Study Guide

Dreaming in Cuban Analysis

  • Tone

    Colloquial & Matter-of-Fact; Formal and Deliberate

    Because we hear the story from so many different points of view and in a variety of voices, you can bet that the tone of the writing shifts quite a bit. Just for grins and giggles, compare the tone of Pilar's narratives to those of Felicia or Celia. Pilar's language is down-to-earth, realistic, current, and pulls no punches. Felicia's language is fragmented, poetic, and frightening, often opting for archaic constructions and a heavy reliance on the sensual. The voice associated with Celia is lyrical, careful, and formal, with sentences drawing out to include details of her well-curated memories.

  • Genre

    Family Drama; Magical Realism; Coming-of-Age

    When an author prints a family tree in the first few pages of her book, it's a pretty sure sign you're heading into a family drama. And in García's work, you'll need that family tree to keep track of all the disputes, disappointed loves, abusive relationships, deaths and supernatural occurrences. It's unavoidable when the story focuses on the women of the del Pino family and their movements through geographical space and time.

    The supernatural relationships further complicate the earthly ones and play actively alongside them in the family saga. Jorge may be dead, but that will in no way stop him from interacting with Lourdes and Celia and having a say in daily actions. The orishas worshipped by the santeros also have a very real presence and influence in the lives of believers and the merely curious.

    Since the story has a sizeable timeline (if you include Celia's letters), it means that several of the characters are moving from innocence to maturity and gaining some level of insight into their lives. We know for sure that Pilar's narrative is a full-on coming-of-age story—note her movement from adolescent rebellion to thoughtful, sensitive adult. But Celia is also constantly moving from one plane of understanding to another, and Ivanito is just about to start his journey of self-discovery.

  • What's Up With the Title?

    After Pilar spends some days in Cuba, she realizes that she is "dreaming in Spanish," which she has never done before (235). Listen to the way she describes the experience:

    I've started dreaming in Spanish, which has never happened before. I wake up feeling different, like something inside me is changing, something chemical and irreversible. There's a magic here working its way through my veins. (235)

    Pilar has reached the peak of her struggle with her "hyphenated" existence: to be Cuban-American means that one side of her identity has had to give ground to the other. Now that she can sit with her grandmother by the sea and immerse herself in the language and natural beauty of her motherland, her ethnicity balances out and Pilar can become fully herself.

    But please note that there's a difference between dreaming in Cuban and dreaming in Spanish. Spanish is one of the six official languages that the U.N. uses when conducting official meetings and is spoken by a variety of cultural groups around the world. It's hard to own something like that as part of your inner life. When García titles her book Dreaming in Cuban, she's bringing Pilar's revelation even closer to home and placing the family's intimate identity squarely on the island.

  • What's Up With the Ending?

    If you have absolutely no idea what's happened to Celia at the end of the book, you're in good company. Here's Cristina García on the final scene:

    I deliberately wanted [Celia's fate] to be ambiguous. I've been asked whether Celia commits suicide, or if she swims back to Cuba or even if she might get picked up by the Coast Guard. My answer is always: I really don't know. (253-54)

    There you have it. However, we don't want this to discourage you from making your best arguments for your pet theories. It's clear that García connects Celia's most intimate identity with those pearl earrings, so it is absolutely significant that she releases them to the ocean—and that their shimmer is extinguished by the darkness of the waters. Make of that what you will.

  • Setting

    Cuba (pre-Revolution to 1980), Havana and Santa Teresa del Mar; Brooklyn (1972 -1980)

    García opens the work on the shoreline of Santa Teresa del Mar, a small community on the northwest coast of Cuba, about ten or so miles north of Havana. Celia would have a panoramic view of the ocean flowing through the Straits of Florida from this perch, and would not have needed a very big leap of imagination to envision the quaint islands of the Florida keys less than 90 miles to the north.

