Absent Fathers and Lost Lovers:
"Every person of the Caribbean is an exile from his own myth and his own history,
and also from his own culture and his own Being, now and always. . . ."
--The Repeating Island: The Caribbean and the Postmodern Perspective
Since forced labor and disease virtually eradicated Cuba’s indigenous population by the late 16th century, Creole identity on the island has been indelibly marked by its Spanish parentage. For generations, colonial ideology sanctioned and sustained a social and racial order that privileged Cuba’s Spanish elite, who came to be associated with cultural refinement, power, and superiority. Even as Cubans struggled to achieve independence from Spain during the nineteenth century, many continued to behold themselves in the image of their colonizer, endorsing political independence yet defending Cuba's inextricable cultural kinship with her Spanish fathers. The Cuban Antonio Angulo y Heredia, editor of Madrid's philosophical and political journal, Revista Iberica, proclaimed in 1863 that it was "absolutely impossible for us to renounce our Spanish nationality. No, we cannot desire the impossible: the renunciation of our own being, our own soul, our own civilization, our own history" (91-2). This vision of a post-emancipation "Spanish" Cuba was embraced by a number of important Cuban reformers, Spanish liberals, and political leaders. According to Christopher Schmidt-Nowara, it represented the concept of a Cuban republic "in which Hispano-Cuban Creoles would rule over the Afro-Cuban working class" (113).
This racial hierarchy shaped Cuba’s political unconscious for generations. As a result, social status and mobility often depended on the degree to which Cubans could distance themselves from their African heritage and approximate their Spanish one. Even after gaining independence in 1898, an emergent Cuban nation grappled with its Creole identity--promoting nationalistic fervor on the one hand, granting prestige and favor to those with more "refined" Spanish blood, on the other. While Cuba's intellectuals consistently voiced a desire to cultivate Cuba's Creole, African, or Caribbean identity, popular attitudes were slow to change. In “Social Exorcisms: Cuba’s (Post)Colonial (Counter)Discourses,” Ivan Schulman argues that this ambivalent self-fashioning produced a post-colonial literature that "disclosed the empire’s hold on the periphery in the persistent, conscious, or unconscious appropriation of European literary, cultural, and political models” (941). Schulman points to the near invisibility of both indigenous and African figures throughout much of Cuba’s literary history. “In the codes of Cuba’s post-colonial discourse,” Schulman contends, “Africans and Indians were generally absent as personae. They were without either an authentic voice or history until the twentieth century” (942). Colonial censorship had “struck fear in the hearts of intellectuals and limited publication both in Cuba as well as abroad of texts that highlighted black protagonists” (942). Instead, images of Spanish valor and supremacy had dominated historical and fictional tales--shaping attitudes and informing the popular imaginary.
It is therefore not surprising that the romantic appeal of the conquistador still captivates and informs the Cuban popular imagination. He lives on in the collective unconscious as part of a mythology of masculine daring, ruthless enterprise, and romantic conquest. He is a crucial link to Cuba’s past, to the cultural validation and primacy that Europe still represents in the colonized mind. In what follows, I will explore this vestigial romance as it informs novels by two Cuban-American women writers, Margarita Engel's Skywriting and Cristina Garcia's Dreaming in Cuban. Both novels reflect what Derek Walcott has called, "an oceanic nostalgia for the older culture and a melancholy at the new" (7). Disconnected from present day Cuba by politics and distance, Engel and Garcia turn to Spain for a wealth of ready imagery. Their texts reveal traces of myths and stereotypes that romanticize colonizing history and its conquering male figures. Whether linked symbolically to an ancestral myth of origins (as is the case in Engel's Skywriting), or remembered through a lost lover (as in Garcia's Dreaming in Cuban), the figure of the Spaniard functions as the emblematic muse and bond that inspires, reveals, and completes Cuban identity.
Both female protagonists in these works are haunted by the alluring mystery of Cuba--the "lost" homeland. They envision an idealized island landscape, imagine kin they have never seen, and long to forge some link with its colorful history. Marion O'Callaghan has remarked that the colonized imagination is rooted, not in a past, but in the present "with its crises and its deliberate ambiguities that resurrects nostalgia for a past that, for most, never existed and for all is, at least in part, more fictitious than fiction" (24). To the Cuban-American narrators in these novels, present-day Cuba is an enigma. The "real" Cuba, these texts suggests, exists in the realm of the imagination, in the stuff of dreams and memories, or in the undecipherable texts and silenced voices of her history. Politically isolated, its people scattered and divided, Communist Cuba as represented in these novels is only vaguely familiar--a distant relative whose features resemble your own but with whom you can not or will not identify. Cuba's Spanish legacy thus holds a seductive power: it is the thread that links these authors to their heritage.
