A Girl Like Che Guevara

1982. Havana, Cuba. Sixteen-year-old Lourdes yearns to emulate Che Guevara, and has a healthy disgust for gusanos (worms)-those who fled Cuba on the Mariel boatlift. Every summer she and other high school students work in the nationalized tobacco fields to prove their dedication to Fidel and the Revolution.

Lourdes, herself the product of a biracial marriage, outwardly scoffs at the old ways but she wears an azabache amulet under her clothing, next to her Che medallion to ward off evil spirits. She secretly prays to the orisha Yemay√°, while she pledges her fealty to Fidel and the socialist ideals of her father, a professor of scientific communism at the University of Havana.

As she struggles with her confused sexuality, the pervasive race issues that are sundering her parents’ marriage, and the harsh realities of life in a glorified work camp, Lourdes begins to question her allegiances. Why does she want to be like Che?

Editorial Reviews:

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From Publishers Weekly:

Doval provides an intimate portrait of life inside Communist Cuba in this absorbing if uneven debut. It is January 1982: Che Guevara is a national icon; bread lines curl around Havana corners; and 16-year-old Lourdes Torres is leaving her sheltered urban existence, bound for a camp in the nationalized tobacco fields of the western province of Pinar del Rio. Despite receiving conflicting messages about life in Cuba – the meager food rations vs. communism’s pledge to provide for everyone; professed egalitarianism vs. racial discord in her own mixed-race family; an atheistic government vs. clandestine religious sacrifices – Lourdes is an idealist. Socialism makes life better for all, she thinks, and no one is oppressed under Castro’s benevolent leadership. Once at the state-run work-study program called School-in-the-Fields, Lourdes learns a lot more about life than she does about tobacco cultivation. There’s sex, for one thing: she desires her gorgeous friend Aurora, who “changed lovers as easily and shamelessly as she changed clothes,” but she finds a boyfriend in Ernesto, and everywhere, people are hooking up and peeling apart. Her naivete slowly crumbling – after vain, youthful attempts to champion socialist ideals – she eventually becomes aware of the unbecoming underbelly of a flawed culture. By the time she returns to Havana, Lourdes has learned that racial prejudice, duplicity, incompetence, laziness, larceny and oppression are not exclusive to capitalist nations. Doval’s flat-footed prose and too-deliberate exposition slow the pace, but her sensitive characterizations and rich picture of Havana and the beguiling Cuban landscape redeem her story.

From Booklist:

In 1982 Lourdes is a 16-year-old “short, copper-skinned mulatica” who must leave her comfortable home in Havana for her four-month stint in the countryside at a government-ordered student work camp. At home, Lourdes loves Russian cartoons and plays with dolls, and once at camp, she feels younger than her friends, who sneak out in the evenings for steamy encounters with boyfriends. She’s particularly overwhelmed when the object of her own first passionate crush turns out to be her female.

Other Reviews:

“Teresa de la Caridad Doval shows us the heart of a Cuban teen-hot, melancholy and sweet as homemade flan. The kids in A Girl Like Che Guevara are scrappy, muscled survivors, I fell in love.”
Lisa Lerner, author of Just Like Beauty

“A fresh, fascinating first-hand account of coming of age in Communist Cuba. A must for anyone interested in peering behind the doctrinal veil of Castro’s educational and social system and the dreams of one girl caught in its web.”
Himike Novas, author of Mangos Bananas and Coconuts: A Cuban Love Story

South Florida Sun-Sentinel

Posted on Fri, Jun. 04, 2004
Promising author captures the essence of Cuban life
BY CHAUNCEY MABE
South Florida Sun-Sentinel
THE WEEKEND READ

Like a rock star – Jim Morrison, say, or Jimi Hendrix – Che Guevara had the good fortune to die young, handsome and with a sexy and enduring poster to carry his image of virility and virtue into the future. Fidel, by contrast, has lived to see his beard gray, his allies abandon him, his revolution revealed as a petty, monomaniacal tyranny doomed to instantaneous collapse the moment of his death.

That’s why Guevara’s name rather than Castro’s has appeared twice in the titles of recent novels by talented young Cuban-Americans. Ana Menendez’s “Loving Che” visualized the romanticized devotion exiles have for Cuba as a fantasy love affair between a Cuban-American woman’s long-lost mother and the famous revolutionary.

