Love hurts. Love scars. And not to mix idioms, but love also bleeds. Love commits you to an insane asylum. It holds you out by the ankle and drops you in the lap of whoever happens to be there. It looks like rejection and feels like hatred. García really elevates the love/hate binary to another plane in Dreaming in Cuban, complicating most family relationships by showing that affection and loyalty can make the characters do some very unsavory things. Think of Felicia and her attempted murder of her child or her mutilation of Graciela Moreira. Celia almost forfeits her life because her passion is thwarted. "Protective" gods turn on their devotees and crush them like bugs, despite their diligent attentions. Don't despair: good love exists (think Celia and Pilar)—you'll just have to do a little digging to get at it.
Familial love appears to be as complicated and difficult as erotic love in García's work.
Celia's desire to "live for passion" belies a need to keep from disappearing beneath the apparatus of an uncaring and impoverished social order.
In Dreaming in Cuban, both Celia and Lourdes fear that their lifetime of experiences—especially the tragic and painful parts—will be "swallowed by the earth" and never have any meaning. Pilar and Herminia feel rage over the loss of control of historical narrative. Why should they believe in cultural memories that ignore, exclude, or deny them? The desire to "know what happened" and to preserve experiences is at the center of a quest for truth: to know what really happened means validation of what these characters know to be true about themselves. The ability to know and to share is what allows Celia to let go of her illusory lover and Lourdes to move forward with helping Ivanito. In both cases, they get someone who can witness their struggles (Pilar and Jorge) and affirm the importance of their lives in history.
Celia is less afraid of death than of the loss of her identity and devaluation of her beliefs and experiences.
Pilar must return to Cuba to gain a less biased access to her family's past and to help her emerging identity form more completely.
Read the first three pages of Dreaming in Cuban and you'll realize something very important. There are dead people. Walking over the ocean. Living people can hear the sounds of the universe operating (including flowers growing). Catholic saints become Lukumi gods and rule the lives of humans, whether they accept it or not. All of this means one thing: you've landed in the universe of magical realism. Perhaps the most surprising thing about this kind of world is not the supernatural mingling with the quotidian. It's the absolute value of these occurrences in the lives of all the characters. Celia doesn't believe in religion, but she does step carefully around the sacred ceiba tree and leaves a prayer for Felicia. Pilar is like her grandmother: a non-believer, but still acknowledging the presence and power of invisible forces. For the del Pino family, the workings of the world beyond are just another part of a complicated life on earth.
In García's work, supernatural elements may coexist alongside everyday concerns, but the preoccupation with otherworldly things is far stronger for her characters.
Although Felicia's death is dramatic and mysterious, it has its roots in more practical, down-to-earth matters.
From Lourdes' lazy eye, which takes in things that others can't see, to those in power who construct their own versions of national histories, Dreaming in Cuban challenges the concept that anyone can be an impartial and tolerant observer of an absolute reality. Navigating a world that accommodates Felicia's hallucinatory wanderings, Celia's passions, Pilar's identity crises, Lourdes' zeal, and Jorge's refusal to "cross over" can make it difficult to get at the truth of existence, if such a truth actually exists. There's also a very fluid definition of mental illness and stability in this work that profoundly affects the life of the del Pino women and how they are viewed and labeled by the men in the work (and by us as readers). In all of these cases, it's best to follow Pilar's lead and question everything.
Madness is often linked with the mystical or supernatural in García's work, and it is often implied that those who suffer with mental illness more in tune with larger universal truths.
Pilar has the role of mediator, balancing the reality of life in America with that of Cuba and creating a midpoint between Lourdes' Yankee Doodle zeal and Celia's passion for El Líder.
