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 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.
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.
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?