Essays and Criticism
It does not take Rivera long in her story ‘‘African Passions’’ to divulge the truth about her protagonist. Teresa is a woman of contrapuntal desires—a deep-seated passion to love and a self-defeating compulsion to remain passive. She cries outwardly for attention and affection, but her only action in the direction of love is to serve her lover and to pray. It is when she prays that her emotional energies are most nearly aligned with her desires; and it is through these suppressed emotions that the ancient gods of Africa are brought forth to seek, in her name, the bridge between her desires and her submissiveness.
From the first paragraph, readers are told that Armando, Teresa’s love partner, is a fraud. Teresa knows this as well, but she is forever forgiving. Teresa knows many things about Armando, but as soon as a truth enters her mind, she finds something else to distract her so she does not have to think too hard about the status of her relationship with this man. The relationship is on shaky ground, but Teresa continues to tiptoe around the facts, hoping that she is wrong, not wanting to wake up to the realization that the relationship is more than not going any place; the relationship is dead.
‘‘Do you still love me?’’ she asks this man in her bed, who is pretending to be sleeping; but deep down, Teresa already knows the answer. She envisions a picture of herself from what she imagines to be Armando’s view: ‘‘He was on the alert, as if she were an ugly brown bear ready to pounce if he didn’t play dead.’’ In this thought of hers is the essence of her definition of their relationship. She thinks of herself as ugly and threatening. She thinks of him as an actor. She excuses his pretense by telling herself that Armando is afraid of her, possibly afraid that she will take something from him: his status, his life, or maybe just his love. In truth, Teresa is really afraid that she does not deserve his love. However, something is missing in her life. This she knows, and she is looking for that something. She, like the god Eleggua, is hungry. ‘‘If you don’t pay attention to me soon,’’ she says to Armando, ‘‘I’ll do something crazy!’’
The crazy thing that she eventually does is conjure up the African gods with whom she has played games ever since she was a child. She prays to them, although she denies believing in them. Her game is to call the gods when she is frustrated and needs to acknowledge her emotions. She tells the gods what she wants and then waits to see if they answer her requests. She has needs but does not have the confidence to trust that she can find the means to satisfy them on her own. Teresa is passive about life because she is insecure, but her passivity does not satisfy her desires; it merely shoves them into a back closet until they are ready to explode. It is this suppressed energy that imbues the psyche with the power to bring the gods forth. The gods thus represent Teresa’s emotions.
Somewhere in her personal history, Teresa learned to believe that she was not worthy of the kind of love that she craves. Her poor self-image could be the result of her feeling as if she lives on the fringes of American society—in the society but not truly of it—due to her bicultural status. It also could have arisen from the pressures placed on her to excel economically, a sure sign of success in the eyes of her parents. Even though she has made remarkable accomplishments, Armando is present in her life to remind her that no matter what she does, she cannot erase her heritage, which, in Armando’s eyes, is that of a daughter of lower-class parents. So Teresa turns to love, hoping that those warm, fuzzy feelings that are romantically linked to the concept of love will somehow fill in all the empty places in her soul.
Toward this goal, she turns to Armando. She’s been turning to him for a long time, and she’s always come up empty, especially lately. Teresa is locked into a mode. She can turn toward Armando, but she cannot turn away. Although she and Armando have talked of marriage, he has always put it off, telling her he couldn’t marry her because his parents did not approve of her. Then later, he says that he doesn’t believe in marriage. Teresa is ever hopeful that Armando will change, at least she is hopeful on a rational level. On a subconscious level, however, Teresa is a bit more aware. There, in that secret place where she hides her emotions, she begs the gods to bring her pleasure, the thing she is missing in her life. Interestingly, readers should note that Teresa does not specify in her prayers that she wants this pleasure to come from Armando. She does not demand that the gods make Armando love her. Her prayer is a more generic: ‘‘I want pleasure! And I want it right away!’’
The god Babalú Ayé is the first god to reveal some of Teresa’s hidden feelings. Babalú Ayé is the god of healing. In the story, a side note enlightens readers that Babalú Ayé does not like cats because their tongues are too rough for his skin. Babalú Ayé’s ‘‘body was covered with open wounds,’’ an empathetic symbol of his healer status. He is aware of Teresa’s emotional wounds caused by her insecurities and exposes her ambivalent feelings about having used her Hispanic culture to help her get into ‘‘top universities, top law firms, and top floors.’’ Through Babalú Ayé it becomes apparent that Teresa is not totally confident in her intelligence and skills....
(The entire section is 2250 words.)