In Teresa de la Caridad Doval’s “A Girl Like Che Guevara,” he is already a martyr to the revolution, caught and killed in Bolivia by the time the story begins in 1982. And yet he fills much the same thematic role as in Menendez’s book. To 15-year-old Lourdes, Che is everything noble in Cuban socialism and, indeed, in Cuba itself.

Everyday life in the Cuba of the early ’80s is not easy, even for the family of a rising professor of scientific communism at the University of Havana. Not so different from teenagers elsewhere, Lourdes is sensitive and idealistic. She longs to serve the revolution in emulation of her hero, has no doubt Fidel is a benevolent father and the Cubans who fled in the Mariel boatlift of 1980 were gusanos – worms.

Doval carefully constructs Lourdes to represent a cross-section of Cuba’s population. Her father is a white descendant of a Galician family, while her mother, lovely but passive, is black. Lourdes loves her mother and father, and both grandmothers, but she feels her loyalties tugged in different directions. Her father, with the collusion of his mother, is up to something – an affair is hinted – while her two grandmothers cannot stand one another and compete for Lourdes’ affections

One of the strongest aspects of this book lies in Doval’s rich and perceptive portrayal of daily life. Havana is a vivid presence, a place filled, for Lourdes, with sensuality, family conflict, interminable food lines and scarcely perceived contradictions.

Doval’s portrait of Lourdes is convincing, her character given shading by sexual confusion and by the way she turns her back on Paparita, a boy bullied mercilessly by the other kids.

But while the book succeeds in patches – character, setting – it fails to add up to a finished whole. It’s a promising performance, but the main reason to read this book is not for its story but for its sociological insight
into Cuban life in the doldrums of Castro’s misbegotten rule.

Title: “A Girl Like Che Guevara”
Author: Teresa de la Caridad Doval
Publisher: Soho
Cost: $24

St. Louis Post-Dispatch

A Girl Like Che Guevara
By THOMAS CRONE
Special to the Post-Dispatch
05/23/2004

At its core, “A Girl Like Che Guevara” is a coming-of-age tale, the story of a teen coming to grips with her own sexuality in an environment that’s far from accommodating. Those pressing against Cuba’s strict societal boundaries find it pushing back, quickly and without subtlety.

This is a love story, mostly of the unrequited variety. Is our protagonist, Lourdes, honestly attracted to her first boyfriend, Ernesto? Is her rapidly growing fascination with her roommate, Aurora, going to become a wedge in their friendship? And how will she deal with the constantly shifting relationships around her, from a dissolving family at home to her summer camp’s variety of tawdry and scandalous affairs?

Teresa de la Caridad Doval sets her debut novel in the working-class neighborhoods of her native Havana, where we find Lourdes at home, preparing for a summer at the School-in-the-Fields. It’s less a school and more a farm, dedicated to growing both tobacco and good communists. Though Lourdes is filled with a sense of revolutionary fervor, she realizes that a summer of toil is approaching, with a heavy emphasis on taskmaster teachers and their state-imposed rules for conduct and thought.

While most of the novel gives a sense of the early 1980s – just after some of the major boatlifts to America – other hints suggest that the work takes place at a later time. In a sense, it doesn’t much matter. The culture of the teens drawn here is devoid of outside influences; the year could be 1975, ’85 or ’95 and the picture would be essentially the same for poor Cuban kids. They stare, when given the rare opportunity, at grainy, black-and-white images of American television. They lust after a single pair of smuggled Jordache jeans. More often, they must content themselves with the clunky consumer goods of countries like Bulgaria and the work songs written by the state ideologues. They have a dim awareness of the riches outside their island but are unsure of how great those may be.

Straining against the dulling, hot labor of the doctrinaire camp, Lourdes and her contemporaries set off on varied, often disastrous flirtations, with ill-fated results. Those seeking the company of their own sex (and there are many) fear being branded counter-revolutionaries, and those turning up pregnant face equally uncertain futures. With little to occupy their down hours, though, these kids are in a state of constant experimentation, reflecting a camp hierarchy that Doval draws as confused in their own right; rigidly, they rule the youths under their control, while they loot their positions and wantonly, sexually cross lines with the students.

Without an uplifting finale, Doval seems to make clear that being raised in an impoverished nation takes a toll on multiple levels. The youths of “A Girl Like Che Guevara” are lacking more than material goods and the simple joys of leisure time. They’re essentially being robbed of their late childhoods.

Thomas Crone is a freelance writer living in St. Louis.

“A Girl Like Che Guevara”
By Teresa de la Caridad Doval
Published by Soho Press, 320 pages, $24

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