Dirty Girls, German Shepherds, and Puerto Rican Independentistas
Dirty Girls, German Shepherds, and Puerto Rican Independentistas
“The Latino Imaginary” and the Case of Cuba
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter discusses and addresses the sometimes uneasy fit that Cuban Americans have historically had with the imagined “Latino” collective. It looks at the ways in which various Cuban American writers—including Cristina Garcia, Achy Obejas, Margarita Engle, and Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez—have explicitly attempted or, as in Engle's case, more implicitly attempted, to address and negotiate a relationship between Cuban Americans and a panethnic Latino whole.
As we have seen in the previous chapter, the implicit assumption that Latino/a identity as a whole is characterized by a resistant, oppositional stance has historically permeated much of Latino studies. The notion of latinidad, David Román and Alberto Sandoval have observed, often “circulates as a critical shorthand valorizing seemingly authentic cultural practices that challenge both colonial and imperialist U.S. ideologies in North and South America” (558). In 1990 Ramón Saldívar's groundbreaking Chicano Narrative took up just such an argument with regard to Chicano literature in particular;1 Saldívar's contention that Chicano narratives are “resistant ideological forces in their own right” (7) has influenced a wave of subsequent criticism on Latino literature more generally, such that, if the assumption that Latino/a writing is always resistant is not always explicitly stated, nevertheless, critics show no interest in discussing texts which may not fit this paradigm.2 For example, in Postmodern Cross-Culturalism and Politicization in U.S. Latina Literature, Mujčinovićgroups texts which “engage in oppositional forms of enunciation, contesting and deconstructing dominant social discourses in order to ensure a progressive transfiguration and emancipation of the individual and the communal” (4). In Reading U.S. Latina Writers, Quintana describes the emergence of “an alternative Latina vision, which in essence synthesized issues relevant to both civil rights and women's liberation,” and offers her collection of essays as an effort “to help fulfill U.S. Latina writers' visions of telling stories that will help liberate those who have been left behind” (1–2). (Less-liberating stories need not apply.) In Dance between Two Cultures Luis writes that Latinos “articulate a differentiated discourse; that is, an antidiscourse to the discourse of power, similar to that of blacks and slaves” (285). In a call for papers, the journal Works and Days invited submissions for a special issue on “Asian American, African American, and Latino/a American Cultural Criticisms,” which once again reveals the continuing presumption that Latino/a cultural production will inevitably be “counter-hegemonic,” “challenge the mainstream,” and engage (p.162) in “criticisms of whiteness, racialization, American Empire, imperialism, neo-colonialism, global capitalism, and so forth” (“Call for Papers”).
In a more sophisticated vein, Allatson, in Latino Dreams, rightly notes the continuing assumption within Latino studies that “all Latinos can be placed under the subaltern rubric” (42) and declares his intent “to avoid the tendency to regard Latino narratives as invariably oppositional to majoritarian imaginations [and to celebrate] cultural heterogeneity as cultural resistance or counter-hegemonic success” (45). Yet Allatson's main lines of inquiry continue to be centered on “the resistant capacities of cultural production”: “What narrative tactics are mobilized against the U.S.A. and its dominant myths [… ?] What is at stake for Latino cultural politics in the narration of alternatives to (or mobilities against) the ‘American’ Dream?” (13). In Allatson's more nuanced approach, “Latino counter-discursive ambitions” (21) can be thwarted by “moments of hegemonic complicity” (53), but the ambitions are still more or less taken for granted.
Anthologies, which inevitably serve the function of presenting critical constructs of the field for a general audience, have on more than one occasion reified the paradigm of the oppositionality of Latino literature.3 In his introduction to Currents from the Dancing River, for example, Ray Gonzalez asserts that, “[A]lthough cultural differences remain between Mexican Americans, Puerto Ricans in the United States, and Cuban Americans, Latino writers are coming together in a cohesive […] whole” which is characterized by (among other things) a “timeless struggle for social justice” (xiii-xiv; emphasis added). And Nicolás Kanellos introduces Hispanic American Literature (1995) by affirming that writers such as Tomás Rivera and Rolando Hinojosa “led the way in creating a working-class identity and aesthetic for all Hispanic writers in the United States” (4; emphasis added).4
In his discussion of U.S. Latino literature in From Bomba to Hip-Hop, Juan Flores skirts the pitfalls of some of these critical commentaries because he insists that “[t]he adequacy of the embattled ‘Latinơ or Hispanic’ concept hinges on its inclusiveness toward the full range of social experiences and identities” (164; emphasis added). Flores, instead, details two different trajectories of Latino literary canon formation:5 “The difference, I would suggest, […] lies in the differential positioning of the varied Latino groups in the prevailing structures of power and domination within the United States and internationally. Those whose collective identities in the United States were constituted by a long-standing history of conquest and colonization [i.e., Mexicans and Puerto Ricans] generate a literary expression which contrasts with that of comparatively recent arrivals from countries with less direct ties to U.S. imperial power [i.e., Cubans and Dominicans]” (From Bomba 176). Flores argues that Ilan Stavans and Gustavo Pérez Firmat have been the key players in the construction of (p.163) a Latino “canon” which privileges texts with a more middle-class, assimilationist perspective. (He includes among these the novels of Oscar Hijuelos, Julia Alvarez, and Cristina García.) Flores particularly scorns what he sees as Stavans's celebration of the “demise of the idea of Latino culture as resistance” (From Bomba 173).6 But rather than calling the more “assimilationist” texts not rightfully Latino, Flores simply makes clear his own preference for the more “resistant” tradition.
Yet Flores, who is more sensitive to the differences among the various Latino populations than many previous critics, nevertheless also falls under the magnetic influence of the resistant and oppositional (i.e., “Left”) Latino model. The pitfalls that Flores avoids in his chapter on Latino literature resurface in the following chapter, “The Latino Imaginary.” Flores is now concerned with the question of how the groups of different national origin imaginatively “negotiate their relation to some more embracing ‘Latino’ or ‘Hispanic’ composite” (From Bomba 197). But the model he reverts to in sketching out this “composite” is once again resistant, with a markedly leftist orientation: Latinos' mobilization efforts are “directed first of all toward recognition and justice in this society […]. The Latino imaginary infuses the clamor for civil rights with a claim to sovereignty on an international scale; retribution involves reversing the history of conquest and subordination” (From Bomba 200).
The problem perhaps is Flores's use of the word “the,” as though there is only one Latino imaginary, whereas in his earlier chapter on Latino literature, there is clearly more than one, and they are often competing and at odds with each other. “Hybridity” and hyphenation, for example, are certainly a part of the current constellation of Latino/a imaginaries, and yet as Flores points out, they are by no means necessarily resistant and oppositional—when posited, for example, as a hyphen that is an equals sign (as Pérez Firmat does). It is certainly possible, as we have seen in the Introduction, to imagine a relationship to a panethnic Latino identity based not on civil rights and “reversing the history of conquest” but on supposed primordial ties suggested by a “common culture” and language which are, presumably, the products of conquest (by the Spanish). The term “imaginary” bears the weight of a resistance paradigm better than “Latino” does, but ultimately it, too, suggests a singular model for being (or imagining being) Hispanic.
The Cuban exile community in the United States has, needless to say, posed an interesting problem for this construction of Latino ethnicity. This group cannot be easily made to fit with the “Latino imaginary” as Flores (and others) have delineated it; as is well known, Cuban American politics are substantially more conservative than those of Mexican Americans or Nuyoricans (who, as we have seen, have shaped the paradigm for subsequent Latino populations). The Pew Hispanic Center reports, for example, that, of Latinos of Mexican (p.164) origin who were registered to vote in 2004, 47 percent identified as Democrats and only 18 percent as Republicans; 50 percent of registered Puerto Ricans identified as Democrats, 17 percent as Republicans. For registered Cuban Americans the numbers were reversed: 52 percent claimed Republican affiliation and only 17 percent identified as Democrats (“2004 National Survey”).7
As Felix Padilla notes in his early study of formations of Latino solidarity, instrumental understandings of Latino ethnicity are more likely to link Puerto Ricans and Mexican Americans while excluding Cuban Americans. Padilla cites one respondent who worried about the panethnic category being extended to Cubans: “[W]e need to be concerned with the term Latino or Hispanic because that includes everybody. It includes the Cubans, […] and I have always felt that the struggle has been a Chicano-Boricua struggle” (76). Another respondent commented: “I think that Mexican Americans and Puerto Ricans are the two major groups encompassing the Hispanics in the United States. We are the targets of programs such as Affirmative Action because we are so severely disadvantaged. […] The Cubans who came here have all the tools to make it. […] So from that point of view the Cubans are not the target group, they are not disadvantaged, they are not discriminated against. The Hispanic is low income and severely disadvantaged” (77).
In these earlier formulations of “Hispanic” identity, as we can see, that identity was imagined strictly on a Puerto Rican and Mexican American paradigm, so that Cuban immigrants, marked by substantial economic and other demographic differences from the other “Hispanic” groups,8 sometimes got left out of the collective group identity entirely—at least by Chicanos and Puerto Ricans themselves. (It is worth noting that such a construct implicitly challenges the notion that the Spanish language serves as an essential, underlying common denominator for Latinos, as discussed in the Introduction; in this construction Spanish is by no means sufficient—or perhaps even necessary—to create a sense of unity.) As Flores has more recently noted, the “legendary” Puerto Rican singer Pedro Ortiz Dávila (“Davilita”), who sang of the sisterhood of “las Antillas”—Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Dominican Republic—“might have been more befuddled had he reflected on ‘las islas hermanas’ at a time closer to our own, after the Cuban Revolution […]. His concern over the divergent historical destinies of his three related islands might have reached a crisis pitch had he pondered the three emigrant enclaves that had taken such divergent shapes in the United States at the century's end” (“Islands and Enclaves” 60–62).
The notion of the Cuban enclave as a population separate indeed from other Latinos has continued to pop up in various forms. Consider, for example, the commentary of prominent Chicano scholar Rodolfo F. Acuña, author of the (p.165) seminal book Occupied America: The Chicano's Struggle toward Liberation (1972; reprinted as Occupied America: A History of Chicanos), during the controversy over Elián González. Noting “the growing differences between Cuban Americans and other Latino American groups,” Acuña insists that “[m]any Latinos are indeed […] questioning whether Cuban Americans as a group have suffered a history of discrimination in the United States similar to that of Mexicans or Puerto Ricans. Cuban Americans have become a minority through the stretch of the ‘Hispanic label,’ which has allowed them entitlements usually reserved for Americans who suffered a history of discrimination” (“Miami Myth Machine”).
These efforts (both earlier and more recent) to draw a more circumscribed line around the “Hispanic” group illustrate De Genova and Ramos-Zayas's point that “one of the central conflicts over the constitution of […] Latinidad ultimately involves the racialized stigma of an abject ‘minority’ status that is unevenly distributed among distinct Latino groups” (20). The significant disparities among the groups lead to “[a] politics of inclusion and exclusion [that generates] competing productions of who can be counted as ‘authentic’ or ‘legitimate’ Latinos” (20).
The reverse side in this struggle over identifying who might count as “Hispanic” is the role of the federal government:
Historically, as De Genova and Ramos-Zayas underscore, Cuban Americans have held more conservative positions than their other “Hispanic” counterparts (e.g., on issues such as U.S. intervention in Latin America, especially in support of brutal but “anti-Communist” regimes), complicating the “Latino imaginary” that Flores describes.9
[T]he invention of “Hispanic” homogeneity […] created an unprecedented opportunity for the numerically small but remarkably influential community of Cuban exiles (who were predominantly from elite or professional middle-class backgrounds, racially white-identified, politically conservative) to mobilize their newfound “Hispanic” identity as a platform […]. Thus, against Chicano and Puerto Rican affirmations of indigenous and national identities that often embraced Third World anticolonial nationalist or Marxist theories of national self-determination, anti-Castro Cubans supplied a vociferous “Hispanic” expression of Cold War-era anticommunism that was resolute in its newfound allegiance to U.S. nationalism and capitalism. (De Genova and Ramos-Zayas 17–18)
Aware of this difficulty for his formulation, Flores suggests that “today even many Cuban Americans, recent arrivals and long-standing citizens alike, are finding the red carpets and gold-paved streets illusory at best” (From Bomba 199) and goes from there to assert, “For the Latino imaginary, even when the (p.166) relatively ‘privileged’ Cuban Americans are reckoned in, rests on the recognition of ongoing oppression and discrimination, racism and exploitation, closed doors and patrolled borders” (From Bomba 199)10—surely a highly arguable claim, even about the Latino population as a whole, not to mention Cuban Americans. According to the Pew Hispanic Center, for instance, while 46 percent of registered Latino Democrats in 2004 said “that discrimination is a major problem for Latinos” (even this is not a majority), only 29 percent of Republicans did (“2004 National Survey” 3). In the wake of the heated policy debates over immigration in 2006, Latinos were more likely (58 percent) to see discrimination as a major problem. But while a majority of those who identified as Democrats felt that increased discrimination had stemmed from the immigration debates (57 percent), those who identified as Republicans were significantly less likely (44 percent) to feel this way (Suro and Escobar 4, 6). These findings suggest some substantial, and continuing, divergence within the Latino population on the issues of “oppression and discrimination, racism and exploitation,” with Cuban American Republicans not nearly as likely to see a significant problem.11
What is ultimately most interesting about the “Latino imaginary” is that it reflects not so much what Latinos collectively imagine about issues as what various commentators—both Latino and non-Latino (and perhaps mainstream society as a whole)—imagine that Latinos imagine about those issues. Especially in the wake of the 2004 presidential elections (in which Latinos, including non-Cubans, shifted toward Republican candidate George W. Bush in substantial numbers),12 we cannot make generalizing statements about what Latinos as a whole imagine.13 But the pervasive critical construct of a Left “Latino imaginary”—especially in literary studies—lingers.