    Celia's memories of Cuba stretch back to a time well before the Revolution and include scenes of poverty in the countryside that often spilled over into larger and more prosperous cities like Havana. When she recalls her journey from her mother's house to Tía Alicia's, the train ride brings her from squalor to the quiet gentility of mansions in Havana. Celia recalls for Gustavo impoverished families sprawling on benches in the parks, despite the obvious wealth surrounding them. As she ages, Celia also travels into the sugarcane fields to do her part for the Revolution and describes the smell of the burning vegetation and the blood that drops to the earth from the faces of inexperienced, mauled workers.

    When Pilar and Lourdes journey back to Cuba, they are seeing a place that has been frozen in time, striving to survive on whatever resources it had before the Revolution. Lourdes sees decay everywhere, the places of her young married life falling to bits and her husband's farm appropriated by the state. Even Pilar has to admit that Abuela Celia's house is kind of a dump, with broken tiles, rotting vegetation and a rust heap of a fridge in the kitchen—not to mention the lack of hot water in the shower.

    But Pilar also feels the charm of a place whose evolution screeched to a halt in the late '50s:

    They wear stretch pants and pañuelos, match polka dots with stripes, plaids with flower prints. There's a man in goggles pumping his sharpening wheel, a dull ax shrieking against its surface. A pair of frayed trousers stick out from beneath a '55 Plymouth. Magnificent finned automobiles cruise grandly down the street like parade floats. I feel like we're back in time, in a kind of Cuban version of an earlier America. ("Six Days," 220)

    In comparison, we get very little depth to the descriptions of place in the U.S. Brooklyn is a cold place, as Lourdes wished, but García doesn't invest much emotional currency on memories embedded in the streets and buildings. We get to see Pilar's painting in the Yankee Doodle Bakery and a sweeping, generic look at the Puente household. If you are familiar with New York, you might be able to envision Fulton Street, Central Park, or the East River. If not, you wouldn't be able to imagine it from the prose.

    That's because while memories of Cuba are living, traumatic, political and full of meaning, the experience of Brooklyn isn't imbued with an emotional life. It's a place to live—and maybe even be free—but it isn't home. Pilar tells us as much. Her one specific memory of place in her adopted home illustrates the lack of connection:

    The air was different from Cuba's. It had a cold, smoked smell that chilled my lungs. The skies looked newly washed, streaked with light. And the trees were different, too. They looked on fire. I'd run through great heaps of leaves just to hear them rustle like the palm trees during hurricanes in Cuba. ("Going South," 32)

    In this work, place only has value in the U.S. if it evokes memories of an earlier, more meaningful life in Cuba.

  • What's Up With the Epigraph?

    "These casual exfoliations are/Of the tropic of resemblances..."

    It's not a surprise that García grabs these lines from Wallace Stevens ("Someone Puts a Pineapple Together"), since she kept copies of Stevens' poetry on her desk while she wrote Dreaming in Cuban. These particular lines are a meditation on metaphor. In this poem, Stevens lists twelve different ways of perceiving and "creating" a pineapple through language, and includes things like "The hut stands by itself beneath the palms" and "The Owl sits humped. It has a hundred eyes."

    If you spend any time in a literature classroom, you'll hear your teacher or professor talk about "exfoliating" a poem or literary work, as though it's skin is aging and you need to take it to spa for cleaning. But cut your teacher some slack, because the comparison is relevant. To exfoliate something, you have to peel back the layers of meaning (the "resemblances") to get at the heart of the idea—to know something for what it truly is.

    So perhaps by exploring how each member of this family interprets the events of their lives, we might piece together a picture of what their life together has really meant, and where it might be going.

  • Tough-o-Meter

    (5) Tree Line

    Once you've wrapped your head around the telepathic communications, premonitions, supernatural sightings, mystical healings, wonky timelines and characters with amnesia, this book is a piece of cake. Because Dreaming in Cuban was first conceived as a poem, the language is compact and lyrical, which means you have to read closely and carefully. Those things aside, the work has wonderful momentum and reads very quickly.

