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FIGURES OF THE "OTHER CUBAN":
TRAUMA, PERIPERFORMATIVITY AND THE EVERYDAY
CHRISTINA A. LEON
A THESIS PRESENTED TO THE GRADUATE SCHOOL
OF THE UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA IN PARTIAL FULFILLMENT
OF THE REQUIREMENTS FOR THE DEGREE OF
MASTER OF ARTS
UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA
Christina A. Le6n
For my mother, with all my love
I would like to thank my family. Each of them taught me in ways that only they
could. I also thank the bear for her endless companionship. This project could not have
been possible without Kim Emery and Leah Rosenberg. Their guidance and critiques
have been invaluable. Finally, I thank Cameron for his insightful questions, patience and
TABLE OF CONTENTS
A C K N O W L E D G M E N T S ................................................................................................. iv
ABSTRACT ............... ................... ......... .............. vi
1 TRAUMA AND FIGURES OF THE "OTHER CUBAN" IN THE AGUERO
SISTER S ........... .... ........................... ..... .. .......... ........... 1
2 NARRATION OF THE OTHER CUBAN IN "WE CAME ALL THE WAY
FROM CUBA SO YOU COULD DRESS LIKE THIS?"...... ........................ .........31
LIST OF REFEREN CE S .............................................................................. 40
B IO G R A PH IC A L SK E TCH ..................................................................... ..................41
Abstract of Thesis Presented to the Graduate School
of the University of Florida in Partial Fulfillment of the
Requirements for the Degree of Master of Arts
FIGURES OF THE "OTHER CUBAN":TRAUMA, PERIPERFORMATIVITY AND
Christina A. Le6n
Chair: Kimberly Emery
Major Department: English
This thesis expands on Cristina Garcia's notion of the "other Cuban." Through
readings of Garcia's The Aguero Sisters and Achy Obejas' We Came All the Way from
Cuba So You Could Dress Like This?, I locate figures of the other Cuban that have
periperformative relationships to trauma. Instead of focusing solely on the catastrophic,
they enforce the need to think of the everyday. Through testimonio as a narrative
technique, these texts show how traumas exist alongside and intersect with each other.
These texts, through the other Cuban, also insist on a need to understand issues of
queerness in relation to heteronormative citizenship. Garcia and Obejas invoke figures of
the other Cuban that offer up a viable identification for Cubans outside of the hegemonic
discourses of Cubanness.
TRAUMA AND FIGURES OF THE "OTHER CUBAN" IN THE AGUERO SISTERS
In an interview, Cuban American author Cristina Garcia comments "As far as
Cuban identity goes, there are three concentric circles-The Cubans, the Miami-Cubans,
and the other Cubans. I'm in the third ring three times removed" (Garcia qtd in Kevane
71). Implicit in her statement is a binary that the "other Cuban" disrupts. This binary
consists of the Cubans that remain on the island and the exilios that live in Miami. These
two groups have been the main options for a political Cuban subject since the Cuban
revolution. One could either remain in Cuba and subscribe wholeheartedly to
communism or move to Miami and hope for the overthrow of Castro's regime, all the
while remaining virulently nostalgic for a Cuba that has passed. Garcia seeks an option
outside of these two political stances. Despite the stark opposition between these two
stances, they share one narrative of the Revolution as a traumatic, binary split for Cubans.
This narration of the Revolution, though not the traditional explicit performative, has had
an enormous performative effect on Cubans by creating such a dominant binary
surrounding Cuban identity.
Julian Wolfreys, in his text "Occasions of Trauma and Testimony: Witnessing,
Memory and Responsibility," writes that the traumatic event makes an incision in the self
and clarifies that "This is the case, whether by 'self one indicates a single subject, an
individual subjected to a catastrophic experience, or a national, communal or cultural
subject, such as a nation or race" (198). The Cuban community effectively split, due to
the trauma of the Revolution. Cubans have an event in their pasts that has changed their
lives forever and has haunted them. Indeed, Cristina Maria Garcia, author of Havana
USA, writes about Cubans in Miami that "The new Cuban emigres perceived themselves
as exiles, not immigrants. They did not want to begin life anew as norteamericanos"
(Maria Garcia 1). The trauma of these Cubans is that they never thought of themselves as
leaving their country permanently. Because of this, they have an intense nostalgia for the
past that freezes a notion of what Cuba was. This nostalgia has homogenized the political
view of Cuban exiles in Miami. Garcia notes this when saying, "Miami is such a political
hothouse that suffers little dissidence. It can be an intolerant place. It is frequently
monolithic in its approach to Cuba" (Garcia qtd Kevane 71). While Cubans in Miami
seem to have a monolithic approach to Cuba, fervent Cubans who have remained
staunchly loyal to the Revolution are the other extreme to the traumatic self that has been
As Garcia showcases, there is a need to move beyond this split in Cubanness. I'm
interested in expanding on Garcia's notion of the "other Cuban." What sort of
ramifications would this entail? How might an "other Cuban" perspective shift the way
in which we receive the Cuban story? What sort of relationship to trauma might this
other Cuban have?
Both Garcia's novel The Aguiero Sisters and Achy Obejas' short story "We Came
All the Way from Cuba So You Could Dress Like This?" periperformatively make the
perspective and political subjectivity of the "other Cuban" possible. A periperformative
structure focuses on narratives and performative events in relation to each other. These
texts weave together national and catastrophic traumas alongside everyday traumas.
National and catastrophic examples are the like that make the news. They are usually the
traumatic events that history is structured around: wars, revolutions, genocide and such.
Often, catastrophic or national traumas have lingering, everyday traumas that form folks'
lives. Everyday traumas might take the form as the residual effects of catastrophic
traumas. Or they might be the trauma of instutionalized oppressions: sexism, racism,
classism, or heterosexism.
The peripeperformative storytelling of Garcia and Obejas has an intertextual
structure that showcases the importance of thinking of the quotidian, material constraints
that affect certain lives. These narratives not only contain multiple perspectives, but also
have characters that inhabit the "other Cuban" identity. Such characters break down the
binary of Cubanness by focusing on everyday traumas in a way that remains critical in
relation to both the Cuban and U.S. governments. One significant example of an
everyday trauma is the trade embargo on Cuba. Not only does this embargo prohibit
material exchange, it also prohibits dialogue. In contrast, the figure of the other Cuban
Obejas and Garcia offer narratives that present views and perspectives that work
outside of dominant discourses on Cuba. Together, they problematize staunch loyalty to
any monolithic narrative on Cuba. Furthermore, both authors employ a periperformative
critique elaborating that partial, fragmented stories exist alongside other traumas and
within the vicinity of trauma. One storytelling technique they invoke is testimony or
testimonio. Testimony is the key narrative technique of trauma. This particular
storytelling technique is also used by Latina Feminists because it presents a personal,
political narrative that defies one, univocal version of history.
These narratives also resist a language of nostalgia. Ann Cvetkovich's innovative
work on trauma in her book, An Archive of Feelings, focuses on everyday traumas in
relation to lesbian publics. Cvetkovich notes that there is a need to "move beyond
narratives of assimilation or national belonging that demand feelings of unambivalent
patriotism or that restrict the language of loss to sentimental forms of nostalgia" (119).
The figure of the other Cuban, because of its suspicion of the nation-state and the binary
of Cubanness, works outside of such a language of loss and nostalgia to form a new
subjectivity of Cubanness.
Garcia's and Obej as' narratives, the figure of the other Cuban has a queer quality.
Nationalist discourses, both in Cuba and the U.S., seek to nationalize a particular
heteronormative citizenship. People who fall outside of this strict notion of
heternormative citizenship have a queer relation to the state. Ann Cvetkovich states that
the importance of "the interventionist potential of trauma histories to disrupt celebratory
accounts of the nation that ignore or repress the violence and exclusions that are so often
the foundation of the nation-state" (119). These exclusions are imposed
disproportionately on queer citizens. Both in Cuba and the U.S., there have been
exclusions and violent silences surrounding queer folks living with everyday
discrimination, violence and AIDS.
