“The United States made Puerto Rico’s handcuffs, but it was other Puerto Ricans who helped put them on,” the character Johnny Acevedo tells one of his children in Xochitl Gonzalez’s debut novel Olga Dies Dreaming. It is a line so cutting and so bold that it wrenched the breath immediately from my body, cementing Olga Dies Dreaming as a story that will never truly leave me. The summary for Gonzalez’s novel is almost misleadingly simple, describing a tale of “political corruption” and “familial strife” in the months before, during, and after Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico. But between those vibrant covers is a searing, almost painful chastisement for mainland Puerto Ricans like myself, who face a disconnect from their history. While balancing themes of capitalism, love, and revolution, Gonzalez poses a pivotal question to some of her readers: Are you Puerto Rican or are you Boricua? And how do you contend with not being enough of either?
Olga Dies Dreaming follows Olga and Pedro “Prieto” Acevedo, native Brooklynites searching for their piece of the American dream. Olga is a wedding planner, and Pedro is a closeted congressman trying his best to be a man that meets all of the requirements of Latino machismo. Looming large over their lives is Blanca, their mother, who is physically absent for nearly the entire book but nevertheless makes her presence known via the scolding letters she sends her children. In her youth, Blanca was a member of the Young Lords Party; although the group’s presence in New York diminished in the 70s, Blanca carried on the work of liberation by leaving her children behind and embedding herself with revolutionary groups like the Zapatistas. As the story progresses, Olga and Prieto must navigate difficult personal and professional choices in the midst of a rapidly gentrifying Brooklyn, which probably wouldn’t be so difficult if they weren’t keeping secrets from each other—secrets that, somehow, their mother Blanca already knows.
What Gonzalez does best is capture the crisis of identity some mainland Puerto Ricans face, embedding it in her main characters. For instance, Prieto wants to make change for his constituents and the residents of Puerto Rico, but he is kneecapped by private interest groups run by the Selby brother, fictional versions of the Koch brothers. The Selbys force Prieto’s hand on a crucial vote over the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management and Economic Stability Act of 2016 (PROMESA), which was a disaster for island residents that only exacerbated the effects of Maria. In an effort to wriggle out from underneath the Selbys and learn what may have happened to his mother, Prieto journeys to Puerto Rico with a cover story of assessing the damage of the hurricane. He is at a loss for an island that he refers to as his “cultural inheritance”—but he must also contend with the fact that it is not his island. He has never lived there, and his family, career, and livelihood all exist on the mainland.
In a call with Jezebel, Gonzalez explained what she believes the current generation of mainlanders will inherit, culturally. “I think that’s part of the main theme of the book,” she said. “It’s resilience and that inability to let people steal our joy. When you look at the plight of mainlanders, you see the one thing we have in common is generation after generation, we don’t let anyone knock us down. If you think about it, it’s been going on since 1898 and we could have succumbed to the fully American culture and we didn’t.”
Olga’s struggle with her identity takes place on a more intimate scale. “I felt like it had been so long since I’d seen a Puerto Rican woman in literature,” Gonzalez said of her protagonist, who is loosely based on some of Gonzalez’s own lived experiences. After attending a predominantly white university against her mother’s wishes, Olga finds herself with all of the trappings of success and none of the joy. She is a wedding planner for New York’s elite monied class but is still seen by them as “the help” and has whitewashed herself to perfection in order to survive. This quest for validation is a central theme in the story and one Gonzalez felt important to explore: “I wanted to write a Latinx story that was situated in Americanism. What does it mean to be a success here? And is that really helping us?”
Part of Gonzalez’s argument, which is laid out so articulately by the character Blanca, is that American success prioritizes wealth and status while devaluing community, the very thing that saved Puerto Ricans on the island after Hurricane Maria. Gonzalez recounts a story of islanders in two small towns who were ignored by FEMA because the bridge that connected them to main roads had been destroyed. “[The residents] figured out on their own how to get water from one town to the next because they couldn’t wait for outside help.”
Olga’s struggle functions as a synecdoche for every Puerto Rican who had to fully embody two different cultures and identities as a kid who now must remedy that split as an adult. “What I wanted to show is somebody grappling with like, I’m on this hamster wheel. But why? What if there’s a different value system and could I embrace it and find some happiness?” Olga is at once a fully realized American but also a product of American imperialism. Her Puerto Ricanness as she understands it exists solely as a result of colonialism. She is resentful for it, and yet she lives and works in the colonizer’s backyard. She is American and not; exotic and domestic; an outsider believing she can exist inside.
This duality is marked not just by Olga’s lived experiences throughout the book, but by the letter she receives from Blanca, who harshly criticizes her daughter for trying to attain success using the standards set by the colonizers. One letter in particular functions as a perfect summation of Blanca as a person as well as Olga, and by extension some of the audience’s internal struggle (emphasis my own):
One night we heard this Brother perform this poem, and it broke my heart. In his verses I heard my family’s life. They were characters–Juan, Miguel, Milagros, Olga, Manuel–but as far as I was concerned he could have named them Isabel, Richie, Jojo, and Lola, because he–Pedro Pietri–captured my family. All of them chasing an impossible dream: to be accepted by a nation that viewed them with contempt. So willing–eager almost–to shed our rich culture for the cheap thrill of being seen as “American.” Thinking that if one day they accumulated enough stuff, if they learned to act the right way, they could wipe the “Spic” off of them and be seen as “the same.” And because white America will never see them as equal they die owning loves of things, but having lost themselves.
The poem Blanca references, Puerto Rican Obituary by Pedro Pietri, is the undercurrent of the entire novel. Pietri gives voice to Puerto Ricans who have died spiritual deaths, much like Olga and Prieto. He writes about how mainlanders died “yesterday today/ and will die again tomorrow...never knowing/ that they are beautiful people/ never knowing/ the geography of their complexion.”
Olga Dies Dreaming is unlike any other novel I’ve read in its reverence and regard for Puerto Rico and its place in the modern world stage. Gonzalez has taken hundreds of years of subjugation and squeezed a fool-proof explainer into a few hundred pages, and she’s managed to do so while striking a perfect balance between humor and urgency. For lovers of fiction, it doesn’t simply demand your attention—it seizes your attention by the huevos and doesn’t let go until you turn the last page. For Puerto Rican and Boricua readers, Gonzalez and her characters breathe new life into the age-old adage, Pa’lante. Siempre pa’lante.