"He used to write her letters every day, when he still had the strength, long letters in old-fashioned script with flourishes and curlicues...They were romantic letters, too...He called Abuela Celia his 'dove in the desert.'" ("Going South," 33)
Pilar is charmed by her grandfather's late-in-life attempts at romantic contact with her grandmother—as any teenage grandchild would be. She does not yet understand the origin and nature of her grandparents' relationship. In this way, her view of their union is as unrealistic as her dreams of Cuba.
"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)
We'd fall pretty hard for this kind of courtship, too. It also explains Celia's fervor for the Revolution.
"It surprised me how my heart jumped when I heard he'd been hurt...I discovered I loved him at that moment. Not a passion like ours, Gustavo, but love just the same. I think he understands this and is at peace." ("Letters: 1935-1940," 54)
Celia comes to the realization that her indifference to Jorge has been transformed to a steady love. At another point, she understands that her passion for Gustavo would likely have cooled over the years—so that makes her men about even, right?
"When Lourdes was a child in Cuba, she used to wait anxiously for her father to return from his trips selling small fans and electric brooms in distant provinces. He would call her every evening...and she would cry, 'When are you coming home, Papi? When are you coming home?' Lourdes would welcome her father in her party dress and search his suitcase for rag dolls and oranges." ("Grove," 68)
It's possible that Lourdes' love for her father was intensified by her fear of her mother's indifference and manic behavior. Or perhaps this is genuine love shared by two compatible souls. We expect that it's a combination of the two.
"Felicia approaches the bleached, crumpled heap that will be her husband. He looks like a colorless worm, writhing on his stomach in a synthetic tan suit with precisely matching socks, his steel glasses smashed against the pavement. Felicia is smitten." ("Baskets," 149)
We're not sure if Felicia's emotions are the sign of her desperation or if she really is just a highly charitable person, able to love the unlovable. She desperately wants a second husband, despite the dire predictions of the santero who told her she wouldn't be able to keep what she desired. Perhaps their intense passion burned itself up too quickly?
"Could her son, Celia wonders, have inherited her habit of ruinous passion? Or is passion indiscriminate, incubating haphazardly like a cancer?" ("Baskets," 157)
When Javier returns from Czechoslovakia a broken man, Celia can't help but recall her own brush with death after Gustavo left her. In this world where the unexplained and unusual happens all the time, it's not out of the question that emotional lives can be transmitted via DNA.
"...Neighbors had kept their distance, believing she was destined for an early death and anyone she touched would be forced to accompany her. They were afraid of her disease as if it were fatal, like tuberculosis, but worse, much worse. What they feared even more...was that passion might spare them entirely, that they'd die conventionally, smug and purposeless, having never savored its blackness." ("Baskets," 157)
Celia herself is clearly horrified by living a life of numb affections, as reflected in her question for Pilar and I Ching ("Should I live for passion?"). It's not a surprise that she is able to see this same fear in the eyes of the women around her.
"That girl [Lourdes] is a stranger to me. When I approach her, she turns numb, as if she wanted to be dead in my presence. I see how different Lourdes is with her father, so alive and gay, and it hurts me, but I don't know what to do. She still punishes me for the early years." ("Letters: 1950-1955," 165)
Jorge wants to punish Celia for loving Gustavo, so he has her tortured in an asylum and separated from Lourdes. Lourdes detests her mother for not loving her, so she clings to her father. Jorge clings to Lourdes because affection is not forthcoming from his wife. It's a vicious, vicious cycle.
"'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 break her, may God forgive me. When I returned, it was done." ("Changó," 195)
To be fair, Jorge hangs around for a long time after his death just to make this confession to Lourdes and set the record straight. In doing this, Jorge proves his love for both Celia and Lourdes—but it's too little and too late. Lourdes can't reach out to Celia and never delivers his message of contrition to her.
"'Your mother loved you,' Jorge del Pino repeats urgently. 'She loved me,' Lourdes echoes.'" ("Changó," 196)
Lourdes can repeat it, but it's only an echo. She doesn't own this fact and certainly doesn't believe in her heart that her mother loved her. The rejection in her infancy feels too big to overcome.
"[Lourdes] imagines her footprints sinking invisibly through the streets and the sidewalks, below the condensed archaeology of the city to underground plains of rich alluvial clay. She suspects the earth sheds its skin in layers, squandered of green." ("Going South," 18)
Dreaming in Cuban has a kind of historical syncretism working for it, where the characters elide their emotional states with the story of things around them. It's a variation of magical realism, in which the extraordinary or impossible works its way into everyday life. Here, Lourdes "makes her print" on the streets of New York as she patrols her beat. Perhaps this is her way of making the experiences of her life significant in the eyes of the universe.
"I was only two years old when I left Cuba but I remember everything that's happened to me since I was a baby, even word-for-word conversations." ("Going South," 26, Pilar)
It's an impossible situation, but let's say Pilar has a gift. She doesn't need anyone else to tell the story of her early life to her, since she can reach all the way back into infancy to grab those memories herself. On one hand, it's a good thing: she can interpret her life as she sees fit and doesn't need her mother to reconstruct her life in Cuba for her. On the other, it means that she doesn't need her mother to—already a problem in their strained relationship.
"If it were up to me, I'd record other things. Like the time there was a freak hailstorm in the Congo and the women took it as a sign that they should rule. Or the life stories of prostitutes in Bombay. Why don't I know anything about them? Who chooses what we should know or what's important?" ("Going South," 28)
Both Pilar (who is speaking here) and Herminia lament that other people get to decide what's important. Whether it has to do with cultural memory or political decisions, it's horribly frustrating to them to have to rely on the whims of those in power for something that feels so personal and personally defining.
"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. But then I'd feel sad looking up at the bare branches and thinking about Abuela Celia. I wonder how my life would have been different if I'd stayed with her." ("Going South," 32)
Pilar has romanticized the possibility of Cuba and her life in it, so her memories of her early days in New York are equally biased toward the negative. She's definitely not feeling like a native New Yorker and feels that her poor lungs (and the rest of her) would have thrived better on the tropical island. She has a different set of feelings when she later reaches Cuba.
