The branding of America as the Land of Milk and Honey made it a viable destination for many a different nationalities. Despite the risk of sacrificing important things – roots, culture, identity among others – many flocks to the United States in search of that proverbial American Dream. Stories of migrants braving the odds in order to lift their families from poverty have become ubiquitous. There are some who flee to the USA to escape the pandemonium that has swept their home countries. With oppression persisting in different parts of the globe, it has become more commonplace to hear these stories. And with the continuous inflow and outflow of people across borders, the migration experience will always remain a seminal part of literary discourses.
With the stark dichotomies between developed and underdeveloped nations growing, and the violence in various parts of the world continuously escalating, migration has become a major concern of nearly every country. While many countries openly welcomed migrants and continued to do so until today, some countries have placed measures to stymie the growing human traffic across borders, some more radical than others. At the height of the burgeoning migration concern, a proposal to build on the border of the United States and Mexico to prevent illegal migration was even forwarded. This has made the migration experience one of the most explored and prevalent subjects in contemporary American literature.
Contributing her voice to the discourse is Gabriela Garcia who tackled the sensitive and timely subject in her debut novel, Of Salt and Women. The novel mapped the story of nine women, spanning five generations, fluidly flowing across time periods, and moving across the borders of the United States, El Salvador, Cuba, and Mexico. The story commenced in 2018 in Miami, in Donald Trump’s USA where we first meet Carmen and her daughter Jeannette. The relationship between mother and daughter has been fraught. They did love each other but they were unable to express how they feel. Jeannette was adamant to know about her family’s past but her mother was reluctant to provide her with the answers she sought. The growing chasm between mother and daughter was exacerbated by Jeannette’s growing opioid addiction.
“Women of Cuba, I hear your cries. Fugitives, martyrs, widows, orphans, you turn to an outlaw; those who have no home to call their own seek the support of one who has lost his country. Certainly we are overwhelmed; you no longer have your voice, and I have more than my own: your voice moaning, mine warning. These two breaths, sobbing for home, calling for home, are all that remain. Who are we, weakness? No, we are force.’”~ Of Women and Salt, Gabriela Garcia
From the present, Garcia then whisked the readers to the past where we meet Carmen’s great-grandmother, Maria Isabel. The year was 1866 and Maria Isabel was employed in a cigar factory in Camagüey, Cuba. She was the solitary female worker in a workforce dominated by men. It was while working at the factory that she met her future husband, Antonio. Antonio was a bibliophile who took pleasure in reading to his co-workers the literary classics such as the novels of Alexander Dumas and Victor Hugo and the plays of William Shakespeare. Maria Isabel, who was unable to read herself, was fascinated by the vivid worlds the books were transporting her to. They were a form of escape to her. One favorite was Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables: “far past the sugarcane fields and sea salt–washed plantations to the hazy shores of France.”
Running parallel to the exploration of Jeannette’s matrilineal heritage was the story of another mother and daughter tandem. Gloria, like Carmen, was a single mother who constantly worried about the future of her daughter, Ana. They were originally from El Salvador but fled to the United States to escape the escalating gang violence in their home country. Gloria was disenchanted by the promise of the American Dream, even remarking that the United States is a country that “had always held you at arm’s length like an ugly reflection.” Nevertheless, it was their last hope and through Gloria’s cunning, they were able to slip through the cracks of American border control. This, however, did not stop the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement from hounding them. It was at this juncture that Jeannette and Ana, two daughters of immigrants, crossed paths before they once again diverge.
Having established her mettle as a poet, Garcia made her crossover to prose while earning Masters’s in Fine Arts at Purdue University. In her debut novel, Garcia grappled with several seminal subjects and concerns that persist in the contemporary. With the main characters being women in various stages of life, the novel underscored the adverse impact of the patriarchy on women. The absence of a prominent male character in the story amplified this and yet misogyny loomed. Since time immemorial, women were placed in an unenviable spot having to adapt to a highly patriarchal society. Women have always been considered the weaker sex and their capabilities were often questioned, particularly in male-dominated fields. Some had to endure different verbal abuses hurled toward them. Maria Isabel’s story underlined the horrors of workplace abuse.