In Engle's Skywriting, contemporary Cuba is a strange land inhabited by soldiers, secret police, prostitutes, tourists, and desperate young men carrying inner tubes. Engle's protagonist, Carmen Peregrin, confronts a Cuban reality that everyone seems to want to escape. It is a present-day Cuba that Carmen can only "barely imagine," though she claims to have seen it: "the weary, sorrowful eyes, the silent gestures and whispered conversations, the hunger, the stoic dreams hidden beneath slogans and parables and jests" (43). Against this stifling reality, Carmen is allowed a rare, intimate glimpse of the past. A dreamy young woman who imagines conversations with a Cuban half-brother whom she has never met, Carmen is the child of a bigamist Cuban father and an eccentric American mother. Raised in the California desert, she has never set eyes on her father or on the land of his birth, yet claims that she "was born homesick," and "yearned for a wild place where I once belonged and for lost memories, for memories which are not my own" (2). This longing takes her to Cuba, where she meets her half-brother only to lose him again when he sets off on a raft bound for the U.S. Before he is captured and imprisoned by Cuban authorities for attempting to escape the island, Camilo gives his sister a package to be opened upon her return to the States. This package--a medieval manuscript written by their Spanish forefather and translated into modern Spanish by their father--chronicles a personal and national history. Carmen's decision to read the text and thus establish her link to Cuba marks the arrival of "the time for feeling Cuban" (85). She senses that she will be transformed by this chronicle of memories, for "it was my own ancestor hidden by time, about to be uncovered, revealed, imagined, remembered" (87).
In "Narrating Memory," Terry Dehay argues that "remembering is the process of reclaiming and protecting a past often suppressed by the dominant culture . . . as re-envisioning, it is essential in the process of gaining control over one's life" (216-17). Thus memory serves as an anchor, as the means to dream one's own history and forge an identity. Yet the moment Carmen opens the book and begins to read her forefather's inscription, she initiates a journey of self-discovery that actually leads back to his story--to the account of a Spaniard whose acts of love and conquest would shape the course of her story. Carmen's father, a historian, had been assassinated before she was born, presumably at the command of Fidel Castro. He had devoted years of his life to tracing "the lineage of [the] Peregrin family from Conqueror and Conquered to Communist and exile. . . .the ancestry of censorship from the Inquisition to State Security" (3). Appended by their father's own modern history, the smuggled manuscript establishes parallels across time that link colonial and postcolonial conditions of conquest and exile. As a document that records the family's and Cuba's tempestuous history, it is also politically charged. Carmen realizes that the manuscript is a powerful indictment against tyrannies past and present. The chronicle represented a "meticulous and extensive collection of documented outrages, atrocities, and absurdities."
Like the chronicle itself, Engel’s novel ostensibly offers a counter-narrative--an attempt to resist authority and give voice to silenced histories. While this resistance to empires past and present is registered in various ways throughout the novel, Spain is the subtext that consistently problematizes Cuban identity and subverts its emancipatory rhetoric. It is the voice that continues to narrate the past and shape the collective memory. We learn, for example, that Jose Marti, father of Cuban Independence from Spain, once wrote "a poem about hating the sea because . . . it brought tyrants from Spain" (49). Yet, the reader also learns that Marti's "own parents were born in Spain" (49). Marti's poem, quoted in the novel, is a denunciation of Spanish conquest; yet it also suggests the impossibility of adopting the tactic frequently employed in colonial discourse: Spain cannot be constructed as objectified Other, cannot be fully alienated and dispossessed. For Marti—and by extension, for Carmen, to despise the sea for bringing the Spanish to Cuba, is to sever his own link to a past--to figuratively "kill the father" to save the patria. Marti’s bitter rejection of the "Spanish tyrants" is informed by the knowledge that his Cuban self exists precisely because of that ancestral journey from Spain.
On the other hand, the novel suggests that Castro's "New Society" is simply an inferior, modern imitation of an Old World order--a revised version of a Spanish text. We are told that Castro attended the Olympics in Barcelona, where "he'd had a chance to meet his own long-lost cousins in Galicia" (49). The revolutionary Cuban leader who renounces imperialism in marathon speeches, is himself the son of a Spanish-born father. Carmen notices, for instance, that the crowd at a Havana concert she attends is comprised of the island's "upper class, the Commander's loyalists" (54). Remarking on the "studied elegance" of the audience members, she concludes, "We could have been surrounded by eighteenth-century noblemen and their ladies instead of Communist Party members" (55). Ironically, Camilo's mother--despite her aversion to Castro--considers his revolution a "war of liberation." Carmen notes that Marisol, Camilo's mother, "still hated the Commander's tyrannical predecessor enough to remember the war against him as an act of courage and emancipation" (66). Clearly, the novel suggests, yesterday's tyrant may well give birth to tomorrow's liberator.
