Book Review: Ruins by Achy Obejas

Achy Obejas will be a faculty at the:

7th Annual National Latino Writers Conference

May 20 – May 24, 2009

10 am – 5 pm

NHCC Campus


Learn more at: National Hispanic Cultural Center

Surviving with dignity

‘Ruins’ examines Cuba without descending into jingoism

Rigoberto González / Special to the Times

“Ruins” by Achy Obejas (Akashic Books, $15.95 paperback).

On the 50th anniversary of the Cuban revolution, Achy Obejas pays homage to those who persevere on the island — despite a lifetime of political and economic turmoil — with the celebrated release of her stunning new novel, “Ruins” (Akashic Books, $15.95 paperback).


The year is 1994, and Usnavy Martín Leyva, notwithstanding his Yankee-inspired name, is a staunch nationalist and fiercely loyal to Castro’s ideologies. But because of food shortages, the rise of a black-market economy, and obnoxious camera-wielding tourists invading even his leisurely game of dominoes, it’s difficult to deny his disillusioned neighbors’ assessment that reclaiming Cuba for the people “didn’t turn out exactly like we thought.”


Desperation results in an exodus “on anything that will float,” and Usnavy watches in dismay as his closest friends take the dangerous plunge with the hope of reaching the Florida coast. Those left behind are forced to embrace a more lucrative course: wooing the U.S. dollar.


Usnavy watches those around him prosper, sometimes at the cost of performing indignities for the tourists. Widespread waning patriotism begins to chip at his “revolutionary purity,” and he can do nothing but ask himself: “Where was yesterday’s defiance? Where was yesterday’s resistance to foreign whim?”



Usnavy’s luck turns when he stumbles on a valuable artifact among the ruins of a decrepit building. When the piece is identified as a Tiffany lamp, he becomes “bewildered, dazzled, by what he found he could do for himself and his loved ones all of a sudden.”

As his secret enterprise — unearthing treasures inside the surrounding impoverished neighborhoods — grows,

Usnavy makes other startling discoveries about Cuba’s pre-Revolution history and about his own family line, that begin to shift his view of his beloved homeland and his place within it. But one thing is certain: he will never leave. He is, in the end, still a Cuban, and Cubans “always rebuild.”

In the meantime, he will continue to guard his birthright and prized possession: “the Cuban holy grail” — a legendary lamp destined for but never delivered to the Presidential Palace long before the 1959 uprising that changed the course of every Cuban’s destiny.

The even-handedness and sensibility of Obejas’ treatment of life in Castro’s Cuba allows Usnavy to shine as a symbol of dignity and survival. She steers away from easy criticisms or political agendas, and allows her examination of this ordinary life to illustrate one of Usnavy’s uncompromised beliefs: that “fate was not in a shoreline or a flag, but in a person’s character.

“Ruins” is a beautifully written novel, a moving testament to the human spirit of an unlikely hero who remains unbroken even as the world collapses around him. A fine literary achievement by the graceful author of “Days of Awe” and “Memory Mambo,” it’s Achy Obejas at her very best.



Rigoberto González is an award-winning writer living in New York City. His Web site is, and he may be reached at



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