Cristina García’s intricate novel, The Agüero Sisters, examines four generations of a Cuban family and the secrets they have not shared. The most immediate question concerns the mysterious death of naturalist Blanca Agüero on an expedition in the Zapata Swamp, but as the novel progresses, larger questions arise: What is love? What is the nature of truth, and does knowledge change it? As in real life, not all of these questions are answered, but the important bonds of family are revealed through the healing influence of history, memory, and truth.
Like its acclaimed predecessor Dreaming in Cuban (1992), this book is set largely in the United States and Cuba during the years of communist rule under Fidel Castro. García, a former reporter and Miami bureau chief for Time magazine, once again employs a fluid structure teeming with flashbacks. The present-action chapters take place in the early 1990’s and are explored through Blanca’s daughters Constancia and Reina, the sisters of the title, and occasionally through a minor character. These chapters alternate with a first-person narrative written forty years earlier by Blanca’s husband, Ignacio.
The vibrant lead characters generate much of the power of the novel. Perhaps the most intriguing is Reina, a statuesque electrician who is nicknamed “Compañera Amazona” (Amazon comrade) by her male admirers. Reina travels through Cuba conducting seminars in her field and is frequently called on to install or repair all kinds of electrical equipment. She has always been comfortable with tools and machines; the presence of her toolbox intensifies her every pleasure. Men are dazzled not only by her strength and skill but also by her body, for she is a dark, magnificent woman without false modesty or shame. Dissembling is beyond her; she openly maintains a long-term relationship with her married lover.
Constancia, her older sister, is petite, pale like her mother, stylish, and self-disciplined. She climbs nine flights of stairs daily to keep her legs shapely and still speaks the Cuban Spanish of the late 1950’s, in use when she and her second husband, Heberto Cruz, fled as Castro seized power. After escaping Cuba, Constancia remained in genteel stasis in New York, where Heberto owned a tobacco shop, and where she was awarded a powder-pink Cadillac as “the top [cosmetics] salesperson in North America.” Following Heberto’s decision to retire at the end of 1990, they moved to Miami, where he prepares to “liberate” Cuba with a band of Cuban exiles. Constancia begins to manufacture her own line of cosmetics, Cuerpo de Cuba (Body of Cuba), in expensive blue glass bottles adorned with a cameo of her mother’s face.
The sisters share a sensitive digestion, ill-fated first love affairs (with capitalist Gonzalo Cruz, Constancia’s first husband, and the Cuban revolutionary who fathered Reina’s daughter), and willful, alienated children. Yet they are quite different in most other respects. After Reina joins Constancia in Miami, she mocks her sister’s enthusiasm for cosmetics: “Since when did cellulite ever deter passion?” She is also uncomfortable with the commercial use of their mother’s portrait on the blue bottles. Only six years old at her mother’s death, Reina now actively seeks further information about her parents. Constancia, on the other hand, tries to block her memories, but ironically her cosmetics have the ability to trigger nostalgia in her customers and herself, touching “the pink roots of their sadness.”
The two women unwittingly mirror their parents, as Ignacio’s narrative and their own accounts reveal. Ignacio was a true scientist: objective, methodical, concerning himself with things of the mind. He was also distant and cautious, like Constancia. The only child of a literary...
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father and musical mother, he fell in love with the natural world of birds and other living creatures. On his thirteenth birthday his parents gave him a copy of Birds of the World and arranged for a solo expedition to the Isle of Pines. At sixteen he enrolled in the University of Havana on a scholarship and eventually became a professor of biology. Among his many projects were a complete catalog of ninety- six vanishing bird species in Cuba and a number of published studies.
His wife Blanca was in some ways his opposite. At first Ignacio’s student, she too became a scientist. After he hired her as his competent research assistant, he was smitten with her and at last proposed, unaware that her dedication to science masked a passionate nature (she wore a red suit for the wedding). On their disastrous honeymoon, Blanca urged him to yield to her completely, but he resisted. Later her ardor dimmed, so much so that when she became pregnant she announced she would prefer to lay eggs and be done with it. Following Constancia’s birth, Blanca entered a deep depression and then disappeared for two and a half years. When she returned without explanation, she was eight months pregnant with Reina.
