We came all the way from Cuba so you could dress like this? is a collection of six short stories that illustrate the lives of many Latinxs in the gay and lesbian community. Author Achy Obejas digs into the minds of marginalized people to give them their own voice. Their voices are comprised of personal memories, other people’s lives, and some fiction. Obejas provides an important narration for those who rarely get the chance to write, or even get the chance to speak, due to society’s harsh labels.
For instance, “Wrecks,” Obejas’s first short story, falls into the theme of self-destruction and the destructive course we take after a falling out. The first paragraph introduces us to a young woman who is ensuring she purchases the right insurance — that is, it should include Collison, not just liability. It’s humorous, really, she admits to driving recklessly after every breakup, yet she refuses to accept her demise. She gives us a list of her exes and the car crash that went along with each breakup.
First, Loretta, whom she says caused her to drive her car into a tree, making it inoperable. But before that, Doris, who caused her, as she says, to drive into a pole on an icy day in Michigan. All of this is important because she foresees the accident that will be, now that she has broken up with her former-girlfriend, Sandra. The car accidents are not enough for this young woman, as she continues down the road, falling into deeper, more horrific escapades, which include others. This young woman illustrates for the reader a universal perspective of anger and heartbreak, which can lead to a swirling demise either down a lonely, dark, icy highway somewhere off in Michigan, or up Lake Shore Drive on a sunny, well-lit day.
The story is more than just her demise and her ridiculous attitude. The narrator is humorous in the way she describes herself. She allows herself to fall into silly stereotypes people have about lesbians and relationships. Her comedic attitude contradicts the anger and resentment she holds for herself. Rather than accepting her issues, she drives them off a cliff, about which I am only being slightly figurative. Her recklessness is a way for her to laugh her problems away, allowing the subtle, dark humor to be consistent throughout.
In “Above All, A Family Man,” Obejas introduces us to a new narrator, Tommy Drake, and he’s dying. Tommy Drake is dying of AIDS and he knows he is near death, but he pushes for Santa Fe one last time to see his old friends. Tommy is accompanied by Rogelio, his lover, the driver, and the hyper-masculine, insecure man of Tommy’s dreams. Tommy Drake may be our narrator and protagonist, but our focus is on Rogelio and his psychological ride down Interstate-55 toward Santa Fe. Tommy notes all the times Rogelio’s machismo attitude blocked him from accepting himself. Rogelio is the type of man who can go from flirting with Tommy on Montrose Beach in front of his wife and children, to being unwilling to let another man throw his arm around him in New Town, for fear of looking like the woman in the relationship. Rogelio takes care of Tommy because he believes it is a man’s duty, especially since they are lovers, even if he desperately tries to conceal the fact.
When Tommy insists on stopping in St. Louis to visit the Arch, Rogelio complies, but not before a lengthy debate. Due to his condition, Tommy is unable to walk around without assistance, so he relies on Rogelio. Rogelio tenderly assists him, except when two elderly women approach. Rogelio stiffens up and pretends he is simply helping Tommy walk, ruining the moment for Tommy. Obejas writes complex characters with intricate motives in under 10 pages. Rogelio is over-burdened with several identities; he fights to maintain his presence as a man, a machismo trait that duels with his sexuality. Rogelio is unable to put his adopted heteronormative characteristics behind, so he can accompany his lover, Tommy, on his very last trip.
Obejas is conscious of the decisions she makes. Her characters do not overlap, assuring us that each chapter is a new story. Obejas blends in two important identities when concerning Rogelio. Rogelio is a gay Latino, which is important in his characteristics and motives. Hyper-masculinity, or machismo, is common throughout the world. But even so, many would argue the harsh attitude is extremely prevalent in the Latinx community. His demeanor is not written with disrespect; it is a fear he is trying to cope with. Rogelio lies in an ambiguity that neither Tommy nor the reader can decipher. The identity clashes perfectly, in the sense that it is believable, but not in the sense that it is socially accepted. Rogelio seems to care for Tommy — hell, he’s going all the way to Sante Fe for the guy — but even this does not make him a good guy. He abandons his wife and children to take Tommy on the trip and, even then, disapproves of Tommy’s public affection. Rogelio’s identity not only clashes but also illustrates the moral ambiguity that follows it.
The last chapter, “We came all the way from Cuba so you could dress like this?” feels a lot more personal, possibly because the book shares its title with this story. It’s 1963, and our narrator, a ten-year-old girl, and her mother and father have just fled Cuba. They are now sitting in Miami’s Immigration and Naturalization Services. Our young narrator is jumping through time, unable to accept that her life in the United States will lead her to various blond-hair, blue-eyed lovers, and that one day she and her father will resent each other.
The young narrator reminds us of our fragile innocence. As a ten-year-old child, one rarely thinks about their heritage as a disadvantage, or even thinks that the person we love will result in us being shunned from our parent’s hearts. And at ten years old, we rarely think about being poor, let alone know how to define the very word. Our narrator looks into her future, while being completely clueless about the pain she will find in it. She asks herself if Martha, her blond, blue-eyed lover, really looks past her poverty. Martha, who is dating another woman for her money, leaves the narrator once her network of money leaves her. This leaves the narrator to believe Martha could only love her if Martha had a primary contrast relationship to go along with theirs. As a ten-year-old girl, our narrator does not look back and think, “What would life have been like in Cuba?” But as a grown woman, in a world of pain, she has nothing but that very moment about which to reminisce.
Our narrator in this short piece is a triple crisis: she is Latina, she is a lesbian, and to top it off she is poor. Being Cuban, she is treated differently. Since being given old clothes as a child, even though her mother insists they do not wear them, she is assumed to come from nothing. Her father questions her wardrobe, hence the title of the novel, and is reminded of the sacrifices he made for her to be in the United States, as if her clothes offend his dignity. Her father’s disillusionment follows her, and she questions her own worth in the United States. She wonders if, in Cuba, she could love women the way she can in the United States. Although she admits that her wonder does not resolve their poverty, she can do nothing but wonder. It is in this coming-of-age moment that one realizes their helplessness and their inability to reshape the past. We ask ourselves if life is destined or determined, while forgetting the moment is past, again forgetting the moment that we do have control over is now past as well.
Achy Obejas’ beautiful prose is stunning, creating a complex community of gay and lesbian Latinxs from Sante Fe, to Chicago, to Miami. Obejas writes in a universal perspective; there will be another young man or woman in pain who will find a way to destroy themselves with sheer recklessness. Someone will break their heart and continue the cycle, without a doubt. Obejas gives dignity to those who are marginalized and often voiceless, forgotten, and dehumanized. Obejas questions our humanity; why is a man, who is dying, stuck with a dehumanizing jerk like Rogelio?
Obejas’ stories show us the bitter realization of growing up, the moment when children realize where they are from, how they got there, and why people do not want them there. Her stories are beautiful because they are not often heard. But her stories are ugly for the same reason, and because they are not often heard, they are reproduced.
— Miguel Soto, Special Sections Editor