Norma Alarcón (essay date 1989)

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SOURCE: “The Sardonic Powers of the Erotic in the Work of Ana Castillo,” in Breaking Boundaries: Latina Writing and Critical Readings, University of Massachusetts Press, 1989, pp. 94–107.

[In the following essay, Alarcón analyzes Castillo's writing in the context of male/female relationships and the politics of women's sexuality.]

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SOURCE: “The Sardonic Powers of the Erotic in the Work of Ana Castillo,” in Breaking Boundaries: Latina Writing and Critical Readings, University of Massachusetts Press, 1989, pp. 94–107.

[In the following essay, Alarcón analyzes Castillo's writing in the context of male/female relationships and the politics of women's sexuality.]

Ana Castillo, a native of Chicago, first made an impact on the Chicano writers' community with the publication of her chapbook, Otro Canto (1977). Written mostly in English (as is almost all of Castillo's work), it ensured her reputation as a “social protest” poet at a time when it was difficult to be anything else. As a result, some of the ironic tones already present in the early work have been easily over-looked in favor of the protest message, which in fact is re-doubled by irony. It can be argued that irony is one of Castillo's trademarks. Irony often appears when experience is viewed after-the-fact or in opposition to another's subjectivity. In this essay, I would like to explore the ironically erotic dance that Castillo's speaking subjects often take up with men. Thus, my exploration will follow the trajectory of the traditional heterosexual, female speaking subjects in Castillo's published works: Otro Canto, The Invitation (1979), Women Are Not Roses (1984), and The Mixquiahuala Letters (1986).1

Otro Canto portrayed the burdens of the urban poor through the voice of a young woman who had learned the bitter lessons of disillusionment early in life. Thus, in the poem “1975,” we hear a sigh of relief when all those “proletarian talks”—the nemesis of many a left-wing activist—are finally translated into action. The speaker underscores the repetitiveness of mere talk by starting off every stanza with the line, “talking proletarian talks,” which subsequently opens the way for details that give rise to such talk. We are not relieved from this tactical monotony “until one long / awaited day— / we are tired / of talking” (pp. 49–51). Though in “1975” the speaker is not gender-marked but is revealed as being in a “we-us” speaking position within a Marxist revolutionary stance, that speaker is transformed into a “we-us” who makes “A Counter-Revolutionary Proposition.” In this poem we are called upon to make love and “forget / that Everything matters” (Women Are Not Roses, p. 63). Given the litany of the things that matter in the stanza preceding the call, however, the poem urges me to ask if the speaker is wryly alluding to the well-known Anglo counterculture slogan of the sixties: “Make Love, Not War.” As the poem notes, what matters to the proletarian (i.e., Marxist) revolutionary speaker is the struggle to overcome class oppression, a struggle that is spoken through a supposedly non-gendered we. However, juxtaposing the poem's title, “A Counter-Revolutionary Proposition,” with the implicit allusion to the slogan “Make Love, Not War,” may help us to unravel a story with a difference for the underclass female speaker who addresses her partner, “Let's forget …” (p. 63).

Notwithstanding the recent involvement of women in revolutionary struggles (i.e., Cuba and Nicaragua), it is still the case that in opposition to the erotic, a revolution or a war is especially marked with a traditional male subjectivity that awaits analysis. In order for a female speaker to recover the full meaningful impact of herself, she still must address how that self figures in the “heterosexual erotic contract,” revolutions not excepted. Within this contract, the female body continues to be the site of both reproduction and the erotic; despite class position, a speaker and her gendered social experience are imbricated in that age-old contract. Thus, “A Counter-Revolutionary Proposition” may now be understood as a call to explore the politics of the erotic. Let us actively explore the neo-revolutionary implications of erotic relations that have been constantly displaced, undervalued, and even erased by masculine-marked militancy, or at best rendered passively by the male poet, with the woman as the muse, the wife, the mother.

From this point of view, the poem's title acquires a polyvalence that goes beyond the private, where the erotic has often been held “hostage,” and is placed in the political arena. In a sense, then, “Let's ‘make love’” is taken from the lips of an Anglo, male, left-wing activist by the most unexpected of speakers—Ana Castillo's poetic persona. In retrospect, Castillo's early work stands out as one of her first attempts to appropriate the erotic and its significances for the female speaker, with ironic repercussions. Given the assumed class position of the speaker herself, affirming the erotic, as she takes pause from the class struggle, is tantamount to speaking against herself, or so her “brother/lover” may attest. The implicit suggestion that the erotic and the class struggle may be incompatible in a patriarchal world, when both are made public, places the underclass female in a double bind, since she may be forced to choose between areas of life that, for her, are intertwined or indivisible. In my view, the speakers in Castillo's work refuse to make such choices. Choosing one or the other splits the subject into the domains that heretofore have been symbolically marked feminine or masculine.

In the seventies, Chicanas and other women of color had a difficult time within their fraternal group when they insisted that feminist politics, with its commitment to the exploration of women's sexuality and gendered identities, also applied to them. The supposed contradictory position of women of color, one that was between a male-identified class liberation struggle and a middle- or upper-class, white, female-identified sexual liberation struggle, forced women of color to walk a tightrope in their quest for an exploration of gender.2 Thus, a poem such as “A Counter-Revolutionary Proposition” was politically risky, as the speaker addresses another, ostensibly male, and asks that he forget that “Everything matters.” Yet, it is only within this apparent self-contradictory situation that such a speaker may be able to claim sexuality for herself and explore the significance of the female body that is always, and already, sexually marked. Such a “proposition” simultaneously opens up a gap between the fact of economic oppression and the desire for erotic pleasure and significance that faces us when we perceive the separation between the first and the second stanzas in the poem.

In The Invitation (1979), a chapbook-length collection of erotic poems and vignettes, Castillo's speaker no longer requests that her interlocutor forget that “everything matters” but pursues, instead, a sustained exploration of her erotic, at times bisexual, desires. The appropriation of the erotic for the female speaker is again a motivating force. The emphasis, however, is not so much on the speaker's uneasy conjunction with “proletarian politics” as it is with “textual politics.” That is, the appropriative process resonates respectively against, and with, two important books of our time: Octavio Paz's The Labyrinth of Solitude (1950), and Maria Teresa Horta, Maria Isabel Barreno, and Maria Velho da Costa's The Three Marias: New Portuguese Letters (1975).3 Consider, for example, that in the second chapter of his book, Paz affirms women's dormant and submissive sexuality that awaits discovery through male efforts, while “The Three Marias” reject this view throughout their book and protest women's political bondage that, at the core, is based on their sexuality. Notwithstanding the different approaches that each of “The Three Marias” would take to liberate women, there is very little doubt that they agree that male perception of women's sexuality pervades all levels of women's existence.

The erotic thematics of The Invitation openly declare the influence of those two books (pp. iii, 9). Castillo's text, when viewed in their light, becomes a purposefully glossed negation of Paz's view and an extension of the authors' own erotic vision. It is as if the relative absence of any sociopolitical debate of the Chicana/Mexicana's sexuality had made it imperative that Castillo explore instead her speaker's desire in the light of a textual milieu. Moreover, reading Castillo's work in this fashion enables us to clarify her struggle to place her erotic thematics and voices in the interstice of both her sociopolitical and textual experiences. In other words, if, due to her social position, the underclass female is called upon to address her class oppression with a ready-made, class struggle rhetoric, attempting to address her sexual/erotic oppression forces her to see it in relation to texts. Her own response to those texts enables her to give voice to her experience and make it public. If she does not make an effort to bring out that voice herself, it will remain muted, as she is forced to align herself with the heretofore masculine-marked class voice. Thus, she is reconfirming, from another angle, Gilbert and Gubar's call in The Madwoman in the Attic for our critical need to explore “the metaphor of experience” (in “1975” and “A Counter-Revolutionary Proposition”) and “the experience of metaphor” (in The Invitation).4 The speaker/writer and the critic must discern, insofar as it is possible, between the metaphors female speakers create to represent our sociopolitical and erotic experience and the metaphors these speakers inherit and that a priori inscribe our potential experience. Thus, a writer/speaker can unwittingly live out the experiences that the metaphors call upon her to duplicate (i.e., Paz's description of female sexuality) or she can struggle to lay them bare and thus reinscribe her evolving position (i.e., “The Three Marias” struggle to reinscribe women's sexuality).

Paz's work, as well as The Three Marias and The Invitation itself, are, in a sense, all glossed over in Castillo's epistolary narrative, The Mixquiahuala Letters (1986), which more closely approximates the sociopolitical images of Otro Canto. In a sense, Letters is more aggressive in its conjugation of “the experience of metaphor” and “the metaphor of experience” as it pertains to the erotic, for it is yet another link in Castillo's exploration of sexuality and its significance for women. If in Letters, however, the negation of Paz's view of women's sexuality is continued, even as it is ironically reconfirmed by some of the males represented in the text, the work of “The Three Marias” is honored by adapting its epistolary form. However, the letters of “The Three Marias” are also supplemented by Castillo's Anglo-American political and sexual angle of vision. Castillo's sole speaking protagonist—Teresa (“Tere”)—takes up the position, initially, of a free agent, while the narrative web of The Three Marias starts out by recognizing that women are not free agents in any sense whatsoever. Moreover, as Darlene Sadlier's essay makes clear, “The Three Marias” did not have the political freedom to explore women's sexual oppression or question its nature even textually, let alone in practice.5 As a result, they were placed on trial for publishing their book. Ironically, the trial itself corroborated their point; women have not been free to express an uncensored subjectivity. Ana Castillo's Letters supplements “The Three Marias” insofar as her protagonist projects a subjectivity, free to express and practice her sexuality, but still imprisoned by an intangible heterosexist ideology, a heterosexist ideology for which we may posit Paz's view as the model. Thus, in Letters we have a protagonist who, by virtue of North American political practices and feminist influence, had “forgotten” what it is like to live in the world of “The Three Marias” or even in Paz's world. As a result, Tere, the main speaker in Letters, undergoes a trial by fire when Mexico's cultural configuration is put into play. She is forced to recall that she is not as free as she thought. Since Teresa is a woman of Mexican descent (a Chicana), she should not have forgotten but, insofar as she wants to be a freer agent, she would want to forget. The complexities of her diverse levels of consciousness may be located in the push and pull of divergent political countries, i.e., the United States and Mexico. As Gloria Anzaldúa states in “La Conciencia de la Mestiza: Towards a New Consciousness”:

Within us and within la cultura chicana, commonly held beliefs of the white culture attack commonly held beliefs of the Mexican culture, and both attack commonly held beliefs of the indigenous culture. … In a constant state of mental nepantilism, an Aztec word meaning torn between ways, la mestiza is a product of the transfer of the cultural and spiritual values of one group to another … and in a state of perpetual transition, the mestiza faces the dilemma of the mixed breed: which collectivity does the daughter of a darkskinned mother listen to?6

Indeed, this may explain the rationale behind addressing the letters to Alicia, who was Tere's traveling companion and ought to have known what they experienced. Nevertheless, the technique enables Tere to bring out, through Alicia, the Anglo-American cultural influence that, in any case, does not save either of them in the face of the erotic, as we shall see.

Before further consideration of The Mixquiahuala Letters, however, other important points must be brought up that will clarify its social and literary importance as well as my necessarily complex critical approaches. The critical conjugation of “the metaphor of experience” and “the experience of metaphor” is as complex as its literary elaboration.

Selections from both chapbooks, Otro Canto and The Invitation, as well as sixteen new poems, have been made available to a wider audience in Castillo's book, Women Are Not Roses. As happens in “selections” books, the evolution of a writer's work is often cut short in favor of the “best” that a writer has produced, a factor that is the prerogative of editors. As a result, Women Are Not Roses does not provide the reader with many clues to the intertextual observations made above. Theorists of the text, of course, have taught us that one does not need to have recourse to direct intertextual sources for the pursuit of such considerations. However, it is also the case that writers do respond consciously to their textual milieus and effect a revisionary dialogue. As such, it is of paramount political importance to identify the textual milieu of culturally marginalized writers such as Chicanas, as well as to clarify the appropriative strategies at work in the struggle to construct and reconstruct an identity despite its instability, lest a writer appear to speak in a vacuum. Moreover, writers and critics often rely on a textual milieu and an actual experience, insofar as that milieu assists with the verbal translation of our cultural experience. In this fashion, a variety of discourses can be negated, supplemented, modified, and repeated, though it may not always be possible, or even necessary, to make clear-cut source identifications.7

Women Are Not Roses does not provide any clues to Castillo's appropriative strategies and experimentations, though the word “roses” in the title points to, and plays upon, the masculine textual production in which women are represented as flowers/nature. In this book, however, there are at least two poems that resonate intertextually and intratextually, and their examination may also help us in the reading of The Mixquiahuala Letters.

Both “An Idyll” (pp. 8–10) and “The Antihero” (p. 24) warrant a closer look because they not only evoke the Western romantic tradition that has underpinned women's erotic image within patriarchy but also, in this instance, further the female speaker's appropriation of that tradition to explore her sexuality and revise the image. Moreover, since Tere, the letter-writing protagonist of Letters, does not explicitly speak of her erotic illusions and ideals but instead reconstructs, from a ten-year distance, a period of her life that she calls a “cesspool” (Letter #2), a consideration of these two poems may help us come to terms with the nature of her failed erotic quest. Though Letters represents sexual encounters with men, Tere often assumes a sarcastic, pragmatic, and even distant tone that contrasts sharply with whatever illusions and ideals may have led her (Letter #1) and her friend Alicia to actively explore their sexuality. This is an exploration that falls short of erotic bliss, to say the least: hence, the label “cesspool.” In a sense, the expectations of heterosexual erotic bliss constitute the partially repressed aspects of Letters, which on occasion contains such startling confessions as “i was docile” (p. 113) or “i believed i would be placed in the little house and be cared for …” (p. 118).8 These occasional confessions are barely audible. They tend to get lost in Tere's latter-day, after-the-fact sardonic anger. As we shall see, she has been framed a priori by certain “semantic charters,”9 and Castillo mocks her further by framing her with the “reading charts” offered to the reader.

“An Idyll” and “The Antihero” reinscribe two aspects of the erotic/romantic hero—the god-like and the demonic—from the point of view of a female speaker. Their representation, however, is complicated by the different spatio-temporal positions that the speaker takes, consequently putting into question how one translates and interprets (writes/reads) the experience. Since “The Antihero” is a significant inversion of the hero in “An Idyll,” the speaker's relational position to each becomes very important, adding another dimension to their inscription. A speaker's position in relation to such monumental and heroic figures cannot be all that simple. The speaker is probing not only a relationship to the symbolic, that is, how the romantic hero has figures in textual tradition, but her social experience as well, that is, how she has lived her sexuality in, and through, such figurations.

In these two poems, the speaker filters her position through an intricate use of the first- (“An Idyll”) and third- (“The Antihero”) person pronouns in combination with temporal distance and proximity, respectively. These spatiotemporal, positional techniques are employed in Letters as well; though most of the letters are first-person accounts, Letters #21 and #32 are examples of speaker shifts. “An Idyll” is a first-person narration of past experience, punctuated by contemporaneous evaluations of that experience that is represented in fantastic terms, a virtual parody of male literary figurations:

                              now
i          can          tell
of being swept b
y a god a michael
angelo's david a
man of such phys
ical          perfection,
one could not be
lieve him human.

(P. 8)

In this poem, the very columnar shape points to a phallic symmetry that distorts the potential plasticity of language for its own sake. It takes a very well-programmed machine to reproduce that form. It is akin to a divine hierarchical account that only “now,” by stepping outside of it, can be apprehended. The narrator, who only “now” can represent her enthrallment with the beautiful stony hero, assesses that erotic dance as “truer” because it was satisfying, in some measure. Enthrallment itself may have its own temporary erotic rewards. The romantic interlude—an idyll—as a symbolic fantasy may be spellbinding, but the effort to transform it into a social reality literally enslaves her:

                                                            i ate
with it slept wi
th it made its b
ed in the mornin
g when it disapp
eared … i waited
for its return—
each night.

(P. 9)

Indeed, like language, she is immobilized and transfixed by “it,” a god-like man. “It” has turned her into a robot. The murder of this fantastic being is due to her almost sudden awareness that her union with him, despite its insane and masochistic pleasures, is tantamount to her own self-destructive collusion. In the poem, his murder is anonymous, perhaps collective. As a crowd gathers to demand his expulsion, one of them shoots him when he refuses to leave:

until one of us c
ould not stand it
any longer and
shot him.

(P. 10)

Now that the fantasy, with its perverse truth, is over, the first-person speaker is free to recall her delusion. Indeed, it is the newer, after-the-fact consciousness that makes it possible to see the enthrallment as a delusion. The one who narrates, however, is distanced from the one who lives the fantasy, that distance itself muting the emotional charge of the actual experience that was once lived as true and is now viewed through the lens of fabulous fiction. It is as if there was something inherently ironic in an experience recollected from the now-distant point of a changed consciousness. This is precisely the ironic tone effected in many of the letters (see, for example, Letter #16 where Tere's attraction to Alvaro is later viewed as a weakness). Tere mocks her initial enthrallment. She “Believed that beneath his rebellion was a sensitive human being with an insight that was unique and profound” (p. 48). Years later, however, either Tere's narrative hindsight or that of an unidentified narrator reports, “This is a woman conditioned to accept a man about whom she has serious doubts …” (p. 48).

The ironies of “An Idyll” take a more cruel turn in “The Antihero,” who exhibits a reckless disregard for his partner's erotic desires: “the antihero / always gets the woman / not in the end / an anticlimax instead” (p. 24). If the heterosexual dance in “An Idyll” is paradoxically viewed as a true fiction by the first-person narrator, the lyrical speaker of “The Antihero” views him as purposely playing his partner false. He obfuscates erotic desire by rendering sexual experience anticlimactic, as against pleasure and dénouement. He manipulates her desire so as “to leave her yearning lest / she discover that is all” (p. 24). She is double-crossed by the anticlimactic ruse into continuing to conflate desire with him. It is clear, as Luce Irigaray comments in another context, that “man's desire and woman's are strangers to each other.”10 If she discovered the infinite power of her own desire, then certainly the cruel dance would undergo a transformation or come to a stop. The poem presents the anticlimactic sexual event in the present-tense lyrical mode, through the lens of the third person. The couple is objectified in the present tense to suggest an ongoing, unsatisfactory scenario of desire that brings them together, yet keeps them apart. Thus, contrary to the dictates of the lyric, which calls for a personal account of sensual experience, the poem switches the speaker's position to suggest a model of contemporaneous behavior that distorts erotic desire. For Castillo, then, angles of perception, which may be both spatial and/or temporal, are sites for discrete eruptions of meaning that may be subsequently juxtaposed, thus effecting additional meanings. In a sense, the significance of any one thing is highly unstable and much depends on the angle of vision.

Conventionally, the letter form has shared at least two important features with the lyric, notwithstanding the fact that the first is prose and the second is poetry.11 Both reveal the intimate events in the life of the speaker, combined with the speaker's emotional response to them, thus exploring the personal states of mind at the moment of the event or with respect to it. It should be noted, in passing, that Letters is a mixture of poetic and prosaic forms, but the speaker, who may not always be identified with Tere, does not feel bound by conventions. This disruption of conventions signals, in my view, a pursuit of narrative approaches that may be beyond Tere's simple “i.” In a sense, she is undergoing an inquisition that makes her both the subject of her narrative and the object of someone else's.

Consider how, in recalling events shared with Alicia, her sole interlocutor, Tere almost consistently shifts to a third-person, present narration to explore emotional responses to an event. Letter #21 is an example of such an instance, an account telling of Tere's breakdown as a result of her misalliance with Alexis:

After a while, she adapts to neglecting herself more than he can. Her nails are bitten to the quick. She forgets to eat or eats when she's not hungry. Her inability to sleep makes her face droop like the jowls of an old hound dog. She is twenty-six years old. With nervous gestures, she tears an invisible thread from the edge of her slip. If she doesn't watch out, she will quietly go mad and no one will have noticed.