  • Writing Style

    Lyrical, Compact, Economical

    Dreaming in Cuban is basically, by the author's admission, a poem gone wild, so it's no surprise that the dreamy character of Celia writes letters that could be set to music. The open spirituality of the work—whether the main characters embrace religion or not—and the intimate narration of the experience of mental illness lends itself to compact poetic expression. García handles a wide spectrum of personalities and speech patterns in a short space, creating distinct voices for each by varying sentence length and vocabulary. But don't take our word for it. Try comparing the staccato patterns of Pilar's first person speech ("The family is hostile to the individual") with Celia's letters ("I watch the sun rise, burning its collection of memories, and I draw strength for another day") or Felicia's third person experiences ("Suddenly, the room vibrates with a deafening rattle and the Dopplerized screeches of children").

  • Water/The Ocean

    We're not going to hold you back from seeing the ocean that surrounds Cuba as a kind of amniotic fluid that supports and cushions Celia from the shocks and disappointments of her life (bravo for you if you thought of that). But do consider other options when parsing out the meaning of the ocean or water in this story.

    For one thing, García associates Celia with the element of water. Remember the unfortunate santera's comment about seeing a "wet landscape" in Celia's palm? She tells Celia that although she has it in her to be consumed by fires of passion, she also has the "water" within her to quench them and thrive. In essence, Celia is the illness and cure rolled into one.

    She also finds great comfort in the sea that rolls by her house on the coast of Cuba. Celia sits on the porch at night and looks out over the ocean, lulled by the motion of the water and the starlight on the waves. When she's feeling disturbed, Celia returns to the protective womb of the ocean to balance her mind and senses. (Oh, yes. We did.).

    Until, that is, the ocean takes on a new meaning in her later years. A more forbidding and sinister meaning. When Celia thinks of the ocean that rings her island, she begins to see it as a great, impenetrable barrier. It's the thing that carries away her loved ones and keeps Cuba isolated from the rest of the world.

    But for all that, the ocean does not frighten or deter her. The last time we see Celia, she's returning once again to the water to release her old identity (in the form of the pearl earrings) into the darkness of the ocean. Perhaps she does it to quench the flames of sorrow and disappointment and to emerge as a new person. And there we did it again—a (re) birth metaphor, just for you.

  • Fire

    If Celia is associated with water and all that it symbolizes, Felicia embodies fire. We hate to get all obvious on you, but just in case you missed it: Felicia exacts revenge on her husband Hugo by setting his head on fire. She is burning with illness and resentment and needs to rid herself of the conflagration before it consumes her. She, like her mother, also burns with the "fire" of erotic love but doesn't have the internal resources to deal, as Celia does.

    The element of fire symbolizes some fairly unsavory realities in Felicia's life. When she is pregnant with Ivanito, she's nauseous and miserable, but also infected in her private bits with the syphilis her husband brought back from Morocco. If you've spent any time with the sonnets of Shakespeare, you'll know that he uses fire to speak figuratively about this disease (check out Sonnet 154) and that early treatments for it required superheated baths and sweatboxes.

    Also, any kind of neurological disorder is often referred to as a "fire in the brain," whether it's something like encephalitis or depression. It's quite possible that these two figurative ways of speaking about illness meet up in Felicia: we know that she suffers from both sexually transmitted disease and from mental illness. We're sorry to be the ones to make these connections for you, but there it is.

    On a completely different note, there's the matter of the combustible santera. Celia brings the woman who originally told her she had a "wet landscape" in her palm back to her house in Santa Teresa del Mar to help her heal Javier and "she trembles once, twice, and slides against Celia in a heap on the sidewalk, smoking like a wet fire, sweet and musky, until nothing is left of her but her fringed cotton shawl" ("Baskets," 160). Despite Celia's balancing element of water, she is unable to quench the fire that begins to consume them all.

