Chat with us, powered by LiveChat Prompt 1.1: Gabriela García's debut novel Of Women and Salt (2021) reveals many of the tensions and divisions that exist within Latinx communities in the United States. As the i - EssayAbode

Prompt 1.1: Gabriela García’s debut novel Of Women and Salt (2021) reveals many of the tensions and divisions that exist within Latinx communities in the United States. As the i

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Prompt 1.1: Gabriela García's debut novel Of Women and Salt (2021) reveals many of the tensions and divisions that exist within Latinx communities in the United States. As the inter-generational plot line of the novel advances, issues of racial and class divisions, and differential treatment based on immigrant status emerge as a subtext.

  • Drawing on a few examples from the text, discuss how these tensions and divisions are conveyed throughout the novel. In your opinion, how might Of Women and Salt expand, problematize and/or contribute to our understanding of Latinx communities in the U.S.? Length of recording: two (2) minutes.

Prompt 1.2: Imagine a close friend or family member sees Of Women and Salt on The New York Times Bestseller List. They are interested in reading the novel and ask you for your honest take. Considering this text in its entirety, discuss the novel's merits and its shortcomings.

  • For example, you might talk about the story structure, writing style, plot, characters, themes, etc…
  • You might offer praise and/or constructive criticism for any aspect of the novel and mention what worked or didn't work, in your opinion.
  • Finally, would you recommend this book? Support your assessment with textual references and examples.  Length of recording: two (2) minutes

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Para mi abuelita Iraida Rosa López







6 — PREY








Carmen Miami, 2018

Jeanette, tell me that you want to live. Yesterday I looked at photos of you as a child. Salt soaked, sand breaded,

gap toothed, and smiling at the edge of the ocean, my only daughter. A book in your hand because that’s what you wanted to do at the beach. Not play, not swim, not smash-run into waves. You wanted to sit in the shade and read.

Teenage you, spread like a starfish on the trampoline. Do you notice our crooked smile, how we share a mouth? Teenage you, Florida you, Grad Nite at Epcot, two feet in two different places. This is possible at Epcot, that Disney tiny-world, to stand with a border between your legs.

Sun child, hair permanently whisked by wind, you were happy once. I see it, looking over these photos. Such smiles. How was I to know you held such a secret? All I knew was that you smiled for a time, and then you didn’t.

Listen, I have secrets too. And if you’d stop killing yourself, if you’d get sober, maybe we could sit down. Maybe I could tell you. Maybe you’d understand why I made certain decisions, like fighting to keep our family together. Maybe there are forces neither of us examined. Maybe if I had a way of seeing all the past, all the paths, maybe I’d have some answer as to why: Why did our lives turn out this way?

You used to say, You refuse to talk about anything. You refuse to show emotion.

I blame myself because I know your whole life, you wanted more out of me. There is so much I kept from you, and there are so many ways I made myself hard on purpose. I thought I needed to be hard enough for both of us. You were always crumbling. You were always eroding. I thought, I need to be force.

I never said, All my life, I’ve been afraid. I stopped talking to my own mother. And I never told you the reason I came to this country, which is not the reason you think I came to this country. And I never said I thought if I didn’t name an emotion or a truth, I could will it to disappear. Will.

Tell me you want to live, and I’ll be anything you want me to be. But I can’t will enough life for both of us.

Tell me you want to live. I was afraid to look back because then I would have seen what was

coming. The before and the after like salt whipping into water until I can’t tell the difference, but I can taste it on your skin when I hold your fevered body every time you try to detox. Every story that knocked into ours. I was afraid to look back because then I would have seen what was coming.



María Isabel Camagüey, 1866

At six thirty, when all the cigar rollers sat at their desks before their piles of leaves and the foreman rang the bell, María Isabel bent her head, traced a sign of the cross over her shoulders, and took the first leaf in her hands. The lector did the same from his platform over the workers, except in his hands he held not browned leaves but a folded newspaper.

“Gentlemen of the workshop,” he said, “we begin today with a letter of great import from the esteemed editors of La Aurora. These men of letters express a warm fondness for workers whose aspirations to such knowledge —science, literature, and moral principle—fuel Cuba’s progress.”