Given that most prominent Cuban American writers today are in the United States as a product—direct or indirect—of Castro's socialist revolution, it is worth noting that, in the imaginary of non-Cuban Latino writers, that revolution has often been represented sympathetically (even, it might be noted, by those authors whom Flores views as assimilationist rather than oppositional). For example, in Dominican American author Julia Alvarez's second novel In the Time of the Butterflies, about the resistance movement in the Dominican Republic against dictator Rafael Trujillo, Castro's revolution provides inspiration to the movement (150).14
In Alvarez's fourth novel, In the Name of Salomé, which again takes up the themes of national commitment, resistance to oppression, and the building of a homeland, Camila Ureña, a Dominican American professor and the daughter of famed Dominican national poet Salomé Ureña, retires from Vassar College and goes to live in Cuba in 1960 so that she can be part of “patria” building during Castro's revolution. Castro is treated somewhat more ambivalently in (p.167) this novel, with one of Camila's nieces arguing, years later, “I don't think Castro is the answer,” and Camila responding, “It was wrong to think there was an answer in the first place, dear.” She goes on to say, “It's continuing to struggle to create the country we dream of that makes a patria out of the land under our feet” (350). Yet if Castro is not the “answer,” his revolution is still seen as part of the historical “struggle” for homeland. While on a return trip to the Dominican Republic late in her life, Camila encounters an illiterate Dominican boy working in a graveyard and thinks to herself, “In Cuba, he would know how to read. He would not be picking weeds on a schoolday” (352). Thus Camila—and Alvarez herself—credits the educational reforms of Castro's regime while also acknowledging its failures.
In contrast, the most vocal and visible strain of the Cuban exile population (led ideologically by Jorge Mas Canosa until his death in 1997, and, at least until recently, by the Cuban American National Foundation, which he founded) is vehemently anti-Communist and politically conservative, taking a stance of non-negotiation with regard to the evils of Castro's regime that seems increasingly anachronistic in today's post-cold war, post-Soviet Union world. (As I discuss in Chapter 4, a dominant Cuban exile narrative depicts Castro as the Satanic despoiler of the previously untroubled Cuban paradise. As of this writing, possible changes in the Cuban regime resulting from Castro's prolonged illness, as well as corresponding changes in Cuban exile discourse about the Cuban homeland, remain to be seen.) While most of the prominent U.S. writers of Cuban descent today are hardly as conservative as this vocal contingent of the Miami Cuban population, it is nevertheless still surely the case that there are very few outright fans of Castro's revolution among them. Thus their writings frequently can be seen to tentatively negotiate a precarious relationship with a larger body of Latino literature that has become identified in much literary criticism with left-wing and third world politics. In this chapter, I examine the ways in which Cuban American writers of various political sensibilities, including Margarita Engle, Elías Miguel Muñoz, Cristina García, Achy Obejas, Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez, and Ana Menéndez, imagine the possibilities of a panethnic Latino/a (or Latin American) identity that might conceivably include Cuban Americans.
Margarita Engle's Skywriting and Singing to Cuba
I begin my discussion of Cuban American writers with Margarita Engle,15 not because her works are the first published, but because of all the writers discussed in this chapter she comes closest to representing the “typical” Cuban exile viewpoint of violent opposition to and demonization of Castro. Engle's reactionary views regarding Castro's regime, however, co-exist with what seem (p.168) to be deliberate efforts to identify her writing as allied with indigenous, working-class, and peasant interests, as well as with Chicano and Latin American history and mythology—as we shall see.16 Thus she proves a remarkably interesting case for exploring the dynamics of Latino/a (literary) identity construction.
Engle's use of symbolism would immediately seem to align her with conservative exile sensibilities: in her second novel, Skywriting, Castro is repeatedly represented as a “bearded demon” (266)—a quite literal demonization—and Cuba as “an island of fanged cannibals and one-eyed titans” (71). Pitted against these forces of evil is Camilo Peregrín, who tries to escape Castro's Cuba on a raft and is caught and imprisoned. The narrator, Camilo's Cuban American half-sister, Carmen—who is visiting Cuba when he tries to make his escape—imagines Camilo as being everywhere accompanied by an angel and as “climb[ing] onto the outstretched hand of God and [being] lifted to His shoulder” (6), thus creating a mythological opposition between the demonic Castro and the saintly Camilo.
How can such a viewpoint be reconciled with the progressive, oppositional, and generally Left-identifying paradigm of Latino literature (and, indeed, of Latino culture more generally)? For Engle, unlike Alvarez, nowhere recognizes possible gains—even limited ones—under socialist Cuban society.17 I would suggest that Engle's novels, fitting as they do so uneasily with much other Latino/a writing—including writing emerging from the Chicano movement, which initially served to define the field—actually work very hard to insert themselves into a Latino/a literary terrain. In the process, they contribute to the continuing construction of Latino/a ethnicity as defined by the interests of the marginalized and oppressed, here and abroad. Mary S. Vásquez notes that “the ideological thrust of Engle's narrative approximates it to the Latin American novels of dictatorship” (“Contrapuntal” 138); this “family resemblance” serves a strategic function, even if it is ultimately misleading. In a move which potentially works to authorize her texts as U.S. Latina, Engle rein scribes anti-Castro Cuban conservatism as a revolutionary movement against a repressive Latin American dictator, in this way aligning it (and herself) with revolutionary politics in Central and South American countries that traditionally have seen themselves as affiliated with and inspired by Castro's revolutionary regime.18 For one thing, Engle strews her novel with “fabulous” images and metaphors (such as the “bearded demon” Castro and his island of cannibals, or the angel Camilo who opposes him), giving it in the process a quite palpable magical realist texture that readers almost invariably associate with, and expect from, both Latin American and U.S. Latino/a literature, as I discuss in Chapter 5. The back cover of Singing to Cuba (1993), Engle's first novel, capitalizes on this connection, describing the book as a “lyrical novel told in the Latin American (p.169) style of magical realism. The magic, but all too real paradox, is a Cuba where the splendor of natural beauty coexists with moral evil.” Skywriting, too, is described as a “a hauntingly beautiful, magical story” in its promotional material.19 As Mary Vásquez notes, Engle “calls upon the Latin American narrative tradition of magic realism to evoke betrayal of the Cuban people” (“Contrapuntal” 137). In Engle's hand, images of angels and devils, magic and myth—in other words, the appearance of what many commentators call “magical realism,” that stock-in-trade marker of “Latino” writing—are called into the service of Castro's demonization.
Meanwhile, Skywriting positions itself as concerned with the hardships of Cuba's peasants under Castro. Camilo's mother, Marisol, recants her former support of Castro's revolution: “I thought the revolution would put shoes on the peasants' feet, food in their mouths. I didn't know it would shred the design of our lives, toss our scraps onto distant shores” (263). (Notably, however, this is the only point in Skywriting at which the economic motivations behind the 1959revolution are addressed or even acknowledged.) Though one may question the telling differentiation between “peasants” and the pronoun “our” (perhaps implying that Marisol's original support was motivated by the hardships of the peasants while her withdrawal of support was spurred by more self-interested factors), such a deconstructive reading is clearly “against the grain” of the passage. The second sentence is obviously supposed to contradict the first—what Marisol “thought” about the benefits for peasants has somehow, the text suggests, been proven wrong. The novel, in other words, works to conceal the split between “the peasants'” interests and the interests of dissident Cubans of the middle and upper classes (although that split creeps insidiously back in) by suggesting that, in fact, the interests of the peasants themselves were not helped but hurt by the revolution (despite initial impressions).20 This strategy is reinforced by the “epilogue” of sorts in Skywriting (purporting to be written in the year 2033), in which we learn that Camilo eventually gave testimony in Geneva which “was instrumental in triggering the process of thought that gradually altered international opinion regarding the Commander, who, until that time, had still been viewed by so many Third-World nations as a ‘savior and culture-hero of mythic proportions’” (281).
Further establishing third world credibility, at several places in both novels Engle engages in a construction of a part “real,” part metaphorical indigenous identity for Cuban dissidents and exiles; indeed, we can read her invocation of indigenousness as operating to affiliate her writing not only with the Latin American third world but also with Chicano/as within the United States, whose self-construction as a people has been strongly tied to a rediscovery and celebration of indigenous roots in opposition to the Spanish colonizers.21 In Singing to Cuba, the (unnamed) narrator's great-uncle Gabriel, who was (p.170) arrested and imprisoned by Castro and whose story is told in flashbacks interwoven with the more contemporary story of his Cuban American great-niece, is represented as having “a sprinkling of Taíno-blood” (50) and as being a repository of the history of the Cuban indigenous—a history which is set up as a parallel to the current situation of the Cuban peasants under Castro: “In Cuba there seemed to be only three choices, tyranny, rebellion or escape. Nothing had changed since the days of the Conquistadores, the slaughtered Indians” (53). Rather unsubtly, Gabriel's grandson is called “Taíno.”
In Skywriting Carmen says of herself and her half-brother, Camilo, that “[w]e're like different primitive tribes” (194), metaphorically conjuring up an entire collective identity of indigenous peoples for each of these individual characters. But Skywriting also posits a historical (not just metaphorical) indigenous ancestry for the characters; in this novel, Engle creates an entire mythology of an indigenous past for Cuba's dissidents—despite the fact that the native inhabitants of Cuba were virtually if not actually annihilated. Camilo Peregrín has entrusted to Carmen the task of smuggling out of Cuba a mysterious package; it turns out that this package, representing their father's life's work, combines documentation of human rights abuses under Castro with an ancient manuscript written by an ancestor of the Peregríns and painstakingly translated by Carmen's father. The manuscript is supposedly the factual chronicle of this ancestor, Vicente Peregrín, a Spaniard who came to Cuba in flight from the Spanish Inquisition, married an indigenous Cuban woman, and thus became the progenitor of the entire clan of Peregríns.
On the one hand, this aspect of the narrative sets up a clear parallel between the family of Cuban dissidents and exiles and Chicanos: both are people born of a mestizaje. As with Mexican and Mexican American stories which recount as myth the union of Spanish colonizer Hernán Cortés and the indigenous woman Malinche, pinpointing there the origins of the Mexican people, the chronicle similarly recounts the seemingly mythical origins of a Cuban mestizaje; the Peregrín ancestor asks, “¿Have the others not sired half-native children? ¿Have they not married the beautiful daughters of the native caciques chieftains of this land, producing handsome red-hued children […]? […] Did Cortés himself not sire the Cuban Indian Catalina?” (124). Thus Vicente Peregrín, one of the forefathers of a “new” mixed race of Cubans, is linked to Hernán Cortés, forefather of the Mexican people—except that Vicente Peregrín is cast in a more positive ideological light, since (unlike Cortés) he is not a colonizer; rather, he is running from the institutional Spanish powers that are also responsible for the conquest of Cuba and the murder of its indigenous inhabitants.
Further, in echoes of the mythical Chicano homeland Aztlán, which has become associated with the actual geographical location of the U.S. Southwest (p.171) but is also sometimes suggestive of the ultimate triumph, yet to come, of Chicanos, Engle posits the mythical land, “Antilia,” corresponding geographically to Cuba but taking on mythical proportions as a refuge from oppression which Cuba has yet to become (154). The family name Peregrín, meaning “pilgrim,” echoes this theme of a wandering people in search of a promised land: “The island seemed full of pilgrims, people wandering through cities and jungles, longing to go home. They were all seeking a promised land, had been seeking it for centuries, imagining triumph as a dream called home. And I was one of them” (239), the narrator tells us. Cuba's people, wandering in search of a homeland that they already physically occupy yet that is not available to them in its mythical form, thus become analogous to the Chicano descendants of ancient, migrating Aztec peoples, seeking to return to a homeland no longer fully available to them, even when they occupy it physically.
In this reconstruction of Cuban history, Castro's regime is a direct descendant of the Spanish Empire, with its intersecting policies of inquisition and colonization that have resulted in the “hanging of Sirena's cousins” (who are of course indigenous) “in groups of thirteen” (128). Accompanying the chronicle of Vicente is Carmen's father's “detailed analysis of attempts to control thought, a track of censorship from the Inquisition to the Commander” (88). We are told that Camilo's imprisonment is “a direct outgrowth of their poisonous Inquisition. […] There was no difference […] between the Holy Brotherhood and State Security, between informers who whispered into ears hidden beneath hoods, and those who whispered to the Neighborhood Committees for Defense of the Revolution” (165–66). In these constructed historical trajectories, the dissidents are the ideological equivalent (as well as the direct descendants) of Sirena's massacred indigenous cousins; Engle disassociates Castro from his public stance of resistance to foreign control (whether Spanish or U.S.) and aligns him instead with the oppressive force of the foreign invaders against the indigenous peoples of Cuba.