We'd like to suggest that you reach beyond the obvious definition of exile as you explore this theme in Dreaming in Cuban. In addition to the political exile suffered by Lourdes and Pilar (and possibly Javier), there is also a sense of wandering or homelessness on the personal and familial levels. Even Celia, the staunchest of Cuban revolutionaries, feels the isolation and loneliness of being cast out or forgotten by the larger collective. Felicia's failure to thrive, despite finding her place in Herminia's religious community, may be due in part to an "internal exile": she doesn't fit into the Revolutionary plan for personal happiness. For those outside Cuba, exile goes one of two ways: the Puente family way or the Lourdes del Pino way. While Lourdes' forceful character allows her to adapt and thrive, that's not the case for Rufino and his family. Pilar is left somewhere in the middle, not really feeling at home in either place, or with either family. Exile, it seems, is an internal condition as well as a national one.
Ivanito's journey out of Cuba marks the beginning of a crisis of identity for Celia. She can no longer support the Revolution for the future of her family and she is left with only Luz and Milagro (the "Double Helix" twins) to "grandparent."
In García's Dreaming in Cuban, exiles come in a variety of categories and situations. Although the refugees from Cuba are the obvious focus of the work, there are groups in both the U.S. and Cuba who suffer alienation from the powers in control of individual destinies.
While it's true that this thematic thread is most thoroughly explored through Pilar's character in Dreaming in Cuban, we want to caution you not to overlook other members of her family who are continuously questing to figure out who they are and where they belong. Celia is a prime example. Even though she is a vigorous woman who has deep convictions and strong, embedded passions, she's still looking for something in her life. Felicia, of course, spends her entire ill-fated life trying to find her place in society and in her family. Even Jorge, flitting around the Beyond, is still jockeying for position and purpose in his family. Most of the characters find themselves resisting the external forces that would shape their lives for them. Pilar hates the idea that people she doesn't know can have a say in how she lives her life or what she thinks about. Lourdes refuses to allow her brutal experiences to thwart her desire for success in her new life. But those external forces are there and come in the form of family, the state (U.S. and Cuba), the patriarchy, religious and spiritual forces, and personal choices. Whether or not the characters acknowledge and work with these influences in productive ways is another story.
The major characters in the book can't escape the defining influence of their home culture, no matter how far away they move from Cuba or how much they reject their early lives.
Although personal development is a key concern in García's work, political evolution plays a more important role in governing the lives of the characters.
It's kind of a field day for us to talk about transformations in a book that so heavily employs magical realism. In Dreaming in Cuban we have gigantic blue grandpas wearing panama hats and walking on water, women who seem restful and gorgeous one moment and channeling divine spirits the next. Easy peasy. But there are other, more hidden metamorphoses that reside primarily in the psychological realm. We see this in Pilar's ability to hear the roots of trees as she is assaulted and Celia's movement from a vibrant woman to a fragile woman who relies on her imagination and the changes of the sea to comfort her. There are also larger transformations to consider, like the violent movements that shape the earth and the violence across the world that alters human life on a daily basis. These are, perhaps, not as flashy as a little old religious lady spontaneously combusting on the front lawn, but they are part of a continuum of change that marks the lives of the characters in García's work.
Change—from revolution to personal alteration—causes upheaval that more often than not proves catastrophic for the characters.
The more fantastic metamorphoses in Dreaming in Cuban occur not just to shock and horrify, but as physical manifestations of deeper psychological and spiritual activity.
The Del Pino family hasn't exactly cornered the market on suffering—we even see them acknowledging the greater horrors that happen every day around the world—but they do take their fair share of it in Dreaming in Cuban. Some of it is even quite extreme. Such hardship produces an array of outcomes for the characters and includes communing with the dead, writing (but never sending) letters to an ex-lover, becoming a pushy entrepreneur, running off to the mountains to die in ecstasy, enduring multiple breaks with reality, attempted murder/suicide (twice), raising pigeons, and learning to play bass guitar. This is not even an exhaustive list. For the characters, affliction takes many forms and is not always relieved or redemptive. The important thing is that such ordeals be remembered and validated, and that some day—maybe in the afterlife—they will become useful for something.
Suffering in García's work is not meant to be redemptive. Rather, it often destroys and sometimes only exists to show how characters react to psychological or physical pain in their lives.
Pilar's forthright assessment of the hardships in Cuba (life is hard, but basic necessities are available) forces us to re-imagine our concepts of what necessity and adversity really are, on a global scale.