(P. 112)

As in “An Idyll,” enthrallment again leads to a slavish madness, but it cannot be stated in the first person. Who narrates? An older Tere, who fears to re-enter that period of insanity with a personal “i”? Also, as in “The Antihero,” the speaker shifts to the third-person account, thus creating distance with regard to speaking positions, but not to time. As a narrator of her own letters, Tere reveals that she occasionally shifts personae to “create distance with the use of a personal ‘i’” (p. 64). As such, it would appear to be an admission that, emotionally, events have a dangerous, contemporaneous power that must be objectified, displaced to a “she/her.” Often, Tere can only re-present what has lost the power to hurt her. Romantic love, however, cannot be spoken of, intimately or directly. As she—or is it she?—coldly says; “Love? In the classic sense, it describes in one syllable all the humiliation that one is born to and pressed upon to surrender to a man” (p. 111). In our time, “the classic sense” of love is the erotically romantic one that has been popularized ad nauseam through romance novels or, in the case of Mexico and Latin America, fotonovelas—as Tere knows (p. 50). It is a genre that cuts across classes and makes many women, regardless of their economic status, sisters under the skin, daughters of patriarchy. In fact, it is the erotic quest that holds Tere and Alicia's friendship together. The true closeness of the friendship is placed in question when we read Letter #13, in which Tere emphasizes her occasional loathing of Alicia. The wedge between them is Alicia's privilege, color, and worldly wise airs. Clearly, Tere and Alicia's relationship requires further scrutiny. However, what keeps them together is their shared relationship to the romantic. Letter #40 serves to additionally reiterate the erotic common ground.

In Letter #33, to further explore her relations with Alexis, Tere again shifts speaking positions. On this occasion, she switches to her fantasy of his voice. When Tere encounters Alexis five years after the breakup, she imagines what he should be thinking upon seeing her. This is the end to the affair that pleases her (p. 114). The poem, entitled “Epilogue” and attributed to Alexis, is a tribute to Tere's unequaled charms, a testimonial to his lingering affection for Tere, despite the passage of time and his subsequent involvements with other women: “It was her. / … She / was there, in the same room …” (p. 115). Tere is effectively converted into his Muse, the one still capable of stirring him into poetic reverie. Indeed, she reveals that being the object of his desire is something in which she is well trained, so well in fact, that she can even write poems about that object, herself, and assume his voice. Even as this version of the end pleases her more than the actual reported sordid end of their affair, Tere's self-conscious posing parodies the experience of the romantic metaphor: She, the muse, the love object that truly moves him; He, the desiring lover/poet. In Tere's relationship with Alexis, the gap between the metaphor of experience, insanity and abandonment, and the experience of metaphor, the enchanting muse, provides us with a variation of the chords struck in “The Antihero” and “An Idyll” (see Letter #28 for Tere's initial response to Alexis). As Janice A. Radway has told us in Reading the Romance,12 romantic/erotic bliss is the salient promise that Western patriarchy holds out to women, a bliss that constantly eludes our hapless heroines. Why? I can only conjecture that, while both Tere and Alicia are quite adept at posing as the object of desire, they find it impossible to carry through the subsequent social actualization of that objectification, primarily because it is not an option at all. It spells the death of their subjectivity. Ironically, that is their near-unconscious discovery. The patriarchal promise of romantic/erotic bliss, re-presented in all manner of popular literature, is an ideological maneuver to kill their subjectivity and any further exploration of their own desire.

The understated, failed quest for romantic/erotic bliss effects a blisteringly sardonic tone in the Letters, which are an exercise in hindsight. If, in fact, Letters represents the struggle to move beyond the quest, the irony is Tere's inability to succeed. In part, this is due to the fact that both the women and their string of men are still operating under a romantic/erotic heterosexist ideology that is hard to shake, notwithstanding Tere's latterday awareness that this is so. Consider what she says ten years after the quest for “womanhood”: “Destiny is not a metaphysical confrontation with one's self, rather, society has knit its pattern so tight that a confrontation with it is inevitable” (p. 59). The quest for “womanhood” is still socially defined in sexual terms under the popular emblem of the romantic/erotic. Both Tere and Alicia are pressed to fulfill the pattern. In a sense, Letters offers us a different version of the so-called “star-crossed” lovers. Destiny, as such, is a socially enforced misrecognition under the guise of love that places Tere in a double bind: on the one hand, a desire for her own sexual definition, and on the other, an overly determined script in which she takes part. Tere, in short, is bitter over her unwitting, yet unavoidable, folly. The appropriation of the erotic, as enjoyed and desired in the more symbolic book, The Invitation, is betrayed in Letters. Letters makes evident the possibility that an appropriation of the erotic in a heterosexist society may only end up being revealed as a misappropriation.

Castillo's experimentations with shifting pronouns and appropriative techniques for the purpose of exploring the romantic/erotic does not stop with Tere's letters, however. If we return to the “real beginning” of Letters, we must note that the first letter is to the reader, penned by Castillo. We are directed to undertake a variety of unconventional readings—“The Conformist,” “The Cynic,” and “The Quixotic”—each tailored to our reading needs. We are also given the option to read each of the forty letters separately, as if they were short fiction. We are alerted that we are in for a variety of ironic and parodic plays but we are ignorant of what they might be. In short, the book brings into question our own reading practices, for the apparently unconventional suggested readings actually lead to resolutions that are more conventional than the handful of letters attributed to Tere. Insofar as each suggested reading by Castillo presents us with a resolution, we are handed an ideological nexus (i.e., The Conformist-idyllic conjugal life) that forces us to reconstruct the meaning of Tere's letters as always and already leading in that direction.13 Was that Tere's desired end, or is it The Quixotic, or The Cynic's? If, as readers, we play along with the suggested charts, we are forced to come to terms with the notion that Tere is very much trapped by a variety of ideological nexus that she, and we, need to question and disrupt.

But it is not only our reading and interpretive practices that are in question; Tere's are, too. She constantly shifts voices in an effort to “read” and interpret her own experiences. Which one of the various selves that she explores is she? Is she the vampish one, the docile one, the clever one, the fearful one, the liberated one, or the oppressed one? Insofar as each is connected with her sexuality, she is all of them, and more. Above all, I think she is betrayed by a cultural fabric that presses its images of her upon her, and her response (as well as Castillo's) is to give them all back to us, albeit sardonically. Tere is no longer a sitting duck, as Paz or even “The Three Marias” would have it, but she still inhabits a shooting gallery in which she must wear many a mask to survive and to understand where she has been.

Notes

  1. Ana Castillo, Otro Canto (Chicago: n.p., 1977); The Invitation (Chicago: n.p., 1979; 2d. ed. n.p., 1986) (may be obtained by writing: P.O. Box 163, 3309 Mission St., San Francisco, Calif. 94110); Women Are Not Roses (Houston: Arte Público Press, 1984); The Mixquiahuala Letters (Binghamton, N.Y.: Bilingual Review Press, 1986). All cited pages are from Women Are Not Roses and The Mixquiahuala Letters and shall be indicated in body of text.

  2. For testimonials regarding this predicament, one of the most accessible books is This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color, 2d. ed., ed. Cherríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa (New York: Kitchen Table Press, 1983). Leftist feminists in Latin America encounter similar predicaments when working in a framework of “grassroots” feminism. See Magaly Pineda, “Feminism and Popular Education: A Critical but Necessary Relationship,” Isis International, no. 6 (1986): 111–13.

  3. For the purposes of this essay I have used The Labyrinth of Solitude, trans. Lysander Kemp (New York: Grove Press, 1961); and The Three Marias: New Portuguese Letters, trans. Helen R. Lane (New York: Doubleday, 1975).

  4. Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979), xiii. Sigrid Weigel makes a similar suggestion in her essay “Double Focus: On the History of Women's Writing,” in Feminist Aesthetics, ed. Gisela Ecker, trans. Harriet Anderson (Boston: Beacon Press, 1986), 59–80.

  5. For an excellent discussion of both the political problems and the narrative modes of this book, see Darlene Sadlier, “Form in Novas Cartas Portuguesas,” Novel 19:3 (Spring 1986): 246–63.

  6. Gloria Anzaldúa, “La Conciencia de la Mestiza: Towards a New Consciousness,” in Borderlands: La Frontera, The New Mestiza (San Francisco: Spinster/Aunt Lute, 1987), 77–91.

  7. I am specifically referring to the work of Julia Kristeva, Revolution in Poetic Language, trans. Margaret Waller, intro. Leon S. Roudiez (New York: Columbia University Press, 1984), 59–60; and Desire in Language, ed. Leon S. Roudiez, trans. Thomas Gora, Alice Jardine, and Leon S. Roudiez (New York: Columbia University Press, 1980), 15; as well as the work of M. M. Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination, ed. Michael Holquist, trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981), 259–422.

  8. The use of the small “i” pronoun throughout Letters is disturbing but something other than an affectation. Weigel suggests that to use the “I” in public, women will have to learn to speak “without having first to acknowledge the male definition of their gender role” (see note 4).

  9. Pierre Maranda suggests that “Semantic charters condition our thoughts and emotions. They are culture specific networks that we internalize as we undergo the process of socialization.” Moreover, these charters or signifying systems “have an inertia and a momentum of their own. There are semantic domains whose inertia is high: kinship terminologies, the dogmas of authoritarian churches, the conception of sex roles” (184–85). See his essay “The Dialectic of Metaphor: An Anthropological Essay on Hermeneutics,” in The Reader in the Text: Essays on Audience and Interpretation, ed. Susan R. Suleiman and Inge Corsman (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980), 183–204.

  10. Luce Irigaray, This Sex Which Is Not One, trans. Catherine Porter with Carolyn Burke (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1985), 27.

  11. Ruth Perry discusses at length the enactment of “a self-conscious and self-perpetuating process of emotional self-examination,” as well as the history of the epistolary genre, in her book, Women, Letters, and the Novel (New York: AMS Press, 1980), 117.

  12. Janice A. Radway, Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1984).

  13. Fredric Jameson's commentary on “the kind of reading which attaches itself to finding out how everything turns out in the end” provides a helpful perspective for understanding Castillo's parodic plots. See “The Ideology of the Text,” Salmagundi 31–32 (Fall 1975/Winter 1976): 225.

Margaret Randall (review date September 1989)

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SOURCE: “Many Colored Poets,” in Women's Review of Books, Vol. 6, No. 12, September, 1989, pp. 29–31.

[In the following review, Randall explores the similarities of style and theme among the poems of Paula Gunn Allen, Chrystos, and Castillo.]

… only you, unblessed conqueror,
father of my son, remained ignorant,
boastful of a power you would never own.
You stride the continents of your fool's
          pride
not knowing why it is I, Malinche, whose
          figure
looms large above the tales of your con-
          quests …

(from “Malinalli, La Malinche, to Cortes, Conquistador,” by Paula Gunn Allen)

… In the scars of my knees you can see
children torn from
their families bludgeoned into govern-
          ment schools …
Our sacred beliefs have been made into
          pencils
names of cities gas stations
My knee is wounded so badly that I
          limp constantly
Anger is my crutch I hold myself
          upright with it
          My knee is wounded
               see
                    How I Am Still Walking

(from “I Walk in the History of My People,” by Chrystos)

… Men try to catch my eye. i talk to them
… And they go away.
But women stay. Women like stories.
They like thin arms around their
          shoulders …
Because of the seductive aroma of mole
in my kitchen, and the mysterious
          preparation
of herbs, women tolerate my cigarette
and cognac breath, unmade bed,
and my inability to keep a budget—
in exchange for a promise …
Oh Daddy, with the Chesterfields
rolled up in a sleeve,
you got a woman for a son.

(from “Daddy with Chesterfields in a Rolled Up Sleeve,” by Ana Castillo)

Paula Gunn Allen, recently 50, is a Laguna Pueblo/Sioux/Lebanese woman whose critical work as well as her poetry and fiction have reached a powerful maturity. Born in 1939, she was raised on a Spanish land grant in New Mexico. Her life and work move back and forth between the landscapes of her growing, her culture in its traditions, and the scholarship that has made that heritage a documented resource for us all.

Allen is best known for The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions (Beacon Press, 1985). Before that there was the volume of critical essays and course designs she edited, Studies in American Indian Literature, published in 1983. Her novel, The Woman Who Owned the Shadows (Spinsters' Ink, 1984) reminds us of her great richness with words. Skins and Bones is her sixth book of poems; previous volumes go back to 1975. Allen teaches Native American Studies at the University of California in Berkeley.

Only seven years younger, Chrystos nevertheless probably belongs to the next full generation as this is measured in the literary context. Her work is younger, sung to a different beat. Not Vanishing is her first book of poems. She is also Native American—tribe or tribes unspecified in her book—but unlike Allen, who grew up in a rural landscape, hers is the urban ghetto experience. “I was not born on the reservation,” she warns in a prefatory note, “but in San Francisco, part of a group called ‘Urban Indians’ by the government. I grew up around Black, Latin, Asian & white people … Don't admire what you perceive as our stoicism or spirituality—work for our lives to continue in our own Ways. Despite the books which still appear, even in radical bookstores, we are not Vanishing Americans.”

In some interesting ways, Chrystos' and Allen's lives have moved in opposite directions: Chrystos left the life of a cityscape ghetto for Bainbridge Island in the state of Washington, where she's been living and writing for the past ten years. Allen traveled from the land grant country of northern New Mexico to California's Bay Area.

Ana Castillo, slightly younger than Chrystos (though not by enough writing years to constitute a different generation), comes from a Chicago tradition similar to the one that produced the wonderful Mexican-American writer Sandra Cisneros. Castillo's several previous books of verse go back to 1977 (Otro Canto), and her novel The Mixquiahuala Letters (1966) brought her critical acclaim as “a leading Chicana voice.” Like Cisneros, she writes powerfully out of the Mexican-American culture of her youth. Her use of Spanish, however, is a much more central element in her work.

Two poets from two very different American Indian backgrounds and one Mexican-American from Chicago, all three women share a lesbian identity. Although the current crop of strong women writers are certainly not all lesbians, I would argue that lesbians are authoring a particularly powerful and often cohesive cultural creativity. In the three books under review, the explicitly sexual lesbian identity is forceful in Chrystos' work, an underlying presence in Castillo's, and simply a part of the fabric of Allen's world view.

These are all poems of identity: moving back in time, conjuring, inventing, reclaiming memory and using it powerfully. And these are statements of identity by three important women poets of color. These poets' voices are as different as Williams' is from Eliot's, and it is distressing that they will probably be lumped by more than one promoter of our many-peopled culture under the category “women of color.”

In “Of Color: What's in a Name?” (Sojourner, February, 1989), Vivienne Louise reminds us that “women … classified under the term ‘of color’ are members of distinct ethnicities. We are African, Asian, Latin, Native Americans … to align simply along lines of oppression is weak glue for self-affirmation.” Ana Castillo illustrates Louise's point. In “We Would Like You to Know” she writes

we are not all brown.
Genetic history has made
some of us blue eyed as any
German immigrant
and as black as a descendant
of an African slave.
We never claimed to be
a homogeneous race …
We are not all victims, all loyal to one
          cause,
all perfect; it is a
psychological dilemma
no one has resolved …

(“We Would Like You to Know,” pp. 67–68)

Or from Chrystos' “I Am Not Your Princess”:

Sandpaper between two cultures which
          tear
one another apart I'm not
a means by which you can reach
          spiritual understanding or even
learn to do beadwork …
Look at me
See my confusion   loneliness   fear
          worrying about all our
struggles to keep what little is left for us
… I'm scraped
I'm blessed with life while so many I've
          known are dead
… See my simple cracked hands which
          have washed the same things
you wash …

(pp. 66–67)

In this poem, like many in Not Vanishing, there is righteous anger and a plea for a common meeting place.

In her moving effort to retrieve a spurned history, Paula Gunn Allen begins her collection with “Songs of Tradition” and moves through “Songs of Colonization” and “Songs of Generation.” We have learned to expect such attention to history from this author of The Sacred Hoop. I found the poems in the first section, “C'koy'u, Old Woman,” the most provocative and exciting. They comprise a deeply female journey in the tradition of Muriel Rukeyser, Jane Cooper and Adrienne Rich, whose work has brought so many of our foremothers to life. Allen's sense of history also moves along a road cleared by the likes of Uruguayan Eduardo Galeano in his trilogy Genesis of Fire.

And Allen takes on difficult foremothers. She explores complex figures like La Malinche, Pocahontas and Sacagawea, by beginning with images of their lives prefaced by short passages from more often heard male voices. Then her renditions take off on their own, free of sweetened metaphor or an urge to turn it all to right. Listen to these lines, from “Molly Brant, Iroquois Matron, Speaks”:

… But
we had forgotten the Elder's Plan.
So it was we could not know
a Council Fire would be out,
… We had not counted on fate—
so far from the Roots of our being
had we flown …
That's how it is with revolutions.
Wheels turn. So do planets.
Stars turn. So do galaxies.
Mortals see only this lifetime
or that. How could we know,
bound to the borders we called home,
the Revolution we conspired for
would turn us under
like last year's crop? …
I speak now because I know
the Revolution has not let up.
Others like my brother and like me
conspire with other dreams,
argue whether or not
to blow earth up, or poison it mortally
or settle for alteration …
Still, let them obliterate it, I say.
What do I care?
What have I to lose,
having lost all I loved so long ago?
Aliens, aliens everywhere,
and so few of the People
left to dream. All that is left
is not so precious after all—
great cities, piling drifting clouds
of burning death, waters that last drew
          breath
decades, perhaps centuries ago,
fourleggeds, wingeds, reptiles all
drowned in bloodred rivers of an alien
          dream
of progress. Progress is what
they call it. I call it cemetery,
charnel house, soul sickness,
artificial mockery
of what we called life.

(pp. 10–13)

Skins and Bones is filled with lost history, wisdom and humor. Poems like “Eve the Fox,” “Taking a Visitor to See the Ruins” and “Teaching Poetry at Votech High, Santa Fe, the Week John Lennon Was Shot” offer a particular mix of American Indian humor with the raw context from which it emerges; and the joke only superficially provides a cover for the serious statement even as it salts our lips for more.

The ruins of the second poem are not ancient Indian dwellings but Allen's family:

                    Joe, I said when we'd gotten inside the
chic apartment,
                    I'd like you to meet the old Indian ruins
                    I promised.
                    My mother, Mrs. Francis, and my
                              grandmother, Mrs. Gottlieb.
                    His eyes grew large, and then he
                              laughed …

(p.22)

Ana Castillo's use of Spanish, Chicago street lingo and English in My Father Was a Toltec is exciting and—forerunners notwithstanding—absolutely new. “Electra Currents” reads in full:

Llegué a tu mundo
sin invitación
sin esperanza
me nombraste por
una canción.
Te fuiste
a emborrachar.

(p. 4)

I would translate this: “I came to your world / without invitation, / without hope / You named me for a song. / You went out and got drunk.” In Castillo's book there is no translation, as there is none for much of the new Hispanic poetry. I can only assume that this is because these poets wish we would make the effort, in deciphering their work, that millions of Spanish speakers in this country must make to read our English texts.

Energy: if I were limited to one, perhaps that's the word I would use to define Castillo's voice. Much of Castillo's energy—the impulse that infuses her poetry—comes, I think, from her intense movement through language and languages. Like Allen, she uses history—a much more recent history, to be sure—in the organization of these poems. The Toltecs was a street gang to which Castillo's father belonged. The book's first section is called “The Toltec,” and the poet's identity is assumed and redefined within it. In the sections “La Heredera” and “Ixtacihuatl Died in Vain,” Castillo searches for fore-mothers. And the book ends with the poems of “In My Country,” where the various threads pull together.

Castillo's snapshot images are wonderful: “Saturdays,” all that goes into “Daddy with Chesterfields in a Rolled Up Sleeve.” “Woman of Marrakech,” “Encuentros,” “Mi Comadre Me Aconseja,” “Traficante, Too” and many more. From “A Christmas Gift for the President of the United States, Chicano Poets, and a Marxist or Two I've Known in My Time,” the following is for me the perfect response to the Alan Blooms who would crush literary relevance:

Rape is not a poem.
Incest does not rhyme.
Nor the iridescent blue labor
of the placenta that follows
giving birth. These are not thoughts
great books have withstood time for,
so unlike the embellishment of war
or man's melancholy at being
neither earth nor heaven bound.
My verses have no legitimacy.
A white woman inherits
her father's library,
her brother's friends. Privilege
gives language that escapes me.
Past my Nahua eyes
and Spanish surname, English syntax
makes its way to my mouth
with the grace of a clubbed foot.

