By Josie E. Davis
“Instinctively, she hugged her swollen belly and prayed to the orishas to protect her daughter. She had known it was a girl.” And so launches forth the birth of Candela, the spiritual journey of one woman, Caridad, born in Cuba in the wake of a destructive house fire and what becomes the prelude to one family’s fatal passage to the Miami coast. Nearly half a decade later, Caridad “re-awakens” to an unsatisfying marriage; visits her brother and sister-in-law in Miami, discovering the truth about her family’s past; begins a new relationship with her neighbor, Chachi, the Cuban Santaria priestess who “sways … like a royal palm tree”; and with the help of a Santera priestess in Miami, is guided to Cuba to “complete the initiation she began when she was living with her mother.”
I like Candela for its vulnerability, the fluid awakening by which the characters find themselves and each other. The book carves out memory and tradition the way that “spirituality and culture” are framed by existence – always redefined, shifting, and like its characters, the story is fine tuned to the intimate self. It’s difficult not to imagine any woman striving for attention between these pages – by very definition it is sensuality that gives Barrios her strength, played abundantly and at times, uncomfortable for the reader if we, like Caridad, have not found our Chachi. This is the very thing that lends braveness to the small cavities within Candela and is at the same time obligatory in the spiritual and sexual evolution upon which the book resides.
As Candela paces forward, so do we – through clarity and understanding – the story captures the necessities of mid-life – carefully unsure, intimate, and honest, this book is a canvas for the sensual and spiritual mind. Barrios draws indefinitely from her own practice as a psychotherapist, turning her attention from memoir to fiction. And still, Candela is more of a collective memoir than Barrios imagines. There is a reality, newness, and innate purpose in Caridad’s “dreams,” and her relationship to Chachi, the same way in which Barrios is driven to “help people become more open to discovering and claiming their sexuality,” by a connection to her practice. “I sit here everyday and listen to people’s stories,” says Barrios during an interview this August. “I am inspired by different stories and how they resonate together. As a practitioner, I have to be aware of any issues of counter-transference, and I am very clear about listening and not imposing and of my own values.”
Just as we reach the final chapters it seems as though Barrios is becoming comfortable in her own skin. It’s partly to be expected, as this is a story about unfolding, awakening, and unraveling into something we’re not quite sure will fit. The book stumbles through the oddities of mid-life to focus on the “universality of what women go through during a midlife crisis,” and brings together the lives of women in an almost overtly coincidental way. “Once we hit that time in our lives, between 40-50, women feel the impulse to re-define their career, and their lives … from Lakumi or Native American rituals, women need the kind of support that is lacking in our society.”
Born and raised in Cuba until immigrating to the United States at the age of fourteen, Flor Fernández Barrios is author of two memoirs including Blessed by Thunder and Mask of Oyá. “This book [Candela] is different from anything else I’ve ever written. This book is a combination of actual stories that are fictionalized into a novel,” Barrios explains. What can we expect to see next? “I’m working on a couple of things – probably another novel with a similar theme – a journey of healing and transformation for people.”