It is worth noting that, in constructing her elaborate analogy between Cuba's dissidents and exiles and Latin America's oppressed indigenous, Engle utterly obscures the real, predominant mestizaje in Cuba—that of the Spanish colonizers with the African slaves. As Vásquez observes in her discussion of Singing to Cuba, “Engle, who […] celebrates indigenous Taíno Cubanness, offers little narrative treatment of the island's black population, or of black and mulatto experience”—a fact which, Vásquez notes, is surprising, considering that Engle writes about a “country half of whose inhabitants traditionally have been black” (“Contrapuntal”136). A bit of mythological/metaphorical indigenous blood is apparently acceptable, but not the (actually far more likely) mulatto mixture. While the extinguished indigenous peoples of Cuba are put in the service of a constructed Cuban “mestizo” identity which shares the same (p.172) interests with conservative Cuban exiles, Afro-Cubans are afforded no place in Engle's construction of ethnicity—indeed, are rendered all but invisible.22 The absence in the novel of any significant Afro-Cuban presence attests to Engle's ultimate discomfort with the inclusion of Afro-Cuban heritage in her Cuban mythology.
One place in both texts where we can discern the traces of an Afro-Cuban presence is in Engle's repeated references to Santería, the syncretic Catholic/Yoruban religion whose particular elements are testimony to a history of resistance to Spanish/Catholic colonizers by African slaves23—surely providing rich fodder for metaphorical connections to “resistant” Cuban dissidents and exiles. Santería (much like Haitian Vodou) resulted from “the repressive imposition of the Catholic Church, which acknowledged no other religion,” onto African slaves, who resisted by “syncretiz[ing] their divinities with the Catholic saints,” thus continuing to practice their own beliefs under the “cover” of Catholicism (Barnet, “La Regla” 87). Yet, in Engle's texts, the historical and cultural roots of Santería are utterly obscured. In Skywriting, Santería comes up with reference to Carmen's mother, who “had entertained herself by collecting santería figurines and talismans from cults in the scattered slums surrounding Havana. […] My mother dabbled in the realm of spirits. It was her fatal error. She had been initiated into santero rites […]. She sacrificed animals and fed fruits and flowers into the mouths of statues. Then she met my father and swiftly traded idolatry for ideology, switching her blood rituals and occult Yoruba phrases for the memorized promises of the revolution” (249–50). Far from being represented as a legitimate religious belief system, Santería is “idolatry” (presumably because it detracts from the Christian God) and, as a “fatal error,” is on a par with the sort of “ideology” that resulted in Castro's revolution. (Presumably, Cuban exiles opposed to Castro are ideology-free.)24 Further, Santería worshippers are members of “cults” in “scattered slums,” the racial factors influencing their lower-class status severely repressed (as are the novel's suddenly erupting classist sentiments with regard to Afro-Cubans).
In Singing to Cuba Engle goes even further, equating Santería explicitly with Satan worship, as when the narrator tells her cousin that “there are some […] who believe Fidel received power through a contract with Satan.” He responds, “Well, here there used to be some who thought that. They believed he had some sort of power through santería” (82). The narrator's cousin Miguelito, a credible character who serves as her “informant” on the Cuban situation, dismisses Santería as “the Cuban form of voodoo” (82). In context, this comparison evokes not the common syncretic origins of both belief systems, but, rather, the popular associations in the United States of “voodoo” with a form of “black magic.” (Thus the cultural/historical roots of Vodou are also obscured.) In another comparison of Santería to “voodoo,” the narrator notices a brown (p.173) paper package left on the sidewalk with a chicken's beak sticking out of it, and another cousin tells her, “Santería […]. We are afraid” (111). The narrator tells us that she does not know “whether she was referring to the voodoo-style curse, the secret police, the failing Cuban economy or the tense political situation” (111). Engle is presenting us not with alternatives here, but with metonymic substitutions in which any one thing is equatable with another and all are linked back to Castro; the “black magic” of Santería stands in for and is commensurate with the entire web of sociopolitical effects stemming from Castro's reign.
Engle's stance on Santería is, of course, quite telling. I would argue that, in spite of claims to a mythological indigenous history (which begins to look quite a bit like Piri's brother's claim to Indian blood as a way of denying black blood in Down These Mean Streets), Engle really presents no challenge to constructions of Cubanness as whiteness, particularly by the first wave of Cuban exiles, consisting primarily of upper-and middle-class white Cubans. As I discuss in Chapter, Cuban exiles' assertions of whiteness (in opposition to blackness specifically, rather than to some sort of nebulous indigenousness) were intimately linked to an anti-Communist, anti-Castro stance. Apparently, it is far less threatening for Engle to associate anti-Castro Cuban exiles with an extinct Cuban indigenous population than with a thriving and influential Afro-Cuban population. But in rejecting Santería, Engle reveals just how wide is the gulf between her and writers such as Gloria Anzaldúa and Sandra Cisneros, who embrace the complex, cross-pollinated religious/spiritual structures that hybridity affords them.
Toward the conclusion of Skywriting, the narrator, Carmen, ruminates on the birth of her political consciousness: “I was nearsighted. I had a hard time seeing anyone who wasn't standing right in front of me. I wouldn't be the type to go digging up human rights violations for investigation, or fighting in a jungle because I hoped that someday the children of strangers might receive shoes. The violations and bare feet would have to slap me in the face and shake me before I would notice them” (246). This passage hints at the difficulties Engle faces in fitting a strident anti-Castro sensibility into the dominant critical construction of U.S. Latino/a ethnicity. Carmen seems here to acknowledge her relative indifference to the struggles in other Latin American countries and her inability to “identify” with their refugees. Yet the passage continues to work in the service of Engle's reconstruction of ethnicity by depicting human rights violations and “bare feet” as the same fight; thus there is really no difference between Engle's Skywriting and, say, Tomas Rivera's … Y no se lo tragó la tierra, which documents the poverty-stricken and economically exploitative conditions of Chicano migrant farmworkers. Such an equation obscures the complexity of Castro's regime, in which serious human rights abuses have (p.174) existed side by side with the successful implementation of measures to ensure increased education, health care, affordable housing, and other opportunities for Cuba's poor. Ultimately, I would argue, Engle's reinscription of anti-Castro sentiment as an indigenously rooted, peasant-oriented movement, conveyed through a weave of references and analogies and a magical realist “flavor” that will remind us, presumably, of other Latin American and U.S. Latina/o texts, rings false precisely because it seems to quite actively suppress or elide significant histories of oppressed peoples in Cuba.25 For solidarity claims to be effective and convincing, they must be grounded in an acknowledgment of the specificity of different histories (a point I will return to in my discussion of Ana Menéndez in this chapter, and in Chapter 7.)
Elías Miguel Muñoz's The Greatest Performance
Given the problems with a constructed Latino imaginary that Engle's novels reveal, we may well view The Greatest Performance (1991), by Elías Miguel Muñoz, as the opposite extreme in terms of its negotiation with a collective identity. One of the very first U.S. “Latino” novels (the irony in my use of the term here is intentional) to address the notion of such an identity in any significant fashion, The Greatest Performance seems to undermine this concept at every level, suggesting that it is in fact a largely illusory product of a homogenizing American mainstream perspective in which “the diverse Latino cultures are interchangeable” (Poey and Suárez xvi). Ultimately, any notion of panethnic Latino identity is simply deflated as a stereotype of U.S. culture; the problematics of the Cuban American relationship to the Latino imaginary are thus skirted by a repudiation of the imaginary itself.
The Greatest Performance is told in the alternating voices of two gay Cuban Americans, a man and a woman, who come to the United States with their families in their teens. As Karen Christian has persuasively argued, this novel's central theme is the uneasy relationship between the protagonists' transgressive sexual identities and the traditional, conservative models of gender encoded in the transmission of Cuban culture. Nonetheless, the Cuban narrators' contacts and sometimes confrontations with Latinos of other national origins form a recurrent backdrop for the novel's most pressing concerns; in fact, it might be said that their encounters with a larger “Latino” population (not to say “community”) are one of the most salient aspects of their lives in the United States. It is Rosa's U.S. context—and, specifically, a majority Anglo-American population (“the blonde-boy type with T-shirts and pestilent tennis shoes predominated”)—that thrusts her into a panethnic “Latino” community in high school: “My GSH [Garden Shore High] gang: The Colombian Leticia […] The Korean boy, Ramón (the name the Gauchos gave him) […] Marco the (p.175) Ecuadorian […] Luisita the Cuban […] Of all of them, I miss Francisco the most. Francisco El Mexicano” (85). The passage gestures toward the specific conditions under which this particular, local community gets formed (that is, in opposition to a “blonde-boy” majority). The inclusion of a Korean in the “Latin clique” (86)—“Through a dirty trick of fate they had ended up first in Argentina and then in ‘America,’ so they spoke fluent Spanish with a Tango accent” (85)—destabilizes, if only momentarily, the illusion of a group somehow naturally or essentially connected. So does Rosa's recollection of “Francisco El Mexicano”: “Since I couldn't speak English, the school authorities ‘assigned’ me to this Mexican guy, Francisco Valdés, from day one of my freshman year. […] I was told that he would help me with my classes and serve as my guide, until I felt ready to fend for myself. Whatever grades Francisco got (all of them Bs), I'd get, they informed me” (85). The leap from the innocuous premise that one Spanish-speaking student might help another to acclimatize, to the ridiculous requirement that, in effect, a Mexican must share his identity with the Cuban, parodies the automatic equation of the two groups. Literally, here, they are rendered “all the same.” In Harlem, Mario—the novel's other narrator—is mistaken for Puerto Rican because “I have a suntan and I'm wearing shorts” (another jab at the ascription of sameness); he responds, “No, I'm from another island” (97).
Even Rosa falls prey to the illusion of sameness, commenting of her high school years, “My only source of happiness was the trips Mami and I took to downtown Los Angeles on Sundays to see old movies from Mexico at the Million Dollar Theatre. In that theatre that reeked of urine, I rediscovered, in ecstasy, handfuls of Mexican melodramas that took me right back to Cuba. Incredible, huh, that those dime-store stories and slapsticks […] would make me long for Cuba. But they did” (84). On the surface, the identification of movies from Mexico with her Cuban past would seem to support the homogenizing tendencies of the U.S. mainstream. How could Mexican movies transport Rosa back to Cuba? It is precisely such a skeptical posture that is self-consciously conveyed in her commentary that her reaction is “incredible.” Rosa's correlation of Mexican movies with her Cuban past is something that happens only in her current U.S. context, where they become associated for her with a distant Cuban childhood. (The American-made films she must surely also have seen in her childhood cannot hold the same associative power in this context.)26 In another context (in Cuba, for example), the easy equation of Mexico with Cuba would have been unthinkable. And even in the United States, Rosa does not mistake Mexican food for Cuban food; she recalls that she “tried my first burrito and my first taco with Francisco,” the Mexican American high-school friend. As she recounts, “He used to tell me that Mexican cuisine was the most varied and flavorful in the whole world.” But Rosa disagrees: “[C]orn tortillas (p.176) smelled of bats. No, I had never seen a bat, but if I had, and if bats possessed a particular smell, it would definitely be the same smell as the tortillas” (86). Food is always a prominent and telling marker of ethnic identity (even if it is a constructed marker), so it is notable that Rosa feels no connection to Mexican food.
Allusion to the role that media and marketing have played in the creation of a sense of (pan-) Latino identity is made via Rosa's lover, Joan, who creates TV commercials to reach “the Hispanic consumer” (which suggests, of course, that this consumer is singular in tastes, attitudes, and culture) and whose “biggest client” is the “Spanish American Programming Network”(114–15). Silvio Torres-Saillant has written precisely about the reliance of Spanish-language media outlets such as Univisión and Telemundo on the generation of a singular “Hispanic” identity that erases national difference: “Media executives have a huge stake in ensuring that U.S. Hispanics see themselves as one, for these executives can use their power over the community's perceptions and opinions as a bargaining tool in their competition with their corporate counterparts” (447). (Indeed, roughly a decade after the publication of The Greatest Performance, according to Torres-Saillant, Univisión conducted a “well-orchestrated publicity campaign that sings the praises of our common hispanidad. […] [The campaign] insistently dwells on the language, the culture, and the traditions that make us una sola familia” [444–45].) The notion of Hispanic ethnicity—if it is not exclusively an Anglo construction (and it is surely worth noting that Joan is a “Gringa” )—is certainly “made in the U.S.A.,” with all the emphasis on commodification and consumerism that this label implies.
Belying the idea of a singular Hispanic ethnicity that is touted by “targeted” marketing, at one point Rosa expresses her antagonism toward her department chair at the university where she teaches by repeatedly slurring his Argentine origins: he is the “Gaucho oppressor” and the “Padrino Argentino” (91). In this case, personal and professional conflicts become translated into the terms of ethnic conflict; far from giving rise to a sense of “Latino” solidarity, the U.S. context in this instance actually magnifies a sense of difference and distance. Interestingly, the Argentine professor later becomes reconfigured, in a sort of parodic fantasy by Mario (the male narrator) and Rosa, as a generalized “Latin American Dictator” with a striking resemblance to Fidel Castro. In the narrative they collaboratively spin about him, he “was a self-proclaimed socialist-humanist who stood up for the underdogs” and “the only one valiant enough to challenge the powerful Gringo chairman at departmental meetings, denouncing his dictatorial ways, his lack of democratic decency” (109), surely a spin on Castro's challenge to U.S. domination and on the prior Cuban dictator, Fulgencio Batista, who did the bidding of U.S. corporations. (This narrative, it might be added, recognizes the power of Castro's appeal in a way that Engle's (p.177) writings do not.) But “[b]ehind the humanitarian Gaucho stood a despot and a power-hungry monster” who took power when the “Gringo” chairman retired, and “[h]istory [repeated] itself” with a new oppressor (110). In this instance, the “Gaucho” is rewritten into a Cuban script with which Mario and Rosa are familiar. Unlike with Engle, however, the generalized Latin American dictator script is not to be taken seriously; the source of the humor is the conflation of contexts. The narrative insistently reminds us that Mario and Rosa are Cuban exiles, even while their own language repeatedly tags the Argentine with his different national background.
