Dreaming in Cuban is a novel about the bonds and differences (political, geographical, and personal) of three generations of women in the del Pino family. The novel is set against the backdrop of the Cuban Revolution.
The narrative begins with the family’s matriarch, Celia del Pino, an ardent supporter of Fidel Castro (El Líder), proudly scanning the horizon for traitors as a lookout for Santa Teresa del Mar. Her recently deceased husband, Jorge, appears and mouths words she cannot understand, then disappears. She thinks of the revolution and her bond with her granddaughter Pilar. Very much in tune to the sway of the sea, Celia wades into the water, then swims back and watches the sea until daybreak.
Felicia, Celia’s troubled younger daughter, arrives having just received a call from New York (from older sister Lourdes) informing her of their father's (Jorge) death. Celia tells a distraught Felicia that she already knows because Jorge visited her last night. Herminia, Felicia's best friend, says Felicia must make peace with her father. They visit La Madrina, a Santeria priestess, where they sacrifice a goat to Elleguá, the god of the crossroads. Chapter 1 ends with Felicia passed out on La Madrina’s saint-room floor.
Early morning in Brooklyn, Lourdes gets ready for work, expecting her daughter, Pilar, to be at the bakery after school. Like Celia’s pride in her solitary guarding of Cuba’s coast, Lourdes enjoys her morning walk and the quiet of the bakery before it opens. When Jorge dies, Lourdes cannot reach her mother but does talk to Felicia. Lourdes has gained 118 pounds since her father got sick and came to New York. During this time, her appetite for baked goods and sex has increased. An exhausted Rufino, Lourdes's husband, is amazed that as her weight increases so does her sexual agility.
The day Lourdes learns of her father’s death, Pilar witnesses her father kissing another woman. Fed up with her mother’s intrusiveness and black-and-white worldview, and moved by a deep-seated urge to see Celia, Pilar decides to return to Cuba.
On the bus to Florida, Pilar daydreams. Pilar and Celia had written each other letters, but now, she mostly listens when Celia speaks to her at night. Pilar recalls how her father had to convince her mother to let Pilar go to art school, how her painting is becoming more abstract, and how her grandfather, Abuelo Jorge, told her that she reminds him of Celia. Pilar dreams she is on a beach, wearing white, surrounded by people praying, and she can see Celia’s face.
The House on Palmas Street
Celia waits for her twin granddaughters, Luz and Milagro, Felicia’s children, outside the Nikolai Lenin Elementary School. She considers her life of waiting: for her husband to leave so that she could play Debussy on piano, for rains to end, and for her lover to return from Spain. Before marrying Jorge, Celia fell in love with Gustavo, the true love of her life. When Gustavo returned to Spain, Celia was inconsolable. Her great aunt, Alicia, took her to a santera, who told Celia that she saw a “wet landscape” in her palm. Celia met Jorge, who insisted she write to Gustavo, and if he did not reply, she and Jorge would marry. Celia wrote a letter to Gustavo every 11th of the month for the next twenty-five years and stored them in a chest.
Celia takes Luz and Milagro home to Felicia, and then she takes Ivanito to their house on Palmas Street. Celia recalls the time she and Jorge stayed with them in the same house, concluding that the house “brought only misfortune.” Jorge was often away on business and his mother, Berta Arango del Pino, and sister, Ofelia, treated Celia terribly. Celia became pregnant and decided that if she has a boy, she will leave for Spain, hoping to find Gustavo. If it is a girl, she will stay. Lourdes is born, and Celia, just before she enters an asylum, hands the baby to Jorge, saying, “I will not remember her name.” Lourdes and Celia turn out to be on opposite ends of the political spectrum.
As the narrative returns to the present, Celia begins working in the sugar cane fields. She returns one day to find Felicia incoherent. She takes the twins to Santa Teresa del Mar. Ivanito will not leave his mother. Celia recalls how Hugo Villaverde, Felicia’s first husband, had beat her and returned from a trip to sire Ivanito and give Felicia syphilis.
Celia’s Letters: 1935-1940
Celia tells Gustavo of her marriage to Jorge and the birth of their daughter Lourdes. Writing from the asylum, she meets Felicia Gutíerrez, who had killed her husband by lighting him on fire. Celia says “they,” perhaps the asylum orderlies, burned Felicia in her bed, although it may have been a suicide. Celia names her second daughter Felicia and Jorge thinks this will doom her. Although still in love with Gustavo, Celia writes that she is surprised how affected she is when Jorge is in an accident. While Jorge is recovering, Lourdes does does not leave his side, and the two of them ignore Felicia’s cries for attention.
A Grove of Lemons
Pilar arrives in Florida and looks for her cousin, Blanquito. Unable to reach him, she seeks refuge in a church where she remembers being kicked out for comparing Spanish inquisitors to Nazis. At Blanquito’s house, she spies his mom, Rosario, and her paternal grandmother, Abuela Zaida, whom Pilar describes as “fakely pious” and generally superficial. As it starts to rain, Pilar falls asleep on a lawn chair and is discovered by Tia Rosario....