Study Guide

Dreaming in Cuban

Dreaming in Cuban Summary

Dreaming in Cuban tells the story of Celia del Pino and her family as they cope with the Cuban Revolution and endure the exile and emotional fallout that ensues. The story is deeply personal (rather than political), focusing primarily on the lives of the women in the family.

Celia del Pino has to reinvent herself after she is abandoned by her Spanish lover Gustavo and marries Jorge del Pino (a.k.a. The Next Best Thing). Jorge is super jealous of Gustavo and wants to punish Celia for her passionate romance. She is already fragile from her love loss, so Jorge finds it easy to finish her off by leaving her alone with his psychotic mother and sister. Celia breaks and Jorge commits her to an asylum for some very nasty "therapies."

What Jorge gets in return is a broken wife who is emotionally distant from their child (Lourdes) and who spends much of their married life writing letters to her long-gone lover.

García weaves the stories of her children into this base storyline, flying across the ocean to include her daughter Lourdes' family in the narrative (as well as a dying/dead Jorge, who had traveled to Brooklyn to receive medical treatment for cancer).

Lourdes is super American, owns two bakeries and has a headstrong daughter named Pilar. Pilar hates everything that Lourdes and America stand for and desperately wants to return to Cuba to be with Abuela Celia, with whom she feels great sympathy and has nightly telepathic communications. We know, it sounds weird at first, but just roll with it and pretty soon you might be experiencing some psychic phenomena with your grandma yourself.

Back in Cuba, Celia's daughter Felicia can't save herself from anything. She'd married a hideous man named Hugo Villaverde who gives her twin girls Luz and Milagro, son Ivanito, many bruises and even more STDs. Felicia succeeds in getting rid of Hugo by lighting his head on fire, but she slowly descends into madness as she marries twice more (#2 dies in a freak grease fire; #3 she pushes to his death), and attempts to kill herself and Ivanito. Luz and Milagro fear and detest Felicia and wrap themselves up in their own world to protect themselves.

Felicia eventually turns to santería to find some peace, but the gods have it out for her. She returns home from her initiation rites and dies a swift and mysterious death.

Jorge, who returns after his death to keep his beloved Lourdes company, informs her of Felicia's death and urges her to return to Cuba. She hesitates until Pilar reaches a kind of spiritual clarity about traveling to Cuba and sets the journey in motion. They return to find Celia in a sorry state, having just buried Felicia and lost her son, Javier (he runs off to the mountains, no forwarding address).

Lourdes and Pilar spend time with Celia and Felicia's children in Cuba. Pilar receives her grandmother's unsent letters to Gustavo—essentially her repository of memories—and learns what life is really like in Cuba. Lourdes visits the places of her past and confirms every bad opinion she's ever had about the island of her birth. She decides to take advantage of the open emigration allowed through the Peruvian embassy to get Ivanito out of Cuba. Even though she knows it will destroy her grandmother, Pilar eventually goes along with the plan because she realizes that there is no future for her little cousin there.

Ultimately, Celia is left by herself in Cuba with very little more than her house by the sea, her poetry, and her trademark pearl earrings, which she drops into the ocean in the last moments of the book.

  • Chapter 1: Ocean Blue

    • We meet Celia del Pino, a Cuban grandmother with strong mystical sensibilities.
    • She "guards" the Cuban coastline in front of her house by scanning for invaders with her binoculars.
    • On her watch one evening, she sees a gigantic version of her husband Jorge through her binoculars. He approaches from the sea and radiates blue light.
    • She runs to the beach to pursue him, but he disappears.
    • Celia removes Jorge's last letter to her from her pocket and reads it. He has been in New York getting treatment for cancer.
    • She reflects on her family in America, including her daughter, Lourdes, and headstrong teenage granddaughter, Pilar.
    • Celia communicates telepathically with Pilar, envisioning her granddaughter as underfed and pale (what grandma wouldn't?).
    • She moves into the water and lets herself float away as she thinks about her life there on the beach.
    • We learn that Celia had been in a delicate condition when she first moved there with Jorge.
    • She'd had a Spanish lover before him and we kind of understand that her illnesses come from disappointed love.
    • By the time Celia returns to the present, she's pretty far away from the shore. She thinks about just giving up and letting herself sink.
    • But she has to guard the coast, so she swims for it. When she reaches the shore, she has to dry out Jorge's letter.

    Felicia del Pino

    • Within this chapter, we get a character sketch of Celia's younger daughter, Felicia.
    • Felicia makes a dramatic entrance the day after Celia's vision of Jorge.
    • She jumps on her Mami's lap and cries.
    • Celia tells Felicia that her father (Jorge) came to say goodbye. Felicia misunderstands.
    • Felicia reports that her sister Lourdes called with news of Jorge. The nuns at the hospital witnessed Jorge's passing, saying he "rose to heaven on tongues of fire." Trippy.
    • As Felicia leaves to write to her brother of their father's passing, she thinks the sea looks as though a tidal wave is coming. Portentous.
    • Felicia's friend Herminia interrupts her thoughts. She suggests that Felicia see a santera (a priestess of santería) to help her make peace with her recently deceased father.
    • Felicia hesitates. She can't stand the thought of another animal sacrifice to purge negative energy.
    • She agrees to go along to La Madrina, as long as there is no blood involved.
    • When Felicia arrives there, she sees a santero who claims that the deity Elleguá (god of crosroads) wants a goat sacrifice. Uggh.
    • The goat bites the dust and Felicia faints at the sight of its blood.
  • Chapter 2: Going South