(pp. 52–53)

From the masterful long work, “For Jean Rhys”:

… He talked throughout the night, gave
                    300 pages
of his unwritten memoir:
the stint
in military school,
narrow escape
from the Jesuits,
the uncle sent to Siberia,
and the present wife,
whom he first loved
in dreams.
She hardly edged in a word
like the last body in the metro
before the train goes off.
She smoked his cigarettes and
drank the bordeaux,
all the while, not losing sight
(in that practical manner
he so obviously detests)
that she was only there
due to circumstances.
At last, calculated sighs, even tears
punctuated with a “Well?”
to heighten the drama.
“Well what?” she replies.
“Well, will you have sex
with me or not?”
Well,
she could have gone to a park
sought asylum in a police station:
“I've been robbed.”
100 report forms, the sun up
she'd go out to mix with the crowd.
All she needs is sleep,
in a safe place …

(pp. 30–31)

Of the three poets, Chrystos' range of inquiry and denunciation/annunciation is the broadest. With Castillo, she shares a mixing of Spanish and English, and although Castillo's exploration of linguistic possibilities is more inventive, Chrystos also sometimes virtually creates another language born of her particular use of both. The organization of Not Vanishing is very different from the other two books; as the table of contents announces, the poems are “arranged in roughly chronological order, in the pace of one of my readings.”

“You Can't Get Good Help These Daze,” “I Walk in the History of My People,” “The Silver Window,” “Bag Lady,” “White Girl Don't” and “Water” are among the truly memorable pieces in this book. “Yesterday He Called Her a Pig” is a love poem:

he's a white man / she's Black
she's his boss / he was egged on by some
          politically correct
white lesbians
it's better to avoid the subject of colors
Today I swept her floor   washed her
          sheets
cleaned her kitchen   bought food
arranged a bouquet of bright
red carnations
I love her   want to be an eraser for her
Bear her insult   more insults
I let in light
put her books in a careful stack beside
          the bed
brought flowers
it didn't help.

(p.22)

Much of Chrystos' attention is aimed at the system's quick catalogue artist or the well-meaning liberal. She deflates our faulted conclusions with deep insight:

They call Indians & Negroes a thief. Now one of these people they stole from their own country & the other one they stole their own country from. Now you tell me who is the thief? WHO is the thief? & lazy! HA! I never seen nothing lazier than a white man. Even built a machine to sharpen knives. Ridiculous. Some spit & a stone is all you need. Listen, I've cleaned white houses since I was 15 & I'll tell you nobody is lazier. They'll vomit in a sink & not even bother to rinse it down. Wait for the cleaning woman to come. I spit at them. Yes I do. Sit everyday on Fifth & Pine & I spit at them going by. They ACT like I'm not there but you'll notice they stay out of my range …

(“Bag Lady,” p. 64)

It's an honor to be able to review and recommend books like these three. We need these voices like our old/new world, as we need air, struggle, change.

Alvina E. Quintana (essay date 1991)

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SOURCE: “Ana Castillo's The Mixquiahuala Letters: The Novelist as Ethnographer,” in Criticism in the Borderlands: Studies in Chicano Literature, Culture, and Ideology, Duke University Press, 1991, pp. 73–83.

[In the following essay, Quintana finds The Mixquiahuala Letters to be a study of the cultural liberation of Chicanas.]

Personal narrative mediates this contradiction between the engagement called for in fieldwork and the self-effacement called for in formal ethnographic description, or at least mediates some of its anguish, by inserting into the ethnographic text the authority of the personal experience out of which the ethnography is made.

—Mary Louise Pratt (1986)

In recent years the academy has been shaken by a significant shift in scholarly concerns which raises provocative questions regarding the politics of representation. By addressing problems in the Western intellectual tradition, cultural critics have uncovered what has come to be thought of as a crisis in representation. Giving rise to such subjects as the objectification of women and other minorities, their debates challenged theories of interpretation. Mary Louise Pratt's quote resonates with a self-critical mode characteristic of the present moment in history, a moment in which dominant ideas and assumptions are problematized because of their ideological implications. While illustrating how questions raised in this time of reassessment have been appropriated by modern anthropological discourse, Pratt also reveals how some anthropologists have begun to question their own practices. She is, in fact with her treatise, deconstructing the ethnographic process, as she sharpens her focus on the concept of ethnographic authority, questioning the notion of objectivity. When we consider Pratt's assertions concerning personal narrative and formal ethnographic description, it becomes evident that we must also reevaluate the authority of personal experience. For in classical anthropological terms:

Ethnography is a research process in which the anthropologist closely observes, records, and engages in the daily life of another culture—an experience labeled as the fieldwork method—and then writes accounts of this culture, emphasizing descriptive detail. These accounts are the primary form in which fieldwork procedures, the other culture, and the ethnographer's personal and theoretical reflections are accessible to professionals and other readerships.

(Marcus and Fischer 1986, 18)

Pratt's voice is but one of many which have begun to question ethnographic authority, reflecting on the relationship between personal narrative and “formal ethnographic description.” We can view her approach as one which developed in dialectical relationship to a re-envisioning process that was initiated by Clifford Geertz's The Interpretation of Cultures (1973). What Geertz called for in his text was a reassessment of the ethnographic field-work process—a process he still thinks of as objective, though symbolic and interpretive in nature. Pratt, on the other hand, suggests that the representation of culture involves a creative and interpretive mode of writing which reflects the subjective experiences of the ethnographer.

Although Geertz and Pratt connect the symbolic and interpretive quality of ethnographic writing, it is Pratt who implies that ethnographies are never simply ethnographies but rather “ethnographies for,” written in the interest of the dominant culture. But as dominant culture is a value-laden term which signifies a point of view that has been traditionally dominated by a male perspective, as both the tradition of novel writing by men and traditional ethnography have functioned to systematically marginalize or “other” women, we begin to see the ideological limitations of both of these narrative forms. And once we apprehend that ethnographies are merely interpretations, we must determine the extent to which these interpretations or detailed descriptions can qualify as factual and objective documentations. Following this line of inquiry brings forth an interesting paradox concerning the creative, interpretive process. Is it possible to develop a discourse that is both interpretive and objective? Because the relationship between interpretation and subjectivity is a blurred one, it would seem that the anthropologist's method for observing and documenting the “daily life of another culture” could easily be viewed as subjective literary production. In George Marcus's and Michael Fischer's terms (1986) ethnography becomes a personal and imaginative vehicle by which anthropologists provide cultural critiques rather than objective representations.

What becomes evident at this point in our inquiry is the relationship between imaginary writing and ethnography as a written product. Both forms of writing reflect limited ways of seeing the world; both are influenced by social conditions and the ideology of a particular historical moment. In this light it is interesting to think about feminist writers of fiction, who, much like an anthropologist, might focus on microcosms within a culture, unpacking rituals in the context of traditional symbolic and social structures of subjugation. Yet unlike both the conventional anthropologist and the classical Chicano writer of fiction, the Chicana feminist is also interested in scrutinizing the assumptions that root her own cultural influences, unpacking so-called tradition and political institutions that shape patriarchal ways of seeing. Even though the Chicano narrative has always had some cultural context, focusing on the ethnic identification process by redefining past traditions as the work of Tomás Rivera, Américo Paredes, and Oscar Zeta Acosta illustrates, it has for the most part overlooked issues that revolve around female gender identification.

The Mixquiahuala Letters (1986) is a postmodernist, Chicana feminist novel that reflects the historical forces of the eighties, as well as an incredible diversity of concerns, literary and otherwise, from what has been previously recognized and legitimized by canonical structures. What I want to explore is not so much the pervasive ramifications of an American literary canon, which serves to reify social injustice and inequality as it suppresses the nature and development of the experiences of people of color, but rather how a close reading of The Mixquiahuala Letters reveals Ana Castillo's attempt to retaliate, by striking out against the limitations created by canonical structures. Castillo's novel functions as an oppositional feminist discourse that challenges the limitations inherent in both Anglo-American and Mexican culture. Certainly, feminist literary criticism has helped to expose the limitations of a canon which fails to equitably represent the nature and development of “white” women in America. But when we consider how mainstream feminist theory has likewise, because of its failure to appraise race and class oppression, helped to perpetuate white middle-class values, it seems to me that we can deem Chicana feminist creative writings as emancipatory cultural formations, that are either in alternative or oppositional relationship to Anglo-American feminist discourse.

Chicano culture draws on two external forces and has been labelled by anthropologists as a “creole culture” because it is one which draws on two or more origins: (1) a long-standing culture one is born into, and (2) a culture in terms of its social and political forces in the immediate environment. Both of these points of origin are limiting for Chicanas in that neither addresses gender issues. The Chicana writer is thus engaged in mediating and negotiating between two cultural systems, constructing a cultural and feminist identity as she works to deconstruct the predominantly male cultural paradigms that have worked to suppress a female perspective. Following this train of thought, Chicana literature functions as a bold cultural intervention, which ironically enough resembles what we have come to respect as interpretive or experimental ethnography. I want to begin my study by juxtaposing the words of two cultural critics, Clifford Geertz and Ana Castillo:

There is no such thing as human nature independent of culture.

(Geertz 1973)

There was a definite call to find a place to satisfy my yearning spirit, the Indian in me that had begun to cure the ails of humble folk distrustful of modern medicine; a need for the sapling woman for the fertile earth that nurtured her growth.

(Castillo 1986)

Geertz and Castillo, though utilizing different discourses directed to different audiences, raise similar issues concerning culture and human nature. Geertz's comments are drawn from his rather elaborate discussion on culture in chapter 1 of The Interpretation of Cultures. He contends that humans are like animals suspended in the “webs of significance” they themselves have spun. An analysis of these webs should not be viewed as an experimental science in search of law but rather as an interpretative search for meaning. If humans are suspended within cultural webs, it seems obvious that “there can be no such thing as human nature independent of culture.” Geertz's ideas, taken out of their anthropological context, seem innocent enough, but we must remember that he is speaking as an ethnographer, speaking in terms of “the Other” and so-called “primitive culture.” If we consciously avoid the subtle trappings of this hierarchical way of seeing, his metaphor can also be used to describe the self-fashioning process marginal ethnic groups undertake in the United States, as they attempt to create an existence, drawing from not one but two distinct cultural systems. It is important to note that Geertz's views on culture and his notion of interpretive analysis (thick description as he calls it) have been appropriated by many feminist scholars, since the feminist analysis of women's culture also involves decoding and interpreting many of the same systems with which traditional anthropologists are concerned (i.e., gender relations, kinship, sexuality, taboos, etc.).

Castillo's words are different than Geertz's in that they are taken from a work of fiction—The Mixquiahuala Letters. She makes no claims of factualism, but states rather explicitly early on that her text is fiction, and that “Any resemblance it may have to actual persons or incidents is coincidental” (Introduction, n.p.). Even so, it is clear in the above passage that as a creative writer, she, like Geertz, is grappling with the influence of an elusive, but powerful, cultural force. It becomes clear to Castillo's readers that her protagonist's existential well-being is dependent on culture. When we carry forward Geertz's semiotic concept of culture and evaluate the ethnographic writings of traditional anthropologists as representations based on individual interpretations, it becomes difficult to qualify them as objective, factual accounts of reality. Once we admit that these cultural representations should also be viewed as a mixture of descriptive and interpretive modes of discourse, the gap between imaginary and ethnographic writing shrinks before our eyes as both forms of writing are reduced to a particular way of seeing the world. And as such, we can see that Castillo, like Geertz, is involved in the process of describing and interpreting culture.

But aside from what appears to be a somewhat natural affinity, these two quotes are also interesting because on a broader level, they illustrate the vast difference in objective and subjective writing. Geertz, in the straightforward language of an “authority,” states that all human nature is influenced by culture. In contrast, Castillo's language, more personal in tone, elaborates on Geertz's comments regarding the significance of culture. As they bring to life a rather academic yet direct observation, her words seem to embroider Geertz's by illustrating why or how his thoughts might be applied in the real world of subjective experiences. With her words she has in effect grounded his theory in practice. In the final analysis it is evident that each quote seems to grow in insight when juxtaposed to the other. This grounding of theory with practice becomes relevant when we begin to consider the rather abstract subject: the Chicana writers' quest for self-definition.

Put simply, the process of fashioning any kind of marginal identity (whether it be Chicana, feminist, or hyphenated American) involves a series of negotiations and mediations between the past and the future—a past and a future which for the Chicana is culturally explosive in terms of women's experiences and historical implications because, at this point in history, she attempts to define herself as she maneuvers between two opposing realities that fail to acknowledge her existence. Chicanas are not represented, but instead fall into the category of structured absences in both Chicano and Anglo feminist ideologies. Because of the Chicana's positioning between the Chicano and Anglo feminist postures, she is faced with the task of formulating an ideology, an identity out of two plans: the nostalgic plan of the past and the stereotypical Anglo feminist plan for the future. The nostalgic past refers to the idealization of old customs, largely a patriarchal interpretation of Mexican cultural traditions and history. The limitations of this plan are obvious when compared to the barriers created by an Anglo-American feminist movement which has, for the most part, failed to acknowledge female differences based on culture and ethnicity. It is because of this movement's failure to acknowledge differences that Anglo-American feminist theory has provided Chicanas with more of a mirage than a vehicle for understanding or change. The Mixquiahuala Letters illustrates Chicanas caught between these two polarities, moving closer to self-discovery by drawing and synthesizing usable aspects from both Anglo and Mexican cultures, weaving a complicated present out of the past and future options. The novel centers on the marginal experiences of two friends, Teresa and Alicia, as they live and travel through Mexico and the United States. By representing the daily activities of these two women, Castillo is able to reveal exactly what is at risk when an invisible entity attempts to define itself out of the structured omissions of two oppositional ideologies.

Stephen Greenblatt's Renaissance Self-Fashioning (1980) is useful for conceptualizing the Chicana's self-definition process. Although his discussion focuses on self-fashioning in Renaissance literature, it provides a workable method for analyzing the Chicana's struggle for self-identification. It is because of the clear distinctions he makes between self-fashioning in upper and marginal classes that his approach becomes useful to our inquiry. He states that for marginal classes:

Self-fashioning is achieved in relation to something perceived as alien, strange, or hostile … ; self-fashioning always involves some experience of threat some effacement or undermining, some loss of self … ; we may say that self-fashioning occurs at the point of encounter between an authority and an alien, that what is produced in this encounter partakes of both the authority and the alien that is marked for attack, and hence that way achieved identity always contains within itself the signs of its own subversion or loss.

(1980, 9)

Greenblatt's discourse emphasizes the issues involved when marginals (“aliens” as he calls them) seek to obtain an autonomous status created by self-identification. When we consider Greenblatt's analysis, we can see how the Chicanas' self-fashioning “always involves some experience of threat” or “some loss of self.” Castillo's protagonist, Teresa, speaks of such a loss when she reflects on her relationship to Mexico in letter number nineteen: “Mexico. Melancholy, profoundly right and wrong, it embraces as it strangulates. Destiny is not a metaphysical confrontation with one's self rather, society has knit its pattern so tight that a confrontation with it is inevitable” (59). Teresa's words reveal that she understands that her destiny as a woman is not determined through a confrontation with herself, but rather through a confrontation with a society that holds the very real threat of restricting, silencing, and marginalizing women. In letter number thirteen, Teresa refers to another threat, while at the same time revealing her attitudes about Anglo women. She writes to Alicia:

why i hated white women and sometimes didn't like you:
Society had made them above all possessions
the most desired. And they believed it.
My husband admitted feeling inferior to them. …
i hated
white women who took black pimps
everyone knows savages have bestial members
i hated

white women who preferred Latins and Mediterraneans because of the fusion of hot and cold blood running through the very core of their erections and nineteenth-century romanticism that makes going to bed with them much more challenging than with WASP men who are only good for making money and marrying.

(43)

Teresa's thoughts communicate how she, as an individual, perceives white women as a threat. But when we consider this letter as a symbolic representation of cultural attitudes, it tells us something basic about the Chicana woman's experience. Yet her reference to her husband's admission of feeling inferior to them illustrates how the threat created by white women moves beyond gender distinctions. With this letter Castillo has unmasked one of the ideological limitations of Anglo feminist theory, a feminism with little concern for issues of race, class, or culture. It becomes apparent in Teresa's letter that the subordination and control of “women of color” is further complicated when white women are elevated to the status of “most desirable”: as a backlash to this white privilege, women of color, regardless of their gender, are relegated to a subordinate position with respect to white women, simply because the standards for desirability are based on light skin beauty. And once we consider the structured absences in feminist theory, Chicana autonomy becomes a critical issue that cannot be overlooked.

For Greenblatt autonomy, though important, does not represent the central issue. What is crucial here is the power one has to impose a shape upon oneself, a power to control one's identity. He, like Geertz and, for that matter, many Chicano writers, argues that the interplay between external forces is what determines self-fashioning. His discussion reinforces the need to understand the external forces that will ultimately affect the Chicana's self-fashioning process. If we are to carry this discussion further, then we must consider these “external forces” and the implications involved whenever Chicanas attempt to define themselves in cultural and feminist terms. The issues I wish to address, therefore, focus specifically on how The Mixquiahuala Letters negotiates and mediates between the external forces which encompass time and space as well as the past and future.

Chicana critic Norma Alarcón conceives of Chicana poets as “umpires” mediating between a past Chicano patriarchal interpretation of culture, which holds the potential for locking them into “crippling traditional stereotypes,” and a future that can be equally limiting within an “Anglo-American feminist promise” (1985). In The Mixquiahuala Letters, Ana Castillo has moved beyond her role as poet “umpire” into the position of modern (experimental) ethnographer, as she has produced a personal narrative which mediates between objective and subjective narratives, thereby overcoming what James Clifford has identified as anthropology's “impossible attempt to fuse objective and subjective practices” (1986, 109). The significance of Clifford's point becomes clearer when we consider Eric Wolf's thoughts on fieldwork in Europe and the People Without History (1982):

Fieldwork—direct communication with people and participant observation of their on-going activities … became a hallmark of anthropological method. Fieldwork has proved enormously fruitful in laying bare and correcting false assumptions and erroneous descriptions. It has also revealed hitherto unsuspected connections among sets of social activities and cultural forms. Yet the very success of the method lulled its users into a false confidence. It became easy for them to convert merely heuristic considerations of method into theoretical postulates about society and culture.

(13)

Indeed, if we consider The Mixquiahuala Letters as a personal narrative that mediates between objective and subjective practices, we can envision—as I have argued elsewhere (1988)—examining the social sciences and literature together to set the stage for a more inclusive type of theorizing. In other words, once we make one minor adjustment and move toward an interdisciplinary approach, anthropology's impossibilities appear to become possibilities. Likewise, when we consider Castillo's text as a mediation between objective and subjective practices, the imaginary, fictive content of this novel seems to transcend its form. Once we are able to make this leap in consciousness, opening rather than closing our respective discourses, the limitations created by our fragmented visions quickly begin to dissipate.

Because Castillo's epistolary novel consists of letters that systematically observe, record and describe experiences that take place in the daily life of Mexican and American culture—a process we have previously described as the fieldwork method—we can read it as a parody of modern ethnographic and travel writing. It is interesting to note that Castillo's process of textual production is somewhat suggestive of Linda Hutcheon's A Theory of Parody (1985). Drawing from the double etymology of the prefix para she concludes: “on a pragmatic level parody was not limited to producing a ridiculous effect [para as ‘counter’ or against], but that the equally strong suggestion of complicity and accord [para as ‘beside’] allowed for an opening up of the range of parody. This distinction between prefix meaning, has been used to argue for the existence of both comic and serious types of parody” (53).

As a parody of modern ethnography, Castillo's text becomes an enterprise that provides the voices and experiences involved in growing up Chicana, revealing in Wolf's words “unsuspected connections among sets of social activities and cultural forms.” Like an ethnographer, Castillo uses the voice of her informant, Teresa, to focus on what is at risk when a Chicana attempts to fashion an identity in response to two opposing cultures. In letter number four, Teresa foregrounds the Catholic church's enormous influence on young women as the institution molds individual Mexican/Chicana identity into a cultural model that promotes women's passivity and guilt. She writes:

Alicia,


Do you know the smell of a church? Not a storefront, praise the Lord, hallelujah church, or a modest frame building with a simple steeple projecting to the all heavens, but a CATHEDRAL, with doors the height of two very tall men and so heavy that when you pull one open to enter you feel as small as you are destined.