  • Sweeties

    We're talking éclairs. Apple pies. Strawberry shortcakes. Pecan. Sticky buns. The kind of sweeties that Lourdes sells in abundance at her Yankee Doodle Bakeries and that put the hundred or so extra pounds of flesh on her body. These are luxury items that any American during World War II would have killed to get their hands on. And they are the image of American abundance and decadence that drive Celia just a little bit out of her mind when she sees them in pictures from Lourdes' bakery ("Shells," 117). Is Lourdes doing her best to convince her mother that the American way is the best one? Or is she really just trying to show her Mami that she's made good in her adopted country? We'll leave it to you to figure that out. We can tell you that Celia doesn't take it too kindly to be reminded of all the things she's missing out on because of the Revolution.

  • Pearl Earrings

    We're told that Celia only has only removed the drop pearl earrings from her ears nine times to clean them, and that nobody remembers having seen her without them—ever. Even Pilar can't think of her grandmother without seeing those pearl earrings in her mind's eye, and they are the first thing she looks for when she sees her grandmother again in Cuba.

    It's clear that García wants us to connect Celia intimately with her beloved jewelry. She uses the earrings as a type of heraldry for her, with the pearls acting as outward signs of her long-lost passion for Gustavo. She continues to wear the pearls not as a sign that she still longs for Gustavo, but as a sign that she desires a life of strong feelings and a deep communion with the people she loves.

    When Celia releases her earrings to the sea, it's as though she's letting a major part of herself fall away into the darkness. Does it mean that she's ready for death? Or perhaps she's ready to reinvent herself? Yes to both of those things.

  • Music

    Music takes on special significance for Celia, Felicia, and Pilar in particular. For Pilar, the vibrant punk music scene in New York embodies her anger and energy, her desire to break away and to invent and reinvent her identity a million times over in a single year. As she matures, she associates her frustrations and struggles to understand where she belongs (and with whom) with the body-shaking thump of the bass. That "piece of furniture," as she calls it, becomes an extension of her body in flux and outward symbol of the energy and substance that is Pilar.

    Beny Moré and his music come to stand for Felicia's voice. When she is in the deepest throes of delusion, it is Beny's voice that keeps her from listening to every maddening sound of the universe. Ivanito associates this music with his mother's own voice, which he searches the radio waves for after her death. It's as though he can tune in and summon her physical presence by hearing Beny's song in her mouth on the radio.

    Celia sees music as the perfect emblem for her deep-seated passions. She recites the poetry of Federico García Lorca to anyone who will listen (remember, poetry=lyric) and remembers the lectures he gave at Havana's Principal de la Comedia Theater when she was a young woman in the throes of a first love. His poetry, works that are turned into songs, call to her as she enters the ocean in the last pages of the book.

  • Narrator Point of View

    3rd Person (limited and omniscient); 1st person (central and peripheral)

    Since García reveals information through many lenses (i.e. Celia reveals things about herself, but other characters supplement that with their own stories about her), the narrative technique is quite flexible. Felicia's sections are always told in third person, but the narrative voice can be either limited or omniscient. In "Baskets of Water," we feel pretty firmly entrenched in Felicia's fevered brain—until we get a glimpse of Otto's lust. Celia's narrative moments are in the third person, and are generally limited to her own observations and thoughts.

    Celia does pen her letters in first person and although they are poetic and fluid, they focus firmly on her experience and feelings (central narrator). Pilar's and Ivanito's first person narratives also stick close to their own perceptions of people and situations (also central). Herminia and Luz speak in first person of their own experiences, but their accounts exist to tell the stories of other characters (Felicia and Hugo), which gives them a peripheral voice.