    • Lourdes Puente, Celia's older daughter, appears on the scene.
    • She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and daughter, Pilar, and owns a bakery.
    • Lourdes also has a drifting, lazy eye that "allows her to see things others can't."
    • Her daughter has been avoiding work at the bakery after school and misbehaving in other ways, so the scene opens with Lourdes writing a menacing letter to Pilar.
    • As she sets up her baked goods in the shop, she gets a call from the nuns who cared for her father, Jorge.
    • The nun who witnessed his passing saw a blue light in his room and found Jorge fully dressed, glowing from his head and hands. And then he walked out the window.
    • Lourdes feels distressed by this. Whenever she's distressed, she wants sweets and sex, much to the chagrin of her overtaxed husband.
    • While Lourdes travels to the hospital to see her dead father, she reflects on his personality. Jorge was a fastidious man, fearful of microbes. At least he'd had a shave before dying.
    • When she returns home, Lourdes realizes that Pilar is missing. Pilar is defiant and difficult. She caused her nursemaids to meet with misfortune because of her bad juju.
    • In the end, a nursemaid smeared baby Pilar with chicken blood to "cleanse her spirit."
    • Now, Pilar is 13 and at odds with her mother. Lourdes heads south to find her.
    • On this journey, Lourdes remembers the winter of 1936, when her mother, Celia, was sent to an asylum.

    Pilar Puente

    • We get the 411 on Pilar's motive for skipping town: she's seen her father messing around with another woman.
    • She decides to head back to Cuba and Abuela Celia, to see if that's where she really belongs.
    • Pilar buys a bus ticket for Miami and will improvise a ride to Cuba when she gets there.
    • On the ride, she reflects on her relationship with her mom (not so good). Her mom had found her diary and learned about Pilar's sexual awakenings, so things have been tense.
    • We learn that Celia's efforts at telepathic communication with Pilar have worked. She's been listening to her grandmother's messages every night before she falls asleep.
    • Pilar feels that Celia will understand and love her better than her own mother and will accept her artistic inclinations.
    • Lourdes hates Pilar's artwork and her husband's support of it. Pilar thinks that her mother lacks vision and feels that she is creative like her father.
    • The father and daughter have workshops next to each other at home and have natural sympathies with each other against Lourdes.
    • Pilar is certain that her life would have been different if they'd never left Cuba.
    • She remembers Abuelo Jorge when he went for cobalt treatments for cancer—hence all the blue light that surrounds him in the after life.
    • Jorge had said that Pilar reminded him of Celia, which pleased her. She was taken by his romantic letters home to Celia. (We realize here that Pilar doesn't yet know of Jorge's death.)
    • As the bus crosses into Florida, Pilar shares a dream that she's had, in which she is being crowned by santeras in her grandmother's presence.
  • Chapter 3: The House on Palmas Street

    • Celia thinks about her Spanish lover, Gustavo Sierra de Armas, as she waits for her grandchildren to get out of school in Havana.
    • Gustavo was a married man and a Spanish revolutionary—and Celia had it bad for him.
    • She'd met him at the photographic equipment shop where she worked. He wanted concealed cameras to document the revolution.
    • He bought Celia the pearl drop earrings that she wears every day. When he left her, Celia slipped into a deep depression.
    • She stayed in bed for months and basically shriveled up.
    • Her family goes to extremes to save her and finally brings in a santera to figure out what is going on with her.
    • The santera tells them that she has "a wet landscape in her palm" and that she will "survive the flames."
    • Which she does. Jorge comes courting her at this time and offers to marry her if Gustavo doesn't answer her letters.
    • Celia winds up writing letters to Gustavo for 25 years, but she doesn't send them. Instead, she wears the pearl earrings every day and marries Jorge.
    • Now, Celia collects Luz and Milagro (Felicia's daughters) and brings them to their home on Palmas Street. She recalls that the house used to belong to her evil mother-in-law.
    • She and Jorge lived in that house with his mother and sisters when they were first married. Celia's in-laws despised her.
    • It was a classic Cinderella story: they starved her when Jorge was away and generally mistreated her. Not so great, especially since Celia suffered from depression.
    • When Celia became pregnant, the misery increased. She determined to sail away to Spain to look for Gustavo if she had a boy.
    • But she had Lourdes instead. Celia did not take to her at all.
    • Back in the present timeline, Celia stays with Felicia and her girls overnight. In the morning, she heads downtown and makes the decision to work for the Cuban revolution till she dies.
    • Celia jumps on a work truck and spends the season cutting sugar cane to empower Cuba on the international market.
    • When she returns to Felicia, she can see that her daughter is succumbing to mental illness.
    • She decides to take Luz and Milagro and their brother Ivanito back to her house by the sea. Ivanito will not leave his mother.
    • We learn that their father was abusive and a player, leaving Felicia with syphilis at one point.
    • Celia realizes that she can't really mourn for Jorge, since he has been gone for a long time.
    • She ends her reflections by remembering something that Jorge told her about Pangaea, the supercontinent that existed before landmasses began to migrate.
    • Celia wonders if, in all that continental drifting, Cuba will be left behind.
  • Chapter 4: Celia's Letters: 1935-1940

