With the Obamas’ recent trip to Cuba (March 2016), the Caribbean island has been appearing frequently across social media and in a variety of US news outlets – from the New York Times to Buzzfeed. National Geographic featured a piece on How Tourism Will Change Cuba; TeleSur aimed to reveal the hypocrisy of the United States with regards to human rights abuses in Cuba; and even Buzzfeed capitalized on the president’s visit to provide readers with an 11-item listicle (of course) on What to Know Before Planning Your Trip To Cuba… a list that includes the pearl of wisdom: “10. The Food is Very Fresh” (seriously). But the most powerful pieces are often photographic series aiming to provide glimpses into the “real” lives of the Cuban people; to capture the beauty and intrigue associated with the stark contrasts of modern(izing) Cuban life. For example, a series from the New York Times, Cuba on the Edge of Change, presents Cuba as “a land of endless waiting and palpable erosion.” The short introduction to the New York Times series goes on to emphasize the contrasts of the isolated island, seemingly abandoned by the world amidst the continued passage of time:
“Cuba at times can feel like a nation abandoned. The aching disrepair of its cities, the untamed foliage of its countryside, the orphaned coastlines — a half-century of isolation has wrapped the country in decay. Yet few places in the world brim with as much life as Cuba, a contrast drawn sharper amid its faded grandeur.”
The flurry of all-things-Cuba in my Twitter feed over the past few weeks gave me the extra push I needed to read Cristina García’s novel, Dreaming in Cuban, which had been on my list for quite some time. With a conveniently timed Spring Break and recommendations from two of my former students at K-State (who had coincidentally *just* read the book in their Latino Literature course), I had several reasons to read something “for fun” as I traveled to give a talk and visit friends and family over the break. Since a large portion of my research interests lie within the realms of women’s literature, the literary and cinematic representations of motherhood, and (women’s) inter-generational relationships, I was hoping this book might fit well in a future transatlantic Hispanic women’s literature class. I’ve written before about incorporating Latino Literature into traditional Hispanic Literature courses, and I plan to continue expanding my knowledge and familiarity with the vast, diverse body of work produced by Latino writers.
Dreaming in Cuban traces the lives of three generations of the Puente family and, in the process, explores the strain and aftermath of leaving Cuba, beginning a new life in the United States, and what happens to those left behind. The novel’s chapters are narrated by or focalized through different family members and the story crosses both geographical (New York City, Miami, Cuba) and temporal (1930s-1970s) spaces. The majority of the chapters feature an omniscient third-person narrator, but the younger generation of grandchildren represented by Pilar, Ivanito, and Luz present their experiences and observations in a more personal, first-person narration. García’s shifting narrative allows her to present a complex, kaleidoscopic image of the Puente family and their relationship to Cuba – to the island’s culture politics, and history.
The matriarch of the Puente family is Abuela Celia, who has never left Cuba. She and her husband Jorge had three children – Lourdes, Felicia, and Jorge. Lourdes, her husband Rufino, and their daughter Pilar live in New York City; Felicia and her three children – twins Luz and Milagro, and son, Ivanito – remained in Cuba; and Jorge married in Europe, then settled there with his wife and young daughter. García provides a family tree (below) at the onset of the novel, which is an extremely useful reference to help familiarize readers with the characters. Many critics suggest that Celia’s granddaughter, Pilar, is the protagonist of the novel, given that she provides readers with a first-person account of her experience as a first-generation Cuban-American growing up in New York City (thus providing several autobiographical links to García, the author). However, in her article on trauma and exile in the novel, Inger Pettersson argues that Lourdes is the true protagonist of the novel: “Without Lourdes, Dreaming in Cuban would not be about representing differences, with the possibility of understanding them. Without Lourdes, there might be nothing more than dreaming” (60). Pettersson highlights the different subjective experiences of Cuban immigrants and exiles to the United States, which is particularly relevant to Lourdes and her husband Rufino (54-55). Lourdes considers herself an immigrant to the United States, pursuing and American Dream that would have been impossible in Castro’s Cuba; Rufino, on the contrary, feels that he has been exiled from his homeland. The novel explores this complicated relationship to national identity by following various characters in Cuba, Miami, and New York, between 1959-1980.
Rocío Davis’s article, “Back to the Future: Mothers, Languages, and Homes in Cristina García’s Dreaming in Cuban, further explores the way in which language and mother-daughter bonds serve to (re)connect and/or sever the connections to one’s home, family, and history. For Davis, “the question of language and exile metaphorically dramatizes the mother-daughter relationships… [and] García turns to family, language, and motherland to develop and analyze sources of personal identity and creative expression” (67). I appreciated Davis’s analysis of the mother-daughter and mother-son relationships, however she does not delve deeper into the implications of this female-centered transmission of culture and identity and how it compares to that which occurs in the traditional patriarchal family. For example, the absence of traditional father-son relationships and the dysfunctional, even debilitating nature of the mother-son relationships presented (Celia-Jorge; Abuelo Jorge and his mother; Felicia-Ivanito) suggests a broader critique of patriarchal customs and social organization. I’m planning to explore this topic further, as I have only begun to read the (many!) critical articles written on this novel.
