Study Guide

Dreaming in Cuban Suffering

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"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.

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