    • Booker's Seven Basic Plots Analysis

      The Call

      Recall that García works together many storylines at one time, based on the major characters in the text. So "the call" comes to many—and at different times—rather than only to one central character. For Pilar, the summons is deeply embedded in her DNA. She has an amazing ability to remember her infant experiences in Cuba and has a type of telepathic connection to her Abuela Celia, all of which pull her toward her country of origin.

      Felicia literally gets a call that propels her on a most fatal path. When she learns that her father, Jorge, has died, Felicia tries to take steps to "make peace" with her past and reinvent herself. Lourdes is prompted by the fading voice of Jorge's spirit, which urges her to go to Cuba and see what has to be done.

      The Journey

      The journeys are woven into both the literal and figurative levels of this work. Pilar actually makes the journey toward Cuba twice (once successfully), but it takes most of the novel for her to understand the necessity of being there. Her encounter at the botánica and with her attackers gives her the clarity she needs to get up and go. Once there, Pilar reaches out to Herminia to learn more about Felicia and herself. We hate to use the old phrase "journey of self-discovery," but what can you do? If the shoe fits...

      Felicia's journeys are precipitated by violent crisis moments, and are often not of her choosing. Because of her spiritual sensitivity and psychological fragility, Felicia mostly has no idea where she is going or how she got there. Case in point: waking up in her third husband's house with no memory of who she is or why she's there. She joins Lieutenant Rojas and her band of misfit guerrillas and flees from the burning of Graciela Moreira's scalp only to wind up murdering her third husband. These fragmented and hallucinatory encounters reflect a troubled mind that is operating on a different plane, unable to find a way in to the reality of her life in Cuba.

      Even though Jorge compels Lourdes to make the journey home, she hesitates until Pilar gives her the directive. She's a reluctant pilgrim to the land of her past, and she's not entirely sure what she's meant to do there—except, perhaps, save Ivanito from the clutches of the Revolution. Lourdes' movements through Cuba give her the opportunity to confront the sadness and tragedy of her past and help her to reinforce the ironclad opinion she has about Cuba after the Revolution. 

      Arrival and Frustration

      Pilar doesn't know where she belongs when she arrives in Cuba. New York was chosen by her mother, and Cuba, though alluring, is distant and unattainable. She's caught between her longing for Abuela Celia and her need for self-determination. Pilar also realizes that her romantic view of Cuba—the one she held as a runaway teen—couldn't be more wrong. Yes, there is natural beauty and a kind of magical existence in this place, but there's also no hot water, sparse electricity, very little food, and absolutely no Lou Reed. Pilar may feel simpatico with Celia and even love the quaintness of the land, but she knows she can't stay.

      By the time Felicia finally returns from her various ordeals to her friend Herminia and the gods of santería, it's clear that she will never have what she wants. She throws herself into religion and hopes to find identity and happiness in the process. While she does find a community with Herminia and the other religious folks, Celia flatly rejects this new version of her daughter and refuses to greet her after Felicia's initiation rites are completed. At this point, we know that there is no place for Felicia, and all of her best schemes for happiness are destined to fail.

      And while Lourdes understands intellectually that the Cuba she once knew has disappeared, it doesn't really sink in until she drives through the countryside to visit the places of her young married life. By the time she arrives at her husband's family farm, she feels that her past has been erased and that the hard suffering she felt in those places has lost its significance. This is not an easy moment for her.

      Final Ordeals

      Pilar knows that she must return to the U.S., but this also means abandoning her beloved Abuela Celia. She knows it will be a betrayal to her frail grandmother and she's not sure how to do it. Pilar takes that first step toward separation when she lies to Celia about not finding Ivanito at the Peruvian embassy. It's a cruel blow to Celia—especially since we know that Pilar will be leaving soon, too. After Pilar gets clocked on the head by a rock, she has a moment of clarity: Cuba is no place for those like herself and her cousin, who long for personal fulfillment and happiness.