You were never led by the hand as a little girl by a godmother, or tugged by the ear by a nun whose dogmatic instruction initiated you into humility which is quite different from baptism when you were anointed with water as a squirming baby in the event that you should die and never see God face-to-face because you had not been cleansed of the sin of your parents' copulation.


It smells of incense, hot oils, the wax of constant burning candles, melting at a vigilant pace, the plaster of an army of saints watching with fixed glass eyes, revered in exchange for being mediators and delivering your feeble prayers. It smells of flowers and palms that precede Easter. It smells of death. The last time i went to CHURCH, genuflecting my way to the confessional, i was eighteen years old.


i was a virgin, technically speaking, a decent girl, having been conditioned to put my self-respect before curiosity. This did not satisfy the priest, or should i say, stimulate his stagnant duty in that dark closet of anonymity and appointed judgement.


He began to probe. When that got him no titillating results, he suggested, or more precisely, led an interrogation founded on gestapo technique. When i didn't waiver under the torment, although feeling my knees raw, air spare, he accused outright: “Are you going to tell me you haven't wanted to be with a man? You must have let one do more than … than what?


i ran out of the booth in tears and in a rage, left the CHURCH without waiting to hear my penance for absolution of my unforgivable sins.

(24–25)

Her emotional narrative describes religious rituals that have limited the development of a feminist political consciousness. Her thoughts on religion also resonate with the powerful words of Chicana feminist and social activist Cherríe Moraga:

Women of color have always known, although we have not always wanted to look at it, that our sexuality is not merely a physical response or drive, but holds a crucial relationship to our entire spiritual capacity. Patriarchal religions—whether brought to us by the colonizer's cross and gun or emerging from our own people—have always known this. Why else would the female body be so associated with sin and disobedience? Simply put, if the spirit and sex have been linked in our oppression, then they must also be linked in the strategy toward our liberation.

(1983, 132)

Castillo uses the epistolary form as a vehicle, enabling her to move freely from one issue to another, from one country to another as she describes the relationship between the sexes. But more importantly, it is the epistolary from which gives her the flexibility to describe the differences between the way women are viewed in the United States and Mexico. In an entry devoted to recollections about her experiences in Veracruz, Teresa recalls a conversation she had with Ponce, a Mexican engineer:

He began, “I think you are a ‘liberal woman.’ Am I correct?” His expression meant to persuade me that it didn't matter what I replied. In the end he would win. He would systematically strip away all my pretexts, reservations, and defenses, and end up in bed with me.


In that country, the term “liberated woman” meant something other than what we had strived for back in the United States. In this case it simply meant a woman who would sleep nondiscriminately with any man who came along. I inhaled deeply from the strong cigarette he had given me and released the smoke in the direction of his face which diminished the sarcastic expression.

(73)

In postmodernist fashion Castillo provides her readers with a pastiche of what has been a nearly invisible section of Chicano culture. Her fragmented approach is a powerful tool that enables her to negotiate and mediate as she probes the female psyche. Her style reflects the influence and power of many of Latin America's greatest writers. And because of this it comes as no surprise that she dedicates her novel “in memory of the master of the game, Julio Cortázar” (Introduction, n. p.).

Following Cortázar, Castillo is also a mistress of play, an author who seems to intuitively understand the issues at stake when providing a puzzlelike narrative. The text comes to life as a series of games revolving around courtship, wit, and women. In the opening letter to the reader, Castillo playfully suggests three proposed readings of her novel: “It is the author's duty to alert the reader that this is not a book to be read in the usual sequence. All letters are numbered to aid in following any one of the author's proposed options: For the Conformist; For the Cynic; For the Quixotic” (“Dear Reader,” n. p.). She closes by including a message “For the reader committed to nothing but short fiction, all the letters read as separate entities. Good luck whichever journey you choose!” Castillo forces her readers to select a sequence; the interpretation of an itinerary through her text is in fact left open to them. By taking this step she has managed to release her readers from what could be referred to as her personal biases or subjective interpretations. Castillo's narrative strategy aimed at releasing her readers from a prescribed reading, encourages them to become active participants in her text. Umberto Eco's concept of the “open work” is reminiscent of Castillo's process of textual production.

[i] “open works,” insofar as they are in movement, are characterized by the invitation to make the work together with the author and [ii] on a wider level [as a subgenus in the species “work in movement”] there exist works, which though organically completed, are “open” to a continuous generation of internal relations which the addressee must uncover and select in his act of perceiving the totality of incoming stimuli. [iii] Every work of art, even though it is produced by following an explicit poetics of necessity, is effectively open to a virtually unlimited range of possible readings, each of which causes the work to acquire a new vitality in terms of one particular taste, or perspective, or personal performance.

(1979, 63)

Castillo's use of the “open work” structure allows her to become an active participant in her own novel. She is in this way not only mediating between “personal narrative” and “objective description,” but also between her role as author and her role as reader. It is through this mediation process, as an aside to the reader, that she raises questions regarding the issue of authority and interpretation, an issue which has become problematic in the disciplines of history and anthropology. We could very easily think of Castillo's text as meta-ethnography.

Thus Castillo's novel functions as a linguistic artifact that does more to inform readers about the Chicana's struggle for self-definition than many of the contemporary theoretical efforts, which because of their failure to consider race, ethnicity, and class as variables have produced ineffective, one-dimensional paradigms. In The Mixquiahuala Letters Castillo attempts to retaliate against social injustice and inequality by documenting what is at risk when the Chicana defies authority in order to break away from the stagnant traditions and ideals that smother and suppress female desire. She explores the female psyche—the unspeakable, unveiling secrets and taboos in language that are profound and whimsical, perverse and waggish. Ultimately, the text can be read as a revolt against order, which eloquently illustrates why it is essential for feminists to expose and thereby destroy the power of any outside or foreign “authority” by creating a space for themselves. The novel reveals how subjective experiences provide relevant strands of information, which are essential to creating a space that is fundamental to the Chicana's self-definition process. In this way Castillo's epistolary novel (like mainstream feminist theory) is effective in simultaneously marking out women as special selves and claiming, in Marilyn Strathern's words, “that knowledge of the self as such can come only from acknowledging this special nature” (1984, 22).

Yvonne Yarbro-Bejarano (essay date Spring 1992)

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SOURCE: “The Multiple Subject in the Writing of Ana Castillo,” in Americas Review, Vol. 20, No. 1, Spring, 1992, pp. 65–72.

[In the following essay, Yarbro-Bejarano comments on the three perspectives often used in Castillo's works. Castillo writes alternately in first-, second-, and third-person perspective, but because of her experiences in a multi-ethnic world, her first-person writing style has a myriad of voices.]

In her book Borderlands/La frontera: The New Mestiza, Gloria Anzaldúa speaks of the political reality of the U.S./Mexican border and also of the psychological, sexual and spiritual borderlands that form “wherever two or more cultures edge each other, where people of different races occupy the same territory, where under, lower, middle and upper classes touch, where the space between two individuals shrinks with intimacy.”1 These borderlands are not only external but internal, marking out the rifts and splits of our “shifting and multiple identity.” My use of the term “borderlands” to refer to the multiple subjectivity constructed in Castillo's texts responds to a need to delve into the writings of Chicanas themselves for the theoretical tools with which to analyze their work. As we enter the 1990's, we are faced with the appropriation and mis-appropriation of the discourse on difference. Some ramifications of this mis-appropriation are the use of the term “difference” or “women of color” as a euphemism for culture which erases differences of power and experiences of racism that led to the political identification of women of color as women of color in the first place. Or the proliferation of differences, for example including “career choice” or “individuality” among race, class, culture and sexual practice, as if any difference is as good or innocent as any other difference. This collapsing of orders of difference in such a way as to depoliticize it, this talk of difference with no talk of racism or power makes the term function as a synonym for the Other, other and different because not the same, the same as white people. For this reason it is important to search for alternative strategies to “difference,” ones that will not reinscribe women of color in a relationship of otherness to the dominant Same.

In her article “The Theoretical Subject(s) of This Bridge Called My Back and Anglo-American Feminism,” Norma Alarcón theorizes the construction of the Chicana subject across and through a multiplicity of discourses in relation to the unified female subject of much white feminist theory.2 My project here is to explore the artistic strategies that construct this multiple subject in three texts by Ana Castillo. Castillo's subjects enact the “border” or “mestiza consciousness” of which Anzaldúa speaks. Her texts open up what Homi Bhabha calls a space of “translation,” “neither the one nor the Other,” a third space of flux and negotiation between colonized and colonizer.3 These subjects speak from a multiplicity of positions that at times compliment and at times contradict one another. Their subjectivity is a weave of differences, contradictory and potentially transformative.

While this multiple subject recalls that of postmodern theory, Guillermo Gómez Peña of the Border Arts Workshop noted its historical specificity when he said “we've always had postmodern, only ours was involuntary.” As Alarcón points out, many of the positions from which the Chicana subject speaks are occupied in relation to racial, class and cultural conflicts and divisions. Aida Hurtado, in her article “Relating to Privilege: Seduction and Rejection in the Subordination of White Women and Women of Color,” reminds us that the median income for women of Mexican descent in the U.S. is $4,556, that of white women $15,575.4 In Castillo's writing Chicanas struggle to understand themselves in relation to what Alarcón calls a “multiplicity of others”—the individual women and men of their culture and of other cultures as well as entire racial, class and cultural groups. To see the consciousness of these subjects as what Alarcón calls “the site of multiple voicings” is necessarily to see their establishment in a context of domination and resistance.

The three texts I would like to consider are the epistolary novel The Mixquiahuala Letters, 1986; Castillo's second novel Sapogonia, 1990; and her latest book of poetry My Father Was a Toltec, 1988. Although Sapogonia appeared in print after Toltec, it was finished long before work on Toltec was completed, and this is the order in which I prefer to discuss the texts.5

The speaking/writing subject of The Mixquiahuala Letters occupies the borderlands between the U.S. and Mexico, the third space of translation and negotiation Chicanos inhabit between the violence of racism in the U.S. and the violence of rejection as “pochos” in Mexico. While the journey to Mexico as idealized homeland appears in other Chicano narratives. Castillo's text reveals the gender specificity of this experience. Not only is Teresa viewed as a “pocha,” she is perceived as sexually available, as whore, because she is traveling “alone” (that is, in the company of another woman, Alicia).

The text also explores the borderlands of sexuality and gender between women and women, and women and men, focusing on the nature of the bond between Teresa and Alicia. Much of their bonding, both positive and negative, is established through their relationships with men and their internalization of various discourses on femininity and sexuality. They compete for men, Alicia perceiving Teresa to be at an advantage as the more traditionally attractive of the two; both are loyally there for the other when one relationship after the other fails. Teresa struggles with the limits set on their relationship by the internalized and real devaluation of women. She saves Alicia from threatened rape, in spite of her knowing “there is little in the end i can do. i have a vagina too” (78). She would like to convince Alicia of her beauty, which she praises in the homoerotic Letter 14, but knows hearing it from Teresa would not help: “They were only the words of another woman” (46).

Although their relationship is described as a “love affair,” not devoid of homoerotic attraction, other barriers rise up in the borderlands of race, culture and class and combine with those related to gender and sexuality to prevent the establishment of real intimacy between the two women. Letter 13 begins “Alicia, why i hated white women and sometimes didn't like you” (43), and ends with the balancing of Alicia's class- and skin-privilege against her perceived inferiority in physical attractiveness. The contradictory positioning of Teresa's subjectivity is seen in the juxtaposition of these two letters. In one she loves Alicia's beauty; in the other she hates her for her privilege and assigns herself superiority on the basis of attractiveness to men.

Teresa feels betrayed by Alicia's ignorance of Mexican culture that places the women at times in physical jeopardy, as in Letter 23. Teresa's betrayal of Alicia also has to do with cultural difference. Teresa “lies” to Alicia, letting her believe that men are more attracted to her for her body, while she knows that it is because she is docile. In spite of her rebellious independence and even hostile indifference to men, she struggles with the internalization of maternal and cultural discourses on submissive femininity. After she has been left by Alexis, the one man she allowed herself to open up to, she frames a picture she has drawn “of a woman whose eyes bulge comically and whose hair is aflame, but who sits with hands restrained on her lap. She wears a rebozo … and the face is her own Indian one” (113).

While the text uses the image of the mirror to speak of the relationship between the two women, their mirroring of each other works paradoxically against their identification, due at times to the inaccuracy of the representation. In the other each sees the reflection of her own need and dependence from which she must avert her gaze. Yet they love each other more than men, and are “driven to see the other improved in her own reflection” (23).

Just as Teresa's subjectivity is multiple and cannot be reduced to any one of a number of contradictory positionings, the text itself insists on polyvalency and resists the closure of dominant narrative. The reader is presented with a multiplicity of endings: the author informs us Cortázar-style at the beginning that the letters may be read on their own or in any order, and offers three possible combinations. As published, the ending foregrounds the bonding between the two women through failed relationships with men. On discovering that her lover has killed himself, Alicia cries out Teresa's name (although we must remember the writing subject's control of the narrative event, i.e., Teresa reconstructs the event in this way). The other endings, labeled the conformist, the cynic, and the quixotic, represent other possible ways of living out different strands of Teresa's subjectivity—the confirmation of maternal and cultural dictates in the conformist, safely recuperated within the traditional, extended Mexican family; the confirmation of women's betrayal of women in the cynic, as Alicia takes off for Puerto Rico with Teresa's boyfriend; and the quixotic preparations for yet another trip to Mexico in the version that ends with the first letter, in spite of or perhaps because of all they have learned. The text's meaning is in no one of these endings and in all.

The epistolary form, in which Teresa as writing subject seeks self-understanding through the sifting and reconstructing of experience, opens up a space for other genres, such as poetry, and also for other points of view. By including a poem from Alexis' point of view, Teresa practices a kind of “textual revenge.” Having spurned her, he is forced to witness her dazzling entrance into a club on the arm of a dashing escort (115–17).

Sapogonia presents a similar project of negotiation with and translation of male narrative form and male point of view. The text offers a plurality of narrative positions: a selectively omniscient third-person narrator, a second-person narrator and the “I” of the male subject, Máximo Madrigal. The parodic intent of the text is visible in the definition of the anti-hero offered by the female character of the novel, Pastora Velásquez Aké, before the novel even begins. In this definition, the anti-hero is indistinguishable from the hero: “1. In mythology and legend, a man who celebrates his own strength and bold exploits. 2. Any man who notes his special achievements. 3. The principal male character in a novel, poem, or dramatic work” (3).

The text executes a series of maneuvers that position women readers to not identify with Máximo, yet Pastora is only partially available for identification. Her multiple and contradictory subjectivity is at once revealed and concealed by the narrative. Although she and Máximo share an imaginary shaped by mestizo culture and history, they are very differently positioned in relation to that culture and history as political subjects and as woman and man. Máximo's subjectivity is constructed in opposition to Woman as inaccessible enigma and vagina dentata. His masculinity is defined contradictorily in relation to his desire for primordial unity, imaged by the textual fusion of Pastora and Coatlicue, pre-Columbian goddess of the union of opposites, and his terror of the absorption of his identity in that unity. A visual example of this particular dynamic of masculine identity in Chicano culture is David Ávalos' hubcap sculpture “Straight-Edge Razor Taco,” depicting female genitalia whose labia are represented by a razor.6 Máximo needs to see Pastora in this way to maintain a fixed sense of identity; paradoxically, she is threatening to him if she does represent wholeness and threatening to him if she does not. Castillo's text recognizes the potential violence towards women that lies just beneath the surface of this scenario: the feared and desired razor can easily be turned against the woman. The novel begins and ends with Máximo's murder of Pastora. The final episode is presented as a dream, but at the beginning of the novel Máximo had revealed that in his life the boundaries between dream and reality are blurred, and that his dreams are of two kinds: those that reflect his present and those that are prophetic (11).

Certain passages in the novel and especially the Epilogue that closes it reveal Pastora's complicity with the objectification of woman necessary for this construction of masculine identity. Although various alternative narratives are available to her—for example, what is perceived by others as her lesbian life with Perla, an alternative that recurs in an explicitly sexual relationship with Mary Lou while Pastora is in prison—she is deeply attracted by her relationship with Máximo, hooked on her own objectification as enigma and object of desire. As female subject, she both desires the Other and desires to be desired as Other. Her enigmatic opacity also functions as a shield from intimacy in ways that remind the reader of Teresa—both contemptuously independent of men and dependent on them.

Her attraction to an opposite kind of life with Eduardo, the political activist, culminates in the stable marriage complete with male son idyllically presented in the Epilogue, In an ironic writer like Castillo, this scene reads almost like a parody of the Holy Family (Eduardo is even a carpenter). And there is a snake in this paradise. Pastora knows that sooner or later Máximo will call again and sooner or later “it would all begin again” (311). She will continue being his “celluloid fantasy,” his Coatlicue. Of course the reader is privy to Máximo's prophetic dream and knows the dangers involved for Pastora in playing this role. Sapogonia is a fascinating text that explores male fantasy, its potential for violence against women and the female subject's struggle to interpret herself both within and outside of this discourse on femininity.

As Alarcón points out, the linguistic status of the speaking subject of much Anglo-American theory is taken for granted. The silencing of women of color writers involves the enforcement of dominant linguistic conventions. Toltec's bilingual format—not code-switching but a mix of monolingual poems in English or in Spanish—is part of Castillo's struggle for interpretive power, reclaiming the space of literary authority.

Even more than in Letters or Sapogonia, in Toltec the multiple “I” is apprehended in various positions of racial and economic dominance that create a sense of group identity based on shared culture and historical oppression.

As Hurtado remarks, in much writing by women of color, “the (white) Man” is visible mostly in different state apparatuses. The poem “Me and Baby,” chronicling a futile wait in the welfare office, reveals the economic conditions that break down the dichotomy between public and private for poor women. Hurtado points out that, “the American state has intervened constantly in the private lives and domestic arrangements of the working class … There is no such thing as a private sphere for people of color except that which they manage to create and protect in an otherwise hostile environment” (849). This is quite different from certain white and middle-class feminist projects of projecting private issues into the public sphere (850).

As desiring and speaking subject, the “I” of the poetic texts explores a subjectivity of marginalization—what it means to be poor; what it means to be hated by others for no reason of unique self-hood, but only because of skin color and culture; what it means to be the daughter o-pub-f a Mexican woman and a Mexican man. This exploration takes the reader through the first section, “The Toltec,” focusing on what was received and rejected from father and mother, through the second section, “La Heredera,” pursuing that inheritance in the ways heterosexual desire and the heterosexual woman have been culturally defined, and through the third section, “Ixtacihuatl Died in Vain,” in which female bonding and lesbian desire are presented as non-utopian possibility.

The final poem of this section, “I Am the Daughter/Mother Who Has Learned,” reveals the poetic project of self-understanding and self-naming as neither one nor the other but multiple: as daughters/mothers/lovers to unlearn what has been learned about gender and sexuality and open up the space for women loving women: “Released to nowhere, / we can return / to each other / baptized with new names / like nuns sanctified / by virtue of / having named ourselves” (49).

As in the other two texts, narrative structuring adds to the play of multiple subjectivity. The book is divided into four sections culminating in “In My Country,” which is made up of poems of social protest. This structure privileges the positioning of the multiple female subject in the collective struggle of a group against racial, cultural and economic domination. At the same time, the production of the collective “we” of the third section, for example in the poem “We Would Like You to Know,” seems to depend on the prior accounting of self in the first three sections, including the self as gendered through different cultural discourses and including the lesbian self. Besides the collective “we” denouncing stereotypes of Mexicans in “We Would Like You to Know,” there is the male “I” of “Tomás de Utrera's First Day of Spring” meditating on death in Amerika, very different from the parodic construction of Máximo's “I” in Sapogonia or from the textual revenge visible behind Alexis' “I” in Letters.

