_Dreaming in Cuban_ by Cristina Garcia | Study Questions and Assignment Prompts

Last semester, I taught a course in Modern World Literature. Designing my curriculum around four novels by women of color, I was frustrated to find that although these are celebrated works of literature, teaching resources for them were less readily available than I would have expected. I decided to publish the reading questions and assignments prompts I developed to serve as a resource for other instructors.

*** Note: my class met on a Monday / Wednesday schedule, so my assignment structure is set up to have longer readings and reflections due on Monday sessions, and shorter readings due on Wednesday sessions.

W: READ: Dreaming in Cuban – pp. 3-34

  • “Ocean Blue”
  • “Going South”

Consider the following questions to help you read carefully and critically; come to class prepared to discuss these questions, along with any other topics you would like to raise:

  • What techniques does García use to build a portrait of Cuba, a country that most of her readers will not have visited? How do the scenes that take place in Cuba compare to those in Brooklyn — how would you characterize the difference between the two settings?
  • The narrative structure of Dreaming in Cuban can be difficult to follow at times. What do you think was García’s reason for using intertwining timelines, settings and narrative points-of-view? Why does Pilar get to tell her own story, in first person, while other characters are only narrated in third? How does the use of different narrative points of view affect your perception of the characters and the story?
  • So far, what is the tone of the work as a whole? Do you find it bleak? Hopeful? Something in between?

**We started out discussion with some background on Cuba, and its relationship to the US. I showed my students this video:

M: READ: Dreaming in Cuban pp. 35-101

  • “The House on Palmas Street”
  • “Celia’s Letters: 1935-1940”
  • “A Grove of Lemons”
  • “The Fire Between Them”
  • “Celia’s Letters: 1942-1949”

Consider the following questions to help you read carefully and critically; come to class prepared to discuss these questions, along with any other topics you would like to raise: 

  • Pilar left Cuba when she was just a baby; why do you think she feels such a strong connection to this place?
  • What’s up wite Jorge del Pino’s ghost? First, he visits Celia, then Lourdes sees him. Do you think we’re meant to believe he’s really there, or are Celia and Lourdes imagining him? What do their responses tell us about their characters? What do you think the ghostly presence of Jorge represents for them?
  • Why do you think Celia continues to write to Gustavo, even though she does not send the letters, and years have passed?  
  • We have learned some details about the stories of Celia, Felicia, Lourdes, and Pilar, from their perspectives. How are their stories intertwined? How does the world of the story change when described from each of their perspectives?

Reading Reflection I

***Note: In my course curriculum, we had previously read Edwidge Danticat’s Breath, Eyes, Memory, so this assignment references our previous course content. You may need to adapt this assignment to fit your course content.

How would you compare the worlds of Breath, Eyes, Memory, and Dreaming in Cuban? Cuba was a Spanish colony, while Haiti was controlled by France. The countries diverge in their language, their political history, and their diplomatic status. Yet, they also, in some ways share a common Caribbean experience: both nations were implicated in the history of the slave trade, and exploited by foreign powers as part of the sugar industry; as a result, the cultures of both places show African influences. Both countries also suffered under the control of military dictatorships. Do the worlds of these two novels resemble each other in other ways? Do you see other parallels between the experiences of the characters?

Include specific details from the story to support your analysis, quoting at least one passage.

W: READ: Dreaming in Cuban – pp. 105-144

  • “Enough Attitude”
  • “The Meaning of Shells” 

Consider the following questions to help you read carefully and critically; come to class prepared to discuss these questions, along with any other topics you would like to raise:

  • The story is built from the accumulation of multiple narratives from different perspectives, and we’ve discussed how, in many cases, these perspectives provide different, and sometimes conflicting, accounts. Their descriptions of events and situations also reflect the difference in their beliefs and values. How would you compare and adjudicate (i.e. decide which is more accurate, true, relevant, or meaningful) between the divergent accounts offered by:
    • Celia and Felicia about revolutionary Cuba and Castro’s regime
    • Luz and Felicia about Hugo Villaverde
    • Pilar and Lourdes about their life and Brooklyn (and particularly, Lourdes’ role in the auxiliary police, which both she and Pilar express strong opinions about)
  • Pilar says that with her paintings, she wants to “find a unique language, obliterate the clichés.” The theme of language has come up several times over the course of the novel: what is translatable and what isn’t, the need and the attempt to interpret the meanings of others, those who speak a common language and those who cannot communicate. What are some examples of this theme of language, and how do they connect to each other? What do you think the story is telling us about language and communication?
  • Were you surprised when Lourdes asked Pilar to paint a mural for her bakery, and by her response to Pilar’s painting? How does it fit in with your previous perception of Lourdes’ and Pilar’s relationship?

Context assignment:

We’ve discussed in previous sessions the importance of the history of Cuba in attempting to understand the novel. In particular, as we discussed last time, the clashes between the members of the del Pino family over Castro’s government and the Cuban revolution are, foundationally, a question of conflicting values and visions of how the world is and how it should be.

