The Agüero Sisters

by Cristina Garcia

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American Dream Constancia represents the American Dream. Her success selling lotions and creams to Cuban-American women shows how well she understands the market she's pursuing. Her fervor for selling products is so intense that she even paints Heberto's motorboat in a floral motif to promote her new perfume—Flower of Exile. Reina is uncomfortable with Constancia's preoccupation with making money and sees the boat as a ''gliding advertisement for her sister.'' By the time Constancia returns to Cuba, she is so thoroughly Americanized that she sees the rough skin of her countrywomen as an entrepreneurial opportunity. ''When El Commandant kicks the bucket, Constancia speculates, just imagine all the lotions and creams she could sell!’’ In this novel, the comforts of the American Dream can come at the cost of exploiting the culture of one's childhood and one's family members.

Change and Transformation Throughout this novel, the characters go through physical changes that reflect their spiritual states of being. Reina's accident is one example. After she's struck by lightning, she receives skin grafts from various lovers and relatives, and she becomes a walking symbol of the different people in her life. Perhaps the most dramatic instance of transformation is Constancia's face turning into that of her mother. Before her face changes, Constancia dreams that she's undergone plastic surgery and then awakens to find her face appears to have been ‘‘rearranged in the night ... Then it hits her with the force of a slap. This is her mother's face.’’ Her changed appearance has various consequences. It connects Constancia to a woman and a past she sometimes despises and it makes her business a wild success because her youthful appearance helps her sell products.

Memory and Reminiscence In The Agüero Sisters, family history must be faced up to—literally and figuratively. Silvestre, who never knew his father, and Constancia, who hates her mother, are doomed to remember their parents because their own faces manifest their connection to the previous generation. Reina, on the other hand, willingly accepts the role of guardian of her parents' personal histories. She is grateful to have insomnia because it gives her the chance to sort through her father's books, papers, and bird remains. ''The past she combs through is long dead, sloughed off from Papá's life like the desiccated skin of a snake.’’ As long as an individual is remembered in this novel, he or she has not really died. ‘‘To be forgotten,’’ Reina decides, ‘‘is the final death.’’

Sex Reina expresses herself through her sexuality. Her lovemaking is a gift she bestows on men all over Cuba. ‘‘Often, Reina selects the smallest, shyest electrician in a given town for her special favors, leaving him weak and inconsolable for months.'' She enjoys a healthy sense of self-esteem; she argues that the signs of aging never harmed a man's desire—a belief that runs directly counter to Constancia's professional commitment to supplying women with creams to help them make themselves more youthful and attractive. At one point, Reina says to Constancia, ‘‘Oye, chica, since when did cellulite ever deter passion?’’ At another moment, she says, ''Por favor, mere creams and lotions won't make a woman desirable. The confidence in her walk is what gives birth to lust.’’ Although Reina's self-confidence is appealing, she finds that same strutting sexuality unattractive in the men she encounters. ‘‘They are all much too sure of their allure. This is a problem in Cuba. Even the most gnarled, toothless, scabrous, sclerotic, pigeon-toed, dyspeptic, pestilential men on the island believe themselves irresistible to women. Reina has pondered this incongruity. Too much mother coddling is her theory....

(This entire section contains 760 words.)

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After the love and embraces of a Cuban mami, what man wouldn't think he was the center of the universe?''

Truth and Falsehood In the opening scene at the Zapata Swamp, Ignacio Agüero shoots his wife, carries her body seventeen miles to the nearest village, then ''began to tell his lies.'' For his daughters, who are told that their mother has drowned, Ignacio's deception will be a disaster, one that literally fractures their sense of how they look at all aspects of the world. Constancia later believes another lie: that her mother has killed herself. The lies result in violence between the sisters. Reina ‘‘lifts her sister by the throat. To choke out the final lies. Papá's lies. Constancia's willful, stone-blind lies.’’ It is only after that confrontation, which takes place in a boat hovering between the U.S. and Cuban coasts, that both women can move forward in their lives.