catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 4, Num 2 :: 2005.01.28 — 2005.02.10


Dreaming in sugar

In Cristina Garcia’s Dreaming in Cuban (Ballantine Books, 1992), three generations of Cuban women use food to order their political and personal lives to create a sense of self out of chaos. Celia del Pino, the matriarch, lives in Cuba and is a staunch supporter of Castro. Celia participates wholeheartedly in revolutionary projects such as weed pulling and sugarcane harvesting. Her eldest daughter, Lourdes Puente, flees with her husband and daughter, Pilar, to the United States in 1961, two years after Castro’s invasion. Pilar, an abstract artist who relates better to her Abuela Celia, is cynical about her mother’s relationship to America and desires a better relationship between Cuba and the US.

During times of political and emotional turmoil, the characters maintain control over their sense of self by making specific food choices, in order to create a measure of stability and safety. Celia and Lourdes, both of whom have staunch views about Castro and Cuba, are prime examples of how food is used as an ideological weapon to maintain an imagined sense of nation. Each one uses food to highlight and emphasize her beliefs while trying to tear apart the other’s convictions. Celia wants to keep American influence out of Cuba because she is wary of what it might do to the ideals of the revolution. To fight back against this corruption, she spends several weeks working on the sugarcane harvest. In 1972, Castro attempted to produce ten million tons of sugarcane as a way to enhance Cuba’s wealth and image. Celia, too, believes that sugar will be a key to Cuban power: “People in Mexico and Russia and Poland will spoon out her sugar for coffee, or to bake in their birthday cakes. And Cuba will grow prosperous.” Celia is sending sugar to the world as proof of Cuba’s power and desirability as a trade partner. Yet, while she views the revolution as a means of bringing equality to the island, the history of sugarcane production in Cuba cannot be ignored. Sugarcane plantations were the main reason slaves were brought to Cuba. Sugar and its production gave power and wealth to the upper class, who violently crushed slave revolts. Sugar aids the Cuban economy at the expense of the history of thousands of slaves.

Lourdes is connected to her mother through their love of sugar, and the belief that sugar can transform the other’s political thoughts. In the same way that Celia believes working in the sugarcane fields will create international prosperity for Cuba, Lourdes believes the pastries in her bakery will allow Cubans, specifically her mother, to recognize Cuba’s poverty and US superiority. Lourdes sends “snapshots of pastries from her bakery in Brooklyn. Each glistening éclair is a grenade aimed at Celia’s political beliefs, each strawberry shortcake proof–in butter, cream, and eggs–of Lourdes’ success in America, and a reminder of the ongoing shortages in Cuba.” The pictures that Lourdes sends Celia are not just signs of Lourdes’ success but ideological weapons intended to attack Celia’s beliefs. Her Yankee Doodle bakeries give her a feeling of order and pride through ownership, which is not allowed in Cuba. She attempts to live the “American dream” and aspires to start a chain of bakeries all across the US. Lourdes’ patriotism extends beyond her own beliefs; she also attempts to make others ingest American culture by serving such patriotic delicacies as red, white, and blue cupcakes and Uncle Sam marzipan. Both Celia and Lourdes encode food production with political meaning in an attempt not only to combat each other’s beliefs but also to strengthen their image of their nations.

Lourdes’ attitude towards food is not only an expression of her pro-American sentiments, but it is also her attempt to create an American home life through activities like watching parades and eating proper meals as dictated by women’s magazines: “Mom makes food only people in Ohio eat, like Jell-O molds with miniature marshmallows or recipes she clips from Family Circle. And she barbecues anything she can get her hands on. Then we sit around behind the warehouse and stare at each other with nothing to say. Like this is it? We’re living the American dream?” What Pilar doesn’t understand is that Lourdes is trying to produce “family,” restoring what she left behind in Cuba.

The older generations are the ones who have undergone the most upheaval, but it is the younger generation who is able to come to terms with the role of food and the disorder of their lives. While all of the characters have ties to both Cuba and the United States, it is only Pilar who is able to come to terms with her hybridity through her observations of culinary identity. Pilar is skeptical of her mother’s partisan position, and she derides her mother’s attachment to American ways. She is in a more tenuous position than Lourdes and is caught between desire for Cuba and America. Pilar is unsure of where she belongs and has become confused about her cultural identity, commenting during a Thanksgiving dinner, “I think migration scrambles the brain… I may move back to Cuba someday and decide to eat nothing but codfish and chocolate.” Her art is one means for expressing her hunger for a cultural identity. When Lourdes asks Pilar to paint a mural at the bakery for the US bicentennial, Pilar attempts to contradict her mother’s views by painting the Statue of Liberty with a safety pin through its nose and the punk slogan “I’M A MESS” at the base. While her mother is upset at this depiction of the Statue of Liberty, Lourdes surprises Pilar by defending the painting from a customer who tries to slash it with a knife. This painting in the bakery helps Pilar bridge the gap between her mother’s point of view and her own. At the end of the novel during a trip to Cuba, Pilar sees that the Cuba Celia believes in (and Pilar remembers from her childhood) no longer exists, just as Lourdes’ American dream is imagined. She says, “I’m afraid to lose all this, to lose Abuela Celia again. But sooner or later I’d have to return to New York. I know now it’s where I belong—not instead of here, but more than here.” Pilar bridges her origins with her current location and finds her identity as a Cuban immigrant in New York. By rejoining the Cuban community for a time, Pilar is better able to understand her mother and herself.

It is significant that Garcia rarely mentions the third generation’s eating practices. Pilar is able to let go of the divisive issues of nationality. She sees that the food her mother eats is unhealthy both literally (sticky buns) and figuratively, and she wants a more balanced diet. Elements of the older generation’s lives are incorporated into the life of the younger generation, but Pilar is able to bridge the politics of her mother and grandmother, finding a balance between her political heritage and her personal choices.

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