Memory Mambo: Cuban Memory, "American" Mobility,

and Achy Obejas’s Lesbian Way

Paul Allatson

University of Technology, Sydney

"Guantanamera," the unofficial national anthem of island and exiled Cubans, derives from Joseíto Fernández, a Cuban radio presenter who composed the refrain in the 1930s and added to it lines from the first poem in José Martí’s 1891 collection, Versos sencillos (Calvo Ospina 27). Fernández’s musical invention was notable in two ways: the lyrics "could be changed at will with each performance"; and for eighteen years the news bulletins on his radio program were put into verse, and sung to "the rhythm of the Guantanamera" (27). Scores of singers have covered the song since the 1940s, and in keeping with Fernández’s usage many of its interpreters have added new verses to the original refrain, hence the many composers to whom the song is attributed. Thus while some versions are better known than others, "Guantanamera" circulates as a world-renowned cultural product but one subject to constant revision, with no correct, original, or authoritative lyric.

In Memory Mambo (1996), the first novel by Achy Obejas, "Guantanamera" serves as a governing metaphor for a Cuban family’s rival accounts of displacement in the U.S.A. (1) For Nena, the sister of the novel’s narrator Juani Casas, family history is "like singing ‘Guantanamera’—everybody gets a chance to make up their own verse." Juani agrees with her sister’s assessment: "‘Memory mambo,’ I said, one hand in the air, the other on my waist as if I were dancing, ‘one step forward, two steps back’" (194). Aware of "Guantanamera’s" propensity for imaginative rewording, Juani intuits that memory itself—elusive, unreliable, selective, contradictory, and always unsingular—poses identificatory difficulties for Cuban-Americans like herself. Deeply scored by ideological, historical, and bodily differences, the many accounts circulating in Juani’s family-centric world render Juani the product and victim of narratorial and national dissimulations. Indeed, the impact of historical revisionisms on Juani evokes Martí’s first verso sencillo: "Yo sé . . . /de mortales engaños,/ Y de sublimes dolores" (16). (2)

As a result of such deceits and sorrows, Juani claims to embody an insularity that differentiates her from her immediate family: "I’m something else entirely: my own island, with my own practical borders" (79). Yet her claim is modulated, and complicated, by three factors: her lesbianism, her fraught relationship with a leftist Puerto Rican activist, and the meanings she attaches to "America" as a displaced Cuban. These factors distinguish Memory Mambo from celebrated but securely heteronormative Cuban-American novels by Cristina García or Oscar Hijuelos. (3) Like Obejas’s earlier story collection, We Came All the Way from Cuba So You Could Dress Like This? (1994), and her second novel, Days of Awe (2001), Memory Mambo announces a queer engagement with both a dominant Cuban exile imaginary and the U.S. national imaginary. Accordingly, my interest in this paper lies in unravelling and assessing the novel’s figurations of multiple, and potentially antipathetic, modes of national belonging, each of which is politicized differently, and each of which may demand of the novel’s players some measure of "protective" isolation from transcultural U.S.A.

In his analysis of nation-state formation, Benedict Anderson claims that the nation is composed of a "fraternity" of strangers for whom, "regardless of the actual inequality and exploitation that may prevail in each, the nation is always conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship" (7). But what happens to this explicitly masculine scenario for Cuban-Americans if, as María de los Angeles Torres claims, the Cuban state can no longer confine "cubanía" to and of the island (58)?; or, concomitantly, if the boundaries of the U.S.A. that are supposed to signify a geopolitical, ideological, and cultural separateness between the U.S.A. and its hemispherical nemesis, Cuba, cannot sustain the idea of an exceptional U.S.A.? One explanation is provided by David Mitchell’s response to Cristina García’s Dreaming In Cuban. Mitchell recognizes in that novel "a vaguely autobiographical attempt to reassess her [García’s] individual and familial dislocation between two antagonistic national bodies" (52). Operating as "classificatory units of belonging," both the U.S.-based Cuban family and the imagined national family "exist in parasitic relation to one another by virtue of a shared desire for a unity that inevitably proves to be illusory and contradictory. In other words, family and nation paradoxically coexist because neither grouping succeeds in sustaining the singularity to which each necessarily aspires" (italics his, 52). With some qualification—to counter the masculine and heterosexualized coordinates of nationhood when idealized as a giant kinship network [gran familia]; and to accept that the nation-family nexus is not a Cuban conundrum alone, but a U.S. one as well—these observations may be applied to Memory Mambo. The novel’s Cuban family in exile reproduces in miniature the nation imagined as a gran familia; and yet both family and nation are not only split between Cuba and the U.S.A., but also inside the borders of each geopolity.

This sense of plurality-in-rupture is built into the novel’s first chapter where Juani meditates on her tenuous relation to the contradictory narratives told about her family’s past. Having arrived in the U.S.A. from Cuba with her family in 1978 when she was six years old, Juani reaches adulthood obsessed by a need to determine the truth about her family’s motives for escape. (4) Later in the novel Juani announces that "in this house of nostalgia and fear, of time warps and trivia, I’m the only one I know about for sure," a claim to self-knowledge that she attempts to affirm with meticulously kept journal entries and correctly identified and placed family photographs (79). However, the familial knowledge required to attain a coherent historicized sense of self proves to be elusive: "I no longer know if I really lived through an experience or just heard about it so many times, or so convincingly, that I believed it for myself" (9). In part, Juani’s unease stems from the fact that she must adapt to multiple yet overlapping constructs of family and nation.

Aside from her immediate family, Juani claims membership of two categories of cousins, those of "blood" who for the most part reside in Cuba, and those made "in exile" after 1959. The former grouping is defined by the heavy material and psychic demands that they may make of their U.S. relatives. The relations with "cousins in exile," on the other hand, emerge unburdened by traditional genealogical and marital obligations, and are characterized by the production of neocultural communicative codes. These codes—"neither Cuban nor American"—offer Juani a "new syntax" for unpacking the potentially unfamiliar signifying systems presented either by continuing contacts with Cuba or by the U.S.A.’s transcultural terrains, and therefore for making sense of displacement (13). Juani’s thinking challenges the idea that coherent identities can be formulated in accord with distinct national terrains. While her sets of cousins are dissimilar, they also overlap with and include members of other groupings: Juani’s immediate relatives; the web of relations by marriage in her extended family; and the adopted family of mostly Puerto Rican activists who barely tolerate Juani because she is Cuban. In all of these groups are articulated a range of responses to questions of national belonging. Among the Cubans there is no consensus over their place as products of a Cuban history that is also part of U.S. history, an entangled history, moreover, into which the novel’s Puerto Ricans insert their island’s colonial status. The novel’s central mnemonic problem thus means that whether conceived of as monolithic and graspable, or as plural, complicated, and resonant beyond Cuban-U.S. antagonisms, historical truth is one of the novel’s victims. In turn, the novel’s denunciation of memory as an inadequate vehicle for discovering historical truths suggests that Juani’s "new syntax" may also be found wanting. Juani’s neocultural codes still must confront her transcultural dilemma, manifested at the level of both sign and semantics, of how to decipher what "Cuba" might signify to Cuban subjects displaced in the United States. Juani is engaged on a quest not simply to know Cuba, but to know what Ana López calls "Greater Cuba." This is the other, mainland Cuba that for many Cuban-Americans in the 1980s and 1990s with no direct experiences of the island, also began to be materialized and imagined as a home, a native land.