Elsewhere in the novel, the tensions between Puerto Ricans and Cubans within the U.S. context are raised in yet another debunking of a single, collective Latino identity. Of Mario's Nuyorican lover, whose friends are “Independentistas,” Mario wonders, “Does he really not mind the fact that I'm a Cuban worm, a traitor to the Revolution?” (99)—gesturing to the, at times, diametrically opposed political allegiances of various segments of the “Latino” population. Interestingly, however, this difference turns out not to be a particular source of conflict within the relationship: “Cubano, eh?” the Nuyorican asks Mario. “‘Yes.’ ‘Good for you’” (100). At that point, the thorny issue of political differences is quickly dropped. If The Greatest Performance does not make any kind of a case for inclusion in a larger Latino whole—indeed, it actively undermines the notion of such a whole—it also does not choose to elaborate on the ideological differences which might distinguish Cubans, in particular, from a leftist Latino imaginary.
Cristina García's Dreaming in Cuban
In García's novel Dreaming in Cuban (1992), perhaps the best-known work to date by a Cuban American who is the product of exile from Castro's regime, the Cuban family is itself riven by ideological cleavages. Because García's novel has received by far the most critical commentary of any of the works I discuss in this chapter27—and because that commentary so often focuses precisely on the political divisions that score through the novel's family—I will only briefly here suggest the ways in which the novel's politics position it quite comfortably within the “canon” of U.S. Latino/a literature. In Cuba the family matriarch, Celia, is a staunch defender of Castro while one of her daughters, Felicia, is at best apathetic about the revolution. In the United States, Celia's other daughter, Lourdes, has become the typical radically conservative Cuban exile while her daughter, Pilar, a fan of punk music and with obviously Left-leaning sympathies, longs to return to Cuba. Each of these four main characters (as well as a handful of others) takes turns narrating her own story. Though this multivocality gives Dreaming in Cuban the appearance of being politically (p.178) “neutral”28—reportedly resulting in conflicts with the adamantly anti-Castro Miami Cuban contingent29—the novel actually, I would argue, is propelled by an underlying progressive vision against which the various positions on Castro are measured. García presents a nuanced portrayal of Castro's revolution as addressing certain problems (for example, those of extreme poverty) while remaining seriously flawed according to other liberal/progressive criteria (e.g., with regard to civil liberties).
Indeed, by far the most negative portrayal in the novel is not of Castro but of Lourdes, the rabidly anti-Castro exile who places absolute faith in the power of American capitalism. When she returns to Cuba with her daughter, Pilar, she shouts to Cubans on the street, “Oye! […] You could have Cadillacs with leather interiors! Air conditioning! Automatic windows! You wouldn't have to move your arms in the heat!” (221). Lourdes is, notably, a compulsive overeater in the bakery that she owns, linking her capitalist entrepreneurship with a dysfunctional drive toward consumption (27). García makes a point of underscoring Lourdes's lack of third world sympathies; as Pilar tells us, “She hires the real down-and-outs, immigrants from Russia or Pakistan, people who don't speak any English, figuring she can get them cheap. Then she screams at them half the day because they don't understand what she's saying” (31–31). Lourdes fires a new Puerto Rican employee whom she catches pocketing fifty cents and afterwards thinks to herself, “No wonder her son is a delinquent” (129). And she justifies herself against Pilar's accusations of bigotry by noting, “‘I don't make up the statistics. […] I don't color the faces down at the precinct.’ Black faces, Puerto Rican faces” (128). Clearly, Lourdes feels no group affinity with the “Puerto Rican” faces equated, in her mind, with crime statistics.
But the novel as a whole makes that perspective an object of criticism, thus potentially positioning it within the group identity that Lourdes rejects. Indeed, Raphael Dalleo has suggested, intriguingly, that certain aspects of the novel “position Dreaming in Cuban as intertextual descendent to Sandra Cisneros' The House on Mango Street, a canonical text in its own right for the Latina literary tradition in the United States” (11), and that its “textual strategies [therefore] offer a relational poetics that emphasizes Latina writing as ‘panethnic’ […]: not reliant on genealogy as bloodlines, but as part of the cultural creation that helps forge a common identity” (16).30
Lourdes's rebellious daughter, Pilar, is the heart of the novel and, arguably, articulates the closest thing to García's own viewpoint. (It is perhaps not a coincidence that García's own daughter is named Pilar.) Early in the novel, Pilar's perspective is characterized by her reaction against her Cuban exile mother's sensibility. (Thus, for example, she gives Lourdes “a book of essays on Cuba called A Revolutionary Society” in which “[t]he cover showed cheerful, (p.179) clean-cut children gathered in front of a portrait of Che Guevara” .) But Pilar's narratives within the novel constitute a sort of mini-bildungsroman, in which her own views must be tempered as she matures. By the time she arrives in Cuba for a visit, she realizes that the island is incompatible with her own “revolutionary” affinities:
Coming fewer than ten pages from the novel's close, and articulated by its most sympathetic character at her point of greatest maturity, this is perhaps the novel's strongest critique of Castro's regime. Yet it is notable that the criticism is put in terms of that regime's distance from a “truly” revolutionary, radical spirit. Thus García is able to critique Castro while positioning herself within the constructed boundaries of literary Latino/a ethnicity.
I think about how I'm probably the only ex-punk on the island, how no one else has their ears pierced in three places. […] I ask Abuela if I can paint whatever I want in Cuba and she says yes, as long as I don't attack the state. Cuba is still developing, she tells me, and can't afford the luxury of dissent. Then she quotes me something El Líder said in the early years, before they started arresting poets. “Within the revolution, everything; against the revolution, nothing.” I wonder what El Líder would think of my paintings. Art, I'd tell him, is the ultimate revolution. (235)
Achy Obejas's Memory Mambo and “We Came All the Way from Cuba”
Achy Obejas adopts a similar strategy for negotiating the terrain between Castro's Cuba and Latino/a ethnic identity in her well-received and poignant short story “We Came All the Way from Cuba So You Could Dress Like This?” from the collection of the same name. Once again, the central character is a child of Cuban exiles who rebels against the conservative exile perspective (this time embodied in the father rather than the mother). When she returns home on a visit from college and her father barrages her with the title's question, she strikes back: “Look, you didn't come for me, you came for you; you came because all your rich clients were leaving, and you were going to wind up a cashier in your father's hardware store if you didn't leave, okay?” (121), thus poking a hole in the rhetoric of escape from Communist oppression to reveal the economic (rather than political) motivations that have, arguably, been the real basis of much Cuban emigration.
But this narrator, like Pilar, has something to learn. As she discovers and explores her lesbian sexuality, the question “What if we'd stayed? What if we'd never left Cuba?” (124) takes on new resonance, as the narrator must consider (p.180) the question in light of Castro's repressive policies toward gays and lesbians. That is, although the short story does not unambiguously support Castro's revolution, it still obviously aligns itself with leftist politics in other ways.
Obejas's novel Memory Mambo extends this consideration of alternative understandings of “Left” Latino identities. In this novel radical queer politics are represented as coexisting uneasily with and at times even contradicting other forms of radical politics (e.g., those identifying with the third world), pointing to an exploration of the ways in which multiple subject positions contest the cohesiveness of an imagined Latino/a ethnicity. This tension is, arguably, present, if latent, in The Greatest Performance as well, although in that earlier novel the main chafing is between the Cuban gay and lesbian characters and their traditional Cuban culture (and its importation into the United States), rather than between different notions of “radical” or nonhegemonic ideologies. Memory Mambo also elaborates, at much greater length than The Greatest Performance, on the conflict between Cuban gusanos (or “worms”)and Puerto Rican independentistas.
Obejas's first novel is notable for its striking self-reflexiveness about the constructed and tentative (rather than essential) nature of Latino/a ethnicity; Memory Mambo “presupposes that interactions between Latino sectors are inevitable” in a U.S. context (Allatson 191), if fraught with difficulty. The Cuban narrator, Juani's, Puerto Rican lover, Gina, represents, on the one hand, the effort to construct an apparently coherent Latino identity that is identifiably leftist. When Juani first enters her apartment she notes,
At the same time, Gina is, paradoxically, also the focal point for the tension surrounding the uneasy relationship of Cuban exiles to other U.S. Latino/a groups. She accuses Cubans of being “racists and classists and [says] that we (p.181) only made fun of Puerto Ricans because most of them were darker and poorer than us” (122)—thereby dramatically highlighting the intersection of race and class with ethnic identity in a way that underscores the schisms within the (supposedly unified) Latino “body.”31
Gina's apartment struck me as a museum dedicated to Puerto Rican independence and Latin American liberation movements. There were posters of Albizu Campos […]. Over her desk in the dining room I noticed a picture of Harry Truman outlined in a bull's eye, a macabre allusion to the attempt on his life by Puerto Rican independentistas, martyred when most of them ended up spending the rest of their lives in jail.
There were, of course, lots of tributes to the Sandinistas in Nicaragua—a signed photograph of President Daniel Ortega as if he were a rock star […]. Posters commemorated celebrations of the fifth and tenth anniversaries of the Sandinista triumph […]. Scattered on different walls were photos or drawings of César Chávez, Angela Davis, Frida Kahlo […] and Ché Guevara.
Eventually, I came upon the one hero I knew Gina's museum couldn't exist without: Fidel Castro. (86)
Obejas turns an unflinching light on such antagonisms and their economic and racial base; Juani herself recalls (with disapproval) a joke told by one of her relatives: “What's the difference between a Cuban and a Puerto Rican? A Cuban's a Puerto Rican with a job” (122; emphasis in original).32 The joke calls on the assumption of identity (a Cuban is a Puerto Rican, but with a difference), only to radically unsettle that assumption through a claim that calls attention to the potentially competing interests and economic status (within a U.S. context) of the two groups. At the same time, this broad-strokes picture of the relative demographics of Cuban versus Puerto Rican populations in the United States serves, for Gina at least, to obscure the actual demographics of Juani's family, which left Cuba in 1978 (well after the so-called first wave of relatively privileged Cubans who fled in the immediate aftermath of Castro's revolution); in the United States, rather than working in the “professions,” Juani's family owns and runs a Laundromat.33 These distinctions, however, are lost on Gina (as, indeed, they are willfully glossed over by Juani's relatives themselves), who “articulates one result of the ways that the United States has played Cubans against Puerto Ricans” (McCullough 593).34
While in some circumstances the U.S. context might make for panethnic alliances that might not otherwise exist, in others it might be precisely the relocation in the United States—enabling, for example, anti-Castro Cuban exiles to confront Puerto Rican independentistas in close quarters—that would exacerbate antagonisms. Obejas herself has commented, “I think that in the States the tension [between Puerto Ricans and Cubans] gets underscored because of racism here and a perception by both groups that the other group has it better. There is no question that Puerto Ricans in the United States have privileges that other Latinos do not have. They're US citizens at birth. There's also no question that Cubans have received extraordinary amounts of aid compared to other immigrant groups” (Kleindienst 14).35 Although an oft-repeated line of argument regarding the U.S. formation of Latino identity suggests that the confrontation with a discriminatory Anglo culture can contribute to a sense of cohesiveness and solidarity among Latino immigrants and their descendants, Juani's explanation (during a particularly raw argument with Gina) that “[t]he gulf between us was wider than the ninety miles from Havana to Miami” (131–32) suggests the opposite: in this moment, the antagonistic relationship between these Latinas of differing national origin is actually greater than the Anglo-Hispanic “gulf” figured by the ninety miles between the United States and Cuba and, indeed, might be largely provoked (as Obejas's comments suggest) (p.182) by their close proximity yet different treatment in a U.S. context. The point is made even more forceful because the illusion of sameness attaches even more strongly to those of Spanish-Caribbean origin than it does across the different Latino groups in general (see Flores, “Islands and Enclaves”). (Indeed, the fact that both Juani and Gina are women overlays still another category of identity, with its essentializing illusions of sameness, on their conflict—in order to radically undermine all such totalizing illusions.)
Perhaps the conflict is all the more striking because Juani, who was brought to the United States as a child by her parents, hardly shares their conservative politics. The older generation of Cuban exiles—those who immigrated to the United States as adults—is portrayed in particularly unflattering terms in the novel for its rejection of any affinity with other, more marginalized, Latino identities. Juani recalls of a family wedding that
But while Juani (who is, like García's Pilar in Dreaming in Cuban, the second-generation product of exile) rejects the elitism, racism, and classism of her parents' generation, Juani is herself struggling with the possibility of any kind of group identity with non-Cuban Latino/as in the United States
Mario Varona, a young fellow of Cuban and Puerto Rican heritage, was hired to play guitar and sing Cuban songs during the ceremony. My mother, however, was not pleased with Mario's hiring.
