Study Guide

Dreaming in Cuban Memory & The Past

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Memory & The Past

"[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.

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