The novel’s central themes include family relationships, exile, the divisiveness of politics, and memory. Cuban history and culture are important in the novel, including important historical events and the elements of Santería that appear throughout the novel.
NOTE: For the sake of simplicity, this plot summary follows the events contained in the novel in chronological order rather than in the order in which they appear in the novel.
As a young woman living in Havana, Celia Almeida meets and falls in love with a married Spaniard named Gustavo. The two become lovers until Gustavo returns to Spain. After Gustavo leaves, Celia loses the will to live. Though she has no known medical condition, she wastes away (due to depression) While she is housebound, Jorge del Pino, courts her and persuades her to marry him. After their honeymoon, he leaves her at home with his mother and sister while he goes on long business trips, punishing her out of his jealousy for her past with Gustavo. His mother and sister are cruel to Celia, even more so after she becomes pregnant. By the time she gives birth to her daughter Lourdes, her mind has snapped.
Thus, for the first months of Lourdes’ life, Celia is in a mental institution and Jorge is the one who cares for Lourdes. When Celia is released, Jorge brings her to a new home on the edge of the ocean in Santa Teresa del Mar. Lourdes is distant from her mother and closely bonded to her father. A couple years later, a second daughter named Felicia is born. Finally, they have a son named Javier, who is born eight years after Felicia. Ideologically, Jorge and Celia are very different. Jorge prefers the American-friendly government, while Celia supports attempts at revolution.
Over the years, the three children grow up, and their lives take different paths. Lourdes attends the university and falls in love with a man named Rufino Puente, the son of a wealthy family. They are married in spite of his mother’s disapproval. After Rufino and Lourdes are married, they live at the Puente family ranch. A few days after the revolution takes place in Cuba, Lourdes give birth to a daughter named Pilar. A few years later, Lourdes is pregnant with a second child. One day, she is thrown from her horse while riding frantically to return to the house, and it causes her to lose the child. Lourdes reaches the house just in time to find two soldiers holding Rufino at gunpoint. She scares the soldiers off, but the soldiers return later. They claim the Puente estate as property of the revolutionary government. Lourdes tries to resist, but one of the soldiers rapes her at knifepoint. Soon after, the Puente family flees to Miami. Lourdes finds life in Miami intolerable, and soon they drive north until they reach New York City, where they make their new life. Rufino does not fit in well, and he spends his time working on his inventions. It is Lourdes who supports the family, saving up enough money to purchase a bakery. She runs the bakery herself. Pilar grows up rebelling against her mother and feeling much closer to her father. She is an artist and a punk.
Felicia, the second oldest daughter, becomes the best friend of the daughter of a santería high priest at age six. From that time forward, santería has a presence in Felicia’s life. She drops out of high school and drifts from job to job until she meets Hugo Villaverde. Felicia is enamored with him immediately, and they soon consummate their relationship. Felicia becomes pregnant as a result. Hugo vanishes for seven months before returning and marrying Felicia in a City Hall wedding. He becomes physically abusive almost immediately and then departs to sea the next day. Thus, Felicia is without her husband when she gives birth to her twin daughters, Luz and Milagro. Hugo continues to be a sporadic presence in their lives after that. He manages to impregnate Felicia again and give her syphilis. It is during Felicia’s pregnancy that her lack of mental stability becomes apparent. She attempts to kill Hugo by dropping a burning rag onto his face while he is sleeping, and he flees. She later gives birth to a son, who she names Ivanito. While twins resent their mother, Ivanito is extremely close to her.
The youngest child of Jorge and Celia, Javier, has a talent for science and shares his mother’s support of the revolution and El Líder. As a result of his rebellion against his father, Javier eventually leaves for Czechoslovakia without telling his parents. He goes on to become a professor of biochemistry and marries, having a daughter with her named Irinita.
When Jorge develops stomach cancer, he travels to New York for treatment, where he spends the last four years of his life. His health gradually fails and he is hospitalized. Over the course of her father’s illness, Lourdes has a constant desire for food and sex.
When Jorge dies, his spirit leaves his body and appears to bid farewell to his wife. She glimpses him briefly, but she cannot understand his words. Felicia turns to santería to make peace with her father, but she becomes mentally unwell again. When Celia discovers Felicia’s illness, she takes Luz and Milagro to her home, but Ivanito will not leave his mother. Eventually, Felicia’s mental state deteriorates to the point where she tries to kill Ivanito and herself with drugged ice cream. The attempt fails. As a result, Felicia is sent to join a Cuban military brigade and Ivanito is sent to boarding school. Celia becomes a full devotee of the revolution and El Líder, performing a wide variety of tasks and becoming a local judge of the People’s Court.
Meanwhile, in New York, Pilar discovers that her father is cheating on her mother. She tries to run away to Cuba, but she only makes it as far as Miami. She gets caught while seeking out one of her cousins for help. Her mother is called, and Pilar is made to return home to New York. Lourdes becomes an auxiliary policewoman. Her father’s spirit begins speaking to her regularly. Eventually, Lourdes’ business becomes so successful that she buys a second bakery. She has Pilar paint a mural for the opening. Pilar, unbeknownst to her mother, paints a punk Statue of Liberty for the unveiling, but when the crowd disapproves, Lourdes defends her daughter’s work.
