Xochitl Gonzalez’s debut novel, Olga Dies Dreaming, is a very complex novel that revolves around equally complex characters caught up in their lives. The problems they are dealing with are not unfamiliar, and we have faced the same issues at some point in time. Though there are certain things that set the characters apart from us, the most important being their culture and heritage, Puerto Ricans have never been accepted by whites in America, and though racial or religious discrimination is very common in any country nowadays, the problem doesn’t end there. Boriken has a very complex history of colonization.
Essentially inhabited by the Tainos, it was annexed by Spain in the early 1500s. After the U.S. won against Spain in the Spanish-American War, Puerto Rico was passed on to the U.S. by the Treaty of Paris in 1899, and since then, Puerto Rico has been under its control. For several reasons, many citizens have migrated to the U.S., primarily for the lack of job opportunities, poor infrastructure, and education system. But the land where the statue of liberty stands has always found new ways to oppress these people. These colored people have been harassed in their workplace by their white “masters,” have been paid lesser wages compared to their white coworkers, have been sexually harassed, have been the target of police, and have not even had a proper place to stay. These are only some of the problems that they have faced.
In this novel, among the several characters, the one who stands out for every reader is Blanca, Olga, and Prieto’s mother. She is a revolutionary just like her husband, but when her husband lost all hope after the Lord fell, she didn’t. She was determined to fight for the liberation of Boriken and give all that it took. Olga and Prieto’s father was genuinely interested in having a family, and after their two children were born, he decided to immerse himself in the familial duties.
But Blanca, his wife, was different. She tried to be the mother that her children needed and the wife that her husband needed, but she realized she couldn’t be either. She traveled quite often to give speeches in several places, and then one fine day, she decided not to return. She just sent a letter to her husband stating that she could no longer be the person she was trying to be for her husband’s and her children’s sake. She further blamed her husband in the letter, stating that he had tricked her into believing that she could lead a life like this. Blinded by her love for him, she was unable to see how she was moving away from her goal. Her mother and the rest of the family tried really hard to reach out to her before she finally gave up.
Olga’s grandmother stated later that her daughter, Blanca, didn’t have the mothering gene. Everyone in her family was shocked to see her abandon her children so easily. The most affected was Olga. Prieto was 16 then, and he could still manage himself, but Olga was really young back then. Often, she would have nightmares and would wake up screaming or crying. Her Abuelita (grandmother) would calm her down. Their father, though a very dedicated parent, got himself into addiction yet again and was soon diagnosed with AIDS. All the while, Blanca might have been absent, but every piece of news regarding her family reached her. She would send letters with no return address to her children and her mother, and most of the letters were really spiteful.
One would imagine that they would be filled with love and emotion, but that wasn’t the case. It’s true that some did contain words of advice, but the emotional manipulation that she inflicted upon them was too hard to ignore. Her mother was an adult, so no matter what she said, she wouldn’t act according to her advice, but in the case of Prieto and Olga, it was different. Both wanted to earn their mother’s affection and, hence, listened to whatever she said. Somewhere deep down, they felt that they weren’t enough for their mother, and hence, she decided to leave. Blanca forbade Prieto to meet their father in his last few days when he was in the hospital, and somehow he agreed. It hurt him, but he still didn’t go. Yes, he did have his own reasons, but his mother’s forbidding him was also one of them.
Blanca kept sending letters to her children, even though she didn’t care to turn up for her husband’s or her mother’s funeral. She had clearly stated in one of the letters that small sacrifices like the ones she and her children are making are important for something of this scale. Somehow she could find a way to compare the two, not thinking for once that both cannot and should not be compared. Prieto’s impression of her when he met her after so long was right. Blanca, indeed, was no different than Arthur and Nick Selby, the hypocritical multimillionaires who exploited everyone for their gains. Blanca was so obsessed with the concept of liberation that she lost herself in the process. It’s one thing to have your eyes on a goal, but losing yourself and becoming someone entirely different is another. Her husband and her children, whom she perceived as anchors holding her back, were the ones who actually made her human.
What she became, later on, was a monster, doing nothing that bad guys wouldn’t do; her only form of defense was that she was trying to liberate Boriken and the people. If and when they had to kill or get killed, then they would do so without thinking about the bloodshed. But the freedom that she so wanted was something that didn’t exist in reality. She was acting as the leader of Los Panuelos Negros, and if Puerto Rico was ever to become free of the dictatorship of the U.S., there would still be oppressors. Some Puerto Ricans would become the oppressors after that, and new forms of oppression would continue. That doesn’t mean that revolution isn’t necessary or that fighting for the rights of Puerto Ricans is wrong, but being disillusioned to the extent that Blanca was foolish. Or, maybe she wasn’t disillusioned. It would be stupid to think that a clever woman like her wouldn’t think this through. Maybe she thought and understood but still decided to use her children and other innocent people as pawns in her fight, ready to be used as and when required.