Abuses also occur in places we think we feel most safe. In the ambit of their homes, some of the were physically and verbally abused by their husbands, boyfriends, and partners. It is unfortunate that many of these stories go unheard. They are skeletons literally kept in the closet. The stories of women opting to remain in abusive relationships “for the children” has also become ubiquitous. They were forced to learn how to deal with its whims while, at the same time, learning how to defend themselves against both overt and covert forms of abuse. Over the course of history, violence has shaped women. Misogyny still pervades society in the present. Just a couple of years ago, the #MeToo movement made waves as women stepped up and exposed prominent male figures who have abused them. The novel captured the interiority of women and their plight in a society that refuses to budge.
“She could now string letters into words. She marveled at the magic of it all, how human beings had thought to etch markings on stone to tell their stories, sensed each lifetime too grand, too interesting, not to document. She placed one hand to her belly and felt the something in her move and stretch as if seeking its own freedom, felt as if the whole world were her womb. She wanted to write her own words. She wanted to write her life into existence and endure.”~ Of Women and Salt, Gabriela Garcia
Equally vivid and extensive as the novel’s exploration of feminism in the contemporary was its exploration of immigration and the migrant experience. Garcia, the daughter of Cuban and Mexican immigrants, gave scathing commentaries on the follies of US immigration policies. She captured scenes both rarely and commonly seen on television and media. We read about the horrors immigrants escape from. What is unfortunate is that the things they are running away from will pursued them even though they have crossed borders, but just in different forms. They live on the edge as authorities lurk in the background. Their plight was exacerbated by different forms of prejudices and racism. They are going up against an oppressive system that has no scruples in separating a mother from her daughter. Dark realities continue to deconstruct the American Dream.
The novel, however, does not reduce itself to another immigration story. Inevitably connected with the exploration of the migrant experience are the exploration and the endless search for ethnic identity for the children of immigrants; the various definitions of home; and, on a vaster spectrum, family dynamics, particularly between mothers and daughters. Garcia captured a vast landscape. Moreover, these were explored primarily through strictly female perspectives. At the intersection of these seminal and timely subjects is politics. Political overtones reverberated all throughout the novel. These provided more layers to an already lush landscape. Politics is a subject that has become ubiquitous in modern works of American literature, almost emblematic. Politics also play a prominent role in why immigrants leave their ancestral lands The novel is also an iteration of how politics have come to dominate every aspect of our lives.
One of the novel’s finer elements was its details of Cuban history. On the fore, Jeannette was confronting her family history but in the backdrop, Garcia was subtly shedding light on seminal events that have marked contemporary Cuban history. We read about the events that led to the Ten Years’ War or the Great War (Guerra Grande) that started in 1868. This is a critical and pivotal moment in Cuba’s fight for its independence from Spain. Fidel Castro, one of the many prominent strongmen of history, was also referred to in the story. He led the Cuban Revolution in the 1950s before eventually seizing control of the island nation and remaining in power until his brother took over in the 2000s. During the Cuban Revolution, affluent Cubans hid their pieces of jewelry on walls and yards with the hopes that the revolution will not last long and that they can retrieve them again. His rise to power and Cuba’s descent into communism played a critical role in the Cuban diaspora.
Garcia’s unironic gaze was piercing, but, at the same time, objective. Where Cuba was concerned, the novel underlined social concerns that pervade Cuban society. Prominently tackled was the internal racism that persists in Cuban society. Despite sharing similar goals in life, white Cubans subjected their dark-skinned compatriots to overt forms of racism: “You can’t trust people like that. If they don’t do it on the way in, they do it on the way out.” It was also glaring how there are very few Black Cubans in Miami, the center of the Cuban diaspora. On her trip to Cuba, Jeannette reflected: “I am hit once again, like so many times on this trip, with truth that doesn’t square with my notions of Cuba and Cubans.”
“The body her fingertips memorized, the universe of a relationship. All its language and borders and landscapes. A geography she studied for years and still does not understand: a man who pummels a fist into her side the same day he takes in a kitten found lying in the crook of a stairwell during a rainstorm.”~ Of Women and Salt, Gabriela Garcia
The novel was populated by an eclectic mix of complex characters. They were astutely conceived by Garcia, managing to capture the complexities of their personalities, both the positive and the negative sides. Garcia did a splendid job of capturing their voices and making the readers inhabit their minds. Her characters shared similarities but they managed to be distinct. Jeannette, Ana, Maria Isabel, Gloria, and Carmen. They all sound like ordinary names but each name had her story to tell, a demon she had to exorcise, a voice she wanted to be heard, and a dream she wanted to achieve. All of the novel’s fine elements were held together by Garcia’s storytelling and writing. Her poetic background was on display. It was beautiful without being flowery. The sentences and the paragraphs flowed despite Garcia forgoing a chronological paradigm. The story weaved in and out of the past and the present which, at times, undermined the power of the story.