Amy Villarejo comments that conservative rhetoric surrounding Cuba is an
"ideological project of naturalizing drift, of condemning Cuba and the Revolution in the
names of capitalism and democracy requires ammunition, and it has come in a surprising,
indeed astonishing, alternate name: one that I shall call gays-and-lesbians" (Villarejo
124). Both of these texts invoke queer Cuban subjects, yet they succeed in avoiding what
Julien Schnabel's Before Night Falls does with the queer Cuban subject of Reinaldo
Arenas. Villarejo locates Before Night Falls as one of the films that has been taken up in
the name of capitalism to denounce Castro, communism and revolutionary politics. The
film denounces the Castro regime for the inhumane treatment of queers. Yet, it makes no
mention of the fact that Reinaldo Arenas committed suicide during advanced stages of
AIDS in New York City during the 1980s. Indeed, to invoke that fact would invoke a
history of American state sanctioned homophobia. New York was one of the most
hostile places for people with AIDS due to homophobic and classist government
decisions. Hospitals were closed in the neediest parts of town. The film does not even
mention AIDS. By silencing the crisis of AIDS in New York and for Arenas, the film
posits that the only homophobia and heterosexism Arenas encounters is in Cuba. Thus,
the film implicitly participates in a discourse that condemns Cuba in the name of gays
and lesbians in order to promote capitalist ideology and condemns communism.
In the Aguero Sisters, Cristina Garcia works outside such hegemonic frameworks
on Cuba, capitalism and communism. Instead, she weaves together the narratives of
many characters to challenge a patriarchal, monolithic history. Her book opens with the
Ignacio Aguero murdering his wife, Blanca Aguero while they are on an expedition in
Cuba. Throughout the rest of the novel, her two daughters, Reina and Constancia,
struggle with the lingering trauma of her mysterious death. Their children have their own
struggles, quite different from the Aguero Sister's. The incessant hauntings and
responsibilities of family lead the Aguero sisters to negotiate their mother's death and
compare their own partial histories of their familial past. Each sister is haunted by
Blanca to bear witness to her death. Not only do the sisters create a dialogue in the
narrative, but the narrative also structurally performs a dialogue or relay between the
different narratives of the characters. By breaking up the novel into smaller, fragmented
narratives of each character, which alternate section by section, Garcia creates a constant
shift in perspective. Because each section is a personal perspective, these sections employ
the Latina feminist technique of testimonio. The partial and personal aspect of testimonio
makes it open for conversation. It is not a closed or totalizing narrative. This structure,
which creates dialogue amongst testimonies, works to open up histories, instead of
seeking a univocal history.
Garcia's microcosmic narrative allegorically illustrates the macrocosmic situation
of Cubans and Miami Cubans. Her narrative posits that there is a specter of the past-the
revolution-that haunts both Cubans and Cuban-Americans. As a family, they have a
filial responsibility to each other. Familial ties and the phantom of the revolution place
an ethics of responsibility for dialogue between exiles and non-exiles. The novel also
pushes an analysis that moves beyond the trauma of the Revolution and focuses on
everyday concerns through the younger generation characters, Dulce and Silvestre.
The Aguiero Sisters begins with the traumatic event of Blanca's death. This
spectral event haunts the entire novel and, specifically, Blanca's two daughters. It is
important to note that Blanca's name literally translates to "white." This name is
significant because of her racial privilege. Also, her early, unexplained death contributes
to her opacity and her overall figure as a phantom for both of her daughters. Indeed, her
death is not fully explained to her daughters. The opening chapter of the book, where
Blanca dies, is also the prologue. It is part of the book, yet sectioned off from it as well.
This structurally mirrors how events work. An event happens, haunts the rest of the
narrative, but always remains inaccessible in its entirety. In Garcia's novel, the haunting
is performative. It eventually spurs dialogue and change. Dated September 8, 1948,
Ignacio and Blanca Aguero go on an expedition in the Zapata Swamp. Blanca spotted a
rare hummingbird and "turned to alert her husband and found him staring at her, fixed as
a muscle behind his double-barreled gun" (Garcia 5). Ignacio shoots Blanca in the throat
and then "carried his wife seventeen miles to the nearest village and began to tell his lies"
(Garcia 5). With this last statement, Garcia signals that the subsequent memoirs from
Ignacio, scattered throughout the rest of the novel, are lies. Unlike the other narratives
that weave together in the text, Garcia specifically sections off Ignacio's narratives in
italics. This italicization functions as a warning of Ignacio's propensity for lying and
juxtaposes Ignacio's version of the family history against the other histories in the novel.
Indeed, the rest of the novel, barring Ignacio's letters, works to reconstruct, through
partial perspectives, the traumatic event of Blanca's death. By beginning with this
prologue, Garcia sets up a mistrust of Ignacio and his monolithic, patriarchal history.
The structural separation of the prologue places Blanca as the phantom or ghost whose
haunting perpetuates a history that requires dialogue to bear witness to her death.
The novel, after the prologue, begins 42 years after Blanca's death. The narratives
of three women are woven together, along with the italicized memoirs of Ignacio (the
murderer and husband of Blanca) and Silvestre (Constancia's son), to form a multi-
voiced narrative. These women are Reina Aguero and Constancia Aguero, Blanca's two
daughters, and Dulce Fuerte, Reina's daughter. Both daughters are haunted by the
traumatic loss of their mother, and the eerie incompleteness of her death. Their personal
narratives sharply juxtapose the monolithic, oppressive history presented to them by their
father. They respond to the haunting of Blanca through a "form of testimony, a bearing
witness or being called to witness" (Wolfreys 185). Wolfreys warns that "the radical
otherness, the alterity of that which we must respond, is understood when it comes to be
recognized that testimony, as with responsibility and in order to be responsible, in order
to be testimony and not merely an account generated according to some protocol, has to
be transformative or inventive" (186). Indeed, the novel responds to this call of
testimony in order to transform the history of their family. The partial perspectives of the
women's narrative strive to give voice to Blanca, who was silenced by Ignacio. As
shown structurally through the event being placed in the prologue, the daughters will
never be able to fully reconstruct Blanca's death. Neither of the daughters experienced
this particular event. As Wolfreys says, an exact recreation of the event is not possible;
instead the task "becomes a matter of addressing the 'impossibility and necessity' of
bearing witness to the unexperiencedd experience,' and it is through the structural gap, in
that grammar of absence and loss, that the other comes to be heard" (190). By
structurally sectioning off Blanca's death, Garcia's text performs this "grammar of
absence and loss." She showcases the difficult responsibility of bearing witness to an
event that, through its alterity, remains inaccessible in its entirety. While the event
remains inaccessible to most characters in the book, the readers are granted the privilege
of knowing what happened at the Zapata Swamp. Because the readers have access to this
event that is so inaccessible to the characters, Garcia can better show the alterity and
singularity of historical events. Her characters periperformatively work to reconstruct
their familial history, yet Garcia structures her novel in a way that shows they will never
know their mother's death in its entirety.
The Aguero Sisters works to challenge a monolithic history through a
"reorientation towards the reading of history, of reading 'history' and its representations
differently in relation to trauma" (Wolfreys 183). As mentioned, the text takes on this
responsibility through testimony. In the opening of Telling to Live: Latina Feminist
Testimonios, The Latina Feminist Group (TLFG) writes that "From our different
personal, political, ethnic, and academic trajectories, we arrived at the importance of
Testimonio as a crucial means of bearing witness and inscribing into history those lived
realities that would otherwise succumb to the alchemy of erasure" (TLFG 2). Indeed,
Garcia's own characters have differing personal, political and ethnic identities. Yet, that
disparity enriches the use of testimonios. Instead of having a univocal testimony that
stands as the only homogenizing history, these personal, partial perspectives weave
together to create conversational histories. The Latina Feminist Group goes on to assert
"Our testimonials continually disrupt the essentialized, homogenized understanding of
Latina as we present our respective genealogical and historical inheritances" (TLFG 6).