While these themes of mother-daughter relationships, national identity, and language are present throughout the novel, another aspect that caught my attention was the way in which García imbues her prose with extremely visual, chromatic language. Perhaps I noticed this as a result of having seen so many photos of Havana and Cuba (like the one above, from a website titled Besieged by Color in Havana) featuring the prismatic colors of antique automobiles and the vibrantly painted buildings that, even when weathered with age and neglect, nevertheless cast an artistic glow over the urban Caribbean landscape. Or perhaps it was because photographer Omar Robles’s Ballet Dancers Practicing in the Streets of Cuba had made numerous recent appearances on my Instagram and Facebook feeds. Regardless, I wanted to highlight some of Dreaming in Cuban‘s beautiful narrative descriptions and connect them to an image – perfect for the informal, visual nature of blogging! First, the description of Palmas Street repeatedly emphasizes the bright, perhaps unusually striking YELLOW paint:
“The driver turns left on Palmas Street with its matched rows of closely set two-story houses, all painted a flamboyant yellow. Last fall, the line at the hardware store snaked around the bock for the surplus paint, left over from a hospital project on the other side of Havana. Felicia bought the maximum amount allowed, eight gallons, and spent two Saturdays painting the house with borrowed brushes an ladders. “After all, she said, “you could die waiting for the right shade of blue” (García 38-39).
During my search for images, I came across photographer Michael Eastman’s series Colors of Cuba. Many of his images portray the decrepit, interior walls of Cuban homes or businesses through an intriguing monochromatic palette. Below are a few of his images, coupled with a sample of the novel’s prose.
“When Celia returns from the fields, she finds her daughter’s condition has declined. Felicia’s skin appears enameled in pinks like the wallpaper of Old Havana inns. The blue roses of her flannel nightgown adhere to her damp filth” (García 45).
In García’s novel, GREENS and BLUES are especially prominent – not entirely surprising for a story taking place in the Caribbean. While green is associated with the lush, tropical landscape of Cuba, it is also intrinsically connected to a sensation or psychology of instability, discontent, and madness. Such associations are made visible through the characterization of Celia’s second daughter, Felicia, who suffers from an apparent mental illness:
“Felicia del Pino doesn’t know what brings on her delusions. She knows only that suddenly she can hear things very vividly… The colors, too, escape their objects. The red floats above the carnations on her windowsill. The blues rise from the chipped tiles in the kitchen. Even the greens, her favorite shades of greens, flee from the trees and assault her with luminosity. Nothing is slid until she touches it” (García 75).
“They play a game with colors as they walk. ‘Let’s speak in green,’ his mother says, and they talk about everything that makes them feel green. They do the same with blues and reds and yellows.” (García 84)
“Later, they passed colorful handkerchiefs over Felicia’s body, all the while grieving in low voices to purify her corpse. By the time they finished, the terrible lumps on Felicia’s head had disappeared, and her skin was as smooth as the pink linking of a conch. Here eyes, too, had regained their original green“ (García 214).
Towards the end of the novel, when Pilar and Lourdes finally return to Cuba to be with their grandmother and mother, Celia, blues begin to dominate the descriptions of the setting, the characters, and their moods. Blue was also a prominent color at the beginning of the novel, when Celia swims in the ocean with her clothes on and, in a sort of magical realist fashion, a blue light emanates from (Abuelo) Jorge’s hospital room in New York just after he dies. But the blues that end the novel contain an additional aesthetic dimension – their literary presence is accompanied with a pictorial counterpart, as art student Pilar paints a portrait of her Abuela Celia on the porch of her coastal Cuban home:
“I paint Abuela Celia just the way she wants – dancing flamenco with whirling red skirts and castanets and a tight satin bodice… Mostly, though, I paint her in blue. Until I returned to Cuba, I never realized how many blues exist. The aquamarines near the shoreline, the azures of deeper waters, the eggshell blues beneath my grandmother’s eyes, the fragile indigos tracking her hands. There’s a blue, too, in the curve of the palms, an the edges of the words we speak, a blue tinge to the sand and the seashells and the plump gulls on the beach. The mole by Abuela’s mouth is also blue, a vanishing blue”
For me, Pilar’s description of her grandmother’s blue-tinged portrait brings to mind the haunting, melancholic style of Picasso’s early twentieth-century Blue Period, especially when Abuela Celia questions her granddaughter as to why she looks “so unhappy” (García 233). It is interesting, then, that Dreaming in Cuban ends with such muted tones, especially after two-hundred pages of vibrant, and decidedly multicolored visuals of the people, places, and feelings associated with Cuban – and Cuban-American – identity.
Have you read or taught Dreaming in Cuban? What other resources would you recommend for teaching courses on Cuba, Latino Literature, or Caribbean culture and history?
Davis, Rocío G. “Back to the Future: Mothers, Languages, and Homes in Cristina García’s Dreaming in Cuban.” World Literature Today 74.1 (2000): 60-68. [Article preview]
García, Cristina. Dreaming in Cuban. New York: Ballantine Books, 1992.
Pettersson, Inger. “Telling it to the Dead: Borderless Communication and Scars of Trauma in Cristina García’s Dreaming in Cuban.” Journal of Literary Studies 2 (2013): 44-61. [Abstract]