      Although Celia survives many trials in her life—the loss of her lover, a cruel husband and psychotic in-laws, the dissolution of family—her suffering reaches its maximum when she loses Felicia, her most beloved daughter. She could never really save Felicia nor help her to find her place in the Cuba that she so diligently helped to build. Once Ivanito sets off to emigrate and Pilar and Lourdes return to the U.S., there is no future left for Celia in Cuba.

      Lourdes has to confront the suffering in her past, brought to her by a mentally unstable and emotionally distant mother, difficult in-laws and rape, to name a few. Ultimately, she has to struggle with the promise she made to the fading voice of her dead father. Will she deliver Jorge's message and accept the fact that Celia really loved her, despite all outward signs? Lourdes can't bring herself to do either of these things.

      There's not much healing for Lourdes on this journey, but it doesn't really matter. She was meant to "do something" when she got to Cuba, so she looks to saving Ivanito from a life of desperation and sadness.

      The Goal

      Pilar achieves two important goals in journeying to Cuba. First, she reunites with her grandmother. Then, she sees the land of her origin for what it is: beautiful, sad, impoverished, and quite alien in its expectations and way of life. Pilar understands that she isn't really living in exile in the U.S. after all. It's the place that allows her to embrace all aspects of her identity. She has no intention of forgetting about Celia and her family's past, but she's ready to get back.

      Lourdes may not have gotten the psychological healing she needed, but she does get to do a very cathartic thing: she gets to scream an insult directly at El Líder. Okay, so it does no good (she doesn't even get roughed up), but she feels that she's protested against the regime. Her biggest moment of triumph is getting Ivanito to the Peruvian embassy. She outmaneuvers both Pilar and Celia and manages to overcome Ivanito's scruples about leaving Abuela Celia. Despite her past unhappiness, she is held up by her convictions and they allow her to prove that she is a woman of action.

      While Celia has not exactly been on a physical quest (unless you count trips to the sugarcane fields and Havana), she has been searching for purpose and peace. In the end, she lets go of two important self-soothing devices: the letters to Gustavo (which she bequeaths to Pilar and the future) and her pearl earrings. García has so closely linked Celia with her earrings that we have to think the "extinguishing" of their light means the death of Celia. But maybe not. Perhaps it signifies the end of her suffering and the movement into a new phase of life. Kind of sounds like death either way, though, doesn't it?

    • Plot Analysis

      Exposition (Initial Situation)

      Mystical Abuela and Her Giant Blue Man

      In the opening of García's work, we're brought into the middle of a ... unique situation. Celia del Pino is "guarding" her area of the Cuban coast like a boss—until she's distracted by the gigantic image of her husband striding toward her across the ocean, radiating a pretty blue light. She doesn't yet know it, but her husband Jorge has just died in a nursing home in Brooklyn. You might get whiplash doing a double-take at this moment, but take it easy on yourself. The story you're about to read dishes out heavy helpings of magical realism, which means you'll have to get used to moving back and forth between this world and others. This kind of atemporal setup also means that you'll have to piece information together as you move through the narrative.

      Rising Action (Conflict, Complication)

      Felicia Takes a Serious Step and Punk Lady Liberty Rocks the House

      Remember that the narrative timeline in this book is pretty wonky—you'll have to pay close attention when you are as well as where. That's why we've located two candidates for the rising action: one in Cuba and one in the U.S.

      On the Cuban side, we see Felicia descending further into madness and moving closer to some tragic action. In "The Fire Between Them," Felicia's difficult past experiences come to a head and push her to attempt suicide (and take her beloved son Ivanito with her). This moment propels Felicia into a series of disastrous situations and makes us realize that the family's time in Cuba may be ill-fated.

      On the American side, Pilar heads into full-on adolescent rebellion. Just as she is totally certain that her estranged parents are from a completely different planet, Lourdes asks her to paint something new for the bakery to mark the Bicentennial celebrations in Brooklyn. She gives Pilar absolute freedom to choose the subject.

