Paula Allen's Diez Pesos

Diez Pesos Party, Havana. (1997) Copyright Paula Allen.



One of Allen's most recently begun projects deals with the underground alternative lifestyles in Havana, Cuba. Over the past two years she has documented the Dies Pesos Parties of Havana and most recently she has been documenting family life within Cuban Society were the varying ethnicities of Cuban women are present.

Gisela D. Fosado, a Graduate Student in Anthropology at the University of Michigan, conducted an interview with Paula Allen. Both women share an investment in Cuban life. Although both women are interested in the sex workers, and marginalization of gays, they approach the situations differently as far as the purpose of their documentation. This interview took place on September 25, 1998. The following is a summary.


Both Paula and I work on representations (visual and narrative) of marginalized communities in Havana. I took this opportunity to discuss our work and our different approaches. Since my return from conducting anthropological field work last summer, I have been struggling to maintain my feminist agenda without compromising my socialist ideals. Paula Allen helped me to rethink these struggles .

Paula began a project on lesbians worldwide two years ago. She first photographed lesbians in Spain and Ireland, before moving on to Cuba. Once she began her work in Cuba, it dominated the project and it is there that she has spent the bulk of the past two years. Paula work in Cuba is centered around visual representations of underground gay parties in Havana.Similar to her previous work, she is interested in in-depth representations of few people, mainly her Cuban friends. Paula Allen has extensively interviewed her subjects, and works very much in the ethnographic tradition of participant observation. She is interested in hearing stories about life in Cuba by collecting numerous life histories. She asks them about their relationships with their family, as well as other aspects of their lives.

The idea that sexual relations should be disconnected from monetary exchange is a narrative that is deeply ingrained in our "Western" consciousness. In the history of many societies in the world, including our own, economic exchange has been explicitly tied to sexual relationships, and in particular, the institution of marriage. For all sorts of reasons, the most obvious being the economic troubles since the fall of the Soviet Union, some Cuban sexuality discourses do not judge behavior along these typically "Western" moral lines. It is the complicated power relationships between different Cubans and tourists that interest me and that I plan to untangle in my dissertation, through a detailed analysis of interviews with sex workers in Cuba.In recent coverage of Cuba sexuality, a focus has been placed on the exploitation of girls and young women who are termed jineteras(hustlers) within Cuba. The overly simple portrayal of these women in academic and popular literature often reflects political struggles unrelated to their situations (i.e. between Cuban Americans and other actors) and often reflects a solely superficial knowledge of sex tourism,a relatively recent phenomenon in Cuba. These representations ignore the larger scheme of discourses around hustling in general and ignore marginalized jineteras and jineteros (male hustlers), as well as tourists who feel exploited.

This phenomenon begs a profound analysis,contextualized within the larger informal economy of hustling, which has become crucial to the livelihood of many Cubans. My interest in this project stems from previous studies of and concerns with sexuality discourses (particularly in American college campuses and also related to domestic violence) that are ultimately disempowering to women. So many women find few avenues to conceptualize gender and sex relations in empowering ways. I was surprised to find that this is not always the case in Cuba when I conducted my preliminary interviews of sex workers last summer (despite media and academic portrayals of this issue) and so I became interested in the politics behind such studies and why they are often such simple representations of this phenomenon.Thinking about jineteras becomes a dilemma for me when I think about the stance the Cuban state has taken in relation to people marginalized due to their sexual practices. The sad, thirty year-long history of discrimination against gays and lesbians in Cuba has often disillusioned me from centralization, socialism, and Fidel.

Paula, on the other hand, has not been haunted by this quandary.She often repeated during our conversation that because the matter is so complex (i.e. there are many great aspects of life in Cuba and other negative ones), she felt no need to take a stance. While I often felt confused about my views on Fidel government, she emphasized that there was no need to feel confused. I don't have to choose one perspective,she repeated. I asked her if it bothered her that people viewing her photographs might interpret a political message in her photographs that is not present, or if it would bother her that people projected their own politics onto her photographs despite their content. She told me that she had no control over the way an audience might interpret her work and that she therefore did not worry about it. Paula, however, had not publicly displayed her work in Cuba before our interview.

-Gisela D.Fosado

Diez Pesos Party, Havana. (1997) Copyright Paula Allen.

Although the two vary on their opinions and perspectives, there is a thread of human concern that binds the two together. One can read in between the lines that the marginalization of gays and lesbians is a topic that has many differing avenues, whether they are political, social, or private. The dialog that took place is a step towards global communication on the subject. These are not myths but real situations that have a survival ending. Cuba has made being gay illegal. Yet its economic state is dependent on the sexuality of its people in the tourist trade that keeps the country alive.


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