Soledad is often painted as a novel that was written in the vein of the great magical realist writers: Angie Cruz is thrown in with Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Lara Esquivel. While these are prestigious names to be connected with, this description of Soledad as a work of pure magical realism weakens the underlying themes of the book rather than strengthening them: Soledad is the picture of a life-- of a way of life-- in New York City. The titular character, Soledad, wrestles with her feelings of love for her home and the people who fill it and the conflicting desire to escape and never return. Soledad returns home to New York and is confronted with two different kinds of love: familial love and romantic love.
The story begins when Soledad says that she received a phone call from her Aunt Gorda, who had called to tell her that her mother is ill: “You have to come home. Your mother is not doing so good” (Cruz 11). Soledad has hated her home for a very long time, and has no desire to return-- but her aunt insists, saying that Soledad’s mother’s sickness is emotional, and only Soledad can cure it. Soledad, despite her misgivings, decides to return to her familial home in New York City out of a love for her mother; a love that she feels despite herself. When Aunt Gorda makes the phone call to Soledad, she expects a fight; she is ready to argue with Soledad to convince her to come back to New York. It is clear that Aunt Gorda loves Soledad’s mother very much, enough to brave the conflict with the headstrong wayward child that is Soledad’s character. Soledad argues with her Aunt Gorda for a long time-- she does not want to go home, she says; she wants to go to Europe, to explore the world beyond New York City, to set out on her own and experience the world. To Soledad, New York is a place where she is trapped and unsafe.
Soledad begins the novel, as her name indicates, alone. As she walks home, it begins to rain, and the diction that Cruz uses foreshadows Soledad’s experiences in New York:“And just when I think I’m going to make it home safe a hard splash of water falls from the sky and hits me in the head (Cruz 14).” Soledad sees the city as a dangerous place; a place where she cannot walk outside without facing trouble or danger. She prefers her life outside of her home in Washington Heights, but she returns because of the love she feels for her mother.
Soledad’s choice to return home makes one thing is evident: even though she hated her family’s relationships and the place where they live, she still loves her family, especially her mother. She describes how the mother always stood with her; her mother always tried very hard to ensure that she had something to eat, and a roof over her head. Without her mother, Soledad is not only alone, she is lonely.
The treatment of names in the novel is very indicative of the characteristics of the characters themselves, and of their relationships with each other. Soledad’s name means “loneliness” in Spanish; she is born, Cruz suggests, con la pata caliente-- with her feet burning to escape. When she escapes she finds freedom, but she also finds her namesake: loneliness, due to her separation from her large family. Tia Gorda-- gorda means fat in Spanish-- is the connection that weaves the family together, binding them all with love and communication. Where Soledad and her mother have difficulty communicating, Tia Gorda can communicate with Soledad, convincing her that she is the only one that can help bring her mother out of her emotional coma. Tia Gorda is fat not because she is slovenly or lazy, as the American symbolism would be, but because she is full of love and emotion. Tia Gorda is diametrically opposed to Soledad’s cousin Flaca. Flaca is Spanish for thin, or skinny-- it is not necessarily a positive descriptor as it would be in English. Flaca is everything that Soledad despises; she is loud, promiscuous, and makes the kind of decisions that Soledad does not agree with. Flaca is the kind of personality that grates on Soledad’s calmer, more self-contained decision-making process; she tries to help her cousin, but she feels as though she is lost in the tumult of her family life, like she cannot possibly ever fit in. Soledad loves her cousin, but feels as though she will never understand the girl or her decisions.
The final characters whose names are important are Olivia and Richie. Olivia, Soledad’s mother, has a name that comes from the English “Olive.” Olivia’s sickness acts as a way to bring the family together; she is the proverbial olive branch, the extension of love and friendship between broken branches of a family. Tia Gorda is the one who extends the olive branch, claiming that only Soledad can fix the broken parts of the family tree.
Richie, the erstwhile love interest of the novel, is a character who is deep and soulful. He is an interesting character, because he embodies all the things that Soledad thinks do not exist in her home neighborhood of Washington Heights. Richie is rich in spirit, but Soledad does not want to give him a chance; she does not want to fall in love. Another thing that even makes Soledad not develop full romantic love towards Richie just started in the same day she saw him. Then somebody had hit with water balloons at her. She had thought that she had been sweating. She only realizes when Richie showed up to help. She was angered by the children’s behavior, and she ends up turning her anger against Richie. She even said that she did not like him. That was the initial she never showed her love for him. She continues to develop the same. It is the reason at the end of the novel; the familial love is shown abundantly: “Chill. It came from the roof. Don’t get mad at me. I’m trying to help. Fuck off! (Cruz 14).” This was the first time they exchanged words, and they were angry; although Soledad grows to be fond of Richie, she is very hesitantly fond. Her name indicates loneliness and isolation, and she seems determined to remain isolated from love of all kinds, despite the fact that love keeps trying to pull her in and envelope her.
On several occasions Richie suggests that he and Soledad meet. She turns down many of these offers. Even though she likes Richie, she never expressed her love to her fully. She used to hide it from the rest of the family; while alone, she used to admire him, but now as a woman, she is unwilling to entertain any thoughts of falling in love with him.
