There is a special quality to each of José Yglesias’s novels, a kind of aura that seems to tell the reader that he or she is entering a fictional world radically different from the Anglo-American tradition. Although each novel is unique unto itself, there is in all of his novels a definite tension underlying the seemingly natural flow of events, a kind of double vision that stems from Yglesias’s diverse and at times conflicting heritage. In New York City while still young, he encountered head-on the rather old and impersonal but nonetheless captivating charm of mainstream America. Yglesias never rejected his Latin roots, and he experienced the tenuous acceptance that is given to all those who succeed in Anglo America’s melting pot. The result is a unique mestizo portrayal of American reality.
The vision presented in A Wake in Ybor City, An Orderly Life, The Truth About Them, Double Double, The Kill Price, and Home Again is at once reminiscent of the seventeenth century Spanish picaro and the twentieth century New York intellectual. Like the Peruvian novelist José Maria Arguedas, who committed suicide in 1969, Yglesias presents the world through the eyes of one who belongs simultaneously to two distinct realities. Thus, the reader is treated to a rare opportunity: an inside view of the world as seen from the perspective of a semi-outsider.
A Wake in Ybor City
Yglesias returns to the place of his youth, Ybor City, for the setting of his first novel, A Wake in Ybor City. An omniscient third-person narrator recounts three days in the life of a Cuban American family in 1958. The novel’s simple structure and fluid style pose no problem to the reader, who quickly finds him- or herself more and more involved in a moving depiction of a family’s struggle to face several crises that threaten to destroy their uncommonly close ties with one another.
The story is simple. An aging widow, Dolores, anxiously awaits the arrival of her children, who will be visiting her from Havana, Cuba. Elena, the eldest daughter, is married to a wealthy and influential Cuban aristocrat, Jaime. They are scheduled to arrive the next day with Dolores’s other daughter, Clara, and her son, Jimmy. During the two days following their arrival, several unforeseen events occur that rock the very foundation of Dolores’s family, perhaps foreshadowing the political upheaval that was to undo Fulgencio Batista’s Cuba the following year.
Almost immediately, the reader is introduced to Dolores’s extended family. First, there are her two widowed sisters, Mina and Clemencia. Then come the children and their families. Mina’s son, Feliz, is a weak man, totally dominated by his mother and equally unsuccessful with other women. He has been married four times. Clemencia’s son, Roberto, is visiting for the summer from New York City with his Jewish American (non-Cuban) wife, Shirley, and their two children. Roberto is a struggling artist who, in his idealistic youth (he is now thirty-seven years old) was involved with the political left.
Of all the characters, Roberto comes closest to being Yglesias’s alter ego. Dolores, besides her two daughters who are visiting from Cuba, has two sons, one in Miami (Mario) and another one, her youngest, Armando. Although Armando is living at home, he previously had served in the Army, during which time he was married to and later divorced from an American (non-Cuban) girl named Katie. Of all the children, Armando seems the most lost. His association with a local gangster, Wally Chase, distresses his mother. One of the two reasons for Elena’s visit to Ybor City is to offer Armando a lucrative position in Cuba. Armando initially refuses this offer but later is forced to accept it when his boss is mysteriously killed. Armando is suspected of involvement in the slaying and flees, with the help of his family, to Cuba. The other reason for Elena’s return is to obtain permission from her sister’s former husband, Esteban, to adopt Jimmy. Jimmy’s sudden and unexpected death, a result of complications that arise after an emergency appendectomy, shocks the reader as well as Dolores’s entire family.
What might, at first reading, appear to be a typically melodramatic story, whose unexpected and tragic ending leaves the reader stunned and therefore properly entertained, takes on a somewhat deeper significance upon further reflection. What Yglesias has done in fabricating his tale about a wake in Ybor City is to introduce the Anglo-American reader to some of the characteristic elements of Cuban American life that ordinarily are not accessible to mainstream Americans. In particular, A Wake in Ybor City focuses on two important aspects of Cuban American life: the family, and the male’s ambivalent role in the family structure.
