have been prepared and edited by me”.

Federico Miahle’s El Quitrin (1853), from the ‘Picturesque Album of the Island of Cuba’, May B. and Ca. 1855, Storch & Kramer, Berlin. Taken from Stanford University Librarie/Public Domain

“My paternal grandparents, Manuel, from Lugo, and Rogelia, from Orense [a quienes dedica el libro]They were professional photographers in Old Havana, since before my grandfather married my grandmother in 1918”, Fernández Soneira continues to recall. “My grandfather had studied painting in San Alejandro and then photography. When he married my grandmother he already had the photography studio. When he died I was seven years old and she, who was a liberated woman, took over the business and continued taking pictures until she left for exile from Madrid with my unmarried uncle in 1961”.

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Postcard dedicated by the poet Bonifacio Byrne to María de Sena, Havana, July 22, 1902. Courtesy/Teresa Fernández Soneira

“Sometimes when I was a child I spent the weekends at her house and I learned with her how to photograph, reveal and arrange the room for photography. Since then I am also a photographer, although lately I have changed the camera for the pen”, she concludes.

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Teresa Fernández Soneira Photo Olga Connor/Courtesy of Wenceslao Cruz Blanco

This is how many women photographers of the 19th century learned in an artisanal way with their family. And the curious thing is that in this case Fernández Soneira also became a collector, because almost all the photos of women in this book are the property of the author, except for some, for example, those in the Cuban Heritage Collection (The Cuban Heritage Collection at the University of Miami Libraries). She confesses that she found hers at auctions on the Internet or in antique shops in Spain.

They are “ambrotypes, tintypes, albumen images, daguerreotypes and other photographic techniques”, made on the island. Some are “cartes de visite”, similar to the cards of today, others were placed on glass supports or placed in velvet-lined cases.

These examples can be admired as the incipient art of photography that soon developed in Cuba, as can be seen with the rise of Europeans who moved to Havana to improve their sales in this business.

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Daguerreotype of black lady posing with a fan ca. 1870-1879 by S. Ondina, Mount 49, Havana. Courtesy/Cuban Heritage Collection, University of Miami Libraries

And even someone like Federico Mialhe, a French draftsman, painter and scientist who made the island and its name famous when he moved to it, sending his lithographs to Europe, such as the one titled “El Quitrin”, with beautiful young travelers, and reproduced in this book. With Daguerre’s invention, Mialhe had immediate life photos to paint without having to spend whole days making sketches.

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Card of Piedad Figueredo Vázquez, daughter of Perucho Figueredo (in exile). Photographer Andrés I. Estévez, Key West, Florida. ca.1882-1884. Courtesy/Teresa Fernandez Soneira

All this information appears in the admirable introductory essay by Fernández Soneira, who tells us about the history of photography from Europe to our shores. He takes us by the hand from antiquity, with Aristotle, and reaching Daguerre in Paris, he briefly explains the development in Europe and the Americas, and how Daguerre’s invention was documented in the Navy Journal in 1839.

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Daguerreotype of the patriot Rosario Bolaños Fundora, 1892. Photographer JA Suárez y Cía, Havana. Courtesy/Cuban Heritage Collection, University of Miami Libraries

Soon O’Reilly Street in the center of Havana would become “the street of photographers”, because these artists were concentrated there and advertised in the newspapers, the Arias Daguerreotype was one of them. Precisely the first documented woman in this trade in Havana was Encarnación Iróstegui, from Bilbao, wife of Pedro Arias, from Galicia and owner of that business in which the two of them and their son Vicente participated. The history of Fernández Soneira continues not only with that of the photographers, but also with that of the social life, customs and fashions of the time that rescue a stately and Creole atmosphere.

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La Belle Creole tobacco box label, 19th century. Courtesy/Teresa Fernandez Soneira

The work of editor Modesto “Kiko” Arocha, director of Alexandria Library Publishing House, who spectacularly designed and laid out the book, especially considering that it is graphic in nature, is worth noting.

The poet and singer Orlando González Esteva helped the author with the poems and narrative fragments that accompany the images, which gives them an essential value, since they contain a theme that takes us nostalgically to that dream land, as if in search of the golden age

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Daguerreotype of María Cabrales vda. de Maceo, 1899. Anonymous photographer. Courtesy/New York Public Library Digital Collections

An example of this illusion is that of our Gertrudis: Cheers, oh, blessed land!/ Quiet Eden of my childhood/ That contains so many memories/ Of my dreams of hope!/ Cheers, cheers, noble children!/ ¡¡ From this my sweet homeland!…/ Brothers who make his glory!/ Sisters who are his gala! (Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda, 1859).

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Daguerreotype of Monona at two and a half years old, with doll. Photographer E. Alvarez, Sagua la Grande. Courtesy/Teresa Fernandez Soneira

That literature that serves as a context for the images is analyzed by the excellent critic, author of several works and professor at the University of South Florida, Madeline Cámara Betancourt, in her presentation of The beautiful Cuban. Firstly, it highlights the value of female figures in the novel Cecilia Valdes, some of which appear to be pictured here. Then he refers to the novel Sat de la Avellaneda, and other writers who reflect the society of the time. She warns that these texts do not appear chronologically, but for their aesthetic quality. And he observes that they are a way of maintaining a dialogue with the figures. But he mainly highlights the importance of this literature in our history.

Daguerreotype of a wet nurse/African milkmaid (ca 1885-1890). Anonymous photographer. Courtesy/Teresa Fernandez Soneira

And that is what encourages Teresa Fernández Soneira, to see the role that women have played and how they have influenced Cuban culture, as shown by her series of Women of the Homeland, contribution of women to the independence of Cuba – (Volumes I, 2014 and II, 2018, Universal Editions). We only have to ask him to continue fulfilling with the same fervor that tireless work for the present and future studies of Cubans on both shores.

The book ‘The Cuban beauty, – faces of women in the Cuba of the 19th century’ (Alexandria Library Publishing House, Miami, 2022), by Teresa Fernández Soneira, will be presented on Saturday, August 6 at 10 in the morning at the Hermitage of La Caridad, Varela room. For sale on teresa fernandez soneira, and the day of the presentation. You can make a link to the Presentation of the book “LA BELLA CUBANA” by TERESA FERNÁNDEZ SONEIRA on YouTube.

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