Again, testimonio staves off essentialist notions of subjects and history. This is achieved
through the specificity and particularity of testimonio. It emphasizes the singularity of
witnessing. Yet woven together, the testimonies create a dialogue as they comment on
each other. The Latina Feminist Group explains, "To write and theorize about a range of
Latina experiences, however, required being in sustained dialogue with one another"
(TLFG 9). This constant dialogue remains crucial to understanding the past because "the
materiality of the historical event is only ever available through the relay and
concomitant deferral that is the condition of the materiality of signifiers" (Wolfreys 183-
184). These testimonies also offer a way to understand the individual experience in
relation to historical and institutionalized oppressions. Ann Cvetkovich offers that
"Individual testimony, trauma's paradigmatic genre, plays a significant role in providing
a point of mediation between systemic structures and lived experiences of them" (123).
Garcia weaves together the testimonies of her characters, 42 years after the event of
Blanca's death, to create a both a deferral and relay surrounding their familial history and
to situate their singular narratives into the larger Cuban narrative.
These testimonios showcase that trauma narratives happen alongside each other.
Such narratives work periperformatively. As the added prefix suggests,
periperformatives, "though not themselves performatives... are about performatives and,
more properly ...cluster around performatives" (Sedgwick 68). Periperformatives
emphasize spatiality because they exist in reference to other performative acts. By
having a spatial and relational dimension, periperformatives invoke communities.
Instead of having simply one narrative, different narratives of different people exist next
to each other and influence each other. Indeed, they are intertextual as they function
alongside other performative acts. This gives them a more historical relevance as
Sedgwick states, "It also seems to me that the periperformative dimension-and oddly,
just insofar as it invokes the spatial and the analogic-also has more aptitude than the
explicit performative for registering historical change" (79). Because it exists alongside
other acts, the periperformative invokes a multidirectionall" narrative of history, rather
than a monolithic narrative. Rather than locating one factor in historical change, it can
reveal intersecting histories surrounding particular issues and challenge monolithic
Sedgwick emphasizes thinking of the spatial position of beside. Such a move
disrupts dichotomous and monolithic logic. She writes
Invoking a Deleuzian interest in planar relations, the irreducibly spatial
positionality of beside also seems to offer some useful resistance to the ease with
which beneath and beyond turn from spatial descriptors into implicit narratives of,
respectively, origin and telos. Beside is an interesting preposition also because
there's nothing very dualistic about it; a number of elements may lie alongside one
another, though not an infinity of them. Beside permits a spacious agnosticism
about several of the linear logics that enforce dualistic thinking: noncontradiction
or the law of the excluded middle, cause versus effect, subject versus object. Its
interest does not, however, depend on a fantasy of metonymically egalitarian or
even pacific relations, as any child knows who's shared a bed with siblings. Beside
compromises a wide range of desiring, rivaling, leaning twisting, mimicking,
withdrawing, attracting, aggressing, warping, and other relations. (Sedgwick 3)
Emphasizing the preposition "beside," for the Aguero family, invokes a
heterogeneous intersection of subjects and histories in the same space. Their histories
intersect with each other and affect each other. Garcia represents this periperformative
quality of history structurally by arranging various testimonies that add to and comment
on each other. This structure focuses on the multiple subjects affected by a traumatic
event. Also, it shows that traumas exist alongside each other. Instead of emphasizing
what many would assume as the victims of trauma, which focuses on the pathologization
of subjects, a periperformative and beside spatiality would focus on communities. And
thus, it would focus on a productive aspect of trauma and traumatic events by showing
how whole communities and subjects emerge from trauma.
Such an analysis figures quite importantly in Ann Cvetkovich's study because she
is "interested not just in trauma survivors but in those whose experiences circulate in the
vicinity of trauma and are marked by it" (3). She writes, "I want to place moments of
extreme trauma alongside moments of everyday emotional distress that are often the only
sign that trauma's effects are still being felt" (my italics 3). By having multiple, partial
testimonies, Garcia highlights that events affect many people in various ways and that
their narratives exist alongside and intersect with each other.
After the prologue, Reina Aguero's is the next narrative we receive in the novel. It
begins on December 1990 in El Cobre, Cuba. Garcia describes Reina as "five feet
eleven, a good four inches taller than most of the men with whom she works. Her mouth
is large and flawless, with barely discernible corners. The most daring of her colleagues
call her Compafiera Amazona, a moniker she secretly relishes" (Garcia 10). This
physical description stands in sharp juxtaposition to her sister's physique. Her dark skin
and curvaceous body are more representative of the type of folks who remained in Cuba.
Indeed, roughly half of the Cubans who remain in Cuba are of African descent.
In this chapter, we discover that Reina is suffering from a persistent case of
insomnia. Reina lives in her father's former study. Her lover "blamed the anarchy of
books in the study for Reina's insomnia" (Garcia 11). The books are her father's legacy
and "nothing has changed here since her father's death, forty years before" (11). Her
father too suffered from insomnia, "but his was complete and incurable and drove him to
suicide two years after his wife's death" (13). Something concerning Reina's familial
history keeps her awake at night, haunts her. For example, "On the worst of nights,
Reina feels herself trapped as if on a magnetic plateau, with no fix on the blackness. She
thinks often of her mother, hears her voice again, feels the warm press of her breast
against her cheek. Reina was six years old when her mother died on the collecting
expedition in the Zapata Swamp. How is it possible that she has existed without her all
of these years?" (Garcia 14). The memory and loss of Blanca haunts Reina, refusing to
let her sleep.
Ignacio's insomnia leads to his death. Reina remembers Ignacio's last written
words before he committed suicide: "The quest for truth is far more glorious than the
quest for power" (Garcia 13). After writing this line, he shot himself in the heart.
Interestingly, Ignacio was a scientist who continually searched for the truth. Yet, his
truth was always the monolithic, "objective" truth. This notion of the truth is something
that only those in power can designate. He not only studied nature, but collected
specimens by killing animals and preserving them to provide a natural history for Cuba.
His way of writing history is to kill, so that subjects of history can no longer move. For
Ignacio to know and to understand things, they must be static, dead and frozen. Indeed,
he impossibly strives for an immobile, univocal history.
Katherine Combs finds these tendencies in the memoirs scattered throughout the
novel. She says, "Because of his dedication to the pursuit of scientific truth and the
meticulousness of his prose, his audience members feel they can trust his claims
implicitly, even though they are made aware in the first chapter of the novel that he is a
liar and a murder" (Combs 26). While Combs points out that the scientific ideologies of
truth and objectivity infiltrate Ignacio's writing, she assumes that this makes his writing
trustworthy. On the contrary, I would argue that through the warning in the prologue,
that Ignacio tells lies, Garcia sets Ignacio up as the writer who cannot be trusted. She
showcases that one should be immediately suspicious and critical of any "objective" or
monolithic narrative of history. We can only know history and the world around us
through language. Therefore, what we call history always comes down to a matter of
reading, and equally, rereading and rewriting in as responsible a manner as possible,
however neutral we seek to be, or (mis)believe we can be. At the same time, the work of
reading history must necessarily take place precisely because "the historical occurrence is
neither fully perceivable in the event nor subsequently accessible after the fact of its
occurrence" (Wolfreys 184). My claim is not that Ignacio's compulsions for writing
history are inherently wrong or oppressive. Rather, the way he writes is irresponsible.
He precisely misbelieves that he can write a neutral, totalizing history and fails to
acknowledge that the historical event can only ever be relayed through language,
language that slips, disseminates and exceeds any mimetic representation. Precisely
because they are dead, Ignacio's specimens cannot relay a history of natural life in Cuba.
Reina's haunting and insomnia pushes her in a very different direction than her
father. In El Cobre, Reina gets struck by lightening while working in the rain. After the
accident, Reina's insomnia persists, but now she doesn't even enjoy making love as she
used to. Now, when she makes love, "nothing, not even Pepin, whose hands erase all
borders, whose mouth clashes against her in love, can make bliss return" (Garcia 66).
Reina ponders over her current state ...
Well, what is it she wants now? Reina wonders whether it's nostalgia to yearn for
her mother, nostalgia to gather her shadows all these years. Why else would she
choose to live like this, amidst the debris of her childhood and Papa's dead
specimens? What truths can they possibly reveal to her after so long? Can they tell
her why her mother died, why her sister was sent away? (67)
Her haunting leads her back to her mother and her sister. Instead of having a nostalgic,
static view of the past, she searches for a feminine history that has been kept from her.
