Dreaming in Cuban: The Cuban and Cuban-American Palimpsest
Many questions arise from the story of Cuban “exile.” The most significant are the issues of ethnic and cultural identity and nationalism, and their subsequent position in the Cuban experience both inside and outside of Cuba. While cultural identity most often represents unity, nationalism and the political aspirations of various groups that share a certain cultural identity represent a break in this unity, often resulting in, as is the case with the Cuban revolution, the exile, either voluntary or forced, of the anti-revolutionary factions. In this manner, the unity between national and ethnic identities is shattered, and new identities arise, such as the one adopted by Lourdes Puente in Cristina García’s Dreaming in Cuban – a novel of Cuban memory and Foucaldian “counter-memory” – the “transformation of history into a totally different form of time” (Foucault 160).
In analyzing García’s characters, their pasts, and the complex web of interactions between them, we must take into account the role of history, both collective and individual, in the shaping of beliefs as well as relations, thereby defining a palimpsest – not just of Cubans living in Cuba, but also of Cubans with alternative identities: “Cuban-American” such as Lourdes, and non-opinionated Cubans, mostly of the third generation that remembers little of the anti-revolutionary exodus, such as Pilar. It is important to note, however, that Pilar, despite being of the third generation of a Cuban family in exile and having been only two years old when her parents decided they would leave Cuba, claims that she “remember[s] everything that’s happened to [her] since [she] was a baby, even word-for-word conversations” (García 26). In fact, Pilar never mentions any of the “word-for-word” conversations that she claims to “remember.” It is not unusual, given the amount of existing Cuban revolutionary propaganda calling the “exiled” Cubans “traitors”, to consider her recollections of that day as the products of “collective memory” and “collective feelings” of those who lost a part of themselves to the revolution, only to replace it with a new identity upon arrival on the opposite shore.
The parts that the exiled characters in García’s novel have lost in Cuba to the Cuban revolution are, albeit being replaced by a new identity that might perhaps provide some closure, part of their existence even as Cuban-Americans. For Lourdes, it is a sense of loss that is coupled with feelings of insecurity that leads her to follow her daughter’s each and every thought and moves. She has given up a logical support of the possibility of differing views in favor of absolute truths, of a false dichotomy, or as her daughter says, “[her] views are strictly black-and-white. It’s how she survives” (26). Thus, for many of the characters in the novel, the past occupies a primary position in the interpretation of the present and the hopes of the future. For Lourdes, it is that moment in her past when she was sexually violated by the soldiers of the revolution that defines her political stance and possibly her identity as a “Cuban-American” and not just a Cuban national of the United States. One pointer to the significant role her past plays in her adoption of the Cuban-American identity is her insistence on the American “ideals” of capitalism, when not even Pilar, who has been brought up in America has adopted that radical an attitude. For Lourdes, however, the Cuban identity is not as immediately and directly important as is her American identity, for it is the latter that has allowed her to escape from the images and scents of oppression in her past.
By drawing a family tree and introducing to readers members of a family split across borders, García is essentially attempting to deal with the intergenerational and intragenerational past and conflicts. The past, however, is not restricted to Celia del Pino and her children, but extends to include her grandchildren, who are also separated due to the political conflict, albeit in a manner different from the separation of their parents, for Pilar had never met Ivanito or his sisters, whereas Lourdes had spent a significant portion of her life in the presence of her sister Felicia. This separation of family members is symbolic of the separation and finally the breaking apart of the community that had previously been held together by the cultural “glue.” The breaking up of the “national fantasy” as David Mitchell calls it in his essay “National Families and Familial Nations: Communista Americans in Cristina García’s Dreaming in Cuban” (55) has therefore signaled the end of a cultural unity within the context of nationalism – for the two factions, one represented by Celia and the other by Lourdes are the complete antitheses of each other and share the ethnic identity only at face value, as that identity is no longer put into practice for the unity of the nation that would in turn represent it.