    • This is an epistolary chapter, entirely made up of some of Celia's unsent letters to her lover Gustavo.
    • They are written on the eleventh of every month and run from 1935 to 1940.
    • In them, Celia reports on her marriage to Jorge, her pregnancies, Jorge's abandonment of her to his cruel mother and sisters, and her descent into depression.
    • Celia chronicles her stay at the asylum, where her BFF Felicia (a husband-killer) is burned in her bed. She had planned to escape with Felicia.
    • She recalls her Tía Alicia who taught piano to children and took care of her.
    • Towards the end of the chapter, her letters become more like domestic reporting and we learn in the last letter (about a life-threatening accident Jorge had) that Celia has come to love her husband.
    • She also comments on the poverty of the Cuban countryside and the vulnerability of its children.
  • Chapter 5: A Grove of Lemons

    Pilar Puente

    • Pilar makes it to Miami and goes in search of her cousin Blanquito in order to get help on the next leg of her journey.
    • On her way over there, she passes a church and reflects on her unsuccessful career as a Catholic schoolgirl. She's pretty sure she's gone too far to be forgiven for her shenanigans this time.
    • When she reaches his house, there's a big family shindig going on. This is not good for Pilar, who wants to keep her escapades on the down low.
    • She can't see Blanquito in the crowd and winds up outside, in the notorious Florida afternoon downpour.
    • Pilar thinks about the changes in her mother from the time she lived in Cuba. Most of their American neighbors find Lourdes loud and obnoxious, which puts Pilar in an awkward position.
    • Tía Rosario (Aunt Rosario) finds her on the lounge chair in the backyard and brings her into the house.
    • Pilar worries that she'll be sent back to her crazy Mami.

    Lourdes Puente

    • Lourdes hears Jorge announce his return as she is walking down the street. He thanks her for the great burial and promises to return to her from time to time. Daddy's girl to the extreme, eh?
    • Naturally, she panics a little. She tells her husband, Rufino, about the encounter. He blows her off.
    • Lourdes feels that things aren't right, and she confirms this when she has to fire her new employee because she caught her stealing.
    • She had been close to her father—in the absence of Celia's love—and remembers bonding with him over baseball.
    • They even loved watching it while he was dying in the hospital. These are some of her best memories.
    • Her father's "return from the dead" drives Lourdes into a whirlwind of memories. She thinks about coming to America for the first time and we get the backstory of why she had to flee Cuba.
    • Long story short: her husband's land and wealth is swallowed up by the revolution. Soldiers beat Rufino, rape Lourdes and carve something unreadable on her belly.
    • Lourdes recalls a heightened sense of smell during the assault, remembering the lemon-scented hair product in the soldier's hair.
    • A week after Jorge's return, Lourdes still contemplates her situation as an immigrant. She believes she's adapted well and hates the thought of Cuba, but she wonders about her other self.
    • Lourdes smells her father's cigar and hears his voice again. This time, she's sure he's back.
    • She remembers her mother's rejection as an infant, as though she could plug into Celia's brain and see it.
    • She and Jorge chat about Pilar, who Lourdes has already retrieved from Miami. Jorge tells her that Pilar has not yet learned to love her.
  • Chapter 6: The Fire Between Them

    • Felicia del Pino slips further into her psychosis. She experiences heightened awareness of all things, seen and unseen.
    • We learn that Felicia is fascinated by the stuff of religion—rosary beads, crucifixes, veils—and that puts her at odds with Celia, who is more on the atheist side of things.
    • When they were children, Lourdes played on Felicia's gullibility to scare the pants off her, including the time when she placed peeled grapes under her bed to replicate disembodied eyes.
    • Felicia's personality has always been obsessive. She felt close to St. Sebastian as a teen because of his "double death," and refused to be confirmed because she couldn't take his name.
    • She feels that her father Jorge's "resurrection" is a sign that Judgment Day is near, but she isn't ready to face it. Instead, she dances manically with little Ivanito to blot it all out.
    • Felicia remembers her life with her abusive husband, Hugo. He left her while she was pregnant with her twins and returned only to pass on an STD and get her pregnant one more time.
    • Though Hugo marries her, he remains threatening and generally horrible.
    • Like her mother's friend Felicia, she lights her husband on fire. He survives but gets the message and stays away.
    • For the present, Felicia has descended completely into madness, despite Celia's attempts to reach her.
    • Felicia can no longer sleep and spends her days consumed by her own grief and that of others.

    Ivanito Villaverde

    • Ivanito cannot comprehend his mother Felicia's behavior or actions, so his section is pure reportage.
    • He is trapped in the house with her that summer, listening to warped records, dancing and singing things he doesn't understand.
    • We learn that Ivanito knows about his father—but doesn't really comprehend—and how he was born ill because of Dad's venereal disease.
    • Before Celia takes Luz and Milagro to Santa Teresa del Mar, Felicia keeps them in and tries to force feed them coconut ice cream and meringues everyday. Ivanito plays along with her.
    • Felicia becomes more and more manic, going from hermit-like isolation in a sunless house to cleaning and cooking and dressing in her best (more on that in a mo).
    • She says apocalyptic things to Ivanito, who likes to repeat them but doesn't understand their meaning or the fact that mommy has lost her grip on reality.
    • Luz and Milagro dislike him for this and it's implied that perhaps Ivanito suffers from the same mental illness (brought on by the syphilis?).
    • Ivanito is okay with his mother's strange behavior, until she bathes him and dresses him in his best clothes.
    • Felicia makes a fancy dinner (quite a change from the coconut feast) and ends it by crushing pills onto the last of the ice cream.
    • We leave Ivanito falling asleep with his mother on the bed.

