Dreaming in Cuban
Cristina García’s first novel, Dreaming in Cuban, dramatizes the profound interconnections between three generations of Cuban women. Their memories, dreams, and hopes are gradually revealed and interlinked, and the importance to them of Cuba and what it means to be Cuban is explored. The voices of the three generations are presented in short, clearly labeled segments that move backward and forward in time to tell their life stories. Gradually their lives are interwoven and their interdependencies become apparent, although historical events have separated the family members geographically.
For Celia del Pino, and for her three children and her grandchildren, Cuba is a complex construct of memories and realities. Celia’s story frames the novel. Sets of her unmailed monthly letters to her first love, a Spaniard who returned to Spain in 1935, just before the Spanish Civil War, are included at regular intervals throughout the book, in chronological order. The book concludes with Celia’s last letter, in which she tells Gustavo that “The revolution is eleven days old. My granddaughter, Pilar Puente del Pino, was born today. It is also my birthday. I am fifty years old. I will no longer write to you, mi amor. She will remember everything.” The novel is structured as Celia’s transmission to Pilar of all she knows. The family members are introduced in the immediate present of 1972, and their various stories gradually mesh and explain each other as they recount the events of the next eight years. Celia and her daughters, Lourdes and Felicia, are described in an intimate third-person voice, and the grandchildren tell their tales in first-person segments, with the strongest voice being that of Pilar.
Celia in 1972 is an enthusiastic supporter of Fidel Castro (El Líder in the book), and she is proud to be part of the revolution. As the novel opens, she dresses up in her best housedress and drop pearl earrings to keep watch from her porch swing, but instead of a hostile invading force, she sees the image of her husband and knows that he has died in New York City, where he had gone for medical treatment. She thinks back over her life, and the displacements and passions that have shaped it.
Everyone in Dreaming in Cuban has been displaced: some by exile, some by madness, some by family crises. The novel reveals the similarities of their different experiences, and the family ties, intuitions, hallucinations, and dreams that bind them together. For Celia, displacement occurred when her mother put her on a train when she was four, to go live with her Tía Alicia in Havana. She loved one man but married another, feels out of touch with her children, and yearns especially for closer contact with her first grandchild, Pilar, in Brooklyn; in Cuba, Celia “closes her eyes and speaks to her granddaughter, imagines her words as slivers of light piercing the murky night.”
Celia’s daughter Felicia has stayed in Cuba but is indifferent to the revolution, in touch only with her passions and the melodramas of daily life. Infected with syphilis by her first husband, a merchant sailor, she struggles with bouts of dementia, violent behavior, and amnesia, described with sympathy and wonderful humor, as when Felicia is assigned to a special attitude-reforming brigade in the mountains as a corrective for having tried to commit the antirevolutionary act of suicide.
For Celia’s other daughter, Lourdes, the revolution has meant being violently dispossessed of family land and being raped by a revolutionary soldier, followed by migration to Miami and then to Brooklyn. Her husband is unable to adjust, but Lourdes thrives. She runs one bakery successfully and then opens a second one. “Immigration has redefined her, and she is grateful. Unlike her husband, she welcomes her adopted language, its possibilities for reinvention.” While Celia communes frequently with the sea, wading into the water by her house, immersing herself in its tides and rhythms, for Lourdes, it is winter that makes her feel alive. She loves “the cold scraping sounds on sidewalks and windshields, the ritual of scarves and gloves, hats and zip-in coat linings. Its layers protect her. She wants no part of Cuba, no part of its wretched carnival floats creaking with lies, no part of Cuba at all, which Lourdes claims never possessed her.”
For Pilar, Lourdes’s daughter, Cuba represents all she longs for: warmth, identity, family connectedness, and the presence of her beloved grandmother. Pilar’s first- person account is a story of growing up and becoming aware of adult realities. She tries to run away to Cuba when she discovers her father with a lover, but she gets only as far as her uncle’s house in Miami. She struggles with her strong-willed mother, tries out art school and boyfriends and punk rock, and despairs at her parents’ right-wing politics, scoffing that her mother’s “Yankee Doodle bakeries have become gathering places for these shady Cuban extremists who come all the way from New Jersey and the Bronx to talk their dinosaur politics and drink her killer espressos.” Pilar yearns for the Cuba she has never known, fearing that “Every day Cuba fades a little more inside me, my grandmother fades a little more inside me. And there’s only my imagination where our history should be.” She believes that a return to Cuba will put all the pieces of her life together. When she and Lourdes do return to Havana, impelled by Pilar’s sense of urgency (and indeed they do find Celia in despair after the death of Felicia), Pilar does reconnect with her grandmother; as she listens to Celia’s stories, she says that “I feel my grandmother’s life passing to me through her hands. It’s a steady electricity, humming and true.” Celia passes along to Pilar her unmailed letters to her Spanish lover, along with the volume of Federico García Lorca poems that have meant so much to her and that have been woven into the narrative. Pilar begins to dream in Spanish. In Cuba, she says, “I wake up feeling different, like something inside me is changing, something chemical and irreversible.” But she knows that however deeply important it has been to her to experience Cuba, she eventually will need to return to...
(The entire section is 2556 words.)