The history of Cuba is full of challenges which are connected with the periods of revolutions and with the Cuban Special Period of the early 1990’s. The retrospective of these historical events is presented in many literary works in which different aspects of the issues are accentuated.
Achy Obejas provided the readers with her own vision of the controversial situation in Cuba in 1990’s with the help of vivid depicting of the character of Usnavy, the protagonist of Obejas’ Ruins. Usnavy is described as a person whose suffering from the critical situation in the country depends on his inability to admit new life conditions and his impossibility to use compromises. He is used to live according his own old rules as the population of Cuba is also not ready to follow new capitalistic principles.
The revolution of 1959 changed the life of Cubans greatly. They admitted it and it became the part of their lives. Achy Obejas left Cuba together with her parents at a very tender age, but the memories of Cuba kept her peeping into what life would have been without the revolution, and what life is with the coming of the revolution. Moreover, she considered not only significant social but also political aspects of the process:
For the US Cuban writer and poet Achy Obejas, being Cuban in the United States has meant realizing and accepting that her parents’ anti-Communist politics as well as their decision to leave Cuba marked her early on as an exile (Mirabal 367).
Achy Obejas in her Ruins offered an exact picture of the occurrences in the post- revolution era and in the Cuban Special Period when all the old ideals and principles of the Cuban society were ruined. That is why it is necessary to examine the peculiarities of portraying of the character of Usnavy from the point of new historicist criticism. It is important because according to Whitney, “how we understand the revolutionary process determines how we interpret revolutionary (or counter revolutionary) events” (Whitney 3).
Why can the character of Usnavy be considered as the metaphor for the processes in Cuba during the Cuban Special Period? Achy Obejas depicted the Usnavy in Ruins as a middle-aged native Cuban who worked at a grocery. Thus, he was a typical representative of the Cuban society of that period. However, the main problem of Usnavy which is the source of his inner conflicts is his high principles and strong beliefs in the ideas of the revolution.
We can state that Obejas uses the depiction of the character of Usnavy in order to tell the story of Cuba and represent the positions of that part of the Cuban population which supported the ideals of the revolution and was not ready to admit new conditions. “For average Cubans, however, day to day social relations are already dominated by a kind of petty-capitalism in the legal and illegal market place, both within and outside the country” (Whitney 7).
The tragedy of Usnavy is in the fact that he continued to live in the world of his illusions connected with the ideals of the revolution. He did not admit the situation when Cuba appeared to face the period of ruins.
Most Cubans ‘calmly’ went about their daily businesses for a while, trying hard to live a normal life when all signs of normality had disappeared. People lost their jobs but they often tried to conduct themselves as if nothing had changed. Factories closed. The fact that the state continued to pay them helped soften – or at least delay – the blow. Food, cloths, and other basic necessities were severely rationed (Whitney 5).
In her novel Obejas explains that the conditions of Usnavy’s life and the peculiarities of his reality were the result of his non-compromising standing on his principles. He preferred protecting his integrity to any other interest. In Ruins Usnavy is portrayed as the person who never shunted at every opportunity, he waited for his own turn and shared only that he could be allowed.
Obejas has done a good job painting a vivid picture of poverty in Cuba. She also depicted those people who refused leaving the country, and those who were not very patriotic and could not bear the heat of remaining in Cuba at the height of the countries challenges.
Usnavy did not understand those people who were ready to go to the USA in order to find normal conditions of life. How was it possible to live according to the principles of capitalism after the period of socialism? However, Usnavy discovered for himself these principles with the help of his lamp. Obejas paints his love for the lamp as thus:
In the damp and acrid tenement, the lamp was a vibrant African moon in a room that was by nature spectral. It was delicate and oversized in a place that demanded discretion and toughness – if it swayed, it might shatter against the concrete (Obejas 68).
Usnavy’s faced the issues of capitalistic principles when he became to evaluate his lamp which could be those one of Tiffany. It could have some price. That is why he sold it. However, the image of the lamp followed him, and he became to look for in the houses which were destructed.
Moreover, he became aware of the significance of dollars when the situation of his poverty grew to be critical. An interesting twist happened to him when his neighbor asked him to help drive an American. He was paid in dollars, and the life he lived with the dollars was not something he wanted to miss.
He became to think of what he could sell to make more dollars, and no other ideas came to him than that of the lamp, justifying his action on the fact that the dollar was the only currency that at the moment can put food on a family table. Thus, many people in Cuba had to change their viewpoints because of the great necessity.
Obejas’ use of the lamp in the novel can emphasize ‘the light’ which represents the socialism as the light which Usnavy and the Cuban people had. The coming across of new light represents the entrance of capitalism into the Cuban market, and finally the class formations that were created as the result of the increase of the meaning of the dollar. Whitney reported the entrance of the dollar in that period as following:
At the same time foreign investment was encouraged. Spaniards, Mexicans, Venezuelans, Brazilians, and Canadians started to invest in tourism, mining, and other industries (Whitney 7).
In the situation of spreading of the principles of capitalism in Cuba the Cuban peso’s value was so poor that working people did not see the need living their poor lives in the country anymore. However, those who worked in some new and booming industries such tourism were those ones who lived quite successfully.
In her work Achy Obejas accentuated that the USA, at some point in this struggle, had significant influence on the Cuban people as a nation. She discussed the idea that less patriotic citizens like she lived in the shadows of the American dream:
After thirty-five years of revolution and scores of imported allied laundry detergent as well as the occasional domestic product—everybody still referred to the powdery stuff as fab, as if they couldn’t shake the long northern shadow even in matters as simple as that (Obejas 105).
The distance between Cuba and the United State of America is roughly ninety miles. However, the difference in the political and social ways of the countries is great.
The Cuban special Period was characterized by a lot of significant changes in the life of the country. “Along with the social and economic changes came an important political change” (Whitney 7). Many people were very frustrated by the situation in which they experienced themselves.
Examining of the vivid author’s depiction of the character of Usnavy allows the readers to look into the situation in Cuba in the early 1990’s more deeply and to consider all its important details. Usnavy is one of those who suffered from great disillusions, from wrong idealism and from the obvious incapacity to play according to some new rules which were dictated by the modern situation in the society.
He proved his position according to his principles of a real revolutionist. However, the Cuban Special Period played a very significant role in the progress of the country in 1990’s. It can be considered as coming of the new age which developed rather dramatically. Thus, it had a number of its victims who suffered from new rules and principles greatly.
In her novel Achy Obejas presented the unique character of Usnavy as the definite vivid metaphor for depicting of the critical situation in Cuba during the special period of the early 1990’s. The author succeeded in portraying of the peculiarities of the everyday life of the Cuban people who faced the challenging situation of numerous significant changes in the country which touched every sphere of their life and resulted in some controversial effects.
Mirabal, Nancy Raquel. “Ser de Aqui: Beyond the Cuban Exile Model”. Latino Studies 1 (2003): 366-382. Print.
Obejas, Achy. Ruins. New York: Akashic Books, 2009.
Whitney, Bob. “Is the Cuban Revolution Dead? An Historian’s Reflection”. Labor Capital and Society. 28.1 (April 30, 1995): 95.