For Juani, the destabilizing sense of belonging to two national homes, and to multiple families, is established soon after her family’s arrival in the U.S.A. Juani rather than her sister is allocated the task of mediating between her Cuban parents and the unfamiliar cultural terrains around them. Familial and national identifications for Juani are marked by the generation gap formed by her movements in and her parents’ protective distance from "the world outside the family" (140). Nonetheless this evocation of familial insularity, and of Juani as the family’s conduit to and from a U.S. elsewhere, collapses in little moments of transcultural confusion. The comic force of the novel’s description of Tío Pepe’s funeral, for instance, derives from the collision between an exile habitus in which island customs are replicated and the U.S. customs clumsily adopted at the behest of the family’s Irish Catholic priest, with the result that both U.S. and Cuban funerary notions are transformed. The link with Cuba, the stubborn reinforcement of belonging still to that nation, is confirmed by the "handful of Cuban dirt on the casket (brought from the island by Tomás Joaquín for precisely this purpose)" (92). Traditional rituals such as covering windows and mirrors with black cloth are adhered to, while the demands of feeding a large gathering result in the arrival of plate after plate of Cuban food. Juani’s Jewish brother-in-law, Ira, as confused by the cultural melange as his Cuban in-laws, advises Juani’s father that he thinks no music should be played, thereby generating doubt as to "What kind of an American is he?" (93). Juani’s assessment—"I realized most of us were Latino, awkwardly trying to perform an American custom, and didn’t really have much sense of what to do" (93)—neatly sums up the party’s collective transcultural perplexity. But beyond the superficial eruption of the U.S.A. into the family home and the Cuban resemantization of the wake, deeper changes are at work. Tío Pepe’s widow, Celia, defies Cuban conventions by removing the black cloths and "letting in the light" (93), thus proclaiming her own release from her former husband’s control.

The messy transcultural coordinates of the wake reveal that cubanía is not counterpointed by an equally transparent U.S. sensibility, the latter predicated on an inexorable process of assimilation. According to Muñoz, this "normative narrative" by which Cubans are judged to succumb to the U.S.A. is common in the critical literature ("No es fácil" 79). (5) As Muñoz rightly argues, the "teleological chain" of becoming "American" cannot be sustained. National and cultural significations emanating from Cuba and the U.S.A. constantly and unpredictably, meet on the diaspora's body, so that it becomes impossible to identify Cuban subjects deculturated of their Cubanness, let alone to single out "a" way of being Cuban in the U.S.A. (79). These points are reinforced, and further complicated, in the novel because its treatment of the problematic family-nation nexus are never detached from the conventions by which gendered and sexual identities are recognized, and regarded as meaningful, in Juani’s world. Memory Mambo’s approach to the family-nation nexus thus collapses the generational shift that Noriega and López have identified in Latino Studies as a whole: a move from "reform[ing] Latino cultural nationalism by divesting it of its patriarchal, homophobic privileged agency" to a critique "of the underlying nationalist premises themselves—that is, of the discourses of belonging" (ix). Obejas has not relinquished interest in the former agenda. In fact, her novel interrogates "discourses of belonging" by countering the "patriarchal, homophobic privileged agency" that continues to underpin nationalist premises.

This ambition is announced with a little in-joke made early in Memory Mambo, when Juani describes herself sitting at a kitchen table in her cousin Caridad’s apartment: "On the placemat Cuba looks like a giant brown turd; the flag’s colors have faded so that the triangle appears pink" (15). Here the Cuban post-revolutionary national aura is not only made kitsch but treated to what, after Bakhtin, might be called a symbolic degradation into low earthiness. Moreover, as many of Obejas’s lesbian and gay readers might recognize, the emblem of nation, the flag, is converted into the sign invented by the Nazis to distinguish homosexuals from other concentration-camp inmates, and reclaimed and resemanticized by gay and lesbian activists across the globe since the 1970s. Rather neatly, the red triangle made pink by exposure to the U.S.A. announces a narratorial queer agenda to insert lesbian desire into the heart of Cuban-diasporic imaginaries, and, by extension, into Cuban diaspora narrative.

Juani is never closeted in the novel. Her queerness is publicly proclaimed, and is known to and discussed by family members. Her position, then, is not like that described by Gloria Anzaldúa, for whom the Chicana/o family apparatus sanctions a repressive homophobia, thus leading to a "Fear of going home. And of not being taken in" (20). Juani is at home, a lesbian player in her family’s gender structures. Her distance from Cuba and her ability to adopt a lesbian identity in an Anglo-American sense thus distinguishes her from her Cuban cousin, Titi, in photographs of whom Juani recognizes and names the "lesbian" who is "not allowed to love," as her body confirms: "Her face, with its thin lines and bloody red lips, is a map of a sealed island, surrounded not by water but by an invisible, electrified barbed wire" (75). Here, sexual repression is figured as political repression, and is metaphorized as an embattled, paranoid island-state. Also at work is an elliptical analogy, the inferred standing in of Cuban body for political boundaries and disciplining. Juani recognizes that Titi’s desire to escape from Cuba does not signify an ideologically determined position on the Revolution and its failings, but rather the "crazier idea—that once here, she might be free to be queer" (76). Yet, while Juani concludes that Titi is unable to desire other women in public, in Cuba, her own ability to do so is not upheld in the novel as proof of a U.S. lesbian or feminist utopia. Rather like Titi, Juani’s lovers have not enjoyed her "out" status. Juani is disdainful of this widespread closetedness. But there is a sense, too, that Juani is only sure of her decoding of Titi photographed in disturbed unhappiness because, at times, she recognizes her cousin’s existential and sexual insularity in herself. As lesbians separated by exile, then, Titi’s and Juani’s experiences of sexualized boundaries provide yet more bodily parallels to broader familial and national divergences and reconvergences.

By making such parallels, the transparent sexual identity supposedly secured by a publicly registered move out of the closet becomes a significant locus of dispute in the novel. That dispute also involves Juani’s girlfriend. Gina echoes familiar Latin American leftist dismissals of gay and lesbian identity politics as bourgeois individualist decadence imported from the U.S.A., and as a distraction from more pressing political concerns like Puerto Rico’s continuing colonial status: "‘Look, I’m not interested in being a lesbian, in separating politically from the people,’ she’d say to me, her face hard and dark. ‘What are we talking about? Issues of sexual identity? While Puerto Rico is a colony?’" (italics hers, 77). Juani interprets the problem of nomenclature that Gina represents as proof of the "contradictions between her politics and the closet," contradictions that Juani chooses to overlook for the sake of avoiding conflict, or loss of passion. But Gina’s stance indicates a sexual identification that is not simply explained as a choice between political and sexual identities: "‘That’s so white, this whole business of sexual identity,’ she’d say, while practically unbuttoning my pants. ‘But you Cubans, you think you’re white . . .’" (78). Together with the assertion that "I’m not interested in being a lesbian," Gina’s statement here marks a critical moment in the narrative. It challenges the purported transparency, truth, and intelligibility of the category lesbian itself. Gina refuses to "be" one. And she refuses to be one because she regards that identity as inimical to her leftist politics, and to her racial identity as well.

