Dreaming in Cuban | Study Guide

Cristina García

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Dreaming in Cuban | Context


Latin American Magic Realism

Dreaming in Cuban may be called a work of magic realism. Magic realism is a style of writing in which fantastical or mythical events or characters are included in an otherwise realistic story or novel. Magic realism is most identified with the literature of Latin America. Some literary critics and historians suggest that magic realism arose in Latin America as a way to reconcile and blend the disparate realities of indigenous culture and imposed European culture.

Characteristics of magic realism often include a merging of the fantastical with common reality, transformation of the mundane into something incredible, and human response and adaptation to often normalized supernatural elements. Magic realism is frequently seen as a form of postmodernism because of its tendency to be fragmented. It is also postmodern in its vehement rejection of the rational and the materialistic, focusing instead on pushing beyond the scope of the immediately understandable. In Dreaming in Cuban, the characters' inner lives and relationships are affected not only by actual political events—notably the socialist revolution in mid-20th century Cuba, but also by elements of inordinary reality, such as prophecies and extrasensory perception. For example, patriarch Jorge del Pino appears to several characters after his death and continues to speak to his daughter, Lourdes Puente, for years after his burial.

Cuba under Fidel Castro

In Dreaming in Cuban the lives of three generations of the del Pino family are intimately interconnected with the political events that gripped Cuba in the 20th century. After decades of instability and unrest, the country's defining moment was the socialist revolution following the 1959 seizure of power by lawyer and guerilla fighter Fidel Castro (1926–2016). Cuba had been a Spanish colony whose economy was based on sugarcane produced by slave labor. After Cuban independence at the turn of the 20th century, the United States continued to exercise a large influence in Cuba economically, militarily, and socially. With Castro's rise to power, Cuba broke ties with the United States and allied itself with the socialist Soviet Union. At the time, the United States and the Soviet Union were involved in the Cold War (1945–91), an era defined by political hostility and propaganda.

Castro's nearly 50-year rule over Cuba was marked by the often-violent repression of certain human rights such as freedom of expression, but the standard of living rose for many Cubans. Castro's vision for Cuba was of an egalitarian society with a high standard of living and quality of life for all. Some of Castro's positive achievements include the expansion and delivery of health care, education, and employment to all Cubans. However, Castro was unable to maintain economic prosperity for the country, and his dictatorial rule hinged on the total suppression of dissenting political and artistic activity. Many citizens fled Cuba for these reasons, like Lourdes Puente in the novel.

Afro-Cuban Religion

In Dreaming in Cuban, three generations of women in the del Pino family have varying degrees of interaction with Afro-Cuban religious beliefs and practices. Most notable is Felicia Villaverde, who undergoes initiation as a Santeria priestess. The Santeria religion in Dreaming in Cuban derives from the beliefs of the Yoruba people of West Africa. The Yoruba are an ethnic group whose homelands encompass present-day Nigeria, Togo, Ghana, and Benin. Prior to European contact, the Yoruba peoples constituted a powerful set of city-states united by a common language and a set of cultural and religious practices. Their religious beliefs blended the secular with the sacred, attributing divine ancestry to their political rulers.

Spain brought the first African slaves to Cuba in 1511. By 1774, Spanish forces had brought about 100,000 enslaved Africans to the island. Beginning in the 1760s, Spain developed Cuba into a sugar-producing colony with a plantation economy. Many slaves were needed to operate these large plantations. Another 800,000 enslaved Africans were brought to Cuba over the next hundred years. The majority of them were Yoruba-speaking people from West Africa.

Under the oppression of slavery in Cuba, African slaves continued to practice their traditional religion by combining it with—and disguising it within—elements of the Catholicism of the Spaniards. Under Spanish rule, Catholicism was the official religion of Cuba in its colonial days. African slaves on the Cuban sugar plantations were constantly exposed to Catholicism. For example, Catholic priests performed blessings on the plantations and their inhabitants. This participation by the church helped give the institution of slavery a perceived legitimacy. It also ensured that enslaved Africans came into contact with elements of Catholicism, such as the saints and other elements of Catholic cosmogony, or creation story, prayers, and rituals such as Holy Communion.

This blending of two or more religions to produce a distinct religious tradition is known as syncretism. Santeria is a syncretic practice, and in the novel García depicts elements that derive from Catholicism as well as West African religions. Santeria uses techniques such as herbal medicine, spirit possession, divination of the future using shells, and ritual sacrifice of animals to achieve understanding and healing and connect with the nonmaterial, spiritual realms. These elements come from the Yoruba religion of West Africa, and are featured in Dreaming in Cuban. They are especially prominent in the practices of Felicia Villaverde and her friend Herminia Delgado, a descendant of slaves. Santeria's Catholic components are evident in the novel when Celia del Pino summons a santera, a Santeria priestess, to help heal her son Javier. The santera "prays every Catholic prayer she knows ... Hail Marys, Our Fathers, [and] the Apostles' Creed."

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