History often overlooks people who are marginalized, but that doesn’t mean their stories shouldn’t be told. Jennifer Lambe, joining the faculty as assistant professor of history, has found many such stories in the history and literature of Cuba, particularly from the mid-19th century to the present.
As an undergraduate at Brown (A.B., gender studies and history), Lambe studied Spanish and quickly developed an interest in recent Cuban literature. She became convinced that a broader knowledge of history was essential to understanding Cuban literature, and that led her to Yale (Ph.D., Latin American and Caribbean history).
Lambe also had personal motivations for studying Cuban history.
Growing up, Lambe heard stories from her mother about a mysterious great-uncle who had fled Russia for the United States during the pogroms of the late 19th century. According to the family story, he died fighting during the Cuban War of Independence (1895–98), the last of three wars Cuba fought with Spain. “The timing seemed off, and the more she told me about him, the more I thought I had to find this guy whose name I didn’t even know,” Lambe said.
Lambe’s eagerness to uncover her family’s origins became entwined with another mysterious place: a Cuban mental hospital, popularly known as Mazorra, that came to play a central role in the history of the colony and then nation. As she discovered, over the course of more than a century Mazorra had developed broad political and social significance that would be used to symbolize both the horrors of the past and the potential future of Cuba. The asylum’s history also reveals aspects of Cuban history that aren’t visible from other vantage points.
The institution rose to prominence during the final years of Cuba’s War of Independence, when roughly half of its patients fell victim to hunger, disease, and neglect during a two-year period. Again in 1958, one hundred people died in what observers called a “harvest of death.” On multiple occasions, the frequency of tragic events allowed revolutionaries to seize on the hospital as a symbolic icon.
The prominence of the hospital in Cuban politics continued into the Castro years. Fidel Castro chose a close comrade to become the new director of Mazorra, a position he held for 40 years. The hospital quickly gained national attention when an exposé revealed the dire conditions of the patients during the years leading up to the revolution. The project to rebuild Mazorra was then used by Cuban officials to galvanize public enthusiasm behind the government, Lambe said.
Though psychiatry was long a weak discipline in Cuba, the public also sought out mental healing from alternative figures, both before and after 1959. “Since they didn’t necessarily consider mental distress a psychiatric problem, the popular option was to go see a spiritist or santero,” Lambe said.
Lambe’s research demonstrates that social marginalization has a long history in Cuba. “People who were presumed not to belong to the national body politic, such as mental patients, were nonetheless significant to Cuban history and culture, and that goes back to the origins of this intuition,” Lambe said. Their stories, she believes, also deserve to be told.
Ironically, Lambe discovered that her uncle did not die in Cuba but was the first American to die in the Spanish Civil War (1936–39). “In other words, he may have had nothing to do with Cuba, but by that point my spiritual connection to Cuba was already too entrenched in my mind to let it go,” Lambe said. “Which should lead all of us to be cautions of historical narratives and where they come from.”
Lambe has since won numerous awards and fellowships including the Arthur and Mary Wright Prize, an ACLS/Mellon Dissertation Completion Fellowship, and the Coordinating Council for Women in History Berkshire Prize. Lambe has also contributed to numerous journals and publications including Cuban Studies and an edited volume on health and medicine in Cold War Latin America. She is currently working on a book titled Madhouse: Cuban History from the Margins.
Lambe has also traveled extensively, presenting her findings in Chicago, Washington D.C., New York, Atlanta, San Francisco, and Havana.
This fall, Lambe will be teaching a first-year seminar on modern Caribbean history with a focus on popular music and culture. During the spring, she will teach a class on the history of psychiatry, which will be informed by elements of the Cuban institution she has studied. She will also teach a seminar on the Cuban revolution titled “Making Revolutionary Cuba.”
Lambe says what she is most excited about is the discussions that will take place. “Brown students are given the freedom to take the courses they want; if they’re in a course it’s because they want to be there. That will lead to wonderful conversations in the classroom.”