This uneven half-memoir is interesting and quirky when not caught up in the actual plot. Its exploration of modern Cuban identity is surprisingly nuanced, especially when compared with The Dirty Havana Trilogy. However, unlike Dirty Havana, Dirty Blonde leaves uncomplicated the issues surrounding race and ethnicity when they’re treated as stable, essentialized concepts.
PLOT! Alysia is the daughter of an American diplomat — OR SO SHE THINKS! When she’s 13, her mom dies of cancer. On her deathbed, she tells Alysia to find her real dad, a Cuban man Alysia’s mother met while Alysia’s not-real-dad was stationed on the island. Alysia sits on this secret for nearly ten years, then decides to take a year off from graduate school* in order to spend a year in Cuba finding her real dad. Her first night, the family she’s staying with steals all her money, and eventually Alysia is forced to turn to jineterismo (a particularly Cuban form of prostitution) in order to provide for herself and pay for the private investigators necessary to find her real father.
During the course of the book, Alysia begins equating Cuban identity to a variety of traits. These include the need to hustle in order to make ends meet, jealousy/female competitiveness, and an unsophisticated form of raw sensuality. Alysia emails one of her friends, reflecting that
Cubanas possess a raw beauty, but without the sophistication and refinement that could be gleaned from a few copies of Spanish Elle. (99)
in regards to the numbers of Cuban women who dress really sexily but don’t have access to thongs or seamless panties due to the trade restrictions/economy. At first I thought this lack of refinement would get problematized — after all, it comes up again when Alysia’s asked to prepare a friend of hers for the return of her foreign lover. The Englishman wants his 15 year old jinetera to get a Brazilian. This is obviously creepy, and while Alysia throws a head nod to that, she spends the rest of page reflecting on the ‘hirsute nature of the Latin female’ (83) and her ‘compulsion to offer its followers [Cuban women who stop shaving mid thigh] a blade and foam’ (83). At this part, I couldn’t help but think of that moment in the Sex and the City movie, where Miranda’s pubic hair “situation” is to blame for her husband’s infidelity. I was actually really surprised to read this in a book meant to be narrated by a girl described as a daughter of Ochun, the little goddess of natural sensuality, gently running waters, flirtation, and love.*
That being sad, some of Alysia’s reflections are quite sharp. At one point, she notes that playing the temptress to tourists is really not so different from playing the ‘somewhat wholesome Southern daughter, preppily dressed and attractive but not overly intimidating’ (126), and that the state is intimately involved in legislating the sexuality of women and girls. It’s at these moments (when we’ve really stepped AWAY from the contrived plot!) that Dirty Blonde shines.
*As a graduate student, I gotta say that I see the appeal. LEARNING A LOT IS HARD.
*I might have been especially annoyed, since Ochun is my orisha as well. >_< It just felt VERY Mary Sue to me.