    Celia Del Pino

    • Celia reflects on Ivanito's resemblance to his father, Hugo, and about the last time she saw her son-in-law.
    • It was the infamous moment when her husband Jorge broke the chair across the creep's back.
    • Jorge had already warned him not to enter the house, but Hugo was defiant. In return for the broken chair, Hugo busts his father-in-law's face.
    • Felicia faced a dilemma: if she followed her husband, she would no longer be welcome in her father's house.
    • She followed Hugo; hence, the bad blood between them when Jorge died.
    • Now, Felicia is in the final throes of mental illness and nothing that Celia or Felicia's friend Herminia can do will reclaim her.
    • Herminia employs santería practices to restore Felicia's balance (and perhaps get rid of the syphilis for good). Celia distrusts it.
    • Felicia promises her mother to travel to Santa Teresa del Mar the next day with her and Celia is happy. However, this is the day that Felicia plans to kill herself and Ivanito.
    • Celia leaves but is off balance somehow. She thinks about her own childhood and upbringing at the house of her Tía Alicia after the divorce of her parents.
    • The twins greet her with dinner at her house and a foot massage, but Celia cannot sleep that night.
    • When she wakes, she has an ominous presentiment about her daughter and tells the twins to wake Herminia. They have to return to Havana to save Felicia.
  • Chapter 7: Celia's Letters: 1942-1949

    • This is another epistolary chapter, beginning with Celia's observations on life after the Spanish Civil War—dictators in both Cuba and Spain.
    • She reflects on her obsessive and persistent letter-writing to a man she no longer knows.
    • Celia reports about the tidal wave and how it damaged her piano. She frets about being able to play Debussy again.
    • As her letters continue, Celia pushes against her ordinary, dull life. We think the word ennui sums it up.
    • In 1946, she gives birth to her son Javier. We haven't heard anything about Javier really up to this point (something worth noting). Now we learn that he takes after Celia's father.
    • Celia tells Gustavo that she doesn't know why she was saved from her depression by Jorge. What was it all for?
    • Her final reflection in this series of letters has to do with suffering and imagination: can they be separated?
  • Chapter 8: The Meaning of Shells (1974)

    • Time has moved forward and Felicia del Pino, saved from her attempted suicide/homicide, now marches with other misfits as guerrilla fighters for Castro.
    • She is not enjoying herself, though she understands why she is there. She doesn't, however, remember trying to kill herself and Ivanito.
    • Ivanito has been sent to a boarding school and Felicia visits him there. It's not clear that he understands what has happened.
    • As Felicia listens to the other members of her brigade, she learns more about the effects of the Revolution. The State perpetuates a culture of war and constant agitation.
    • Felicia volunteers for the night watches because she can get away from this reality and also because it reminds her of special moments with her mother when she was little.
    • She says that she learned her "fancy" language from her mother during their sleepless nights on the porch swing, when Celia would recite poems to her.
    • Now Felicia and Celia fight constantly, especially about Castro. Felicia knows him to be a tyrant, but her Mom is kind of in love with him.
    • And this leads Felicia to a terribly creepy fantasy of El Líder making love with her, in which she gets pretty excited .

    (1975)

    • We continue to move double-quick through time in this chapter, this time seeing the evolution of Celia del Pino
    • She has taken a more active role in state matters, becoming a civilian judge.
    • Basically, this means that she has to arbitrate the lower-level squabbles between neighbors, husbands and wives.
    • The current case is one of infidelity—or rather an accusation against a woman for man-stealing.
    • Celia doesn't like these types of cases because the entire neighborhood shows up to watch for entertainment.
    • Although the case is between two women, Celia sends for the husband who is at the center of it all. She gets him to admit that he's the instigator of all the trouble and she sentences him.
    • We get an update on Celia's family as she reflects on her relationship with each member.
    • She feels that all of her children (including the elusive Javier) are disconnected from each other and the world.
    • Celia spends most of her thoughts on Javier, her only son who ran off to Czechoslovakia and became a professor of biochemistry.
    • Javier writes letters to Celia, telling her that he has taught his daughter to speak Spanish so that she can speak to her abuela when they visit—which they don't.
    • Celia has come to know Javier through these letters and through his photographs.
    • Perhaps hardest for Celia is the lack of intimate connection she might have had with her children and grandchildren, as she once had with Pilar when she spoke to her telepathically in the night.

    Luz Villaverde (1975)

    • Luz remembers her father Hugo in tender ways. This is quite different from how the rest of the family views him.
    • She blames her mother for destroying her father and she now tells the story with greater clarity than others have before.
    • Luz hates the way her mother Felicia speaks to them—all poetry and no substance.
    • It's clear that both Luz and Milagro have been traumatized by Felicia's erratic behavior.
    • She tells the story of their 9th birthday, when Felicia filled the piñata with eggs. That would make a kid hate you, we do believe.
    • Luz and Milagro had very little contact with their father as they grew up. He sent postcards and brought scarves back with him when he visited. They idealized him.
    • When Hugo returns to Cuba, the girls decide they are going to visit him. They wait until Felicia is out of the house and head to the docks where he is staying.
    • At first, Luz and Milagro feel pity for their father because he is poor and disfigured (Felicia burned his head and hands) and because he speaks lovingly to them.
    • He also gives them presents to make up for the lost time, though Luz doesn't understand how he can afford it on his small pension.
    • Eventually, Hugo requests to see their brother, Ivanito, and the girls are all for it. They want Ivanito to see what their wicked mother did to their father.
    • But when they finally bring Ivanito, they find Hugo in a compromising position with a prostitute. Some things never change.
    • In the end, all three children wind up at boarding school, away from their dysfunctional parents.
  • Chapter 9: Enough Attitude (1975)