While Ignacio accepted Blanca back into his life, he could no longer bring himself to show affection to her or the children, no matter how fond he was of Constancia. When Blanca insisted on sending Constancia away after she jealously threatened the new baby, he allowed it. Nevertheless, Constancia loved him even though he permitted her to return only upon the death of her mother. Two years later, Ignacio shot himself through the heart, and the estranged sisters separately mourned the loss of their parents, never speaking of it.
As a scientist of sorts, Constancia now painstakingly analyzes and experiments with the natural ingredients which she uses for her cosmetics. Like Ignacio, whom she adored, she holds in every emotion as tightly as the girdle that binds her female flesh. She has never forgiven her mother for sending her away, yet she isolates herself emotionally just as her mother isolated her. In contrast, Reina’s life echoes her mother’s passion, just as Blanca once cast off all propriety to live with Reina’s biological father, a dark-skinned man who beat her.
In the sisters’ tentative search for the past, the Magical Realism typical of Latin American literature plays an important role. Two particularly strange events mark their lives. Earlier, when Blanca first disappeared, a wise woman predicted that she would return bearing a child for the African god Changó, to whom fire and lightning are sacred. Oddly enough, Reina was born with a mysterious affinity for light, fire, and electricity. Constancia even blames electrical irregularities in her Miami condo on Reina’s presence, as clocks run backward and lights dim.
Then, in 1990, as Reina attempts to repair a flooded pump in a Cuban mine, she is struck by lightning. Her burns result in a patchwork skin pieced together from grafts donated by relatives and friends. Her skin becomes multicolored rather than nutmeg brown, and she is obsessed by its peculiar odor even though no one else seems to notice. This experience eventually triggers her journey to Miami to find her sister and some answers to her questions.
At about the same time, Constancia awakens in Miami after a troubled sleep to discover that she is quite literally wearing her mother’s face. (At Blanca’s funeral, people noted that the child Constancia looked remarkably like her mother for about a week.) The face is never explained, although Reina suggests, “Sometimes we become what we try to forget most.” Ladylike Constancia, crediting her new face for her increased energy and business acumen, slowly begins to change. By the end of the novel, she has donned a wet suit to swim three miles to the Cuban shore to discover her own answers.
Strange powers have always existed in this family. Blanca’s mother, a mulatta descended from French Haitians, was reputed to be either a witch or a saint. Blanca herself, who always carried a small wrist bone with her, exhibited an unusual knowledge of herbs. Other peculiar incidents include an account of Ignacio’s birth, during which a black owl seized the placenta and flew away, sprinkling blood over the president of Cuba and a waiting crowd; the three conflicting visions of the bird (crow, dove, or hummingbird?) that hovered above Blanca’s grave; and Constancia’s attempt to prevent hallucinations by dosing herself with silver dust.
The novel presents a mystery worthy of exploration, rewarding but at times difficult. Although García’s four major characters are skillfully drawn, some of the minor characters, especially the sisters’ three children, are less successful. Those who prefer tidy conclusions may be distressed by the number of loose ends remaining in this story. What happened between Blanca and her father, whom she wanted to forget? Why does Silvestre, son of Constancia and her first husband, Gonzalo Cruz, suddenly murder his father?
Another problem for some readers will be the fact that García provides a great deal of information to process. For example, while she takes necessary pains to give some background on Santería, the mixture of African-based religion and Catholicism that underlies much of the action, an English-speaking reader may well have a distinct sense of missing something. As Reina’s mother once warned her, “You don’t know how much of what you see . . . you never see at all.”
