Female Criminals in Cuba

Date: 1929
Owner: Dorrbecker, Havana
Source Type: Images


These twelve women are among the 400 photographed for Israel Castellanos' La Delincuencia Femenina en Cuba (1929), a massive work that tries to quantify female criminal traits through statistics and new technologies, especially the photograph. Castellanos, the leading figure in Cuban criminology in the pre-Communist era, was convinced that sufficient statistical and anthropometrical data would clarify characteristics that were shared by Cuban "born criminals," the Lombrosian catchall of criminology. Yet, according to historian Alejandra Bronfman, the sheer volume of statistics and photographs in this book blurred any cut and dry generalizations about criminal types and actually undermined Castellanos' efforts to make claims about the propensity of Cuba's various races to committing crimes (Castellano thought mulatas were the race most prone to criminal acts because they were the most passionate).

One reason for this is the ambiguity of photographs like these. Criminologists and others have tried to use photography as a technology that could possess the essence of the subject in an image, but the women sitting for the pictures could express themselves independently of the photographer by assuming certain facial expressions, postures, and hair or clothing styles. Indeed, a quick look at these women reveals a huge spectrum of individual attitudes and emotions. Photographs did not therefore serve any legitimately scientific purpose in such studies, leading Bronfman to the conclusion that Castellanos was perhaps more enamored with the study of criminals than actually preventing crime.

The captions, though, tell a different story than the pictures, one that is intimately connected to prevalent concepts of race, gender, and criminal bodies. In these captions, Castellanos thoroughly objectifies his female subjects, picking apart details of facial features and using these "irregularities" as physiological bases for criminal tendencies. For example, the woman shown on the bottom of page LXVIX has the "lips of a tapir," two other women have "fugitive foreheads," and both women on page XI have tattoos, a clear mark of criminality for proponents of Lombroso's Italian School. Gender norms are also obvious in Castellanos' citing of their crime as "disobedience" and "scandal." Furthermore, the captions contain such supposedly vital information as skin color, nose shape, height, weight, forehead shape, ear shape, facial symmetry, mouth size, and lip size. Like other social sciences, criminology can lend itself to gross generalizations that, quite often, reveal more about the predilections of scientists than the traits of their subjects.

Reference: Bronfman, Alejandra. "Mismeasured Women: Gender and Social Science on the Eve of Female Suffrage in Cuba." In Gender, Sexuality, and Power in Latin America Since Independence." Edited by William E. French and Katherine Elaine Bliss. New York: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2007.

CITATION: Castellanos, Israel. La Delincuencia Femenina en Cuba. Vol. 3. Habana: Dorrbecker, 1929.