Celia has her own iconography in those lovely pearl earrings that never leave her ears. They were given to her by her Spanish lover, Gustavo, and remain in their place for decades—unless Celia removes them for cleaning. They are so much a part of her identity that it is just possible that her friends and family might not recognize her without them.
Just as saints can be identified by the paraphernalia they carry in their depictions, so it is with Celia and her earrings. They tell us the story of her passion for a man she was destined never to keep and of her longing to live life in such a way that she never becomes staid, complacent or obscure. As she says in a letter to Gustavo:
The familiar is insistent and deadly. ("Letters: 1942-1949," 99)
It's this exact desire that runs Celia into so much trouble with her husband, Jorge. In a posthumous confession to their daughter, Lourdes, Jorge explains the actions that nearly crushed Celia's soul in the early years of their marriage:
After we were married, I left her with my mother and my sister. I knew what it would do to her. A part of me wanted to punish her. For the Spaniard. I tried to kill her, Lourdes. I wanted to kill her. I left on a long trip after you were born. I wanted to break her, God forgive me. When I returned, it was done. ("Changó," 195)
It's possible that the passion burning in Celia ignited reactions of similar intensity in others. Although Celia learns to love Jorge over the years, she keeps writing tender letters to her ex-lover Gustavo. She never sends them, but that act of rebellion tells us that the breaking of Celia was never really completed.
Part of the reason Celia survives has to do with her personal, internal resources. Of course, in a work of magical realism, that kind of explanation would never do. Let's try again. There is a force or power working inside Celia that allows her to thwart the negative energy that threatens to consume her positive life force. (Much better). As she lay dying of lovesickness, the little santera who is summoned to help save her life finds a unique and redemptive strength in Celia's hand:
"Miss Celia, I see a wet landscape in your palm," the little santera said, then turned to Tía Alicia. "She will survive the hard flames." ("Palmas Street," 37)
What does this mean for Celia and her struggles? Well, for one thing, it's a go ahead for her doctrine of passion. She can seek out the flames at will, since she's got some internal apparatus for dealing with it—she's not going to be consumed like her daughter Felicia (or the santera, for that matter).
Celia is a woman of political convictions. Despite what her husband has to say about El Líder and the changes brought to Cuba by the revolution, Celia pulls full force for team Castro. As she says in her letters to Gustavo, change is needed in Cuba if the extreme poverty of the masses is to be alleviated. She isn't afraid of the upheaval or discomfort that might come her way in achieving this goal and scorns those who balk at the idea of change:
Why is it that most people aspire to little more than comfort? ("Letters: 1942-1949).
But her words of solidarity and social equity fall on deaf ears when it comes to her family. Lourdes will have no part of her mother's communist leanings and feels utter repulsion when she sees that a photo of Castro covers a portrait of her own father in her mother's house. Even Felicia, who is generally more sympathetic to Celia than her sister, feels frustrated by her mother's single-minded dedication to the cause. Pilar is really the only one who can turn a blind eye to her devotion to the charismatic leader of the country.
But it isn't hard to see where her dedication began and why it is so persistent as she ages. Actually, it all goes back to those darn pearl earrings again:
Gustavo returned to Celia's counter again and again. He brought her butterfly jasmine, the symbol of patriotism and purity, and told her that Cuba, too, would one day be free of blood-suckers. Gustavo sang to her beauty mark, the lunar by her mouth. He bought her drop pearl earrings. ("Palmas Street," 36)
Yup. It's the influence of the Spanish lover. Celia learns her zeal for many things during that love affair, and these are the things that sustain her as she struggles to find meaning and purpose in a life that would otherwise demand her to be still and silent.
After Celia loses Felicia, her usual sense of determination and her good strength seem to fail her. Other things have been going wrong, too: Javier's come and gone again, with the probability that he, too, will die a strange death; and the santera has combusted on the front lawn. The life that Celia thought she had constructed for herself has begun to unravel.
It's just at this time that Pilar and Lourdes step back into her life. She can't be happier than when she has the opportunity to see her granddaughter with her own eyes and to talk with her on the porch swing. She is able to give her the letters she's written to Gustavo and feel at peace that she has passed the story of her life into the future.
But there is inevitable reversal, because Americans really can't stay in Cuba for any extended period of time. After Ivanito is spirited off to the Peruvian embassy and the girls head back to the States, Celia is faced with the same question she dealt with years ago: does she sit still and wait for death? Or does she dedicate her life to passion?
We don't really know what her answer truly is. We do know that she chooses to release her beloved drop pearl earrings to be swallowed by the darkness of the ocean.