María Isabel ran her tongue along another leaf’s gummy underside, the earthy bitterness as familiar a taste by now as if it were born of her. She placed the softened leaf on the layers that preceded it, the long veins in a pile beside. Rollers, allowed as many cigars as they liked, struck matches and took fat puffs with hands tented over flames. The air thickened. María Isabel had by then breathed so much tobacco dust she developed regular nosebleeds, but the foreman didn’t permit workers to open the window slats more than a sliver—sunlight would dry the cigars. So she hid her cough. She was the only woman in the workshop. She didn’t want to appear weak.

The factory wasn’t large, by Cuban standards: only a hundred or so workers, enough to roll for one plantation a mile away. A wooden silo at the center held its sun-dried leaves, darkened, papery slivers the rollers would carry to their stations. Next to the silo, a ladder flanked the chair where Antonio, the lector, sat.

He cleared his throat as he raised the newspaper. “La Aurora, Friday, first of June, 1866,” he began. “ ‘The order and good morals observed by our cigar makers in the workshops, and the enthusiasm for learning—are these not obvious proof that we are advancing?’ ”

María Isabel picked through her stack of leaves, setting aside those of lesser quality for filler.

“ ‘. . . Just go into a workshop that employs two hundred, and you will be astonished to observe the utmost order, you see that all are encouraged by a common goal: to fulfill their obligations . . .’ ”

Already a prickling warmth spread across María Isabel’s shoulders. The ache would grow into a throb as the hours passed so that, by the end of the workday, she could barely lift her head. To fulfill their obligations, to fulfill their obligations. Her hands moved of their own accord. The bell would ring and she’d look at the pile of cigars, smooth as clay, surprised she’d rolled them all. She imagined the layers of brown melding into one another endlessly—desks becoming walls, leaves becoming eyes, and sprouting arms moving in succession until everything and everyone were part of the same physical poetry, the same song made of sweat. Lunchtime. She was tired.

A single dirt road in this town led past the factory’s gate and continued on to the sugar plantation a mile down, both owned by a creole family, the Porteños. María Isabel walked this path home, one that snaked through the shadows and gave her brief reprieves from the punishing sun. She thought of Antonio’s words: Study has become a habit among them; today they leave behind the cockfight in order to read a newspaper or book; now they scorn the bullring; today it is the theater, the library, and the centers of good association where they are seen in constant attendance.

True that since La Aurora had expounded the uncivilized nature of cock- and bullfighting, the number of participants had diminished. But it wasn’t just the newspaper’s recommendation that convinced them to give up blood sport. There were also preoccupations. Other workers talked about rebel groups rising up against Spanish loyalists. About men training in groups to join others headed west toward La Habana. María Isabel had been too hardened by her father’s recent death, from a demonic yellow fever that

consumed him within weeks, to notice at first, to care much. But then it was all anyone would talk about.

Though by the time rumors of guerrilla fighting had spread to their side of the island, so, too, had stories of infighting. Generals of the militias came and went, supplanted when their ideals became a liability. La Habana, with its manor after manor of Spanish families, looked toward the revolt with indifference, and it appeared more and more likely that the Queen would come down hard on any rebellion. For María Isabel, a scorching anxiety had long replaced those lofty early notions: freedom, liberty. She hated the unknowing. She hated that her own survival depended on a shadowy political future she could hardly envision.

Home. María Isabel’s mother sat on the ground, back against the cool mud of the bohío. Aurelia had returned from work herself, from the fields.

“Mamá?” María Isabel alarmed to find her in such a way, an unusual blush spreading up Aurelia’s face to the tips of her ears.

“Estoy bien,” she said. “Just faint from the walk. You know I am less and less capable.”

“That isn’t true.” María Isabel helped Aurelia steady herself with one hand to the wall. “Mamá.” María Isabel touched Aurelia’s forehead with the back of her

hand, which gave off such a stench of tobacco juice that her mother winced. “Stay out in the breeze and rest in the hamaca, won’t you? I’ll prepare lunch.”

