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A satirically whimsical and morose take on Cuba and its diaspora

Published 31 years apart, Dreaming in Cuban and its sequel, Vanishing Maps, are a bizarre but heartfelt retelling of family history

Deteriorating Cuba
Dreaming in Cuban and Vanishing Maps book covers combined

Title

Dreaming in Cuban & Vanishing Maps

Author(s)

Cristina García

Genre

Historical Fiction | LGBTQIA+ | Magical Realism | Women’s Fiction

La tierra donde naciste
No la puedes olvidar
Porque tiene tus raíces
Y lo que dejas atrás

—Gloria Estefan, Mi Tierra

Simply put: the land of your birth cannot be forgotten because it holds your roots and everything you leave behind––if you’re connected to your ancestral land, that is. When it comes to nostalgia and wanting to feel steeped in my Cuban roots, Gloria Estefan is my go-to singer. Perhaps it’s her deep, melodious voice that draws chills to the nape of my neck with melancholic lyrics such as those in her 1993 title track, Mi Tierra

I had placed Cristina García’s Dreaming in Cuban on my regional library’s to-read list, and when Vanishing Maps was hot off the presses in July 2023, me puse las pilas––I got off my ass and checked them out. Reading Dreaming in Cuban was like listening to one of those Gloria Estefan songs that make you ache to remember a different time, a different place. 

I’m a first-generation Cuban American. My parents arrived in the United States as wide-eyed pre-teens. They remember enough about their homeland that it caused them considerable trauma when they had to abruptly say goodbye, not knowing if they’d ever return. Unprocessed trauma has a way of reappearing elsewhere in our lives, but in 1962, when both my parents’ families landed in Miami, their parents were too busy trying to meet their immediate needs to pay any attention to that trauma.

Dreaming

Dreaming in Cuban explores that untreated trauma. The kind that is a gnarly tree trunk hitched to the soil and impossible to root out. García has a visceral writing style; open one of her books, and you’ll find yourself knee-deep in an organic world that manifests itself as the wind, the supernatural, or your ghostly mother. Although she was two when she left Cuba during the first wave of emigration in the early ’60s, García’s dominance over the sensory earthiness that is Cuba, the effects of a starved economy, and the perception that politics play a primal role in the lives of its ex-pats reads as if she were an anthropologist, living on the island, studying the Cuban people.

At the center of both novels is Celia del Pino, the family’s matriarch. In Dreaming in Cuban, she remains in Cuba after her husband’s death and becomes so obsessed with El Líder (the semi-fictional Fidel Castro character) that she devotes herself fully to the Cuban revolution. Meanwhile, her three adult children, Lourdes, Felicia, and Javier, are caught in the crosshairs, sending them on three divergent journeys that, in Vanishing Maps, continue to branch out over three continents. 

García’s portrait of Celia’s daughter, Lourdes, her husband, Rufino, and their daughter, Pilar, aligns with the mainstream idea of the Cuban diaspora. The family immigrates to Brooklyn, and Lourdes, the rotund, cross-eyed owner of Yankee Doodle Bakery, settles into her life as an exile, hiring and firing non-Cuban immigrants as she pontificates about her American values. If you’re Cuban, particularly a first-generation Cuban American, you know many Lourdeses. She’s always at odds with her patronizing, liberal-minded artist of a daughter. Meanwhile, Rufino wastes away at the back of the warehouse where they live near East River, toiling away at inventions that go nowhere. Rufino escapes his mundane life of leisure in the company of other women while Lourdes works long hours at the bakery, selling pre-packaged baked goods.

Six years Lourdes’ junior, Felicia is as woeful as her sister is overbearing; it’s no wonder they don’t get along. In the first novel, she never leaves Cuba and is enmeshed in an Afro-Cuban santeria cult, to which her best friend and neighbor, Herminia also belongs. Felicia also has an undiagnosed mental illness, the possible consequence of lead poisoning. Her first husband, Hugo, is a physically and mentally abusive philanderer who gaslights Felicia’s already delicate mental state. Her twin daughters, Milagro and Luz, witness their mother––pregnant with her youngest child, Ivanito––burning their father’s face off with scalding oil because she is so overwrought by his constant abuses. The twins never forgive Felicia for what she did to their father, so they attempt to turn Ivanito against her. But even within Felicia’s convoluted delusions, where parenthood isn’t her metier, she is clear about one thing: “El Líder is just a common tyrant. No better, no worse than any other in the world.” 

Javier, ten years younger than Lourdes, studies in Russia and remains there for a time. A quasi-underdeveloped character, he marries Irina, who gives birth to their daughter, Irinita. Years later, he returns to Santa Teresa del Mar, empty-handed. But still, in his mother’s eyes, he remains the family’s jewel.

Both novels are semi-epistolary. Dreaming in Cuban uses letters dated from 1934 to 1959 that Celia writes (but never mails) to Gustavo, a married Spaniard from Granada. Celia meets Gustavo while working for El Encanto, a defunct department store in Havana, and spends four unforgettable nights with him. The letters impart bits of Celia’s story, her marriage to Jorge, the birth of her children, her laments and desires, and news about the state of things in Cuba. In her last letter to Gustavo, written in 1959, Celia embraces the coming revolution, bids her lover goodbye, and reveals the birth of her first granddaughter, Pilar. Parts of Vanishing Maps are told through Pilar’s eyes as she describes the polaroids she’s kept through the years. These intimate moments get to the heart of who Celia and Pilar are as individuals.