With its proliferation of potentially antagonistic lesbians, Memory Mambo thus places in tension rival sexual epistemologies. While Juani regards Gina’s admission as evidence of political contradictions and internalized homophobia, Gina’s statements suggest a different conception of sexuality. Gina clearly regards a queer and a political-activist identity as mutually exclusive as Juani recognizes. But her rejection of a queer identity also signifies a refusal to accede to U.S. cultural logics that run counter to a widespread belief in Latin America that identity per se does not have a sexual core. Juani’s sexual identification, then, appears to function as noted by Fuss: it proclaims itself, and insists on doing so (2). Gina’s identifications, on the other hand, imply "a process that keeps [sexual] identity at a distance, that prevents identity from ever approximating the status of an ontological given, even as it makes possible [for those around Gina, at least] the formation of an illusion of identity as immediate, secure, and totalizable" (2). And yet the figurations of both Gina and Juani unsettle this posited identity-identification distinction. (6) Gina resists and rejects a proclaimed sexual identity, but she nonetheless recognizes and names it in Juani, much as Juani does in the photographs of Titi. In turn, the security and visibility of Juani’s lesbian identity is never guaranteed, despite her assertions of a liberated sexual selfhood. As Fuss describes the effect of instability on identity positions adopted for political or personal reasons, "Given the capacity of identifications continually to evolve and change, to slip and shift under the weight of fantasy and ideology, the task of harnessing a complex and protean set of emotional ties for specific social ends cannot help but to pose intractable problems for politics" (9). Put another way, "intractable problems" result from the novel’s placements of its lesbians inside and out of the closet, the trope by which western queers become epistemological targets.

The closet signals a discourse of sexual identity that considers all subjects as sexually knowable; hence, aberrations from a predominant heterosexuality may be disavowed, regulated, and punished, but also purportedly avowed, liberated, and celebrated. As already noted, however, the distinct figurations of Juani’s, Titi’s, and Gina’s lesbianism resist alignment. Consequently the lesbian in Memory Mambo is not simply many, but a category of being that is as contradictory as the categories of family and nation are to Juani and the members of her family. In any guise, the lesbian in Memory Mambo is like the novel’s other diasporic subjects, whatever the scripts of gender or sexuality allocated them in the narrative. Her body, like theirs, is never unaffected by the rival cultural and linguistic bodily economies that meet in Juani’s family(-ies) and community(-ies). Despite Juani’s eschewal of the closet—in Jagose’s words, her "gestures towards fixity and definition" (13)—and despite Gina’s gestures against those endpoints, lesbianism is never "outside [the] dominant conceptual networks" (5) of heteronormative convention and prescription evident in the novel. And these bodily dynamics are most clearly staged in the kinship relationship made in exile between Jimmy and Juani.

Jimmy, married to Juani’s cousin Caridad, is delineated according to macho conventions as the bearer of the active, penetrative principle commonly ascribed to men in Latin American bodily economies organized along an active (masculine)-passive (feminine) axis. (7) He is the upholder of a hypermasculinity that has survived transplanting from Cuba and a purported Americanization. At the same time, Jimmy’s masculine standing is at stake because of his proximity to Juani, a lesbian. The libidinal confusion she generates in Jimmy suggest that queerness—for Juani, legible in Anglo-American terms as an identity—has altered profoundly his body’s meaningfulness within what Lancaster calls the structural coordinates of conventional machismo: "by definition, it is only with other men that a man directly competes" (149). Forced into the situation that Lancaster does not countenance, Jimmy appears as a machista who perceives himself to be in direct competition with another woman for male honour and who, as a consequence, must rearm his body’s machista significations in order to structure the power relation between himself and a woman.

That desire to rearm the body’s active aura becomes for Jimmy a phallic conflict, hence the need to forbid Caridad from socializing with Juani and her lesbian friends: "what kind of man would people think he was if his wife was always hanging with tortilleras?" (17). The injunction confirms his fear that the lesbian may not only affront his virile reputation but usurp his husbandly function. Jimmy’s position here thus accords with popular Latin American conceptions of the lesbian as an embodiment of phallic lack, but one with the disturbing potential to masquerade as a symbolic manhood. Constantly reaffirming that reading of Juani’s body whenever he is with her, Jimmy is intent on affirming that he, not she, is the bearer of the (literal) phallus: "‘You ever want one of these?’ he asked me. He rested his head on the back of the couch, his cheeks all flushed. His penis pushed at his loose dress pants as if trying to erect a tent. ‘Not inside you, but like, one of your own?’" (19). Juani reacts to Jimmy’s constant sexual posturing not by distancing herself from it, but by gaining a vicarious sexual thrill from it, even to the point of recharging her sexual fantasies with images of Jimmy’s penis. Jimmy’s phallic-led pressure on Juani cannot for long be read either as libidinal fantasy or as the purely symbolic rather than physical assertion of masculine primacy. When Juani can no longer repress her anger at Gina’s criticisms of Juani’s Cuban privilege and attacks her, Jimmy’s knowledge that Juani’s hospitalization results from domestic violence, and not from a politically motivated attack on Gina and her lover by an unknown assailant, provides him with the leverage to assert his power over Juani. As Juani recovers from her injuries, Jimmy’s exhibitionism and menacing encirclement increasingly isolate Juani from her family, leading her, with Jimmy’s collusion, to add a new set of lies about her own past to those told in her family. Juani and Jimmy, himself a perpetrator of domestic violence, are thus bound to each other in deceit. Jimmy’s masculine power is reaffirmed by his function as the only family member who knows Juani’s secret.

