Excerpt: Isabel “Lefty” Alvarez

The following is an excerpt from Isabel “Lefty” Alvarez: The Improbable Life of a Cuban American Baseball Star by Kat D. Williams (May 2020).

Chapter 2:
Refashioning Lefty

I was always confused about what to do. Play ball or wear pretty dresses. My mother chose for me, and I am glad she chose sports.

—Lefty Alvarez

For Lefty’s mother life in Cuba had been full of struggles. She had to fight for enough money and food, let alone to achieve even a fraction of the middle-class respectability she desperately wanted. Worried that her daughter might suffer similar problems, Virtudes set out to refashion a life for Lefty that would bring her opportunity and respect. Because the family struggled financially, Virtudes knew that Lefty’s status could never be elevated because of wealth. Cuban women faced dismal employment and educational prospects, and no one knew this more keenly than Virtudes. For Lefty to overcome the hardships of a working-class life in Cuba, Virtudes would need to be creative, and she was. Virtudes took Lefty down many different paths—radio shows, beauty pageants, and several kinds of sports—in her effort to help her overcome the depressing prospects most Cuban women faced. Not only did Virtudes help Lefty overcome the family’s bleak financial situation, but she also helped her to do something few Cuban women could do: beat a social system stacked firmly against women.

As noted in the previous chapter, throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries opportunities for economic, educational, and social advancement were limited for Cuba’s women. Eventually Cuban women realized that if they were going to gain any level of equality, they must seize on popular revolutionary sentiment, which openly challenged the inequities of class and race. For women to attain even a modicum of the social, economic, and political equality revolutionaries sought, they had to organize. As was true around the world, feminist movements in Cuba were effective only after activists had created organizations focused on issues of larger national concerns. Cuban feminists launched their fight for equality alongside those who fought for worker’s rights, better living conditions, increased educational opportunities, and higher wages. Within that context of widespread revolution women highlighted the inequities they faced and forged political alliances.1 Within such a context women’s organizations and the issues on which they focused became increasingly visible.

Early Cuban feminists focused their efforts on political change, political access to women, and women’s right to vote. Among the first feminist organizations was the Comité de Sufragio Femenino. It was established in 1912 and was organized to push for increased political participation among women. Patterned in part on the National Women’s Suffrage Association of the United States, this organization focused almost exclusively on women’s suffrage and women’s political involvement. Eventually the tactics and the focus among feminists broadened; one result was the establishment of the Club Femenino de Cuba, created in 1917. Unlike the Comité de Sufragio Femenino, the Club formed around a variety of social issues such as prostitution, the establishment of separate women’s prisons, and women’s voting rights. Seeking coordinated political action that would benefit women, the Club organized the first National Women’s Congress in Havana in April 1923. Organizers combined “nationalism, commitment to motherhood and the family, and women’s rights as the motivating factors of the Cuban woman’s rights movement.”2 They passed resolutions demanding the right to vote, equal rights for women under the law, and an expansion of educational opportunities for women.3

Like feminist organizations worldwide, groups in Cuba were often split along race or class lines. In 1921 elite women from Cuban society created the Asociación Femenina de Camagüey. This group published Cuba’s first feminist journal, the Asociación de Damas Isabelinas. The journal was conceived as a social, literary, and feminist magazine. The Asociación Femenina de Camagüey was not an overly political group but worked to create opportunities for women through literature and education, and it primarily appealed to the middle- and upper-class women of Cuba.

While education was often pushed as a tool for change, tactics varied and results were mixed. Many women supported traditional political values and often involved themselves in resource allocations and projects set aside for them within the departments of education, health, and welfare. Feminists who believed education was crucial to improving women’s status were often forced to settle for just a mention of education in a very crowded political agenda.4 Despite a lack of widespread political support from male leaders for increasing educational options for girls and women, advances continued at a steady, if not rapid, pace throughout the early twentieth century. Due in large part to the efforts of women’s organizations, illiteracy rates for girls and women declined from 58 percent in 1899 to 39 percent in 1919. In cities such as Havana and Santiago female literacy rates grew at a faster rate than in the rural areas of the country. Within a few years of reformers’ push to educate girls, literacy rates rose to 84 percent in Havana and 85 percent in Santiago.5 Much of this increase was due to the growing Cuban women’s movement.

These educational changes offered young girls of Lefty’s generation a few more opportunities than their mothers had had. Still most families at that time did not have the same educational goals for daughters as they had for sons. Like most Cuban girls in the 1930s and 1940s, Lefty was expected to attend school only to learn the basics: reading, writing, and math. Virtudes was dedicated to helping Lefty reach a level of respectability that Virtudes believed was synonymous with that of the middle class. But because she herself had grown up poor and in a very traditional household, Virtudes had had few educational opportunities and therefore did not see education as a necessary road to success for her daughter.

Virtudes’s attitude about Lefty’s schooling may also have been shaped by her daughter’s experience as a student. Lefty had a miserable time in elementary school, and schoolwork petrified her. Lefty recalls how hard it was to read, study, and sit still in class: “I had an inferiority complex. . . . I was scared to death when I had an examination; I got so nervous, so sick, that I could not do the work. Oh, the time limits! You had to answer in an hour.” Given her reaction, it is not surprising that Lefty was not a strong student. But when she came home with stories of fear and incompetence, her parents just encouraged her to try harder. Perhaps because girls were simply not taken seriously as students, neither her parents nor Lefty’s teachers dug for answers to Lefty’s issues in school.

Lefty remembers that “In school I panicked and was so nervous. I couldn’t wait until it was break time.” Yet freedom from classes did not solve all her problems. It wasn’t just the work that was hard for Lefty. The social aspects were also alienating. Finding friends was difficult. She failed to fit in with the other girls in part because she failed to do what was expected of young women her age. “All that playing of girl’s games, cooking, flirting with boys, or primping—I just couldn’t do it. I hated it, but it meant I didn’t have friends.” Her insecurity about her ability to learn also got in the way. “I was always slow—you know, not very smart in school—which made me shy,” she explains. “Because I wasn’t smart, no one wanted to be my friend, so I was also lonely, except when I was out playing ball.” Baseball had already become important to Lefty. It would just take a while to see how crucial the game would be.

Notes

1. Stoner, From the House to the Streets, Kindle locations 1043– 47.
2. Stoner, From the House to the Streets, Kindle locations 1043– 47.
3. Perez, Cuba: Between Reform and Revolution, 241.
4. Stoner, From the House to the Streets, Kindle locations 1043– 47.
5. Perez, Cuba: Between Reform and Revolution, 241.

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