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HELEN I. SAFA

HELEN I. SAFA

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July 10, 2014
April 02, 2014
Hearing of Helen's passing- a few months after my father's death (he'd turned 83 in February, and died in May 2013), shocked and saddened me unbelievably. Helen was so active and energetic throughout her life that I thought she'd go on forever. Indeed, she had so many new ideas to impart with her characteristic passion and assiduousness, that she contributed two chapters (as opposed to the routine one per author) to my International Handbook of Gender and Poverty as recently as 2010!
Helen's book Sex and Class in Latin America (1976) (co-edited with June Nash) was a Godsend when I embarked on my PhD on gender and housing at UCL in 1981, at which time dedicated literature on gender in Latin America was scant in the extreme), and just before I submitted my thesis in 1984 I came across a completely original and illuminating piece she'd written in 1964 on family structure and low-income housing in Puerto Rico (in the journal Caribbean Studies) which drove home just how pioneering her work was from her graduate days, and which was a vital - if overdue- inclusion in my dissertation.
I first met Helen in person at LASA 1997 in Guadalajara, after which she joined Mercedes Gonzalez de la Rocha, Lucy Wartenburg, Lucero Garcia and me on a little trip to Puerto Vallarta, during which she proved to be amazing company, was relentlessly up for late nights and laughter, and put us all to shame when it came to the fine arts of merengue. Helen also gave another demonstration of her dancing skills when she came to the SLAS Annual Conference in 1999, my last year as President.

Over the years Helen became a very dear friend and colleague, and wrote more references and endorsements for me than I am able to remember.

I will miss her profoundly, in so many ways, but she will be an eternal light in Latin American gender scholarship. I continue to cite her, as I know generations of scholars and students will persist in so doing.