The Agüero Sisters addresses the sisters’ desire to recover each other and the buried truths of their past. In their journey toward integration there can be no unity, no real completion in their lives until they can force themselves to speak at last of the secrets and half-truths that have been silenced for so long. Only an understanding and acceptance of their parents can ultimately heal the unspoken rift between the daughters, allowing them to make peace with their own children and the ghosts of their parents.
Sources for Further Study
Booklist. XCIII, May 1, 1997, p. 1478.
Chicago Tribune. June 8, 1997, XIV, p. 1.
Library Journal. CXXII, March 15, 1997, p. 88.
Los Angeles Times Book Review. June 8, 1997, p. 8.
The Nation. CCLXIV, May 19, 1997, p. 32.
The New York Times. CXLVI, May 27, 1997, p. B6.
The New York Times Book Review. CII, June 15, 1997, p. 38.
Newsweek. CXXIX, April 28, 1997, p. 79.
Publishers Weekly. CCXLIV, March 10, 1997, p. 48.
Time. CXLIX, May 12, 1997, p. 88.
The Times Literary Supplement. August 29, 1997, p. 23.
The Washington Post Book World. XXVII, July 13, 1997, p. 1.
The Revolution of Fidel Castro Although The Agüero Sisters takes place more than thirty years after Fidel Castro came to power in Cuba, many of the economic and social situations that the characters wrestle with date back to the revolution. For instance, it is for primarily political reasons that huge numbers of Cubans like Heberto Cruz and Constancia Agüero Cruz left Cuba once Castro was in power.
Castro, then a young lawyer, took control of Cuba in February 1959 by initiating guerrilla warfare against Fulgencio Batista, the dictator who had seized power in 1952 and who was known for his arrogance and corruption. Although Batista enjoyed the support of the United States for much of his rule, by the time that Castro defeated him Batista had begun to alienate his American supporters, so Castro's takeover was not met with too much resistance by the U.S. government. Although at first Castro was very popular in Cuba, American officials during the administration of Dwight D. Eisenhower soon realized that the new government was not going to allow the U.S. to dictate terms as it had for many years. (The U.S. had established strong economic ties in Cuba in the early 1900s and played a significant role in developing Cuba's economy.) Castro also pushed for a radical restructuring of the economy, and the Soviet Union supported him.
Cuban-American Migration Although The Agüero Sisters takes place in the early '90s, many of the events were shaped by Cuban-American migration patterns. Between 1959 and 1962, more than 155,000 Cubans left the island. Of the close to one million Cubans living in the United States today, more than half arrived here after 1959. Between December 1965 and December 1972, 257,000 Cubans came to the United States. The American policy of welcoming refugees was a strategy for destabilizing the Castro government because it deprived Cuba of many of its merchants and professionals. The U.S. saw the flight of refugees as harmful to Cuba's economic future and as a symbolic victory against Communism. Most of these immigrants were fiercely opposed to Castro and his regime, but they were also proud of their Cuban identity and had a strong desire to return to their homelands.
The majority of the first wave of Cuban immigrants after the Castro revolution went to Miami, where they were close to Cuba and could enjoy a climate very similar to that at home. This is clearly seen in The Agüero Sisters; those who live in Miami have created a Little Havana to replicate the foods of their homeland. When Constancia moves to Florida, she is both thrilled and disturbed by the similarities to her childhood: ‘‘Everywhere, there is a mass of disquieting details. The deep-fried croquettes for sale on the corner. The accent of the valet who parks her car. Her seamstress's old-fashioned stitching. And the songs, slow as regret, on the afternoon radio.’’
When Constancia sends Silvestre to an orphanage in Colorado, the motivation also dates back to the revolution. Like other parents at the time, she fears that her child will be shipped off to boarding school in the Ukraine, so she voluntarily sends him away instead. Wild rumors circulated in Cuba—rumors that were fanned by U.S. officials—that children would be forcibly taken from their homes and sent to the Soviet Union and educated as Communists. Within three years' time, 14,048 children, mostly males, left Cuba and were cared for by various groups, including the Catholic Church. Today, there are many well-educated, middle-class Cuban Americans who did not rejoin their families until they were adults, if they ever went home again at all.