In fact, the Peregrin family chronicler had journeyed to Cuba to escape the Spanish Inquisition, vowing to "never go back to Spain, not even if he, like the men of biblical times, were to live five hundred years" (121). Yet Vicente perpetuates a cycle of tyranny begun by his forefathers and reenacted throughout Cuba's history, confessing "to inquisitions of his own, to the torturing of islanders during his searches for pearl beds and lands of spice" (137). The chain of events sparked by that first voyage (the family name itself connotes a traveler) leads to the extinction of the native tribes, but it also founds the Peregrin family line. Vicente's marriage to a native Indian woman produces the first generation of Creole offspring and presumably fulfills destiny. "[B]efore we, the Extreme Ones, came to Cuba," Vicente writes, "the timid people of this generous land dreamed with us, dreaming peacefully with our hollow ships and our giant horse dogs, and with our shining armor and thundering spears of fire" (113). As chronicler, it is Vicente who tells their story, while his native wife eventually refuses to speak and escapes into madness.
Though Vicente severs his ties to Spain in search of his destiny, Carmen longs for connection. Camilo represents her first link to the past, and the manuscript ostensibly serves to unite and instruct the siblings. As patrimony, the text grants both of them the chance to claim a history and a father. Camilo’s letter, tucked between the pages of the chronicle, urges his sister to read the manuscript and see the link between his own desperate attempt to escape on a raft and their forefather's escape to Cuba. He pleads with her to "think of our ancestor Vicente Peregrin, who left his native Extremadura. . . . Think how much longer was his journey, how much less certain of success. When he set sail from Spain, fleeing the claws of the Inquisition, he didn't know whether his ship would reach the imagined refuge of Antilia" (100). Camilo's impassioned plea for his forefather is the plea of a son who longs to restore his faith in the reckless deeds of valiant fathers. For it is a paternal conquistador that the text reveals, a man who begins his chronicle with the words, "I son of Valor and Dignity, do hereby set my humble plume to the daunting task of justifying my status as weary renegade and beleaguered fugitive in this green wilderness" (113). But to the fatherless Carmen and Camilo--raised by mothers who would never remarry or love again--it is a father's voice that speaks through time to justify and be forgiven for his crimes. Vicente’s own son "swears he will refer to me only as father when I am gone, and never by name, since he holds against me still that betrayal of his mother" (144). Thus the chronicle represents, in Vicente's own words, the inheritance he leaves for his "half-breed descendants" (144).
Similarly, the Spanish museum curator who reads the manuscript lends authenticity to this mythology of conquest. He describes the conquistadors as "dashing cavaliers, charging into battle behind their patron saint Santiago." The curator offers a romanticized, chivalric version of conquest filtered through images of noblemen, heroes and idealists "clinging to lofty goals and enchanted visions" (189). He tells Carmen,
They were fearless . . . trained to live off whatever booty they could seize. These were men who were just emerging from nearly eight centuries of a defensive war against the conquering Moors. . . .Their conquest of the Americas was a natural outgrowth of their experience as the conquered. . . . It's not so surprising, is it, that they raped, pillaged, enslaved, and demanded tribute? (188)
This version of history offers the young Carmen a fulfilling vision of her own
past; preserving this manuscript assumes a profound significance in her dreamer's imagination. She looks to the chronicle as a sign of continuity and purpose in the midst of the troubled and uncertain Cuba that exists in the reality of the present.
Interestingly, the manuscript ultimately also provides the means to free Camilo from prison and reunite the family. It forges a link in the present between the Spanish branch of the family tree and Vicente's Creole offspring. The money needed to bribe Camilo's captors and earn his freedom comes from wealthy relatives in Spain--the heirs to a fortune stolen from Vicente by his own brother. Camilo's girlfriend Alina travels to Spain and convinces his Spanish cousins that "they and Camilo were still connected after nearly five centuries. She . . . showed them how none of the intervening migrations, conquests, revolutions, or revisions of history had ever really separated them at all" (165). This resolution tidily reunites the Peregrin family and completes Carmen's search for a history. She writes, "Hearing Alina's voice streaming across the Atlantic as she praised the reckless courage of my Spanish cousins, I felt connected to her and to them, these cousins five centuries removed" (166).