Furthermore, she searches for truths, not one truth like her father. Indeed, Blanca invokes
in Reina a yearning to piece together the different shadows that she has cast on people's
lives. The shadows are yet another sign of the specter of Blanca-she is not there but has
left an imprint and is therefore always present in the negative.
These questions lead her to a memory of the events surrounding her mother's
funeral. She was kept from her mother's corpse, by her father. Yet, she snuck away into
"the last embalming chamber, her mother laying on a rusting pedestal, her throat an
estuary of color and disorder, as if a bloody war had taken place beneath her chin" (68).
Despite her father's lies, Reina knows that something happened to her mother, far
different than what she has been told. Blanca's corpse testifies a different story than the
one Ignacio has told. After yet another sleepless night, Reina is driven to leave her
father's study where "the past she combs through is long dead" (95). Reina realizes that
the stuffed birds and specimens will not lead her to any truths and do not convey her
history. She runs to a University's biology building and searches for her mother asking
"Would her mother be there, stuffed and inert like everything Papa killed?" (99). She
finds nothing, but feels "burning with a forged history"(100). Reina realizes that the
answers to her questions, to her hauntings, to her insomnia are not to be found in Cuba,
but rather in Miami with her sister. Hence, she demands to leave Cuba, and finally
makes her journey across the ocean to Miami.
The text moves from Reina to her sister, Constancia. Her physical description sets
her starkly apart from her sister. Garcia writes that Constancia is "fifty-one years old, but
her skin is soft and white. Her dark hair is arranged in a French bun, and her nails are
lacquered to match her carnelian lips. Constancia is partial to Adolfo suits, which set off
her petite figure, and she completes every ensemble with a short strand of pearls" (Garcia
20). This image of Constancia sharply contrasts the image of her sister. Instead of
having the large, strong body of a worker, Constancia has the petite frame of a lady.
Furthermore, her description emphasizes her whiteness and her class level. This contrast
is significant because, as Reina resembles a population of Cubans in Cuba, Constancia's
whiteness and upper-class status resembles the exilios in Miami. One wears a worker's
jumpsuit, and the other wears Adolfo suits. Where Reina is dark, Constancia is light.
Indeed, they are disparate in their colors, class and gender displays.
The two sisters not only have different images, but have also received different
versions of their mother's death and, thus, experience the haunting of Blanca differently.
While Reina saw her mother's corpse, Constancia never did. Instead, her father told both
of them that Blanca had drowned in the swamp. When Reina said what she had seen,
Ignacio said it was impossible. Later, "Papi finally confided to Constancia that what
Reina had seen was no lie. There mother had shot herself in the Zapata Swamp, aimed
the gun at her own throat. He made Constancia promise never to tell Reina, that the
secret would only reopen wounds" (80). This promise kept Ignacio's version of history
alive, even if it was a lie. The promise kept the sisters separated as they had been for
most of their lives. As Constancia kept this secret, she and Reina failed to reopen
wounds, to reopen their traumatic experience of their mother's death. Constancia
"remembers thinking that Mama may have died, but she'd be impossible to bury, that
she'd remain in their lives forever, sulfurous as her absence"(80). Again, Constancia
confirms that the phantom or specter of Blanca is very persistent. The sisters' versions of
their mother's death stays separate until they meet again.
Indeed, their meeting in Miami is so significant because most of their lives have
been lived apart from one another. Constancia recalls that when she was only five
months old her mother left their house. She returned over two years later, pregnant with
Reina. We do not have a full account of what happened to Blanca during those two
years, but we do know that Reina' s father was a man of a color. When Reina was born,
Constancia tried desperately to torture her and make her cry. Because of this, Blanca
threatened to leave again. So "Papi took Constancia to stay on Abuelo Ramon's ranch in
Camaguey. It was supposed to last only the summer. It endured for the next six years"
(48). She finally came home after her mother died. Then the sisters were separated by
the Cuban Revolution. Constancia went to New York, while Reina remained loyal to the
revolution. Reina realizes that "she understood as little of her sister's life in America as
she had in Cuba" (69). The two have been exiled from each other by two traumatic
events. Yet, the traumatic event of their mother's death leads them back to each other
Blanca's ghost haunts Constancia quite differently than Reina. Because Constancia
received the patriarchal history of her mother's death, she was not as willing as her sister
to remember and reconstruct her mother's history. Furthermore, because she was sent
away from her home at the threat of her mother leaving, Constancia was more allied with
her father, who still visited her on her abuelo's ranch. Because of all these obstructions,
her haunting had to be more apparent and came not merely as a haunting, but also as an
apparition. Blanca, the ghost of Blanca, manifested on her face. Blanca's face took over
Constancia's face, which had given her so much pride as a cosmetics retailer. The specter
of the past is much harder to ignore when it is literally written all over Constancia's face.
Garcia writes "it's impossible to avoid her reflection entirely, the reluctant dialogue on
every surface in the house" (106). Blanca haunts Constancia to force her into
participating in a dialogue, no matter how reluctant she may be.
When Reina first arrives in Miami, the exchange between the two sisters starts
easily as they take comfort in being reunited once again. At first they do not tackle the
issue of Blanca's death. They do not reopen wounds. But then Reina convinces
Constancia to take her husband's boat out. Here, with the fluidity of the water, Reina
first feels the urge to discuss her mother's death. Reina "wants to tell Constancia again
what she saw at the funeral home. Describe the colors of Mami's devastated throat.
Force her to listen. Shout it loud in her sister's face. Mami couldn't have drowned, like
her father said. No she couldn't have drowned, which means their father must have lied.
And if Papa lied, what the hell was the truth?" (167). Indeed, Reina already knows that
Ignacio's version of Blanca's death should be mistrusted.
Constancia wants to delve into a dialogue with Reina, but then stops herself
because it upsets her. Garcia writes, "During their first days together in Miami, Reina
asked Constancia to grant her small intimacies. Intimacies that Reina and their mother
had shared. But soon Constancia found this too upsetting to sustain. Her memories of
Mama are altogether different from her sister's, hardly benign" (174). Garcia sharply
juxtaposes the different perspectives, experiences and histories of the sisters to show that
no memory is benign. The past, always reconstructed into a partial, particular narrative,
is cancerous and spreads throughout the novel. As Reina ponders "the past is little more
than this: a series of erasures and perfected selections" (Garcia 163). History is only
ever the work of a reconstruction of singular events. It is only ever accessible after the
fact, through a relay of language. The narration necessarily erases and selects, as every
aspect and perspective would be impossible to relate. The past can never be
reconstructed mimetically, as it actually happened. Indeed, the history can only ever
encompass specters and ghosts; it is hauntological and not ontological. Regardless,
Constancia still clings onto the hope that Ignacio's version of history is correct. She
decides to tend to the specimens that Reina has brought from Cuba that Ignacio himself
killed and preserved. No matter how much she cleans them, "the birds still look dead"
(181). The only thing that looks alive is her mother's face, staring at her through a
mirror, "as if she knew someone would ask her a question long after her death" (181).
Constancia strives to uphold a monolithic, patriarchal history, yet Blanca's specter won't
Constancia resists being "faced" with her mother's death and, instead, capitalizes
on the intense nostalgia Cuban folks in Miami have for Cuba. She begins a line of face
and body products called Cuerpo de Cuba, literally meaning body of Cuba. Garcia writes
that each bottle "is affixed with a label featuring a cameo of her mother's face (now her
own) beneath the ornate logo Cuerpo de Cuba" (129). Her advertisements have an
antique and tropical look to "appeal to her client's memories, to the remembered
splendors of their Cuban youth. Her motto-Time may be indifferent but you needn't
be-appeals to their anxious vanity" (132).Indeed, Cubans in Miami today spend much
money on Cuban memorabilia and the internet company, Ebay, even has a special section
for Cuban memorabilia. This nostalgia represents a frozen image of what Cuba was
much like Ignacio's specimens. These folks feel the trauma of exile, but refuse to
negotiate the fact that Cuba has gone on without them. They suffer from the same
delusion that Ignacio invested in. They believe that these preserved objects can actually,
mimetically represent Cuba. Indeed, this marketing scheme appeals to the nostalgia that
wants to forget that time has passed. It also tries to homogenize a notion of the body of
Cuba and Cubanness, as if there is just one type. And this nostalgia is certainly vain. It
focuses on a first person, monolithic narrative of Cuba and falls prey to Ignacio's logic
Judith Butler's new book Precarious Life warns against such first person,
monolithic narratives. While it focuses on U.S. relations with the Middle East, it also
provides interesting critiques for U.S. relations with Cuba. Butler warns against the
danger of starting any monolithic narrative with 9/11. To do this erases all of the
explanations for such an event. Indeed, if we take seriously a notion of post sovereign
subjectivity (an understanding of individuals in circumstances), then we must not search
for only one point of origin of violence within isolated individuals. Instead of vilifying or
exonerating such individuals, we must instead ask how they occur.