      Pilar can't freaking believe it. It's kind of a do or die moment for her: she can either show that her mother's trust is safe with her or she can step out and make Lourdes feel just how much she doesn't want to be like her. Pilar chooses the second option. Her punk Lady Liberty painting receives a whole lot of criticism, but Lourdes' surprising reaction wins her some major brownie points with her daughter. Things don't heal between them, but this is definitely a moment that complicates Pilar's feelings about her mother.

      Climax (Crisis, Turning Point)

      Jorge Tunes Out, Clarity Through Assault and Santería

      By 1979, Lourdes realizes that her father Jorge is slowly fading away. Of course, he's been dead for some time, but until this time his voice has been a strong and constant companion for her. Now Jorge speaks urgently of things she needs to do before he heads off into Oblivion. The things he has to say are not pleasant and Lourdes would rather not listen to him.

      Among these items: she must go back to Cuba and be with her mother, carrying Jorge's apologies for being a rather unsympathetic husband. She might be further motivated by Jorge's news that her sister Felicia is dead—but she really isn't.

      It takes more divine intervention to set Lourdes and Pilar on their much anticipated journey back to Cuba. Pilar chances on a botánica and chooses her own orisha, the god of lightning and fire, Changó. The proprietor of the shop tells her that she has to finish what's been started and gives Pilar special herbs to bathe in and bring clarity to her purpose.

      On the way home, Pilar is assaulted by little boys, which steels her resolve to listen to the shopkeeper and participate in the ritual baths. Her participation in the indigenous rites of her lost motherland draws her toward decisive action: she will go to Cuba. Pilar's crisis brings her mother's torment and her own curiosity together with one resolve. They will both return to reclaim lost family ties and make peace with their past. Or at least try.

      Falling Action

      Felicia's Final Journey, Heading to Cuba

      Felicia's timeline winds down quickly. When she returns from her disastrous experience with her third husband (Otto), Felicia rejoins her BFF Herminia in the worship of the orishas. This is a full-on conversion experience. She dedicates herself entirely to the santería and goes through the secret rites of initiation.

      But it becomes evident that Felicia fails to thrive. Her newfound religious community does their best to save her (sacrifices and herbal medicines), but Felicia goes down fast with a mysterious malady. Felicia's narrative has been walking a fatal path for some time, so her actual departure doesn't shock as much as you might expect.

      It does, however, break something in Celia. Her active mind and physical strength seem to leak away with the loss of her child. And it's at this moment that Pilar and Lourdes appear. Their return to Cuba is truly an anticlimax: they find nothing unexpected. Lourdes doesn't even get out of the car at Felicia's house (Jorge has already informed her that Felicia is dead) and she sees nothing in Cuba that changes her entrenched ideas about the destruction of Castro's regime.

      While Pilar feels a little culture shock at the harshness of her grandmother's existence, she doesn't find the place that she fantasized about as a young teenager. What she sees is an aging grandmother and a country with very little to offer a new generation.

      Resolution (Denouement)

      You Can't Go Home Again

      Pilar gets something very important out of her trip to Cuba: she reclaims her grandmother as her own. But she realizes that she cannot keep her, because she really belongs in New York. It becomes a struggle for her to think of leaving Celia behind and telling her she intends to do so. Lourdes has a similar experience as she travels around Cuba, looking for the places of her past. Everything is decayed and changed almost beyond recognition.

      By the time she reaches her husband's old ranch, she's no longer sure why she bothered to go there. Lourdes is relieved to see her mother once again, but realizes that the old rancor in her heart about being emotionally abandoned as a child will never heal. It's kind of a disappointing journey.

      But it isn't without merit. Pilar and Lourdes realize that there really is only one way forward, even if it's something they don't want to do. It involves both forgetting and remembering and leaving the natural beauty of Cuba behind in exchange for peace of mind. While Pilar doesn't agree with her mother's narrow political ideologies, she does concur about one thing: Cuba is not home and they can't stay.