"For twenty-five years, Celia wrote her Spanish lover a letter on the eleventh day of each month, then stored it in a satin-covered chest beneath her bed. Celia has removed her drop pearl earrings only nine times, to clean them. No one ever remembers her without them." ("Palmas Street," 36)
This is the first time we understand the importance of those pearl earrings. Celia defines herself by wearing them so persistently, and others come to identify her by the trademark jewelry. This is something to hold on to as you move into the ending of the book.
"She imagines [Jorge] swinging the broom round and round in a quickening circle...swinging so hard that the air breaks in a low whistle...then releasing the broom until it flies high above him, crashing through the window and shattering the past." ("Palmas Street," 43)
Celia relives her past as she walks through Havana and stops in front of the hotel where she and lover Gustavo used to meet. Time collapses for her as she stands there (as it so often does to the characters in this book), bringing the two men of her life together in a battle for her memory and heart.
"Memory cannot be confined, Celia realizes, looking out the kitchen window to the sea. It's slate gray, the color of undeveloped film. Capturing images suddenly seems to her an act of cruelty. It was an atrocity to sell cameras at El Encanto department store, to imprison emotions on squares of glossy paper." ("Palmas Street," 47-48)
We love the ambiguity of that second sentence, where it's either the sea or memory that is "slate gray." Let your mind play with the possibilities of those interpretations. Celia has a unique stance on the act of "fixing memory," and feels that the beauty of recollection lies in the ability interpret and rearrange the original experience at will.
"'Imagination, like memory, can transform lies to truths,' Felicia whispers in her son's ear. Nobody else teaches him that." ("Fire," 88)
Felicia may be in one of her hallucinatory stages, but this little bit of madness has wisdom in it. In either case (memory or imagination) the event or "truth" relies on the transformative power of the mind to give it meaning. In other words, whatever "really" happened in the past doesn't matter—it's how we choose to reassemble the memory that counts.
"All summer, it seems to her...she has lived in her memories. Sometimes she'll glimpse the hour on a dusty Canada Dry clock, or look at the sun low in the sky, and realize she cannot account for her time. Where do the hours go? Her past, she fears, is eclipsing her present." ("Fire," 92)
Celia does something that most older people do: reviews her life and continuously tries to find out what was important in it. Although it is a natural response to aging, we can see that it bothers her a bit here. The real problem may not be that the past is encroaching on the present. For Celia, the big question is whether or not the past will allow her to have a future.
"It's not just our personal history that gets mangled. Mom filters other people's lives through her distorting lens. Maybe it's that wandering eye of hers. It makes her see only what she wants to see instead of what's really there." ("Matrix," 177)
Pilar really has a problem with other people "making up" the important information of the past. She's really interested in getting at the things and events that are true or real. The difficulty is that all the characters have a "lens," distorted or otherwise, through which they view and interpret the world.
"The war that killed my grandfather and great-uncles and thousands of other blacks is only a footnote in our history books. Why, then, should I trust anything I read? I trust only what I see, what I know with my heart, nothing more." ("God's Will," 185, Herminia)
Here is another echo of the anger and dissatisfaction with being at the mercy of those in power, who make decisions about cultural memory and history. In this case, Herminia addresses the racial tensions that are so powerful (and yet ignored) in Cuba.
"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)
The relationship between Pilar and Celia has always been a special one, and we know that Celia believes her future is in Pilar's hands. That seems reasonable, as Pilar is the next generation. But it's more complicated than that. Pilar is Celia's future because she is the receiver of her memories, feelings and experiences of the past.
"'Your grandfather took me to an asylum after your mother was born. I told him all about you. He said it was impossible to remember the future.'" ("Six Days," 222)
There seems to be a perpetual stitching together of the fabric of space and time in this work, partly due to the intricate timeline of the narrative. Celia heightens this feeling for us her by "prophesying" a bit, looking forward to the time when Pilar would come and comfort her with her presence. Don't be too quick to brush this aside as generic future wisdom; magical realism is in play here, so Celia's actually being visionary.
"Women who outlive their daughters are orphans, Abuela tells me. Only their granddaughters can save them, guard their knowledge like the first fire." ("Six Days," 222)
Celia articulates her loss by turning the natural order of things upside down. How is it possible for a mother to be an orphan when she loses a daughter? Why should a granddaughter save her grandmother, when it should be the other way around? Because Celia is fragile and broken by Felicia's death (and Javier's disappearance)—and she is feeling the effects of age and loneliness—she needs to rely on Pilar's memory and strength to sustain her.
"My granddaughter, Pilar Puente del Pino, was born today. It is also my birthday. I am fifty years old. I will no longer write to you, mi amor. She will remember everything." ("Six Days," 245).
Celia can only relinquish her habit of recording her innermost feelings because Pilar can now be the receptacle of her memory and her present life. As Pilar so astutely observes in another part of the novel, she can actually feel the vitality of her grandmother's memories moving from Celia to herself. This moment, when Celia ends her dependence on the idea of Gustavo, highlights the importance in the lives of these women of a well-curated and preserved set of lifetime experiences.
"Her husband emerges from the light and comes toward her, taller than the palms, walking on water in his white summer suit and Panama hat." ("Ocean Blue," 5)
Jorge visits Celia in Cuba immediately after his death in New York. The mundane expression of this supernatural appearance would make it seem that such occurrences happen daily—or at least are expected.
"'The nuns told her it was like a Holy Ascension except Papi was dressed to go dancing. Then he shows up at my mother's house and nearly scares her half to death. I think she dove in the ocean after him.'" ("Ocean Blue," 12)
Note the sacred and otherworldly juxtaposed with earthly frivolity. Jorge experiences a miraculous spiritual transformation but his clothes still reflect his personality. Felicia misinterprets Celia's response as she recounts the story to Herminia.