Such limited narratives that focus on individuals and one event to explain historical
change necessarily omit other narratives and perspectives. And although the Cuban
revolution remains a very different event than 9/11, monolithic narratives and
perspectives prove to be a large political and ethical problem in both. Butler's insight is
useful for the very different, monolithich narratives that constitute contemporary
discourse on Cuba and Cuban identity.
Butler, instead, calls for a decentering of the first-person narratives. This particular
shift creates a better understanding of power and agency. Instead of fully volitional
subjects, we get a notion of subjects in context. She says,
We have to shore up the first person point of view, and preclude from the telling
accounts that might involve a decenter of the narrative "I" within the international
political domain. This decentering is experienced as part of the wound that we
have suffered, though, so we cannot inhabit that position. This decentering is
precisely what we seek to rectify through a recentering. A narrative emerges to
compensate for the enormous narcissistic wound opened up by the public display of
our physical vulnerability. (Butler 6-7)
Butler urges us to think of wounds and of trauma as an opportunity to see our own
vulnerability, instead of re-asserting a narrative that focuses solely around the sovereign
subject. She maintains that vulnerability and trauma can be opportunities to re-imagine a
world in which we are connected and tied to others. This sort of de-centered narrative
gives us a better understanding of how events happen.
Such a de-centered narrative would benefit analyses concerning Cuba. They would
not only de-center the upper and middle class that left Cuba, they would also avoid using
Castro as a synecdoche for Cuban Communism. Indeed, to truly believe that one man
has brainwashed an entire island is a naive and grossly reductive notion of history,
agency and power. Many things must be considered and problematized when addressing
Cuban and the Revolution: race, gender, class, sexuality, memory, history and trauma.
Trauma figures in this narrative as many Cuban Americans remain traumatized by the
Cuban Revolution as an event. This event creates a rupture in their lives and many of
their identities are figured around this event. Indeed, their politics focus on this event as
a powerfully motivating source. But figuring trauma solely around this event, much like
starting a narrative about Cuba monolithically with this event, erases many histories and
people. Garcia's use of multiple testimonios decenters any one narrative surrounding the
Agtiero family. This decentering and pluralizing of narratives presents us with subjects
Garcia does not write a narrative that allows Constancia to profit from such a first
person narrative. Constancia receives a letter from her uncle, who died many years
before in Cuba. In the letter, he writes that he "buried Papi's last papers there...'I could
not trust myself to stay silent, as your father ake'"' (255). These buried papers compel
Constancia to go back to Cuba. Before she leaves, she decides to consult the santero she
has been seeing since Blanca's face has appeared on her own. The santero tells her "that
she must go with her sister to the sacred trees by the river before returning to Cuba. That
in Cuba, the secrets will lie buried in their original grave" (260). Before receiving more
memoirs from her father, she must first engage in active dialogue with her own sister.
Both sisters proceed to the ocean to carry out some ceremonies prescribed by the
santero. Here, they finally confront each other with their particular versions of the
familial history. This scene takes place in the chapter entitled "The Flowers of Exile."
Indeed, these two sisters have been in exile from each other for the majority of their lives.
Constancia thinks to herself, "What separates her from her mother's resemblance? What
ultimately divides their blood? And to whom does she owe allegiance? All these years
Constancia thought it was her father. She's no longer certain" (274). This prompts
Constancia to talk to her sister. She goes on to confess what she promised to never tell,
that Mama didn't drown and Reina affirms that she didn't drown. Her sister then
replicates Ignacio's story, saying "Mama shot herself. Papi told me not to tell you, Reina,
that it would only make things worse" (274). As the tension between the clashing stories
mounts, the ocean becomes more violent. Reina says it's impossible, that Blanca couldn't
have reached the trigger. She says "You think the dead just lie still, Constancia? Cofio,
just look at yourself' (275). Reina finally tells Constancia that Ignacio "shot her like one
of his birds, and then he watched her die" (275). With this confession finally released,
Constancia lunges towards Reina and attacks her "sick and trembling with her father's
claim" (275). Constancia still struggles to maintain her father's version of history. Reina
then strangles Constancia "to choke out the final lies. Papa's lies" (276). They continue
to physically fight and Constancia pushes Reina off of the boat. Reina comes close to
drowning, but Constancia, after realizing that "knowledge is a kind of mirage," grabs her
back in the boat and resuscitates her. The dialogue, though extremely tumultuous, brings
them together, out of the trauma of their mother's death and out of exile from each other.
Constancia and Reina's reconstruction of their mother's death and of their mutual
trauma takes place violently. Indeed, their near repetition of murder appears to be what
traditional trauma theorists would call acting out. Cvetkovich comments that "I refuse
the sharp distinction between mourning and melancholy that leads Dominick LaCapra,
for example, to differentiate between 'working through,' the successful resolution of
trauma, and 'acting out,' the repetition of trauma that does not lead to transformation"
(164). Through acting out their mutual frustrations and their divergent perspectives of
what happened to their mother, Constancia and Reina deal with and work through their
ghosts of the past. This narrative resists a patholigization of subjects that grapple with
trauma. Instead, it shows how the trauma of their mother's death pushes them to revise
their histories and come together again. Indeed, it shows how trauma can produce
change. Yet, Garcia resists thinking of a utopian reunion for Cubans and Cuban
Americans. Such a writing of the coalition would present a naive notion of what divides
these sets of Cubans. Instead, she knows that the class and racial differences, and the
different perspectives produced, would make for an uneasy reunion. Still, she urges
The ocean between Miami and Cuba is where this scene takes place. The two
sisters, both Cuban, finally speak after being in exile from each other. They provide an
exchange of partial histories, propelled by filial responsibility and the phantom of their
mother. Their narrative is a microcosmic example of the current macrocosmic situation
between Cubans in Cuba and the Cuban exiles in Miami. These two sets of Cubans are
performatively separated by a traumatic event, the Cuban revolution. Yet, the figure of
the other Cuban works outside of this separation.
Focusing on Blanca's death and the narrative of the two sisters, in The Aguiero
Sisters, still focuses on a major, catastrophic event. Some of the more liminal characters,
though, reinforce the need for thinking of the everyday in relation to the catastrophic.
Many times, it is in the everyday that trauma can be felt and found. Reina's daughter,
Dulce Fuerte, has lived with the aftermath and legacy of the Revolution. Her perspective,
her testimonies, have a much more straightforward tone, unlike Constancia's and Reina's
testimonios which are haunted by memory and nostalgia. Dulce's narrative begins in
Havana. She says "Sex is the only thing they can't ration in Havana. It's the next-best
currency after dollars, and much more democratic, if you ask me" (Garcia 51). From the
first words of her narrative, Dulce emphasizes material realities that concern the
everyday. Her opening sentences signal the urgency of facing the reality of survival in
Cuba. Dulce's narrative not only criticizes the harsh regulations of the Cuban
government, but also the trade embargo by stating that sex is a more democratic currency
than dollars, the supposed currency of democracy.
