Dr. Tiffany Sippial’s research focuses on the experience of women in Latin America, as part of a broader commitment to the study of the operation of power in Latin American society. Her first book, Prostitution, Modernity, and the Making of the Cuban Republic, 1840-1920 (University of North Carolina Press), received the 2013-2014 Alfred B. Thomas Award for the best book on a Latin American subject from the Southeastern Council of Latin American Studies. Sippial’s second book, Celia Sánchez Manduley: The Life and Legacy of a Cuban Revolutionary was also published by University of North Carolina Press in 2020. Her research has been supported by a Fulbright-Hays Doctoral Dissertation Grant, a CCWH Berkshire Conference of Women Historians Award, an American Historical Association Albert J. Beveridge Grant for Research in the History of the Western Hemisphere, a Latin American and Iberian Institute Doctoral Degree Fellowship, and a Dean’s Dissertation Scholarship from the University of New Mexico.
Sippial received her doctoral degree in Latin American History with distinction from the University of New Mexico in 2007 and joined the history faculty at Auburn that same year. She has completed prestigious fellowships with the Southeastern Conference’s Academic Leadership Development Program and the HERS Leadership Institute, and she was the university’s Presidential Administrative Fellow in 2017.
In 2010, Sippial was honored with an Early Career Teaching Excellence Award by the College of Liberal Arts, and she received the Auburn Alumni Association Teaching Excellence Award in 2015. A strong advocate of international experiences, Sippial leads the Honors College study and travel courses to Cuba. Sippial also served as president of the Latin American and Caribbean Section of the Southern Historical Association in 2018-2019.
Take it away, Tiffany:
What path led you to Celia Sánchez Manduley’s story?
The first name mentioned in the acknowledgements section of my book is Dr. Sonia Riquelme. She was my Latin American literature professor at Southwestern University and a massive influence on my academic career. Unfortunately, she has passed away, but I wish that she could have seen the culmination of her influence on me and this project.
I traveled to Oaxaca (Mexico) with Sonia in 1994 on a university-sponsored study and travel experience. While there, I became fascinated with the stories of indigenous women fighting with the Zapatistas in Chiapas. Sonia celebrated and encouraged that interest. A couple of years later, she approached me with a proposition that would change my life. She had received a grant to study Afro-Cuban poets and she wanted to take me to Cuba with her. She insisted, however, that I conduct my own research while there and mentioned Celia Sánchez as a possible woman to research.
I remember that distinct mix of elation and fear that her proposition sparked in me. I was so honored Sonia selected me for the opportunity, but I did not know anyone who had even traveled to Cuba. My parents were so worried about the state of U.S.-Cuban relations at that time (1996) and they feared that those tensions might complicate our plans. I am grateful that they let me go on the trip, despite their trepidation.
Sonia taught me how to research that summer and helped me locate and connect with my first interviewees. She came to the libraries and archives with me to help me learn how to work with the (few available) sources about Sánchez’s life. We both marveled at the paucity of sources, considering that Sánchez was—and remains—such an iconic figure within the history of the Cuban Revolution. This was truly my first glimpse into the difficulties scholars face when attempting to research and write the life stories of women. I could not imagine that in the summer of 1996 I was beginning a research journey that would last for more than two decades.
In my roles as a professor and administrator, I love that I now have the chance to support and encourage students to engage in undergraduate research and study abroad opportunities. I could not have imagined that an undergraduate thesis would prove the first step toward an eventual book, but I share my story with my students all the time. I want them to see that the interests they discover now may well shape their lives for years to come.
What did you find most challenging about researching Celia Sánchez Manduley?
Everyone who is committed to researching and writing the histories of women faces numerous challenges. For many of us, the primary obstacle is lack of sources. Stories of women often do not figure prominently—or at all—within “official” narratives of key historical events and processes. These omissions require us to become especially enterprising, creative, tenacious, and resilient researchers. We have to discover and weave together sources that other scholars might overlook or disregard in order to tell the stories we want to tell. While I did have some written sources to work with, I also had to look to oral sources, pop culture, memorabilia, literature, music, poetry, monuments, museums, and photographs to piece together the story of Sánchez’s life and legacy. Those kinds of sources really allowed me to take a deep dive into popular imaginings of her life and read those imaginings alongside and against state-produced renderings of her biography.
Sánchez was also a famously private person. She hated the press and even threatened to change her name after the revolution. While I did eventually gain access to her personal papers—which are housed in the high-security Office of Historical Affairs that she herself created—she rarely gave interviews, avoided cameras, left only one incomplete diary, and generally did everything that she could to avoid the spotlight. One long-time colleague of Sánchez told me that she always acted “allergic to cameras.” This aversion to attention has since become one of the principal hallmarks of Sánchez’s legacy on the island: humility. As an historian, however, her desire to operate off camera made my job even more challenging. I state in the book that Sánchez was one of the primary architects of the silence surrounding her lived experience. I often wonder how she would feel knowing that she is the subject of a biography.