“Now every picture of the wedding is going to have a Negro in it,” she said, rolling her eyes. (69)
Indeed, as Kate McCullough points out, Juani's narration can be read as an effort to elide the importance of distinctions between Cubans and Puerto Ricans in the service of her love affair with Gina. In Juani's “romantically self-serving vision” (McCullough 597), she imagines Gina as “hills in which I would roll around, happy and dirty, as if I were back in Cuba, or perhaps in Puerto Rico” (119); McCullough correctly observes that this construct “problematically collaps[es] Cuba and Puerto Rico” (597); and removes the love affair from the realm of politics where differences matter: “Juani obsessively turns to narration to […] depoliticize love, desire, and sexuality […] casting them as separate from, as an escape from, and even, at points, as an antidote to political conflicts” (577)
since the notion of undifferentiated latinidad is conveyed in the novel through Juani's romantic narratives, both those narratives and latinidad itself are ultimately deflated as fantasy. For Memory Mambo as a whole undermines Juani's depoliticizing romantic project and unravels her hopeful narrative of oneness. Though Juani might indeed want to turn a blind eye to difference (at least where Gina is concerned), she is not permitted to do so.
This issue is highlighted in a confrontation between Juani and one of her lover's (p.183) Puerto Rican nationalist independentista friends, who starts the exchange by asking if she's “a good Cuban or a bad Cuban” (127), calls her a “Gusana” (127), and mocks her for preferring to identify herself as “Cuban-American” (128; emphasis in original), which the friend sees as assimilationist. Though Allatson calls the Puerto Rican activists in the novel Juani's “constructed family” and treats them as overlapping with other, more explicitly familial, groupings—her cousins, her immediate relatives, and “the web of relations by marriage” (163)—there is, strikingly, no filiative language used with reference to the independentistas, who, in this scene as in others, clearly see Juani as having no relation to them. Later in the evening,
Even though Gina and her friends seem here to be making connections between the Cuban and the Puerto Rican situation, Juani is excluded—by politics—from the envisioned group identity. And although Juani does not identify with the conservative politics of the Cuban exiles, she is obviously skeptical of the sort of Castro glamorization undertaken by the Puerto Rican independentistas.
Gina and her friends began reminiscing about their trips to Cuba, about helping on sugarcane cutting brigades, and hearing Fidel speak at the Plaza of the Revolution for hours on end while they ate ice cream and leaned on each other. They found it all inspirational, a blue-print for what they envisioned for Puerto Rico. […] At her first opportunity, [Hilda] started telling me about the importance of the Cuban revolution (as if I, a Cuban, didn't know), and what it meant to Puerto Rican independence, and how throwing off yanqui imperialism was the right thing to do. (129–30)
Latino collective identity, as I have discussed, has been imagined as leftist, progressive, and even radical by a plethora of scholars. Yet, although this novel utterly undermines the illusion of a cohesive, singular “Latino/a” identity, it is far from certain who has the greater claim to radical politics. For while Juani is certainly more cautious than her Puerto Rican counterparts about embracing Castro's socialist revolution, her affinity with queer politics gives her a different route for potentially claiming a progressive identity. In a later scene, Juani meets Bernie, her sister's boyfriend, who turns out to be the son of Amparo Maure, a famous (fictional) Puerto Rican independentista woman poet with whose work Juani is familiar. During the conversation it is revealed that Bernie's mother is also a lesbian—at which news Juani notes that, “much as Gina and her independentista pals yakked up Amparo Maure, they'd never mentioned a word to me about her sexuality.” Bernie responds, “Yeah, well, the independentista movement doesn't do well with lesbian and gay issues. […] They're in solidarity with everybody but gay people. […] [T]hey're not (p.184) anti-gay per se, they just think homosexuality's a product of capitalist society”(171; emphasis in original). As Bernie goes on to elaborate, the assumption within independentista culture is that once capitalism is corrected by “the revolution,” homosexuality will end. The implication, then, is that both capitalism and queerness are problems that need to be corrected.
Gina (who is in the closet) dismisses issues of sexual identity as not of primary concern to her radical politics:
Gina's comments collapse sexual identity, race, and class under the category of national origin; being “out” as a lesbian is a white, privileged, and, above all (somehow), a “Cuban” thing to do. But the novel itself is foregrounding how competing claims to radical politics stem from different subject positions. Gina privileges national identity to the point that it subsumes all others; Juani, on the other hand, prioritizes her lesbianism. But while Gina (echoing a long trajectory of literary scholars) delineates Latino/a identity primarily in terms of third world politics, preeminent Chicana texts such as Gloria Anzaldúa's Borderlands/La Frontera, Cherríe Moraga's Loving in the War Years, and Carla Trujillo's anthology Chicana Lesbians have put queer identities and issues at the very center of Latina literary issues. The conflict between queer politics and independentista affinities in Memory Mambo thus dramatizes a struggle over the heart of “Latino/a” identity—over who or what will define its symbolic elements (or whether, indeed, any singular definition will hold). As Lourdes Torres has written,
“Look, I'm not interested in being a lesbian, in separating politically from my people […]. What are we talking about? Issues of sexual identity? While Puerto Rico is a colony? While Puerto Rican apologists are trying to ram statehood down our throats with legislative tricks and sleights of hand? You think I'm going to sit around and discuss sexual identity? Nah, Juani, you can do that—you can have that navel-gazing discussion.”
And though she never quite said it, I felt the sting: I knew part of the reason why I was pinned with this topic [was] because I'm Cuban, and in Gina's eyes, automatically more privileged […]
“That's so white, this whole business of sexual identity,” she'd say […]. “But you Cubans, you think you're white … ” (77–78; last ellipses in Obejas).
women of color are themselves theorizing their experience in radical and innovative terms. Their condition as women, as people of color, as working-class members, and in some cases as lesbians, has led them to reject […] theories […] which have failed to develop an integrated analysis sensitive to the simultaneous oppression that women of color (p.185) experience. Rather, third world women are making connections between the forces of domination which affect their lives daily and are actively participating in the creation of a movement committed to radical social and political transformation at all levels. (275; emphasis added)
The narrator, Juani, certainly seems excluded from the third world Latina identity of the independentistas, characterized by its solidarity with Latin American revolutionary movements; but any reader well versed in the body of Chicana writing since the 1980s will note how far the independentista characters are from the sort of third world women's solidarity imagined by writers like Anzaldúa and Moraga in their groundbreaking This Bridge Called My Back (1981)—a solidarity based in large part on a recognition of what Adrienne Rich once called “compulsory heterosexuality.”36
As the foregoing discussion suggests, Obejas's novel reveals the tensions inherent in the construction of Latino/a ethnicity, which threaten to violently rend its constituent parts, always at best only tentatively connected, from each other. The potential violence of the moment at which the fissures cleaving “Latina” identity become chasms is conveyed suggestively in the abusive physical battle between Juani and Gina, which lies at the heart of the novel. The internal pressure of widely disparate histories and ideologies becomes focused in Juani and Gina's relationship, building to an unbearable pitch until the relationship explodes from the inside out.37 After the hostile discussion between Juani and her lover, Gina's, independentista friends (discussed earlier), and after those friends have gone home, Juani and Gina have another conversation on the topic. Juani asks Gina if she shares her friends' condemnation of Cuban exiles for having left Cuba:
For Juani, “gusana” is a pejorative term which makes clear the ideological fault lines that separate Cuban exiles—even second-generation Cuban exiles like Juani, critical of their parents' conservatism yet uncertain about Castro—from Puerto Rican independentistas. Gina understands and acknowledges Juani's emotional reaction to the term, yet she attempts to smooth things over by calling Juani her “gusanita” (little worm) (132, 134), using the term as one of endearment. The burden placed on the word “gusana” by Gina, in other words, is to represent the ideological differences which separate them and at the same time to bridge those differences using affection. As Allatson notes, Juani “is (p.186) constantly decoding Gina's conversation for [just such] signs that ideological enmities will not […] destroy their romance” (189).
“So I'm a baaaaaaaad Cuban?” I asked, trying to keep it light.
Gina shrugged. “It's a bad joke,” she admitted. “It's what a lot of people call Cuban exiles.”
“Do you agree with Hilda?” I asked. “Do you really think I'm a gusana?” (132)
But in this moment, Juani herself discovers that the term “gusanita” simply can no longer bear that heavy ideological burden; romance is always inflected by history.38 Juani smashes her fist into Gina's face, resulting in a scene of horrifying physical abuse on both sides that shatters Juani's “vision of love as a merger that is outside time and that erases difference” (McCullough 596).39 At this point Juani resorts to describing the scene in impressionistic and poetic terms: “All of the blood pours savagely from my limbs, all of my limbs are severed” (135).40 What is particularly notable about this description is that it works only on a metaphorical level; it is not the literal case, of course, that Juani's “limbs” are severed, so limbs—conceived as extensions of her “self”—must stand for something else. If, as George J. Sánchez writes, the “multiracial body has been appropriated [in popular as well as academic discourse] for use as a symbol of multiethnic America, often representing the nation's hope for the future and its potential for overcoming racial strife” (as opposed, Sánchez notes, to the figure of the “tragic mulatto” overcome by an internal warfare of conflicting black and white blood) (50), then we may perhaps read Juani's severed limbs as conveying the failure of a Latina multiethnic (or panethnic) body to overcome ethnic “strife.” The rending of any illusion of coherent Latino identity is graphically mirrored in the image of a body's brutal dismemberment. Even leftist politics, it turns out, cannot guarantee a collective identity; the ethnic “body” is left irreconcilably torn.
Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez's The Dirty Girls Social Club
Once again, we can discern an almost diametrically opposite dynamic at work in The Dirty Girls Social Club (2003), by Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez, which begins with a dramatic exposé of the differences and even schisms which cleave the category “Latino” into utterly dissimilar parts—in spite of mainstream culture's homogenizing stereotypes—and ends with a reinscribed fantasy of underlying commonality. The Dirty Girls Social Club places itself firmly in the realm of “popular culture”—Whitney Otto (author of the critically acclaimed How to Make an American Quilt) is quoted on the book cover as calling the novel a “guilty pleasure” that “ranks somewhere between Valrhona chocolate and Jimmy Choo shoes”—but popular culture is also the target which the novel takes to task for its oversimplifications, stereotypes, and downright prejudices. The opening of the novel explicitly fractures the notion of Latino identity into its various and diverse constituent parts; the effect of this critique, however, is to elide the ways in which the Cuban difference might be a more significant obstacle to imagined collectivity than are other forms of difference. As in The (p.187) Greatest Performance, a by-product of the dismantling of the category “Latino” is that all differences are equalized; the lingering impression is that there is no more troubling relationship between, say, Cuban Americans and Chicanas than there is between Chicanas and Puerto Ricans.41
The critique of ethnic construction is undertaken by Lauren, one of the alternating narrators. Lauren (whose father is Cuban), opens the novel with an informal “lesson” on being Latino/a for her, presumably, uninitiated readers. She assumes that they probably share the same stereotyped, conglomerate construct of Latinoness as the editors who have hired her to write a column “to connect to the Latina people” (8). Lauren's editors, we are told—in a metafictional scolding of the reader, as well—“expect me to reach up and pick mangoes out of the fruit basket I must wear on my head whenever I'm not in the newsroom talking about, you know, Mexican jumping beans” (11). The target of Valdes-Rodriguez's humor here is not only the essentializing “spicy Carmen Miranda” (7) image that has become the stereotype of a Latina woman, “thanks to TV and Hollywood” (5), it is also the unthinking equation of mangoes (a Caribbean fruit) with Mexican jumping beans—of Cubans with Mexicans. As Lauren snidely comments after one of her editors—granting her automatic “authority” in the knowledge of all things Latino/a—asks her where she can buy Mexican jumping beans: “even if I were a Mexican-American […] I wouldn't have known something that stupid” (5).
Amber, the member of the novel's group of friends who has apparently rediscovered her Aztec roots, is also the character who most participates in this cross-cultural homogenizing of Latino/a identity: “she thinks all Latinas are just like her” (10). Once again, ethnic difference is conveyed through differences in cuisine. It is revealing that Lauren has to explain to Amber what tostones are—in terms that Amber, as a Mexican American, will understand: “Refried plantains.” As Lauren elaborates to her reader, Amber “thinks we all eat the same dishes she grew up eating […]. She thinks all Latinas give a rat's rear about menudo, a soup they voluntarily make with tripe, a line of little Mexican ladies rinsing corpse poop out of the pig intestines in the kitchen sink. […] She honestly thinks California-style Mexican food is universal among Latinas and so the only bananas she'd ever seen before coming to Boston were the ones her mom got at the Albertson's and chopped over her corn flakes” (10). That is to say, Amber is unfamiliar with plantains, just as Lauren is clearly aghast at the idea of menudo. If food is an ethnic marker, it is clear that these two “Latinas” come from different worlds.42
In Dirty Girls, Amber falls prey to the illusions of Latinoness—not only in terms of cultural “markers” such as food, but also in terms of race. As the skeptical narrator Lauren comments, Amber buys into all that “‘brown and proud,’ West Coast Que viva la raza jive”—a sentiment she connects with the (p.188) “dated, s Chicano movement” (10). Lauren's comment implies that, in racial terms, as well as political ones, Chicanos have become the paradigm for Latinoness. But this assumes, of course, that all Latinas (and, for that matter, all Chicanas) will be “brown.” Though the Chicano paradigm invokes a celebration of mestizo heritage, the assumption that indigenous ancestry ties Latinas/os together (as José Martí suggests in “Nuestra América”) collides with the fact that “the Spaniards wiped out all the Indians in the D.R. and Puerto Rico” (289), as Lauren points out to readers in Dirty Girls.
As a white Cuban American, Lauren fits uneasily with the racial presumptions surrounding Latino/a identity; she notes of the billboards advertising her column that “the promotions department had my face darkened in the picture so I looked more like what they probably think a Latina is supposed to look like. You know, brown. First day those ads popped up […] the sucias started calling. ‘Hey, Cubana, when did you get Chicana on us?’” (9). (The ways in which this racial difference might significantly affect socioeconomic status and treatment in a U.S. context, however, are completely glossed over.)
