From Alienation to Reconciliation in the Novels of Cristina Garcia

By Payant, Katherine B. | MELUS, Fall 2001 | Go to article overview

From Alienation to Reconciliation in the Novels of Cristina Garcia


Payant, Katherine B., MELUS


In Life on the Hyphen: The Cuban-American Way (1995), Gustavo Perez Firmat speaks of the "1.5 ers," that generation of Cuban-Americans who were children at the time of migration, but grew into adults in the United States. (1) They feel fully comfortable in neither culture but are able to circulate effectively in both. Unlike their parents, who will never be North Americans, they will never be Cubans. As Firmat says, "Cuba is an enduring, perhaps an endearing fiction. Cuba is for them as ethereal as the smoke and as persistent as the smell of their grandfather's cigars" (5). For this uprooted generation, fiction can provide a home of sorts, a place to explore the meaning of the past, and one's personal place in it and the present. Cuban-American poet Ricardo Pau-Llosa has said that "the exile knows his place, and that place is the imagination" (qtd. in Firmat 10).

Though Cristina Garcia's parents left shortly after the revolution, it is probably inaccurate to describe her as an exile. Born in 1958, she does not remember the revolution and has lived almost all of her life as a Cuban-American. Nevertheless, despite her early departure from Cuba, Garcia has described her childhood as "bifurcated," the sort of hyphenated existence of which Firmat speaks. Living her public life in a Brooklyn neighborhood populated by white ethnics, her Cuban background did not seem that relevant to her, but at home she felt Cuban because her mother, who recognized the connection between language and culture, insisted on Spanish. As Garcia matured, her sense of Cuban identity, a "family affair," became "very important" to her ("And There Is" 102).

A 1984 trip to the island to visit her mother's family, supporters of Castro, focused her interest on her identity and larger questions of history and politics, opening up the complexities of the Cuban revolution. Before that visit, she had viewed the Cuban situation in the unambiguous black and white of many Cuban-Americans ("And There Is" 104; "A Fish Swims" 65). Paradoxically, by meeting the other side of her family and immersing herself in the personal, she began to see larger sociopolitical contexts of being Cuban and began thinking about how historical events affect individuals and families ("And There Is" 107; "A Fish Swims" 71). Hearing stories from her grandmother, who lived in a house on the beach similar to Celia del Pino's in Dreaming in Cuban, she became especially interested in how such events affected women's relationships. As many feminist writers have alleged, Garcia believes that "traditional history obviates women and the evolution of home, family, and society" and concentrates instead on wars and the doings of men ("And There Is" 107).

Another event affecting Garcia's fiction was working for Time magazine in Miami. Here she met the Cuban-American community for the first time and felt very alienated from them. Accused of being a communist because she was a Democrat, she became convinced that others besides right-wing extremists need to speak as Cuban-Americans in order to heal the profound rifts created by the revolution. According to her and many other Cuban-American writers, the loud voices do not necessarily represent the dominant Cuban-American viewpoint. (2) For example, some would like to see the blockade lifted and to see more dialogue with the Castro regime and more tolerance in the exile community.

This call for dialogue and tolerance is reflected in the work of other Cuban-American writers and scholars, such as Ruth Behar, whose recent anthology by Cuban-Americans and Cubans attempts to "build bridges" between the extreme views of right and left. Behar believes that Cubans need "a nuanced and complex view of how Cubans on the island and in the diaspora give meaning to their lives, their identity, and their culture in the aftermath of a battle that has split the nation at the root" (2). Certainly Garcia's work gives that nuanced and complex view that could bring about the reconciliation called for by Behar. …

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