"'Listen, girl, there's always new hope for the dead. You must cleanse your soul of this or it will trail you all your days. It may even harm your children. Just a small offering to Santa Bárbara...'" ("Ocean Blue," 12)
Herminia convinces Felicia that she has to take action to appease the negative energy she's generated from not making peace with her father before he died. Since Herminia is a santera she believes that such negativity will bring ill luck to Felicia if it lingers. Felicia is not thrilled about the idea of blood sacrifice, but Herminia brings her round.
"Against the back wall, an ebony statue of Santa Bárbara, the Black Queen, presides. Apples and bananas sit in offering at her feet. Fragrant oblations crowd the shrines of the other saints and gods: toasted corn, pennies, and an aromatic cigar for Saint Lazarus, protector of paralytics; coconut and bitter kola for Obatalá, King of the White Cloth; roasted yams, palm wine, and a small sack of salt for Oggún, patron of metals." ("Ocean Blue," 14)
Felicia is cornered into making a sacrifice of a goat to the gods in order to restore the balance in her life after Jorge's death. Here, she enters La Madrina's house and surveys the shrines of the Catholic saints-turned-gods.
"'When I went in, he was fully dressed, standing there erect and healthy, except that his head and hands glowed as if lit from within. It was a nimbus of holiness, I am certain." ("Going South," 19)
It seems that everyone encounters the supernatural in this book, yet the interpretations of such events are quite varied. In this case, Sister Federica—who has taken care of Jorge during his last illness—finds sanctity in the weird ghostly appearance of Jorge after death.
"Abuela Celia and I write to each other sometimes, but mostly I hear her speaking to me at night just before I fall asleep. She tells me stories about her life and what the sea was like that day. She seems to know everything that's happened to me and tells me not to mind my mother too much." ("Going South," 28-29)
Earlier in this chapter, Celia explains to us that she has been talking to Pilar in the night, their telepathic conversations overcoming the miles between Cuba and Brooklyn. It might have been easy to dismiss this as the claims of an eccentric and lonely person—until Pilar confirms the conversations. Eventually, the communications break off, but for Pilar, they are one of the strongest motivators to make the trip to Cuba.
"Fruit and coins are strewn by [the ceiba tree's] trunk and the ground around the tree bulges with offerings. Celia knows that good charms and bad are hidden in the stirred earth near its sacred roots. Tía Alicia told her once that the ceiba is a saint, female and maternal. She asks the tree permission before crossing its shadow, then circles it three times and makes a wish for Felicia." ("Palmas Street," 43)
So Celia doesn't believe in religious mumbo jumbo...but she does like to hedge her bets. In this case, her interaction with the supernatural is a spontaneous response, learned in her childhood from an unconventional aunt.
"Her body starts to sway, and her clasped hands rock beneath her chin until it seems she is all loose, swinging angles. And then, as Celia watches, the little santera's moist eyes roll back in her dwarfish head until the whites gleam from two pinpricks, 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)
Yes, that's right. She spontaneously combusted. Again, the big surprise isn't that the santera evaporates; it's that Celia merely bends over and picks up her shawl. It's as though this kind of thing happened every day. (We're not even sure that next of kin were notified.)
"'Lourdes, I'm back,' Jorge de Pino greets his daughter forty days after she buried him with his Panama hat, his cigars, and a bouquet of violets in a cemetery on the border of Brooklyn and Queens." ("Grove," 64)
Far from being dismayed by her father's posthumous return, Lourdes takes great comfort in her father's company. Since he is the only person she feels sympathy with, it's really her only chance for real companionship and possible emotional healing.
"The santeras had made eight cuts on her tongue with a razor blade so that the god could speak, but Felicia could not divulge his words. When Obatalá finally left her body, she opened her eyes and emerged from the void." ("God's Will," 187)
Felicia's initiation ceremony into santería is as extreme and stomach turning as most of the experiences she's had up to this point in her life. Her complete compliance during these little trials shows her determination to find peace in her life, which turns out to be a misplaced hope.
"I light my candle. The bath turns a clear green from the herbs. It has the sharp scent of an open field in spring. When I pour it on my hair, I feel a sticky cold like dry ice, then a soporific heat. I'm walking naked as a beam of light along brick paths and squares of grass, phosphorescent and clean." ("Changó," 203)
Pilar literally wanders into a mundane practice of santería when she chances on a botánica in Brooklyn. She is searching desperately for an identity that blends the Cuban and American aspects of her life and for clarity where her motherland is concerned.
"The yanquis, rumors go, have ringed the island with nuclear poison, hoping to starve the people and incite a counterrevolution. They will drop germ bombs to wither the sugarcane fields, blacken the rivers, blind horses and pigs. Celia studies the coconut palms lining the beach. Could they be blinking signals to an invisible enemy?" ("Ocean Blue" 3-4)
The opening of this book may have you questioning just how reliable Celia's point of view will be in the coming pages. Is she delusional? Or has she just accepted the conditioning of the State? Perhaps the complicit coconut trees is just one step too far...
"The muscles in her right eye have been weak since she was a child, and every so often the eye drifts to one side, giving her a vaguely cyclopean air. It doesn't diminish her 20/20 vision, only skews it a bit." ("Going South" 17)
Lourdes prefers to think of her lazy eye as a super power, giving her the ability to take in more than the average Cuban mother. Pilar sees it as a weakness, the portal for every crazy political theory and prejudice to walk through.
"He took pride in never walking barefoot, even in his own home, and shuffled around in highly polished leather slippers to protect himself from microbios. The very word lit a fire in his eyes. 'They are the enemy!' he used to bellow. 'Culprits of tropical squalor!'" ("Going South," 21)
Much like Lourdes, Jorge sees Cuba as a dangerous place full of molecular predators and unsympathetic people. For Jorge, the danger gets down to the cellular level. After reading about the state of their refrigerator ("a bulk of rust") and seeing all the animal sacrifice, we can't help but side with Jorge on the microbios.