She describes the prostitution in Havana that many women are economically forced
into to survive. Furthermore, she admits the failure of the economy, saying "Dollars
mean privileges. A roll of toilet paper. A bottle of rum. Pesos mean tejodes. You're
fucked. It's that simple" (Garcia 53). Dulce exposes the corruption of the government by
showcasing that babalawos are the only Cubans who make a decent living. Babalawos
are the highest ranking priests the Santeria, a Cuban hybrid religion. Their main function
is divine communication. Dulce says, "There's one around the corner from my building
who's redone his entire house with money from santeria initiations" (56). The
government refers clients to this babalawo and they get a cut of his pay. "You know
things have gotten desperate when the Party needs to buy off the babalwos" Dulce says
(56). Her testimonio ironically showcases the failure of the Cuban government to deliver
a secularized type of country and economy divorced from religion.
Dulce employs testimonio as a narrative technique by inviting the reader to "take a
stroll with me down the Malecon, and you'll see what I'm talking about" (Garcia 51).
With candid language and imagery, she relays a very personal perspective of a Cuban
who has grown up in post-Revolution Cuba. Indeed, she did not live through the
Revolution herself. Instead, she only knows the aftermath and quotidian reality of Cuba
post-Revolution. She exists in the vicinity of a major event. Her mother, though, lived
through the Revolution. Dulce comments
Like I said, it takes an occasional novio to get by. Mama doesn't understand this.
She's immune from the day-to-day hassles because she's had that bureaucrat lackey
lover of hers since the dawning of la revoluci6n. Every night, Pepin brings her a
fest from God knows where. Fresh steamed lobsters. Steaks as big as my thumb.
Mangoes so perfectly ripe and sweet-not the stringy stuff you get with coupons-
they're a kind of ecstasy. He also brings her shampoo that doesn't glue your hair
together like the local brand, when you can find it. Let's just say the woman hasn't
had to wait in a line since the Year of Ten Million, when the whole country went
crazy cutting sugarcane. (Garcia 52)
Her mother, caught up in the particularly heterosexist perks of dating a revolutionary,
doesn't understand the "day-to-day" challenges of contemporary Cuban life. But Dulce
and many of her peers are forced to hustle for toilet paper and decent nutrition. Dulce, as
a sex worker, falls outside of Cuban hetemormative citizenship. Although Reina's sex
gets her state perks, Dulce does not even receive state protection. And hustling, Dulce
emphasizes, has its own daily violence: "the hustlers carry knives now, work the strip in
pairs... See this scar on my stomach? Some bitch came after me with a metal file when
her French boyfriend dared look me over" (Garcia 57). Dulce knows not only
interpersonal violence, but also state violence. While trying her luck at a prestigious
hotel for tourists, she says "I was arrested at the bar of a Cuban hotel because I couldn't
produce a foreign passport" (58). Indeed, her mother gets privilege for being a mistress,
but Dulce gets arrested. The construction of heteronormative citizenship leaves room for
mistresses, but not prostitutes. This particular instance drives Dulce to leave the island.
She explains her motivations, "The rest is too tedious to tell in detail, but here's the
bottom line: I got booked for prostitution, lost my job coaching volleyball, worked two
hours in a cement plant with no cement before walking out, and decided to marry
Abelardo"(58). Abelardo is a Spanish tourist who proposed to Dulce. The everyday
pressure of survival left an undesirable marriage as the only out for Dulce.
Dulce moves to Spain with Abelardo, spends two weeks with him and then leaves
him. She then finds work with a wealthy family as a domestic servant and nanny. There,
they barely tolerate her. After overhearing Dulce speaking to a sex client, the Sefiora of
the household throws her out with little money. Her incessant poverty showcases an
example of everyday trauma that people experience in Cuba, Spain and the world. Dulce
notes that "Back in Cuba, the certainty was dismal, but it was still a certainty. It was hard
to fall between the cracks, to starve outright" (204).
By highlighting the material benefits of sex for both Reina and Dulce, Garcia
highlights the heterosexist economy of the island. In order for these women to live above
poverty, they have to commodify themselves as lovers: Reina as a mistress and Dulce as
a prostitute. One important difference to note is that a mistress does fit into the
heternormative citizenship in Cuba while a prostitute does not. Yet, because of her
everyday struggle, this does not shame Dulce. She has grown up in the everyday
constrictions of Communist Cuba under the economy of the U.S. trade embargo.
Furthermore, while critical of Cuba, she is also implicity critical of capitalism and the
everyday struggles that occur because of globalized capitalism. Dulce labors through two
gendered jobs: a prostitute and a domestic servant. Her narrative showcases the ways in
which gender intersects with poverty.
Dulce also highlights the trauma of silence surrounding AIDS. She says "The
foreigners like us because there isn't supposed to be any AIDS in Cuba. That's probably
El Comandante's most successful propaganda campaign yet. But it's just that.
Propaganda" (51). Her testimonio bears witness to the fact of AIDS in Cuba that stands
in contrast to Castro's propaganda. A blatant silence surrounding AIDS has also occurred
in the U.S.
Silvestre, Constancia's son, bears witness to the AIDS crisis in the U.S. He is a
gay man who lives in New York during the eighties and nineties. The reality of AIDS for
gay men in New York was a harsh, everyday trauma. Silvestre is a very liminal character
in the novel. He's the son of Constancia with her former husband Gonzalo. Gonzalo is
an exemplary Cuban exilio. He remains nostalgic about Cuba and even plans invasions
of the island with other exilios. Silvestre has never met his father. When he hears of his
father dying, he goes to the hospital in Miami. Garcia writes, "Silvestre abhors this
proximity to death. In New York, it's become all too common, almost casual, a forced
acquaintance. He's been celibate since the Christmas before last. It's much easier than
living with the certainty of doom" (245). Silvestre has a complex notion of traumatic
events. He associates the trauma present in a hospital in Miami to the trauma present in
the everyday life of a queer man in New York City during the nineties. Indeed, instead of
separating events, Silvestre sees them as periperformatively and intertextually
commenting on each other. What might his father's dying have to do with his queerness?
This association brings up not only the institutionalized and government sanctioned
homophobia in surrounding AIDS during the nineties in the U.S., but also the
homophobia in Cuban American families. Silvestre notes that "Mama protected him
from Gonzalo" and that "[Gonzalo] had no interest in his only son" (242-243). Gonzalo
exemplifies the typical, Cuban male exile, and hence has a machismo masculinity. Men
with machismo subjectivities scorn queers in order to uphold their machismo identity.
And queer sons are often rejected in traditional Cuban families. In this short passage,
Silvestre's experience and narrative showcase many traumas existing alongside each
other. Instead of having the Revolution as the central trauma, as his father's narrative
certainly would, Silvestre's narrative testifies to the homophobia of Cuban American
families and in New York City during the AIDS crisis. For Silvestre, this possible doom
of AIDS has constricted his everyday life and kept him from sexual pleasure, something
that his father enjoyed with many women. This everyday quality and effect of trauma
urges Silvestre to focus less on national or catastrophic events. He ponders "What might
have changed if he'd ever heard his father's voice? It was a pointless game. Silvestre
knows, if he knows anything, that conjecture is less necessary than everyday answers"
(243). He knows that meeting quotidian needs supercedes any intense nostalgia or
Garcia does not critique the AIDS crisis in the only U.S., but also in Cuba. As
previously noted, Dulce's character notes the oppressive silence surrounding AIDS. She,
like Silvestre, has queer citizenship. Indeed, being a prostitute falls outside of the realm
of heteronormativite citizenship. Yet, meeting everyday needs requires Dulce to hustle.
She doesn't have the heteronormative perks that her mother does. And so, like Silvestre,
she's faced with the silence surrounding AIDS, promoted by homophobia, as an everyday
trauma and danger for her life. Both Dulce and Silvestre know that the state, both Cuban
and American, will not put bodily integrity over an enforced ideology of heternormative
citizenship. As Cvetkovich points out, "Queer diasporas contain the promise of public
cultures that reject national belonging and virulent nationalism as the condition of
possibility for community" (121). The queer testimonios of Silvestre and Dulce-two
Cubans who have traveled beyond Cuba and Miami-forge a transnational, queer
dialogue that critiques the state sanctioned homophobia of both the United States and
Cuba with promise for a possible coalition.
