Remembering Helen Safa
Dr. Helen I. Safa, Professor Emerita of Anthropology and Latin American Studies at the University of Florida, passed away on November 4, 2013 in Gainesville, Florida. Dr. Safa joined the faculty of the University of Florida in 1980 as the Director of the Center for Latin American Studies (1980-85). She was a core faculty member of the Center and the Department of Anthropology until her retirement in 1997.
Dr. Safa was President of LASA from 1983-85, and also served on the Executive Committee several times. Among her initiatives as LASA President was the first formal academic exchange program between US and Cuban scholars, funded by a grant from The Ford Foundation. She was also instrumental in the founding and growth of the Gender and Feminist Studies Section, which helped transform LASA from a largely North American male organization in the l960s and early 1970s into the more diverse organization it is today. She served on the editorial board of the Latin American Research Review, among other journals.
Dr. Safa began her career as a Latinamericanist in Puerto Rico, where she subsequently pursued research for her masters’ thesis and doctoral dissertation. Her doctoral studies at Columbia were partially funded by a scholarship from the University of Puerto Rico. Considered to be one of the pioneers in the field of urban anthropology, her early research resulted in The Urban Poor of Puerto Rico (1974).
Her continued interest in the Caribbean is reflected in UF’s Caribbean Migration Program, which in the l980s brought students and faculty from the Caribbean to the University; and a fellowship program on Afro-American identity and cultural diversity which culminated in a major conference and a special issue of the journal Latin American Perspectives (1998) on Race and National Identity in the Americas.
Throughout her career, Dr. Safa pursued an interest in the causes and consequences of inequality, focusing on class issues in her early work on poverty and urbanization, moving to gender in the l970s and l980s, and in her work incorporating race.
The Myth of the Male Breadwinner: Women and Industrialization in the Caribbean (1995) compared women industrial workers in Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. Her interest in the social impact of women’s paid labor force participation was reflected in her earlier co-edited publications with June Nash, Sex and Class in Latin America (1976) and Women and Change in Latin America (1986), while her participation in the international women’s movement contributed to another co-edited publication with Eleanor Leacock entitled Women’s Work (1986).
In addition to her books, Dr. Safa published over 60 articles and book chapters on issues of poverty and urbanization, migration, gender and development, social movements, mestizaje, and family structure. Dr. Safa was honored as a founder of Puerto Rican anthropology by the Puerto Rican Association of Anthropology and the American Ethnology Society. She received the 2003 Conrad Arensberg award from the Society for the Anthropology of Work of the American Anthropological Association. At UF, the Center for Women’s Studies and Gender Research awarded her its 2006 Uppity Woman Award.
In 2007, Safa was presented the Kalman Silvert award of the Latin American Studies Association (LASA) at its International Congress in Montreal. The Silvert award recognizes senior members of the profession who have made distinguished lifetime contributions to the study of Latin America and the Caribbean. It is worth noting that Safa was only the third women to receive the award.
If you would like to honor Dr. Safa’s legacy, please consider contributing to the Safa Graduate Student Travel Endowment: https://www.uff.ufl.edu/OnlineGiving/FundDetail.asp?FundCode=013515
Dr. Safa established the endowment to support graduate students’ travel to present their work at the Latin American Studies Association (LASA) Congress and other Latin American Studies-related professional meetings.
The tributes to Helen Safa have been very moving and so well deserved. I thought you would all enjoy reading a remembrance from June Nash, Helen’s longtime collaborator and, of course, another of the pioneers in the scholarship on gender and class in Latin America. June had seen the LASA Gender section tributes and wrote to me directly, but I know she wanted this to be shared with you. Here, she is recalling the time leading up to the 1974 Buenos Aires conference on women in Latin America, which she and Helen organized.
That was a beautiful statement of tribute to Helen. It occurred to me that I ought to write up how the conference and books came about. The following is my first summary statement of it, which was evoked by Helen’s death.
My moment of consciousness as a feminist anthropologist came in the fall of 1971when I walked into a room of LASA social scientists who were in Barbados to plan the research priorities for the next five years. I was a newly elected representative on the LASA Council,and had met only a few of the LASA officials before going to the meeting. I was stunned to find that I was the only woman in a group of a couple of dozen men. As a New Yorker, I had the unpleasant feeling one has in getting on a subway train later than it was felt advisable for women to travel, to find that only men occupied the seats. The next morning before our meetings started, I wrote a statement regarding the short-comings of our existing models for Latin American studies. These included Dependency Models, Development Models, Market Models, and Modernity models all of which ignored or distorted the role women played in society. I asked for time to read the statement before the general meetings took place, and was given ten minutes. When I finished, there was complete silence in the room. The chair called for a recess, and I trailed out into the hall where only one young scholar came up to say, “I wish my wife were here to hear what you sad!”
I was determined to make up for the lack of studies about and by women. I submitted a proposal for a conference, which I called Feminine Perspectives in the Social Sciences. Feminist would have been to shocking at the time, I thought. When I received a grant of $25,000. dollars to carry out the invitation to about forty scholars, I knew I would need help. A friend at Columbia University urged me to call Helen Safa, whom I knew only by her publication of the urban poor of Puerto Rico. I called her and we had lunch together, immediately beginning to draw up our list of scholars and topics. Elsa Chaney joined us in the planning phase to find scholars who had done empirical studies of gender in South America and the Caribbean. x We first considered Santiago, Chile as our venue for the coup, but before we had sent out the invitations, the September ll, 1973 coup engineered by Henry Kissinger took place. We moved the site to Buenos Aires, choosing January in the winter academic holidays for our five day meeting. Since few women had been been invited to international conferences and were not well known, we visited the major cities looking for scholars who had done research on women in most of the major capitals. We arrived at our hotel where we were met by a picket line of women protesting the lack of activist scholars. We were tempted to join the picket line ourselves, since we were fully in agreement with their claims, but after our long trip we simply consulted with the leaders, inviting them to have coffee the next morning when we could plan a plenary session to include the group with their selection of speakers.
Our plenary session in the di Tello institute where we began our expanded sessions, now included fourteen women and two men coming from Chile, Brazil, Salvador, Mexico, Puerto Rico, Colombia, Peru, Dominican Republic, the United States, and Argentina The Argentinian activists included women who were demanding reproductive rights and overcoming the prejudice barring women from public office and even voting. Some had been jailed for their actions. It was a rousing entre into five days of intense discussions and planning for publications and united action. When our group went out to the famous steak houses in Buenos Aires, all eyes would turn toward the two men Jorge Gisi Bustos and Morris Blackman accompanying this hoard of women.
In the years following the conference we were to have many other encounters with our participants. Our anthology based on the papers delivered at the conference was published first in Spanish, La Mujer en America Latina (1975 Mexico D.F.,Sep Setenta) and then in English, Sex and Class in Latin America (1976, New York: Praeger Publishers). Some of our contributors, like Neuma Aguiar and Heleietha Saffioti came to the U.S. to lecture and teach. Ximena Bunster taught courses in Clark University for years when she went into exile after the Chilean coup.
Helen has opened many paths beyond academia for women of Latin America, and the feminist movement has taken many turns in each of the countries represented by the participants.. The most notable advances currently are made by indigenous women of the Americas, who are simultaneously overcoming the hurdles of ethnic and racial barriers.
That’s it for now!