By Patricia Grogg
HAVANA, Oct 7 (IPS) – Women’s incursion into baseball, Cuba’s national sport and a bastion of the “machismo” that is so deeply rooted in Cuban culture, has drawn mixed reactions.
Women’s baseball teams in Cuba, which have gradually emerged since 2003, have been winning supporters who are aware of the challenges involved in breaking into one of the “sacred temples of masculinity,” as described by Ernesto Perez Zambrano, director of the documentary “Major Leagues?”
“One day, while I was passing by the Ciudad Deportiva (sports complex) in Havana, I saw female baseball players training there. It was like love at first sight,” Pérez Zambrano told IPS.
“I really love baseball and sports in general, and I was captivated by the image of the women training. It looked so nice, and for me it became a symbol or glimpse of the future world that I would like to see some day: a world of peace, integration and solidarity,” he said in an email interview with IPS.
“Major Leagues?”, the dissertation project of Pérez Zambrano, a student at Cuba’s Higher Institute of Arts (ISA), explores the theme of transgression of gender norms using the testimonies of the players and coaches of the Havana women’s baseball team.
The young filmmaker practically lived with the athletes for a year until he became the bat boy and informal cheerleader of the team, which was created in response to a call issued in 2003 by the non governmental Cuban Women’s Federation (FMC) to form women’s baseball teams.
However, one of the young players interviewed in the documentary complained about the lack of support and, particularly, the lack of opportunities to play other teams, as well as the scarce coverage they have received by the media. She said sometimes the players even have to “escape” from work or school to attend the training sessions.
Women’s baseball has not been included yet on the National Sport Institute’s (INDER) official calendar of events. Nevertheless, every year, INDER organises the March 8 Cup, in which teams from all around the country participate, and it is also included as an exhibition sport in the biennial Cuban National Olympics.
According to figures from the National Statistics Office (ONE), only 221 women took part last year in adult baseball competitions, at the municipal and community levels — a negligible number compared to the more than 182,000 men who took part in such events, including provincial tournaments and the annual National Championship.
The disproportion becomes more glaring considering that women represented almost 20 percent of the participants in adult sports competitions last year.
“The fact that women are playing baseball means that we are taking a step towards human justice, and it is also a symbol, because baseball, apart from being the national pastime, is a cultural phenomenon,” ISA professor Danae Dieguez, a researcher in the field of gender relations in Cuban filmmaking, told IPS.
Dieguez believes that women’s entry into baseball opens “a path towards gender equity,” which would undermine rigid social structures and lead to a “culturally more diverse and just” society.
Cuba’s first female baseball players came out onto the field in the 1940s, encouraged by the success of their American neighbors, who had sporadically participated in tournaments since the last quarter of the 19th century.
The All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, which disbanded in 1954, was founded in 1943 after the decline of the Major Leagues due to the men’s enrollment in the army during World War II.
“It’s ugly to see women playing baseball,” said a young man interviewed by Pérez Zambrano. “Baseball has always been a men’s sport.”
Other men interviewed in the documentary believe that women “are better suited for cooking than playing baseball” or are “genetically inferior to men” — arguments they use to justify their disapproval of women playing baseball, which is almost a religion in this Caribbean island nation of 11.2 million people.
“In spite of all the achievements in terms of rights and laws, I do not believe that Cuban society is ready to see women playing baseball,” Dieguez noted. “However, they are making their own way,” she added.
One of the young players interviewed in “Major Leagues?” talks about the rejection she faced from her family and her boyfriend. “I had to choose between baseball or my boyfriend, and I chose baseball,” she said.
“The world has changed and women are no longer slaves,” says one of her teammates.
Pérez Zambrano, for his part, believes that their efforts will bear fruit. “We blindly believe that, whether in a simple or more complex way, men and women will come together in peace and equality,” he said.
And maybe that is the final message of the documentary, which ends with a little boy saying “they could even play in the Major Leagues.”
“The younger generations are the ones that may be ready to assume this transgression, to burst open this patriarchal culture that lives inside of all of us, both men and women,” said Dieguez.