García began writing Dreaming in Cuban in the late eighties, yet the narrative still resonates in today’s political climate. Immigration remains a hot-button issue in the United States, especially when considering the ways that Cubans are pitted against other ethnic immigrants desiring asylum. It’s this timelessness, however unintentional, that makes the novel so ingenious. Though it is set 20 years after the events of Dreaming in Cuban, Vanishing Maps flows almost seamlessly from the end of its predecessor as if it were the very “ornate script” Jorge, Celia’s husband, learns as a youngster.

The magic, the wonderment, the juju of the novel is hidden within the experiences of its characters and the conflagration between two political factions: communism and capitalism, Celia and Lourdes, Lourdes and Pilar, Felicia and Ivanito. And in its tiny details, which are  casually, almost haphazardly, inserted into a narrative that fluctuates from one character’s point of view to another’s, we get glimpses of the miserable living conditions in the aftermath of the  Cuban revolution.

In 1972, a little more than a decade after the revolution’s triumph, Felicia drives to her mother’s house to share the news of her father’s death in the United States:

Felicia del Pino, her head a spiky anarchy of miniature pink rollers, pounds the horn of her 1952 De Soto as she pulls up to the little house by the sea. It is 7:43 A.M. and she has made the seventeen-mile journey from Havana to Santa Teresa del Mar in thirty-four minutes. Felicia screams for her mother, throws herself onto the backseat and shoulders open the car’s only working door. Then she flies past the rows of gangly bird of paradise, past the pawpaw tree with ripening fruit, and loses a sandal taking the three front steps in an inelegant leap.

Without even so much as a mention of the US embargo against Cuba, García sifts decay, restlessness, and boredom into her prose. The peeling paint on the Hotel Inglaterra shows its neglect; Celia hitchhiking because there is no bus service; coupon books that Cubans must use to keep track of grocery rations; and the flourishing pawpaw tree in the passage above is rotting not ten years later during Pilar and Lourdes’s return to the island. These are the discreet touches of commentary that García uses to show what has become of her beloved Cuba. This subtle language appears, too, for her exiled characters: Lourdes’s obsession with all things red, white, and blue; Pilar’s constant rejection of her mother’s ideals.

Far-reaching maps

Twenty years later, in Vanishing Maps, the diaspora of the del Pinos is farther flung. Pilar is stuck in a rut as an artist in Los Angeles, Lourdes and Rufino retire to Miami, Celia tries to relive her affair in Granada, Ivanito is a performer in Berlin, and Irinita is a tycoon in Moscow. But the themes of unresolved trauma and tense parent-child relationships live on.

These parent-child kinships are further twisted. The most extreme example is that of Lourdes del Pino, who embodies the trope of the alt-right-wing Cuban, and who abhors communism in every manifestation, and Pilar, her depressed artist daughter, who is more level-headed than the reader might first give her credit for. Not far behind are Felicia and Ivanito, who’s Svengali-like relationship continues into the sequel.

We are also reintroduced to some of the first novel’s lesser characters as they become vibrant ladder rungs in the narrative. These characters come with their own entertaining entanglements. Additionally, this novel opens the panorama to positive LGBTQ+ characters, whose sexuality and romantic escapades are not portrayed as shameful. Ivanito works as a translator by day and at night he’s a full-on rendition of the La Lupe drag performer who calls herself La Ivanita. Irinita, an intimate apparel mogul, is a lesbian and discovers her twin in none other than a swanky lesbian tango nightclub.

There’s much to love in the sequel. More harrowing scenes, more insight into each character’s origin story, and the dissipating romance and charm of the beleaguered revolution. In the second book, we see a Cuba that’s much worse off since the fall of the Soviet Union. It’s a mournful but honest depiction of what Cuban families have dealt with, both on and off the island, in the last 60-plus years. Still political, though more satirical, it’s a quirky continuation of Dreaming in Cuban.

But for all the fanciful enchantments of Cuba’s allure, these novels are intense, with characters grappling with loss to forge renewed lives. García has a penchant for presenting cringe-worthy, difficult-to-read scenes, which include sexual assault and macabre rituals. She also has a deft hand for writing thought-provoking inferences about racism in pre- and post-communist Cuba, an issue many Cubans continue to deny. In other words, you’re probably not going to breeze through these novels while vacationing at a beach resort.

 

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About the author(s).

Cristina García is the author of eight novels, including The Agüero Sisters, Monkey Hunting, A Handbook to Luck, The Lady Matador’s Hotel, King of Cuba, and Here in Berlin. García has also written books for young readers, a collection of poetry, numerous plays, and edited two Latinx anthologies. Her work has been nominated for a National Book Award and translated into fifteen languages. She has received multiple awards and has taught literature and creative writing at universities nationwide.

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