Study Guide

Dreaming in Cuban Identity

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"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.

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