The Journey Home:  The Struggle to Obtain Voice in Sapphire's Push and Cristina Garcia's Dreaming in Cuban


By Stephanie Coughlan

Women in Literature


          Home is not simply a building in which one resides, nor can it be fully defined as any specific physical space; home is a sense of belonging and acceptance; to have a home is to have roots and to find home is to find one’s very self. In Sapphire’s Push and Cristina Garcia’s Dreaming in Cuban, the concepts of home and belonging are brought to life as the female protagonists in both works struggle to define themselves and establish a voice.  Push explores these ideas with particular emphasis on the immediate family and social institutions that have failed their purpose, while Dreaming in Cuban traverses nations and generations to explore the notion of home and belonging as it relates to both motherhood and nationhood. Motherhood is a key concept in both works; Push highlights Precious’ struggle to become a good mother and establish a home for her two children without the benefit of a good parental example or the empowerment of a solid education, while Dreaming in Cuban uses motherhood and the struggles within one particular family to draw a comparison with Cuba as the motherland.  Precious’ effort to achieve literacy in Push, and Pilar’s recording of her family’s story in Dreaming in Cuban, reflect the importance of voice, which is key to establishing a sense of self-identity and ultimately finding home. The search for home and sense of belonging in Push and Dreaming in Cuban ends in the successful attainment of voice and self-definition by Precious and Pilar through various means such as education and revisiting previously held definitions of home and self.

In both Push and Dreaming in Cuban, the role of motherhood and the lasting effects that the mother-daughter relationship forges in the lives of the female protagonists are central to the development of self-identity and are the start of the journeys that these protagonists must go on in order to establish a voice and ultimately find home.  In both works, abuse suffered at the hand of a mother alters the lives of the protagonist. In Push, Precious suffers many forms of abuse at the hand of her mother, who uses her sexually, beats her physically, and inflicts countless forms of emotional damage upon her. Even though emphasis is placed on the sexual abuse inflicted on Precious by her father, her mother’s abuse is evidenced by an early memory that Precious has:

“I am choking between her legs A HUH A HUH. She is smelling big woman smell. She say suck it, lick me Precious. Her hand is like a mountain pushing my head down” (59).

Her mother's abuse robs Precious of a positive emotional foundation and ultimately robs her of a voice for the entirety of her childhood.

In Dreaming in Cuban, Lourdes suffers abuse at the hand of her mother Celia, when she is rejected as a young child. As an adult, Lourdes continues to feel the effects of the emotional disconnect between herself and Celia, and she imagines the coldness with which her mother regarded her as a newborn: “She imagined herself alone and shriveled in her mother's womb, envisioned the first days in her mother's unyielding arms” (74). Although the abuse that Lourdes suffers at the hands of her mother is not physical, it leaves a lasting emotional scar that isolates Lourdes in her relationship as a daughter to Celia and later as a mother to Pilar.

While these works bear similarities in their patterns of abuse and importance of mother-daughter relationships, they contrast sharply in the underlying messages and metaphors that these troubled relationships represent. Push highlights Precious as she strives to overcome the ill-treatment and obstacles placed in her way by abusive parents through education and the forging of healthy new relationships outside of her family. The underlying message in this story of struggle and triumph is a literal one; it makes a strong statement about the importance of education and emotional support as means of attaining voice and self-identity.  In “The (Missing) Faces of African American Girls with AIDS,” Nels P. Highberg states the importance of recognizing Precious’ story and the lessons learned about the failure of social institutions as one that should be applied to society as a whole and “not to reduce this story to that of one person living an individual life:

She suffers as she does because of the complete failure of numerous social institutions: The school system that promotes her to the ninth grade even though she can barely read the alphabet- the same system that kicks her out during her second pregnancy. Then there is the welfare system that does nothing for Precious except send checks to her mother for Precious’ first child, even though that child has lived somewhere else for years (12)

            Social institutions, such as the school and welfare systems, are unable to provide Precious with the education and emotional support that she so desperately needs; Highberg makes the point that society as a whole can learn from the case of Precious. In Dreaming in Cuban, the underlying message is much more complicated; the many cross-generational, cross-cultural mother-daughter relationships are about much more than conflict within one family, but instead serve as a metaphor of the conflict waging within Cuba, a conflict between the motherland and her children. Andrea O’Reilly Herrera writes in her article, “Women and the Revolution in Cristina Garcia’s ‘Dreaming in Cuban,’” that motherhood is paralleled with patriotism and that the maternal relationships within the Del Pino family serve as a metaphor of Cuba and her people:

Throughout Dreaming in Cuban, Garcia establishes a parallel between patriotism and motherhood (44) and the theme of maternal loss is metaphorically linked to the larger losses that Cuba, as mother country, sustained both prior to, and in the wake of, the Revolution (73).

The parallel importance of the maternal relationship and the relationship between a citizen and her country depicted in Dreaming in Cuban highlights the parallel importance of maternal figures and national allegiances to one’s definition of home.

