My best friend is from Puerto Rico. We met in a computer algorithms class in graduate school and, among other things, bonded over our shared love of sweet fried plantains (dodo in Yoruba, maduros in Spanish). I visited her and her family in San Juan many times over the years and came to love so many things about Puerto Rico: the clear turquoise waters of the Caribbean Sea; El Yunque, the natural rainforest with its abundance of coqui, singing tree frogs that delighted my ears; and pastelon, Puerto Rican plantain lasagna (I’m drooling just thinking about that dish).
I knew that Puerto Rico had Independentistas, who seek complete liberation from the United States and are sometimes labeled as terrorists by people who don’t share their views, people who are pro- Puerto Rican statehood, and others who would like to maintain the current status quo. I was therefore intrigued when I first heard about Xochitl Gonzalez’s Olga Dies Dreaming, with main characters of Puerto Rican descent from New York whose militant political mother abandons them to advance her own goals for the island.
I picked up a copy at Village Well Books, my new favorite independent bookstore in Culver City, California, which opened during the COVID-19 pandemic and is amazingly still going strong.
On the surface of it, Olga Dies Dreaming is a story about love, discovery, and self-growth, featuring Olga, an Ivy league-educated high-end wedding planner and her older brother, Prieto, a congressman representing a Puerto Rican enclave of Brooklyn. On another level, it is a pointed interrogation of the meaning of citizenship and the impact of colonization, heavily featuring the devastations of Hurricane Maria, PROMESA, and laws such as the Jones Act, which decree that goods shipped between two US ports must be built in America, owned by American citizens or permanent residents, and crewed and flagged by Americans. Unfortunately for Puerto Rico (and Hawaii, Alaska, etc.), in a crisis, this means help sent by international allies must first find their way to the mainland and then be transferred to US ships, introducing delays even in the midst of a catastrophe.
Olga and Prieto are children of former Young Lord revolutionaries, haunted by their mother’s abandonment for the cause and their father’s descent into drug addiction, but the story beautifully depicts their evolution towards self-acceptance, self-love, and romantic love, with empathy and humor. No spoilers here, I’ll just say that the book is well worth the read!