Migration and the French Sex Trade in Early Twentieth-Century Havana

Trafficking Past Network member Elisa Camiscioli explores the ‘French-Style’ Brothels of early twentieth century Cuba and the nationalist crusade against sexual vice 

Commercial sex in early twentieth-century Havana was an international and multiracial business, employing indigenous and other native-born women; foreign-born prostitutes from Europe, East Asia, the United States; and women from elsewhere in the Caribbean. This diversity reflects Cuba’s status as both a post-emancipation society and a country of mass immigration. But according to several accounts, French women predominated in the early twentieth-century Cuban sex industry, along with French men working as pimps and traffickers alongside their Cuban counterparts. French consular officials, Cuban social reformers, police authorities on both sides of the Atlantic, and the U.S. investigators representing the League of Nations documented an over-representation of French women in brothel prostitution, especially in the capital city of Havana.













Whether French women had migrated freely to Cuba remained an open question for contemporaries: debates about immigration to the island intersected with worldwide concern for abolishing the “traffic in women and children.” The 1927 League of Nations report confirmed, however, that most foreign women employed in the Cuban sex industry had already worked as prostitutes in Europe before trying their luck overseas. These women actively participated in the migratory process, even if a variety of migration facilitators assisted them in procuring fake papers, crossing the Atlantic, and making the underworld connections needed to find employment in Cuba.

In the first quarter of the twentieth century, Havana had special appeal due to its developing tourist sector, the favorable exchange rate for Europeans, lax efforts at screening incoming migrants, and a flourishing sex industry. Commercial sex in Cuba catered to a wide array of interested buyers, including locals, tourists, male immigrants, and the Cuban and U.S. military.

The claim that French migrants predominated in the Cuban sex industry cannot be separated from the fact that France was the epicenter of regulated prostitution, which included licensed brothels, registered sex workers, and strict medical and police controls. The so-called “French system” of regulation began in 1802 and was exported across the globe. In 1873, Spanish colonial authorities implemented the French system in Cuba; the barrio of San Isidro in Havana served as a “tolerance zone” in which licensed brothels thrived.

The historian Tiffany Sippial has shown how Cuban nationalists easily equated regulated prostitution on the island with occupying and colonizing forces, an association that deepened after independence from Spain in 1898 and the end of the US military government in 1902. In their eyes, regulation was a symptom of “Old World” decadence: imported from Europe, sustained by Spanish colonialism and the US occupation forces, and fortified by the migrations of European prostitutes and pimps to Cuba. For this reason, Cuban nationalists generally advocated for the abolition of licensed brothels, which would occur in 1913, and cooperation with the anti-trafficking efforts of the League of Nations Advisory Committee.

While Cuban nationalists wanted to eradicate European vice and criminality, consumers of sex work in Havana eagerly sought to purchase the experience of French libertinage. Calling cards from French-styled brothels in Cuba (and elsewhere in Latin America) advertised “casas francesas,” recalling Parisian sites of sexual adventure like the Moulin Rouge and promoting the “señoritas francesas” who worked in them.

Brothels branded as French evoked the sensuality of European vice culture in order to entice clients seeking a particular erotic experience. Frenchness might be modern and sophisticated, debauched and titillating, or all of these things at once. According to the 1913 novelistic account of Pedro García and Felipe Velasco, the French women who arrived in Havana every two or three months to sell sex were to be counted among France’s other luxury imports of wine, jewelry, and clothing.

García and Velasco’s depiction of the “rogues” (pícaros) who lure young women into prostitution dedicates an entire chapter to the Frenchmen who deceive female compatriots with the promise of riches in Cuba. These “Apache merchants,” with their travel companions in tow, outwitted immigration officials to gain entry onto the island. Readers of French social history may be familiar with the Apaches, a Parisian working-class subculture brought to life by the historians Michelle Perrot and Dominique Kalifa. These “urban vagabonds,” in Perrot’s words, hated work, the police, and the bourgeoisie, congregating in neighborhood gangs associated with street violence and other displays of rebellion. The Apaches formed heterosexual couples that mirrored the relationships of pimps and prostitutes, and the idea that they lived off the earnings of their women circulated widely.

In Mexico, Uruguay, and especially in Cuba, French pimps and traffickers were invariably labeled “Apaches.” They appear in novels, newspapers, and official investigations of trafficking, as well as oral histories of turn-of-the-century San Isidro, the red-light district in Havana. Contemporaries described street fights between Apaches and their Cuban counterparts, the guayabitos. The sex workers Violeta and Consuela, interviewed after the Cuban Revolution by the historian Tomás Fernández Robaina, recalled that French Apaches maintained complete control of the “white slave trade” to Cuba, regularly making the journey back to France to return with “fresh merchandise.”

The villainization of French Apache pimps as traffickers follows the historian Julia Laite’s work on early twentieth-century intermediaries in the sex trade. Traditional brokers who, in previous decades, played an essential role in migrant networks were now framed as criminals who enabled “unfree” migrations. According to Laite, social critics described pimps as “predatory, organized, violent, and controlling sexual exploiters.” This includes the Apache traffickers who arranged the recruitment, financing, transportation, and employment of French women in Cuba.

French women and men employed in the Cuban sex industry must be understood as transatlantic migrants who were part of a larger Cuban history of immigration—and immigration control. Like workers in other sectors, they traveled to cities where there was high demand for their services, in search of economic opportunities. Turn-of-the-century Havana offered many prospects, especially for French women who were characterized as particularly modern, sensuous, and exotic on the commercial sex market. The “Paris style,” according to one man’s dreamy recollections, was altogether “another style of sexual relations.”

 Elisa Camiscioli (Binghamton University; Network Member)

Elisa Camiscioli’s research explores the intersection of race, intimacy, and gendered forms of mobility. She has written about immigration to and from France, trafficking between Europe and Latin America, and the circulation of women and men both within and beyond France and its empire. She is the author of Reproducing the French Race: Immigration, Intimacy, and Embodiment in the Early Twentieth Century (Duke University Press, 2009), along with several articles on the gender of immigration and colonialism, appearing in Gender & History, the Journal of Women’s History, and French Politics, Culture, & Society. Elisa is an Associate Professor of History at Binghamton University, State University of New York, and the Co-Editor of the Journal of Women’s History.

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