"In the final dialogue with her husband, before he took her to the asylum, Celia talked about how the baby had no shadow, how the earth in its hunger had consumed it. She held their child by one leg, handed her to Jorge, and said, 'I will not remember her name.'" ("Palmas Street," 42-43)
Celia's mental state is fragile at this point (thanks to Jorge's program to "break her"), as she has been living in an isolating and hostile family environment. This is also the kind of sentiment we are to hear from Felicia as she descends into delusions.
"Felicia del Pino doesn't know what brings on her delusions...She can hear everything in this world and others, every sneeze and creak and breath in the heavens or the harbor or the gardenia tree down the block. They call to her all at once, grasping here and there for parts of her, hatching blue flames in her brain." ("Fire ," 75)
Planes of existence collide for Felicia and really drag her down. The source of her madness is unclear: lingering syphilis? Emotional hardship? Domestic abuse? General failure to thrive? We can't say for sure. Her heightened perceptions and poetic language, however, make her movements away from general reality breathtaking.
"'Let's speak in green,' his mother says, and they talk about everything that makes them feel green. They do the same with blues and reds and yellows. Ivanito asks her, 'If the grass were black, would the world be different?' But Felicia doesn't answer." ("Fire," 84)
This moment of synesthesia happens after Felicia's world begins to contract down to just herself and Ivanito. The two develop new ways of interacting and communicating with each other—not all of them healthy. This particular brand of banter is the closest thing that comes to normal play for the mother-son pair, even though the scrambling of senses denotes something disordered and dire in their interaction.
"Her son would have been different. He wouldn't have talked back to her or taken drugs or drunk beer from bags like the other teenagers. Her son would have helped her in the bakery without complaint. He would have come to her for guidance, pressed her hand to his cheek, told her he loved her." ("Enough Attitude," 129)
There probably isn't a mother in the world who hasn't thought "What if..." Lourdes takes this normal maternal exercise all the way to eleven, claiming impossible feats for the boy who never was. She is inspired to think this because of the Navarro boy and her unsatisfactory relationship with Pilar. She clearly needs comforting, and she reaches out for the only person who could not be affected by the concerns of her family or the outside world.
"Rufino has taken to raising pigeons in wire-mesh cages in their backyard the way he saw Marlon Brando do in On the Waterfront. He prints messages on bits of paper, slips them through metal rings on the pigeons' legs, then kisses each bird on the head for good luck and lets it loose with a whoop." ("Attitude," 131)
Once Pilar catches him out with the "blonde bombshell" and promptly discards him from her mind, we don't hear much about Rufino. We can tell from this passage, however, that the alienation he feels from his family and the inability to assimilate to American society has started to take its toll on him.
"During the following week, Felicia begins to assemble bits and pieces of her past. They stack up in her mind, soggily, arbitrarily, and she sorts through them like cherished belongings after a flood. She charts sequences and events with colored pencils, shuffling her diagrams until they start to make sense, a possible narrative. But the people remain faceless, nameless." ("Baskets," 154).
Once again, Felicia can't locate herself in the world around her. She literally wakes up married to yet another man, completely unaware of how she got there—or who her husband really is. Interestingly, in her attempts to trace her past, Felicia is actually constructing her own life and identity. We never do get to see those diagrams and tables so we don't know how close she came to reality in this exercise.
"Sometimes I ask myself if my adventures, such as they are, equal experience. I think of Flaubert, who spent most of his life in the same French village, or Emily Dickinson, whose poems echoed the cadence of the local church bells. I wonder if the farthest distance I have to travel isn't inside my own head." ("Matrix," 178)
Pilar tries to formulate a universal concept of what it takes to have something important to say to the world. Her conclusion, as you can see, is mixed. She wants to live in the world so that she can have the authority of universal reality on her side, but she still understands that constructing her own personal narrative has value, too.
"I aim my radio at the farthest point in the sky and click it on. It pops and sputters like my mother's old car. I turn and turn the dial, half expecting to hear Mom singing in her deep-throated way, singing the sad words of her Beny Moré song." ("God's Will, 191)
Ivanito's desire and belief that he can contact his dead mother by using a pair of rabbit ears meshes well with the elements of magical realism in the work. But this incident also shows the level of desperation experienced by some of the characters who are confined against their will and can't find a way to fit in and thrive.
"I left her in an asylum. I told the doctors to make her forget. They used electricity. They fed her pills. I used to visit her every Sunday. She told me to turn on my electric brooms and then laughed in my face. She told me that geometry would strangle nature. She made a friend who had murdered her husband..." ("Changó," 195)
Lourdes gets schooled by her deceased father concerning the reality of Celia's life. She doesn't like what she's hearing because it doesn't mesh with her version of reality. If Celia really did love her and her beloved father was to blame for her alienation, that would really rock her world. In the end, she's really not willing to go there.
"In the library, nothing makes sense. The fluorescent lights transmit conversations from passing cars on Broadway. Someone's ordering a bucket of chicken wings on 103rd Street...Gandhi was a carnivore. He came of age in Samoa. He traversed a subcontinent in blue suede shoes. Maybe this is the truth." ("Changó," 202)
Pilar has just been violently attacked by a gang of 11-year-old boys and she's experiencing the kind of psychological break we would normally associate with Felicia. In this moment of parting from reality, Pilar picks up some interesting bits of trivia, which move her even further away from life as she knows it.
"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)
We've all had that "Twilight Zone" moment in our lives, when things look familiar but weirdly off-kilter. Pilar's first experience with Cuba is both charming and unsettling, a theme that will continue for the duration of her visit.
"A long time ago...Jorge boarded the plane for New York, sick and shrunken in an ancient wheelchair. 'Butchers and veterinarians!' he shouted as they pushed him up the plank. 'That's what Cuba is now!'" ("Ocean Blue," 6)
Jorge's reaction to his homeland illustrates the familial divide on this subject: Celia believes in the Revolution and wouldn't leave if she could, whereas Lourdes and her husband's family have suffered unspeakably from the political upheaval. Pilar makes the observation that life is hard in Cuba, but people have the basic necessities. In Jorge's case, it isn't enough to thrive on.