Soledad has distinctly mixed feelings about Richie, seeing him as a link to the neighborhood she wants so badly to escape from. She likes him, but she is torn between caring for her mother and showing her love for Richie. She tells of one encounter that they have, saying: “He talked to me like he did when I was a child, when his voice was clear and melodic, his hair still dark, when he had only wrinkles around his eyes. He held my hand and patted it softly with every word, as if his words could be tattooed in my veins. He said trees grow up because they want to get closer to the stars. He said everybody is the center of their own world and yet they're just a speck in the universe. He said it's everyone's responsibility to not be afraid to love and to be loved. He told me that I was beautiful, that creating me was a good enough reason to live. He said every time he drank he was destroying a part of himself. We're afraid life is so short, we try to take from it as much as we can. We forget everything we need will come in due time. He said people need to have faith they will be taken care of, that people are part of this earth and the earth always gives us what we need” (Cruz). Richie encourages Soledad’s deep and introspective life; he is clearly a character that brings out the best in her, but she is unwilling to sacrifice the love of her family and her mother for the love of a man, wanting to spend time instead with her family and mend those ties. Although she is hesitant at the beginning, once she begins to open herself up to the love of her family, she also begins to be willing to open herself to the love of others.
Soledad, on some occasions, says that she needs something that was better than what she has. She has never wanted a man who was from the same neighbourhood as hers, she says, and yet she feels drawn to Richie in the same way she is drawn to places outside of Washington Heights. She says she needs someone from some other place, but Richie speaks to her soul. It is because of this fact that romantic love is not really shown in the novel. She wouldn’t easily show her love to him. It was however not easy to show her love fully despite the fact that she loved him inwardly.
Another reason that can be said why the romantic love did not grow between Soledad and Richie is because of the stories that her mother was giving her. The mother told her stories about how their love with her father was. “Sometimes she slept the entire night alone because Manolo would come home late and sleep on the sofa in the living room (Cruz 148).” It was one that was characterized with mistrust and suffering. Just like it had been mentioned, the father on some occasions beat Olivia to the point she sought medication. The father never really cared for the manner in which Olivia was. These stories off the past drove Soledad close to her mother. She never wanted anything to do with Richie. Richie was also from the same neighbourhood. She therefore saw Richie as just being the father but in a different body. She never loved him romantically. The romantic love is therefore not fully expressed in the story. The familial love took a greater part of the story.
Another reason that can be attributed to the fact that Soledad never showed a lot of romantic love towards Richie was because of the way in which he took the relationship between men and women. She had this feeling that women in her village go nowhere. She understands that women who start any relationship with men end up being the servants of men. “He would put her hand on his penis, pushing her down to kiss it” (Cruz 148). She uses her mom’s situation as the example in this case. It is because of this reason that even no matter how much Richie presses her, she stands firm to her decision. As mentioned earlier, she sees no difference between Richie and her dad. She thinks that all of them are simply one and the same thing. She fears to face the same problem. In some way, her attitude towards the village can also be attributed to her failure to become fully attracted to Richie. The readers can argue that if in case the man came from another hood, then she might have given in.
She decided to go and see her ailing mother. One would wonder why she had to go back. Apart from being her mother, she had the familial love for her home. She never had any other home. That is where she was born and raised. No matter how tough the situations the situations are, that was her home. She could not have another home. The familial love that she had for her home superseded all that existed. During the time when her mother was sick, she also had some problems with her boyfriend. She was in a dilemma. She would rather stay and make their relationship with a friend or go home and see the mum. She chose on going to see the mum. The aunt has also told her over the phone that she was the only hope left for the mother who was in a coma.
Another way through which the familial love is expressed in the novel is in the intake where all the family members were all together “Suddenly, in front of my grandmother’s building, the people multiply. And my grandmother is parting the crowd, carrying my mother, Olivia, with the strength of a matriarch (Cruz, 16).” They always were together with Olivia when the daughter had not arrived. When Soledad comes, she saw so many of her family members in their home. The fact that these people were somehow numerous made her think that maybe her mother is dead.
Through this, Cruz is trying to show that despite the fact that families may be separated by distance, when they are in need or when they are facing difficulties, they come together. The family members had been with the family of Soledad even when she was not around. They ensure that they did their best to help one of their own. They never cared that the husband was not there. They did not also look at the fact that her daughter was away. They helped to their level best. This is a magnificent element of familial love.
It is evident that the mother had been going through a lot of while in a sick bed. She only gets well after she shares with Soledad what she went through. The writer depicts connection that exists between mother and daughter. It is this relationship that makes the mother recovers. Soledad is also able to learn more through their mom and daughter relationships. This is also a magnificent way through which the issues of familial love have been shown in the novel. The two people, who are also the main characters, get well after the interaction. The two have an intense bond. It is one that has developed over time. It started at the point when the mother and the daughter used to live together and eat together. The bond has reached maturity. The bond that they share is even stronger than that romantic love which exists between lovers. It could have been because of this reason that Soledad prefers going to her mother instead of making up with the husband.
There is a definite conflict between familial and romantic love in this novel, but it is not the conflict that many think: Soledad is growing up throughout the novel, and she faces the question that many people face when they are growing up. She has to determine whether she should follow her heart or tend to her family; she must decide whether she should build her own family or maintain the relationships in her birth family. Soledad slowly comes to the realization that she does not have to choose-- just like she does not have to choose between staying in Washington Heights forever or leaving forever. Life is not a thing of absolutes, and familial love and romantic love are not the opposites that Soledad seems to believe them to be.
Cruz, Angie. Soledad. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001. Print.