When we meet Pilar, she's about fourteen years old and feeling as though she doesn't belong anywhere. She's full of anger against her mother for her stupid politics and her seeming indifference to the one person that Pilar really wants in her life: her Abuela Celia. Her affinity for the hard-edged sound of punk rock and for the wild, kinetic feel of abstract art places Pilar in a state of full-on adolescent rebellion.
But it also kind of reminds us of someone we've already met. Celia's determination to live a life of extraordinary passion seems to have been passed on genetically to her granddaughter. Pilar's own passion for punk culture plays to her desire to dig deep and find out what she's made of. It's a confusing, frightening journey, but one that she finds exhilarating when she sees it played out on stage or in the music that she loves:
Lou [Reed] has about twenty-five personalities. I like him because he sings about people no one else sings about—drug addicts, transvestites, the down-and-out. Lou jokes about his alter egos discussing problems at night. I feel like a new me sprouts and dies every day. ("Attitude," 135)
Pilar doesn't realize it yet, but her motivations for loving punk culture puts her on the same wavelength as her mother, Lourdes. Well, at least in one very important respect. They both want their lives to mean something, for their struggles not to have been in vain. Pilar speaks of her method for achieving this as an "artistic form of assault" that allows the marginalized to say "'Hey, we're here too and what we think matters!'" ("Attitude," 135). Classic punk. At least, for now.
Let's face it: Pilar's life is just not that hard. She's not going without anything she needs and she has parents who love her, even if they drive her crazy and are weird. But it doesn't mean that she isn't struggling in important ways.
The biggest challenge for Pilar is to find a way to bring the two sides of her identity into balance so that she doesn't have to hide one side from public view. That's especially hard for her to do with Lourdes as her mother. Lourdes prides herself on the kind of utter cultural assimilation that would do the Borg proud, but this is the type of capitulation that Pilar despises.
She wants to reclaim her original identity and she knows that Abuela Celia can help her do it. But she is prevented by a whole host of issues that she had nothing to do with—and she resents it. The political differences that keep the doors closed are robbing her of a culture and an identity:
I resent the hell out of the politicians and the generals who force events on us that structure our lives, that dictate the memories we'll have when we're old. Every day Cuba fades a little more inside me, my grandmother fades a little more inside me. And there's only my imagination where our history should be. ("Attitude," 138).
Like Celia, like Lourdes and like ill-fated Felicia, Pilar wants to be the author of her own life and identity despite the odds that are stacked against her. Her mother's defense of her punk Lady Liberty painting is a good sign that Pilar will actually have more support in her quest than she thinks.
One of the most important roles Pilar plays in this novel is as receiver of her grandmother's memories. If you really think about it, that's the most significant role that most of us can play in our own families—and hence in the culture as a whole. The passing on of familial memory allows future generations to know something for certain about their past, exclusive of the agendas of the powers-that-be. On Celia's side, she has been waiting a long time for the day when she could hand over her letters to her granddaughter and feel that her life won't have passed by without a sympathetic and reliable witness. For Pilar, it is almost a mystical moment:
As I listen, I feel my grandmother's life passing to me through her hands. It's a steady electricity, humming and true. ("Six Days," 222)
Although Pilar knows that she has to leave Celia behind—she realizes that she belongs more to New York than to Cuba—she has seen with her own eyes and there is very little danger that the memories will fade or be co-opted by official histories written by ambitious men. In essence, Pilar has taken ownership of the other half of her identity. Armed with her grandmother's memories and her own experiences, she can take her place in her adopted society without fear of forgetting her roots.