'Of Women And Salt' From Cuban Cigar Factories To Immigration Detention Centers
A life lived traveling to the home country of her ancestors led to Gabriela Garcia’s debut novel — 'Of Women and Salt' — this month’s Sundial Book Club title.
‘Of Women and Salt’ looks at the lives of nine different women, narrated by them over numerous generations.
It’s set in present-day Miami. Jeanette, a young woman living in South Beach, and battling drug addiction, takes in her neighbor’s child, Ana, who lost her mother, Gloria, an immigrant from El Salvador who was taken to a detention center in Texas.
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Jeanette is the daughter of a Cuban immigrant. She is determined to know more about her family’s history, which can be traced back to a cigar roller during the revolution in Cuba.
All of their stories and more are woven together in Gabriela Garcia’s book, which is the Sundial Book Club selection for the month of May. You can join the club here.
WLRN’s Luis Hernandez spoke with Garcia about what inspired her to write.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
WLRN: You’ve taken many trips to Cuba. But there’s one that really struck you, is that where you really started to think about this story?
GARCIA: I grew up traveling to Cuba. But that one trip that I took to Cuba and saw Victor Hugo’s 19th-century letters to Cuban workers in a museum exhibit really got me interested in the literary history of Cuba, the tobacco factories and how the lectors — or “readers” in factories, who entertained workers by reading literature aloud — shaped worker consciousness during that time. That was the spark for that thread but it also got me thinking about all of the different generations after that one.
It involved a lot of research because, obviously, I can't travel to 19th-century Cuba. I looked at so many photographs of cigar workshops during that time. I read a ton about it and that helped me visualize it. It was also helpful to go to Cuba and understand the landscape.
In the book, Gloria and her daughter, Anna, are Salvadoran and they've been smuggled into the U.S. At one point, Gloria is detained by immigration officials. How does this relate to your experience working in immigration?
I worked with a lot of women who were in these family detention centers in 2014. At that time, there was not a lot of nationwide media coverage. It was really hard to get any coverage of these stories. I was often talking to these women and hearing their stories and a lot of that came into how I envisioned Gloria and Anna’s story.
I was doing mostly deportation defense work. So I was working with people who were detained, facing deportation and trying to stay in the U.S. or reunite with family. I was struck by the ways we envision immigration and we talk about the border as if the story sort of starts there but it really starts long before that. And often there is U.S. complicity in the conditions that force people to migrate —particularly Central American countries like El Salvador. And so I envisioned this character, Gloria, and brought in a lot of my experience talking to these women and the kind of things that they shared with me about why they were migrating and what the conditions were like in those family detention centers.
Did you want to try to illustrate the difference between the Cuban immigrants’ experience and all other immigrant experiences, like the Central American experience?
Oftentimes, “Latino” gets flattened and spoken about as a monolithic identity and I've always been really interested in writing against that. Also, I'm the daughter of a Cuban immigrant and a Mexican immigrant. So I think that was just very personal to me — how different my own parents' experiences were in Miami and in the U.S. as a whole.
Does this book feel of Miami or is it more so about the immigrant experience as a whole?
It's very much about Miami. Parts of it take place in Cuba and a detention center in Texas but a bulk of it takes place in Miami. I write a lot about Miami because it's a place that I grew up in and that I spent most of my life in.
A lot of the other places that I've lived in like New York, Vienna, California, haven't come into my writing yet. It's almost all around Miami because that's the place that I know best and that feels most familiar to me.