“Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever. The yearning for freedom eventually manifests itself.”
These words were eloquently and sombrely spoken by Martin Luther King last century, and are nobly and life-affirmingly applicable to people around the world, both before and since they were spoken.
Freedom from oppression – for an ethnic minority group, Latinos, in America, and for a nation, namely Puerto Rico – is a theme espoused with a vibrantly beating heart that is at the pivotal centre of American writer, screenwriter and producer, Xochitl Gonzalez’s, stunningly evocative debut novel, “Olga Dies Dreaming”.
Set predominantly in Brooklyn, New York in 2017, while the highly formidable and ruthless Hurricane Maria blasted Puerto Rico, this multi-faceted novel focuses on a forty year old Latino woman of Puerto Rican descent, Olga Acevedo, who lives in Brooklyn and is a wedding planner for the wealthy and elite in American society, and her high-flying older brother, Prieto, a staunch and forward-thinking Congressman. Both Olga and Pietro grew up in Sunset Park, Brooklyn.
Devastatingly, Olga and Prieto’s mother, Blanca, abandoned Olga, Prieto and their father, Johnny, when Olga was about to turn thirteen. Olga and Prieto are brought up by their grandmother as a result, whilst Johnny, an addled drug user, later dies of AIDS.
Olga and Prieto never hear their mother’s voice again for twenty-seven years, Blanca’s choice of communication being to send letters that have no return address. Blanca and Johnny have been fervent activists in their youth and members of the “Young Lords”. When she has left her children, Blanca writes passionately to Olga, “There is work in the world that I’ve been called to do, mija, and the time has come for me to do it”. Blanca goes on to write, “…one day my work will make you proud. You will see our people take off the shackles of oppression and say, ‘Mami helped to do that’ “.
Blanca has wound up in Puerto Rico, the children come to know, to help liberate the ‘everyday people’ in the country from an oppressive and subjugating regime (it is worthy of note that the modern country of Puerto Rico is a territory of the United States with Joe Biden as it’s president, yet Puerto Rico citizens are not eligible to vote in United States elections. At the time, 2017, that this novel is set, Donald Trump was of course the president). Blanca has, we come to learn, gone ‘underground’.
In 2017, Olga meets the affable and big-hearted young man, Matteo, in a hip bar, and begins an intense relationship with him. Matteo, the son of a Black father and a Jewish mother, was raised in South Slope, Brooklyn and is a burdened hoarder. As Olga tells Matteo at one stage, “You’re a Black man in America. You were drafted into a revolution the day you were born, like it or not”.
Despite being very much successful in the eyes of a corporatised and money-driven America, Olga and Prieto are both fighting their own demons. Olga can make the stars shine for her posh and demanding clients, yet, until Matteo, has struggled to have a ‘real boyfriend’ for a while. And Prieto is amassing secrets that, if exposed, will derail his sterling and pervasive career in no time flat.
When Hurricane Maria catapults into Puerto Rico, “sucking away leaves, trees, homes, cars, lives”, Olga and Prieto want to help their ‘homeland’. Prieto goes down to Puerto Rico with a film crew, and Olga voices her fervent opinions regarding the deeply inadequate response of the United States to help the people of Puerto Rico, both leading up to the category five hurricane, and in it’s devastating aftermath. When Olga is on a television show at the time, she speaks words intended for President Trump to hear, saying ” ‘Mr. President, I hope that the ghosts of every Puerto Rican who died at your hands in this catastrophe haunt your dreams each night’ “.
What will become of downtrodden people of Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria has thwarted their dreams? Why do contingents of wealthy Americans seem to profit from Puerto Rico’s misfortune? Will Olga and Prieto have the lives they have dreamed for themselves?
Xohitl Gonzalez has written a novel of searing intelligence, insight and heart. Themes covered in the book include: what it really means to be a racial minority group in the ‘white man’s America’, American enterprise and government, and the beautiful simplicities and interwoven complexities of family life. “Olga Dies Dreaming” is not only a story of life in a thriving and hipster borough of New York City, Brooklyn, but also a tale of unbreakable family bonds and what the American Dream really entails.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book that tells of an often-forgotten nation, Puerto Rico, within an always-noticed nation, the United States, and gives us, as readers, a classy insight into the lived experience of Puerto Rican immigrants and their descendents in America. This book delivers on so many levels, packing a punch throughout. I loved this book!