Aurelia patted María Isabel’s arm. “You are a good daughter,” she said. They walked to a hammock knotted between palms. María Isabel’s mother, worn down by decades of loss, hard work,

nonetheless retained a certain elegance. Her skin was smooth, with hardly a line, her teeth neat rows unstained. After her husband’s death, Aurelia had many callers, men with missing teeth and sun-weathered, papery skin who presented little in the way of wealth—a donkey, a small plot of mango and plantain trees—but offered care that she brushed off. “A woman does not abandon love of God, nor of country, nor of family,” she’d said in those days, before the men stopped seeking her out. “I will die a widow, such is my fate in life.”

But her mother grew weaker, María Isabel could see. Finding her daughter a husband had become an aggressive devotion. María Isabel protested: she was happiest in the workshop, in the fields, sweating over

fire, peeling yucas and plantains and tossing them into a cast-iron cazuela of boiling water with her sleeves bunched to her elbows, catching pig’s blood in a steel bucket to make shiny-black sausage, hacking open a water- pregnant coconut with a machete. True that cigar rolling was a coveted, respectable job—she’d apprenticed for nearly a year prior to working for a wage. Yet the factory paid her by the piece, half of what the men earned, and she was the only woman in the shop, knew the men resented her. They’d heard about this new invention, in La Habana—a mold that made it easy for almost anyone to roll a tight cigar—and feared María Isabel a harbinger of what would come: unskilled, loose women and grubby children taking their jobs for almost nothing. Suggested she might earn better keep “entertaining” the men herself. Took a greater share of her wages to pay the lector.

There were moments, like now, watching her mother lie red faced in the hammock through the window, when she pictured a world in which Aurelia wouldn’t have to work, in which she spent her time caring for her mother instead of rolling tobacco with the men. And she knew with resignation that she’d say yes to any man who offered easier days. Such was her fate.

After lunch came the novels: Victor Hugo, Alexandre Dumas, even William Shakespeare; The Count of Monte Cristo, Les Misérables, King Lear. Some were so popular with the rollers their characters became the names of cigars: the thin, dark Montecristo and the fat, sweet Romeo y Julieta, bands adorned with images of jousts and ill-fated lovers.

They were at the start of the second volume of Les Misérables, chosen by a vote of rare consensus after the lector had finished The Hunchback of Notre Dame. The entire workshop had broken into applause at Notre Dame’s conclusion, for which Don Gerónimo, who ruled the workshop as though he were Notre Dame’s wicked archdeacon himself, reprimanded them. But the workers cheered when Antonio disclosed that he had in his possession a Spanish translation of yet another Victor Hugo novel, this one spanning five volumes about rebellion and redemption, political uprisings, love, one that promised to move and enlighten before an aching conclusion.

This had been the least contentious vote in all of Porteños y Gómez’s history. And now María Isabel spent the afternoons traveling far past the

sugarcane fields and sea-salt-washed plantations to the hazy shores of France. In her mind, she walked the cobblestone streets of Paris, dipped her feet in the Seine, traversed the river’s bridges and arches by carriage like a noble. She smoothed a gristly leaf between her lips, breath drawn in anticipation as police inspector Javert recaptured Valjean, the escaped convict. She thought of escape, of recapture. She thought of herself. Of what it would be like if someone wrote a book about her. Someone like her wrote a book.

“ ‘A person is not idle because they are absorbed in thought. There is visible labor and there is invisible labor.’ ”

Antonio channeled Victor Hugo with fervor, as though their own labor, the rolling of tobacco, depended on his delivery. And in many ways, it did. María Isabel told herself that she, a young woman who ought to be home awaiting courtship, toiled in this sweltering factory because she’d been left an arid plot of land without a father or brother to provide. But she looked forward to each day, hungry for the worlds that opened as she hunched over her leaves, perfecting each roll and seal—news from the capital to which she’d been only once, announcements of scientific curiosities and denouncements of barbaric or dishonest plantation owners, travelogues from distant places she could barely imagine.