    • We are jumping back a little to catch up with Lourdes Puente, still living in Brooklyn.
    • She is now an auxiliary policewoman and really likes the position of authority. She only lacks the gun to go with her attitude.
    • The relationship with Pilar is still strained. We learn that Lourdes can't effectively discipline Pilar because she has nothing to lose and that Pilar finds her mother's ethics distasteful.
    • Perhaps because Pilar is such a handful, Lourdes idealizes the son that she lost to miscarriage. He would have been a true companion to her, she thinks.
    • Lourdes reflects on the differences between herself and the other members of her family who came to America.
    • She feels part of her new country and has broken with the stereotypical behavior of the women of her family. Her husband and his family, however, have not adapted.
    • Even before she left Cuba, she refused to be an indolent woman who watched soap operas all day. She became involved in the ranch and in setting up her house, despite resistance.
    • Her marriage to Rufino has declined—he no longer speaks to her. She gets updates about him from Pilar.
    • Lourdes really only has her father, Jorge, to communicate with, even though he's dead. She feels that they share the same wavelength on all things.
    • Pilar continues to antagonize Lourdes as her primary form of communication. She gives her mother a book of propaganda about the Cuban Revolution for Christmas.
    • Lourdes doesn't react well, but Pilar takes it in stride.
    • Back on her beat, Lourdes sees a figure crouching by the river in the darkness. She calls for the person to stop, but he jumps into the river.
    • Lourdes loses her composure and jumps in after him.
    • We learn that Lourdes survives the jump, but the boy—the son of Lourdes' thieving employee-for-a-day—dies.

    Pilar (1976)

    • Pilar is growing up, but keeps much of her early style. She now has a boyfriend named Max who plays random instruments in a band.
    • Max is not put off by Lourdes (who doesn't like him) and seems willing to do anything for Pilar (like travel to a restricted Cuba to find her grandmother).
    • Pilar talks about her attraction to the energetic, violent music of the day—Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, The Ramones—and how she wants to translate that into her artwork.
    • Tension has grown among Pilar, Lourdes and Rufino. Although Papi used to be her ally, things changed for Pilar after she saw him with the sexy blonde.
    • Pilar also knows about Lourdes' posthumous communications with her Abuelo Jorge. Lourdes tells Pilar that her grandfather's spirit spies on her. She doesn't appreciate this.
    • We learn that Lourdes has become completely "integrated": she makes Jell-O molds and classic American fare whenever possible, totally giving up on any outward sign of ethnicity.
    • Pilar has also lost her interest in Cuba, for the most part. She occasionally feels urges to make her way back, but it's not intense.
    • Rufino has not adapted and Pilar notes that he seems lost. He hides away in his workshop.
    • The real high point of Pilar's narrative happens when her mother commissions her to create a new painting for their second bakery, in honor of the Bicentennial celebrations.
    • She gives Pilar total creative control of the subject matter and style. This is a mistake.
    • Pilar's sense of art jibes with her sense of rebellion, anarchy and ideals. She's into the abstract, and that's not something Mami understands.
    • Pilar decides to create a punk Statue of Liberty for her painting and keeps it veiled from her mother until the day of the public unveiling.
    • Lourdes has advertised a daylong celebration at the bakery to mark the Bicentennial—and the unveiling of the painting is meant to be the culmination of the festivities.
    • Pilar knows this and sweats it out until the moment the disrespectful work is revealed.
    • Lourdes' patrons do not appreciate the work. One man lunges toward the canvas with a knife. Lourdes tackles him and causes massive destruction to her baked goods.
    • Pilar feels love for her mother and her heroic actions to save the painting.
  • Chapter 10: Baskets of Water

    Ivanito

    • Ivanito has gone off to boarding school and excels in language studies. The official second language is Russian, but Ivanito sneaks Abuelo Jorge's English texts.
    • His Russian teacher is mighty fond of him. The boys tease him for being smart and a teacher's pet.
    • Mr. Mikoyan extols the virtues of cold lands and Ivanito feels he's meant to be in an icy climate.
    • At the end of the day, Mr. Mikoyan is expelled from the school for molesting a student. When he says goodbye to Ivanito, he makes sexual advances to him.
    • Ivanito is disgusted and runs. But the boys at the school get wind of the accusations and tease Ivanito about hooking up with Mr. M in Siberia.

    (1978)

    • Felicia visits a santero to find out more about her future. She would like it to include another, better husband.
    • But the santero has bad news: Felicia has some serious spiritual negativity hanging around her.
    • He tells her what to do to get rid of it, but warns her that "Water cannot be carried in a basket" (148). She will never be able to keep what she desires.
    • This turns out to be too true. Felicia leaves the santero and immediately runs into her next husband, Ernesto Brito.
    • She marries him immediately, but he doesn't have the opportunity to move in to her house. He burns to death in a grease fire.
    • This causes Felicia to relapse into psychosis. She suspects pretty much everybody in her husband's death.
    • She focuses her need for revenge on a client at the beauty shop. Felicia lures her in and commits assault by perm. After that, she doesn't remember much.
    • She wakes up in a strange apartment and finds that she is married to another man, whose name is Otto. Otto is a carnival worker who wants to move to Minnesota.
    • Felicia has to work hard to grab at bits of memory. She finally remembers Ivanito calling to her and falls into despair.
    • Otto has no idea about Felicia's past. He feels so blessed to have found Felicia wandering around the streets and so willing to take him as a husband.
    • He's so turned on by her, in fact, that he attempts a spectacular sexual feat with her on a moving roller coaster. It doesn't end well.

