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.