I also faced significant complications in my work due to fraught U.S.-Cuban diplomatic relations. From denied travel requests to potential interviewees who questioned my motives, my identity as a U.S. citizen complicated my ability to research one of Cuba’s most iconic women in many ways. I always understood this hesitancy and protectiveness. Allowing me access to the stories that sit at the heart of many Cubans’ national, and even personal, history and identity felt risky to many. I never let those hesitations halt my research, but I did work hard to win trust and prove the integrity of my intentions with the project. There are so many stories related to this element of my work, but the happiest of them occurred just prior to my finishing the book. I tell this story in the book, but it was only after more than twenty years of writing letters, making visits, and placing phone calls that the director of the Office of Historical Affairs finally granted me access to Sánchez’s personal papers in the Office of Historical Affairs in Havana. You can read the book to learn more about that most exciting development in the project!
What was the most surprising thing you have found doing historical research for your work?
This question may be asking me to remark on the most surprising thing I learned about Sánchez during my research, but I want to use it to offer a final encouragement to anyone engaged in this kind of work.
What is most surprising to me about the work of writing women’s histories—even after all of these years—is just how much work we still have ahead of us.
Writing women’s histories is challenging work, but it is absolutely worth pursuing. We have to keep at it, as there are still so many important stories that we have not yet told. Go to any bookstore or library—or flip through the pages of most history textbooks—and you will still find histories told primary through the lens of men’s experiences. The same is true for the history of Cuba and the Cuban Revolution. It is a history still dominated by the image of men with beards.
As educators, we also have the awesome opportunity to do what Sonia Riquelme did for me so many years ago. We can nurture, train, and reward those students willing to take up this important work. I hope that we will all continue to do so!
My question for you : What prompted you to start this blog and what do you hope to accomplish with it?
I’ll be honest: I started History in the Margins almost ten years ago with the hope of taking my writing career to the next level. The collective wisdom of the writing world was that if I wanted to sell a book to a traditional publisher, I needed a “platform.”* And one of the accepted ways of building a platform was to start a blog.
That said, I dragged my heels about blogging for a long time** because I believed (and still believe) that doing anything for the sole purpose of building a platform felt icky. Specifically, I needed an answer to one question: “Why another history blog? “ When I had an answer to that question it became my first blog post:
The first day of my PhD program, my advisor said, “You know there are no jobs, right?” I knew, but I didn’t care. I wanted to write about South Asia and history for a broader audience than the other five people interested in my dissertation topic. I wanted to write for history buffs and nerdy kids and the intelligent general reader.
When I finished my degree, I started writing for magazines aimed at history buffs, nerdy kids and –you get the idea. My first, and second, and third sales came straight from my dissertation research. Then I got an e-mail from an editor that said: “I know this isn’t what you normally do, but….” Suddenly the words “not my field” no longer applied. The fence of academic boundaries that had been both bulwark and prison was gone.
These days I write about a wide range of historical topics, from ancient Peru (Not just the Incas. Who knew?) to World War II. At least half the time I’m writing outside of “my field”. And at the end of every day I have a great story that didn’t quite fit in the piece at hand, a dangling idea that I want to play with, a connection I want to explore, or a book that I can’t wait to share with someone else.
I hope that someone will be you. Read along. Make a comment. Suggest a topic. Enjoy the ride.
Ten years, and roughly 1000 blog posts later, that answer remains unchanged, though I have a broader understanding of what History in the Margins is for me. It is a practice, in the sense that yoga can be a practice. It is a way to exercise my writing muscles. It is a place to play with ideas. And above all, it is an on-going conversation with people who share my interests.
*Just what constitutes “platform” was and remains a subject of debate and anxiety. My personal definition comes from the theme song to Cheers: “Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name and they’re always glad you came .” This may explain why my platform is small.
**Two years according to my working notes!
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Want to know more about Tiffany Sippial and her work?
Check out her faculty profile: https://cla.auburn.edu/history/people/faculty/faculty/tiffany-sippial/
Follow her on Twitter: @SippialTiffany
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Come back tomorrow for three questions and an answer with author Tori Telfer, talking about female confidence artists and serial killers. Because women’s history is not limited to role models and heroines. We contain multitudes.
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If you’re interested in the process of writing and thinking about history, you might enjoy my newsletter, which comes out roughly every two weeks. The content is totally different from History in the Margins. In recent months I’ve discussed cliffhangers, the odd experience of reading history “in real time” in the form of old newspapers, the question of “first-naming” the subject of a biography, and , well, women photojournalists. (You can tell where my mind’s been lately.) If that sounds like your cup of oolong, you can subscribe here: http://eepurl.com/dIft-b .(When you subscribe, you’ll get a link for a very cool downloadable timeline of the Roman emperors and the women who fought against them or supported them, which I created with the people behind The Exploress podcast.)