    (1978)

    [Note: The year was so nice, the author deals with it twice in this chapter]

    • We skip back to the day after Felicia assaulted Graciela in the beauty shop and get things from Celia's point of view.
    • Javier picks this day to return from Czechoslovakia. He's a crumpled up mess.
    • Celia learns that his wife has left him for some visiting professor from Minsk and has taken their daughter with her.
    • She observes that Javier looks carved up: he has a lump on his neck and a scar on his back.
    • Although Celia is happy to see her long-lost son and to nurse him back to health, it also brings her to a place of despair. She wonders if Javier has inherited her inability to be happy in love.
    • She also resents having to give up her activities in support of the Revolution in order to nurse her boy back to health.
    • Celia is so preoccupied with him that she hasn't thought of the missing Felicia, or Pilar or anyone else in the family.
    • But Javier does not get better. Celia finds the santera who "diagnosed" her in 1934 and brings her to the house.
    • This is where it gets freaky. The santera prays in front of the house and gets into a spiritual groove—and then spontaneously combusts. That cannot be good.
    • It doesn't really matter in Javier's case, anyway, since he's already left. He'd been talking about running off and dying in a conga line!
    • At that moment, Celia finds a lump in her breast. She has to have her breast removed and realizes that the remaining scar looks just like Javier's. (Hint: Javier was ill, too).
  • Chapter 11: Celia's Letters: 1950-1955

    • Celia reveals that her evil mother-in-law cursed her on her deathbed. Perhaps the reason for the ill luck all these years?
    • She advises Gustavo in one of her letters to be a good father to his children, to be tender to them, because she has observed that Jorge is a hard man.
    • Though she tries to make it up to Javier, who suffers the most, she senses that the boy has withdrawn from her, too.
    • Celia talks about her political convictions and actions, from the time before the Cuban Revolution when Batista was in control of the country. She and Felicia paste up propaganda posters but are rebuked by fellow citizens.
    • She reveals that she's already having trouble with Felicia, who has left high school to become a prostitute in Havana. Lourdes still dislikes her for Celia's coldness to her when she was little.
    • She tells Gustavo that Javier and Felicia are both trying to find a space for themselves in the world, but she sees that they are failing. Javier has intellect, but not purpose.
    • Celia reveals to Gustavo that she still feels the pain of his absence after 21 years.
    • This collection of letters ends with Celia heralding the beginning of the Revolution with great optimism.
  • Chapter 12: A Matrix Light

    (1977)

    • Lourdes has taken to starving herself and manically exercising. She likes the feeling of purity being empty gives her.
    • She is still brooding over Pilar's willfulness and lack of respect for anything Lourdes holds sacred.
    • Lourdes is obsessed with the idea that Pilar is sleeping around at college. Lourdes loves the idea of purity and values the fact that she was a virgin when she married.
    • Now both sex and food repel her, transforming her completely from the sticky-bun-eating sex machine that she was earlier in the story.
    • She loses so much weight that her ghost-father Jorge is concerned. He still talks to her in the evening after work.
    • Both Jorge and Lourdes share the same political views, especially in their mutual hatred of Communism. Jorge encourages Lourdes to use her business concerns to support the cause.
    • By Thanksgiving, Lourdes has lost 118 pounds. She's still barely eating and astonishes Pilar with her new, slender body.
    • But at dinner, she decides to have a little piece of turkey and her appetite returns. She can stop eating after that.
    • As she and Pilar are sitting by a reflecting pool at the Frick Museum, Lourdes thinks again of the child she lost. She hears him calling out to her but she can never reach him.

    Pilar (1978)

    • Pilar discusses how much more akin she feels to her Abuela Celia than she does to her mom.
    • She's found pictures of her grandmother and feels that she can see into Celia's true self in those photos.
    • Those absent memories of her grandmother somehow shape the person that she is and she feels comforted by this.
    • Pilar dislikes how her mother revises history to suit her purposes. She does this on both the personal and political levels.
    • She tells us that her mother's bakeries have become gathering places for Cuban expats who want to topple Castro's regime. They do some pretty disturbing stuff to bring this about.
    • Pilar talks about her experiences in college. She began at RISD (which annoyed her mom), spent a year in Italy studying art and then transferred to Barnard.
    • She observes that an artist can have important observations about the world even if he or she doesn't travel—but decides that she has to live in the world to make her mark on it.
    • Pilar's new boyfriend, Rubén, is Peruvian. They speak Spanish as their language of love.
    • However, things fall apart. Pilar discovers him sleeping with a Dutch exchange student and is understandably upset.
    • It's at this moment that Pilar spies an ad for a cheap bass guitar and she goes for it, remembering what her old boyfriend Max said about her promising future with the instrument.
    • She goes home with it and rocks out to The Velvet Underground & Nico. Wicked, Pilar.
  • Chapter 13: God's Will

    Herminia Delgado (1980)

