Dreaming in Cuban by Cristina Garcia is a novel about memory–remembering, forgetting, trying to forget and attempting to find peace when forgetting is impossible–and about the past and how it affects the present.
Celia del Pino lives alone in her house on the beach in Cuba. She believes fervently in the good of El Lider and the revolution. She keeps watch at night to guard against another Bay of Pigs invasion. The way she sees it, the revolution has allowed women to do things other than stay at home and have babies. It has also given everyone food to eat and health care. Celia’s devotion to Castro (she has a framed photo of him on her nightstand), drives her daughters away. She also spends a good part of her married life writing letters to her first lover, a man from Spain, who left Cuba just before the revolution. The narrative takes us back and forth through time, moving fluidly between past and present, making it evident that, as Celia notes at one point, “memory cannot be confined.” She is right. We are our memories and our past, we carry it all with us into the future and pass it along to our children and grandchildren.
Felicia, one of Celia’s daughters, still lives in Cuba but suffers from bouts of mental breakdown. She despises the revolution but she is powerless to fight against it. She is a woman filled with pain and anger. She was always second fiddle to her sister who was their father’s favorite. To get out of the house and to get back at her father, she marries Hugo Villaverde and is banished. They have three children but their marriage does not go well. He cheats on her and does nothing around the house. He travels the world on business but it never seems like he contributes much to the household. In one of her delusional and anger-filled moments, Felicia sets Hugo’s head on fire. Her little way of telling him to get out and never come back. Felicia eventually finds comfort in santeria and is even initiated as a saint. Her mental break downs seem to arise as a sort of coping mechanism for her life. She loses herself in her imagination, but as she tells her son, Ivanito, “Imagination, like memory, can transform lies to truths.” However, she fails to see how her own imagination recreates the world.
Lourdes, the eldest of the sisters (there is a brother too, but this is not his story), married into a rich family. When the revolution came she lost everything. Not only was the family’s ranch taken from them, but one day when her husband was away Lourdes was brutally raped by three revolutionaries. She tells no one, not even her husband. She carries the secret inside her and even when she has the opportunity to tell her mother many years later, she can’t let it go. Lourdes, her husband, and baby daughter, Pilar, escape to New York. Lourdes buys a bakery and stuffs herself with pecan sticky buns. She is a bit of a tyrant and can’t understand why her employees always quit and why her daughter constantly fights against her. Her daughter says of her mother, “Maybe in the end the facts are not as important as the underlying truth she wants to convey. Telling her own truth is the truth to her, even if it’s at the expense of chipping away our past.”
Finally, Pilar, Lourdes’ daughter. She is a rebellious punk rocker and a talented artist. She has a connection to her Abuela Celia. When Pilar is still young she and Celia can communicate in dreams and thoughts. The connection gets broken during Pilar’s teenage years but is re-established when she is college-aged. It is Pilar that wonders most about the past and about memory. She has to come to terms with her Cuban heritage and what it means to her family. She sees the past as a fluke:
I think about the Granma, the American yacht El Lider took from Mexico to Cuba in 1956 on hi second attempt to topple Batista. some boat owner in Florida misspells “Grandma” and look what happens: a myth is born, a province is renamed, a Communist party newspaper is launched. What if the boat had ben called Barbara Ann or Sweetie Pie or Daisy? Would history be different? We’re all tied to the past by flukes. Look at me, I got my name from Hemingway’s fishing boat.
While Celia worries that no one has loyalties to their origins any longer, Pilar struggles to understand “who chooses what we should know or what’s important?” And finally realizes,”I have to decide these things for myself.”
I could go on and on. Dreaming in Cuban is a rich book and a pleasure to read. It contains some lovely gem-like sentences that encapsulate a thought or idea that have kept me, and will continue to keep me, thinking about this book.