The Agüero family also reflects some demographic trends in Cuban immigrants. Unlike other Hispanic groups in the U.S., professionals and semi-professionals are over-represented in the Cuban population here. In addition, Cuban Americans tend to be older than other Hispanic groups. Currently, ten percent of Cubans in the United States are over sixty-five years of age.
Setting The Cubans in this novel live side by side with the past. In Havana, Reina lives in the apartment where she was raised. Dangling from the chandelier in her father's study is a bird's nest; Reina lives ‘‘amidst the debris of her childhood.’’ To Ignacio and Blanca Agüero, the natural world of Cuba is like the Garden of Eden. ''The Agüeros often imagined what Cuba must have been like before the arrival of the Spaniards, whose dogs, cats, and rats multiplied prodigiously and ultimately wreaked havoc with the island's indigenous creatures. Long ago, Cuba had been a naturalist's dream.’’ In an interview in the Santa Fe New Mexican in 1997, Garcia said, ''Cuba has always lived in my imagination. I have only spent a half of a month in Cuba since I was 2 1/2, so I don't have much to go on in that sense ... to me, Cuba is on the page. In an odd sense, it is what I create for myself. I don't think I fit in Cuba, I don't fit in the exile community in Miami. So in many ways, it is the search for home. The search for Cuba begins on the page.''
The settings in the United States reflect the longings of the Cuban-American community for home. Little Havana in Miami is like a museum of the Cuban past. In the U.S., at ‘‘the best bodega in Little Havana, two dozen varieties of bananas are sold. There are pyramids of juicy mangoes, soursops, custard apples, and papayas. In a flash, they'll make her a milk shake that tastes of her past. Every Friday, Constancia loads up her pink Cadillac convertible with fresh fruit to purée and cries all the way home.’’ But the Cuban-Americans living in Miami and Key Biscayne are replicating a Cuba that no longer exists. Reina and the other Cubans in this novel live modestly and are accustomed to food shortages. Reina's longtime lover, Pepín, believes that it's the gusanos (a derogatory name for those Cubans who left for the U.S., which literally means ‘‘worm’’) who undid the accomplishments of the revolution. The wealth they brought back—even extra-strength aspirin—made citizens start skipping the May Day parade and begin refusing to cut their quota of sugarcane. Reina writes Constancia ''with news of successive deprivations. Reina says it's sad to see the near-empty baskets and shelves of the markets in Cuba, the withered vegetables, the chickens too scraggly even for soup.’’ In Garcia's world, each culture is longing for the perceived comforts of the other.
Point of View One of the most complicated and intriguing aspects of Garcia's novel is its shifting perspectives. Although Reina and Constancia are at the heart of the novel, these two protagonists (the central characters who serve as a focus for the themes and incidents of the novel) don't tell their stories in their own voices. Ignacio Agüero has left behind a diary, in which he narrates the events of his life in the first-person, telling his own story and offering opinions about the various actions and characters. Presumably, this story is the true one, the one he knows in his heart and not the one he tells his daughters after he began lying. Reina's daughter, Dulce, also tells her own story in the first-person. In this way, Garcia brackets the main action of the sisters' stories with the highly personal opinions of both the older and younger generations. The first-person sections allow us to view the main events with distance. For someone like Reina's daughter, Dulce, the revolution feels different than it does for the older generation. Dulce says: ‘‘I used to be friends with Che Guevara's son in high school. We used to joke about our respective revolutionary burdens. Last I heard, he was a heavy-metal musician, pierced everywhere and trying to leave the country.’’
By interspersing different points of view, Garcia gives the reader information that her characters don't possess. For instance, the reader knows from the opening pages that Ignacio murdered his wife, but neither Constancia nor Reina knows this until the very end of the novel.