"Because of this, Celia thinks, her husband will be buried in stiff, foreign earth. Because of this, their children and their grandchildren are nomads." ("Ocean Blue," 7, Celia is referring to El Lider's frustration at not being a ballplayer).
Lourdes sees the move to America as an unequivocal good—especially since she doesn't have a strong relationship with the mother or sister she's left behind in Cuba. Celia, on the other hand, feels the break up of her family very deeply. She feels abandoned, and although she can see that Cuba doesn't offer much in terms of material comfort, she thinks it is where her family belongs.
"Pilar...writes to her from Brooklyn in a Spanish that is no longer hers. She speaks the hard-edged lexicon of bygone tourists itchy to throw dice on green felt or asphalt. Pilar's eyes, Celia fears, are no longer used to the compacted light of the tropics, where a morning hour can fill a month of days in the north, which receives only careless sheddings from the sun." ("Ocean Blue," 7)
Celia's sorrow resides in the knowledge that her own flesh and blood are now, to some extent, strangers to her. Even though Pilar is sympathetic and has a special connection to her, Celia feels that New York can't offer her granddaughter what she needs to grow up whole and well.
"Celia hasn't spoken to her son since the Soviet tanks stormed Prague four years ago. She cried when she heard his voice and the sounds of the falling city behind him. What was he doing so far from the warm seas swimming with gentle manatees?" ("Ocean Blue," 10)
Although we never know for certain why Javier leaves Cuba, we do learn of tensions between Jorge and his son over politics. Celia's maternal sadness at her son's absence is compounded by her feeling of helplessness at the political unrest and unhealthy environment she feels he's living in.
"Celia wanted to tell Jorge how his mother and sister, Ofelia, scorned her, how they ate together in the evenings without inviting her...They left her scraps to eat, worse than what they fed the dogs in the street." ("Palmas Street," 40)
Celia suffers more from personal estrangement than she ever does from the political exiles that afflict her family. The cruelty from her mother and sister-in-law is perhaps expected; the abandonment by her husband into the hands of those who would destroy her is the worst betrayal.
"I felt sorry for the Jews getting thrown out of Egypt and having to drag themselves across the desert to find a home. Even though I've been living in Brooklyn all my life, it doesn't feel like home to me. I'm not sure Cuba is, but I want to find out." ("Grove," 58)
Pilar has her own flair for the dramatic, comparing one epic diaspora to her personal exile. However, she gets extra points for empathizing in such a grand way. And maybe just a few more for taking such a moderate approach to Cuba.
"Solitude, Celia realizes now, exists for us not to remember but to forget. On the long train ride from the countryside, Celia lost her mother's face, the lies that had complicated her mouth. The life Celia was leaving seemed no longer significant." ("Fire," 92)
While Celia generally thinks fondly of living with Tía Alicia, there is a deep-seated ache in her at the loss of her natal family. Again, it is an issue of abandonment, a kind of familial exile from which she is never released.
"Most days Cuba is kind of dead to me. But every once in a while, a wave of longing will hit me and it's all I can do not to hijack a plane to Havana or something. I resent the hell out of the politicians and the generals who force events on us that rupture our lives, that dictate the memories we'll have when we're old." ("Attitude," 137-38)
Pilar is recovering from her teenage love affair with Cuba, but finds that her longing to know the land of her birth and be reconnected with her grandmother still remains. Her own indifference is a symptom of her inability to access the island—she is hoping to lose her longing for a place she cannot have.
"I felt that I was meant to live in this colder world, a world that preserved history. In Cuba, everything seemed temporal, distorted by the sun." ("Baskets," 146)
While his cousin Pilar is in a cold place thinking about how much she belongs in the tropics, Ivanito fantasizes (as Lourdes did) of a place that is the total opposite of Cuba. We're not sure why he believes the colder world does a better or more honorable job with history (other than the remarks made by his errant Russian teacher), but he clearly is a boy with ideas.
"Mom is fomenting her own brand of anarchy closer to home. Her Yankee Doodle bakeries have become gathering places for these shady Cuban extremists who come all the way from New Jersey and the Bronx to talk their dinosaur politics and drink her killer espressos. Last month they started a cablegram campaign against El Líder." ("Matrix," 177)
Pilar is not impressed by her mother's dinner-table anarchy—it's just another thing for her to dislike about Lourdes. It's this gathering of like-minded individuals and their tepid actions that "inspire" Lourdes to yell ridiculous things at El Líder when she's in Havana.
"...But I never made it to Cuba to see Abuela Celia. After that, I felt like my destiny was not my own, that men who had nothing to do with me had the power to rupture my dreams, to separate me from my grandmother." ("Changó," 199-200)
Pilar reflects on her interrupted attempt to reach Cuba as a young teen. She feels that she wasn't strong enough or determined enough to take what she wanted, despite the unfavorable climate. Pilar also deeply resents that her will is taken away from her by the political situation and feels that such freedom of personal movement should never be taken away from the individual.
"Cuba is a peculiar exile, I think, an island-colony. We can reach it by a thirty-minute charter flight from Miami, yet never reach it at all." ("Six Days," 219)
Does Pilar mean that she can never really understand Cuban culture, thinking, or politics because she is no longer a part of the island? Or is she saying that Cuba is a concept that is difficult to grasp and define? We'll leave this one for you to interpret.
"I could happily sit on one of those wrought-iron balconies for days, or keep my grandmother company on her porch, with its ringside view of the sea. I'm afraid to lose all this, to lose Abuela Celia again. But sooner or later I'd have to return to New York. I know now it's where I belong—not instead of here, but more than here." ("Six Days, 236)
After Pilar spends some time with her grandmother, she is torn about her intentions and her needs. Cuba does fulfill some of her longings and emptiness. But in the end, there's no Lou Reed on the island. In other words, she realizes that the bigger part of her identity cannot be accommodated by her motherland.