Un gran abrazo muy querida Helen
Sylvia
January 08, 2014
Here's the text I read at Helen's memorial service in Gainesville on December 21.
Years before I met Helen Safa, I had a powerful image of her. The image came from a photograph featured in her classic 1974 book, "The Urban Poor of Puerto Rico," translated as "Familias del arrabal" in 1980. In that photograph, Helen appears as a radiant Amazonian woman, with her signature grin and a colorful dress, carrying a Puerto Rican child, probably from a public housing project in Santurce, where she conducted fieldwork for her doctoral dissertation between 1959 and 1960.
That's why I immediately recognized her when I first met her at an Old San Juan café, during a feminist meeting one night in the early 1980s. As a graduate student beginning my own research on the Island, I was initially in awe of Helen's physical and academic stature. But her informality and approachability quickly made me feel at ease.
During the next three decades, I got to know her well and at some point became one of her "adopted sons and daughters," a network of scholars in the social sciences and the humanities scattered throughout the United States, Latin America, and the Caribbean. Like any good mother, Helen kept in constant contact to nurture us intellectually, connect us to each other, and sometimes scold us for having missed this or that conference or for not publishing that article she liked so much in a decent journal.
I was never Helen's formal student—like other accomplished anthropologists and sociologists such as María Patricia Fernández-Kelly, Lynn Bolles, Yolanda Prieto, Mary Garcia Castro, Liliana Cotto, or Carmen Angélica Pérez—and I therefore don't feel the loyalty or gratitude of a true disciple. Furthermore, I didn't specialize in the study of women and development, like my esteemed Puerto Rican colleagues Alice Colón-Warren, María del Carmen Baerga, Luz del Alba Acevedo, and Luisa Hernández Angueira, or the Dominican sociologists Magaly Pineda and Milagros Ricourt, and the Cuban sociologist Marta Núñez, who built on and expanded Helen's insights in their own work.
Nevertheless, I recognize Helen's enormous intellectual and professional influence on my academic career. My Ph.D. dissertation on the Cuban community in Puerto Rico extensively cites her pioneering ethnography of San Juan. As I wrote my thesis, I incorporated her early essays on Caribbean migration and cultural identity in my analysis. Somewhere I still keep a memorable letter Helen wrote me in the mid-1980s, congratulating me for publishing one of my first articles on salsa music. She later chaired the search committee that brought me to Gainesville to work as Assistant Director of the Center for Latin American Studies in 1987-88. Helen and her first husband Manou helped my wife Diana and I feel at home in Gainesville. She and her second husband John were the perfect hosts during my stint as a Visiting Scholar at UF in 2007.
Many of Helen's research and teaching interests coincided with my own, including urban anthropology, Caribbean studies, migration, ethnicity, nationalism, race, and popular culture. When Helen retired in 1997, I felt as if I had inherited some of her main intellectual concerns—but that was too heavy a burden to bear. Fortunately, Helen continued to write, publish, present papers, and travel around the globe, accompanied by John. She remained extremely active in the anthropological profession as well as in the interdisciplinary field of Latin American and Caribbean studies for 16 years after her official retirement. We often saw each other at academic events in places as far away from each other as Gainesville, San Juan, Montreal, Rio de Janeiro, and Amsterdam. I struggled to keep up with Helen, who always managed to take on a new research project, a lecture to give in a different country, or another colleague she wanted to collaborate with.
Anyone close to Helen knew how important were ties of reciprocity, solidarity, and mutual aid for her—as they were for many of the Caribbean women she studied for more than five decades—as well as her generous encouragement of younger scholars and graduate students, especially women from the Caribbean and particularly from Puerto Rico. The word "mentor" describes well this facet of Helen's legacy. Her numerous contributions to anthropology, women's and gender studies, and Latin American and Caribbean studies are not limited to her extensive publications, but encompass a whirl of teaching, lecturing, leading seminars, organizing conference panels, tutoring and supervising theses, raising funds, mounting campaigns, serving on numerous professional committees and advisory boards, writing letters of recommendation and evaluations for tenure and promotion, and—according to some Dominican sources—even supporting popular struggles against dictatorial regimes. A dynamic public intellectual, she never divorced her academic work from her practical commitments as a citizen.
For myself, I can attest to her untiring efforts to insert Puerto Rico and the Caribbean in the conceptual map of the U.S. academy, which still pays relatively little attention to the region. She was a staunch believer in institutionalizing Puerto Rican, Caribbean, and Latino Studies in the United States, as well as a promoter of social change, equality, and justice for the people she studied, identified with, and loved so dearly. Contrary to many other U.S. scholars, Helen continued to travel back to Puerto Rico, actively engaged with the Island's intellectuals, and kept abreast of recent developments there. Thus, she often returned to her roots as a young scholar with a broad smile and embracing a child from a poor neighborhood in San Juan, which is how I'll always remember her.
December 31, 2013
Helen came to be a part of my life, not gradually as with most relationships, but rather with the force of a full blown hurricane! For Helen never did things half-heartedly, she was fully committed to all and whom she cared about. This characterized most things Helen did whether it was her scholarship, friends, family or mentoring students and scholars. Indeed, Helen loved passionately and her radiant smile would light up a room -- in fact, few could say "no" to Helen when she flashed that smile! Helen was many things to me, but above all she was my friend. She was generous to a fault; nor was she hesitant to sort me out if she thought I needed it. She truly lived her life "big"; her death leaves a void and a silence that cannot be filled. She was one of a kind, and I will miss her dearly.
December 28, 2013
Dear Mitra, John, and all members of the Safa family:
Helen was a very close friend and a big part of my life for some three decades. I extend my deepest sympathies to each of you for her loss. Her dynamism and contributions to people's lives and worthy causes far and wide were such that I am sure that we will cherish her memory for a very long time.
I attach my words at her Celebration of Life event on a separate message.
Love and peace,
Ofelia
December 22, 2013
Carmen Diana Deere's comments at Helen Safa's Celebration of Life event, December 21, 2013, Gainesville, FL