This patriarchal maneuver to bring Juani back into heteronormative line is not permanent. Juani is able to break Jimmy’s control when she witnesses him molesting her niece Rosa and physically attacks him. This time, however, Juani’s actions are cast as ambivalently redemptive. They impel her to admit the extent of her collusion with macho mores in her dealings with Gina. One sign of the effects of this collusion with a set of patriarchal and homophobic prescriptions is indicated in a suggestive narratorial aside much earlier in the novel, when Juani muses about her familial function: "I’d become one of Caridad’s infelices" (143). The "infeliz" here signifies sad and unhappy; but it also invites readers to make a signifying connection with its opposite "feliz," in the sense that the Spanish may be punned to indicate the English happy, and hence gay and/or queer. Here, however, "infeliz" [unhappy; un- or not queer] points to a resignification, if not semantic breakdown, of the once-claimed surety of Juani’s sexual identity. Evocatively, if unintentionally, Juani’s musing suggests that her embattled lesbian status is, after all, closer than she had imagined to her "infeliz" Cuban cousin Titi. Juani’s lesbianism is both confirmed in and disturbed by such signifying effects. Her body is never unmarked or unmodulated by heteronormative prescriptions emanating from both sides of the Florida Strait. (8)

In light of these gender-sexual tensions, it is worth recalling the metaphor favoured by a number of critics when discussing the particular transculturations engendered by the mass presence of Cubans, if not all Latinos, in the U.S.A.: the "close dance" between Anglo and Latin Americas. Pérez Firmat, for instance, refers to the comparative study of literature produced in Anglo and Latin Americas as a "cheek to cheek" coupling that neatly makes the signifying "move" into borderline mode "between North and South" (Cheek to Cheek 1-2). Pérez Firmat’s "close dance" trope functions in "line" with what William Luis calls, unabashedly, the "master codes of Cuban American culture" (188). For Luis the master codes of music and dance keep homeland identities alive in a new setting while facilitating the transformation of immigrant and host cultures alike: "For some, the dominant culture leads and the other follows; for others, the recessive one becomes assertive. However, both listen and dance to the same tune in the same geographic space" (189). Aside from the simplification that the metaphorical and hyphenated dance between cultures implies a balanced pairing of equals, the trope obeys a logic that is explicitly gendered (defined by the master’s moves) and heteronormative (signifying a heterosexual mating ritual).

Music and dance are also key cultural forms in Memory Mambo, as its title attests. Memory Mambo’s most significant intertext is "Guantanamera," metaphorized into a sign of unstable familial narratives of the Cuban past. But this sign has ramifications beyond historical memory for the novel’s bodies. When discussing "Guantanamera" with her sister, Juani’s moves suggest a resignification of the "close dance" against the grain of the trope as master code. Juani dances before her sister but alone. Moreover, her desired dancing partner would be Gina, the Puerto Rican from whom she has become estranged. The scene thus encapsulates Memory Mambo’s dispute with masterful delineations of things Cuban-American. Displacement makes possible unmanned resemantizations and reorganizations of the dance, to the point of admitting that male partners are not indispensable. In this instance, my usage of "unmanned" refers to the possibilities for women permitted by the socioeconomic and gender-sexual release of women—announced, for instance, by the death of the husband or father—from direct patriarchal interference. While distance from Cuba may enact painful, and at times humorous, deculturations, it may also admit Cuban women into a range of previously unforeseen economic, familial, and sexual alternatives.

The conjunction of rival bodily codes is again pertinent here. Neocultural possibilities are modulated by the struggles of women to creatively "disidentify" with the ascribed roles and pressures emanating from two cultural systems: transplanted Cuban codes at work in Juani’s family; and U.S. middle-class codes. According to José Muñoz, "disidentification is a step further than cracking open the code of the majority; it proceeds to use this code as raw material for representing a disempowered politics or positionality that has been rendered unthinkable by the dominant culture" (Disidentifications 31). In Memory Mambo, however, the disidentificatory task of encoding and recoding cultural texts differs from the subaltern agenda identified by Muñoz. The novel’s disidentifications are directed less at resignifying a dominant (U.S.) and minority (Cuban) relationship in the latter’s purportedly disempowered favour, and more at resignifying familial functions and opening up more empowered positions for those excluded or constrained along gendered lines within a non-subaltern Cuban-American minority. The task for many of Memory Mambo’s female players is how to disidentify—resist, sidestep, disarm, recode—the stigmatizations that may accrue to them if they break or challenge transplanted gender conventions, and thus take advantage of the bodily and socioeconomic possibilities for women permitted them in the U.S.A.

At least one female player in Memory Mambo does not disidentify with oppressive bodily scripts. Caridad accedes to the operations of a machista bodily economy by which conventional gender demarcations and roles are maintained and perpetuated. Caridad’s public movements are policed by Jimmy and her dutiful subservience is ensured by violence, threatened and real. Caridad and Jimmy, then, are explicable in terms of the close-dance metaphor, but only when it is regarded as a master-code trope. Those around Caridad are troubled by her insistence on "standing by her man" (236) in spite of beatings and his molestation of Pauli’s daughter, and regard her as a tragic exemplar of victimhood. Caridad, however, proves to be the immobilized exception among Juani’s female relatives. Caridad’s sister Pauli, by contrast, has never been in thrall to patriarchs or to the transplanted Cuban bodily codes at work in her family. As a twelve-year old, she successfully sabotages her father’s extramarital affair by convincing his mistress that he has herpes. At her father’s death, Pauli returns from Mexico with a mixed-race baby daughter whose paternity she refuses to divulge, to the consternation of the family’s elders. Other cousins, too, benefit from displacement. Nena, recognizing Juani’s need for a respite from the family, convinces her parents that both daughters ought to rent an apartment and have "more space, more time alone to study" (159). Again, a distance from Cuba that enables the embrace of "American" promise is at work here: "Most Cuban women don't move out of their family’s home unless they get married or go off to school. The idea of the two of us sharing an apartment while single and living in the same city as our parents was pure American thinking" (158).

The message implicit in these examples is that cubanas may be more able than cubanos at adapting to the U.S.A. Obejas renders the issue of "American" Dream opportunity in terms of resistance by women to oppressive gender structures. For example, previously foreclosed gender possibilities open up for Tía Celia with her husband’s death. Soon after the funeral, the setting for her rebirth, she redecorates the house, begins to buy citrus fruits again (her husband had been allergic to them), and without fear of Tío Pepe’s approbation, plays with a granddaughter whose presence in the home would not have been tolerated by her husband. But most astonishing to Celia’s nieces is the rapidity of her ontogenesis into outspoken feminist. She champions her daughter Pauli’s "crazy independence, her sexuality and vigor," and her single-mother status, and for the first time she is critical of Caridad’s subservience to a violent husband (96). This proto-feminist transformation is also marked by petit-bourgeois aspirations for economic and individual independence, exemplified by Tía Celia asking Juani for advice about "whether she should invest in a money market fund, or maybe buy a car with the money Tío Pepe left her" (160). Such descriptions iterate how the patriarch’s aspirations were always retrograde, the matriarch’s resolutely fixed on a middle-class U.S. future. Nonetheless, Juani’s observations of her aunt’s metamorphosis in widowhood indicate how uneasily it is regarded within the family’s androcentric coordinates: "Tía Celia’s vision of the future had obviously never included Tío Pepe. I shuddered" (163).

