Study Guide

Dreaming in Cuban Exile

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"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.

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