Dreaming in Cuban works on three levels. At the surface, it is a melodrama, the story of various members of a large family scattered among New York, Florida, and Cuba. This, however, is the least intense part of the story. The fact that this is a Cuban family, wherever its members may live, is central to the work.
The political level of the novel is quite close to the surface. The characters include Communists working hard for El Lider and capitalists who despise the Cuban government. The author’s own political stance is never made clear. Communism is praised and criticized alternately. The major point is that the characters themselves, both those who remain in Cuba and those who emigrate to the United States, are somewhat confused. The members of the third generation, especially Pilar, are torn between a way of life in Cuba that is uncomfortable and a longing for a return “home.”
The most intense part of the story, and the reason for the title, is spiritual. Cuba, as a Communist country, is supposed to be atheistic; however, spiritual values are not changed instantly by an altering of the political climate. Most Cubans in the story are Roman Catholics; only Pilar, the most American of the family and the youngest character portrayed in detail, considers atheism as a possible way of life.
Underneath Catholicism, however, lies an even older religion. The story begins and ends with rites of Santeria, an ancient religion...
Cultural and political ideology figure in the construction of each character's identity. But given the diversity of the del Pino women, identity construction is not (and should not be interpreted) a generalizable, passive inscription. In other words, the concept of a person as a tabula rasa needs to be replaced with something more interactive: namely, a tabula rasa that is not just a blank slate to be written upon by outside forces, but one which can write on itself (this concept is key for the theme of Memory/Dreaming). This applies literally in Celia's case as she writes to Gustavo on the eleventh of every month. Her routine of writing is an escape from her environment and troubling situations in life. Prior to Lourdes' birth, she had contemplated a real escape to Spain; writing substitutes for the geographical escape.
Felicia's identity is largely influenced by her tragic marriages, but eventually Santeria becomes essential to her. Santeria is her routine, and a practical and spiritual escape. She does this despite her mother's lifelong repudiation of all things related to Santeria. As Santeria has a cultural and religious tradition, Felicia takes more control of formulating her identity by tapping into a cultural/religious heritage.
When Lourdes moves to New York, she embraces American capitalism while her husband never seems to fit in. Politically, she is against the revolution and this dogma is solidified when revolutionary soldiers appropriate her husband's family's land and physically assault her. Lourdes is running from what she sees as a corrupt situation. So, she is primed for something antithetical to Cuba's burgeoning socialist state; she flourishes in America, opening two bakeries. Her escape is her work: an entrepreneur, a self-made woman.
Pilar, living only her first two years in Cuba, identifies strongly with Cuba (and Celia). However, her return there convinces her that she is partially Cuban, but belongs in New York more. More than any character, Pilar exists between the two cultures. Her escape is music and art: also the two defining routines of her identity. To redefine her identity, Pilar feels she must reclaim some of her Cuban heritage.
Javier moves to Czechoslovakia so early in the novel that we know very little about him. His move may have been an escape, but when he returns, he does escape: exile is more apropos. His wife takes his daughter and goes off with another man. Javier returns to Cuba and goes off to die alone.
In each case, escape (or exile) is a significant part of identity. To be sure, escape in this sense is not always the same as abandonment or a retreat from reality. It is a means of taking control of one's destiny. Celia's children lived an ostensibly nomadic life (even Felicia, going from marriage to marriage), but these were not senseless wanderings. Each "escape" is a self-reliant move, often resulting from the inability to connect with family. The self-reliant move is a means to take control of the construction of each respective identity in spite of, and/or in flow with, shifting political and cultural factors. The diversity of identity speaks to the variety of responses (by Cuban natives and exiles/emigres) to the Cuban Revolution. Also, it shows that the concept of exile is not a "fleeing" but maybe a proactive decision: a manifest escape.
In each case of the del Pino women, the redefining of memory occurs individually. So, there is an underlying feminist theme (at times, matriarchal) in the fact that they are defining moments and practices are done without men.
This theme interweaves with family and identity. Memory and dreaming are the ways the del Pino women respectively preserve/reconstruct (or rehistoricize) the past. In other novels (and historically), this type of historical reconstruction is to combat an oppressor's attempt to erase a cultural heritage: one example being certain Native American nations being eradicated by Colonialist expansion. With the characters in Dreaming in Cuban, the preservation and reconstructive dreaming of history is more personal than communal or national....