Juani’s "shuddering" reaction to Celia’s future hopes is telling in another sense. It alludes to the fact that gender and sexual identifications in the novel are implicated in a peculiarly Cuban discourse of treachery, a diasporic imaginary of antagonisms determined by individual ideological positions for or against the Cuban Revolution’s promised "vision of the future," and manifested as personal betrayal, even to the point of splitting families along political lines. In Juani’s world, the adults of her parents’ generation provide contradictory versions of the family’s Cuban past. But most are in the U.S.A. because of opposition to the Revolution and are happy to say so. Tío Raúl is the exception, the single figure who claims to have fought on the revolutionary side. Typically, Tío Raúl’s story is rent by inconsistencies, and everyone in the family has a different version to tell. But his account is distinguished from the plethora of familial histories because in it, betrayal of the revolutionary project is intimately connected to romantic betrayal, the key tarnished player in the latter scenario being Raúl’s wife Zenaida.

Tío Raúl’s revolutionary past provides a cautionary moral tale of what happens to the cubano who fails to live up to patriarchal expectations or fulfil family obligations. As one incidental character points out, "Raúl had no business leaving his wife to become a guerilla" (103). Certainly this is the attitude of Raúl’s son, Manolito, who still resents both the father who absented himself during his childhood and the idealism that underwrote that absence. Patricia, too, while more tolerant of her father, once rejected him for being "idealistic but weak" (101). But at the centre of Raúl’s fall from revolutionary grace is his wife Zenaida, and her mother, who orchestrate a telegrammed ruse to persuade Raúl away from Cuba and back to New York and his family: "Come home immediately. Zenaida in terrible accident" (107). Because of this deceit Raúl is unable to participate in the Revolution and he never forgives his wife for her treachery. In turn, he regards himself as a traitor to the Revolution, for once back in New York he stays. Until they divorce, Zenaida and Raúl replicate Cuban ideological struggles in a hostile marriage rent by constant domestic warfare. Much of Raúl’s shame is attributable to the fact that women got the better of him: if Zenaida is unmanned through divorce, the narrative suggests that she is responsible for unmanning the revolutionary. For Raúl, she functions as a signifier of duplicity and untrustworthiness, a demonizable figure with the analogized potential for being singled out as typical of her gender. The corollary of this, however, is that the taint of a symbolic feminization achieved by female deceit continues to shadow Raúl when he is a rich and successful émigré artist, ironically supported by the anti-Communist Cuban exile elite. A trace of the fallen patriarch’s emasculation and freefall toward symbolic femininity is even discernible in Juani’s romanticized spin on the moral of her uncle and aunt’s story: "the message of Tío Raúl and Tía Zenaida is that lies destroy everything, but especially love" (115).

Zenaida, however, avoids romanticizing her autobiography because she feels that a most powerful patriarch has ruined her chances of achieving marital harmony: "She’s convinced [that] without Fidel her life would have been very different, that perhaps she and Raúl would have stayed together" (114). But Zenaida’s conviction is unsustainable. She attributes to Castro, and, by implication, to the temporal and spatial rupture of the Cuban gran familia supposedly inaugurated by the 1959 Revolution, blame for her diasporic predicament. Juani’s version of events nonetheless confirms that her uncle and aunt were in exile in the U.S.A. many years before the Revolution. By including this account, Memory Mambo dispenses with what Poyo calls the myth that the Cuban exiled subject was born in 1959 (89). This is not to suggest that the Revolution has not indelibly marked Cuban exile subjectivities. Zenaida and Raúl’s story is by no means the only example in Obejas’s novel of personal-as-political incommensurables that are traceable back to the Cuban Revolution’s utopian impact on continental imaginaries.

Half-way through Memory Mambo, Jimmy makes the following joke: "What’s the difference between a Cuban and a Puerto Rican? A Cuban’s a Puerto Rican with a job" (122). The gathered members of Juani’s family laugh, forcing Juani to tell Gina, her unamused Puerto Rican girlfriend, that "it was just a Cuban cultural thing, a generational thing, a Jimmy thing, but none of my words had any weight" (123), an explanation notable for avoiding any mention of class differentials. Later, in a party scene at Gina’s apartment, one of Gina’s Puerto Rican friends asks Juani, "Are you a good Cuban or a bad Cuban?" (127), the implication being that she and her family are "gusanos," the derogatory epithet directed at Cubans—from within and without Cuba by the Revolution’s supporters—who left the island in opposition to the Revolutionary project. Moreover, when Gina and Juani split in the narrative’s central act of domestic violence, it is clear that 1959 and its legacies have undermined their relationship: "The gulf between us was wider than the ninety miles from Havana to Miami and the air was just as thick with doubt and suspicion" (131-32).

Such antagonisms belie the romantic claim made by Ilan Stavans that shared experiences of U.S. residency enable the overcoming of the historical, cultural, and racialized divisions between Antillean-origin Latinos: "Tensions permeate inter-Caribbean relations; but when facing Anglos or even other Hispanics, the sense of unity becomes curiously inviting" (51). Tensions, primarily but not exclusively ideological, also permeate inter-Cuban relations, with implications for both unity and disunity beyond the imagined boundaries of Cuban exile communities. Memory Mambo incorporates those tensions by allocating to its players the full range of possible political and personal stances on the Cuban Revolution and the socialist state’s beleaguered survival. Pertinent here is the novel’s reference to "Guantanamera." Its lyrics derived from José Martí, the song reminds readers of the opposed uses made of Martí’s pan-American vision. Claimed as a revolutionary forerunner for Castro’s regime, Martí is also glorified as a Cuban patriot by Castro’s ideological enemies in Miami.

Memory Mambo, however, is set in Chicago, not Miami, although Juani does travel to the Florida city to see her sister, Nena. As Juani describes the northern setting, "When we first moved here after coming to the U.S., we were some of the first Latino immigrants in the area (a lot of Puerto Ricans . . . were already here) and the Poles who’d made Logan Square their neighborhood weren’t very friendly to us" (36). Placed on the Chicago stage as the latest migrant wave among many, the novel’s Cubans are distanced from Miami’s Cuban enclave, and therefore from what Muñoz identifies as a major exiled-Cuban sector’s disinclination to acknowledge its place in U.S. cultural typologies of inclusion and exclusion ("No es fácil" 79). In many ways Memory Mambo counteracts the notion of Cuban "inoculation" from transculturated U.S.A. The novel reveals how the mass presence of Cubans in the U.S.A., together with the symbolic aura of the Cuban Revolution, are profoundly imbricated in the imaginations of the U.S. Puerto Rican community. Memory Mambo continues its problematization of taxonomies of nation and family with the pairing of Juani and Gina, the "fierce Puerto Rican independentista" (25). Their relationship signals what I call a Latina/o dialectic of antipathy.

Pivotal to this dialectic is the aura of post-Revolutionary Cuba in continental imaginaries. Since 1959, and particularly during the Cold War tensions of the 1960s and 1970s, Cuba has occupied a central role in a Latin American imagination that interpreted the island’s struggle against the U.S. as paradigmatic of broader continental power struggles, economic inequities, and ideological polarizations. The corollary of this has been the centrality of a demonized Cuba in the U.S.A.’s own hemispherical imagination of itself as a bulwark against Marxist-Leninism, and as a champion of democracy and capitalist enterprise. The Cuban government’s survival continues to shadow and shape U.S. military, economic and foreign policy responses to the rest of Latin America. In Memory Mambo these rival imaginaries confront each other in and as the relationship between the politicized Gina and Juani, who is discreet with her political opinions, if indeed she has any. These women are marked by membership of national, ethnic, and familial groupings made adversarial by the U.S.A.’s history of Antillean interventions since 1898.