Cvetkovich also notes that "if one adopts a queer and depathologizing approach to
trauma and refuses the normal as an ideal or real state, the trauma of immigration need
not be 'healed' by a return to the 'natural' nation of origin or assimilation into a new one"
(121). This quote offers an insightful reading of Silvestre and Dulce. Neither of these
second-generation characters have an attachment to origin. In fact, they both seem to get
frustrated with the intense nostalgia of their parents. Furthermore, as Cvetkovich's quote
states, a queer perspective rejects the need for natural origins. Silvestre violently rejects
his origin upon meeting his father for the first time. He comes into his father's hospital
room and "raises the hem of his father's gown until everything is visible. So this is his
origin, his inheritance. His first resurrection. These hairy orbs, so huge and sagging.
This limp little snout, still pink as a boy's" (246). Silvestre moves closer to his father's
phallus as his father awakens to face his son while stroking his own penis. Silvestre's
testimonio ends there. Then Constancia's begins with Gonzalo's funeral after he has
been smothered by a pillow in his hospital room. Though it is never stated, Garcia
implies that Silvestre has killed his father. And if so, this murder comes as a denial of his
origin and a castration of his father's fervently machismo nationalism.
NARRATION OF THE OTHER CUBAN IN "WE CAME ALL THE WAY FROM
CUBA SO YOU COULD DRESS LIKE THIS?"
Like Silvestre, the narrator of Achy Obejas' short story, "We Came All the Way
from Cuba So You Could Dress Like This?", confronts her father's nostalgic narrative
about Cuba and the family's exile. In the Aguero Sisters, Garcia gives the reader two
sisters: one in Cuba and one in the US. We see the effects of the Revolution on women
who lived through the event in different places. Importantly, we also see the critiques
waged by other Cubans in the vicinity of trauma. They reinforce the need for thinking of
the relation between the Revolution and everyday needs. Dulce and Silvestre showcase a
subjectivity that critiques heteronormative citizenship and nostalgia. Their other Cuban
perspective opens up notions of trauma, the everyday and nationalist discourses of
sexuality. The narrator of Achy Obej as' short story, "We Came All the Way from Cuba
So You Could Dress Like This?", also works as a figure of the other Cuban. The narrator
has been in the vicinity of the trauma of exile. Her parents left the island on a raft in
1963 when she was only ten years old. Because of her early departure from the island,
most of her political growing up takes place in the U.S. Like Dulce and Silvestre, her
narrative provides critique and suspicion of the older generation's authoritarian discourse
surrounding Cuba. Yet, being in the U.S., the discourse she hears is quite different from
the discourse heard by Dulce.
Obejas begins the short story with the narrator at the Immigration and
Naturalization Services. The narrator begins with a fairly explicit critique of U.S.
immigration laws. She notes:
As I speak, my parents are being interrogated by an official from the office
oflmmigration and Naturalization Services. It's all a formality because this is
1963, and no Cuban claiming political asylum actually gets turned away. We're
evidence that the revolution has failed the middle class and that communism is bad.
My parents-my father's an accountant and my mother's a social worker--are
living, breathing examples of the suffering Cubans have endured under the tyrrany
of Fidel Castro. (Obejas 113)
This excerpt periperformatively critiques the U.S. immigration laws. It does not openly
condemn, yet the tone and language imply the injustice and inequality of immigration
laws that seek to performatively interpellate new, Cuban exiles. No Cubans get turned
away from Miami or the Florida coast, yet countless other Latino/as, Haitians, and
Mexicans fear the INS. The narrator insinuates that rather than goodwill, the reason that
Cubans can stay is that they are proof that communism is bad and that capitalism
promotes democracy and freedom. Indeed, within the first days of their stay in Miami,
the INS workers show the family the sparkles of a capitalist economy.
One of the workers, described as a "fat Hungarian lady," identifies with the newly
exiled family. She explains that she also fled from communism, because in Hungary
"they took everything from her family, including a large country estate, with fourty-four
acres and two lakes, that's now being used as a vocational training center. Can you
imagine that, she says" (Obejas 114). Again, without explicitly critiquing this Hungarian
woman, the narrator relates her story in a way that leaves her situation quite open to
critique. This Hungarian woman does not provide evidence that Communism has failed
the middle class. Her family had gratuitous wealth that was turned into something many
can benefit from. The narration technique that Obejas uses opens these stories up for
The Hungarian worker takes the narrator's family to the supermarket, an icon of
capitalist choice and accessibility. This trip, the Hungarian worker says, is special
because she did this when she first came to the states. She adds "And it's something only
people like us can appreciate" (122). This particular incitation to identification seeks to
interpellate the family as avid supporters of U.S. capitalism motivated by a disdain for
communism. Yet, the narrator hardly identifies with the "fat Hungarian lady." She notes
that her mother remains quiet and exhausted from the trip, while her father performs the
role of the Cuban exile perfectly. She narrates, "There's a butcher shop in the back, and
my father says, Oh my god, look, and points to a slab of bloody red ribs thick with meat.
My god my god my god, he says, as if he's never seen such a thing, or as ifwe're on the
verge of starvation" (my italics, Obejas 123). The "as if' phrases in this passage imply
that the family has seen such meats before and that they are hardly about to starve. Still
in the store, the narrator's mother tries to calm down her husband, but he continues with
tears and states that he and his family have just arrived from Cuba to a place where there
is so much. The Hungarian worker adds "Yes, he came on a little boat with his whole
family; look at his beautiful daughter who will now grow up well-fed and free" (123).
The worker seems to fit the narrator's family into a universalizing trope of the Cuban
exile family. It also implies a sort of teleological narrative. They came from oppression
and now they will be free and provided for. Their first night in Miami, the government
provides a hotel for the family. The narrator notes that "We'll be allowed to stay there at
tax-payer expense for a couple of days until my godfather-who lives with his mistress
somewhere in Miami-comes to get us" (114). While the narrator notes the generosity of
the U.S. government when they first arrive in Miami, her storytelling remains open-ended
and carries a tone of suspicion. Indeed, she remains hesitant to fill the subject position of
the Cuban exile that is laid out for her and her family.
The story is narrated in a non-linear fashion. Fragments of the narrator's life are
placed alongside each other anachronistically. This spatializes the traumatic instances of
her life alongside each other rather than relying on a telos. This structure counters the
type of narrative that the INS workers set up for the narrator. Indeed, a Columbian
worker soothes the ten-year-old narrator: "She says she was once Catholic, too, but then
she was saved and became something else. She says everything will change for me in the
United States, as it did for her" (Obejas 116). Yet, the narrator's life doesn't lead up to
the same end point. She's confronted with everyday traumas. She deals with the burden
of her father's trauma of exile. She is a lesbian in a Catholic family and she develops
Even the narrator's parents have teleological narratives already set up for her. Her
father cites her as the sole reason he left Cuba. Obejas dedicates one section of the story
to the narrator's parents' aspirations and hopes for her. Her father wants her to hold a
position of power as a lawyer and then a judge. He does not wish this occupation on her
because he believes ardently in democracy, "in fact, he's openly suspicious of popular
will-but he longs for the power and prestige such a career would bring, and which he
can't achieve on his own now that we're here, so he projects it all on [her]" (117). The
narrator notes that her father never imagines her in domesticity, because that would take
away from his narcissistic goals for her. In contrast, her mother imagines her in a
definitively domestic space: "The owner of many appliances and a rolling green lawn;
mother of two mischievous children; the wife of a boyishly handsome North American
man who drinks Pepsi for breakfast" (117). While reveling in domestic bliss, the mother
also envisions her daughter as a successful newscaster with an undocumented Haitian
maid to take care of the house. Again, critiques are implicit in these aspirations the
narrator relates. Her father's wish for freedom for his daughter is actually a desire for the
power and money he has no chance of attaining. Her mother's wish rests on the assumed
privilege of Cuban immigrants over other immigrants.
The narrator reveals the privileged life that her parents aspire for her to lead. Yet,
the story also conveys "things that can't be told" (123). Indeed, many cases of trauma
involve the inability to know or to recount traumatic events. In this section, the narrator
reveals many parts of her life that run contrary to teleological narratives set up for her.
