Cristina Garcia’s novel Dreaming in Cuban (Knopf, 1992) covers three generations in the life of a Cuban family, extending from the 1930s to 1980. Garcia’s focus is on family relationships, especially those between mothers and daughters. She also illustrates the impact of immigration to America on family members who leave their native country and who stay behind. Celia del Pino is the mother, and her daughters are Lourdes, Felicia; her son is Javier. An underlying anchor in the narrative is the revolution of 1960. Castro appears in the novel as el lidre, mainly in the thoughts and memories of the characters.
One might argue that this novel is latter day magical realism. Two characters speak to the ghost of their dead father shortly after his death. One speaks to him for most of a year, as he appears to her at random moments in New York. Felicia, who never leaves Cuba, is initiated into Santeria. Yet the world of this story is not necessarily an alternative world where fantastic things happen. Clashing cultures are evident—clashing sensibilities, ways of thinking. Western rationalism, Catholicism, and Africa-influenced Santeria all strive against and with one another in the various characters. A character who speaks with a ghost is not necessarily insane or demented; ghosts are in the reality of her culture. Cuba is a nation of the West, but also a nation heavily influenced by African culture, and Cubans reflect these different influences. What we really have in Dreaming in Cuban is an excursion into the clashing cultural realities that result when family members move from Cuba to the U.S. In New York, Lourdes is constantly reacting to her circumstances: she becomes a baker, she avidly embraces the ideology of rightwing Republican Americanism, she gains weight and then (in an incredible stint of fasting, loses it all, only to gain it back after an equally incredible feat of eating). She’s convinced her daughter Pilar has fallen into licentious ways. She has obsessive sex with her husband, often summoning him from his workroom for service. She patrols the neighborhood as a voluntary security person. She runs her bakery like a work camp in the gulag.
Lourdes’ daughter Pilar (the central consciousness of the book) is in constant revolt against her domineering mother, yet she holds her distance, accepts her mother’s tirades and accusations as expressions of personality traits she cannot control. The gradually evolving relationship of these two women is a subcurrent of interest throughout the novel.
Dreaming in Cuban examines the impact of immigration on those who move to another country, leaving their own behind, and those who stay at home, separated for decades or forever from family members. Some never adjust to the new state of things; others adjust so totally that they leave their former cultures behind and forgotten; others move forward. Pilar, who lived in Cuba for such a short time that she hardly remembers it, feels drawn there, but in the end accepts that it is not her home.
The characters in this book are sometimes larger than life—too eccentric, too exaggerated, too extreme. Yet they make an impact. You sense in this novel both the influence of Toni Morrison as well as of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. The device of narrating this story through the voices or minds of characters, and of breaking the narrative into chronologically disconnected units, so that over the course of the book you move constantly back and forth between the 1930s and 1950s and 1970s, seems to me the influence of Faulkner, whom Garcia might have encountered directly in her readings, but who also could have come to her through the fiction of Marquez, strongly influenced by the Mississippi writer.
Men in this novel are adulterers, betrayers, impregnators, overbearing authoritarians, weak and insignificant presences. They are rarely in the foreground. El lidre himself is one of them. They make up part of the menacing, constantly shifting world through which the women struggle to prevail and survive.
Dreaming in Cuban is not a political novel. It does not argue for a particular position in the complicated political world inhabited by the members of the immigrant Cuban community in the U. S. It shows how radically changing circumstances impact people’s lives, destroying some but not others. It demonstrates the at once powerfully nurturing and constantly oppressive pull of family.