Dreaming in Cuban is very different from the last novel I discussed here, How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents. It feels like there is, somehow, more of everything. It’s rougher throughout, but smoother around the edges. Maybe this will make more sense once you know what the book is about.
There’s a grandmother (abuela) named Celia, she lives in Cuba, while her husband Jorge has moved to the US, supposedly to get better health care. The earliest events here are around 1930. Their oldest daughter, Lourdes, is born into a strained relationship: Jorge is away almost all the time, on purpose, because he knows it hurts Celia. He is acting out of jealousy, knowing that Celia fell deeply in love with another man before they got married.
In fact, while Jorge may not know this, Celia continues to write letters to her querido Gustavo for many years until Lourdes gives birth to Pilar. Pilar and Celia share a special connection that Lourdes could never have with her own mother. Jorge’s ‘punishment’ of Celia made it impossible for mother and daughter to bond. The first thing we hear Celia say to Jorge as she holds out the child to him (holding her by just one leg, no less!) is that she will never remember the girl’s name. At this point, Jorge puts Celia into a mental institution for some time (to make her ‘forget’) and raises their daughter by himself for the time being.
It is Jorge’s death that causes the family’s stories — the women’s stories, that is — to be told. Having just died in the States, Jorge appears to his estranged wife in Cuba, and then also to his favorite daughter Lourdes, who lives in New York and runs the Yankee Doodle Bakery pretty much by herself. Lourdes is unhappy in her marriage, unhappy with her punk-minded teenage daughter Pilar, unhappy with the employees she hires and fires for stealing. She dreams of owning a large, nation-wide chain of bakeries all bearing her name — her updated, modified version of the American Dream.
The book is in pieces, episodes from the lives of Celia, Lourdes, Pilar, and also Felicia, Lourdes’ sister. Often, the episodes are told by the main character involved, but not always, and of course there are the letters from Celia to Gustavo. I particularly like Pilar’s voice and personality, a young woman growing up with a punk mindset before punk becomes mainstream. When you read Celia’s letters, notice the details: the dates, the length of time between letters, the salutation and how she signs each letter. Clearly, although there is no dialogue, no interaction between the two (former) lovers, their relationship (as perceived by Celia) changes repeatedly over the years.
I don’t want to give too much away in case you want to read this book yourself. Some general observations: This book is darker than the Garcia Girls, it digs deeper culturally, emotionally, and historically. To be fair, the impressions we get of the Dominican Republic from the Garcia daughters are those of young children, and here we see Cuba through the eyes of both children and adults.
Politics are an issue: Celia is hugely in favor of a proper revolution, while Jorge, in America, is much more anglo-oriented.
Faith is an issue, all tangled up with race: Felicia’s childhood friendship with Herminia, the daughter of a santeria (as I understand it — and correct me if I’m wrong! — similar to the Voodoo priests in Haiti) raises eyebrows. Santeria is a Cuban-African religion that originates from the African slaves brought to Cuba. Since they were forced to convert to Catholicism and worship in ‘civilized’ ways, the slaves created a hybrid religion that may look like Catholicism at first glance, but still contains the tenets of their original faith. Early on in the book, a grown-up Felicia is persuaded by Herminia to take part in a ritual sacrifice that will cleanse her spirit of the death of her father, who did not appear to Felicia like he did to Celia and Lourdes.
Felicia, even more so than her mother, struggles with mental health issues, although she would probably look at them more as spiritual struggles. Like her mother, she finds herself in a strained, even abusive relationship. Unlike her mother, she strikes back. She becomes violent toward at least one of her three husbands. Like Celia, Felicia cannot form a bond with her firstborn children, twin girls, who grow more and more distant. She does, however, have a strong bond with her youngest child, Ivanito, so much so that she cannot imagine life without him.
Strained and abusive relationships are a recurring theme in this book. Moral double standards are common — after her father dies, Lourdes refuses to sleep with her husband, and develops a habit of calling her daughter in the night to see if she is out, if she is sleeping with someone, and to call her a whore. Looking back at her married life before her father’s death, Lourdes sees herself as a whore as well. Starving herself is more than a show of willpower and self-control, it is a rite of purification, although her consequent binge eating suggests she realizes she is no more a virgin after losing over a hundred pounds than she was before.
Another theme is language. Pilar in many ways develops her own language through her abstract paintings, a way in which she can communicate what neither English nor Spanish can hold. In the States, and not just for Pilar, Spanish becomes the ‘private’ language, the language to make love in, the language that pleases and hurts more than English.
Painting is its own language, I wanted to tell him. Translations just confuse it, dilute it, like words going from Spanish to English. I envy my mother her Spanish curses sometimes. They make my English collapse in a heap. (59)
Ivanito, her cousin, wants to become a translator, — a highly skilled, intercultural communicator.
After spending a week in Cuba with her grandmother and mother, Pilar finds the answer to her question where ‘home’ is: It’s not that she doesn’t belong on Cuba, but that she belongs to New York more than to Cuba (236). Clearly, home can encompass more than one place.