Traditional Cuban family has a similar structure to what we know about Mexican society. The Cuban family is also characterized by patriarchy which is accompanied by strong parental control over children's lives. Extended family, as well as other non-nuclear relationships, such as godparents are very important elements for traditional family nuclei in Cuba.
However, Cuban American families significantly differ from that traditional patterns. Patriarchal authority system has been substituted by more equal status of women which might have been presumably caused, among other reasons, by their greater workforce participation. Not only these women do their share to family income, but the ability to perform the work itself helps to develop the sense of their own identity and self-respect. (Buffington, “Cuban Americans”)
This diverting from traditional family model is clearly reflected in García’s novel. In contrast to Cisneros’ Chicanas, García’s characters managed to live their own, independent lives, with their men absent literally or virtually due to their weak characters. Submissive men in the novel represent antipoles to their strong and dominant females. García’s women are fit to adjust to new conditions as well as to find their own personal space in order to keep their identity as one of the strongest rules in the nature - “survival of the fittest”. Such an attitude points out females’ natural advantage of good social adaptability and accents the great potential of women to overcome traditional patriarchal model.
This feature is especially prominent in García’s Cuban American family, where the wife was the one who was giving the directions. By reversing traditional gender roles in an extreme way, García questions the matter of gender stereotypes and its link to identity formation process. It is the fact that since the birth, children across cultures become subjects to gender stereotypes from the outer world in order to be prepared for his/her future social role. The reader learns that Celia, expecting her first baby, decided to combat pre-given gender stereotypes with different approach to upbringing. Primarily she wished for “a son who could make his way in the world”, but in the same time she was determined that “if she had a girl, she would not abandon a daughter to this life, but train her to read the columns of blood and numbers in men’s eyes, to understand the morphology of survival. Her daughter, too, would outlast the hard flames.”(42) Later on, Lourdes grew up a strong emancipated woman, which is just to confirm Celia’s words. This is to confirm Butler’s theory, that sex from biological point of view is given to the person by nature and is unchangeable (in most cases), while gender stereotypes are developed and shaped later by society the person is growing up in, and mothers are those with the greatest influence to future generation.
Despite the fact, they were seemingly still under the Cuban patriarchate influence, Lourdes proved to be the decisive and strong person from the very beginning of their new life stage in the U.S. territory. When they left Cuba for the first time to visit her husband’s family, it was Lourdes who decided where to go further and where they would finally settle down:
“I want to go where it’s cold,” Lourdes told her husband. They began to drive. “Colder,” she said as they passed the low salt marshes of Georgia, as if the word were a whip driving them north. “Colder,” she said through the withered fields of a Carolina winter. “Colder,” she said again in Washington, D.C., despite cherry-blossom promises, despite the white stone monuments hoarding winter light. “This is cold enough” she finally said when they reached New York. (69)
Lourdes is depicted as a strong woman who left all her past life behind and was able to adjust new conditions in America’s land. She managed to take the advantage of exile to create herself a new identity: “Lourdes considers herself lucky. Immigration has redefined her, and she is grateful. Unlike her husband, she welcomes her adopted language, its possibilities for reinvention.” (73) The new place gave Lourdes a chance to forget painful memories she associated with Cuba: with her rape and a loss of her child. Last but not least, she was able to definitely cut off the ties to Rufino’s family who fled to Miami in the first emigrants’ wave as members of rich society, to escape socialist revolution. To outcast herself from their community, Lourdes devoted her life to active work. Lourdes was able to establish and successfully run her own business and thus she became a family breadwinner:
It became clear to Lourdes shortly after she and Rufino moved to New York that he would never adapt. Something came unhinged in his brain that would make him incapable of working in a conventional way… So Lourdes got a job. Cuban women of a certain age and a certain class consider working outside the home to be beneath them. But Lourdes never believed that. (130)
Again we are facing Lourdes as a woman who proves better ability to follow the norms of the group and adapt in new situation than men. Lourdes is described as a material person controlling other people lives, including her husband and a daughter. Rufino hardly ever tried to oppose his wife in an open way and instead he lived his own life. All in all, Lourdes contrasts typical Cuban (or Latina) woman in her attitude to domestic place and her willingness to start a job outside the home.
Accepting the role which is traditionally considered to belong to males, Lourdes became the one who demanded sexual fulfillment too: “She summoned her husband from his workshop by pulling vigorously on a ship’s bell he had rigged up for this purpose, unpinned her hair, and led him by the wrist to their bedroom.” In their marriage it was Lourdes who was sexually desirous and Rufino the one who obeyed. We learnt that “Rufino’s body ached from the exertions” and that he “begs his wife for few nights’ peace” (21). García reversed the traditional way of understanding male and female principles and she suggests that women’s potential is not only to be strong, active and pragmatic, but they are also capable of cruelty and in an extreme way they might be even abusive beside submissive men. Indeed, I believe García’s intention was not to provoke women to a revolution or to launch matriarchate as a revenge to mankind, but rather to alert women so that they wouldn’t be afraid to mind their own needs. The way she twisted traditional gender stereotypes would remind Latino women, that to change those stereotypes in the society is within their competence.