The book ends with the title poem of the final section, “In My Country,” a utopian vision of a world that has put an end to multiple oppressions. The final lines of this poem read “In my world the poet sang loud / and clear and everyone heard / without recoiling. It was sweet / as harvest, sharp as tin, strong / as the western wind, and all had / a coat warm enough to bear it” (75). This final text privileges another aspect of the multiple subject of Toltec: the writer who pens the texts and constructs the collective “we” and the other “I”'s—female and male. In “A Christmas Gift for the President of the United States, Chicano Poets, and a Marxist or Two I've Known in My Time,” the Chicana writing subject identifies literary authority with male and white-skin privilege. The poem underlines the difference Hurtado examines between women of color and white women in relational position to the source of power. While white women are subordinated through seduction, they at least occupy what Hurtado calls the “spectator's seat”; the Chicana and her language, subordinated through rejection, are “barred from all public discourse” (848):

My verses have no legitimacy.
A white woman inherits
her father's library,
her brother's friends. Privilege
gives language that escapes me.
Past my Nahua eyes
and Spanish surname, English syntax
makes its way to my mouth
with the grace of a clubbed foot.

(53)

The appropriation of literary production and authority as male, white and privileged cancels the Chicana as subject; the Chicana who writes does not exist: “so these are not poems, i readily admit, / as i grapple with non-existence, / making scratches with stolen pen … / Rape is not a poem. / Incest does not rhyme” (52–53).

“Christmas Gift” and “Esta mano” capture the psychic and material violence done to women of color, as well as what is necessary to overcome the opposition to a Chicana writing. In “Christmas Gift,” the writing subject declares: “Something inherent resists / the insistence that i don't exist” (53). The poem “Esta mano” undermines the dichotomy of the body and writing in ways that are very different from the jouissance of some French feminist writers, showing rather the pain of the process: “¿poemas? / no tengo / poemas / tengo / esta mano que / escribe” (71). Language fragments under the strain of writing this particular mestiza body which is self and other at once: “… este verso sería / de ella—la otra / … Su cuerpo que es / su petate, piso, caja, cárcel, casa, / canasta, campo, columpio, costal, co / mal, tamal, topacio, tan tin tan / to que aguantar tendrá que brotar / poemas, Ilorar poemas, vomitar y orinar poemas (71–72).

Writing the Chicana “I” questions the authority of dominant discourses, and resists the appropriation of the knowing subject either male or female that “forgets” race and class oppression. Chicana writers', like Castillo's, struggle to claim the “I” of literary discourse is inseparable from their struggle for empowerment in the economic, social and political spheres.

Notes

  1. (San Francisco: Spinsters/Aunt Lute, 1987): vii.

  2. Making Face, Making Soul/Haciendo Caras. Creative and Critical Perspectives by Women of Color, Gloria Anzaldúa, ed. (San Francisco: Aunt Lute, 1990): 356–69.

  3. “The Commitment to Theory,” New Formations 5 (Summer 1988): 10–11.

  4. Signs 14:4 (Summer 1989): 836.

  5. The Mixquiahuala Letters (Binghamton, NY: Bilingual Press, 1986); My Father Was a Toltec (Albuquerque: West End Press, 1988); Sapogonia (Binghamton, NY: Bilingual Press, 1990).

  6. In the catalogue for his show “Café Mestizo” at Intar Gallery, in which the piece is reproduced, the artist refers to it as “the management's impersonation of La Malinche” (Café Mestizo. New York: Intar Gallery, 1989, inside front cover.)

Irene Campos Carr (review date Spring 1993)

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SOURCE: “Flicker, Flame, Butterfly Ablaze,” in Belles Lettres, Vol. 8, No. 3, Spring, 1993, pp. 19–20.

[In the following positive review of The Mixquiahuala Letters, Carr examines the tragedy of Teresa, the protagonist, who is doomed to unhappiness because of social and personal beliefs.]

Ana Castillo's first novel, The Mixquiahuala Letters, originally published by Bilingual Press in 1986, has reached the mainstream. A Chicana native to Chicago, Castillo has been well-known in the Latino academic community as a poet and writer. The recent and sudden “discovery” of Mexican American literature by critics and publishing houses is bringing greater visibility to Castillo and other Latina writers.

A well-crafted epistolary novel, Mixquiahuala [pronounced Mēxkēäwälä; indigenous name of a village in Mexico] relates the story of the long and intimate friendship of Teresa and Alicia. In the letters Teresa writes to Alicia, she reminisces about the critical moments in their lives. Each letter brings back a memory, a story revealing a particular experience the two friends shared—new perspectives found in retrospect.

Although the book starts with Letter One and concludes with Letter Forty, the numbered sequence does not represent a time-ordered chronology. Castillo plays games with the reader by suggesting in her preface that the letters may be read in alternative sequences and proposes three different options (a literary device borrowed from Julio Cortazar, the Argentine author to whom she dedicates her book). In effect, the author provides the reader with some suspense by carefully offering a missing piece of a puzzle with each successive letter as she moves back and forth in time, ending with the explosive last letter.

Writing to Alicia, Teresa reflects on their friendship, the focal point of the narrative: “[We were] passion bound / by uterine comprehension. In sisterhood. In solidarity. … We were not to be separated. A fine edged blade couldn't have been wedged between our shared consciousness, like two huge slabs of stone placed adjacent with inexplicable precision by the Incas.”

The two young women, Teresa, a Mexican American poet from Chicago, and Alicia, an Anglo American artist from New York, meet in Mexico City as students at a language and culture institute. Teresa was part of the Mexican culture that would not allow her to separate. She writes,

i was the flicker, flame, butterfly ablaze, my husband's bride who wanted to fly in search of mythical rainbows beyond the rain. … It was apparent i was no longer prepared to face a mundane life of need and resentment, accept monogamous commitments and honor patriarchal traditions, and wanted to be rid of the husband's guiding hand … led by a contradicting God.

Restless, they demonstrate their independence, and their break with traditional norms, by traveling together—and separately—searching for adventure and love.

For Teresa, rebelling against the sexual repression imposed on women by Mexican tradition means enjoying open-ended heterosexual affairs. Expressing her sexuality is important to her. Yet neither Teresa nor Alicia find their “prince charming” in their various romantic adventures in Mexico, the United States, or other more exotic places. Both women are invariably emotionally abused and abandoned by their men (“Love? in the classic sense, it describes in one syllable all the humiliation that one is born to and pressed upon to surrender to a man.”) Only their mutual love endures.

When i say ours was a love affair, it is an expression of nostalgia and melancholy for the depth of our empathy. We weren't free of society's tenets to be convinced we could exist indefinitely without the demands and complications one aggregated with the supreme commitment to a man.

Discussing the relationship of Alicia and Teresa, Castillo has said that only the reader can decide whether the women are in love with each other, since the protagonists' state of denial prevents the full realization of their love. She feels that as a Chicana writer she must reflect the unhappy reality of women not often opting for women lovers.

Writing in a lyrical prose that often becomes poetry, Castillo interweaves the sounds, the words, the nuances that create a Mexican American ambiance. I have taught this book for three years and never tire of it. Every time I read it, I savor the beautiful prose, become absorbed in the inevitable conflicts, and find new insights in the reflections of a woman who is caught between her desire to be free of societal expectations and her own internalized constrictions.

Barbara Kingsolver (review date 16 May 1993)

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SOURCE: “Lush Language: Desert Heat,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, May 16, 1993, pp. 1, 9.

[Barbara Kingsolver is a best-selling novelist and essayist. In the following review, she praises Castillo's So Far from God, finding it to be a well-written and humorous novel that encompasses both parody and social commentary.]

So Far from God could be the offspring of a union between One Hundred Years of Solitude and “General Hospital” a sassy, magical, melodramatic love child who won't sit down and—the reader can only hope—will never shut up.

This delightful novel is the third from Ana Castillo, who won an American Book Award for The Mixquiahuala Letters, and like much of her other work it is set in the cultural borderlands of the U.S. Southwest. Castillo's terrain is not the New Mexico that recently had its 15 minutes of fame in trendy galleries, it is the enduring land of enchantment, of curanderas and Pueblo rain dances, of drought-stricken chile fields and a Spanish-speaking people whose tenure on that land precedes the arbitrary titles of “United States” and even “Mexico.” It is also a land of modern complications: polluted canals, food stamps, unemployment and wide-screen TVs, which promise so much more, and so much less, than real life has to offer.

So Far from God is the story of the matriarch Sofi, her wayward husband Domingo (“That marriage had a black ribbon on its door from the beginning”) and their four daughters, none of whom is ever more than two steps away from God, the grave or some catastrophe involving a man. The youngest, La Loca, dies on Page 1 and promptly undergoes a dramatic resurrection, but is never quite right again; she spends her life shunning people in favor of the company of animals and the visitations of sundry dead relatives. The eldest sister, Esperanza, first and only member of her family to go through college, earns a master's in communications and becomes a newscaster; but she finds that these accomplishments plunge her into “transitional years where she felt like a woman with brains was as good as dead for all the happiness it brought her in the love department.”

Caridad, the beauty, is equally unlucky in the love department, though tending toward the opposite extreme: “At about the time that her sister, who was definitely not prettier … but for sure had more brains, was on the 10 o'clock nightly news, you could bet that Caridad was making it in a pickup off a dark road with some guy whose name the next day would be as meaningless to her as yesterday's headlines were to Esperanza la newscaster.”

Even the “normal” sister, Fe, known to all as an efficient and hard-working employee of the Savings and Loan, falls into a year-long screaming trance after returning one day from her fitting at Bernadette's Bridal Gowns to find a “Dear Juana” letter from her fiance. Like a good telenovela—a Mexican soap opera—the plot of this novel meanders at breakneck pace as each sister moves toward her disastrous, glorious and highly individual destiny.

The chapter titles alone are a worthy read: Chapter 12, for example, is called “Of the Hideous Crime of Francisco el Penitente, and His Pathetic Calls Heard Throughout the Countryside as His Body Dangled from a Piñon like a Crow-Picked Pear; and the End of Caridad and Her Beloved Emerald, Which We Nevertheless Will Refrain from Calling Tragic.”

It's a fact that a good deal is given away by the table of contents, but finding out who lives or dies here is not exactly the point. The story is driven by such a charming and jocular voice, it's simply a joy ride to follow along as the narrative strays down one side road after another, offering the reader practical advice, ever-useful miracle cures, and recipes for wedding cookies.

By far the most entertaining character here (and that is saying a lot) is the narrator herself, who is never identified, but who sounds like some sort of omniscient nosy neighbor—perhaps La Señora God. Anonymous though she is, the narrator does not refrain from expressing opinions about everything, from the dangers of nuclear power to the foolhardiness of allowing husbands to have the last word. One of the later chapters is bluntly entitled, “La Loca Santa Returns to the World via Albuquerque Before Her Transcendental Departure; and a Few Random Political Remarks from the Highly Opinionated Narrator.”

The ingenuous tone works a miracle here, for it never feels any more pointed than the spicy lectures of a beloved, batty grandmother—but in fact the “Political Remarks” are not random at all. As Sofi and her remarkable daughters keep us swooning with high drama, the subtext of the story lays out the terms of brutal poverty and discrimination that confront Hispanic and indigenous people in the rural Southwest. Castillo's characters are caught between two cultures: an old one that is both reverent and exploitative of women; and a new one that views them mainly as a cheap labor force to be used up and abandoned. Sofi's daughters are touched poignantly by miracles, occupational illness, sainthood and boyfriend problems, and, to their eternal credit, they never seem to take the easy way out.

Like Sandra Cisneros's acclaimed House on Mango Street and Woman Hollering Creek, Castillo's writing is seasoned with Mexican aphorisms and the rich symbolism of a culture whose pantheon includes the Virgin Mary, Pancho Villa and Aztec goddesses. With her unabashed prescriptions for social change, however, Castillo has taken her subject a step farther into the domain of North American magic realism, a tentative genre descended from the politically astute masterpieces of Gabriel Garcia Márquez and Isabel Allende, and placed surely on our own map by the likes of John Nichols and Linda Hogan.

So Far from God is one of the most engaging contributions yet, distinguishing itself from its South American predecessors by its chatty, accessible Norteño language and relentless good humor. Give it to people who always wanted to read One Hundred Years of Solitude but couldn't quite get through it. This one has levitating children and birds dropping out of the sky, too, but it's as readable as a teen-aged sister's secret diary—and as impossible to resist.

James Polk (review date 31 May 1993)

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SOURCE: “Battling with Magic,” in Washington Post, May 31, 1993, p. D6.

[In the following mixed review, Polk gives a positive assessment of So Far from God's plot, but finds the magical-realism format to be overused and unoriginal.]

Have we had enough of the magical yet? Is there still room on the world's bookshelves for another Hispanic novel set in a dusty town where life and death coexist, and where the marvelous is commonplace?

The trouble with So Far from God, no matter how frequently engaging and well crafted it may be—and it is both—is that it strikes too many familiar chords. From the opening, when Sofi's 3-year-old daughter suffers a seizure and dies only to rise up at her own funeral and fly to the roof of the church in the impoverished New Mexican hamlet of Tome, we can hear the echoes.

That's a shame because Ana Castillo, a poet and author of a fine epistolary novel, The Mixquiahuala Letters, here assembles a lively cast of characters and situations and unleashes them on a solid plot. By the end of the novel, we know these people.

After the youngest returns from her excursion to the nether world with the announcement that she has been sent back to pray for Tome and its citizens, she withdraws from human contact (“only her mother and the animals were ever unconditionally allowed to touch her”) and begins routinely performing miracles of the most unexpected sort. From then on the girl is known as Loca, though with considerable respect.

Her three sisters also undergo peculiar transformations. Caridad wins and then loses her high school sweetheart, has several pregnancies and several abortions, and is finally mangled and left for dead by an unknown assailant. After being restored to her former beauty by one of Loca's casual wonders (“I prayed real hard”), she likewise distances herself from affairs of human commerce.

While her sister's unworldly experience binds her to home, Caridad follows her “Holy Restoration” by striking out on her own—actually, she's accompanied by a horse—and settles into a trailer park near Albuquerque. There, under the guidance of Felicia, the ancient manager of the place, she begins to master the healing arts, develops second sight and lives a spiritual life.

At first Fe, Sofi's third daughter, seems headed for a conventional destiny. She works at a bank, has a boyfriend and does not understand how her mother and sisters can be “so self-defeating, so unambitious.” Suddenly, just before their wedding, Tom backs out and Fe breaks down. For weeks on end, she fills every waking moment with screams until the noise becomes such a part of life's normal background that not even the animals bother to stir.

The eldest, Esperanza, goes to college, falls in and out of love with Ruben, a sort of new age Chicano (they spend quality time in sweat lodges), becomes a news reporter on local TV and then a network correspondent. What is strange about this otherwise uplifting tale of one woman's rise from poverty is that there seems no driving ambition behind it.

Without particularly wanting to, Esperanza becomes the first of her family to get an education and leave Tome. Neither she nor anyone else wonders much about this easy climb from her origins, just as no one wonders that none of the others shares her inclinations. It's just the way things are.

At the center of this world of extraordinary women is their extraordinary mother. Sofi endures the hurly-burly of her daughters' bizarre lives with considerable aplomb; nor is she much shaken by the appearances and disappearances of her husband, a compulsive gambler, who shows up to raid the family coffers when in need of a new stake. Defeated, she stands taller at the end, when her daughters have departed for various spiritual planes and her husband has deserted her yet again, than at the beginning. Her strength is at the heart of Castillo's novel.

In many ways, So Far from God is a hymn to the endurance of women, both physical and spiritual. Sofi and her daughters do continual battle against the incursions of men who haven't a clue; that they come out whole at the end (which is not to say alive and well, exactly) is a singular tribute to their clear-sighted perseverance.

The author tells an important story and she tells it with inventiveness and verve. If she had told it in a more original voice, the result would be memorable.

Irene Campos Carr (review date Fall 1993)

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SOURCE: “Faith, Hope, Charity—and Sophia,” in Belles Lettres, Vol. 9, No. 1, Fall, 1993, pp. 52–53.

[In the following positive review of So Far from God, Carr argues that although Castillo's writing sounds forced at times, the novel itself is thoroughly enjoyable.]

In this amusing and often farcical tragicomedy, the central characters, Sofia and her four daughters, Esperanza (Hope), Fe (Faith), Caridad (Charity), and la Loca (the crazy one) suffer many “misfortunes” during their lives in the small town of Tome, New Mexico. The opening lines of the book are appropriately melodramatic:

La Loca was only three years old when she died. Her mother Sofi woke at twelve midnight to the howling and neighing of five dogs, six cats, and four horses, whose custom it was to go freely in and out of the house. Sofi got up and tiptoed out of her room. The animals were kicking and crying and running back and forth with their ears back and fur standing on end, but Sofi couldn't make out what their agitation was about.

The little girl was having convulsions and appears to die. However, at her funeral she comes to life; that is, she resurrects and mystically rises to the roof of the church, where she speaks to a crowd who drop to their knees. The unbeliever, of course, might prefer the author's additional explanation: When the anxious mother subsequently takes the child to an Albuquerque hospital, la Loca is diagnosed as a probable epileptic. One of her older sisters “highly suspected that such a thing as her little sister flying up to the church rooftop had never happened.” The miraculous resurrection, nonetheless, is a more appealing version to those who “came from all over the state in hopes of receiving her blessing or of her performing of [sic] some miracle for them.”

For the rest of her life, la Loca behaves in a peculiar fashion, repelled by human smell, averse to the physical closeness of anyone except her mother, possessed of a special affinity to animals, a child who becomes a woman without ever leaving the area surrounding her house. In a different milieu, she might have been called autistic—a psychological word devoid of the mythical connotations and extraordinary powers attributed to la Loca.

The lives and destinies of the other three daughters are as strange as that of their youngest sister. Nevertheless, Sofia faces her many tribulations with strength, patience, humor, ingenuity, and the wisdom her name implies. The story of this woman, her daughters, her “wayward husband,” and a large cast of peripheral characters catches the reader in a net of surprises as the narrator carefully details folklore, New Mexican recipes, home remedies, and more.

In this novel, Castillo changes her narrative voice, replacing the lyrical prose of her first work of fiction, The Mixquiahuala Letters, with the colloquial style of the oral tradition. Castillo brings to life the memories of a people whose history was controlled by the Spaniards in the colonial period and the United States in the postcolonial years. “So far from God—so near the United States,” observed Porfirio Diaz, Mexico's president and dictator from 1877 to 1911. It was the United States that swallowed in one gulp more than a million square miles of Mexican territory, its people, and its culture—the price exacted by the United States after its military victory in the Mexican-American War in 1848. For centuries, the Mexican territory that became New Mexico had had a land system of large holdings and extensive communal estates where sheep were raised. The Hispanos/as (a self-designated term for many years) have remained noticeably proud of their heritage and their land.

So Far from God is written in the regional speech of the Hispano/a of New Mexico: English interspersed with Spanish words and phrases and assorted Spanish anglicisms. Without a doubt, much of the storytelling fun is related to the meaning of Spanish words interjected by the narrator as she smoothly moves from one language to the other (code switching). On the other hand, the attempt to imitate the oral discourse of a plain-speaking storyteller does not always make smooth reading: “Even if Loca was not someone she would for any reason go to for instruction about nothing, it was Loca whom she had gone to see that afternoon specifically, to ask her for cooking classes.” At other times, the storyteller's style implicitly adds to the comedy. Making fun of Hispanos' desire to appear Spanish, the narrator describes Caridad:

Unlike the rest of the women in her family who, despite her grandmother's insistence that they were Spanish, descendants of pure Spanish blood, all shared the flat butt of the Pueblo blood undeniably circulating through their veins, Caridad had a somewhat pronounced ass that men were inclined to show their unappreciated appreciation for everywhere she went.

Nevertheless, the author's tendency to try to include everything in this book seems forced, and at times becomes intrusive—if this is possible in a story that swerves in two dozen different directions. For instance, when Castillo wants to address her political concerns, she allows the narrator to become didactic and cleverly announces it in the chapter heading: “La Loca Santa Returns to the World via Albuquerque Before Her Transcendental Departure; and a Few Random Political Remarks from the Highly Opinionated Narrator.” It should be added that the lengthy chapter headings imitate the particular custom of Cervantes in Don Quixote and add another amusing aspect to the novel.