"Her father had been a fastidious man, impeccable, close-shaven, with razor-sharp creases pressed into his trousers. He took pride in never walking barefoot, even in his own home, and shuffled around in highly polished leather slippers to protect himself from microbios." ("Going South," 21)
We admit that the Jorge's personal phobia of germs borders on the pathological, but it certainly does make him easy to pick out in an interesting cast of characters. Lourdes recalls this personality quirk to express her gratitude that her father, a stickler for cleanliness, at least had a clean shave when he died.
"Another woman, an elderly mulatta, claimed that her hair was falling out from the menacing stare the baby gave her. Lourdes fired her after she found Pilar in her bassinet smeared with chicken blood and covered with bay leaves. 'The child is bewitched,' the frightened nanny explained. 'I was trying to cleanse her spirit.'" ("Going South," 24)
The mythology of Pilar's childhood becomes an important influence on how she and others view her character. Pilar uses it as a way to talk about her rebelliousness, her inability to fit into her mother's life and her desire for all things Cuba. Lourdes points back to these moments to find the roots of her conflict with her daughter, even though she defended her against the superstitions of the Cuban nannies.
"Celia has removed her drop pearl earrings only nine times, to clean them. No one ever remembers her without them." ("Palmas Street," 38)
Celia identifies herself by her passions: for El Líder and her long absent lover Gustavo. The pearl earrings become a sign for Celia herself because she is never parted from them. She cannot see herself without them and Pilar always thinks of her grandmother in terms of those earrings. More curious then, that she chooses to release them to the sea at the end of the book.
"...Luz and Milagro are always alone with one another, speaking in symbols only they understand. Luz, older by twelve minutes, usually speaks for the two of them. The sisters are double stones of a single fruit, darker than their mother, with rounder features and their father's inky eyes." ("Palmas Street," 38)
Felicia's twins really have very little character development, since they exist merely to deliver information about life in their mother's house. But they do have this one defining trait: they are a closed circuit. Because of their mother's mental illness, the girls cling to each other even more than twins normally do, and for longer. They become suspicious of everyone outside their "double helix" and it's pretty clear that neither Celia nor Lourdes and Pilar will be likely to reach them.
"Painting is its own language, I wanted to tell him. Translations just confuse it, dilute it, like words going from Spanish to English. I envy my mother and her Spanish curses sometimes. They make my English collapse in a heap." ("Grove," 59)
Language very much defines a person's character and represents them in a certain way to the people around them. Pilar is caught between her adopted language and the language of her grandmother, which is no longer her own. It's no wonder that she defines herself through a non-verbal language medium like painting.
"[Lourdes] ponders the transmigrations from the southern latitudes, the millions moving north. What happens to their languages? The warm burial grounds they leave behind? What of their passions lying stiff and untranslated in their breasts?" ("Grove," 73)
Lourdes prides herself on having adapted so well to her new country and new language and can't understand how other exiles who resist such change can survive. Although she doesn't cry much for Cuba, she does wonder where the identities of immigrants go after they transform to meet the expectations of their new country.
"Everything makes sense when they dance. Felicia feels as though she were in love again, at the center of the universe, privy to its secrets and inner workings. She has no doubts." ("Fire," 78)
Again, this is a triumph of non-verbal communication, which in Felicia's case, is probably the truest and best way for her to reach out to her family members. Her poetic and fragmented language frightens her children and leads to despair for Felicia, who cannot reach out to the world outside her shuttered house.
"Lourdes is herself only with her father. Even after his death, they understand each other perfectly, as they always have...He is proud of his daughter, of her tough stance on law and order, identical to his own." ("Attitude," 131-32)
Lourdes can never understand her mother's rejection of her in infancy, and she never does forgive her for it. But it hardly matters, because she finds a sympathetic soul in her father. Even after his death, Lourdes feels and hears his approval as she moves on with her life and looks for other places in her society to belong.
"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)
This may be the best articulation of teenage personality that we've ever heard. It may be the best and truest description of human experience altogether. Pilar identifies so closely with punk culture because she feels like she is "a mess," unable to cobble together a consistent identity to present to the world. She still has to learn that consistency isn't always the greatest good, at least in this sphere.
"I wonder how Mom could be Abuela Celia's daughter. And what I'm doing as my mother's daughter. Something got horribly scrambled along the way." ("Matrix," 178)
Most of us have felt like this at some point or other, perhaps wishing we'd miraculously find out that we were adopted at a young age from a richer, better, more stable family. In Pilar's case, her ability to sympathize and communicate with her grandmother exacerbates this natural adolescent feeling.
"...I feel something's dried up inside me, something a strong wind could blow out of me for good. That scares me. I guess I'm not so sure what I should be fighting for anymore. Without confines, I'm damn near reasonable. That's something I never wanted to become." ("Changó," 198)
Pilar finds herself moving away from the extreme behaviors and feelings that so defined her as a young teen and worries that this means she's settling. She doesn't yet realize that this natural part of maturation will open up more opportunities for personal crisis in the future.
"Celia reaches up to her left earlobe and releases her drop pearl earring to the sea. She feels its absence between her thumb and forefinger. Then she unfastens the tiny clasp in her right ear and surrenders the other pearl. Celia closes her eyes and imagines it drifting as a firefly through the darkened seas, imagines its slow extinguishing." ("Six Days," 244)
Because Celia is so closely associated with those pearl earrings, most readers will go straight to red alert when they see her discard them into the sea. Surely, this presages Celia's death. Well, you know what happens when you assume. Think about the other possibilities that this release of her former identity might signal before you go for the death option.