From the outset, it is clear that Dolores, Mina, and Clemencia are the spiritual as well as the political authorities of this Cuban American family. The fact that the reader never learns their surnames suggests that the matriarchal structure portrayed here is representative of the Cuban American family in general. Moreover, their given names reveal some of the qualities of the typical matriarch. Of the three, Mina (a mine of hidden wealth) is the realist. She is a practical woman whose earthy wisdom constantly returns the family to everyday reality where difficult decisions must be made and their consequences accepted. Clemencia (“Mercy”) is a compassionate and understanding woman. Dolores (“Sorrows”) is the dominant one among the three and embodies the role of the suffering mother. She is a romantic, a writer of heroic dramas and pastoral poems that reflect her subjective and distorted vision of her family. Together, these three women are the heart, head, and loving arms that control and sustain the life of this Cuban American family. Living as an isolated island within the American mainstream, their primary mission is to protect the family at all costs.
As the novel progresses, it becomes clear that the new matriarch who is to succeed the three aging women is Elena. It is her responsibility to take the reins of authority so that the family structure can continue to exist in relative peace and security. Elena has already helped set up her brother Mario in Miami. It is she who arranges Armando’s escape to Cuba, and it is she who is organizing the legal adoption of her nephew, Jimmy, before his untimely death. Perhaps Elena’s failure to save Jimmy, the family’s youngest, from death is a foreshadowing of the eventual breakdown of the matriarchal family structure. To the extent that the younger members, such as Roberto, decide to leave the security of Ybor City and enter into the mainstream of American (non-Cuban) society, the inhibiting influence of the dominant mother figure will diminish.
The undisputed primacy of women in the Cuban American family gives rise to a particular problem concerning the men, commonly referred to as machismo. Since the male’s role in the family is ambivalent at best, he feels pressured to prove his manhood outside the family structure. This machismo is expressed by extramarital sexual conquests or by even more violent manifestations of strength and superiority. Except for Roberto, who has abandoned the matriarchal environment of Ybor City, the other male characters fail miserably in their quest for manliness within the family structure. Feliz, who has been married four times, is still an adolescent psychologically. For him, it is baseball that allows a man to prove his worth. Esteban, although a highly committed revolutionary, can only relate to women as sex objects. Armando, whose marriage to Katie failed shortly after he brought her back home to live with his mother, fears any form of adult responsibility. Even Roberto, who is the strongest of the male characters, has difficulty looking directly at women. Jimmy, the youngest grandson, is virtually smothered by the attention given to him by all the women of the family.
Perhaps the best indication of female superiority is Dolores’s criticism of God for having allowed her grandson to die. According to Dolores, her status as one of the family’s matriarchs has given her the right to scold God. In such a female-dominated environment, there is little place for the man to feel useful, let alone important. With these insightful vignettes of Cuban American life, A Wake in Ybor City introduces the American (non-Cuban) reader to a part of America normally outside his or her experience.
An Orderly Life
Unlike Yglesias’s first novel, which described an entire family’s struggle to maintain its Cuban American identity in the threatening ambience of a changing Tampa, An Orderly Life focuses on one individual: Rafael (Rafe) Sabas. In many ways, Rafe resembles Roberto of A Wake in Ybor City. If Jimmy’s death prefigured the family’s eventual loss of Latin American identity by allowing itself to be absorbed into America’s amorphous mass of humanity, Rafe represents the extreme to which one may fall prey to the great American Dream while still carrying within him the seeds of his Latin heritage. Narrated in the first person, An Orderly Life allows the reader an intimacy with its protagonist that is absent in Yglesias’s first novel. The year is 1963, and Rafe has just been offered the vice presidency of a prestigious New York pharmaceutical house; Yglesias employs repeated flashbacks so that the reader can come to know Rafe as he climbs the social ladder of success.
In a sense, the novel presents Rafael Sabas’s definition of a happy man. In the final sentence of the book, Rafe defines himself in just those terms. When the reader considers that this “happy man” has spent the last twenty years of his life using and abusing friends and business partners alike so that he might continue to climb the corporate ladder, it is clear that...
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