             The figurative journey home in both Push and Dreaming in Cuban requires the female protagonists to develop their voice, which allows them to discover their self-identity.  Voice is an important theme in Sapphire’s Push. Laurie Stapleton describes Push in “Toward a New Learning System: A Freirean Reading of Sapphire’s ‘Push,’” as, “…the story of a young woman trying to find her voice, which she accomplishes over the course of the narrative primarily through dialogue with her teacher, fellow students, and journal in an alternative school” (214). The literary growth that Precious achieves at the Each One/Teach One Alternative School affords her the opportunity to develop her voice and coincides with immense personal growth. In Dreaming in Cuban, voice and language become central to the idea of communication within relationships and across international borders. Pilar undergoes a process of developing her voice when she allows her “nostalgia” towards Cuba to guide her back to the land of her birth and subsequently embarks on a journey to become the memory keeper of the Del Pino family through both art and the written word. Elena Machado Saez writes in her article about the cross cultural implications of Dreaming in Cuba, “The Global Baggage of Nostalgia in Cristina Garcia’s ‘Dreaming in Cuban,’” that Pilar recognizes Cuba as the place where she can go to seek out self definitions and find the sense of home that she has been unable to develop as an exile in the United States:

The US "doesn't feel like home to" Pilar (58), and as a result, she nostalgically identifies Cuba as the space that will localize her and give her the definition she is lacking, the definition of home (137).

In Pilar’s quest for self-definition and a sense of belonging, she relies on the romanticized version of her birthplace to guide her; however, she later discovers that a return to Cuba is vital to truly determining her true home.

            Both works highlight the significance of finding one’s voice; however, the means by which the protagonists achieve their voice are inherently different.  In Push, the victimized Precious Jones is able to overcome the overwhelming odds through education and achieve a liberation of sorts from the various sources of oppression that hold her captive for the first 16 years of her life. “Precious did not have the literacy tools to succeed in a traditional educational environment,” because of her abusive and impoverished upbringing (Stapleton 219). For this reason, the Each One/Teach One Alternative School is so significant in Precious’ liberation and acquisition of voice. The first time Precious reads is with her teacher Miss Rain; it is a key scene in the book, because it marks a turning point and empowers Precious to continue striving:

[Miss Rain asks,] “Can you read the whole thing?” I say “A Day at the Beach.” She says very good and closes the book. “I want to cry. I want to laugh. I want to hug kiss Miz Rain. She make me feel good. I never readed nuffin’ before.” 54-55

This seemingly simple exchange between a teacher and her student takes on much greater significance when looked at within the context of Precious’ struggle to obtain a voice. Also, Sapphire extends the idea of bestowing a voice to the voiceless in her stylistic approach to the novel; “Sapphire uses Precious’ own voice with her illiterate speech patterns and errors intact, a stylistic choice that validates Precious’ perspective and provides a voice to the voiceless” (Heighburg 11). Overall, Precious’ journey “home,” depends greatly on the acquisition of language skills and education which are the keys to providing her liberation and a voice.          

Contrasting with the straight forwardness of Push, Dreaming in Cuban is a complicated metaphor comparing maternal relationships within a family and the relationship between a country and her natives. As Dreaming in Cuban focuses mainly on the cross-cultural perspective between Cuba and her people, particularly Cuban exiles, it is only natural that protagonist Pilar seeks out a return to the land that has captivated her imagination for years. The long awaited return allows Pilar to reexamine her own self and the land that has held such a sense of enchantment for her:

The return consequently provides Pilar with access to a family history as well as Cuban culture that she was previously lacking; she "can now preserve that family history and in the process know her own identity and place in this long and fascinating saga" (Payant 174). More specifically, then, this return is represented as a reclamation of identity, such that when Pilar leaves Cuba behind at the end of the novel, she takes with her a new sense of self: "the journey home to Cuba allows her to translate and define herself" (qtd. in Gomez-Vega 99) (Machado Saez 130).

Pilar’s return to what she has long imagined to be the home she has been missing turns out to be in some ways a disappointment as she discovers that Cuba is not what she had imagined. However, the trip is essential to her ability to establish a new sense of self for the future, a future that defines her physical home as New York, not instead of Cuba, but more than Cuba: "But sooner or later I'd have to return to New York. I know now it's where I belong—not instead of here, but more than here" (236).

            In Push and Dreaming in Cuban, the notions of home and sense of belonging are explored through the concepts of motherhood and the development of voice. Push uses a more literal approach while Dreaming in Cuban uses a more complex, metaphorical analysis of motherhood, nationhood, and ultimately, home.  Home experiences and maternal relationships shape the female protagonists and their initial sense of self; however, the discovery of voice through empowering means such as education and travel is vital to their ultimate ability to find home.   

Works Cited

Highberg, Nels P. “The (Missing) Faces of African American Girls with AIDS”. Feminist Formations. Vol 22, No.1 (Spring 2010): 1-20. Project Muse. Web. 5 December 2010.

Machado Sáez, Elena. “The Global Baggage of Nostalgia in Cristina Garcia's ‘Dreaming in Cuban’”. MELUS. Vol. 30, No. 4 (Winter, 2005):129-147. JSTOR. Web. 30 November 2010.

O’Reilly Herrera, Andrea. “Women and the Revolution in Cristina García's ‘Dreaming in Cuban’". Modern Language Studies. Vol. 27, No. 3/4 (Autumn - Winter, 1997): 69-91. JSTOR.Web. 30 November 2010.

Stapleton, Laurie. “Toward a New Learning System: A Freirean Reading of Sapphire's ‘Push’”.Women's Studies Quarterly, Vol. 32, No. 1/2 (Spring - Summer, 2004): 213-223.  JSTOR. Web. 30 November 2010.

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