A sense of the complexities inherent to a national place modulated by hemispherical politics in the wake of the Cuban Revolution is provided by Juani’s father’s obsession with "duct tape," a commodity he claims to have invented, yet failed to patent. Her father left Cuba because of economic opposition to the Revolution, but his accounts of his invention are renarrativized in cognisance of his audience’s presumed position on Cuba. As Juani’s telling iterates, her partner Gina is told a story that will not provoke her pro-Cuban sentiments. In private, however, Gina interprets the story’s underlying petit-bourgeois aspirations as an allegory of discredited capitalism: "He’s delusional because of what exile has done to him—just look at what life in the U.S. has made of your father!" (26).

Gina’s recognition of the family’s class position is crucial. Alongside her dismissal of Juani’s embrace of a sexual identity encoded "white," it makes critical distinctions between Juani’s Cuban and Gina’s Puerto-Rican place, and hence between the U.S. histories of the sectors to which they belong. The telling of those divergent histories as they symbolically converge in the interactions of the two women also indicates the extent to which U.S.-based Cubans like Juani may be precluded not only from knowing Cuba, but from historicizing themselves in relation to other frontier discontinuities and continuities. Those embroiled histories, for Gina always meaningful in relation to U.S. imperial, economic, and cultural influence in Latin America, are insinuated into Obejas’s narrative through Gina’s pivotal presence. In the embodied dialectic she forms with Juani, she serves as a reminder of how Spain’s last remaining New World colonies became targets for U.S. interventions: on the one hand, Cuba’s experiences of military occupation, U.S.-backed client dictatorships between 1898 and 1959, and attempted invasion and economic blockades afterward; on the other hand, Puerto Rico’s ongoing colonial status since 1898. Gina’s political stance and her response to Juani’s relatives also remind the novel’s readers that until the Mariel exodus of 1980, most Cuban immigrants derived from upper- and middle-class sectors, were predominantly white or white identifying, and were "favored by the U.S. government and accorded preferential treatment upon their arrival" (Pérez 261). That treatment was not accorded Gina as a Puerto Rican. Her presence in the novel thus highlights the distinct historical imperatives that have led the two Latino sectors to reside en masse in the U.S.A., at times in suspicious proximity.

In Obejas’ novel, however, the disturbances Gina effects on Juani’s sense of self are interpreted by Juani as a personal and romantic rather than an ideological and historical problematic. The narrative indicates that Gina, unlike Juani, is able to discourse authoritatively on things Cuban not only because she supports the Revolution’s anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist project, but because she has visited the island. Aside from the political ideals inspiring Gina’s visit and that Juani does not share, Juani is piqued by Gina’s experiences of a Cuba that Juani only knows from a Babel of conflictive family accounts: "I was jealous that she and her friends knew so much about my country, and I knew so little, really, not just about Cuba, but about Puerto Rico and everywhere else" (133). Before their relationship ends in violence, Juani constantly decodes Gina’s conversation for signs that ideological enmities will not, as she fears, destroy their romance. For instance, when Gina admits her ambivalence for Castro, Juani reveals a desire to believe that libidinal energies must somehow heal if not transcend history: "There was a possibility we could bridge the gap between us—not because I give a damn one way or another about Fidel, but because I know all too well how the world of politics, with its promises and deceptions, its absolute values and impersonal manifestos, can cut through the deepest love and leave lovers stranded" (87). Juani, in the end, cannot repress politicized narratives of history. Similarly, Gina realizes that she cannot overlook the anti-Puerto Rican attitudes circulating in Juani’s family: "She said we were racists and classists and that we only made fun of Puerto Ricans because most of them were darker and poorer than us" (122). Juani, then, never gets her desired "reprieve from the politics of revolution" (129). She is unable to dodge the way that Cuban history overdetermines how she is perceived in and outside her family. And she cannot evade the challenges other Latinas may make to her Cuban-exile imagination.

The issue of estranged relations to the past that underwrites the Gina-Juani dialectic indicates that the Puerto Rican "national" question provides the novel with a parallel historical, ideological, and bodily nexus of dispute, a "colonized" Puerto Rican imaginary to counter a Cuban exile rival. Yet Juani’s commentary indicates an impatience with that imaginary. According to Juani Gina persists in championing an independentista cause, one based on the Cuban "blueprint" that many Puerto Ricans have rejected (129). Juani’s narration mocks the ways Gina’s revolutionary ideals interrupt the most mundane of daily affairs. Gina’s politics are so unbending that they prescribe what clothes Juani feels licensed to wear, the lesbian bars she frequents, the food she consumes, and even the music she listens to. At times the narration is parodic, as when Juani describes Gina’s apartment in claustrophobic detail "as a museum dedicated to Puerto Rican independence and Latin American liberation movements" (86). Finally, Juani emphasizes the contradiction between Gina’s job "as a strategist for community-based political candidates" and her dismissal of elections as "a pillar of the oppressive colonial system that keeps Puerto Rico enslaved" (77). These inconsistencies reinforce Juani’s opinion about the Puerto Rican national conundrum: Puerto Ricans may "like not having to make a choice. Maybe no choice is their choice" (118).

While it is characterized by ideological and historical disagreements, as well as by class and racialized frictions, Memory Mambo’s dialectic of antipathy always presupposes that interactions between Latino sectors are inevitable. Greater Cuban insularity is a myth, a conceit. That impression survives the reading of the novel, despite the fact that the latinidad encoded in the Gina-Juani pairing is conflicted and ultimately untenable. Obejas’s desimplifying approach to latinidad as a potential neocultural imaginary rebuts the opinion held by many U.S.-based Cuban critics that latinidad signifies a meaningless imaginative and political response to questions of Cuban place in the U.S.A. (9) Running counter to such instances of critical insularity, Eliana Rivero has described Obejas as the first Cuban-American female author to shift from immigrant to ethnic-centred narratives and to accept as permanent her U.S. belonging (195). (10) Obejas’s fictional mobility in a national sense thus parallels the observations made by Ana López that the move among many Cubans to claim an ethnicity corresponds to a national location increasingly characterized by panethnic connections and symmetries (47). But Memory Mambo’s staging of these interactions is notable for not romanticizing them, and for not glossing over painful or violent impediments to panethnic alliances and latinidades. The dialectic of antipathy embodied and analogized by Juani and Gina would thus seem to mark a refusal to shy away from the implications of class and racial privilege for Cuban relations with other Latino sectors. Yet Obejas’s gestures toward a desimplified, deromanticized Cuban-exile imagination suggest that more is to be said about her fictionalizations of Cuban placements inside U.S. borders. That is, mobility itself is crucial to Juani’s occupation of national space.

