OCTOBER 8, 2016
I OFTEN STRUGGLE in my literature courses to explain the difference between fantasy and magical realism. Is there a difference, or should we now group all stories written by Latina/o authors with fantastic elements into a broader category like “the Latina/o fantastic”? I have always viewed a major difference between fantasy and magical realism to be the idea of belief: readers of fantasy must suspend their belief, while magical realism integrates the idea of cultural belief into its stories. Gabriel García Márquez’s “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings” requires little suspension of belief in cultures where, as Alejo Carpentier notes, “the strange is commonplace and always was commonplace.” In places where faith is considered a way of life, miracles and angels are not fantasy; they are events rooted in belief.
Carlos Hernandez’s debut short story collection, The Assimilated Cuban’s Guide to Quantum Santeria, is a perfect example of how contemporary Latina/o authors are drawing from multiple fantastic traditions in their writing. Hernandez’s collection defies categorization by bringing together elements of Latina/o and speculative writing in a masterful mashup of science, magic, and cultural belief. Hernandez creates a collection of 12 short stories that, while not always connected, share a collective thread of questioning and discovery; many of the stories examine humanity’s relationship to itself and to the environment as well as exploring the boundaries of religion and science. The work combines contemporary magical realist tendencies with narratives that utilize both science fiction and fantasy elements.
Several of the stories in Hernandez’s collection address the tension between faith and science. In “Homeostasis,” a wife questions whether her husband’s soul has been preserved once he has a computer, called an “eneural,” implanted in his brain after being stabbed in the head. While many science fiction stories portray cybernetic enhancements in positive terms, Hernandez instead enables the wife to question the spiritual cost of the eneural. During a conversation with Greg’s former nurse, the wife, Angela, relays her biggest fear:
I mean, what if Greg died that night and now the eneural is just pretending to be him? What if it’s just reading Greg’s memories and using his body to impersonate him, but really Greg died almost a year ago, and now I’m living my life and raising my kids with … a fake Greg? What if he’s all body and no soul?
Hernandez plays with both the science fictional trope of technological progress and the magical realist trope of belief in miracles: instead of seeing Greg’s recovery as a miracle, Angela is suspicious of the new technology assisting his recovery. It may seem that Hernandez is contributing to ongoing debates about life support until the nurse asks her how she knew her husband had a soul before the attack. Angela’s answer is that she could “feel” his soul before, an answer that has nothing to do with scientific fact or ethics. Angela never directly states whether she can still feel her husband’s soul in the story, but at the end, she decides that whatever he has become now, it is enough for her. The story creates a kind of “homeostasis” — a scientific term that refers to a system that maintains a stable equilibrium — by balancing science fiction’s fascination with the possibilities of scientific achievement and magical realism’s faith in the miraculous.
In “Fantaisie Impromptu No. 4 in C#min, Op. 66,” Hernandez further explores the connections between science and faith when Gabrielle Reál, a Cuban reporter (and the narrator of three stories in the collection), travels to Miami to meet the widow of a famous composer, Consuela, who claims that her husband’s soul is being preserved in a technologically advanced piano. Reál is a skeptic who brazenly admits to her Cuban elder that she does not believe in souls. She also notes that the Catholic Church has ruled that eneural technology does not preserve a person’s soul, which makes Consuela’s belief heretical. She then proceeds to have an “out of body” experience when she is plugged into the piano through the use of an eneural system that allows her to mentally link with the famous composer. Gabrielle is amazed at the experience, but she tells Consuela that she is still not convinced that her husband’s soul resides in the piano. At that moment, Consuela uses a super-strength magnet on the piano (disrupting the eneural’s functioning and erasing its memory) in order to save her husband’s soul from eternal imprisonment on Earth; Gabrielle feels the life force draining out of the piano as the composer’s soul is freed. Hernandez makes it clear that Reál is shaken by the event. While she does not explicitly state that she now believes in souls, she finds comfort in the idea that if the composer’s soul was in the piano, Consuela has saved her husband from “an eternal Hell on Earth.” Again, Hernandez uses technology to ask if preserving a soul is possible while explicitly refusing to provide a concrete answer. Each reader is forced to question what they believe happened based on their belief in science and their faith in life after death.
In “The Assimilated Cuban’s Guide to Quantum Santeria,” the title story of the collection, Hernandez invokes the Latina/o practice of Santeria by offering a main character who is a young boy trying to obtain the ingredients for a love spell. His father is a science professor whose wife has died, and the son looks to magic to help his father find happiness again. The majority of the story involves the boy trying to catch a pigeon to complete the spell; in a heart-wrenching scene, he sacrifices the poor bird by driving a knife into its body. Immediately after this, his dead mother walks into the room, sees the bird, and begins crying and beating him. In case the audience decides to write this off as the strange dream of a child, Hernandez includes a final scene, which takes place years later: the boy’s father is remarried to his son’s assistant principal (the woman who gave his son the book on Santeria) and the new mother suggests inviting the boy’s dead mother to celebrate the son’s newest scientific achievement (the narrator is now an adult who studies quantum physics). After she leaves the room, the father remarks, “Now all we need is a pigeon.” It appears as if the father is now a believer, either because of the influence of his new wife or because the son eventually replicated his magical results using Santeria. Although Hernandez concludes the story before the father and son can begin the ritual, this final moment perfectly sums up the theme of this collection: several of the stories in the book question how Latina/os can embrace cutting-edge scientific theories while still maintaining cultural beliefs, but in “Quantum Santeria,” Hernandez depicts science and belief coexisting in harmony through his portrayal of a father and son who are mutually fascinated with science reuniting with their lost loved one through a supernatural cultural practice.
The fantastic in Latina/o literature is a rich tradition, a reminder that — in the face of political upheaval, immigration, and diaspora — faith is often what sustains families and cultures. Hernandez’s work ultimately proves that a Latina/o author can write science fiction and fantasy stories that also pay homage to the traditions of the Latina/o fantastic. In many of his narratives, he takes his readers to settings significant to Latina/os: in “More than Pigs and Rosaries Can Give,” the characters travel to Cuba to connect with the soul of the narrator’s mother, a brave woman who was killed by Che Guevara; alternately, in “American Moat,” the narrator is a self-elected white border patrol guard on the Arizona/Mexico border who faces a moral conundrum when he encounters actual “aliens,” beings from another world who offer him amazing gifts if he allows them to cross into the United States. The fantastic elements of Hernandez’s stories serve to express the hope for a better future many Latina/os sustain in the face of dictatorship, family loss, and racism. His humor and imagination take us to spaces where Latina/os are free to explore their interests in science while maintaining their cultural heritage. As a science fiction lover who also happens to be Latina, I can truly appreciate his literary world. This is one of many reasons that The Assimilated Cuban’s Guide to Quantum Santeria is an important and timely addition to Latina/o speculative fiction writing.