In Garcia's Dreaming in Cuban the figure of the Spaniard provides an alternative to the harsh realities of the present and serves as a memorable link to the past. The Cuban American protagonist of the novel is a rebellious young woman raised in New York City by her Cuban-exile parents: a Commie-loathing, entrepreneurial powerhouse of a mother and a passive, ineffective father. Pilar's only spiritual link to family or kinship exists through her maternal grandmother, Celia, whom she has not seen since she left Cuba as a toddler. Unlike Pilar's mother, Celia has chosen to remain in Cuba and is a loyal Fidelista. Each morning the old woman sits in her wicker swing on her beach house porch with binoculars, scrutinizing the ocean in search of invading gusano traitors from Miami. She worships el Lider, Fidel Castro, and communicates telepathically with her distant granddaughter. The bond that exists between Celia and Pilar transcends time and boundaries. Like Carmen in Engle's Skywriting, Pilar is a mystical young woman who claims she can "remember everything that's happened to me since I was a baby, even word-for-word conversations" (26). She hears her grandmother speaking to her each night before she falls asleep, listening to Celia's stories about her life and Cuba. What little history she knows, Pilar claims to have heard from her father, who taught her that "Spaniards wiped out more Indians with smallpox than with muskets" (28). Pilar resents that history books only recount "one damn battle after another" (28). She remarks, "Most of what I've learned that's important I've learned on my own, or from my grandmother" (28). Longing to be reunited with Celia, Pilar wonders how "life would have been if I'd stayed with her" (32). Celia represents Pilar’s spiritual and familial link to Cuba, “If I could only see Abuela Celia again,” she claims, “I’d know where I belonged” (58).
Ironically, Celia's own life has been harnessed by a series of romances--first with a Spanish lover who abandoned her, then with a Cuban husband who neglected her. Through a third-person narrator, we learn that Celia "has spent her entire life waiting for others, for something or other to happen. Waiting for her lover to return from Spain. . . . Waiting for her husband to leave on his business trips so she could play Debussy on the piano" (35). She pines after two mystified objects of desire--male figures that function in the text as metonyms for a romance of conquest. For Celia's life has revolved around related personal obsessions that carry political significance: an unrequited love and a zealous commitment to Fidel. Each chronicles Celia's search for fulfillment and self-validation. Each also serves as an outlet for her idealistic yearnings. If, as Mary Vasquez has suggested, Celia is “a prosopopoeic representation of the island,” then she is a decidedly colonized Cuba, a nation “caught in the folds of time” (24). Vasquez notes that Celia seeks to “arrest the past and insert herself into it, with both she and the content of that past pristine and simultaneously changed and unchanged” (24). Indeed, “the past that she would fix permanently outside the ravages of time is a rewritten one” (24). Celia’s central memory—that of the Spaniard whom she loved and lost—thus binds her (and by extension, Cuba itself) to a mythified image of the past. As Celia herself cautions us, “Memory is a skilled seducer” (97).
For twenty-five years, beginning in 1934, Celia wrote letters to her absent Spanish lover and sealed them in a satin chest stored beneath her bed. Isabel Alvarez-Borland argues that Celia’s letters serve as “texts within the text,” as they will ultimately become part of Pilar’s diary. More significantly, they possess the status of history, as “Celia will pass on to Pilar the family history which is contained in the unmailed letters” (Alvarez-Boland 7). The letters begin with appeals, begging for his return. "Without you," Celia writes, "what is there to celebrate?" (37). She continues to write throughout her marriage to Jorge del Pino, a man who travels on business for months at a time. The domestic arrangement she endures suggests Celia's class and gender status in pre-Revolution Cuba: she is confined to the house they share with her wealthy in-laws, the Almeidas. Celia's mother-in-law, a domineering, scornful woman who resents her son's lowly bride, monitors Celia's every move. Yet Celia knows that each night her mother-in-law sat at the dressing table “and rubbed whitening cream into [her] dark, freckled face,” anxious “to remove any evidence of her mulatto blood” (41). Interestingly, this discriminatory anxiety is expressed in reverse, for it is the darker Ameidas who shun the white Celia. As William Luis suggests in his reading of the novel, Celia's resulting family trauma, "perhaps of Spanish origins," takes on racial and national characteristics; unable to join her Spanish lover in Granada, Celia's strained relationship with her in-laws alludes to "the racial complexity of Cuban society" (211). In his view, Celia's predicament reflects the racial and national characteristics imbedded in the "master code" of Cuban society. While Luis does not elaborate on this aspect in his analysis, he does hint at the link between Celia's ungratified desire for her Spanish lover and the "inferior" life to which she is resigned beside her darker-skinned husband and his abusive family.