    • Herminia sheds light on Felicia del Pino's character and their friendship.
    • When they were six, Felicia asked Herminia if she would "save" her.
    • Herminia's father was a babalawo, a kind of high priest of santería. Celia and pretty much everyone else were afraid of him—except Felicia.
    • Her fascination with coconuts began there, when she saw Herminia's father use the shells in a divining ritual.
    • Felicia turned out to be an exceptionally loyal friend to Herminia, even working tirelessly to have the remains of Herminia's son repatriated from Angola for burial.
    • Herminia says that Felicia didn't care about racial differences. She speaks of the racial tensions that are undocumented in any of the history texts they were given.
    • After Felicia's stint with the "guerrillas" in 1978 (after the attempted murder/suicide), she returned to Herminia and "La Madrina."
    • We learn that Felicia had an active role in Otto's death: she pushed him from the top of the roller coaster and he landed on high voltage wires.
    • After her return, Felicia takes her old job at the beauty salon and begins attending santería ceremonies with Herminia.
    • Felicia is dedicated to the orishas and soon asks to be fully initiated.
    • The ceremonies are secret, but she shares some of the details with Herminia. For one thing, there are lots of goats sacrificed, exactly the thing Felicia hated earlier in the narrative.
    • Celia and the rest of her family members don't approve of this initiation and aren't there to greet her when she returns.
    • Still, Felicia wears the white clothes of the initiate and does all that she's supposed to do.
    • But she does not thrive. Soon, it is clear that Felicia is dying, despite the best efforts of her santería family.
    • Celia appears at Felicia's house to see what is happening, and almost too late. She finds her daughter with a swollen, lumpy head on the verge of death. Celia holds her until Felicia dies.

    Ivanito

    • After Felicia's funeral, Ivanito receives a radio from a mysterious benefactor (perhaps his father?). He feels that he might hear his mother singing as he tunes in.
    • He never hears his mother, but sometimes he gets the stations from Key West. It's helping him learn English and he longs to be like the DJ Wolfman Jack, who speaks to millions at once.
  • Chapter 14: Daughters of Changó (1979)

    • Lourdes is losing touch with the voice of her father, Jorge. He's kind of drifting off into the cosmos.
    • He still has things to tell Lourdes: 1) He loved Celia; 2) Celia loved Lourdes; 3) He tried to destroy Celia, leading her to mental illness and emotional distance from Lourdes. Ouch.
    • Jorge admits that his mother and sisters were horrible and that Celia was treated with heavy meds and electroshock therapy. He wanted to break her because of her Spanish lover.
    • He tells Lourdes of Felicia's death and says that it's time for her to go back to Cuba.
    • The final shocker: he knows about Lourdes' rape. He asks her to apologize to Celia for him.
    • Lourdes has a vision of a decorated church altar in April, her favorite month (contrary to her mother).

    Pilar (1980)

    • Pilar buys an old Beny Moré album (remember the one Felicia played over and over?) and reflects on her Punk days, which seem to be somewhat in the past now.
    • She has calmed down tremendously and that scares her a little.
    • Pilar visits a botánica, a shop that sells folk medicine, herbs and religious amulets. The proprietor has knowledge of santería and immediately calls Pilar a daughter of Changó.
    • He also says that she has to "finish what [she] began" by the "moon after next." He gives her herbs to bathe in and a candle to light so that she finds spiritual clarity.
    • Pilar is not religious, but she's kind of lost her way, so she takes the items and heads home.
    • On the way, she is assaulted by three young boys with knives. She is molested and finally makes it home in a state of shock.
    • Pilar uses the herbs as directed for nine nights. She realizes that she must go to Cuba and calls her mother to tell her so.
  • Chapter 15: Celia's Letters: 1956-1958

    • Celia opens this passel of letters with news of Rufino's courtship of Lourdes. Celia approves of him, but Jorge is jealous.
    • She reflects on the last time she saw Gustavo and thinks that perhaps it was best that they parted so that she didn't have to see him grow old and indifferent.
    • We learn that Rufino's family is quite different from him: they are wealthy and entitled, whereas Rufino is a worker. They keep Rufino's racially unacceptable grandmother locked up in the house.
    • There are clashes over Lourdes' and Rufino's wedding, with the wealthier side winning out.
    • The Revolution is in full swing and the rebels are attacking. Jorge worries about his job with the American company.
    • Celia ends with the news that she is going to be a grandmother.
  • Chapter 16: Six Days in April

    • Celia combs through her daughter's belongings in the wake of her funeral and reflects on the last rituals performed for Felicia.
    • Felicia had asked to be buried as a santera, which entailed certain clothing and rituals provided by her friends from the casa de santo.
    • When the rituals are completed, all the lumps and disfigurements are gone from Felicia's head.
    • The car carrying her coffin broke down before reaching the cemetery, so Felicia has to be carried there.
    • We finally get to see Celia in this passage, as she looks in the mirror. She is aging and her usual strength and upbeat character seem suppressed.
    • In the end, she puts on Felicia's bathing suit and goes for a swim in the ocean.