Muñoz has claimed that "the maintenance of a cultural abode like exilic memory" attempts to avoid spatial overdetermination by U.S. majoritarian and Cuban exile imaginations by "engender[ing] an ambivalent and nomadic relation to the national body politic" ("No es fácil" 81). If Muñoz is correct, then it is also necessary to qualify his claim. However ambivalent, some bearers of "exilic memory" have better means than others to relate nomadically "to the national body politic" and to the borders by which that body politic is defined and perceived. In Memory Mambo a range of bodily relations to national (insular) space are evident. The novel’s engagement with Greater Cuba, a species of national excess and boundary nonsensibility, inevitably evokes parallels with such other transcultural terrains as Nuyorico, Dominicanyork, and México del norte. However, the novel’s dialectic of antipathy also reminds Obejas’s readers that the U.S.-based Cuban diaspora is not assimilable with these transnational communities. Latino sectors have distinct experiences of U.S. hemispherical hegemony, and distinct internal relations to the U.S.A.’s geopolitical frontiers. Thus, as an exile narrative Memory Mambo is forced to negotiate what Angeles Torres calls the multiple discourses that enforce an ideological and mythical incommensurability between the U.S.A. and Cuba, and that as a consequence, continue to generate a Cuban diaspora:

The postrevolutionary Cuban exile is a distinct political formation whose origin is fundamentally anchored in the foreign policy objectives of the United States government and internal policies of the Cuban state. . . . As long as Cuban émigrés were ‘exiles’ and not a part of the United States, the administration could deny involvement in the military actions being taken against the revolution. (43) Concomitantly, by upholding the myth of an unbridgeable rupture between two geopolities, the Cuban state could deny that it had lost control of the right to imagine Cuba, an entity now split, splintered, and active elsewhere. Accordingly, "In this context, the relationship of Cuban exiles to their host and home countries acquired a political significance not normally ascribed to immigrant communities" (Angeles Torres 44). One consequence of this "significance" is that in line with a pervasive U.S. spatial imagination, and in spite of a widespread denial of "America’s" impact on their identifications, many residents of Greater Cuba accept as a given their right to mobility in U.S. national space.

It is interesting, then, that Memory Mambo ends with Juani and Patricia discussing Juani’s letter to their Cuban cousin Titi. Juani’s desired trip to Cuba, the discussion confirms, is going ahead, a decision that for the moment overrides the violence of her immediate past: "It’s quiet now" (237). There is much to be teased from this, the novel’s closing scene of possibility in which two cousins, one in Cuba, the other in the U.S.A., are poised to meet. Juani’s proposed trip does not evoke the "bridging" trips back to Cuba that feature in many Cuban exile narratives. While Juani’s decision implies a desire on her part to conjoin distinct geopolities, the bridging never takes place. In this instance the journey trope can only signify travel-as-possibility, not travel actualized. Her plans suggest that yet more identificatory work is required of Juani on historical, national, familial, and sexual levels. The notion that the desired return to Cuba will somehow heal Juani’s identificatory splits is regarded with scepticism by her cousin Patricia. Juani responds by concealing her direct motives—"how my whole inspiration came from the fight with Gina and her friends"—behind the clichéd dream of an empirical authenticization of roots, "to see Cuba with my own eyes, walk the streets of Havana by myself, see where we used to live, talk to people, ask questions" (154). Nonetheless, this dream is significant because the intention to cross borders raises the issue of material means: Juani can cross the maritime frontier, whereas Titi—the novel’s lone subaltern—cannot.

In many ways Memory Mambo attempts to engage with the issue of Cuban privilege that underwrites Juani’s intention and against which Gina has always struggled. The novel deromanticizes the idea of a socioeconomically paradisiacal exile Cuba by describing racialized hierarchies, domestic violence perpetuated by heterosexuals and lesbians alike, child abuse, and the confusion and pain experienced by transcultural subjects. Juani’s accounts confirm all of Gina’s observations of a family in which racist discourses not only circulate, but provided a motive for leaving Cuba, a place in which Juani and her sister "might couple with anybody even a shade darker than us" (35). The example underscores the irony of Nena’s greeting her visiting sister in Miami with the phrase, "Welcome to Havana, U.S.A." (168), for in Miami she is able to keep secret from her Chicago-based parents news of her involvement with the mixed-race Bernie. For Gina, however, all of the members of this family, including Juani, benefit from bearing the somatic signs of whiteness. Gina’s criticisms do not attend to racialized hierarchies alone; they also target the family’s petit-bourgeois ambit. This accusation is not received well by Juani, employed in the family’s Laundromat business. She objects to what she perceives as the unfounded assumptions of Gina’s stance: "I’m Cuban, and in Gina’s eyes, automatically more privileged—as if my family had ever been privileged, as if we were doing anything except trying desperately to stay afloat" (78). Juani also attempts to distinguish her family’s class position from that of the "Hispanics who’ve moved in, driving German compact cars and recording English-only messages on their voice-mail" (37). But this class distinction between "old" and "new" Hispanics collapses when Gina visits Nena in Miami:

We rushed out to her new red Mazda Navajo truck that I would have never imagined my sister driving. We dashed from the air-conditioned terminal through the humid tunnel of cars and vans spewing exhaust to her big truck sitting in a fire lane, a ticket flapping under the wipers. She grabbed it and cavalierly threw it into the back seat, where it joined what appeared to be a collection of tickets. I was struck by what an unlikely act that was for her, so free and optimistic. . . . This was my sister? (167) In spite of the nouveau riche coordinates of this scene, Juani’s gaze is resolute as it sees only Nena’s newly found gender liberation and not a securely middle-classed occupation of U.S. space. Nonetheless, the message implied with Juani’s distancing of herself from the "new" Hispanics in her neighbourhood is that not all Cuban exiles enjoy unequivocal access to the American Dream; nor is Memory Mambo to be equated with what Zimmerman dismisses as the Cuban-American variant of the "American Dream Romance" (38). (11)

That said, the deromanticizing impulse in Memory Mambo is always tempered by a celebration of mobility, both metaphorical and literal: journeys are planned, middle-class status is consolidated, and some women embrace the unmanned possibilities, sexual and economic, permitted by exile in the U.S.A. Indeed, Juani’s plan to travel back to Cuba and meet Titi, the sexual subaltern whom she regards as similarly "lesbian," confirms the irrefutable "national" distance between the two women. While Juani imagines a sameness despite distance between U.S. and Cuban lesbians, she also upholds national disjunctions; the U.S.A. of her experiences is understood—in American Dream terms—to be richer and freer than the originary Communist island. Imaginatively crossing the Florida Strait reveals, after all, how profound yet unacknowledged are the benefits accruing to her once displaced into the U.S.A. Juani’s conjoined Cuban-exile and lesbian identities are predicated on, if not invested in, a tacit reinscription of the frontier between an exiled Cuban petit-bourgeois subjectivity and an imagined Cuban subalternity, between the U.S. lesbian and the imagined Cuban lesbian subaltern, and between Cuban U.S.A. and an imagined place called Cuba.