Also there were the gifts. She’d been on her way out and seen Antonio beside the foreman as Don Gerónimo read aloud the day’s production and quotas. Antonio had tied his horse to a post and fixed a saddle on its back, something María Isabel had never seen but in La Habana, where the gentry did not ride bareback as in the countryside. That impressed her, and perhaps he’d mistaken her stare for something of another nature, because the next morning a strand of violet bougainvillea flowers lay on her rolling desk. And then, before Antonio began to read that day’s news stories, he’d tipped his hat, looked her in the eyes, smiled.

She’d been afraid, of course—afraid that Don Gerónimo would see the flowers on her desk and call her out for indecency, perhaps garnish her wages or, worse, think her impious, increase his advances. Who knew what Don Gerónimo deemed permissible. His anger was of the untamable sort, unpredictable, without reason. He’d threatened her many times, once grabbing her by the back of the neck when she became distracted by a reading and slowed her rolls. He left finger-shaped bruises that lasted weeks. No man had defended her, not even Antonio. So she’d tucked the

flowers down her collar. And in the evening, she’d shuffled out with her eyes to the floor, concerned that Antonio would look toward her once again and sure she would not know what to say.

But the gifts continued—a fragrant, ripe mango; an inkpot with its delicate quill; a tiny filigreed brooch forged of metal. She would find them hidden beneath layers of tobacco leaves and conceal them as best she could. She told no one of the courtship and avoided Antonio’s gaze, though at times he’d read an especially tender passage, and she would glance up for just a second, and always his eyes fixed on her.

And then she’d walked in one morning and there on her desk, unhidden: a book, its spine blue and rough to the touch, its pages a thin, smooth papyrus. She could not read the title, and she hid it beneath the ledge of finished cigars. María Isabel knew Don Gerónimo would think her presumptuous to bring a book to the workshop, accuse her of idleness, perhaps send her home, convinced a woman would never learn the strict norms required of labor. But she raced home for lunch, book tucked beneath her arm, and as she boiled yams over a wood fire, María Isabel fanned the smoke with its pages. When she was sure her mother wasn’t looking, she traced the words, her fingers trailing the curves and abrupt edges of their shapes. It was like rolling tobacco, this need to follow the arcs and bends on the paper, to memorize the feeling. She hid the book beneath her bed.

When she met Antonio by his horse that afternoon, before he could say anything, María Isabel made her request: “If I could be so bold as to inquire, and forgive me the indiscretion, as to the title of the book you placed on—”

“What makes you think it was I?” Antonio’s smile stretched his pockmarked cheeks. María Isabel instinctively gathered her skirt to leave.

But Antonio stopped her with a hand on her arm. “Cecilia Valdés,” he said. “A novella. I did not know you cannot read. I should not have been so presumptuous. I hope you’ll forgive me and accept a sincere assurance I meant no harm by it.”

“Why did you give it to me?” “I will probably sound trite in saying you embody the protagonist,

Cecilia Valdés. Perhaps that is why I am drawn to you.” She did not know how to respond, so she only looked away and said, “I

must get home before dark,” after which he’d asked her name. “María Isabel, will you let me read to you?” he said.

“You mean to say outside the workshop?” “It would be my greatest pleasure.” She handed the book to him. “Thank you for an offer so generous,” she said. “But I’m afraid I cannot

accept.” María Isabel had thought she was ready to accept, to fulfill her

obligation. Can one learn to fall in love with a mind? She regarded the bull- necked lector. How amusing that men thought they could so easily know a woman. She would wait until she couldn’t.

Her mother was getting worse though. This she knew by a cough that doubled her over and shook her. Some evenings Aurelia so lacked an appetite that she retired early and left María Isabel to eat alone. And still her mother woke each day and prepared for her trek to the sugarcane fields. María Isabel pleaded with her, but Aurelia would work to the day of her death—and afterward if she could. This they both knew.

And then the war bled into Camagüey. Inevitable, she understood. Every year, La Aurora informed of more Cubans and fewer jobs; the economy increasingly concentrated on sugar, on plantations run on slave labor. Also in the paper: the abolition movement, Spanish taxation worse. She’d heard a wealthy plantation owner in Santiago freed his slaves and declared independence from Spain. She’d heard whispers of clandestine meetings. But she hadn’t expected the fight to reach her life so quickly.