      This is also true for Ivanito, who Lourdes sets on the path of immigration before leaving Cuba herself. Pilar surprises herself by going along with the plan, all the while knowing it will leave Celia entirely bereft of her family. But Celia still clings to the ideals of the Revolution, and separating herself from her beloved land is not an option.

    • Three-Act Plot Analysis

      Act I

      We are introduced to the major characters, their backstories and the geographical locations in play for this narrative. There are some important structural and literary devices that crop up early on, so it's crucial to pay attention.

      If you miss the gigantic spirit-Jorge striding across the sea, radiating blue light, we really can't help you. The mixing of supernatural elements with everyday life signals the use of magical realism, which is a big part of the narrative and of the cultural thinking of the characters. The inclusion of Celia's letters also set the structure and pace of the novel. They open a door to Celia's past and become another means of revelation for us. García also introduces the rites and philosophies of santería here.

      On the narrative side, we learn of Felicia's building mental illness, the conflict between Pilar and Lourdes, Celia's disappointing love life and her obsession with El Líder, Lourdes' rape and Felicia's attempted murder/suicide.

      Act II

      This stage comprises the bulk of the narrative. In it, Felicia sees "military service," marries twice, commits assault and murder, embraces santería and dies. Her daughter Luz finally gets a say and reveals much about her father and mother. Ivanito runs into a sticky situation with his Russian teacher at boarding school. It's clear that he still doesn't fit in.

      Celia takes on the role of civilian judge, nurses wayward son Javier after his marriage dissolves, loses a breast to cancer and reaches Felicia just before she (Felicia) dies. Celia notes that her children all disagree with her political sensibilities.

      Lourdes becomes an auxiliary policewoman, stops eating and loses half her body weight, and continues her antagonistic relationship with Pilar. Toward the end of this stage, she loses contact with Jorge's spirit, but promises to deliver a message for him to Celia.

      Pilar has grown up (still a punk fan), has a couple of boyfriends, goes to college and travels Italy, picks up the bass guitar, has an encounter with Changó and is assaulted in the park. At the end of this stage, she initiates the trip to Cuba.

      Act III

      Celia remembers the posthumous miracle that leaves Felicia's body whole again. Pilar and Lourdes arrive in Cuba and find Celia in a sorry state. Pilar gets to know her again and meets her little cousins. Lourdes takes a journey to her old ranch, "kidnaps" Ivanito and screams at Castro.

      Pilar decides she must betray Celia by helping Ivanito emigrate and by returning to the U.S. herself. Celia takes another swim in the ocean, this time releasing her pearl earrings into the depths.

    • Allusions

      Literary and Philosophical References

      Historical References

      • El Líder, a nickname for Fidel Castro ("Ocean Blue," 3 and throughout work)
      • The Revolution (throughout work)
      • The Bay of Pigs ("Ocean Blue," 3)
      • U.S. Bicentennial ("Attitude," 143)
      • Jacoba Van Heemskerck ("Attitude," 139)

      Pop Culture References

      • Lou Reed ("Enough Attitude," 134), Take No Prisoners ("Changó," 198); "Street Hassle" ("Changó," 202)
      • The Velvet Underground & Nico ("Matrix," 181)
      • Iggy Pop ("Attitude," 135)
      • The Ramones ("Attitude," 135)
      • The Sex Pistols, "God Save the Queen" ("Matrix," 177)
      • Howlin' Wolf and Muddy Waters ("Attitude," 134)
      • Beny Moré, "Rebel Heart," "Treat Me As I Am" ("Fire," 85); "Nunca Jámas" ("Letters: 1950-1955," 165)
      • Cielito Lindo ("Palmas Street," 36)
      • Mujeres de Fuego (the film actually referenced is Three on a Match), ("Letters: 1942-1949)
      • Wolfman Jack ("God's Will," 191)