La Habana, Cuba, 1982 - Fidel Castro has led Cuba's Communist Revolution for 23 years. Ronald Reagan has been the US President for just over a year. Approximately 125,000 Cubans emigrated to the US 20 months before, in the Mariel boatlift. The international community is still immersed in the Cold War. However, the reader's focus is drawn to a narrower world, that of Lourdes, a Havana 16-year-old. She is in the terrible throws of adolescence - raging hormones, insecurity, anxiety, confusion. Her skin is too dark, she is too skinny, her hair is too frizzy and she will never attract a cool boyfriend. In order to maintain a mature outlook on her turbulent life, and focus on what is really important to the community, not just herself, she tries to live-up to the revolutionary standards of her hero, Che Guevera. An idealist, Lourdes fervently believes socialism makes a better life for all, and thinks no one is oppressed under Fidel's leadership.
Lourdes Torres comes from a privileged family. Her father, Dr. Rafael Torres, is a respected professor of Political Economy of Communism at the University of Havana and a Caucasian, of certified Spanish descent. Although revolutionary Cuba has done much to eliminate racism, it is still rampant throughout the country. Before the revolution, there was virtual segregation, and although the situation has improved, and all have equal rights, the color of one's skin still matters. White is best. Then light brown, "cafe con mucho leche," and on down the color scale until it reaches darkest brown or "black." There are all kinds of combinations and permutations and subtleties, which I won't go into here. The point is that skin color does matter.
Because of her father's position, Lourdes leads a sheltered life. The family is allowed to shop in special stores, go on occasional vacations to beach resorts and stay for a week at a hotel, eating all kinds of food - as much as they want. They live in a nice house, (una casona), in the Havana suburbs, and even have the option of buying a new car. Lourdes' paternal grandmother, Granma Gloria, from Galicia, Spain, was a lady before the revolution and still maintains certain airs. She adores her son and granddaughter, but has little affection for her dark-skinned daughter-in-law. Barbarita, Lourdes mother, is the daughter of a poor black woman, Granma Ines, who practices Santeria, an ancient African religion where the old gods, "orishas," are still worshipped in the form of Catholic saints. Both grandmothers' religions, Catholicism and Santeria are counterrevolutionary and not practiced in the open. Lourdes is conflicted about this, and other differences between the old ways and the new. She does strive, with intensity, to be a good revolutionary, like Che, and longs to be accepted into the Young Communist League.
She is sent, along with her classmates, to a state-run work-study program in Pinar del Rio, called School-in the Field, to work in tobacco fields. For the first time, Lourdes, an only child, is exposed to large numbers of kids her own age, boys and girls, in a live-in situation. And she learns much more about life than tobacco cultivation. She compares revolutionary slogans she always believed, ("Man Is More Than White; More Than Mulatto; More Than Black! Men Die But The Party Is Immortal! Homeland Or Death!"), to real life in the real world. Her romantic idealism is contrasted with the grim reality of the hot sun beating down on her aching back, bug bites, not enough food and long hours at monotonous work. She begins to see the flaws in her perfect society, flaws not unique to life under capitalism.
Teresa de la Caridad Doval, born and raised in Havana, now a resident of New Mexico, really gives the reader an accurate glimpse of life in Cuba in the early 1980s. At that time I visited Cuba on business and her descriptions and characterizations ring true. The prose is uneven and the novel's pace has its slow moments, but overall I enjoyed the story. I would recommend "A Girl Like Che Guevara," especially if you are interested in life in revolutionary Cuba.