Celia del Pino
Celia del Pino has a brief love affair with a Spanish man in 1934. After he leaves, she continues to grieve the end of their relationship and write unsent letters to him for decades. She marries Jorge del Pino, who puts her in an asylum. When she gets out, she begins a life of waiting by the sea. After Jorge's death, Celia devotes herself to the revolutionary cause of El Lider (Fidel Castro). She is revitalized by the return of her granddaughter, Pilar Puente, who has lived in New York with her mother, Lourdes Puente, since the revolution.
Jorge del Pino
Jorge del Pino convinces Celia del Pino to marry him while she is bed bound, grieving her lost Spanish lover. After their honeymoon, Jorge realizes Celia will not forget her lover, and he punishes her by putting her in an asylum and traveling frequently for work. Later, Jorge becomes afraid that Celia wishes to kill him. Despite this, he loves Celia and thinks she also loves him. When he dies, Jorge persists in the life of his daughter Lourdes Puente. He complains that death has not afforded him any more peace or insight than he had while alive.
Lourdes Puente is marked by an early sense of rejection from her mother, Celia del Pino. She adores her father, Jorge del Pino. The second great trauma in Lourdes's life is her miscarriage and then rape and mutilation by a soldier during the Cuban Revolution (1953–59). Lourdes immigrates to New York with her husband and daughter. There she runs a bakery and becomes obese when her father, Jorge, comes to New York to treat the cancer that will kill him. After his death, Lourdes continues to hear her father speaking to her. She is fundamentally at odds with her defiant, artistic daughter, Pilar Puente.
Pilar Puente remembers everything that has ever happened to her in detail, including her traumatic separation from her beloved grandmother, Celia. For years in her youth, Pilar feuds with her mother but draws strength from a psychic connection with her grandmother. She longs to return to Cuba and to understand where she truly belongs. Art helps Pilar make sense of the world, and she later develops strong psychic abilities. Visiting Cuba, Pilar finally understands that though she belongs to Cuba as well as the United States, she belongs more in the United States.
Felicia Villaverde has been best friends since childhood with Herminia Delgado, whose father is a santero (Santeria priest) of African descent. Felicia sets her husband, Hugo Villaverde, on fire after he abuses her and infects her with syphilis. Consumed more and more by the delusions brought on by syphilis, Felicia tries to kill herself and her beloved son, Ivanito Villaverde. Her second husband dies in a suspicious fire, and she pushes her third husband to his death while they are on a roller coaster. At last, Felicia finds peace in her initiation into Santeria. However, she sickens and dies shortly thereafter.
As a child, Ivanito Villaverde finds happiness with his mother, Felicia Villaverde. He is her adoring companion even as she becomes more and more deluded. After Felicia tries to kill them both, Ivanito struggles to adjust to boarding school. His experience with his mother has not diminished his adoration for her. After her death, Ivanito agrees to flee Cuba with Lourdes Puente's help.