Study Guide

Dreaming in Cuban Themes

  • Love

    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.

    Questions About Love

    1. What is the nature of Lourdes' and Pilar's relationship? In what ways, if any, does it change by the end of the novel?
    2. How do the characters in Dreaming in Cuban show affection and love?
    3. Why does Jorge stick around after his death? For whom does he do it?
    4. Celia nearly dies when Gustavo leaves her. Why doesn't she? What do you suppose she lives for?

    Chew on This

    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.

  • Memory & The Past

    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.

    Questions About Memory & The Past

    1. Why does Celia write to Gustavo but never send the letters? Why does she continue writing to him for so long, especially after she is married to Jorge?
    2. Pilar seems disturbed by the stuff that isn't included in history books. Why would that be?
    3. In this work, we often get the story of one event from different perspectives. How often do the different narratives support or confirm each other? Are there notable moments in which the versions differ wildly?
    4. How do characters use memory to define themselves? In what ways do they use cultural rather than personal history to create their identities?

    Chew on This

    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.

  • The Supernatural

    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.

    Questions About The Supernatural

    1. What kinds of interactions do the characters of this book have with otherworldly beings? In what ways is such contact welcomed or thwarted?
    2. What religious or superstitious behavior is considered necessary or advisable by the characters? What are the consequences for someone who doesn't comply?
    3. Are there any characters who choose not to interact with the supernatural in this book? What is the purpose of such non-participation?
    4. What is the attitude of the characters toward organized religion? In what ways does that attitude differ in respect to other types of interactions with the otherworld (i.e. supernatural encounters in general)?

    Chew on This

    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.

  • Versions of Reality

    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.

    Questions About Versions of Reality

    1. What factors determine how we perceive the del Pino women? Are we influenced by something other than their own words and actions?
    2. According to Pilar and Herminia, those who "write history" generally ignore all but the powerful in their narratives. In what ways do you see this working in regards to personal history in this book? Who is in power and how do they shape the stories told to the other characters about themselves and the lives of others?
    3. How is mental illness perceived in this work?

    Chew on This

    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.

  • Exile

    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.

    Questions About Exile

    1. How is exile defined over the course of the story? Does the definition change?
    2. In what ways does personal isolation and a sense of abandonment mirror political exile? How does it differ?
    3. Pilar realizes that she can never be fully herself in either Cuba or the U.S. What other characters find themselves caught between one world and another?
    4. Why does Pilar go along with Lourdes' plan to get Ivanito out of Cuba?

    Chew on This

    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.

  • Identity

    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.

    Questions About Identity

    1. How does Pilar characterize herself? Does she rely primarily on her internal resources to do this, or does she "borrow" from outside sources?
    2. What is the significance of Pilar's ability to dream in Spanish?
    3. How important is the assignment of identity from an external source, i.e. someone other than the person for whom the identity role is formed?
    4. How do familial roles influence the behavior and thoughts of the characters in this novel? In what ways do the characters defy these roles and embrace new ones? What are the consequences of this role-swapping?

    Chew on This

    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.

  • Transformations

    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.

    Questions About Transformations

    1. How does García signal a change in the life or personality of a character? Does she simply report it? Is there a process or pattern she initiates when a character is going through a transformative period?
    2. Why do you think García uses magical realism in her work? What is the purpose of having the supernatural coexist so closely with the mundane?
    3. What do you think is the significance of Celia's two final, significant actions? Why does she surrender her earrings and her letters to Gustavo?
    4. How often do the transformations in this novel come from external sources? Internal ones? What does this say about the nature of change?

    Chew on This

    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.

  • Suffering

    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.

    Questions About Suffering

    1. What constitutes suffering in García's work? Is physical suffering privileged over psychological torment (or vice versa)?
    2. How does Celia view hardship? In what ways is her philosophy about this different from Lourdes' or Pilar's?
    3. We get a very strong education in sorrow from this book, but what about happiness? What do we learn about fulfillment and contentment in this story?
    4. How do the characters in Dreaming in Cuban attempt to control or avoid suffering? What actually works for them?

    Chew on This

    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.