Central to understanding this conflict is recognizing the way that communism was understood during this period. I think, in our study of American history — or, history from the American perspective (the Vietnam War, the Cold War, the Cultural Revolution), we become acquainted with the fear and suspicion of communism that pervaded much of American culture, which might make it easier for us to understand the perspectives of Lourdes, Rufino, and Jorge in the novel, all of whom are critical of Castro’s government and fled Cuba to escape it.

It might be harder for us to understand Celia and Javier’s enthusiasm. We’ve discussed the fact that, in Cuba, communist forces were seen — at least, initially — as deliverers of the Cuban people from oppression by the corrupt and dictatorial Batista government. Furthermore, I briefly mentioned in our last session that for many women, the Communist government created greater access to rights. This is something we see come through in the reading for today; in “The Meaning of Shells,” Luz mentions that she and her sister are “studying hard so when we grow up we can get good jobs and go wherever we please. Abuela Celia tells us that before the revolution smart girls like us usually didn’t go to college. They got married and had children while they were still children themselves. I’m glad I don’t have to worry about that” (121).

So, to get a little more background on this perspective, I have two video clips.
First, one that explains a bit about the relation between the communist movement and women’s rights:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rYeIleea3FA

Second, a brief clip where Angela Davis talks about the connection between the communist movement and other struggles to address inequality:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S-nGR_mESSU

Angela Davis was (and is) and public intellectual and activist, who in the late sixties and early seventies was involved with the Black Panthers and the Communist Party, and was targeted by the FBI and charged with conspiracy to murder — a charge for which she was later acquitted, after being imprisoned for over a year.
You might remember that in “A Grove of Lemons,” Pilar mentions that her family is arguing over “whether Angela Davis, who’s on trial in California for murder, kidnapping, and conspiracy, is one of El Lìder’s agents or a direct emissary from Moscow” (61). The interview in the video is from 1972, shortly after her acquittal and release.

M: READ: Dreaming in Cuban pp. 145-203

  • “Baskets of Water”
  • “Celia’s Letters: 1950-1955”
  • “A Matrix Light”
  • “God’s Will”
  • “Daughters of Changó”

Consider the following questions to help you read carefully and critically; come to class prepared to discuss these questions, along with any other topics you would like to raise:

  • We’re starting to learn a bit more about Ivanito — how would you characterize him? Why do you think it takes so long (i.e. it comes so late in the book) before we get to hear his voice?
  • According to Pilar and Herminia, those who “write history” generally ignore all but the powerful in their narratives. Herminia mentions, “The war that killed my grandfather and great-uncles and thousands of other Blacks is only a footnote in our history books. Why, then, should I trust anything I read?” In what ways do you see this working in regards to personal history in this book? Who is in power and how do they shape the stories told to the other characters about themselves and the lives of others?
  • Throughout the story, Felicia has been drawn to the practices of santería. In this portion of the reading that attraction grows even more intense. Herminia tells us, “For her, they were a kind of poetry that connected her to larger worlds, worlds alive and infinite. Our rituals healed her, made her believe again.” What do you think is the source of Felicia’s connection to these rituals? Why are they meaningful for her? Given that the story of Felicia’s illness is tied in with her practice of religion, how does her fate lead us to view her experience of religion?
  • We’ve raised the question of Jorge’s ghost — why he appears, and whether these appearances are real, or only exist in the imaginations of Celia and Lourdes. Do you have a new perspective on this question after reading “Daughters of Changó”?

Reading Reflection II

In today’s reading, Celia’s son Javier returns home, and she worries, “Could her son, Celia wonders, have inherited her habit of ruinous passion?”

Similarly, Lourdes thinks, “Why did Pilar always have to go too far? Lourdes is convinced it is something pathological, something her daughter inherited from her Abuela Celia.” 

Does the del Pino family suffer from some kind of hereditary fatal flaw, that comes out in all of the family members (even if it manifests itself in different ways? 

In your response, compare at least two different characters from the novel, including specific details from the story to support your analysis, and quoting at least one passage to provide evidence for your claims. 

W: READ: Dreaming in Cuban pp. 205-245 (i.e., finish the novel)

  • “Celia’s Letters: 1956-1958″
  • “Six Days in April”
  • “Celia’s Letter: 1959”

Consider the following questions to help you read carefully and critically; come to class prepared to discuss these questions, along with any other topics you would like to raise:

  • The final part of the novel is called, “The Languages Lost.” What does it mean for a language to be “lost,” in the context of the novel? What languages (notice Garcia uses the plural) have been lost, and can they be regained?
  • When they see Celia, Pilar notices her mastectomy scar, but Lourdes gives Pilar “a look that warns, ‘Pretend not to notice.'” Why does Lourdes want to avoid acknowledging her mother’s wound? Are there other things in this family that go unacknowledged–feelings or experiences that they refuse to talk about? How does this affect the relationships between them?
  • After arriving in Cuba, Pilar begins dreaming in Spanish. What do you think is the significance of this new development?
  • Why do you think Pilar lies to Celia about finding Ivanito?
  • Does the story feel resolved to you at the end? Why or why not? Does Celia’s final letter, included at the end of the novel, contribute to this resolution? If so, how?

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