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Published as a short novel in Cuba in 1839 but expanded and published definitively in the United States in 1882, Cirilo Villaverde’s Cecilia Valdés is typically read for its antislavery and pro-independence messages. However, I argue that the novel’s costumbrista description and its realist plot generate a crisis of meaning that modifies the text’s antislavery and pro-independence messages in an unexpected way: the narrative imagines a future Cuba as a liberal nation-state that, paradoxically, functions by means of a colonial racial hierarchy, thus preserving the colonial structure of society. My analysis shows that the combination of costumbrismo, a genre concerned with type characters and scenes, and realism, which focuses on the faithful representation of reality, creates a crisis of referents in the narrative that destabilizes how the text produces meaning. Indeed, this crisis generates a surplus of meanings that undermine the text’s explicit goals of political and economic liberalism.