A TRIBUTE TO QUEEN HELEN:
When Helen asked me to speak at her memorial service, she had two requests: that the event be fun & enjoyable, and that I try to be funny. [I would thus be very grateful if you laughed at my jokes]. I want to share 2 stories with you, one about how Helen & I first met, and then about how she came to be called “Queen Helen”.
In 1972 Helen, June Nash and Elsa Chaney were commissioned by the Social Science Research Council to do a tour of Latin America to find out who was working on the status of women. As June Nash—her fellow anthropologist and life-long friend-- wrote in her tribute to Helen—at that time the work of women scholars in LA was rarely cited and very few of them were known outside their own country. They identified 20 scholars (18 women & 2 men) and subsequently invited them to the first academic conference on women in LA, held in Buenos Aires in 1974, and then as a follow-up, to teach in a 2-month research & training workshop for graduate students in Cuernavaca, Mexico that summer. The conference & workshop were titled “Feminine Perspectives on Latin America”, for which they were later criticized for not using the term “Feminist perspectives,” but as June reports “they didn't think men [the funders] were ready for that forceful a statement.”
The conference served as the basis for Helen & June's first co-edited book, Sex and Class in Latin America, the first compilation of studies on gender from across Latin America, published simultaneously in both English & Spanish. As Magdalena León, a Colombian feminist scholar, writes in her tribute to Helen, their networking was “visionary” and this book constituted the “point of departure” for the field of gender studies in Latin America.
I heard about the Cuernavaca workshop while a graduate student at Berkeley and the timing couldn't have been more perfect since I was searching for a dissertation topic. The application form asked for a lot of detail, like where you were born and had grown up and I dutifully filled it out, noting that my mother was Puertorican and that I grew up on the island. What I didn't know was that they wanted a particular combination of participants: 1/3 from LA, 1/3 Latinas, and only 1/3 Anglo grad students – reflecting their awareness that the study of women IN L.A. could be politically sensitive as well as their commitment to be inclusive of Latin Americans. The months went by and then one day out of the blue I get a phone call from Helen and the very first thing she says to me –in that very direct way of hers-- is “Carmen: Are you REALLY Puertorican?”
After suffering an identity crisis from that incident, I did make it to Cuernavaca where I finally met Helen in person as well as her 10-year old daughter Mitra who was forced to live in a motel with all these feminists, bored to tears, for the summer. I also met Marianne Schmink, a fellow student, and later on that summer, Chuck Wood. Little did I imagine forty years ago the profound influence that Helen would have on my life or that the four of us would all end up in GNV at the UF Center for LAS. My parents still attribute my being hired at UF to Helen's influence, although such took place a number of years after her retirement. They are surely correct, though, in terms of the mentoring that I received from Helen throughout my professional career.
As a mentor and networker, Helen was unrivaled, as the many testimonials to her attest. Paola Aleman, a Nicaraguan feminist scholar now at McGill, writes that “Helen cared about the subjects that she studied, but as important, she cared deeply about supporting Latin American women scholars, nurturing our own growth and evolution as researchers.”
Helen was also committed to changing the male-centric practices of institutions, including our own interdisciplinary professional organization, the Latin American Studies Association. It may be hard to believe today, but as historian Meg Crahan reminds us in her tribute to Helen, on the 1973 LASA program NO WOMEN appeared as presenters, nor were there any women candidates for the LASA Executive Council. Helen along with Meg and a few others thus established the Women's Caucus of Latin Americanists, the precursor of what would later become the Task Force on Women and today's Gender & Feminist Studies section. Ten years later, Helen became President of LASA. In 2007 she was the third woman to receive LASA's highest recognition for academic and professional accomplishments, the Kalman Silvert Award.
As Susanne Jonas, a fellow rebel-rouser in LASA, writes: “Helen was a unique combination of public intellectual and expert scholar, feminist and vibrant role model. She paved the way for generations of women throughout the hemisphere to fulfill their potential.”
Now, to how Helen got the name “Queen Helen”…
Ofelia has already mentioned Helen's passion for Cuba and her pioneering role in bridging the academic divide between US and Cuban scholars. Upon her arrival at UF as Director of the Center, these activities with Cuba quickly drew the attention of some in the Florida legislature, who were determined to stop them, leading to her being dubbed “the Red Queen”. I met one of these former representatives in Miami many years later, a veteran of the Bay of Pigs, who proudly told me that he was responsible “for that Communist Director at the Center” stepping down under the threat of UF funding being cut. It's not clear to this day whether this was the way it all went down; Helen did move on from being Center Director to launching the Center's Caribbean program which she directed until her retirement in 1997. Our colleague Efrain Barradas, who couldn't be with us today, was the one who began to refer to Helen as “Queen Helen.” And Helen would laugh in delight in that special way of hers…
So to conclude,
Queen Helen – PRESENTE!!
December 21, 2013
Dear Carmen Diana, John, Lynn and Jean:

Antonio Lauria and I regret that we are unable to attend the December 21st memorial ceremony for Helen. However, we wish to share a few memories, which hopefully you will pass on to her children.


Helen has been a long-time anthropology colleague who became a friend.

Antonio first met Helen in the 1950s in Puerto Rico when she was carrying out her initial urban
research and he also was engaged in research there. I met her in the late 60s when she became a
professor at Rutgers University and I was a Professor at New York University. An academic interest
in the Caribbean arose during this time due to the extensive Caribbean migration to New York city in
the mid-1960s. This led to both formal and informal conferences about the Caribbean where Helen and
I would meet. While Helen's research interests focused on the Hispanic Caribbean and later extended
to Brazil and the wider Latin America, mine focused on the Anglophone Caribbean and West Africa.
This resulted in our making interesting comparisons.

