I first heard of Cuba when I read Assata Shakur’s memoir Assata: An Autobiography (Amazon| Indiebound) as a young Filipino immigrant. I had no knowledge of the country, only that there was a strict embargo in place, but I knew it had to be a good place, good enough to give refuge to a black revolutionary woman.
Over time, I started learning about Fidel Castro and the country’s history, from Spanish colonization to socialist revolution to its communist government. I learned about Raul, the Bay of Pigs Invasion. I learned about Che Guevarra. And then it hit me — back in high school in the Philippines, I used to rock a red shirt with the infamous Guerrillero Heroico, the revolutionary’s famed portrait. I remember being drawn to the man on the shirt, wondering who he was and what the reason was behind his piercing look. Turns out, that shirt was my first introduction to Cuba. With these things in mind, I dove right into The Mortifications: A Novel (Amazon | Indiebound) by Derek Palacio.
The story begins with the Mariel Boatlift, the emigration of Cuban immigrants to the United States back in the ’80s at the height of economic downturn. At the center of the story is a family: Uxbal, a father hellbent on continuing the revolution, his wife Soledad who wanted to leave for good and the twins, Ulises and Isabel who knew nothing about what was going on at that time except perhaps that they were about to be broken.
They settled in Connecticut, as opposed to other Cuban immigrants and exiles who stayed in Florida and created their own haven, Little Havana. Far away from everyone, the family of three tried to make sense of their new home. While Ulises escaped in his world of books and literature, Isabel suddenly turned towards the Church.
In spite of Soledad’s attempts at forging a new life with her children, giving them the comforts and the freedom to do what they wanted, the past maintained its hold. Between the twins, Isabel remained tethered to Cuba and to her father. She was also awashed in a kind of spiritual light borne out of a promise she made to Uxbal, something that she kept as she grew up. The more she stayed in the U.S., the emotional distance between her and her mother grew. Ulises on the other hand was hungry for the familial bonds that he wished to have with Uxbal, something he found in Willems when his mother remarried.
Ulises watched as his family disintegrated, the two women in his life moving farther and farther away from each other. It’s a sordid picture of immigration, quite the opposite of many immigration stories portrayed in the mainstream media. The family of three, in spite of their best efforts, were called upon by their home country, and this is where they found themselves towards the end of the book.
This book piqued my interest in a different way, enough for me to finish the book. The themes of mysticism, romanticizing of revolutions and the toll on families were all present. There were also references to Greek drama, a trend I’m noticing with the most recent books I’ve been reading. Palacio has compelling characters, but I was also confused with the plot, like it’s almost too surreal for me to actually believe in. Sex was also a prevalent theme, between Soledad and Willems, between Isabel and the forlorn revolutionaries. I’m still trying to understand all of it even at this point.
Perhaps the only thing that really made sense to me is Ulises, how he remained loyal to his mother while trying to reach for the affection of his estranged father. He was a solid figure who anchored so many of the confusing elements of the story, the only reliable voice that made me finish the book. His constant pondering on the story of his life was believable, relatable in all of its honesty.
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Note: I received Derek Palacio’s book from Blogging for Books for this review.
Pia Cortez is a writer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. She runs a book blog called Libromance where she reviews books and publishes literary features with a queer Filipino immigrant lens. She is a contributor at Hella Pinay, an online magazine for Filipino-American women and at New Life Quarterly, a literary magazine based in Oakland, California. She is currently working on her first novel.