Castillo immerses the reader in el ambiente of New Mexico as she races through cuentos y leyendas and the lives of las mujeres. So Far from God makes entertaining reading. Enjoy the book, and if you cannot understand what is so funny, ask a Mexican-American friend to explain it. Talvez te dice.

Heiner Bus (essay date Fall–Winter 1993)

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SOURCE: “‘i too was of that small corner of the world’: The Cross-Cultural Experience in Ana Castillo's The Mixquiahuala Letters (1986),” in Americas Review, Vol. 21, Nos. 3–4, Fall–Winter, 1993, pp. 128–38.

[In the following essay, Bus explores the cultural attitudes and the journey of self-discovery that Teresa and Alicia undertake in The Mixquiahuala Letters, and how these issues affect their constantly changing relationship.]

Ana Castillo's first novel, The Mixquiahuala Letters1 consists of 40 letters the Chicana Teresa writes to her friend Alicia. The letters take an inventory of “the cesspool twirl of our 20s” (17) immediately preceding the time of their composition. Teresa tries to set this decade into perspective,” to gather the pieces of the woman who was my self.” (108), in particular. The emphasis is on “was.”

Applying the terminology of Clifford Geertz's The Interpretation of Cultures (1973), the critic Alvina E. Quintana said that in The Mixquiahuala Letters the “protagonist's existential well-being is dependent on culture.”2 We have to add that for two women with mixed ethnic backgrounds extensively traveling within the U.S. and Mexico this means defining themselves with and against two or even three cultures in which the role of women is either restricted or largely ambiguous at best. In the novel this effort is closely connected with the ups and downs of Teresa's and Alicia's relationship as told in Teresa's monologues disguised as dialogues. The two women live somewhat emancipated from their social contexts. They share a Hispanic background but they also exhibit major differences. Teresa once calls Alicia “the privileged girl of the suburbs” (42) and “some WASP chick or JAP from Manhattan's west side” (44), while she herself takes pride in being “a peona by birthright comfortable without chair or table but squatted” (44).

Letter One drives in some of the signposts of this friendship and of Teresa's character both by deliberate portrayal and by ‘uncontrolled’ self-revelation. The subsequent thirty-nine letters explain, confirm, modify and develop this initial information on the last ten years by documenting many individual efforts to come to terms with various aspects of this period by applying different perspectives, by employing prose, poetry, dream and myth, by making new beginnings and eventually asking the reader to draw his/her own conclusions about the nature of the cross-cultural experience. Thus the mode of presentation reflects the difficulties involved in this search for meaning, its fragmentary character, its diversity and subjectivity.3

Teresa introduces herself as a thirty-year-old intelligent, experienced, eloquent, corny and resourceful Chicana who, as a kind of benevolent mentor wants to introduce Alicia to the standards by which she and any other female will be measured by her Mexican-American family in California. After the imminent encounter the two plan to go to Mexico. Alicia emerges from this letter as a fairly naive outsider who needs assistance like the well-intentioned liberal Anglo reader even farther removed from the clash of cultures under investigation. This fairly passive role designed for Alicia is slightly impaired by Teresa's wish for an emancipated conspirator once in a while spoiling the smooth interplay of male-dominated challenges and responses both in the U.S. and in Mexico. But as much as she wants to shape Alicia as a replica of her own role, she also warns her against total rejection of the other culture, especially of the courageous struggle and suffering of women in it. This comprises her own efforts to establish an honest balance between detachment and closeness. Thus, from the outset she gives Alicia a marginal, yet significant place in a system of power structures to be forever tested and hopefully rearranged here and there.

The topics discussed in Letter One mainly refer to the restricted role of women in Teresa's extended family in which some spaces open up whenever the males cannot temporarily exert their power because of their physical or mental absence, or when they considerably violate the traditional codes of behavior as demonstrated by the five male role models given. Teresa systematically exposes these violations to the outsider with the fairly mean intention of using her family for her own ends. At the same time she anxiously guards her people from an overbearing Alicia whose cross-cultural inexperience could create confrontations and also question vital segments of Teresa's identity.

The period concluded in Letter One and recorded in detail in the subsequent thirty-nine letters started with a fundamental crisis triggering off a search for new values together with Alicia. They met when they “enrolled at a North American institution in Mexico City for a summer to study its culture and language” (18) including a weekend in Mixquiahuala,

a pre-Columbian village of obscurity, neglectful of progress, electricity notwithstanding. Its landmark and only claim to fame were the Toltec ruins of Tula, monolithic statues in tribute to warriors and a benevolent god in self-exile who reappeared later on Mayan shores, and again, on the back of a four-legged beast to display his mortal fallibilities.4

(19)

For Teresa this trip did not mean an easy exchange of one culture for another, a miraculous homecoming, as her mother imagined,5 but rather a complicated effort of gaining a new perspective not only on the temporary actual environment but also on her life in the U.S.: “Life [in Mexico] is balanced. Even New York makes sense” (17).6

From the outset Mexico reveals itself as a fairly slippery terrain for two women suffering from the oppressions of U.S. society. Teresa chose this country as her home after the separation from her husband, when she felt “a definite call to find a place to satisfy my yearning spirit, the Indian in me; … a need for the sapling woman for the fertile earth that nurtured her growth” (46). In another letter she is more precise:

i sometimes saw the ancient Tenochtitlán, home of my mother, grandmothers, and greatmother, as an embracing bosom, to welcome me back and rock my weary body and mind to sleep in its tumultuous, over populated, throbbing, ever pulsating heart.

(92)

Generally, Teresa portrays two aspects: The first one comprises exotic, idyllic small town scenes e.g. in Mixquiahuala pervaded by a sense of timelessness but also of the perpetual immediacy and extreme closeness of life and death, destruction and recreation.7 Alvina E. Quintana has described this as follows: “The nostalgic past refers to the idealization of old customs, largely a patriarchal interpretation of Mexican cultural traditions and history.”8

Among the ruins of ancient civilizations Teresa also feels an “intense devotion to the culture that had preceded European influence” (49), of being “transposed back in time” (48). In a dream she draws the picture of an archaic community in a Mexican provincial town where

The people were of mixed blood, people of the sun and earth … i too was of that small corner of the world. i was of that mixed blood, of fire and stone, timber and vine, a history passed down from mouth to mouth since the beginning of time when God, finding Himself lonely one eon of a day, decided to make a companion out of clay.9

(95–96)

The person thus created of course is “brown, firm, and strong” (96), giving the dreamer “a sensation of pride and belonging” (96). The scene is rudely interrupted by troops approaching to destroy the pastoral setup which the soldadera Teresa rushes to defend with the gun in her hand. This letter is introduced by her confession “i too suffer from dreams.” (95), underlining the pains of such image making and role playing.

The second aspect of Teresa's Mexico is related to the experience of the two women never acknowledged as insiders rather as “two snags in its pattern. Society could do no more than snip us out” (59). Above all the fact that Teresa and Alicia are traveling without male companions stigmatizes them as transgressors who are even refused the protective measures Mexican culture offers as poor reward for a fairly low status.10 Mexican women are described as readers of cheap romances denying them individuality and confirming “the unrelenting customs of the fierce people who never gave in” (58). Still, Teresa does not stop relating herself to such patterns of behavior. She e.g. “tolerated the inexplicable obstinacy,” (49) or, though she does not admit this to her friend, she knows that it is not her physical appearance that makes her more attractive than Alicia for Mexican men but her docility as part of her heritage,11 because “i was part of that culture that wouldn't allow me to separate” (21).

Such cautious self-acceptance occurs among a whole series of disappointments, of “myth[s] involving Mexican tradition dissipated before our eyes” (93). She once locates herself “in the midst of decadence and absurdity, destitution drawing ever near” (74)12 and before leaving the country she sighs: “i'd had enough of the country where relationships were never clear and straightforward but a tangle of contradictions and hypocrisies” (54). But against all odds Mexico keeps the status of a homeland, though quite a paradoxical one: “Mexico. Melancholy, profoundly right and wrong, it embraces as it strangulates” (59).13 Significantly enough, the novel takes its title from the pastoral small town of Mixquiahuala.

This accommodative tendency complies with Teresa's temporary return to her husband, the birth of their son Vittorio, and her intention to take them all to Mexico for a visit,14 though only five letters later she leaves her husband again.15 As an alternative to Alicia's detachment16 Teresa formulates her attitude towards Mexico and life in general:

you resented me enough for having an edge on society's contradictions by admitting to their enforced power over us, and you didn't need to believe i also had an edge with something as irrational as ghosts, demons, and God Himself by virtue of my own admittance, …17

(86)

As indicated earlier Teresa's quest for identity and a home is closely connected both with the image of Mexico and the evolution of her friendship with Alicia. In Letter Thirty-Six Teresa assesses a distinct change in their relationship: “For the first half of the decade we were an objective one, a single entity, nondiscriminate of the other's being” (122). And here again, Mexico functions prominently, this time as a sort of catalyst, when she characterizes Alicia's present situation as “… what I found was the carrion of what vultures in Mexico had discarded” (122). Consequently, with the progress of the letter writing Alicia's Hispanic background is more and more disregarded whereas her European roots are emphasized.18 At this point we have to keep in mind that all the information we get on her is from Teresa. So it might well be that Alicia is deliberately shaped as a person such as Teresa needs to serve her purposes in her own search, though she maintains that she is writing “to stir your memory” (47).

In Mexico Alicia's strong, but sometimes inconsistent feminist convictions close the doors to a large section of experience19 and, above all, neglect Teresa's urgent desire for a sense of belonging. Alicia's merely superficial and romantic fascination with Mexico, “her paradise niche” (29), ends in exchanges of stereotypical responses20 which she easily compensates and shrugs off in an artist's exorcism, a disturbing mixed-media show of angry papièr maché dolls.21 Teresa once complains “You refused to have your shield penetrated” (58). And one of the most bitter accusations against this free-wheeling life style is included in Letter Thirty-Five devoted to Alicia's strategy to get a cheap abortion at the age of seventeen by going to a clinic with the welfare card of a friend of a friend “posing as the Puerto Rican woman who had already borne fatherless children.” (120) and being sterilized consequently. Teresa exposes her art not as emancipatory but as “a personal statement of violation and fear” (121) and sardonically closes this episode: “Maybe that Puerto Rican woman with the five children went on to have yet another child? Who knows?” (121). This is far from the kindness Teresa demonstrates when speaking about her rather quaint Mexican friend Alvaro Pérez Pérez, though here her irony cannot be suppressed either:

We were drawn to each other by the Indian spirit of mutual ancestors … and finally i believed that beneath this rebellion was a sensitive human being with an insight that was unique and profound. (This is a woman conditioned to accept a man about whom she has serious doubts concerning his legitimate status with the human race.)

(48)

The novel ends with the reinstitution of Teresa as Alicia's “self-appointed guardian” (78). Alicia has become totally dependent on her pathetic lover Abdel who eventually commits suicide in her apartment after she threatened to leave him. Oddly enough Teresa reconstructs Alicia's confrontation with this death as if she had been a witness dictating Alicia's emotional responses, a desperate curse and a call for help: “MOTHER OF GOD, HELP! TERESA? … ABDEL, YOU SON OF A BITCH! Motherfucker, why didn't you just leave?” (132). Teresa has shaped herself a new/old companion for the fourth decade of her life to be re-introduced into the cross-cultural experience because “at the end of a journey, one comes home for one purpose: to start over” (128). Now Letter One can be composed to prepare yet another trip to Mexico22 starting the next cycle of cross-cultural encounters with the potential of another record in letter or book form.

Let us now return to the nature of the cross-cultural experience in The Mixquiahuala Letters. It is not a fusion of cultures and certainly not a locus amoenus as Teresa indicates when she compares her Mexico to that of other people:

… were they happy because they had no need to question irregularities in the way they were treated? Had they survived the summer in Mexico by not becoming part of its heart-wrenching/spirit-drenching madness?

(22)

The cross-cultural experience is non-prescriptive and not easily transferable as in the novel it is bound to a distinct and strong personality and her evolving many-faceted relationship with another character.

The letter form stresses its fragmentary and dynamic qualities in a constant interplay of opposites and recurrent cycles of closeness and detachment called by the late Dieter Herms the “dialectics of attraction and repulsion.”23 and by Gloria Anzaldúa in her Borderlands/La Frontera “one's shifting and multiple identity and integrity”24 Norma Alarcón has related these features to post-modern phenomenology by pointing out:

In a sense, the significance of any one thing is highly unstable and much depends on the angle of vision … she is undergoing and inquisition that makes her both the subject of her narrative and the object of someone else's.25

(102)

It is not chic, but a very tough form of existence, not of one's own choice but imposed upon a person by the social pressure of the monologic myths of uniformity and symmetry, of purity and unambiguousness, combining with the human urge for self-exploration, requiring a permanent emotional and intellectual alertness, the ability and readiness to construct and deconstruct one's own position. This also includes the defense of individual choice against overdetermination by the collective. Such efforts ask for a forceful character willing to struggle with ambiguities and to accept painful defeats. Gloria Anzaldúa has said that “It's not a comfortable territory to live in, this place of contradictions. Hatred, anger and exploitation are the prominent features of this landscape.”26

In Teresa's letters an attitude of ironic detachment, of objectifying the past, of taking control27 predominates turning her into a somewhat lonely, monologic person though as the ideal mediator who is versed in more than one culture, she lives in one but has her home elsewhere, always striving for the dialogue. For Teresa hers is both a position of pride and humbleness to resist the temptations of an elitist attitude. She feels “driven to see the other improved in her own reflection” (23). The final plan of going to Mexico again is suggested after Alicia's assumed break with an affair denying her individuality and potential growth through new experience. Teresa once comments on the last ten years with Alicia: “So much was possible then” (27). Mexico promises a challenge for a multiplicity of human faculties, an opportunity for a new cycle of essential encounters, an escape from “the critical accusations of the word dealers” (97), and the renewal of their friendship to carry them through the fourth decade of their lives in a U.S. American social context.

And because the novel does not argue in favor of a fusion, we should not neglect the American components of Teresa's and Ana Castillo's ideology.28 Among the virtues needed to bear the cross-cultural life we find Calvin's or Kant's moral imperative and the lessons of Benjamin Franklin, James Baldwin, Malcolm X, and the rugged individualist Theodore Roosevelt implied in the text. Finally we can also once in a while hear Woody Guthrie singing a medley of “Ain't Got No Home,” “Hard Ain't It Hard,” “I Ain't Going to Be Treated This Way,” “I See a Better World A'Comin', Yes I Know.”

Notes

  1. Ana Castillo. The Mixquiahuala Letters (Binghamton, N.Y.: Bilingual Press, 1986). All subsequent quotes in the text have been taken from this edition. Ana Castillo published two more novels, Sapogonia (1990) and So Far from God (1993), dealing with the major themes of the work of 1986 from different perspectives. Basic information on the author is available in Patricia de la Fuente, “Ana Castillo (15 June 1953–),” in F. A. Lomelí and C. R. Shirley, eds. Chicano Writers. Second Series (Detroit, 1992), 62–65 and in Wolfgang Binder, ed. Contemporary Chicano Poetry II: Partial Autobiographies (Erlangen, 1985), 28–38.

  2. “Ana Castillo's The Mixquiahuala Letters: The Novelist as Ethnographer,” in H. Calderón and J. D. Saldívar, eds. Criticism in the Borderlands (Durham and London, 1991), 75.

  3. In her preface Ana Castillo even suggests alternative readings of the novel for the conformist, the cynic, and the quixotic by changing the sequence of the letters. The book is dedicated to the “memory of the master of the game, Julio Cortázar,” the Argentinian experimental surrealist writer (1914–1984) and his rejection of the conventional linear plot structure as best practised and denominated in Rayuela (1963).

  4. Unfortunately the quite promising motif of the God moving through various cultures is not further explored in the novel. Mixquiahuala forms a stark contrast to the “extroverted and ultramodern metropolis” (69) Veracruz which Teresa also calls “Babylonia with its vestiges of doom with every encounter” (85).

  5. Cf. 93.

  6. In Letter Twelve she will call New York City one of these “cities infamous for alienation of the human heart.” (42) and later in the novel “that eclectic city of yours” (117). One principle of her approach to the various phenomena is formulated in Letter Thirty-Nine referring to her changing attitudes towards her son Vittorio: “There are days when i want to shout for all to see the miracle. i confess, they carry me through those when i want to deny his existence” (128). Teresa repeatedly expresses her desire to relate to any one of her local and social contexts: “The truth is i just like to get into my environment” (13). But this rather cautious, more or less matter-of-fact justification of closeness clearly distinguishes itself from her comment in the same Letter One on her retarded but thoroughly amiable cousin Peloncito who does things not only “because it's what the others are doing” but because “he wants to belong” (13). In Letter Fifteen Teresa comments on her and Alicia's perception and evaluation of Mexico: “Wearily, you muttered, never having been able to pull apart its entanglement in your memory. You sensed, in the end, it all had to have meant something, that, if we were able to analyze, it would be pertinent, not just to benefit our lives, but womanhood. i nodded, alert, having already begun to open the sealed passages to those months. ‘i'm writing about it,’ i confessed. You shuddered, went to bed” (47).

  7. Cf. 49.

  8. A. E. Quintant, op.cit., 76. Teresa uses the terms “nostalgic” and “nostalgia” (cf. e.g. 59 and 84).

  9. Note the very similar creation myths in Afro-American folklore!

  10. Cf. 59: “We would have hoped for respect as human beings, but the only respect granted a woman is that which a gentleman bestows upon a lady. Clearly, we were no ladies.”

  11. Cf. 113.

  12. Also “in the homeland of spiritual devastation” (55). In Letter Thirty-Four Teresa complains about “our miserable experience across the land of beauty and profound intrigue” (118).

  13. Mexico is still a reality to be preserved and protected from overreactions: “We were timid because of our foreignness and tried our best to remain as inconspicuous as possible, as if our presence suddenly discovered might cause our new surroundings to vanish” (69). Cf. also Juan Bruce-Novoa, “Mexico in Chicano Literature,” Revista de la Universidad de Mexico 29:5 (1975), 13–18; reprinted in RetroSpace (Houston, 1990), 52–62.

  14. Cf. 62 and 119.

  15. In this letter she concedes that even her feelings for her child underlie considerable fluctuations. Cf. 128.

  16. Cf. e.g. 81.

  17. In Letter Thirty-Seven she combines this statement with her permanent existential search of identity: “i want to take my ghosts, Alicia, confront them face to face, snarl at them, stick out my tongue, wiggle my fingers from the sides of head, nya-nya!” (124).

  18. Towards the end of the novel Teresa hopes that her friend's European trip “will lead you to a place you'll want to go back to and call home too” (119). This expectation follows Teresa's description of the abortion of the child from her Spanish lover Alexis, “not a man conflicted with mestizo blood and inferiority complexes of the evident sort” (104), and her bitter revenge in Letter Thirty-Three featuring a scene of humiliation in her poem “Epilogue” presented in his conquered perspective (cf. 114–117).

  19. One of aspects demonstrating this is Chicano/Mexican Catholicism (cf. e.g. 24–25, 70, and 82–84). Cf. also “… not concealing your intolerance of the indulgences of others … what was clearly your unsociable spirit.” (87) and her statement that she “felt betrayed by your ineptitude to grasp that in the lion's den one doesn't play by one's own rules” (78). For Alicia the encounter with Mexico was obviously less essential and existential than for Teresa. Cf. e.g. the imagined symbolical New York scene after her return from Mexico with two bags of souvenirs: “Your legs and arms were useless and the bags dropped like anchors on the unwashed linoleum, the pattern of which had faded a generation before” (43). Because, on one hand, Alicia in unison with Teresa sought “approval from man through sexual meetings” (39), and, on the other, denies men (cf. 79) and feels alienated from them (cf. 105), Teresa openly criticizes her feminist concepts with reprimands like “All you had sought in Babylonia was a good time at a man's expense.” (78) or “your curiosity of the laws that guide men” (40). For some basic definitions of white and Chicana feminism consult Norma Alarcón, “Chicana's Feminist Literature: A Re-Vision through Malintzin/or Malinche: Putting Flesh Back on the Object,” in Ch. Moraga and G. Anzaldúa, eds. This Bridge Called My Back (New York, 1983), 182–190 and “The Theoretical Subjects(s) of This Bridge Called My Back and Anglo-American Feminism,” in H. Calderón and J. D. Saldívar, eds. Criticism in the Borderlands (Durham and London, 1991), 28–39. María Linda Apodaca, “A Double Edge Sword: Hispanas and Liberal Feminism,” Crítica 1:3 (1986), 96–114. Marta Cotera, “Feminism: The Chicana and Anglo Versions,” in M. B. Melville, ed. Twice a Minority (St. Louis, 1980), 217–234, Dieter Herms, “La Chicana: Dreifache Diskriminierung als Drittweltfrau,” Gulliver 10 (1981), 79–93, and Consuelo Nieto, “The Chicana and the Women's Rights Movement,” La Luz 3:6 (September 1974), 10–11 and 32. A direct reference to the U.S. feminist movement can be found in letter Twenty-Five (cf. 86).