Yet, these teleological narratives do not account for the everyday trauma that the narrator
encounters. The section of "things that can't be told" does not provide the successes of
exiles in capitalist U.S. society, but instead the failures. The first untellable thing is
"when we couldn't find an apartment, everyone's saying it was because landlords in
Miami didn't rent to families with kids, but knowing, always, that it was more than that"
(123). In contrast to having a hotel room paid for by tax-payers, the family becomes
confronted with racism in the U.S. Yet, this does not fit into the exile success story and,
therefore, cannot be told. Then the narrator scores low on the IQ test because she does
not speak English. As a result, she is placed into the special education track until high
school, when the school finally realizes she does not belong in special education. She
recounts how suicidal her father becomes when he's confronted with the fact that he will
not be going back home. He tries to commit suicide with a light cord, but instead breaks
his arm while his wife works as a domestic servant in a nearby hotel. The trauma of exile
is paralleled with the trauma of poverty and the very real oppression of many Latina
women who are forced into domestic servitude. The family becomes forced to accept
welfare checks, "because there really was no other way" (124). Finally, even as working-
class Cuban Americans, the family must donate to exile groups which "often meant
helping somebody buy a private yacht for Carribean vacations, not for invading Cuba, but
also knowing that refusing to donate only invited questions about our own patriotism"
(124). The family is confronted with the prevailing binary of Cubans: pro-Castro or anti-
The narrator will try to break this binary. She asks her parents for her Cuban
passport to return to Cuba. But even the desire to go to Cuba during Fidel's reign is a sin.
Her mother says there is nothing for her in Cuba, while her father emphatically states
"Over my dead body" (125). When she asks for her passport, her father says "It's not
here anymore, but in a bank box, where you'll never see it. Do you think I would let you
betray us like that?"(126). For the narrator to go to Cuba, to break the direct opposition
to Castro, to see and experience the Cuba that has gone on without the exiles, would
betray the dominant exile narrative. It would open up a dialogue that would destabilize
teleological narratives of the Cuban exile that must refuse all ties with a communist
Yet, the narrator moves beyond both of her parent's hopes and desires. She
becomes a left wing, political activist, something that ill-favored in the majority of Cuban
American families. She says "In 1971, I'll come home for Thanksgiving from Indiana
University where I have a scholarship to study optometry. It'll be the first time in months
I'll be without an antiwar demonstration to go to, a consciousness-raising group to attend,
or a Gay Liberation meeting to lead" (121). Her mother barely recognizes her in her
hippie attire. The narrator's father asks "We left Cuba so you could dress like this?"
(121). This question is exceedingly loaded. It exposes the pressure put on the narrator
because of her family's exile and their trauma. Also, her father's question brings up class
issues.. Her father wants her to be a judge, someone who commands respect and a large
salary. Instead, she dresses like a hippie. All this tension is broken, finally, when the
narrator stands up to her father and confronts his hypocrisy. She says
Look, you didn't come here 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? My father, who works in a bank now,
will gasp--iQue que?-and step back a bit. And my mother will say, Please, don't
talk to your father like that. And I'll say, It's a free country, I can do anything I
want, remember? ... And then my father will reach over my mother's thin
shoulders, grab me by the red bandana around my neck, and throw me onto the
floor, where he'll kick me over and over until all I remember is my mother's voice
pleading, Please stop, please, please, please stop. (Obejas 121)
This confrontation with the things that the father does not want to remember drives him
to violence. Her unveiling of those "things that can't be told" counters the narrative that
he has imposed on himself, his daughter, and his family. She both acts out and works
through her own trauma of living amidst her parents' expectations for her, which come
from their sense of loss.
The narrator's father dies of a heart attack in 1990. She attends the funeral with
regret that more things were not said, but not wishing for more time with her father.
After the funeral, "the women will talk about how to make picadillo with low-fat ground
turkey instead of the traditional beef and ham, and the men will sit outside in the yard,
drinking beer or small cups of Cuban coffee, and talk about my father's love of Cuba, and
how fortunate it is that he died just as Eastern Europe is breaking free, and Fidel is surely
about to fall" (128). The women deal with the everyday, with the quotidian, while the
men focus on major events and nostalgia. The narrator's mother, at this point, is going
blind. The narrator worries about her mother after her father's death, but "a week after
my father's death, my mother will buy a computer with a Braille keyboard and a speaker,
start learning how to use it at the community center down the block, and be busy
investing in mutual funds at a profit within six months" (130). Even though her mother
has endured the traumatic events of exile, her husband's death and going blind, her focus
on the everyday gives her resistance to survive and adapt. The narrator's mother, only
after her father's death, gives her a box containing memories of Cuba, including her
Obejas' short story, spanning a mere eighteen pages, combines fragments of the
narrator's life that comment heavily on Cuban exiles. Her choice to make the narrator a
second-generation Cuban American focuses less on the catastrophic, and more on the
everyday because the narrator has a periperformative relationship to the Cuban
Revolution. The catastrophic still figures in this narrative, but it does so in relation to the
everyday. The narrator is someone who is in the vicinity of trauma and has suffered her
own everyday traumas that give her the strength to resist teleological narratives that seek
to constrain her life. The narrator herself has a complex understanding of trauma and
subjectivity. She says "I try to imagine who I would have been if Fidel had never come
into Havana sitting triumphantly on top of that tank, but I can't. I can only think of
variations of who I am, not who I might have been" (125). The narrator understands that
these traumatic events are part of who she is. This depathologizes trauma and shows,
instead, how it can be productive and give rise to resistance. Obejas' narrator fits outside
of the Cubans in Cuba and the Cubans in Miami. Indeed, she occupies the space of the
other Cuban by problematizing nostalgic myths concerning Cuba and the story of the
In the Aguero Sisters and We Came All the Way from Cuba So You Could Dress
Like This?, the narrative structures work to complicate simplistic notions of history in
relation to Cuba and Cuban exiles. These narratives work through the trauma of exile,
through subjects that show suspicion for nostalgic versions of history. Both Garcia and
Obejas invoke queer Cuban subjects to promote a viable subject position that seeks
dialogue and transnational coalition. Instead of lauding one nation-state over another, the
figure of the other Cuban, in these texts, works to remain critical of both nationalisms
that exclude them. Furthermore, the other Cuban illustrates the need for looking at
everyday trauma in relation to catastrophic events. This figure of the other Cuban has a
periperformative relationship to trauma. Instead of prioritizing one narrative of trauma,
this subject showcases that several narratives of trauma intersect and exist alongside each
other. Yet, this subject is not easily pathologized. Through testimonio, this subject
speaks out against the terms by which systemic trauma occurs. The figure of the other
Cuban, as illustrated by Obejas and Garcia, presents a Cuban subject that exceeds a
constricting binary of Cubanness.
LIST OF REFERENCES
Butler, Judith. Precarious Life. London: Verso, 2004.
Cvetkovich, Ann. An Archive of Feelings: Trauma, Sexuality and Lesbian Public
Cultures. Durham: Duke University Press, 2003.
Garcia, Cristina. The Agiero Sisters. New York: The Ballantine Publishing Group,
Garcia, Maria Cristina. Havana USA. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Kevane, Bridget A. Latina Self-Portraits: Interviews with Contemporary Women
Writers. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2000.
The Latina Feminist Group. Telling to Live: Latina Feminist Testimonios. .Durham:
Duke University Press, 2001.
Obejas, Achy. We Came All the Way from Cuba So You Could Dress Like This?.
Pittsburgh: Cleis Press, 1994.
Sedgwick, Eve. Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity. Durham: Duke
University Press, 2003.
Villarejo, Amy. Lesbian Rule: Cultural Criticism and the Value of Desire. Durham:
Duke University Press, 2003.
Wolfreys, Julian. "Events." Glossalalia. New York: Routledge, 2003. 77-88.
Christina Le6n was born in Lakeland, Florida, to a Cuban father and country
bumpkin mother. After too many years in private, Catholic school, she left home for
college in Gainesville. She graduated from the University of Florida in 2003 with a B.A.
in English. Her undergraduate honor's thesis explored trauma, queerness and
performativity in Jeanette Winterson's novel, The Passion. This thesis is for her M.A. in
English at the University of Florida.
After graduating, Christina plans to move to San Francisco and work in the non-
profit sector for a few years. After this, she plans to go back to school for her Ph.D. in