With the rise of the feminist movement in the early 1970s, our meetings dramatically increased as
did the issues we selected to research and to discuss when we met, including the ways we were
affected during this period by being mothers of young children and married to men of middle eastern
backgrounds. However, it was in 1985 that our relationship became closer as we worked together in
organizing sessions for the 1985 International Women's Conference held in Nairobi in July, followed
by a week-long Wenner-Gren Conference, held a few month later, entitled “A Decade of Women's
Collective Actions: Anthropological Perspectives,” held in Mijas, Spain. We brought women from
India, Sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America, and elsewhere to discuss different forms and strategies of
social movements and how to develop a cross-cultural framework for understanding and organizing
women's movements globally. We agreed that it was one of the most exciting conferences we had attended.

From thereon, Helen and I would meet in Barbados, Cuba, or Puerto Rico in course of being invited
to conferences or to give talks. And after Helen retired, we would see her and John Dumoulin in New
York City, where we live, at least once or twice a year when they came to visit. We would always get
together and catch up on things happening generally and in the Caribbean.

We admire Helen for her energy, her output, and the issues she addressed. As she wrote in a copy of
Caribbean Studies dedicated to her which she gave us: “for our profound love of the Caribbean and
its people.” We will deeply miss her visits.

Connie Sutton and Antonio Lauria
December 16, 2013
Words fail me. Helen was such a great and wonderful friend. She let me tag along for experiences that I would not have pursued on my own. She opened my mind. She always was eager and happy to share with others the many things that she had learned. I don't think I ever thanked Helen enough for what she did for me. Helen will be greatly missed.
December 13, 2013
Queridos Carmen Diana, John y familia de Helen:


Como te comunique anteriormente no puedo asistir a la reunión para honrar la vida de Helen el 21 de este mes. Su muerte y no poder estar presente para celebrar su vida me causan profunda tristeza y traen a mi memoria muy gratos recuerdos y remembranzas de su vida y su amistad.

Quiero decir, y dejar muy claro, que para mi generación de feministas Helen fue sin lugar a dadas piedra fundacional de nuestra capacitación, compromiso, entusiasmo y persistencia en la investigación y la acción colectiva en pro de las mujeres. La reunión pionera de Cuernavaca y el seminario realizado en Buenos Aires que Helen y June Nash apoyaron de manera visionaria representan los los mojones mas sólidos del arranque en la historia de los Estudios sobre la Mujer en América Latina. Además, hay que decir que ese impulso para iniciar este campo de estudios continuó y fue abonado por Helen durante toda su vida. Su generosidad con el conocimiento, con los contactos, con los sentimientos y con la amistad tejieron el vigoroso campo de los Estudios Feministas y de Género que hoy caracteriza a la región latinoamericana.

De esta manera, Helen fue un ejemplo académico inmejorable. Pero no solo fue brújula en este campo. Quiero recordar que cuando unió su vida con John le comenté a las amigas, y muy en particular a ti, Carmen Diana, que "nuestra Helen" nos estaba dando un ejemplo más, al mostrarnos cómo su vida académica y emocional se fusionaban en un todo armónico y sólido que le permitía seguir adelante con dinamismo y entusiasmo sus luchas.

Tengo muy presente una comida a la que me invitó con mis hijas pequeñas y con Pacho. Mis hijas jugaron con los juguetes de su hija y al termino de la reunión mi hija menor, la Gugui, sostenía con cariño un pato amarillo de felpa. Helen entendió que no quería separase del pato y le dijo "llévalo a tu casa y cuídalo mucho". Este pato acompaño mi familia por muchos años y hoy lo tengo presente en mis memorias.

Sabemos que Helen nos hace falta, pero al mismo tiempo sabemos que sus enseñanzas y cálida sonrisa queda presente para honrar su vida.

Un fuerte abrazo,


Magdalena
December 11, 2013
Helen looms large in the lives of all who knew her, and for me, like many other women academics, it is hard to extricate the professional from the personal. Helen became our mentor in every sense of the word, at times nigh impossibly so, yet always the nurturing elder, setting an example I have tried to live up to and pass on. My overriding personal memories of Helen are associated with water: a chance encounter in the warm Caribbean sea off the West coast of Barbados, followed by more planned encounters off the coast of Cuba, other Caribbean territories, and Florida, whether the coast or Paynes Prairie. And wherever there was a pool, we would be in there, exercising and talking. These days, in the pool here in the south west of England, I've found myself smiling remembering those times. Thank you, Helen. You remain with us, but we'll miss you.

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