García focuses her novel of cultural, political, and personal awakening thematically on the representatives of the three generations of the Del Pino family: Celia del Pino the revolutionary grandmother, Lourdes Puente the capitalist mother, and Pilar Puente the aspiring punk artist. While the character of Felicia is central to the theme of spirituality and “magic” and might occupy a significant amount of physical space in the novel, her existence is not central to the revolutionary and counter-revolutionary movements, although she is an anti-nationalist in her own right. In addition, her character has more personal and cultural implications than political, and while her death leaves behind questions of closure, it does not have a significant consequence on the other characters’ perspectives in terms of their familial struggles the borders of which are defined by national conflicts. In the same manner, Ivanito plays a minor role, although not insignificant if we are to make a futuristic interpretation of the novel, for he is the hope of a future that is defined by an identity that is attached to the mother – the mother being Felicia, and the symbolism being the “mother country.” Ironically, Felicia’s death is coupled with Ivanito’s separation from the motherland, and he is no longer the future hope for reconciliation between the “two” families and the two communities in the larger political sense, as the cycle of blaming “the other” continues with Pilar’s “betrayal” of her grandmother.
It is significant that Pilar is the one who has the power to decide Ivanito’s future and consequently the future of the split between the two parts of the family, as his exile would have many consequences on the relationships between these four characters. Ivanito here then makes his entrance into the central circle of characters; but his presence there only lasts for a split second during the suspense of Pilar’s confusion as to who she owes her loyalty to – her grandmother who has sacrificed so much to and for the revolution or her mother who has often bullied her in order to assert her ultra-capitalistic views. Celia’s inability or refusal to understand Lourdes’ radical anti-revolutionary stance might be attributed to her lack of knowledge of the past that is haunting her daughter. This inability to speak of the unspeakable and the confinement to the expression of past injustices in the form of radicalism in the present has had a destructive effect on the understanding between mother and daughter in the familial context, and between the Cubans who remained on the island and those who left for the safety and promises that the other shore allegedly offered.
Lourdes “wants no part of Cuba, no part of its wretched carnival floats creaking with lies, no part of Cuba at all, which [she] claims never possessed her” (73) and in refusing Cuba, she is rejecting that which she claims is an amalgamation of lies presented in the form of carnival floats that are designed to distract the masses and prevent them from looking behind and seeing the suffering of the people and their pasts haunted by the loss of not only loved ones but also of a membership in a community that was based on cultural traditions rather than economic policies.
In Lourdes’ refusal to accept that Cuba ever had a place in her heart lay a renunciation of that which she has decided was responsible for the traumatic experience, the country rather than the soldiers, reconciliation rather than bitterness. In reconciliation she sees no hope, and she circumvents it by attempting to force Ivanito into exile. The question then remains, does Lourdes find closure and reconciliation in that act? García notes in a conversation with Professor Scott Shibuya Brown, that “each of [her characters] needs to be a heroine, to believe she is doing the right thing, choosing the only path to a kind of personal redemption” (255); thus, Lourdes believes that her personal redemption is in saving someone else from the brutality that she was subjected to. In doing so, she does not appear to be concerned with the effects of such an action on her mother; she is solely concerned with the future that Ivanito represents, both for himself and for her. However, she fails to take into account the fact that in escaping from the ghosts of the past by exiling the present from the possibilities of a future in Cuba, she is opening the way for new ghosts and fresh hauntings for actions that shattered the hopes of the present to destroy the ghosts of the past. Lourdes has chosen “counter-memory” over memory – her sense of history has been transformed from a factual account of events that have transpired and identification with the history of “her people”, into a dissociative movement that seeks to destroy historical identity and establish in its place personal narratives that speak for past injustices.
While there is no pointer as to whether or not the cycle of haunting has been broken, in the end we are left with the knowledge of a sense of closure that Celia experiences, symbolized by the act of dropping her drop-pearl earrings into the sea in a gesture of personal awakening and reconciliation with the dreams, longings, and yearnings of the past and the reality of the present. The lack of insight into the thoughts and feelings of the remaining characters does not act as a limitation, but as a powerful message that aims at highlighting the gesture of letting go in order to regain oneself, in the process adding another history to the palimpsest of Cuban struggle and identity.
Foucault, Michel. Language, Counter-Memory, Practice. New York: Cornell UP, 1977.
García, Cristina. Dreaming in Cuban. New York: Ballantine Books, 2004.
Mitchell, David T. “National Families and Familial Nations: Communista Americans in Cristina García’s Dreaming in Cuban.” Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature. 15.1 (1996): 51-60.