The undeniable distance from subalternity enjoyed by most of the novel’s players thus provides a key to the national-familial problematic in Memory Mambo. Displacement is never a synonym for stasis in the novel, even when figures like Juani embody an insularity that seems to evoke a lost, irrecoverable Cuba. Nor does displacement signify transplanted (sexual) subalternity. Mobility on many levels allows Obejas’s protagonists to conceive of travel itself as a trope of neocultural identity possibilities, a favoured metaphor for "the construction of womanhood in the women’s respective . . . cultures," and for the reimagination of new identifications "as ‘women’ once established in the United States" (Ortiz-Márquez 228-29). That metaphor is deployed in Memory Mambo to allay, side-step, or defeat the many pressures on Cubanas to succumb to an insular and insulated understanding of their U.S. location. (12) In this way, Memory Mambo provides a different slant on Ana López’s call for a demystification of the idea that Cuban exile provides a "privileged position from which to speak." For López, Cuban-exile "efforts to assemble a national identity within/out of exile—to reconstruct a national history—have often been seen as the marks of a strident ethnocentrism already compromised by their challenges to the island’s utopia rather than as anguished cries of exilic loss, liminality, and deterritorialization coupled with the paradoxical need to build, to reterritorialize, themselves anew" (40). The complexities of privilege canvassed by Obejas to some extent accord with this reterritorializing need. Juani’s identity travails epitomize the transcultural angst generated by the epistemological elusiveness of Cuba in the U.S.A. At the same time, Obejas extends López’s call because her narrative of Cuba-in-the-U.S.A. is also a lesbianization modulated by the U.S.A.’s south-eastern maritime frontier. In Memory Mambo, that frontier signifies at once the spatial locus of U.S., Cuban, and Latina ideological disputes and a metaphorical resource—the sign of a distance from Cuban and U.S. subalternities—for negotiating those disputes.


(1). In-text page references are to Memory Mambo (Pittsburgh: Cleis, 1996).

(2). In a parallel but more optimistic vein, José Muñoz describes the problematics of Cuban memory from which, nonetheless, meaningful identifications are possible: "The ephemera and personal narratives that signify ‘Cuba’ for me resonate as not only possessing a certain materiality, but also providing a sense of ‘place’" ("No es fácil" 76). See also Coco Fusco’s "El diario de Miranda" for insights into Cuban diasporic identity formation.

(3). De Crescenzo also emphasizes the queer coordinates of the novel when she describes it as a lesbian retort to Hijuelos’s TheMambo Kings Play Songs of Love (33). Smorkaloff regards Memory Mambo as a "dialogue with the Cuban canon" produced both on the island and in exile (5). McCullough provides a beautifully sustained postcolonial reading of the novel’s depictions of transcultural lesbian sexuality; while there are overlaps in our approaches, my emphasis on rival national imaginaries, and their impact on Cuban-exile identifications, departs from McCullough’s focus.

(4). Juani’s arrival in the U.S.A. diverges from the author’s, who was born in La Habana in 1956, and went with her family to the U.S. at the age of six as part of the first, prolonged mass exodus from Cuba after the December 1959 Revolution     (Harpur 1).

(5). For José Muñoz, the assimilatory stance is exemplified by Pérez Firmat’s Life on the Hyphen: The Cuban-American Way. Within a schema organized along generational lines, Pérez Firmat defines Cuban-Americans as, first, older Cubans who are merely displaced, second, the "one-and-a-halfers" who inhabit two worlds easily, or third, the "all-American" children of diaspora who lack a Cuban imagination (7-11).

(6). In Fuss’s formulation, too, the identity-identification distinction is not easily disentangled. As she says: "Identification is the psychical mechanism that produces self-recognition. Identification inhabits, organizes, instantiates identity. It operates as a mark of self-difference, opening up a space for the self to relate itself as a self, a self that is perpetually other. Identification, understood . . . as the play of difference and similitude in self-other relations, does not strictly speaking, stand against identity but structurally aids and abets it" (2). Accordingly, Fuss argues that the process of identification—"the entry of history and culture into the subject"—confirms purportedly secure identities as contested and contradictory narratives of selfhood (3).

(7). A different insight into this bodily economy is provided by Obejas’s story "Above All, A Family Man," from her collection We Came All the Way From Cuba So You Could Dress Like This? Tommy, an Anglo man dying of AIDS, is driving from Chicago to St. Louis with his "Mexican" lover Rogelio, an archetypal machista who is also married with children. The journey exacerbates the conflicts between the men generated by Rogelio’s apparent sexual fluidity and Tommy’s inability to comprehend Rogelio’s refusal to assume a (homo)sexual identity: "‘But Tommy,’ he said, his eyes narrowing into slits. ‘I’m not going to get this sickness. You, yes—you’re a homosexual" (56). The story thus exposes the pain and pathos arising from the clash of disjunctive sexual epistemologies: "But my heart is pounding in its thin walls, and I don't understand. I want to ask how much he expects me to take" (70).

(8). My thanks to Susana Chávez-Silverman for bringing this "queer-gay-happy-feliz" signifying possibility to my attention.

(9). See Alvarez Borland (149-50) for an endorsement of this trend. A different stance is taken by Zimmerman, for whom Cuban-exile writers are displaced Latin Americans who have little in common with the Chicano and Puerto Rican historical minorities (36). He further asserts that "Latino" writerliness is innately oppositional to Anglo-American hegemony, thus disqualifying from the Latino rubric Cuban-exile texts which are "too inadequate in oppositional force and perspective to constitute U.S. Latino expression" (38). I do not, however, wish to replicate this prescriptiveness in my reading of Memory Mambo.

(10). Rivero’s thesis is echoed by Hernández who applauds Obejas for "undergoing the transition from immigrant to ethnic, and shaping the body of marginalized discourse in American literature in the process" (295). Indeed, while Cuban-American communities have for the most part not been targeted by the same marginalizing discourses and socioeconomic subordinations that affect many Puerto Ricans and Chicanos, a relatively privileged Cuban-exile occupation of U.S. space is not unequivocal. As Max Castro emphasizes, the English Only movement in the U.S. was inaugurated in Miami, in 1980, in a backlash by non-Cuban sectors against the city’s pioneering of bilingualism in schools and government institutions. Finally, the Elían González affair of 1999/2000 could also be regarded as a watershed for Cuban-exile imaginations. The return of Elián sent an unequivocal message to Cuban exiles that they ought no longer take for granted their purportedly favored status in the U.S., at least during the Clinton administration.

(11). Similar distancing from the "American Dream Romance" occurs in the title story of Obejas’s We Came All the Way from Cuba So You Could Dress Like This? a condensed precursor in theme to Memory Mambo.

(12). These pressures are explored in some detail from a personal angle in Obejas’s 1999 essay, "Writing and Responsibility."


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