Literary Heritage The influence of magical realism, a literary style common in Latin America in which fantastic or dreamlike events happen alongside more conventionally realistic ones, is clearly felt in The Agüero Sisters. Garcia mentions a man who was hit by lightning and reads everything backward, and a woman who swallows silver dust to stop hallucinating. Fantastic events are, as Michiko Kakutani said in a 1997 New York Times review, ''a symptom both of the natural world's surpassing strangeness and the bizarre predicaments the human species likes to invent for itself.’’ Some of the events Kakutani cited are the man who's saved from his angry workers by a flock of tree ducks, the man who's killed in a hurricane by ''a high velocity avocado,'' and the fact that Reina and Constancia's grandmother dies in a pig stampede.
Garcia herself believes that second-generation Cuban immigrants are in a particularly good position to transform their experiences into art. ‘‘They're very close to these roots but not scarred by them, or at least not directly scarred,’’ Garcia said in an interview published in the Phoenix Gazette. ''They had a chance to be educated in this country. It's the best of both worlds.’’ She continued, ‘‘I think another point is that a couple of generations ago, assimilation was considered a key to success and parents didn't speak to their kids in their native language ... Now, being bilingual or multilingual is looked at as an asset, not something you have to bury.’’
Sources Behar, Ruth, review, in Chicago Tribune, June 8, 1997, p. 1.
Cryer, Dan, review, in Newsday, May 5, 1997, p. B02.
Iyer, Pico, review, in Time, May 12, 1997, p. 88.
Kakutani, Michiko, review, in New York Times, May 27, 1997, p. C16.
King, Nina, review, in Washington Post, July 13, 1997, p. X01.
Kirkwood, Cynthia Adina, ‘‘A Cuban Odyssey: It Took a Trip to Havana to Piece Together Cristina Garcia's History and Literary Quest,’’ in Los Angeles Times, August 30, 1992, p. E7.
Lopez, Ruth, ‘‘Five Questions’’ (interview with Cristina Garcia), in Santa Fe New Mexican, June 8, 1997, p. E3.
McNamer, Deirdre, ‘‘World of Portents,’’ in New York Times, June 15, 1997, sec. 7, p. 38.
Miller, Susan, ‘‘Caught between Two Cultures,’’ in Newsweek, April 20, 1992.
Porter, William, "Worlds Apart: Dreaming in Cuban Novelist to Read from her Works in Valley,’’ in Phoenix Gazette, March 31, 1993, p. D3.
Sachs, Lloyd, review, in Chicago Sun-Times, June 10, 1997, p. 35.
Stavans, Ilan, review, in Nation, Vol. 264, No. 19, May 19, 1997, p. 32.
Vourvoulias, Bill, ‘‘Talking with Cristina Garcia,’’ in Newsday, May 4, 1997.
Further Reading Burkett, Elinor, ‘‘Author Focuses on Cuban Nostalgia,’’ in Chicago Tribune, April 9, 1992, p. 11I. In this interview, Garcia describes how it feels to be a Cuban-American writer and discusses her childhood and literary beginnings.
Davila, Florangela, ‘‘Cristina Garcia Identifies with Her Characters,’’ in Seattle Times, June 17, 1997, p. C1. An interview with Garcia in which she discusses how a flock of ducks was the inspiration for her second novel.
Garcia, Cristina, ''Star-Spangled,'' in Washington Post, July 18, 1999, p. W21. Garcia writes of her own childhood and how it felt to celebrate her birthday on the fourth of July, the birthday of her adopted country.
Italie, Hillel, ‘‘Imagining Cuba,’’ in the Associated Press, March 30, 1992. Garcia discusses the beginnings of her first novel.
Stephenson, Anne,"Dreaming in Cuban Has Happy Ending: First-Time Novelist Hailed as Major Voice for Latinos,’’ in Arizona Republic, March 31, 1993. In this interview, Garcia discusses what it feels like to be called "a major new voice in an emerging chorus of Latino writers'' and how her family reacted to her first novel.