April 14, 2015
By Jonathan Diaz
The first story in Cecilia Rodriguez Milanés’ latest collection, Oye What I’m Gonna Tell You, titled “Niñas de Casa” (roughly translated as “house girls”), opens with the murders of three Cuban-American women. First, a certain Celeste is choked to death after refusing her American manager’s sexual advances at the dollar store where she worked to support her younger brother’s coming baby. Then Magi, a high school AP student, is killed while in the car with her drug-dealer boyfriend, in a shootout aimed at him. Finally, Xiomara, a middle-aged single woman who volunteers at a nursing home twice a week, commits suicide the day after her baby-faced neighbor nearly strangles her to death and rapes her.
All of these girls are dubbed “niñas de casa, muchachas buenas” — good girls who unquestioningly follow their parents’ orders and live up to everything a perfect Cuban girl should be: obedient, quiet, demure, and respectful of men. And all of them die tragically in spite of it. These three women are socially related to Roxana, another niña de casa who storms out in the middle of Xiomara’s funeral mass after deciding the “the rules of la casa weren’t any good because they required unquestioned obedience,” with the energy to “read between the lines of the niña script.” Milanés’ first story is a brutal testament to the hypocrisy and violence of the niña de casa “script,” and it’s one of the most powerful in her collection.
But Oye What I’m Gonna Tell You, traces not only the lives of Cuban-American women negotiating the perils of growing up in America while living in traditionally Cuban homes and within the at-times-suffocating confines of Cuban ideals of female identity, but also the lives of Cubans before and after the Cuban revolution. Milanés is clearly trying to create a grand portrait of The Cuban Experience, explicitly stating in her afterword that she “compiled this collection with the idea that [she] would focus on Cubans and Cuban-Americans whose lives were outside of Miami[.]”
Her goal is extremely ambitious, but it’s also the source of both Oye’s strengths and weaknesses, and the story “Big Difference” is emblematic of this strange literary paradox. Its opening pages describe the relationship between an unnamed Cuban-American narrator living in Miami, Florida, and her friendship with Marcela, her pretty and hip New Jersey neighbor who disdains her “hick” surroundings in Miami and hankers to return home. Milanés incisively describes their friendship by highlighting the gaps in cultural knowledge between the “backwoods” Miami narrator and the fly New Jersey girl with blunt observations, such as when the narrator observes the difference between her Miami accent and Marcela’s: “She said ‘fiiiinnnee’ like the black girls said it. A lot of times, she sounded like a black girl; another reason why I wanted to go to New Jersey.” The awkward and deceptively simple nature of this observation evokes a very real social paradox in the contemporary Latino community: you could be full-blooded Cuban, Puerto Rican, or Dominican, but how “urban” (re: imitative of stereotyped blackness) you are often determines the legitimacy of your social identity as a Latino in America.
Unfortunately, this set-up is sacrificed for a banal plot about the narrator and Marcela chasing two boys they met in Florida during summer break up to New Jersey during Christmas break. Even the mildly observant reader can see through this plot’s transparency and knows this will end in a conflagration of broken hearts and lost virginities, and it feels forced and manipulative when compared to the sharp depiction of the friendship between Marcela and the narrator. The narrator is reduced to the stereotype of a foolish teenage girl doing foolish teenage things for love, and instead of feeling sympathy, I found myself asking the same question Marcela asks her on their flight to New Jersey: “What do you think is going to happen when you see [him]?”
However, the same plot that seems so forced in “Big Difference” slips perfectly into the structure of “Enough of Anything.” The protagonist is a girl named Alma, who “grows up around whores and homosexuals” in the boarding house run by her great-aunt in beautifully described pre-revolution Cuba. In the same fashion as “Big Difference,” Alma falls in love with a boy and has her heart broken when he moves away and forgets about her. But instead of making this the story’s focus, Milanés pushes deeper into her psyche and uses Alma’s lost love as a turning point for the central question: should she take the massive risk and leave “this bloody island and its old fashioned ways” for el norte in New Jersey like her friend Loly, or should she remain in Cuba and submit herself to its restrictive traditions? And all of this leads to a bigger question: When exactly does a culture’s control of your decisions become harmful?
At her best, Milanés plumbs the cultural question’s depths and comes out with something thoughtfully murky. In “Dr. Cubanita,” we see how a professor’s obsession with the material and financial advancement craved by the poor was achieved at the expense of her emotional health, and “Other People’s Homes” details the intense shame felt by the narrator after she returns home to the “picture of Santa Barbara with her shelf of candles and apples” and her “tacky” furniture. “Patron Saints” is a beautiful story about the joys and sorrows of a family that moves from Cuba to North Carolina and the decisions the children must make as they grow older.
But there are times when it seems like she takes the easy way out by providing tried and true examples of harmful cultural influence. “The Laws of Progress” details the catastrophic result of its New Jersey narrator bringing her black boyfriend to Thanksgiving dinner to meet her racist family members, and in “Who Knows Best,” we see blatant displays of both racism and homophobia when the gay protagonist airs his suspicions about the sexual orientation of his niece’s fiancé to his sister. The character’s culture is obviously harmful in the above stories, just as the culture is obviously “good” when the elderly Cuban woman living in Florida in “Poor and Unhappy” decides to adopt children who were orphaned after the Cuban Revolution from their island.
It’s not that the above stories don’t work. “The Laws of Progress” in particular is at times brutally brilliant, opening with a two-sentence uppercut that makes you cringe: “My mother’s mother used to say that it took four generations to get the black out. I’m the fourth generation, so who I mate with will determine if our family racially advances or goes back.” But it’s disappointing when the end of the story simply trails off, explaining that the narrator broke up with her boyfriend in the future without delving into her pain (a pattern repeated in “Barbie Doll” and “El Chino y La Rubia”). In attempting to paint a grand portrait of the Cuban diaspora and Cuban-American experience, Milanés lapses into generalities, losing the specificity that makes great short stories and making some her pieces to feel interchangeable. “Barbie Doll” and “Other People’s Homes” could have been narrated by the same person, as could “What Remains of Max” and “The Laws of Progress,” while the male love interests in “Big Difference” and “Enough of Anything” both seduce the narrators and move away, maintaining tenuous contact through written letters that eventually just ends.
It’s no coincidence that two of the best contemporary Latino short story collections, This Is How You Lose Her by Junót Diaz and Vida by Patricia Engel, are rooted in either a single narrator or within an extremely small cast of characters. This narrowing of the narrative lens not only allows them to create emotionally specific and nuanced stories about growing up and living as a Latino in America but destroys the suffocating myth of a uniform Latino or “immigrant experience.” Oye What I’m Gonna Tell You occasionally stumbles, but when Milanés narrows her lens and firmly grounds her stories in characters’ own feelings and lives, her writing is honest, funny, and compulsively readable.