Elizabeth, the black Colombian member of the group, also does not fit the presumption of Latina brownness: “White American guys […] have a hard time wrapping their minds around the fact that she's Latina and looks like that, too,” and “non-Latino black guys don't understand her background. I can't tell you how many times a black American guy has accused me of lying when I told them my beautiful ‘black’ friend was a Latina. ‘She doesn't look Latina,’ they say. ‘She looks like a sister’” (32). Just as in Thomas's Mean Streets, the “misunderstanding” betrays fundamental assumptions about how race is contingently constructed in U.S. dominant culture. “Black” and “Latino/a” are understood as mutually exclusive categories—simultaneously ethnic (as suggested by the “black American guy[‘s]” use of a metaphor for kinship, “sister”) and racial in nature.43 As Hernández-Truyol observes, “[F]ederal forms usually provide the following options: black (not of hispanic origin); white (not of hispanic origin); hispanic” (24). (“Hispanic” often appears with the disclaimer “may be of any race.”) Although the wording “implicitly recogniz[es] that ethnic identity and racial identity are two separate, coexisting traits” (Hernández-Truyol 24), in practice, the category “Hispanic” is made parallel with other racial categories—it is “constructed” by dominant U.S. culture (and, indeed, by much Latino/a “culture”) as its own separate race.44 To both black and white Americans, Elizabeth “doesn't look Latina” because she is not brown.
When Amber (the self-identified indigenous Chicana) wants to help out Lauren's new Dominican boyfriend because he's “Raza” (that is, mestizo), Lauren engages in a form of strategic essentialism which will enlist Amber's solidarity through the myth of common descent:45 “I figure this is a bad time to point out Amaury is probably not Indian […]. Let her think of him as Raza. (p.189) What do I care?” (289). While racial commonality can, in Amber's case, be projected (even if erroneously) from ethnic identification (e.g., “We are both Latino so we must both be Raza”), Lauren points out that ethnicity does not always override race: in Miami “white Cubans still ban other shades of people from their social organizations” (26). (This is one of the few instances in the novel where more significant tensions between racial/ethnic groups are suggested.) And another Mexican American friend, Rebecca, apparently denies her indigenous heritage for the status of whiteness, claiming, “I'm Spanish” (in a dynamic that reminds us of Anaya's Bless Me, Ultima), and insisting that her “straight black hair” and “brown skin” come from “Moorish blood” (22).
In such examples the reader glimpses how politics—whether the politics of solidarity or of white privilege—constructs racial identity. And while a dominant U.S. culture constructs Latino/as as all being of the same race, the various Latina friends in the novel each imagine themselves differently, based on a different set of historical and social circumstances determining their understanding of their racial identities.
The novel does not merely dismantle ethnic construction in the form of panethnic Latino identity, however; it also suggests, provocatively, how even more nation-specific ethnic groups are still social constructs, often manufactured out of present needs and binding myths. Amber, the Chicana character, bears the brunt of this commentary; she not only falls prey to the dominant culture's homogenizing tendencies, but also “re-discovers” her roots in ways that markedly challenge the implications of recovery (of lost or misplaced origins) in such a project. Although Amber, Lauren tells us, was a “pocha” when they first met (Lauren explains that “‘[p]ocha,’ for the uninitiated, refers to the kind of Mexican-American who speaks no Spanish and breaks into a sweat if she eats anything hotter than Old El Paso mild salsa” ), she has a “Chicana awakening” and is transformed: “She came back having exchanged all ‘ch's with ‘x’ and all ‘x's with ‘ch.’ Like Chicana was now Xicana, ‘just like the Aztecs spelled it,’ she said. Don't ask me how the pre-Columbian Aztecs had access to the Roman alphabet […]. She began to collect eagle feathers, ankle bells, and gold shields, and spoke almost nothing but Spanish” (28). Amber is clearly fully engaged in the process of ethnicity construction—which, in this case, has very little to do with recovery, either of her personal ethnic identity (she never spoke Spanish to begin with) or of a historical “truth.”
As various scholars have noted, ethnicity construction has at times consisted of identifying certain symbolic elements associated with “origins” and an original, untainted culture, but which in fact are much more recent cultural products.46 Cornell and Hartmann elaborate on this phenomenon: “much of the power of ethnicity […] comes not from anything genuinely primordial but from the rhetoric and symbolism of primordialism that are so often attached” (p.190) to it (90). Valdes-Rodriguez's clever exposition of her characters underscores the point that Latino or Hispanic identity in the United States, even while it points rhetorically backward to its supposedly “common” primordial indigenous origins, is a recent cultural product—one that must, of necessity, elide the significant cultural, demographic, and racial differences among the various groups. (In this sense, too, Valdes-Rodriguez—who grew up in Albuquerque—significantly revises her New Mexican predecessor, Anaya. As I discuss in Chapter, Anaya points toward precisely such an indigenous origin as the history which Chicanos must recover in order to understand the true nature of their collective identity.)
Nevertheless, the troubling question that remains after such an exposition is, Why, then, are all these very different women such close friends? What is it that draws all these Latinas together into a tight-knit group (that includes no one except Latinas) if there is nothing in particular that draws Latinas together? The explanation given in the novel is that, as the only Latinas in an introductory communications class in college, they are bound by “their collective power of intimidation,” which “was enough to make us instant and permanent best friends. Still is” (4). But this explanation seems weak, indeed, given so many cultural forces pulling the friends in disparate directions. The unnerving sense of an underlying essentialism is reinforced when Lauren (always the most analytical narrator in terms of culture) tells us that, although “we had no idea what a Latina was supposed to be, that we just let the moniker fall over us and fit in the best we could,” nevertheless, the “important thing […] is that we were sucias, and sucias stuck together. We studied together, shopped together, worked out together, complained together, laughed and cried together, grew up together” (35).
It would appear that, for these friends, the way that they “let the moniker” of Latinoness fall over them is by accepting, at a fundamental level, what that label connotes: they are connected by their latinidad. And it is worth noting that, just as Cuban differences were no more significant than others in the fracturing of Latino/a identity, so they are also no greater an obstacle to the underlying similarity; indeed, it is a pun on a Cuban popular culture reference (the band Buena Vista Social Club, which has been the subject of a noted documentary) that provides the friends with their group nickname (the “Dirty Girls Social Club” of the title). Cuban American identity, that is, can serve just as well as any other as a synecdoche for Latino identity, because (it is implied) Cuban American identity holds exactly the same relationship to the whole as every other national-origin “Latino” group.
It is apropos here to recall Cornell and Hartmann's observation that ethnic ties are understood metaphorically as family ties—“Ethnicity is family writ very large indeed” (20). In the description of the friendships of the Buena sucia (p.191) Social Club, we get precisely a model of family relations that presents the friends as sisters, different in their individual ways and bickering with each other at times, but ultimately returning to the family base. Thus at the novel's conclusion, Lauren revisits her expository insights: Though she “used to lecture [Amber] about how different all us Latinas can actually be, as diverse as all the world […] Now […] I think she has a point, too. We may be really different in a lot of ways, but there's something to it, this whole being a Latina—perception becoming reality and all of us finding each other and helping each other” (307). Though this explanation still seems to be informed by a social-constructionist understanding of ethnicity—gesturing toward the notion that particular social and historical circumstances, including (what Cornell and Hartmann would call) the “assignation” of a group identity by the dominant culture, can create an ethnic group which eventually claims that assigned identity as its own—there is nothing at all in the novel which accounts for this sense of group cohesion. The dirty girls' histories are too diverse, their interests too disparate; there are no “symbols” or “collective fictions” of any kind which hold an explanatory power for all of them (though Amber, as we have seen, does embrace the symbols and narratives of the Chicano movement). And though Lauren goes to great lengths in the novel to elaborate on her observations of the heterogeneity of Latinas, she offers no further commentary at all on the idea of “perception becoming reality.” Indeed, the immediately following phrase—“all of us finding each other”—seems to imply, simplistically, that there was some common denominator, hidden beneath all the surface diversity, to “find”—to unearth—rather than a sense of common identity that is constructed. (They did not build a group identity out of separate elements—they “found” each other.)
For all its wittiness in terms of ethnic identity, the novel ultimately is unsatisfying because, after the nuance and detail of its exposition of constructed cultural identity, it simply lapses back into an unexplained essentialism which suggests that, beneath all the articulated differences, there is something fundamental that ties Latinos (including Cubans) together in an inexplicable bond.
Ana Menéndez's “In Cuba I Was a German Shepherd”
I wish to conclude this chapter on Cuban American negotiations of latinidad by turning to Ana Menéndez's beautifully nuanced short story “In Cuba IWas a German Shepherd.” This story focuses on two Cubans and two Dominicans—old and lonely men who gather daily to play dominoes in a park in Little Havana (in Miami). Though the men are friends, an undercurrent of cultural tension permeates their relationship. As the story's title suggests, Menéndez suggestively alludes to the ways in which former class status contributes to that (p.192) tension—even when, in their present circumstances, the men's socioeconomic circumstances are virtually indistinguishable.
Like The Dirty Girls Social Club, this story gestures smartly toward the external construction of Latino ethnicity by the dominant culture. The men playing in Domino Park are photographed and stared at by tourists, through the “iron slats” of the park fence, as a sort of exotic species displayed in a zoo. This bothers Máximo, the central character and a Cuban exile, who notes, “‘You see how we're a spectacle?’ He felt like an animal and wanted to growl and cast about behind the metal fence” (24). Interestingly, Máximo's recognition that he is a spectacle here makes him feel that he ought to perform in the role constructed by others for him—a dynamic that resonates suggestively with Karen Christian's thesis that ethnic identity, like gender identity in Judith Butler's formulation, is a cultural “performance—a spectacle requiring an audience for interpretation” (16). As Cornell and Hartmann explain of the complicated dynamics by which an ethnic identity is constructed, ethnicity can sometimes (though it does not always) “have its origins in the claims others make about us or we make about them” (29).
Yet, though in this instance Máximo clearly feels an ambivalent compulsion to represent himself in accordance with an assigned (negative) identity, at other times he violently resists the understandings of his “ethnicity” constructed by others—as when a tour guide describes the domino playing in terms of authentic (if not primordial) Cubanness: “Most of these men are Cuban and they're keeping alive the tradition of their homeland […]. You see, in Cuba, it was very common to retire to a game of dominos after a good meal. It was a way to bond and build community. Folks, you here are seeing a slice of the past. A simpler time of good friendships and unhurried days” (25). Máximo's angry response is “Mierda! That's the biggest bullshit I've ever heard” (26). Though Menéndez does not make explicit exactly how the tour guide's story is “bullshit,” it is clear that Máximo rejects the assertion of ethnic authenticity associated with domino playing.
In fact, Máximo's memories of his past in Cuba center almost exclusively on his role within his family. If exile, as Kate McCullough suggests, “presupposes a relationship to a lost physical place or land that comes to embody the temporal zone of the past” (580; emphasis added), then Máximo's nostalgia for Cuba can be read as a metonymic substitution for his longing for a past characterized by his more important function in his children's lives: “He remembered holding his daughters days after their birth […]. For weeks, he carried them on pillows, like jeweled china. Then the blank spaces in his life lay before him. Now he stood with the gulf at his back, their ribbony youth aflutter in the past” (29). Cuba, then, geographically “embodies” this past fatherhood. Given the emphasis on such memories and the particular kind of loss they convey, it (p.193) seems entirely logical to assume that, for Máximo, domino playing, rather than being a “Cuban” behavior, as the tour guide suggests, is an activity undertaken exclusively in the United States and in his lonely old age, with Dominicans as a (poor) substitute for his family. This also suggests that his current Dominican companions are not understood by him as “family writ large.” The familial connection is what has been lost.
Notably, the tour guide's narration of Domino Park utterly elides the presence of the Dominicans among the Cubans. And indeed, in contrast to the fundamental and overpowering ties that inexplicably bond the “buena sucias” together, the bonds that hold these four men are portrayed as tentative and fragile, in large part a product of circumstances. They are all immigrants, thus sharing some similarities of experience within a U.S. context. Being from neighboring Caribbean, Spanish-speaking islands, they share some cultural elements that enable their friendship with each other in their new context: “they ate their same foods and played their same games” (9). They are each alone (without family in their old age), a condition which no doubt plays a factor in their impulse to construct an alternative community. Menéndez's exposition of the friendship never replaces tentative affiliation with a preexisting and essential group identity, however, but always emphasizes the ways in which the men are friends despite their ethnic differences.
Although the men are friends, they never see themselves collectively as “Latinos”—rather, the Dominicans “were not Cuban” (10; emphasis added), a redundant (non)identifier which serves to call attention to the differences between these two groups (even though, arguably, they are culturally closer than either is, for example, to Mexican Americans, being both of Caribbean background as well as having a historically more recent sizable presence in the United States).
The story places repeated emphasis not on commonality but on what the men do not share; we are told, for instance, that “[f]or many months they didn't know much about each other” (11). There is apparently no larger knowledge or common history that can be assumed (in contrast, for example, to Cuban exiles who can all assume some knowledge of Castro's government). Further, certain moments stress that the friendship between the men depends not on common experiences but on silences—on that which must remain unspoken in order for their “group,” tentative as it is, to remain intact: “Máximo and Raúl liked these blessed Dominicans, appreciated the well-oiled moves of two old pros. And if the two Dominicans, afraid to be alone again, let them win now and then, who would know, who could ever admit to such a thing?” (11) It is not just a matter of not admitting (ignoring) what one knows; it is, instead, and more extremely, a matter of willed forgetting. What the men might “know” on some level becomes unknown, even by them: “who would know?”