"He stops at the ocean's edge, smiles almost shyly, as if he fears disturbing her, and stretches out a colossal hand. His blue eyes are like lasers in the night. The beams bounce off his fingernails, five hard blue shields. They scan the beach, illuminating shells and sleeping gulls, then focus on her. The porch turns blue, ultraviolet." ("Ocean Blue," 5)
Gigantic blue spirit-Jorge strides over the ocean to say farewell to his wife in Cuba. The experience is almost circus-like, even a little absurd, but this moment of passage from one life to the next signals serious life changes for the entire Del Pino family.
"The continents strain to unloose themselves, to drift reckless and heavy in the seas. Explosions tear and scar the land, spitting out black oaks and coal mines, street lamps and scorpions. Men lose the power of speech. The clocks stop." ("Going South," 17)
In one of her more global moments, Lourdes' sleeping mind reaches out to little geographical apocalypses. These premonitory visions of a world in flux continue to visit both Lourdes and Pilar as they journey toward Cuba.
"The more she took her father to the hospital for cobalt treatments, the more she reached for the pecan sticky buns, and for Rufino. The flesh amassed rapidly on her hips and buttocks, muting the angles of her bones. It collected on her thighs, fusing them above the knees. It hung from her arms like hammocks." ("Going South," 20)
It's an old story, but one that García tells with poetry and compassion. Lourdes suffers from isolation and unhappiness as her father descends into sickness. She takes comfort in pleasures of the flesh, which physically turn her into a different woman. Her penchant for extreme action will lead her to wild swings in her appearance throughout the novel.
"Celia had been a tall woman, a head taller than most men, with a full bosom and slender, muscled legs. Soon she was a fragile pile of opaque bones, with yellowed nails and no monthly blood." ("Palmas Street," 36)
Celia's metamorphosis is extreme and complete, and proves that the power of the mind is greater than the will of the body.
"Lourdes considers herself lucky. Immigration has redefined her, and she is grateful. Unlike her husband, she welcomes her adopted language, its possibilities for reinvention...She wants no part of Cuba, no part of its wretched carnival floats creaking with lies, no part of Cuba at all, which Lourdes claims never possessed her." ("Grove," 73)
It seems that immigration has affected Lourdes' family in one of two ways—adaptation or destruction—but in either instance, the result is a fashioning of completely new identities for the characters in exile.
"My sister and I call our mother 'not-Mamá.' As in not-Mamá charred the chicken and is cursing in the kitchen. Not-Mamá is playing that record again, dancing by herself in the dark...She wants us to tell her we love her. When we don't, she looks right past us as if she could see another pair of girls just behind us, girls who will tell her what she wants to hear." ("Shells," 121)
Felicia's twin daughters have developed their own speech patterns, further isolating them from their mother's erratic behavior. In this case, they deny their relationship with their mother in an attempt to reshape their traumatic family experiences.
"And then, as Celia watches, the little santera's moist eyes roll back in her dwarfish head until the whites gleam from two pinpricks, 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," 159-60)
The spontaneous combustion of Celia's ancient santera wins the award for most dramatic transfiguration in the book. We're not totally sure what caused the little lady to evaporate, but it means nothing good for Celia and her family.
"It's been a month since she stopped eating, and already she's lost thirty-four pounds. She envisions the muscled walls of her stomach shrinking, contracting, slickly clean from the absence of food and the gallons of springwater she drinks. She feels transparent, as if the hard lines of her hulking form were disintegrating." ("Matrix," 167)
And here's Lourdes on her downward weight curve. She embraces the rejection of food as heartily as she previously took to pecan sticky buns. It's clear from the moment that she sits down to Thanksgiving dinner that Lourdes is not a woman who does things by halves, and that moderation in anything won't be a mantra for her life.
"I peel off Andy Warhol's banana sticker and put on the good, thumping, straight-ahead rock and roll. The thick strings vibrate through my fingers, up my arms, down my chest. I don't know what I'm doing but I start thumping that old spruce dresser of an instrument for all it's worth, thumping and thumping, until I feel my life begin." ("Matrix," 181)
Pilar has just suffered through the humiliation of finding her boyfriend in the arms of the whitest girl she knows and is trying to figure out who she is and where she belongs. Somehow, the acquisition of the huge bass guitar gives her someone to be and she draws strength from it.
"When you make a saint, the saint takes good care of you. But Felicia showed none of these blessings. Her eyes dried out like an old woman's and her fingers curled like claws until she could hardly pick up her spoon. Even her hair, which had been as black as a crow's, grew colorless in scruffy patches on her skull. Whenever she spoke, her lips blurred to a dull line in her face." ("God's Will," 189)
Things don't really go as Felicia hopes from the moment she chooses to marry Hugo Villaverde. Even when she does everything right and optimistically hopes for positive change, she's pretty well doomed to destruction. It almost feels like transformative suffering is a genetic thing in her family, as this passage mirrors very closely the moment when Celia takes to her bed over the loss of Gustavo.
"Later, they passed colorful handkerchiefs over Felicia's body, all the while grieving in low voices to purify her corpse. By the time they finished, the terrible lumps on Felicia's head had disappeared, and her skin was as smooth as the pink lining of a conch. Her eyes, too, had regained their original green." ("Six Days," 214)
Suffering is not particularly redemptive for Felicia, but somehow, she is granted a miracle of healing after her death. What is the use of this, you may ask? We're not sure, but perhaps it exists to prove to Celia that Felicia's religious beliefs have some validity, even if they don't save her.
"I've started dreaming in Spanish, which has never happened to me 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." ("Six Days," 235)
Finally, we have the metamorphosis that gives the book its name. Pilar finds that a few days in Cuba is the only thing she needed to solidify her original identity within her. She feels like a new person after this happens, as though her mother tongue has truly taken root in her soul and brought her to a place of wonder and clarity.
"Rufino's body ached from the exertions. His joints swelled like an arthritic's. He begged his wife for a few nights' peace but Lourdes's peals only became more urgent, her glossy black eyes more importunate. Lourdes was reaching through Rufino for something he could not give her, she wasn't sure what." ("Going South," 21)
García has a heavy task in convincing her readers that Rufino can actually be suffering from too much sexual activity with his wife, but she does a pretty convincing job here. Above his physical suffering, however, is the desperation and pain that motivates his wife to seek him in such a way.