In Of Women and Salt, Gabriela Garcia gifted the world with a riveting and poetic story about women. But it goes beyond women as the subjects that her debut novel tackled were timely and seminal, from the adverse impacts of misogyny and patriarchal society to the pervasiveness of discrimination to the follies of immigration to the definitions of home and family to the exploration of ethnic identity. The novel had a disenchanting effect that deconstructed the proverbial American Dream. In a novel deceptively slender, all of these elements converged in a story dominated by women and were juxtaposed to changes taking over time, from the late 19th century to the 21st century. With Garcia’s vivid storytelling, we read of the story of women under different circumstances who were driven by one goal: to survive.
“Listen, I have secrets too. And if you’d stop killing yourself, if you’d get sober, maybe we could sit down. Maybe I could tell you. Maybe you’d understand why I made certain decisions, like fighting to keep our family together. Maybe there are forces neither of us examined.”~ Of Women and Salt, Gabriela Garcia
Characters (30%) – 26%
Plot (30%) – 21%
Writing (25%) – 22%
Overall Impact (15%) – 14%
It was midway through 2021 that I first encountered Gabriela Garcia. Her debut novel, Of Women and Salt (2021) has been earning praises left and right from fellow book readers. I have never heard of her but the recommendations piqued my interest; it didn’t take long for me to be convinced into giving her prose a try. I was able to acquire a copy of the book during the year but because my reading pile is already quite tall, it took me until January 2022 before I was finally able to read the book. The first thing about the book that struck me was the beauty of the writing; I, later on, learned that Garcia started her literary career as a poet before working on her first novel. I may add as well that I kept confusing her with Nobel Laureate in Literature Gabriel García Márquez. Anyway, I loved the novel even though it kept jumping across different time periods without much of a warning. At times, it came as incohesive. Nevertheless, I was in awe of the story and how Garcia conceived it. I particularly liked the details of Cuban history woven into the story. I was also invested in each character’s story. What I lamented was the book’s length. This is honestly one of the books I wished was longer.
Author: Gabriela Garcia
Publisher: Flatiron Books
Publishing Date: 2021
Number of Pages: 204
Genre: Literary, Historical
In present-day Miami, Jeanette is battling addiction. Daughter of Carmen, a Cuban immigrant, she is determined to learn more about her family history from her reticent mother and makes the snap decision to take in the daughter of a neighbor detained by ICE. Carmen, still wrestling with the trauma of displacement, must process her difficult relationship with her own mother while trying to raise a wayward Jeanette. Steadfast in her quest for understanding, Jeanette travels to Cuba to see her grandmother and reckon with secrets from the past destined to erupt.
From nineteenth-century cigar factories to present-day detention centers, from Cuba to Mexico, Of Women and Salt is a kaleidoscopic portrait of betrayals – personal and political, self-inflicted and those done by others – that have shaped the lives of these extraordinary women. A haunting meditation on the choices of mothers, the legacy of the memories they carry, and the tenacity of women who choose to tell their stories despite those who wish to silence them, this is more than a diaspora story; it is a story of America’s most tangled, honest, human roots.
About the Author
Gabriela Garcia was in 1984 born to parents of Cuban and Mexican heritages. She was raised in Miami, Florida, by a single mother. She completed her Bachelor of Arts in Sociology at Fordham University and received her Master of Fine Arts in Fiction from Purdue University. She was the recipient of a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writer’s Award and a Steinbeck Fellowship from San Jose State University. She also received residencies and fellowships from Breadloaf, Sarabande Books, Lighthouse Works, the Keller Estate, and the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley.
Garcia’s literary career started with writing poems and short stories. Her works have appeared in a variety of publications such as Best American Poetry, Tin House, Zyzzyva, Iowa Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, The Cincinnati Review, and Black Warrior Review. In 2021, she published her first novel, Of Women and Salt. Aside from writing, she taught creative writing at Purdue University.
Garcia is also a prominent voice in the feminist movement. She is also a long-time migrant justice organizer. She has worked in music and magazines. She currently resides in the Bay Area.