(p.194) The necessity of ignoring or even forgetting is highly suggestive in a story that so fundamentally undermines the image of a homogeneous collective “Latino” identity: the existence of that identity relies, in this story, not on “symbols” of peoplehood (Spanish language, the history of colonization, mestizaje, Catholicism, etc.) but on what is “forgotten” or (sometimes temporarily) unspoken—on what is, so to speak, swept under the rug. The potential allusion to differences in socioeconomic demographics, political affiliation, and even legal status in the United States can hardly be ignored. The words of Ernest Renan about national identity can be just as easily applied to ethnic (or, indeed, any collective) identity: “the essence of a nation is that all individuals have many things in common, and also that they have forgotten many things” (11).
The tensions between the four men are carefully managed but always threaten to erupt to the surface. Antonio, the Dominican, responds to assertions of Cuban superiority—exaggerated and even comical though they may be—with barely suppressed impatience, such as when, for example, Raúl responds to Máximo's question about who invented dominos with the assertion:
Though the Cuban nationalist pride implicit in this and other remarks by Raúl and Máximo seems generalized, it is possible to surmise that it also invokes prior class differences between Raúl and Máximo, on the one hand, and Carlos and Antonio, as Dominican immigrants, on the other. The punch line to the “German shepherd” joke that Máximo tells—in which an immigrant Cuban dog, which is hitting on an “elegant white poodle,” tells her that, “[h]ere in America, I may be a short, insignificant mutt, but in Cuba I was a German shepherd” (28)—implies particular nostalgia for a former class privilege or status that is lost to those viewed as “immigrants” in the United States. Though we do not know what Carlos or Antonio's former lives were, we are told that in Cuba “Raúl had been a government accountant and Máximo a professor at the University” (5). (It is worth recalling once again that, especially prior to the Mariel boatlift, Cuban immigrants to the United States benefitted from a distinctly more middle- and upper-class demographic than other immigrant Latino groups.) It might well be a desire to distinguish themselves from other “immigrants” with a low status in the United States that drives the comments (p.195) by Máximo or Raúl regarding a generalized Cuban superiority. In any case, when the Cuban exiles tell stories or make comments that imply a hierarchical distinction between them and the Dominicans, Antonio responds, “You people,” clearly demarcating a difference between “you” and “us.” Cubans are not Dominicans—they are not the same people.
“Who else could have invented this game of skill and intelligence but a Cuban?”
“Coño,” said Antonio without a smile. “Here we go again.”
“Ah, bueno,” Raúl said with a smile stuck between joking and condescending. “You don't have to believe it if it hurts.” […]
“You people are unbelievable,” said Antonio. But there was something hard and tired behind the way he smiled. (17)
At other points in the story, however, it is precisely the recognition that Cubans and Dominicans are not the same people that allows the fragile bonds between the men to remain in place. It is the men's underlying awareness that similarities are not sameness that allows them to continue their game playing, despite the conflicts which sometimes divide them: Máximo and Raúl appreciated that “Antonio and Carlos were not Cuban, but they knew when to dump their heavy pieces and when to hold back the eights for the final shocking stroke” (10). Antonio knows how to “hold back” in other senses as well: When Máximo tells jokes about Cuba with a hard edge—hinting at his own despair over displacement—Antonio is “careful not to laugh too hard […]. He and Carlos were Dominican, not Cuban, and they ate their same foods and played their same games, but Antonio knew they still didn't understand all the layers of hurt in the Cubans' jokes” (9). Here, the bond among the men is protected by an acknowledgment of what, precisely, is not understood between them.
Menéndez's short story thus skirts an interesting line between writers such as Engle or Valdes-Rodriguez, who seem to fall back on essentialist notions of a panethnic Latino identity, and those such as Obejas or Muñoz, who undermine notions of panethnicity but leave little in its place. (As I discuss in Chapter, Obejas offers a somewhat more hopeful view of collective identity in her more recent Days of Awe.) Though Menéndez deals with the politics of panethnic divisions much more enigmatically and allusively than, for example, Obejas does, she also suggests—again allusively—how “Latino” communities (including Cubans) might provisionally be formed within a U.S. context. Without giving short shrift to the tensions that might threaten at any point to destabilize such communities, Menéndez hints at a vision in which acknowledgment of such tensions might go some way toward creating something like solidarity. This possibility is given much greater elaboration in Demetria Martínez's novel Mother Tongue, as I discuss in Chapter 7.
(1.) “I argue that the narratives of Chicano men and women are predominantly critical and ideological. […] [A]s oppositional ideological forms Chicano narratives signify […] how the values, concepts, and ideas purveyed by the mainstream, hegemonic American culture that tie them to their social functions seek to prevent them from attaining a true knowledge of society as a whole. My study shows how Chicano narratives […] confront and circumscribe the limiting ideologies imposed upon them” (Saldívar 6).
(2.) Indeed, the assumption—following a Chicano and Nuyorican paradigm—that Latino literature as a body is resistant dates earlier than Saldívar's Chicano Narrative. For example, in her field-defining article “Hispanic Literature in the United States,” Eliana Rivero defines “ethnic minority art and literature in the United States as a form of cultural resistance and/or protest” (“Hispanic” 187) and notes that “Chicano literature […] is by essence and definition a literature […] of social protest” (178–79). Marc Zimmerman, in his 1992 U.S. Latino Literature, reproduces this line of argument: “Only those writers representing groups with several years of U.S. residence and having had (p.252) some working class as well as some barrio experience (including discrimination) are likely to write something which approaches community literary expression such as we find in U.S. Chicano and Puerto Rican literatures” (36).
(3.) Admittedly, some anthologies are also increasingly recognizing the tenuous nature of any construction of ethnicity as a coherent whole. Thus Augenbraum and Olmos, editors of The Latino Reader (1997), explicitly address “legitimate concerns that the compilers [of any anthology] are attempting to present […] a cohesive literary tradition” (xviii). (Notably, The Latino Reader includes an excerpt from Richard Rodriguez's argument in Hunger of Memory against bilingual education. This text rarely finds its way into Latino/a anthologies because of its conservative bent.) Likewise, Milligen introduces ¡Floricanto Sí! (1998) by raising the question of “why anthologies like this one gather a single group of writers—Latinas, in this case—if the result of the gathering is to emphasize diversity within the group” and begins by offering a very pragmatic response: “One answer is simple: for the most part, Latina poetry is simply not available at the average American bookstore” (xxi-xxii).
(4.) Ilan Stevens who is compiling the (as yet unpublished) “Norton Anthology of Latino Literature,” suggests that “a sense of sameness has recently emerged among Latino writers” and elaborates that, “[e]van though Julia Alvarez and Rodolfo Anaya, a Dominican-American and a Chicano, grew up worlds apart, they both see the universe through the lens of Hispanic civilization, with its own cadence and metabolism” (“Quest” B13). In his earlier The Hispanic Condition (1995), he elaborates on the nature of this purported “metabolism”: “Latino art retains a belligerent tone,” is “politically committed,” and is “a vehicle for conflict and resistance” (85–86).
(5.) Commenting on constructs of Latino ethnicity more generally, Fox has offered a similar line of argument, suggesting that there are different versions of the “constructed” category of “Hispanics” as a singular people. One version—Fox associates it with the Right—has, as its goal, to gain access to power within existing social and political structures; but another, more “Left” (Fox's word), version is built around “solidarity for the other ‘little guys’” and is directly antagonistic to the white “power structure” (11–12).
(6.) In doing so, Flores ignores the ways in which Stavans himself echoes the “resistance” model.
(7.) Note that these statistics, and those which follow from the Pew Hispanic Center, account only for registered Latinos, who themselves make up only 43 percent of Latinos and Latin Americans currently residing in the United States. Noncitizens make up 42 percent, while citizens who are not registered make up percent (“2004 National Survey” chart 38).
(8.) According to the 2000 census, for example, Cuban American median family income is $39,530, versus $28,953 for Puerto Ricans and $27,883 for Mexican Americans; 14 percent of Cuban Americans are below the poverty line, compared to 27 percent of Mexican Americans and 31 percent of Puerto Ricans (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Mental Health 132).
(9.) Consider these statistics. The Pew Hispanic Center reports that, of registered Latinos questioned about the 2001 tax cuts enacted by President Bush, 23 percent said that they had helped the economy, 21 percent disagreed, and the remainder (54 (p.253) percent) said they had not made much dierence or that they did not know. But when broken down by party affiliation, 44 percent of Republican Latinos felt the tax cuts were positive, while only 12 percent of Democrats did (“2004 National Survey” 9). Divisions among registered Latinos over the U.S. war in Iraq, similarly, strongly reflect partisan divisions (6). If substantially more Cuban Americans than Mexican Americans or Puerto Ricans are Republicans, it follows that there may indeed still be substantive differences on issues such as U.S. use of military force and—more ambiguously—taxes. (See “2004 National Survey” 14 for ambiguous findings regarding willingness to pay taxes to fund services.) For a commentary on Cuban American historical positions on civil rights, see Acuña, “Miami Myth Machine.”
(10.) Rivero, facing (in 1985) the same difficulties in fitting Cubans into her imagined composite portrait of Hispanics, simply declared that “the works by Cuban immigrants can never be considered” as U.S. Hispanic literature (Hispanic 187), because Cuban exiles “oppose the socialist revolutionary process taking place in their homeland” (183) and embrace the “selfish, materialistic middle class values” (187) of U.S. dominant culture. (The works of the children of Cuban immigrants might count as U.S. Hispanic, on the other hand; “the closer [Cuban American writers] get to an appreciation of minority life in American society, and the more they empathize with Chicanos and Neoricans,” the more they approximate what Rivero considers legitimate U.S. Hispanic writing [“Hispanic” 187]). Zimmerman concurs: “transplanted Cuban […] novelists are not in any sense writing U.S. Latino literature, whether their characters twist and turn through Havana […] or New York” (36).
(11.) On other issues Flores might be on firmer ground. The Pew Hispanic Center reports that “[t]he vast majority of registered Latinos say that they think the government should provide health insurance for those without it. Furthermore, most say that they would be willing to pay more in higher health insurance premiums or higher taxes to increase the number of Americans who have health insurance” (“2004 National Survey” 7). The report adds that “Latino views on these matters largely supersede partisan loyalties,” with percent of Democrats and percent of Republicans supporting the above position (“2004 National Survey” 7).
Views on immigration policy also “superseded partisan identification,” with a majority of both Democrats (73 percent) and Republicans (71 percent) “favoring a system that ensured future immigrants [from Latin America] permanent legal status and the opportunity to become citizens” (“2004 National Survey” 9). Democrats (83 percent) and Republicans (86 percent) also approved of a plan “that would allow undocumented Latino immigrants to gain permanent legal status and eventually citizenship” (“2004 National Survey” 8). In the 2006 National Survey, however, only 52 percent of total Latinos felt that all undocumented immigrants should have be permitted to stay permanently and have an opportunity for citizenship, although percent of Latinos also opposed building more fences along the border and 70 percent opposed sending the National Guard to the border (Suro and Escobar 18,20.) Furthermore, Latinos are increasingly ranking immigration as a top national priority, with only the war in Iraq ranking higher, although the weight given to this issue is much greater among the foreign-born than among native-born Latinos (Suro and Escobar).
The National Immigration Forum reports that, “[a]ccording to Hispanic Trends, a (p.254) Miami-based polling and research firm, […] [b]y 2010, 70% [of Latino voters in the U.S.] will be foreign born. Naturalized Latino voters tend to vote at almost twice the rate of native-born Latinos. For these voters, immigration is a major concern.” Thus immigration policy might increasingly be both an issue that cuts across party lines and one that matters significantly for Latinos who vote.
(12.) The exact percentage of support for George W. Bush among Latino voters in the 2004 presidential election has been widely debated, although most cited figures coincide to a close degree. The National Election Pool (NEP) exit poll cites a figure of 44 percent support for Bush and 53 percent for Kerry; the New York Times gives a figure of 43 percent for Bush and 56 percent for Kerry (National Council of La Raza 2; see also Fears; Kirk Johnson). Poll data from Gallup and Zogby roughly concur. The exit poll data of the William C. Velásquez Institute/Southwest Voter Registration Education Project, by contrast, give figures of 31 percent for Bush and percent for Kerry (National Council of La Raza 2), explaining the discrepancy in terms of better methodology specifically for measuring Latinos (National Council of La Raza 2). The estimate of the National Council of La Raza (NCLR), which it claims “produces a result that can be reconciled with both the pre-election and exit polls' margins of error,” is that the split was roughly 39 percent Bush, 59 percent Kerry (National Council of La Raza 7). Despite the debate over how many Latinos actually voted for Bush, however, the NCLR points out that “the direction of the election-to-election changes of the Hispanic vote in 2004 and 2000 is absolutely consistent across all polls,” with most polls indicating a 7-to 9-point shift in favor of the Republican candidate 2004in (over 2000), and all polls indicating a double-digit shift toward the Republican candidate in 2000 (over 1996) (National Council of La Raza 6; emphasis in original). For instance, the Los Angeles Times reported a 21 percent to 71 percent Latino split in the Dole/Clinton election of 1996, a 38 percent to 61 percent split in the Bush/Gore election of 2000, and a 45 percent to 54 percent split in the Bush/Kerry election of 2004(National Council of La Raza 5). Further, the NEP polling data suggest that Mexican Americans in Texas, traditionally a Democratic-leaning population, actually may have voted for Bush in numbers roughly equivalent to or even exceeding the Cuban American population's (National Council of La Raza 3 n. 10). The conclusion? It is “‘no longer sensible to think of Hispanic voters on a national basis as a core constituency of the Democratic Party,’ said Roberto Suro, the director of the Pew Hispanic Center” (Kirk Johnson). To complicate matters further, however, the 2006 midterm elections suggest a new Democratic swing among the Latino population, with Latino voters preferring Democratic candidates for Congress and in gubernatorial races by margins of roughly 69 percent to 30 percent (Pew Hispanic Center, “Latinos” Fact Sheet). If Latinos cannot be counted on any longer to be a “core constituency of the Democratic Party,” neither can they be counted on to continue a significant shift toward the Republican Party in large numbers over the long term.