  20. Cf. her affair with Adán, the Indian caretaker, Acapulco (cf. 26–30) and her image of Mexico: “oceans, casitas, dreams and follies of gringas and suave Latin lovers” (118). Cf. also how Teresa describes the fading out of Alicia's acknowledgement of her gypsy background which could provide interesting fields of contact with Teresa's idea of Mexico: “You told me that gypsies are an oppressed dark people who nevertheless live celebrating death through life. That was all you knew about gypsies … Your parents had never wanted anything to do with that mongrel race, the lost tribe, and fought in America for American ideals” (25).

  21. Cf. 117–119.

  22. Cf. 124: “Maybe we can plan a visit, a visit to make a new plan.”

  23. Developments in the Chicana Cultural Movement and Two Works of Chicana Prose Fiction in 1986: Estela Portillo's Trini and Ana Castillo's Mixquiahuala Letters,” in W. Karrer and H. Lutz, eds. Minority Literatures in North America: Contemporary Perspectives (Frankfurt am Main, 1990), 153. Cf. also his comments on the novel in his Die zeitgenössische Literatur der Chicanos (1959–1988) (Frankfurt am Main, 1990), 180–189. In letter Twenty-Two Teresa refers to the dangers of extreme detachment: “Months of miles of moving continuously away from the familiar had worked their evil on our minds and emotions” (69).

  24. “Preface” to Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza (San Francisco, 1987).

  25. In a round table discussion Guillermo Gómez Peña has stated: “… we've always had postmodern, only ours was involuntarily.” (As quoted in Yvonne Yarbo-Bejarano, “The Multiple Subject in the Writing of Ana Castillo” (66).

  26. “Preface” to Borderlands/La Frontera. G. Anzaldúa's book has been recognized as a major text describing ‘the border’ as “a specific place of hybridity and struggle, policing and transgression” (cf. James Clifford, “Traveling Cultures,” in L. Grossberg, C. Nelson, P. Treichler, eds. Cultural Studies (New York, 1992, 109; also Hector A. Torres, “Experience, Writing, Theory: The Dialectics of Mestizaje in Gloria Anzaldúa's Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza,” in J. Trimmer and T. Warnock, eds. Cultural and Cross-Cultural Studies and the Teaching of Literature (New York, 1991), Ada Savin, “Course and Discourse in Gloria Anzaldúa's Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza” in G. Fabre, ed. Parcours Identitaires (Paris, 1994), 110–120 and Alfred Artega, “Beasts and Jagged Strokes of Color: The Poetics of Hybridization on the U.S./Mexican Border,” in A. Artega, ed. An Other Tongue: Nation and Ethnicity in the Linguistic Borderlands (Durham, 1994). Since Teresa's identity in considerably determined by her transgression of borders much of The Mixquiahuala Letters can be understood as an illustration of Gloria Anzaldúa's book.

  27. This is certainly a result of her idea: “To be rid of it, i must create distance …” (64).

  28. For a discussion of the interaction between ethnic and mainstream concepts cf. Robert Coles, “Minority Dreams, American Dreams,” Daedalus 60 (1981), 29–41.

Ana Castillo with Elsa Saeta (interview date 1993–1994)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7797

SOURCE: “A MELUS Interview: Ana Castillo,” in MELUS, Vol. 22, No. 3, Fall, 1997, pp. 133–49.

[In the following excerpt, compiled from interviews and conversations between Saeta and Castillo between 1993 and 1994, Castillo explains how her Chicana background, feminist beliefs, and other Latin American writers influence her writing.]

Over the last three decades, Chicano literature has experienced its own renaissance. Many of the voices in that literary renacimiento belong to women—by the 1990s, nearly two-thirds of the contemporary literature was being written by women. Firmly committed to challenging and redefining the gender, race, culture, and class distinctions which have historically defined Chicanos/as in the United States, Chicana writers have become “conscious transmitters of literary expression … excavators of our common culture, mining legends, folklore, and myths for our own metaphors” (Ana Castillo Massacre of the Dreamers). Writing can dream and invent new possibilities. It is the utopian space where the long-silenced Other begins to speak heretofore unheard things—where authority is questioned, tradition subverted, privilege challenged. One of the most articulate, powerful voices in contemporary Chicana literature belongs to author Ana Castillo whose work has long questioned, subverted, and challenged the status quo.

An internationally recognized poet, novelist, essayist, and editor, Castillo first published her poetry in the chapbooks, Otro Canto (1977) and The Invitation (1979). Frequently anthologized, her early poetry ensured her reputation as a social protest poet. Her first collection, Women Are Not Roses (1984), was followed by the critically acclaimed My Father Was a Toltec (1988). An expanded edition of that collection—My Father Was a Toltec and Selected Poems, 1973–1988 was published in 1995. The recipient of numerous fellowships, grants, and awards, Castillo has published three novels—the classic The Mixquiahuala Letters (1986, 1992), Sapogonia (1990, 1994) and the acclaimed So Far from God (1993). Her collection of critical essays, Massacres of the Dreamers: Essays on Xicanisma (1994), has been described as an unorthodox blend of cultural criticism, social sciences, and creative literature. In this collection, Castillo reissues her invitation to engage in a much needed dialogue on racism, sexism, and classicism, on sexuality and spirituality, on mothering and motherhood.

In this extended excerpt from interviews and conversations between March 1993 and October 1994, Castillo focuses on her prose discussing her development as a writer, the background of her fictional works, and the development as a writer, the background of her fictional works, and the philosophical backdrop of her critical works.

[Saeta:] Ana, when did you decide to be a writer?

[Castillo:] It was not something I ever intended to do. And it's very difficult for me even now to regard it as a profession or career. I started out very much wanting to be a visual artist in an environment in Chicago in which that would not have been considered a real profession for me. I was sent to business school—rather a secretarial girls high school—when I was a teenager. That was what I was supposed to be according to my family and my background—be a file clerk. I suppose I couldn't have been a secretary because I'm a lousy typist and I've always had this aversion to authority, so I knew that I wouldn't get far in that atmosphere.

But I loved to draw—I always loved to draw and I always liked to write. I've written since I was very little. I wrote poetry and wrote stories and drew on whatever I could, painted on whatever I could—anything, any piece of paper that was around. So when I got to college age, I started to send myself to school: first to junior college, and then to a regular college. During the mid 70s, the extent of the racism and the sexism of the university in a city like Chicago discouraged me to such a degree that by the time I was finishing my B.A.—and it took a lot of work to get scholarships and grants to get through the university system—I was really convinced that I had no talent. I couldn't draw and I had no right to be painting. And, I couldn't draw anymore—I literally did not draw or paint anymore. What I started to do about my third year of school was to write poetry. I worked very hard in the community in terms of organizing other artists. I had a lot of political consciousness. When I started to write, I got a lot of feedback and encouragement from those friends. When I was twenty and I was still in college, I did my first public reading of my poetry. By the time I was twenty-one and just finishing college I was being published. So with that kind of encouragement I thought “Well, that's the way to go.” I decided that I would never take courses with anybody or any university—we didn't have the kinds of programs and alternatives or models in universities that we have now—because I was so afraid that I would be discouraged and told that I had no right to be writing poetry, that I didn't write English well enough, that I didn't write Spanish well enough. After twenty years on my own, I've learned to have an eye for what I want to do in my work.

For myself, as an artist, I had conviction, I had desire and perseverance. I was going to do this; despite the fact that I had to work twenty different types of jobs to make a living. I continued writing my poetry and stories. I studied other things so that I could earn a living doing something else. It's just been, as a I said, with the popularity and the success of my work that people consider it a career, a profession.

You've said that you did not participate in writing workshops, you read. What writers would you say have influenced you the most?

I think the writers that have influenced many of us of my generation are among the ones that taught me to write. When I was a teenager, I did begin to read Latin American writers because we didn't have many U.S. Latino writers. Very few people were being published at that time. This was during the early 70s, not that long ago in the history of our literature in this country. So what I did was I looked for writers that somehow spoke to my experience. For me, that had to do with the Latin American experience, the Latino, Mexican, Spanish. I also read a lot of African American writers, of course, especially the women, Toni Morrison for example. I did not read white women because white women derive from a different literary tradition which is Anglo or English. Instead I read women, for example, like Anais Nin, who is still white but had Spanish ancestry and Latin influence with French and Spanish in her language. And she was Catholic. Those things were very important to me. I stopped following the Catholic Church when I was eighteen, but Catholicism is embedded in our culture, in our psyche … so she was a great teacher for me. Fifty years before I was writing, she was writing in the 1930s about issues that were very similar to the issues that I was writing about in the context of being Mexican.

Among the other influences were Gabriel Garcia-Marquez, later Jorge Amado. I studied Portuguese in graduate school and was a big fan of a lot of the Brazilian culture as well as the literature. As a young woman, I read anything that somehow spoke to the experience here and that was who I was learning to write from. The book that I always cite as the most inspiring for me is The Three Marias by the great Portuguese writers that I read when I was around 19, 20, 21. You see that influence in The Mixquiahuala Letters—the communication, the challenging of the church, the sexuality—all of those things come from The Three Marias. They were punished, castigated in Portugal for doing those things. When that book came out they were jailed and these were successful middle class journalists. I could identify with that as a Catholic, as a person from a Catholic culture. I used to think it was very strange that I loved to read fiction, but I didn't like to read poetry very much and yet I was a poet for eight to ten years. In 1980, I made a commitment to the fiction writing—to start practicing fiction writing, and now you see where all those early influences have come in. That early training was there; it was just in dormancy while I was training myself by writing free form verse.

I've always wanted to ask you about your dedication of The Mixquiahuala Letters to Julio Cortazar … was he an influence in terms of your experimentation with form?

When I decided to write The Mixquiahuala Letters I was twenty-three. I had all of these stories that I wanted to tell and I started to write them down. I didn't know how to, but I had very grandiose ideas about how I wanted to do it. So I decided I was going to play with time, I was going to do time shift, tense shift, all this kind of stuff. In the meantime, I continued to write poetry. One day I was talking with a friend about what I was going to do with this project and he said, “That's already been done.” He took me to the library and pulled Rayuela off the shelf and I thought “Oh my God, I've already been plagiarized! Twenty years before, when I was five years old, my idea was already taken.”

As the years went on—it took me seven years to get to the point where I finished The Mixquiahuala Letters—I continued writing poetry and I started to write other short stories practicing that genre. The year that I finished it, in 1984 just as I finished it, he died. It was not because I saw the book, or read the book, or was influenced directly by Julio Cortazar that I dedicated that book to him, but because he was another person that I felt was the master in the particular form of writing that I was aspiring to. He had done it and had been brilliant. I have heard once or twice that some critics make note of the fact that I give credit in what they call a feminist novel to Julio Cortazar. Unfortunately, all of the classics and much of the literature done by men is up for scrutiny in that sense—whether if s valid or not—because of the sexism that's there in that perspective. Again, that had nothing to do with the story, what it had to do for me was the ability to play with language and structure. In fact, I was enroute—I was on a plane from Chicago to Houston for the reception of Women Are Not Roses when I read in a magazine like Time or Newsweek that he had died. I had the completed manuscript in my possession since I was submitting it to Bilingual Press and I saw that and thought “This means something to me.” So I gave him the dedication. Obviously people would at some point see the association and wonder about it. So I think it's better to be up front and acknowledge the credit. That's why I acknowledged it.

Sandra Cisneros has spoken about the influence of contemporary Chicana writers on one another—“things that Cherrie says, things that Ana says, make me feel like going to my typewriter and responding.” Do you feel a similar reaction? To whose work?

Cherrie Moraga and I co-edited two publications within a period of three years. We traveled extensively in our readings promoting our books and we had the great privilege at that time to be in constant dialogue. I think that was a very exciting and important time for me as a writer. There was also the time in which I was talking with Norma Alarcon—we all lived on the same street—Lucha Corpi, Yvonne Yarbro-Bejarano, Cherrie Moraga, and myself. Within those three years we were always in dialogue about feminism, Chicana politics, Chicanos. In terms of theory and thought, that was very important. When I was working on Massacre of the Dreamers—the book on Xicanisma [Chicano feminism] recently published by the University of New Mexico Press, I did a great deal of reading of what other Chicanas are writing to try to find some common ground: to find how we come to conclusions, how we live our lives, what decisions we make, why, what alternatives we have if we have any. So in that sense, I think in the comment that Sandra's making is interesting. She mentions Cherrie and myself because she has always acknowledged that both of us and Gloria Anzaldua are among the writers who do a lot of “theorizing.”

As far as style is concerned, style to me is a combination of influences and I am always inspired or charged up when I read something that speaks to me, is exciting to me. I think there are many fine and talented Chicanas and because we are speaking about the same subjects we can't help but influence each other. Mary Helen Ponce recently published her autobiography—now she's about 15 years older than we are—but when I was reading her manuscript it was very parallel to my own childhood. I'm telling those stories in very different ways in So Far from God and Massacre of the Dreamers. We do, of course, sometimes elicit memories and that's another way of influencing each other—saying “Yeah, I remember when my mother used to say that to me when I was a child” or “I had an aunt that was like that.” So I think in that sense that the fantastic thing for us as Chicanas in print is that we have this wealth of background that we can explore and manifest in so many ways in fiction, non-fiction, poetry, theory. Now what I try to do and what Gloria and Cherrie have also done is ask “Can we make theory out of this?” That's the next step. It can be a truism in poetry, but can you state it in a critical essay? Can we say that all Chicanas come to the same conclusion or have the same experience? So that's another challenge … another way in which we inform each other.

We've been talking about Chicana literature, Chicana criticism, the Chicana community, yet the term “Chicana” can apply to such a broad range of experiences—New Mexico is not Texas is not Michigan is not California … Are there dangers in attempting to generalize those varied experiences?

I think the advantages are much greater than any danger you can place on it. The term Chicana or Chicano as such is already a political term. It was an attempt in the last twenty years to label or categorize a politically conscious person of Mexican descent and sometimes of Latino descent in the U.S. So already it's a political term. Even back in the 70s or late 60s, it was always used only by people with that kind of conscientizacion. The advantage of it is that it attempts to bring together what might be loosely described as the Chicano or Chicana Diaspora on this land. And so, if you're looking at the dilemma of Chicano existence you have to bring together all of these populations in the U.S. So I think the advantage is much greater than the danger. The danger is only one that comes when you start to do a much more intense investigation and you start to make assumptions about Chicanas from Chicago or Chicanas from New Mexico or Chicanas from California.

How do you define your term?

To begin with, the term Chicana or Chicano that came out of the late 60s to mid 70s had political connotations. Today in 1993, when we have what is called Chicana literature, the term has become much broader. Chicana literature is something that we as Chicanas take and define as part of U.S. North American literature. That literature has to do with our reality, our perceptions of reality, and our perceptions of society in the United States as women of Mexican descent or Mexican background or Latina background. I don't object to a U.S.-born Latina who has been in close association within Mexican culture calling herself Chicana. I wouldn't think that she'd necessarily have to be called Chicana, but if she were, she would have to have a very acute understanding of what that experience is. She doesn't have to be a feminist necessarily, she doesn't have to be very gung-ho politically or really on the left, but she probably will not ever be on the right and call herself Chicana. I think we have had the unfortunate experience in our history during the 1980s in which we have whole lot of people, mostly under the age of thirty, who, having bought the Republican administration's ideals of assimilation into American society, reject the term Chicana and call themselves Hispanic.

And that labeling allows you to maintain a safe connection to your culture …

You use your roots only in as much as they are not politically threatening to the status quo. Yes, it's okay to be bilingual, it's okay to be proud of your Mexican heritage, it's okay to go out and celebrate the Mexican Independence Day parade, it's okay to love eating Mexican food—the whole premise of diversity, but that doesn't threaten changing society. And inadvertently, that's what makes you a consciously political individual. But by not wanting to threaten society, you are still doing something very political and I think the person who calls herself Hispanic is, of course, a political individual by virtue of her acts and by virtue of the fact that she refuses to make any kind of conscious challenges of society.

Given the diversity of the Chicano community, how do you see your role as a writer in relationship to that community?

I started out writing when I was in college and that was in the early to mid 70s—this was perhaps the height of the Chicano/Latino movement—so I started out very consciously as a Latina poet, a political poet, or what is sometimes called a protest poet talking about the economic inequality of Latino people in this country. And I don't think I've changed that much. I still have that commitment. How do I think I play a part in the Latino community? One, by my existence—by being a Chicana writer, or by being a Latina writer—and two, by the things that I say and do. And that means again that I'm not a Hispanic writer; I'm not just proud of my heritage. I acknowledge that racism is a dynamic of our society, that sexism is a dynamic of our society that in fact the particular society that we live in depends on racism, and on sexism, and on classism. And those things come out in my work too. Some people are very proud when they see me make appearances: “Oh, we're so proud to see this Mejicana, this Mexican American, this Hispanic writer” and they feel that I've made it like Richard Rodriguez has made it. They don't stop to think about how we have “made it” in very, very different ways and we're being acknowledged by very different sectors. So I play a part by my person and by my name and my presence, and also in terms of what I say in my work about our reality.

Some of those people who are proud of your achievements as a writer, do you get the feeling that they sometimes don't listen to what you're saying?

Oh yeah, of course, they may even be a little disturbed by what I'm saying and they wince a little when I say “Chicana” or if I talk about lesbian or gay issues. They'd rather I not move out of the realm of cultural identification. That is exactly the reason why a person like Richard Rodriguez—I don't want to sound like I'm using him as my target—but that is why he gets that kind of attention that he gets and I've gotten the kind of attention that I've gotten from two entirely different audiences for the most part.

Yes, his audience is much more mainstream, whereas your audience tends to be more political. But I believe that you've deliberately addressing different audiences.

I think that the question as to who your audience is or who the audience is that a writer has in mind when she sits down to write is a very difficult one for everybody. Most people usually say “Well, I wasn't really thinking about anybody when I was writing this.” And what I usually say is that “When I'm writing, I'm thinking about a woman who is very much like me reading it.” Because that is the void that we have had in literature: a void in the representation in the literature of women who look and think and feel like me and who have had similar experiences in society. I wanted to fill that void. Why should I want to write about characters that are all too familiar to American literature? They're there already: somebody else has done it and somebody else has done a much better job of it than I can because I haven't experienced that. All I can do, in the most convincing and powerful way that I know how, is to write from what is true to me. When I think about who I would like to read what I write I think about another Chicana very similar to me.

You've probably characterized your ideal audience as “another woman of color” or more specifically as a “friend who was a budding feminist … had some consciousness … and needed to work things out.” Is that still your ideal audience?

I still think so. If I focus on my perspective and what I feel I've needed to explore as a social being, as an entity in this society, that guides me on what I write. For example, in Massacre of the Dreamers, a book about Chicano and Mexican women, I have that focus. I said in the introduction that when I spoke of men and women, I was specifically talking about Mexican men and Mexican women unless otherwise specified. My editor, my agent, and my publisher—all said, “You know, Ana, although you are directing yourself to this woman, there are a lot of people who are interested and will be using that work.” I would like to think that anybody in my time right now will pick up my work and say “there's something in there for me.” People have been asking me for the past 5 years, white students at universities for example, “I really identify with your poetry or with The Mixquiahuala Letters, does that bother you?” and I always respond “No that doesn't bother me. I'm very delighted that you enjoyed it and that it speaks to you.” So, now I'm much clearer on the importance of acknowledging that there is a wider audience in the country and abroad. In fact, I welcome it because by welcoming it—it's not that I personally get accepted, but that we are communicating as a culture to other people. That's making it acceptable to other people instead of historically being foreign and strange and therefore something they could reject.