María Isabel woke one night to the sound of boots crushing through vegetation and the light patterns of lanterns dancing on the walls. She peered out the window, careful to remain hidden as best she could, and made out dozens of men in the unmistakable blue-and-red of the Monarchy, their lapels bearing the colors of the flag. They carried muskets and swords, their faces drawn and weary, and she saw, faintly, what looked like dried blood on the breeches of some.

She couldn’t sleep that night and clutched her body, heard the first far-off thud of a rifle, her mother waking across from her and coughing in fits all night. They spent two days like that, huddled in the shadow of their bed platforms, as though behind wooden shields. Cries and shots, metal hitting metal, men whose anguish echoed through the noise.

On the third day, Aurelia ran a fever, and María Isabel held her in her lap, wiping her face with a washcloth and whispering prayers to Nuestra Señora de la Caridad as her mother broke into cold sweats. On the fourth, the fighting stilled. Just as penetrating as the sound of sudden war had been, so, too, was the intensity of the quiet that followed, the stench of rot. They hadn’t eaten in days, and so they rummaged through cans of sugared guava and fruta bomba and tomato they’d prepared months before, María Isabel spooning slivers into her mother’s mouth as she lay supine. And when she was sure the silence persisted, María Isabel ventured out along the path she walked to work each day, now clogged with wisps of smoke, the smell of charred palm. She needed to find food. She needed to find her neighbors. In the distance, she could see fire, and she prayed silent gratitude it’d spared her home. She walked and walked through the quiet, listening for other people, for signs of life. Only the rustling of sugarcane and saw grass answered her calls.

Then, as she made a turn toward the riverbank where she did the wash each Sunday and bathed in the sun, she stumbled over what felt like a log anchored in the grass. She looked down and screamed.

A man, his open eyes to the sky and his mouth a permanent expression of disbelief, had his neck impaled by a sword, the pointed end emerging on the other side. Thick, coagulated blood pooled around his head and flies swarmed the wound. María Isabel looked up, past him, and saw it—a field of dozens of men just like him, left rotting in the heat, their innards and flesh unrecognizable, one giant mass of scorched meat, and as a final insult, a hog chomping through the remains, its face and teeth smeared in dark blood. She recognized the face of a fellow tobacco roller.

The grass quivered with María Isabel, oblivious to the carnage to which it bore witness. It began to rain and she stood there until a stream of red forced a jagged path to the river. Then she ran in her dress, torn and muddied and soaked, calling out to her mother as when she was a child, calling out to the giant unheeding span before her, and fell at the door of their home, her sobs heavy.

That night, her mother died.

Nothing was the same after the skirmish in Camagüey. Porteños y Gómez emptied to a third of its workers, the rest dead in the slaughter that had visited them or fleeing to la Florida, chasing rumors of tobacco factories offering refuge in exile. Don Gerónimo left, and Porteños, the owner of the tabaquería, began to oversee the work himself. The mood sobered, the readings changed.

On the first day back in the workshop, after the weeks of burials and rebuilding, Antonio took the lectern and announced that they would suspend the usual reading of La Aurora, as the rebellion had delayed its delivery to Camagüey. They would finish Les Misérables after the lunch hour, and they would begin another novel, one by a Cuban writer, that morning.

María Isabel could not bring herself to look up at him. She concentrated instead on each roll of the leaves, on making tighter and tighter bundles.

“Cecilia Valdés,” Antonio began, “by Cirilo Villaverde.” Her hands shook. Tighter rolls, she told herself. Tighter rolls.

“ ‘To the women of Cuba: Far from Cuba, and with no hope of ever seeing its sun, its flowers, or its palms again, to whom, save to you, dear countrywomen, the reflection of the most beautiful side of our homeland, could I more rightfully dedicate these sad pages?’ ”

Antonio’s voice carried the workers through that dismal morning. It spoke of the Spanish and creole social elite; love between free and enslaved Black Cubans; a mulata woman, her place in their island’s history. Even so, the author creole, an influential man. Not so unlike the other authors. After a lunch of hardened bread and bitter coffee, alone in her now empty home, María Isabel returned to hear a continuation of Les Misérables.