"Lourdes lifts her dead father's gnarled hands, his papery, spotted wrists. She notices the way his fingers are twisted above the first joints, stiffened haphazardly like branches. His stomach is shaved and tracked with stitches, and his skin is so transparent that even the most delicate veins are visible. The vast white bed obscures him." ("Going South," 21)
This is a virtuouso performance of description of Jorge's final struggle with cancer. His dead body is an archive of medical procedures and the depredations of old age and sadness.
"When Gustavo left her to return to Spain, Celia was inconsolable. The spring rains made her edgy, the greenery hurt her eyes. She saw mourning doves peck at carrion on her doorstep and visited the botánicas for untried potions." ("Palmas Street," 36)
In the ancient tradition of lovers who actually die of lovesickness, Celia is consumed by her thwarted passion for Gustavo. This is a pattern that will be repeated by Felicia, who will not have the same ability to recover from her disappointments and illness.
"When he finished, the soldier lifted the knife and began to scratch at Lourdes's belly with great concentration. A primeval scraping. Crimson hieroglyphics. The pain brought a flood of color back to Lourdes's eyes. She saw the blood seep from her skin like rainwater from a sodden earth." ("Grove," 72)
This description of Lourdes' rape highlights the cruelty and trauma that too often shapes the lives of the del Pino women. Her stubborn will to survive and thrive carries her family to success in the U.S., but also distances her headstrong daughter from her.
"Felicia remembers the moment she decided to murder her husband. It was 1966, a hot August day, and she was pregnant with Ivanito. The nausea had persisted for weeks. Her sex, too, was infected with syphilis and the diseases Hugo brought back from Morocco and other women." ("Fire," 82)
Felicia finds herself over her head with husband Hugo. After enduring abuse, abandonment and STDs, she finally snaps. When we see the situation from Felicia's point of view, as we do here, her actions seem just and pitiful. García also presents this incident from Luz's point of view in another section of the book, and it's clear that her daughters do not feel the same kind of sympathy—they don't know the whole story. This lack of sympathy and understanding on the part of her loved ones contributes to Felicia's suffering.
"Lourdes sends her snapshots of pastries form her bakery in Brooklyn. Each glistening éclair is a grenade aimed at Celia's political beliefs, each strawberry shortcake proof—in butter, cream, and eggs—of Lourdes' success in America, and a reminder of the ongoing shortages in Cuba." ("Shells," 117)
We're not sure if Lourdes intends to taunt her mother with her delicious success, but it comes off that way to Celia. This is really the only moment in which Celia shows any resentment or wistfulness about the difficulties imposed by the Revolution.
"The lines in his face look as if each one were put there by a distinct calamity rather than a slow accumulation of sorrow. His teeth are blackened and ground down with worry, and he eats only mashed foods like a baby." ("Shells," 121)
Luz has a very sympathetic approach to her father's decay, choosing to think that her mother is entirely responsible for his current hideousness. She doesn't yet realize that there is another side to the story.
"'Water cannot be carried in a basket,' the santero says, shaking his head. 'What you wish for, daughter, you cannot keep. It is the will of the gods.'" ("Baskets," 148)
This is the first indication that things are simply not going to go the way that Felicia wants in her life. She hopes to find herself a good husband because she is lonely and surrounded by family members who don't really understand her. But instead of performing the necessary cleansing rituals, Felicia falls hard for the unattractive Ernesto Brito. Tragedy, of course, ensues.
"Celia reaches up and feels a lump in her chest, compact as a walnut. A week later, the doctors remove her left breast. In its place, they leave a pink, pulpy scar like the one she discovered on her son's back." ("Baskets," 160)
Celia's discovery here is a double sorrow, since her own suffering allows her to understand better what has happened to her son Javier. She no longer has to wonder what the scar and lump on his body signifies.
"Lourdes sees the face of her unborn child, pale and blank as an egg, buoyed by the fountain waters. Her child calls to her, waves a bare little branch in greeting. Lourdes fills her heart to bursting at the sight of him. She reaches out and calls his name, but he disappears before she can rescue him." ("Matrix," 174-75)
Lourdes really has had a tough go of it, and no matter how much Pilar resents her mother's attitude toward the world, we realize that it is born from the massive trauma she has sustained during her life. The loss of her only son leaves her with lingering sadness and longing, as she is convinced that the baby boy would have been the answer to her loneliness and sense of failure as a mother.
"I guess you could say she adapted to her grief with imagination. Felicia stayed on the fringe of life because it was free of everyday malice. It was more dignified there." ("God's Will," 184)
Herminia's assessment of Felicia's approach to her life is spot on. Felicia really does live on a different plane from the rest of her family, dissolving into poetry and otherworldly observations when times get rough.
"She made no sound as she wept, as she bent to kiss Felicia's eyes, her forehead, her swollen, hairless skull. Celia lay with her torn, bleeding feet beside her daughter and held her, rocking and rocking her in the blue gypsy dusk until she died." ("God's Will," 190)
Most people would agree that the loss of a child, no matter how old, is one of the worst things a person can endure. Celia validates this opinion, showing here just how much she was connected to Felicia. It's a moment of total spiritual annihilation for Celia, who is as broken and bleeding on the inside as she is externally.
"What she fears most is this: that her rape, her baby's death were absorbed quietly by the earth, that they are ultimately no more meaningful than the falling leaves on an autumn day. She hungers for a violence of nature, terrible and permanent, to record the evil." ("Six Days," 227)
Like most humans, Lourdes wants the terrible moments in her life to have meant something—or at least to have been acknowledged and remembered by those she loves. Since most of her traumatic moments have been kept secret from her family, she's really looking for an external sign that something momentous happened to her in these places. She doesn't get that, but Jorge reassures her that he takes the knowledge of her suffering with him into the afterlife.