Dreaming in Cuban | Study Guide

Cristina García

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Dreaming in Cuban | Themes


History-Making and Power

Dreaming in Cuban raises questions about the relationship between history, truth, and power. The act of recording history is an act of power, which depends on witnessing and subsequent transmission. To record history is to choose what is passed on as truth and what is omitted and therefore forgotten. In Chapter 2 adolescent Pilar Puente thinks, "If it were up to me, I'd record other things" than the series of male-dominated conquests and battles that constitute generally accepted history. Pilar would record the stories of those who lack access to power, stories that are normally obscured and forgotten, such as "the life stories of prostitutes in Bombay." These stories, she feels, contain important truths that are key to understanding the world. "Why don't I know anything about them?" Pilar asks. She questions the fundamental nature of recorded history when she asks rhetorically, "Who chooses what we should know or what's important?"

The letters Celia del Pino writes have the function of preserving the truths of Celia's life and turning them into written history. Beginning in 1935, shortly after his departure, Celia writes monthly letters to Gustavo Sierra de Armas. Instead of sending them, she keeps them all together. She stops writing them in 1959, when her granddaughter, Pilar, is born. When Pilar returns to Cuba from New York in 1980 as a young woman, Celia gives Pilar the collected letters. Celia's letters record in her own words the mundane details—the "ordinary seductions," her inward contemplations, and the grand movements of her life and of the larger political history unfolding simultaneously around her. After Pilar's birth, Celia no longer needs to write the letters, because Pilar "will remember everything." Indeed, Pilar continues Celia's tradition, recording her life scrupulously in her journal and telling her truths through her art. Thus Celia and Pilar, by telling their stories, reclaim some of the power formerly held by the men who have used and abused their power through force.

Language and Identity

Dreaming in Cuban mounts a multifaceted investigation into the connections between language and identity. Language is identity, for encoded in the language itself, apart from its content in any specific act of speech, are the roots of the speaker. In Chapter 5 Lourdes considers this truth in relation to the losses and shifts of identity that happen as a result of the movements of people around the globe. "What happens to their languages?" Lourdes asks rhetorically. "What of their passions lying stiff and untranslated in their breasts?" she wants to know. Lourdes, who wishes to bury the trauma of her miscarriage and rape in her homeland of Cuba, "welcomes her adopted language" of English because of "its possibilities for reinvention."

The novel's title further underscores the distinction of Cuba as a specific identity. One can dream in Cuban, like the characters do, in the language of memories and symbols that constitute their life experience. This is distinct from dreaming in the verbal language of Spanish, which is not specific to the Cuban experience.

The experience of Felicia Villaverde, who experiences a continuous mental and physical decline because of complications from syphilis, suggests that the loss of language is congruent with a loss of identity and signifies the breakdown of the order of reality. In Chapter 6 the narrator describes Felicia's loss of language following the trauma of her violent relationship with her husband: "Something is wrong with her tongue. It forms broken trails of words, words sealed and resistant as stones." Felicia's language becomes increasingly disjointed. Having lost the power of speaking truth plainly, Felicia's words become so symbolic as to be incomprehensible. They form "cheap bead necklaces of words," as her daughter Luz notes disdainfully in Chapter 8. Felicia's abuse creates a snowball effect that eventually leads to her death. That others cannot understand her and that she cannot communicate both emphasize the way stories shape identity.

Ritual, Symbolism, and Healing

In Dreaming in Cuban, rituals facilitate healing through the symbolic power they invest in actions and objects, creating order from life's chaos. The Afro-Cuban religious practices of Santeria are significant elements throughout the novel and in the lives of the characters, most notably Felicia Villaverde. In Chapter 1 when Jorge del Pino dies without bidding his daughter Felicia farewell, Felicia's best friend, Herminia Delgado, urges Felicia to process this event—and heal their shared past—through a Santeria ritual involving the sacrifice of a goat. Later, after her syphilitic insanity has progressed and Felicia has engaged in three romantic relationships marked by destruction and violence, Felicia's short-lived salvation comes in the form of her initiation into Santeria as a priestess. This process, which is highly ritualistic and symbolic, amounts to the salvation Felicia had requested of Herminia at age six, even though Felicia declines rapidly and dies shortly thereafter. As Felicia "sat on a throne surrounded by gardenias, her face serene as a goddess's," Herminia believed "she'd finally found her peace."

Poetry is connected to ritual, both through the repetition of its recitation and its structure of symbolism, motif, and metaphor. In poetry, actions, objects, and subjective states are connected to one another symbolically within a formal structure, allowing meanings to arise that could not otherwise be expressed. This expression of inexpressible meaning is inherently healing. Since the 1930s, Celia del Pino has found comfort, meaning, and validation for her experience of loss and waiting in the poetry of Federico Garcia Lorca, which she has committed to memory. When her son, Javier, returns to Cuba from Czechoslovakia sick and heartbroken, Celia "reads him poetry ... hoping to console him." Excerpts from the poetry of Garcia Lorca are peppered throughout the novel, their repetition forming a ritual of healing and meaning in the characters' lives.

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