Celia becomes, figuratively, a child controlled by the tight reins of a cold and
unloving parent. Her resigned endurance is particularly significant given that she will later assume an aggressive, even militant stance in defense of the Cuban Revolution. The pre-Castro Celia, however, is a submissive, self-denying young woman who allows her subjugation and seems resigned to her miserable lot. During her first pregnancy, she wishes for a boy, "a son who could make his way in the world" (42). She opts to play her hand with fate--deciding that if she had a son she would "leave Jorge and sail to Spain, to Granada. She would dance flamenco, her skirts whipping a thousand crimson lights" (43). Then one day her Spanish lover "would enter her club, walk onstage, and kiss her deeply to violent guitars" (42). But when she delivers a girl, she is bound by the rules of her own game to remain passive--and in Cuba.
Celia’s romantic nature pines for the splendid image she retains of Gustavo, her lost Spanish lover. She is also partial to the poetry of Federico Garcia Lorca, clinging passionately to the memory of his lecture in Havana. The young Celia had “listened, entranced, to his sonorous voice as he played the sad songs of the gypsies,” and spoke of the “primitive flamenco from his native Andulusia, a region enriched by Moorish invaders” (95). Compared to these powerful images of a rich cultural and emotional life, Celia’s own surroundings appear ghostly—devoid of splendor or purpose. They represent, as the title of the first section of the novel implies, “ordinary seductions.” She writes in one of her treasured letters to Gustavo: “If I was born to live on an island, then I’m grateful for one thing: that the tides rearrange the borders. At least I have the illusion of change, of possibility. To be locked within boundaries plotted by priests and politicians would be the only thing more intolerable” (99).
Celia’s letters to Gustavo cease on the eve of the Cuban Revolution. Her avid devotion to Fidel suggests that she exchanges one mythology for another: in 1953 she had described the rebel Fidel in a letter to Gustavo: “Their leader is a young lawyer, like you were once, Gustavo, idealistic and self-assured” (163). Unable to act upon her own history and define herself independent of another, Celia looks to a new idol to worship--a new colonial master to serve. After attending one of Fidel's speeches, "Celia makes a decision. Ten years or twenty, whatever she has left, she will devote to El Lider, give herself to his revolution" (44). Later, she will fantasize about Fidel, imagine herself “feted at the palace, serenaded by a brass orchestra, seduced by el Lider himself on a red velvet divan” (3). As Vasquez points out, Celia “has stopped national time at the moment of this regime’s triumph, a device that obviates the need to record, assess, and finally judge its history” (25). Perhaps, through her role in the “new society” produced by the Revolution, Celia--like Cuba itself—has shed the yoke of her past and begun to create her own history. Or perhaps, both have simply submitted to a new master.
Cuba's 1959 Revolution proclaimed the island's autonomy from U.S. neocolonialism and initiated a program of self-definition that would officially emphasize Cuba’s African roots. Yet in the novel, this heritage barely exists--it only appears in relation to santeria--an Afro-Cuban religion associated in the Anglo mind with superstition and ritual sacrifice. In Dreaming in Cuban, santeria is reduced to exotic spectacle. First, it is associated with the tormented and delusional Felicia—who is initiated into the faith early in the novel—and later with Pilar—who “miraculously” recovers her telepathic link to Celia after she visits a local botanica. If, as Jacqueline Stefanko argues, this brief excursion into santeria registers the moment when Pilar “reconnects with her Afro-Cuban heritage,” it is a moment inscribed by a reductive view of Africa as Other.
As ethnic writers, Garcia and Engle attempt to negotiate what Kathleen Brogan has called "the murky forces that help shape identity" (156). Their texts express ambivalence towards the alien and alluring homeland they barely know, and towards the women who share its burdens. While Garcia and Engle attempt to shed the yokes of the past and dream new stories, their narratives suggest that our stories, desires, aspirations—our imagined selves and cultural memories—still reflect images gleaned from a colonial history. It is a history that shapes imagination and mediates identity. It lends enduring images that continue to displace other, equally valid, historical perspectives. As Celia’s daughter, Felicia, reminds us, “Imagination, like memory, can transform lies to truth” (88). In these Cuban-American texts, the colony is remembered—not as a substantial, physical presence, but as an intangible, elusive set of images and reflections that betray the subtle biases and secret longings we are still heir to. It is as if, long after the death of the last conquistador, we still pine after images of lost lovers and absent fathers.
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Mendible is Associate Professor in the College of Arts and Sciences
at Florida Gulf Coast University.