The days went by like this. Nightmares and crying fits gave way to tired collapse. And for whatever reason, possibly loneliness, possibly realizing she had no one left in the world, a month later she waited for Antonio and said, “I am not Cecilia Valdés.” And then, “I would be honored if you would read to me from any text.”

Once, as a child, María Isabel had accompanied her father to the city center of Camagüey to deliver baskets of a plantation owner’s coffee yield to a market vendor. She watched wonderstruck as wealthy Spanish families

paced the city’s promenade, the women with their parasols and flouncing petticoats of fine linen, the children playing with hoops and sticks, and carrying schoolbook bundles. At the market, she watched enslaved women trail white women and gather their purchases, how the Spanish women would point and the Black women would gather, their dresses more like the countryside smocks she was used to.

She’d asked her father then, pointing to her skin, “Where are the people like me?” He’d hushed her with a smack. Children did not speak their minds, he reminded her. Children did not ask, children answered. Children did as they were told.

Now she knew the answer. The women were here, in these fields, some free and some not, some passing as creole. The not-so-whispered dictate of enslavers: mix to mejorar la raza. Spanish men, your violence is a favor, your violence is bettering the race of this colony. So that someone like her could be told, you are not Black. You are mulata and mulata is mejor, and maybe your future generations will blanquear, closer and closer to white, take on the dictate as their own. Some plantations kept enslaved people, and peasants who earned their keep on small plots of land tended others. For their own reasons, the peasants and enslaved people, the guajiro farmers and criollo landowners, they all hated Queen Isabel II.

In the final days of war, the reports through the provinces grew more and more dire: public executions, entire villages burned to the ground, formerly free Black farmers forced into slavery. People were hungry, famished. Disease spread and wiped out whole families, whole prisons filled with mambises fighters. Their heroes were dying.

And still each day during lunch, for an hour, Antonio and María Isabel sat beneath the shade of banana leaves for reading lessons. Antonio read her poetry from Cuba’s orators and political theory from European philosophers. Karl Marx, other men. They often debated. He taught her to spell her name, held a quill in her shaking hand as she formed loops and curves over a small scroll, and though she could not decipher the letters, she saw in the marks a kind of art, a kind of beauty.

“I have a special reading,” he said one day. “Today, in the afternoon. A treat for the workshop.”

“You’ll not read from Les Misérables?” They were on the last volume, and its reading seemed the only event worth anticipating in those dark days when every sound of hooves brought fear of more loss.

“Yes, but first, a special reading.” María Isabel was still the only woman in the factory, now shrunken. The

other rollers were fathers and husbands but also children whose hardened demeanor belied their innocence, who smoked puros larger than their hands. María Isabel knew to count her blessings—some of these boys had also lost entire families, had grown into men over one bloody night, had woken up the guardians of younger siblings, bellies rumbling.

“Today brings a rousing announcement,” Antonio said from the lectern as the workers settled back to their desks. “One of our own great thinkers in exile in New York, Emilia Casanova de Villaverde—leader of the women’s independence movement and wife of the famed author of Cecilia Valdés— wrote to Victor Hugo. Our beloved señora Casanova de Villaverde informed señor Hugo of Les Misérables’ popularity in this, our tobacco workshops, that bring Cuba’s artisanship to the masses. She informed him of the lot our women begin to occupy—how their hands, too, have taken up the work of men as they seek to liberate our island. I have in my very possession, a translation of Victor Hugo’s remarks to his faithful admirer Emilia Casanova de Villaverde—and to you, the people of Cuba.”

A murmur overtook the workshop, and Porteños lifted his head from his accounting desk on the second floor to note the disruption. But all were silent and attentive as Antonio unrolled a large scroll whose black ink filtered through the fibers in the light.

“ ‘Women of Cuba, I hear your cries. Fugitives, martyrs, widows, orphans, you turn to an outlaw; those who have no home to call their own seek the support of one who has lost his country. Certainly we are overwhelmed; you no longer have your voice, and I have more than my own: your voice moaning, mine warning. These two breaths, sobbing for home, calling for home, are all that remain. Who are we, weakness? No, we are force.’ ”

María Isabel’s hands shook, and

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