In Cuba, Felicia meets and marries a man named Ernesto Brito, but he dies in a fire soon afterwards. Felicia blames El Líder for his death, though there is no evidence to support this belief. She descends into madness again, and then vanishes, losing her memory and identity for months. When she recovers herself, Felicia discovers that she has married a man named Otto. Whether or not his death was Felicia's fault is debatable. While on a ride, he stands up while Felicia performs oral sex. When the ride begins again, he falls over and lands on electrical wires and is electrocuted, but it is unclear as to exactly how he falls, and later in the story, Felicia says that she pushed him.
Meanwhile, the day after Felicia’s disappearance, Javier returns home to his mother. Celia learns that his wife has left him and taken their daughter. In his heartbreak, Javier wastes away, just as Celia once did, until he vanishes to die. Felicia returns to Havana and fully embraces santería, becoming a priestess. She is still distanced from her mother and children, who do not come to see her. Gradually, Felicia’s health fades for reasons unknown and she too dies.
In the U.S., Jorge’s presence begins to fade from the world, and he goes to Lourdes to ask her to go to Cuba and apologize on his behalf and make amends with her mother. One day while Pilar is out in the city, she encounters a botánica (a store that sells the paraphernalia of santería). The proprietor instructs her in a ritual she must perform and gives her the items she needs. On her way home, Pilar is attacked by boys in the park. Pilar recovers herself and returns home to carry out her ritual, which reveals that she and her mother should go to Cuba.
Celia wanders out into the ocean at night after Felicia’s burial, and she is found in the aftermath by a newly arrived Lourdes and Pilar. They care for her. Lourdes views Cuba with great dislike, but she becomes fond of her nephew Ivanito. Pilar listens to Celia’s stories and paints her portrait many times. Lourdes finds herself unable forgive to her mother. She resolves to help Ivanito leave Cuba, taking him to join the defectors at the Peruvian embassy. Celia sends Pilar to find him, and though Pilar manages to do so, she tells her grandmother that she did not. After Pilar and Lourdes are gone, Celia walks into the ocean a final time.
Family relationships are at the heart of Dreaming in Cuban, which explores how they are twisted by physical separation, politics, and lack of communication. Many of the relationships are ruptured in the novel. Mothers and daughters seem largely unable to connect, as nothing is able to close the distance between Lourdes and Celia, and Lourdes and Pilar are also divided by a lack of understanding. Similarly, Felicia is ultimately distanced from her entire family. Only the bond across generations seems to last: Celia is close to her grandchildren, Pilar in particular. The friendship that springs up between Ivanito and Pilar suggests that there may be hope for connection within the third generation of the family as well. Fathers and daughters, and mothers and sons also share closer relationships in the novel. The relationships between husbands and wives, on the other hand, seem to break often: Jorge and Celia spend the last years of his life apart, Felicia tries to kill two of her three husbands, and Lourdes and Rufino drift further and further apart until they no longer talk.
This novel explores the impact that exile has on those in exile and those left behind. The exile in the novel reflects the real exile experienced by thousands of Cubans, as the Puente family flees Cuba in the wake of the revolution just as many did in 1961. Celia acutely feels the absence of her granddaughter in Cuba, and she is saddened by the nomadic existence of her children, but she is powerless to change these things. Lourdes uses the exile as an attempt to ignore her past in Cuba and bury the memory of her rape. Her vision of Cuba is frozen at that point in the past. Only in her return to Cuba is Lourdes able to revisit the memory of her rape and her lost child. Pilar grows up with a longing to return to her grandmother a Cuba without knowing the reality of life in Cuba beyond her memories. She too is powerless for a long time to reach Cuba—even her attempt at running away fails. She is distanced further from her family roots and her cultural heritage due to her mother’s unwillingness to speak of them. This distance is exemplified by Pilar’s distance from the Spanish language, as she only is able to dream in Spanish after she makes a return visit to Cuba.
The rift created by politics is also an important theme of the novel. Politics pervade the novel—it is political conflict due to the revolution that leads to the Puente family’s exile. Politics also polarize the del Pino family’s relationships. Celia is steadfast in her support of the revolution, even to the point of suppressing creative works in her role as a judge. Her socialism links her more closely to her son Javier, but distances her from Lourdes and even Felicia, with whom she was once close. At the same time, Lourdes’ zealous pro-U.S. patriotism distances her from her own daughter Pilar. Ultimately, political inflexibility leads to increasing isolation—Celia is left alone in Cuba, while Lourdes returns home without any greater closeness with her daughter or husband.
The novel is also written through several different styles of narration. The majority of the novel is told through a third-person omniscient narrator. This style of narration is used for sections of the novel centering on the older generations—Celia, Lourdes, and Felicia—as well as Ivanito’s first section. First-person narration also appears, usually in connection with the youngest generation of the del Pino family. Pilar is the most frequent first-person narrator, but Ivanito and Luz (Felicia’s children) also narrate sections in the first person. Additionally, Herminia, Felicia’s best friend, narrates a section telling the story of Felicia’s final days. Celia’s first-person voice is also heard through the appearance of her letters. These help to fill in gaps in the family’s history, as well.