García, alike Cisneros refers to domestic violence. However, if Cisneros describes open physical offences, García in her novel shows another type of victimization - and probably more dangerous one, as the most difficult to detect – inconspicuous psychical terror. We can witness it in the marriage of Lourdes parents, when Lourdes’ father confessed:
After we were married I left her [his wife Celia] with my mother and my sister. I knew what it would do to her. A part of me wanted to punish her. For the Spaniard. I tried to kill her, Lourdes. I wanted to kill her. I left on a long trip after you were born. I wanted to break her, may God forgive me. When I returned, it was done. She held you out to me by one leg and told me she would not remember your name…. I left her in an asylum. I told the doctors to make her forget. They used electricity…She made a friend there who had murdered her husband, and I became afraid. Her hands were so still.” (195)
Speaking about the intention to hurt somebody in such an open way might evoke the feeling of regret and possibly might be perceived as an apology to all women who are (or have been) being abused by their husbands. That impression is further empowered by the fact, that Jorge had never admitted this behavior during his life, instead he made the confession as a ghost, when he knew he was on the verge of disappearance. Using the combination with supernatural gives the whole scene a broader dimension, as if García, through Jorge’s mouth, spoke on behalf of all men’s generation.
Later on, we learn that Jorge emotionally manipulated Lourdes, in order to gain her love and disrupt their mother – daughter ties, which he finally managed: “I took you from her while you were still a part of her. I wanted to own you for myself. And you’ve been always mine, hija.”(196) How this disruption affects later lives of both women and consequently Lourdes further relationship in her own family, I will examine later in this thesis. At this point it is worth mentioning that Celia, in spite of her husband tyranny managed to create her own space. We learn that she was able to do what she wanted, not caring for her husband’s objections: “Celia hid her music to La Soirée dans Grenade and played it incessantly while Jorge traveled.” ( 8)
Here, we are getting to a distinct contrast between Cuban American and Mexican American women. We have already learnt that Latino society as a whole has been established as male domineering system. Simply said, while man’s potential is enormous, woman's potential doesn't exist at all. However, when Cisneros’ woman was abandoned by man, she had a choice to go back to her father’s house or wait and hope for her husband come back. Making living by herself often meant hard struggle for life and starving, while coming back to father’s house brought a shame and condemnation. In both cases she kept her passive position and did not come over the boundary of her own social isolation. García’s women on the other hand, seemed capable to get over social and linguistic barriers raising from their exile.
The question remains why Lourdes was able to use her potential to develop her identity in a certain way and to gain equal position in her personal life, while Cleófiles in alike situation, was not. First of all, as I already mentioned before, the beneficial marriage as a primary reason for Chicanas to leave their country, put them into inferior position directly. Not only different economic background, but the lack of the language together with no command of legal and /or social system of the country made them the beings without identity. While the American husband uses the advantage of familiar environment, she had lost not only the security of her native house, but virtually all her identity. During the intermediate time, before she is able to adjust to new conditions and re-create her identity, she found herself victimized. That intermediate interval seems to be a critical point Chicanas are not capable to overcome and in the same time it represents the advantage for Cuban women. Lourdes, like most Cuban women, left Cuba together with her Cuban husband, which assured the equal position for both. In their new country they both became exiles and had to tackle all the obstacles together. Therefore Rufino became supportive husband to Lourdes, and she, with her husband’s support, was able to settle in new environment successfully. This is to confirm the hypothesis that domestic field and family support are the most important elements of women’s identity and that they directly influence women’s performance in public sphere.
The other fact contributing to Chicanas’ disadvantageous position is their young age and lack of life experience before the marriage. Cleófiles was rather a girl than a woman when her marriage was arranged. She got to marry directly from her parents’ house with all the naivety of a teenage girl. The only world she experienced was the one shown in telénovelas and TV adverts. The marriage with a matured man she barely knew, followed by moving to foreign country, exposed her to burdensome situation to succeed. In comparison to that, Lourdes, despite of her young age, seemed to be more experienced with real life when she got married. First, the wedding was arranged on the base of both young peoples’ decision, and not by their parents. Second, we learnt that Lourdes was used to active approach in her life even before the marriage. Moreover we cannot neglect the role of dramatic political changes in the country which made young people involve and thus accelerated their process of getting mature.
The other difference in Lourdes’ position was her readiness to work outside the house. Contrary, Cleófiles seemed not to be prepared for this involvement at all. That might have originated either from the gender stereotypes she obtained in her parents’ house in Mexico and/or from her absolute domestic isolation in the U.S. Besides the financial reward , the job brings also the chance of social contacts, either with other emigrants or native citizens. I argue that active social role together with the participation in family income may significantly influence women’s understanding of self as well as to recognize their own value. In case of immigrants, employment might greatly accelerate the process of taking roots. This argument is clearly reflected in Cisneros’ character Felice, through which Cisneros shows the limits Chicanas are tied with, and the distance they have to overcome on their way to free themselves from subordinate position in male dominated society. By contrasting two characters Cisneros implies the way Chicanas might take to regain their dignity and ability to enjoy the life. Thus, Cisneros’ Felice has a potential to become a literary icon for all women, either Chicana or other origin, who are still enslaved by their social roles and who are still waiting for their liberation.