    Pilar

    • Pilar and her mother finally make it to Cuba. There is political unrest, as asylum-seekers have gate crashed the Peruvian embassy.
    • They stop at the house on Palmas Street, but no one gets out or talks to anyone.
    • Pilar reveals that since the assault in the park, she can hear people's thoughts and see bits of the future. And now she's certain that she'll see her grandmother.
    • As they drive along the coast, Pilar can sense all the suffering that is going on in the area.
    • When they arrive at Celia's house, they find it in a state of decay—and a battered looking Celia still clothed in Felicia's bathing suit.
    • Lourdes and Pilar bathe her and notice her missing breast. Pilar realizes just how much her grandmother has aged and faded. As Celia sleeps, Pilar can see her disturbing dreams.
    • Lourdes is disgusted by everything in Cuba and with El Líder and tries to make her displeasure known wherever they go.
    • Pilar observes that Cuba looks like a Latino version of 1950's America, with cars and fashions from that period of time.
    • In the evening, she sits with Celia on her wicker swing, as she used to when she was a baby, and listens to her abuela's childhood memories. Pilar feels Celia passing on her life to her.
    • Celia reveals that when Jorge took her to the asylum, she foretold Pilar's coming. Jorge didn't understand the prediction at the time.
    • She feels that her personal history has been jumbled up by the death of her daughter and that only Pilar can save her by remembering.

    Lourdes

    • Lourdes' narrative focuses on Ivanito, who comes to join them on their visit. The boy hasn't eaten well and Lourdes blames the political climate on the island for it.
    • Luz and Milagro also visit with their aunt and cousin, but are guarded because they fear the newcomers will be like their mother.
    • It turns out that both Ivanito and Lourdes are accomplished dancers and the two garner applause one evening when they are out.
    • Ivanito is now 13 and Lourdes feels that Cuba has nothing to offer him.
    • Lourdes drives out to her husband's old ranch and reflects on how decayed everything now looks. She also thinks about her husband and his hardworking ethic, which she appreciated.
    • When she gets to the finca, she thinks about the child she lost there and the rape, fearing that all of her suffering might have had no meaning.
    • She sees the inhabitants themselves are ruins of people, and she doesn't know why she's there anymore.

    Ivanito

    • Ivanito has a meaningful dream in which he gallops off on a horse, but doesn't know where he is going—only that he can't stop.
    • He speaks of his attachment to Pilar. He feels he can speak to her as he has never done before.
    • Luz and Milagro, however, don't warm up to Pilar. Ivanito observes that they have each other, but that he is left alone.
    • Ivanito can also see that his Tía Lourdes has taken a shine to him. It's clear that she's trying to lure Ivanito with the free enterprise and wealth of the U.S., but Ivanito is uncertain.
    • Pilar asks Ivanito to take her to Herminia, so that she can learn more about Felicia and, ultimately, herself.
    • Herminia tells stories about Felicia and then brings them back to the altars in the house, where she begins channeling Felicia's spirit.

    Pilar

    • Pilar has brought her art supplies with her and now wants to paint a portrait of her grandmother. She allows Celia to make decisions about her depiction.
    • She paints a series of portraits of her, all dominated by the color blue, because she is overwhelmed by how many blues exist in Cuba.
    • As Pilar paints, Celia tells her about Cuba, from her point of view. Lourdes objects loudly.
    • It's apparent that Lourdes has been in a state of political and social indignation since she reached Cuba and will offer her opinions wherever she goes.
    • But even Pilar has to admit that it is a hard life there, no matter how much she romanticized it before.
    • Celia hands off her box of letters to Pilar and also a book of García Lorca's poems. She recites them all for Pilar.
    • It's at this point that Pilar begins dreaming in Spanish. She describes it as a magical kind of change working in her.
    • Despite all this, Pilar realizes that her place is in New York. She dreads telling her grandmother this.

    Lourdes

    • Lourdes goes to the Peruvian embassy in Havana to see if the rumors about the asylum-seekers are true.
    • Guess who she runs into there. Just guess. (Hint: He has a beard and wears army fatigues).
    • Lourdes can't believe that she is close enough to Castro to murder him. Instead, she yells at him. He completely ignores her.
    • Castro announces that the would-be emigrants are free to go wherever they wish.
    • Lourdes returns to her mother's house and realizes that she can't keep her promise to her dead father and apologize to her mother for him. She can only remember Celia's rejection of her.
    • In the morning, she packs Ivanito's bag and rushes him off to Havana. She wants him to join the asylum-seekers at the Peruvian embassy.
    • Lourdes tells him to take the first plane he can get out of Cuba and she will come to fetch him.
    • Ivanito wants to know what will happen to Celia, but Lourdes just urges him to go.

    Pilar

    • Pilar figures out what her mother is up to with Ivanito, so she persuades Herminia to drive her to Havana. She takes Celia with her.
    • On the way, Celia reflects on the departures made by various family members. It's obvious that she's in pain from it all.
    • Chaos reigns around the Peruvian embassy. Pilar is struck on her forehead by a stone and is carried through the embassy gates by the crowd.
    • She spots Ivanito and is able to get hold of him, but she decides to leave him there. She tells Celia that he must have gotten on the first plane to Lima.

    Celia

    • Celia has had a traumatic day, to say the least. Now we see her seeking refuge in the beach, as she often does.
    • As she moves toward the water, she remembers her life with Tía Alicia and her old desire to travel to Spain and become a flamenco dancer.
    • Celia submerges herself in the water and feels somewhat amphibious. The lady can breathe through her skin and wounds.
    • She surrenders her precious pearl earrings to the sea and imagines their luminescence being darkened by the depths of the sea.
  • Chapter 17: Celia's Letter: 1959

    • Celia's last letter is to "notify" Gustavo that Pilar was born. She no longer feels the need to write to him anymore, since Pilar will now take on her memories and carry them into the future.