(13.) For that matter, even blanket generalizations about Cuban American politics have become much shakier. As Jones-Correa notes, “Cuban Americans, who historically have voted Republican in overwhelming numbers, gave percent of their vote in 1996 to President Clinton, the Democratic candidate” (“All Politics” 33). Observing that, in the following election, “Gore, like Clinton, took Miami-Dade and Broward Counties, the Cuban American strongholds in South Florida,” Jones-Correa adds that (p.255) Gore “won these counties by 100,000 fewer votes than Clinton did in 1996. The shift back of the Cuban American electorate to the Republican Party arguably cost Vice-President Gore the election” (36). The point is that, with such a split Cuban American vote, the image of Cuban Americans as overwhelmingly Republican in their voting patterns is itself now more “imaginary” than real.
(14.) Ignoring these profound ideological differences, Ibis Gómez-Vega links Engle's Singing to Cuba to Julia Alvarez's How the García Girls Lost Their Accents and In the Time of the Butterflies through the thesis that authors such as Engle and Alvarez “bearwitness to the chaos caused by the history of their respective countries” (232). Here the abstract concept of historical “chaos,” under whose baggy umbrella Trujillo and Castro can be brought together, replaces and erases the concrete historical and political particulars of the two regimes. But Engle's texts, as I will argue, encourage precisely such a connection between repressive dictators.
(15.) As the biographical note to her novel Skywriting explains, Engle is the daughter of a “Cuban mother and American father.”
(16.) By way of contrast, Richard Rodriguez, another Hispanic (in this case, Mexican American) writer whose work has been widely criticized for being conservative in its sensibilities, “[o]vertly assimilationist and opposed to bilingual education” (Zimmerman), actively disclaims the collective label “Chicano.”
(17.) We can see the critical unease with Engle's position in such assessments as Mc-Cracken's that “Engle posits a single, master narrative about the [Cuban] revolution that turns the novel's strong principles into obsessions. In so doing, Engle enacts a kind of narrative violence […]. Skywriting can see no good at all in leftist movements” (199).
(18.) For a critical discussion linking Castro unproblematically to another Latin American dictator, Dominican Rafael Trujillo, see Gómez-Vega. More nuanced discussions of the relationship between Castro and Trujillo—who was ideologically opposed to the rise of Castro and communism in Cuba—are found in López-Calvo and Sagás, as well as in the fictional representation of the last days of Trujillo's regime, The Feast of the Goat (2000), by Mario Vargas Llosa.
(19.) The inside cover quotes J. Joaquín Fraxedas, another Cuban American writer with a strong anti-Castro sensibility and the author of The Lonely Crossing of Juan Cabrera (1993).
(20.) Engle's first novel, Singing to Cuba, is even more blatant in this assertion, focusing its attention on the supposed “peasants” who are the real victims of Castro's rule: “[I]f people were really disappearing, if animals were really being slaughtered, houses destroyed, fields burned, what would become of the peasants, the people? […] But no […] the rumors could not be true. The bearded Comandante they'd fed and sheltered along with his rebels did not seem like a man so devious that he would turn against the very peasants who had supported him when he was weak […]. Surely […] that man Fidel would not reward his friends, the peasants, with such horrors” (24).
(21.) Singing to Cuba is, notably, published by Arte Público, still best known as an outlet for Chicano/a writing; and in Engle's acknowledgments she thanks “the late Dr. Tomás Rivera,” whose novel … Y no se lo tragó la tierra, about the exploitative working conditions of migrant farmworkers, is a classic of Chicano/a literature. Gisele M. (p.256) Requena refers repeatedly to Rivera, as a point of comparison with Engle (148,149,151,152).
(22.) Vásquez qualifies her observation by pointing out some fleeting references to “the myth of the escaped cimarrón slaves”; but she correctly notes that, despite this occasionally invoked remote past, “black experience […] is entirely unheard in the present-day narrative” (“Contrapuntal” 136).
(23.) See Olmos and Paravisini-Gebert, Sacred Possessions 4–5.
(24.) Kavanagh reviews the popular understanding of ideology as a pejorative term labeling wrongheaded extremists. In this view, “there are a few people on the right and left (like Robert Bork or Fidel Castro) who ‘have’ an ideology, and who are therefore likely to mess things up, and there are the great majority of sensible people (and politicians) who […] do not ‘have’ one” (306). Engle's use of ideology seems to contain within it this popular assumption. In contrast, the notion of ideology derived via Louis Althusser is that it is working most effectively precisely when we are unaware of its operations—when we consider ourselves to be free of ideology.
(25.) Prior to the socialist regime, the rural poor (the vast majority of Cuba's population, largely Afro-Cuban) suffered from illiteracy, lack of health care, and widespread unemployment.
(26.) In his memoir Waiting for Snow in Havana, Carlos Eire also mentions having watched both Mexican and American films in the movie theaters of his Cuban childhood (241–42).
(27.) See, for example, discussions of Dreaming in Cuban by Alvarez Borland, Brameshuber-Ziegler, Davis, Gómez-Vega, Herrera, Leonard, K. López, Luis, McCracken, Mitchell (“National Families”), Mujčinović, Payant, Machado Sáez, Socolovsky (“Un-natural”), Stefanko, Vásquez (“Cuba”), Viera (“Matriarchy”), and Zubiaurre.
(28.) See, for instance, McCracken's view that the novel's “refusal to invoke the closure of a single truth about the Cuban Revolution” leads to a “resultant unfinalizability” (23); or Luis's claim that the novel “presents both sides of the Cuban question without appearing to privilege one point of view over the other” (216).
(29.) See Viera, “Exile” 41.
(30.) Specifically, Dalleo argues, García signals her relationship to Cisneros's text with the chapter title “The House on Palmas Street” and with the “themes of female freedom and independence” (11) and the “image of the woman watching the outside world from behind a window” (13) that she revises from Cisneros's novel.
(31.) The racial identity of the Cubans is, of course, itself a construct, as Juani's narration about her mother's “white” aspirations reveals. Much like Piri Thomas's representation of his family's racial mythology—and, indeed, much like Margarita Engle's own construction of Cuban racial mythology—Juani's family's myth of origins “positions the question of race between white and Indian, consigning most of the issue of blackness to silence” (Obejas, Memory Mambo 33). See McCullough 584–85 for a discussion of this issue in Memory Mambo.
(32.) Similarly, Shorris recounts hearing an anti-Puerto Rican joke (or metajoke) among Cubans in Hialeah: “This guy comes to a friend and says, ‘I have the latest Puerto Rican joke.’ And there's a Puerto Rican standing right there, who says, ‘Hey, listen, I'm a Puerto Rican.’ And the first guy says, ‘Okay, I'll tell you later. Slowly’” (161).
(33.) Intriguingly, McCullough suggests that Juani's anger at Gina and her independentista friends might be partially “class-based, since she has had to work in the laundromat while Gina and her friends traveled to Cuba” (606 n.45), thus belying the assumption on both sides that Cuban immigrants to the U.S. necessarily occupy a more privileged position than their Puerto Rican counterparts.
(34.) Allatson correctly points out that “[s]uch antagonisms belie the romantic claim made by Ilan Stavans that shared experiences of U.S. residency enable the overcoming of the historical, cultural, and racialized divisions between Antillean-origin Latinos” (185).
(35.) The “extraordinary amounts of aid” refers, among other things, to the Cuban Refugee Program, “which spent nearly $ billion between 1965 and 1976 […]. Through this program, the federal government paid transportation costs from Cuba and offered financial assistance to needy refugees and to state and local public agencies that provided refugee services” (Stepick and Stepick, “Power and Identity” 76; Pedraza-Bailey cited in Stepick and Stepick). Alex and Carol Dutton Stepick note that Cuban immigrants also benefitted from more indirect forms of assistance, including Small Business Administration loans, as well as large-scale employment by the CIA and its “front businesses” (“Power and Identity” 76–77; Didion cited in Stepick).
(36.) I would argue that Gina rejects the multipronged “radicalism” of queers of color such as Anzaldúa and Moraga in favor of solidarity with her “people,” conceived exclusively in terms of national identity rather than along the lines of Anzaldúa's shifting solidarities. For readings that argue, in contrast, for the resistant or even radical potential of Gina's refusal to self-identify as a lesbian, see Allatson 171 and McCullough 593.
(37.) McCullough argues persuasively that Juani's mode for interpreting her relationship with Gina is, from the very beginning, utterly shaped by her construction as a subject of exile. Thus she continually “reads” the relationship in terms of loss, even before she has lost anything (McCullough 591–92). In this way, too, then, the differences in Juani's and Gina's so-called ethnic identities (the ways their different nationalorigins shape the way they differently see the world) contribute to the demise of their relationship.
(38.) In a baffled, but strikingly Conradian, reading of the scene of violence that follows, Linda J. Craft suggests that perhaps “Juani's incomprehensible aggression against her lover” is the product of “possession,” a symptom of “darker currents in the novel” with “African” associations—for “How else can these outrageous acts be explained”? (382). In this way Craft, through recourse to notions of an African heart of darkness, explains Juani's anger. As with Conrad's novel, however, the explanation of the unspeakable horror lies in politics and history.
(39.) Somewhat implausibly, McCullough reads this scene of violence through the lens of “violence's constituent role in colonial conquest and its aftermath” (598), arguing that “Juani's vision of love” is “a response to the effects of colonialism and its legacy of exile” (596). I would suggest that such an argument “generalises and universalises the colonial encounter” (as Ania Loomba argues of Homi Bhabha, 178). While some types of “exile” and some manifestations of “diaspora” clearly have their roots in the colonial situation, it is only by a fairly long stretch that exile from Cuba due specifically to Castro's revolution can be read as a direct “legacy” of colonialism.
(40.) Suggesting the degree to which Juani continues to feel compelled to gloss over the differences that divide her and Gina, the story that is eventually concocted and told (with Juani's consent) about this incident—that Gina and she were both attacked by someone opposed to Gina's political work—positions her along with Gina on the same side of a political divide (139).
(41.) Such an impression glosses over the historical and demographic differences between Chicanos and Puerto Ricans in the continental United States, on the one hand, and Cuban immigrants, on the other—as I discuss in Chapter 4. It also ignores moments in which Chicanos and Puerto Ricans have historically come together in coalition to combat specific forms of oppression (such as discrimination in jobs or housing), as documented, for instance, by Felix Padilla.
(42.) In an essay on the thematics of food in Latina literature which, remarkably, ignores the cultural loadedness of food, Jacqueline Zeff writes about food primarily in terms of its mystical healing qualities: “One of the essential barriers in much of women's literature is that between the embodied self and the […] spirit. For Latina writers, food seems to be a more available passageway through that barrier than, say, a bell jar, a room of one's own, or a mother's garden” (95). Leaving aside the essentialism that makes food somehow more important as a restorative agent to Latinas than to British, Anglo-American, or African American women (as well as the erroneous suggestion that the “bell jar” functioned as a restorative metaphor in Sylvia Plath's novel), Zeff 's thesis works actively to flatten the political dimensions of texts. Thus she reads Demetria Martínez as suggesting that “the way to preserve the self from […] insanity is to believe in a cause beyond the self. Even if that cause is posole” (96). The suggestion that food (posole is a traditional Mexican dish) is a suitable “cause” seems a rather dismaying emptying of the powerful content of Martínez's work, which I discuss in Chapter 7.
(43.) See Cornell and Hartmann 19–20 for a discussion of ethnicity's dependence on (sometimes metaphorical) claims of kinship.
(44.) The parenthetical exclusions are actually of very recent practice and obscure the fundamental point that the categories, for most of their existence, were meant to be racial (not ethnic) in nature. As Cornell and Hartmann note, in the 1990s, federal programs “required various public and private entities to report racial data using […] five categories […]: White, Black, Asian, Hispanic, and Indian” (22). That is, “Hispanic” was viewed as a separate race. See also my discussion of this issue in the Introduction.
(45.) See Cornell and Hartmann 16–17 for a discussion of the importance of “assumed common descent” to ethnicity.
(46.) See, for example, Werner Sollors's discussion of Hobsbawm and Ranger's The Invention of Tradition, which he calls a “model collection for applying the concept of‘invention’” (Invention, xii). He calls renewed attention to the implications for ethnicity in his own volume's focus “on the invention and diusion of modern cultural symbols […] in the name of supposedly ancient national and ethnic traditions,” and to the emphasis on “the very recent (and highly inauthentic) emergence of such cultural features as the Scottish tartan and kilt or the Welsh love for music. Many traditions turn out to be ‘neo-traditions’ that are made up in order to […] substantiate politically motivated feelings of peoplehood” (xii-xiii).