Although you're not always overtly political, there is a great deal which is subversive or revolutionary in your work.

It's implicit in the work. Obviously, one does not only undermine the status quo by stating it, but you undermine it by virtue of the language that you're chosen to write in, and by your acts. I started out self-publishing my poetry, and I have always had Spanish in my works—so I think that I've been an insurgent structurally, but also in terms of the language that I use. My language is not white standard English. It doesn't matter if you claim to be Chinese American or Mexican American or African American and put in all the familiar cultural motifs if you're still using the language that is acceptable by the status quo. And I've not done that. In So Far from God, one of the important aspects of the narrative, of the story that is being told, is the narrator. The same thing happens in Sapogonia; you have a Sapogon, he's pretentious, English is his second language, and you can see that in the narrative of Sapogonia. You have a very different narrator in The Mixquiahuala Letters; she is a Chicana, who is a radical poet and she uses the small “i” and she uses verse whenever she feels like it. So inherent in the content is also the language. I was just thinking of Luce Irigaray … she's an example of someone causing a revolution in her profession and in writing just by virtue of the language that she used. I was thinking of her book, Speculum of the Other Woman, try to read that! She was attacking white, male writing—she broke all the rules in the French language to do that.

In an essay in Massacre of the Dreamers, you say that the language is a living language and we have to use it, to make it suitable to our moment in history. It was in the passage where you were talking about not using the flourishes of the culture like Oaxacan paper cuts.

Yes, that it's not a cultural motif like the Oaxacan paper cuts that you string from beam to beam and the audience responds “Oh how beautiful, how wonderful, how lovely, she's a Latina … our new Hispanic writer.” But what's important is that you have to see everything that we are—everything that we are which to this date people have not wanted to see. And that means if s not just the pretty or the clever or what is embellished by romance and poetry. I believe that you cannot not be political. Even stating that you're not political is a political act. Refusing to participate is a political act. What you're doing is not that you're not participating, it's that you're joining in with the mainstream or you're joining in with the status quo. And that is a political act. So, we are political by virtue of the decisions we make in participating in society. The kind of political person that I am, of course, is one who does challenge racism in society, who does challenge sexism and economic inequality for the majority of the people. I do that in my work and I do that by the way that I live my life, too. As we were saying before the interview started, with fame does not necessarily come money. That comes from the kind of writing that I've chosen to devote myself to and that will probably be, for the most part, the way that it will be for me as a writer.

So that you've made a conscious decision about your work. From your experience does the literature—especially that written by Chicanas—reexamine, question, subvert, or reinforce the values of the dominant society?

When I was reading the question and thinking about the prominent Chicana writers of our generation and what their goals are and what their writings is like, I thought about what the word “values” means and what we got shoved down our throats during the 80s by the Republican administration. Somehow people's values supposedly changed. In contemporary society, whether you are African American and work in a gas station and that's how you support your family, or whether you're a Chicana who calls herself Hispanic and helps support her family by working in an office downtown in a city, or whether you're a white person who works in a university setting—hopefully the value is to lead a life in which you're not suffering physically, where you can eat well, where your children get a “decent” education, where you can live in a clean environment. So I think all of us in the United States share the same values. I think that as a mother, for example, I share the same values that a white woman in Tennessee who is a mother of an eleven-year old child has: she wants her child to grow up in a safe and clean world and to have a decent education and then hopefully to have a fulfilling life. That's the kind of life we can all have.

I think we all have many of the same values, so the way that a Chicana writer—a self-defined Chicana writer—challenges society is by introducing the particular dilemmas of what it is to be Chicana, a brown person. Let me just use specific examples: Cherrie Moraga, who has been instrumental in creating Chicana literature and whose work I have been familiar with, and Sandra Cisneros, who is also a prominent Chicana writer. These are two self-defined Chicanas—one from Chicago and one from southern California—who have similar, but not exactly the same goals in what they do when they write. And that's because one was also identified as a lesbian and as a feminist from very early on and wanted to challenge, truly wanted to challenge, to subvert American literature and white feminism. So those were her goals in the 80s. And then we have Sandra Cisneros who wanted to reflect—in my opinion—rather than to overtly challenge. The fact that she writes does challenge the white mainstream literature but what she was wanting to do for example in The House On Mango Street was to reflect the reality of a young Latina growing up in Chicago. I'm using their differences as an example, but I could say the same thing for example about Helena Viramontes, whom I also respect and admire, and her talent and her goal as a writer and as a woman who calls herself a Chicana of our generation. We're going to see Chicanas who are under the age of thirty putting out novels in the next few years and they're going to be reflecting the realities of the 80s and the 90s in a very different way than we can ever do because they'll have different goals. They will start their writing careers with a recognition of Chicana literature in the publishing world already in existence and hopefully, move on from there.

I do know that as Chicanas we are reexamining, we are questioning, we are subverting, we are reinforcing the values of the American ideal—democracy. But what we're doing is we are also giving first voice witness to our particular dilemmas and our particular perspective. And they're not the same: Cherrie Moraga is not the same as Sandra Cisneros; Sandra Cisneros is not the same as Helena Viramontes; Helena Viramontes is not the same as Mary Helen Ponce; and Mary Helen Ponce is not the same as the next woman. … We can't say at any point that any white woman—or to be more politically correct—any Euro-American woman writer between the ages of 35 and 45 who is writing today is going to be reflecting and examining American society the way the next one will. They come from their own perspectives and so do we. But what we have shared—the common thread for us—is that we're all coming from the Chicana reality.

Although we recognize the individual perspectives of many writers, we tend to see each Chicana writer as being a spokesperson for the whole perspective.

That tendency is very real. When Cherrie Moraga or Gloria Anzaldua would address a predominantly white audience in 1985, or when Sandra Cisneros would address an almost all white audience in 1991—the reason why these Chicanas would be looked upon and be weighted down by that pressure is because we are so under-represented. But once we start to see the range of our voices we begin to understand that of course there isn't one exclusive, politically correct Chicana literature.

Going back to your work specifically, both the novels Sapogonia and So Far from God originated in short story form—Sapogonia in “Antihero” and So Far from God in “Loca Santa.” Is that a typical pattern for your novels?

When you have three novels, I guess you can start to establish a pattern. As I've always said, being a self-taught writer I do things rather pragmatically. I didn't have a mentor or someone to say “This is how you start to work. …” But fortunately I think I did have some sense about it. How did I start learning to write prose was by doing small things, sketches, trying to construct a short story. It would have been very defeating for me between the ages of twenty-three and twenty-five to say “I'm going to write a novel” and never have studied with anybody, never have conferred with anybody about how you do this. In fact, I do remember Sandra Cisneros, who did go to the Iowa Writers Workshop, saying in reference to her own training that you have to start with constructing a short story and then you start to work toward a bigger project. So that's part of it. Another part of it is getting to know your characters. I did a lot of little sketches—there were little poems of Maximo Madrigal and there were sketches that never got to the public—besides the “Antihero” story. It took me about two to three years before I could know that character well enough in my head. Could I do him? Did I know him well enough? So I think the other part of doing the short stories is you start to get a feeling for your characters. It's about alchemy. It's about acting, projecting yourself into another reality.

You've created a number of unique characters. Do you have one that particularly stands out in your mind?

Last year, I started doing sketches on a new character. Her name is Miss Rose and I like her a lot. My editor at Norton saw my short stories and asked my agent if in fact Miss Rose was going to be a novel. You can tell. You may have three pages and then three more pages of another little story with Miss Rose and you can already tell that this character wants to be big—a big project. She is a kind of mysterious character in the Southwest desert; she's black—I don't know if she's African American—she's a hoodoo woman and she's lesbian. She says and does all kinds of things that are very egocentric. Two other characters that are related to her are two Chicanas from Mexicali—so far they're from Mexicali, I'm still not sure—and they're also very different. Miss Rose just does all kinds of things; she's very much into her own world. I enjoy her a lot. So for right now, I'd really like to be able to get my grasp on her and explore that character and grow with that. It's a trilogy because it's this woman plus these two other women and all of them are very much in tune with their psyches. I think that has a great deal to do with my own interests right now—my personal interests. These characters are able to manifest that. That's what all characters are really—it's just like a dream—everyone in your dreams is you and everyone in your novel is you. That character is calling something in you that you want to explore. So she's someone—Miss Rose—she's someone that I'm really fascinated by. In So Far from God, I have a tenderness for La Loca, but again I believe it was like the splitting of an atom of all my different sides that came out in these different women. And then, you have to remember that the novels are written over a number of years and so you live with those people and while you're with them that's when they seem to be most special to you. So I think my newest characters are like the newest baby in the family wanting all the attention. And the other ones, they're here, they've manifested themselves, they may get stubborn and make appearances and not want to go away—they're part of the whole body of work, but it's the baby that wants the attention. That's why I can say it's Miss Rose. We'll see what happens to her.

That's a perfect lead in to our next question. Your novels are often linked by the cameo appearances of characters—Tere and Alicia in Sapogonia and Pastora in So Far from God. Which of the characters from So Far from God is going to show up in the next novel?

In the next novel? I don't know. But I do know that somebody has to go through that desert obviously … someone has to work in there and appear in there. Since I don't have the next novel planned, I can't tell you. But I do have it in mind that that is my way of still being faithful to my children—I want them to know that in that strange world of literature, they will always have a place in my writing. They can come there and make a little appearance.

Critics have often commented on your ironic sense of humor. The subject matter of some of your work is potentially very tragic. How do you use the humor in your work?

I have a very sardonic sense of humor and if I let myself go I can see everything like that. I would like to examine that more and more. That's something you don't see in poetry. Some people can do funny poetry, not everyone. So when I do the fiction, you see immediately that I have this sense of humor. And, I also would like to be able to think that in cultures like the Hispanic culture of New Mexico, the Mexican culture—my own background—that we love to play with language. If we can't laugh or find joy, which is one of our greatest strengths, it would be a tragedy. Because we do have to live, in addition to living with the environmental issues, the economic destitution we have children to raise, we have celebrations, we have our rituals, and if we didn't find joy and humor we would have long been gone. We're not drones. We may be perceived as being drones in society, but we are not drones. It seems weird to see somebody trying to be funny about it, but that is the way that we move on from generation to generation by seeing the irony. It's not a laughing, vacant joke humor; it's humor that is pointing out the contradictions—always. That's being done more than anything in So Far from God.

Aren't you having a little fun in the poem “Not Just Because My Husband Said”?

There you see the irony again. It's the very careless reader that will see something and say “Well, she really means that.” And of course, I'm always saying things with tongue in cheek. I believe that if we see the irony and the contradictions in the institutions that we are given that is part of our ability not only to survive them but to contribute to a change. If you don't see it, if you don't point it out—“Yes, we have to accept this now, but look what it's doing to us” then you can't laugh and say “So, now what do I do about it so that we can move on? What I did in So Far from God was that I did give the ending a hopeful note because otherwise it would have been quite tragic with all of the characters dying off because of environmental issues and so forth. I projected it into the future where there will always be problems, but people are always trying to work them out.

You're right, if that last chapter had not been there it would have been a Greek tragedy …

In the mythology, the early Christian medieval mythology, they've taken Sofia who is the Greek goddess, and her daughters and turned them into martyrs. At the very ending of that story, Sofia is on the grave crying for her three martyred daughters. So that's how I originally ended my story. But my agent who was reading the manuscript commented that “Well, this is very depressing. You know, you promised Norton a happy ending.” So I thought, “what would she [Sofia] do to change that, particularly as a religious figure. What would she do?” She takes over. She doesn't submit to that point in history when patriarchy took over her authority.

To follow up, in an essay in Massacre of the Dreamers you say that the Mexican-Indian women writers have become “excavators of our culture mining our own metaphors, legends, folklore, myths …”

That quote is from my essay on the poetics of conscientizacion. It follows the line of thinking of an American writer studying in an English department, reading Chaucer, reading Homer as his informants or her informants for writing today going into the 21st century in the United States—a country that didn't exist the way it does now but has derived from the Greek tradition philosophically and the English tradition linguistically. It is the same thing that we did—that we were doing—we were looking for our link because definitely we didn't have a direct link to Europe in that sense. Since we're from the Americas, we looked for our parallels. Once we got into college and we were dealing with this great opposition to our presence, then we went and started digging up “Who does speak to me? If this model doesn't speak to me, where is one that does?”

The poem “Zoila Lopez” is a powerful poem about a heroic woman who normally would simply be overlooked or ostracized by society. Not letting those women be forgotten seems an important concern in your work.

I think that the poetry provides glimpses into things that I expand later in prose. In Massacre of the Dreamers that's exactly what I talk about. Think about a person like that—and that's one of the biggest messages that I keep repeating when people talk to me about that project. Think about a person like Zoila Lopez—who gets up in the morning, who puts her lipstick on, who washes her hair—she's dark, short, squat—everything esthetically that this society says is no good—she's wearing a used polyester dress, and yet she kisses her husband, and they make love, and she has a baby. Think about it. In all that, she'll walk down the street with her head up high and she'll look straight at people. Think of that kind of character. That's a formidably courageous, strong, and knowledgeable … a very wise woman. Sometimes they don't think about it because they say “Well, I'm just trying to survive.” But survival just means you exist and we're not just survivors. We are women who go way beyond survival. We don't just exist. We have great faith and optimism in the future. She's the perfect example of what I talk about. If you think about how we look in the media, they say “Well, you don't have a great job, you don't have an education, you're not 5'7” and blonde, you don't weigh 120 pounds, you don't have a house with a two car garage.” All the things that are put to us in this society as measures of success and beauty. And, then you've got somebody who doesn't have any of that and still gets up and thinks of herself as a heck of a person—that is someone that we can learn from. And that's my biggest message in Massacre of the Dreamers.

When people wonder “Well, with so much, Ana, don't you feel defeated or don't women feel defeated?” My response is “No, we don't feel defeated. Look at us.” just look at us. There's a lot of secrets that we're holding to ourselves. My projection of our future is that it's not so much for us to assimilate and be accepted by society, but for us to bring society to the fold, bring the dominant society, bring men of all backgrounds, to our way of thinking because we have in our psyches, and in our bodies, and in our memories, and in our histories … everything possible to make a different world. That's why I believe it's about bringing society to us not for us to be accepted and become part of a civilization and a society that is marching very quickly on its way to destruction.

I'd like to explain where the title, Massacre of the Dreamers, came from. When I was doing my research for the book and doing a lot of reading on pre-conquest Mexico, I read that Montezuma had some idea about the coming of the Spaniards and the doom of the empire. He had been told and it was written in the Codices. As part of his fear, he sent out emissaries throughout Tenochtitlan, the empire, to find people who had dreamed about the fall of the empire. As it turns out, the emissaries found thousands of people who had dreamt about it. He had them brought to the palace. They all foretold doom. He was filled with so much despair and felt so hopeless that he had them all massacred. Thousands of dreamers were killed and it was known in the Codices as the “massacre of the dreamers.” What is important about that incident is that afterward no one in the empire would tell their dreams. No one would talk about their dreams for fear, of course, of what would happen. But “what would happen” did happen anyway.

And so Massacre of the Dreamers for me is us if we're afraid to dream … if we're afraid to have a vision … if we're afraid to speak up. In other words, if we submit ourselves to apathy, it is not going to stop the inevitable doom of our society, of our civilization, of our globe. So we have to do something. We have to have a vision. We have to believe in our intuitions. We have to speak up locally and nationally. That's the message of Massacre of the Dreamers: to have a vision and not be afraid to speak that vision.

Ilan Stavans (review date 14 January 1994)

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SOURCE: “And So Close to the United States,” in Commonweal, Vol. 121, No. 1, January 14, 1994, pp. 37–38.

[In the following mixed review, Stavans expresses disappointment with So Far from God, finding Castillo's earlier work to be more original and vastly superior.]

The recent renaissance of Latino letters is led by a number of very accomplished women. This, of course, is good news. It has, after all, taken far too long to find Hispanic women a room of their own in the library of world literature. With the exception of Sor Juana Ines de La Cruz, a seventeenth-century Mexican nun who astonished the Spanish-speaking world with her conceptual sonnets and philosophical prose (Octavio Paz wrote a spellbinding biography, SorJuana: Or, The Traps of Faith, [see Commonweal January 27, 1989]), women have rarely been read and discussed by mainstream Latino culture. Rosario Castellanos, Isabel Allende, Elena Poniatowska, and Gabriela Mistral—the latter received the 1945 Nobel Prize—are a few of the better known women authors. Prominent among the new wave of Latino writers in English are Sandra Cisneros, Julia Alvarez, and Cristina Garcia. In opening a window across gender lines, each revisits the Hispanic's innermost fears and hopes.

On the very same list is Ana Castillo, a veteran novelist, poet, translator, and editor whose previous books were published by small presses in Arizona, Texas, and New Mexico. Unfortunately, Castillo remains relatively unnoticed by the media. She is the most daring and experimental of Latino novelists, and as American novelists Robert Coover and William Gaddis well know, experimentalism has its costs. Born in 1953 in Chicago and now living in Albuquerque, Castillo was educated at Northern Illinois University and the University of Chicago. She is the author of Sapogonia: An Anti-Romance in 3/8 Meter, published in 1989, and of the poetry collections Women Are Not Roses, The Invitation, and My Father Was a Toltec. Her most memorable work, to my mind, is The Mixquiahuala Letters, an avant garde epistolary novel published in 1986 and recently reissued by Anchor-Doubleday. Letters received a Before Columbus Foundation's American Book Award.

The novel concerns the friendship of two independent Hispanic women, Alicia and Teresa, whom we accompany, through the device of introspective letters, from their youthful travels to Mexico to their middle-years in the United States. Stylistically Letters is a tribute to Julio Cortazar, the Argentine master responsible for Hopscotch, a novel typical of the sixties' French nouveau roman, and is designed as a labyrinth in which the writer suggests at least two possible sequences for reading—two possible ways of ordering the chapters. Similarly, Castillo's book offers three alternative reading s: one for the conformist, another for the cynic, and the last for the Quixotic. Among the very few people I know who have read The Mixquiahuala Letters, none (including me) has had the patience to attempt each of the three possibilities.

While Castillo's experimental spirit, much like Carlos Fuentes's, often strikes me as derivative and academically fashionable, her desire to find creative alternatives and to take risks is admirable. An accomplished parodist, Castillo's obsession, it seems, is to turn popular and sophisticated genres upside down—to revisit their structure by decomposing them. In recent years, however, her avant-garde ambitions seem to be fading. Lately, she has become a client of Susan Bergholtz, a powerful New York literary agent whose list includes such Latino writers as Cisneros, Alvarez, and Rudolfo A. Anaya. In many ways, Bergholtz is occupying a role similar to that of Carmen Balcells in Barcelona, who launched the careers of south-of-the-border luminaries such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Mario Vargas Llosa. Bergholtz is convincing major publishing houses to put big bucks into novels by and about Hispanics. Moving from the periphery to the center necessarily entails sacrifice, however. So Far from God is a case in point: the experimental spirit is absent here.

The novel's intent is original: to parody the Spanish-speaking telenovela, e.g., the popular television soap operas that enchant millions in Mexico and South America. Framed by two decades of life in Tome, a small hamlet in central New Mexico, the novel tells the story of a Chicana mother, Sofia, and her four daughters: Fe, Esperanza, Caridad (their names, as Spanish speakers can testify, recall a famous south-of-the-border melodrama), and La Loca. The terrain is overtly sentimental and cartoonish. Magic realism is combined with social satire: whores, miracles, prophecies, resurrections, and a visit to the Chicano activism of the late sixties intertwine.

Melodrama is indeed the key word here. Castillo is involved in a dramatic embroidery characterized by heavy reliance on suspense, sensational episodes, and romantic sentiment. Any parody works through a tacit agreement between writer and reader, who share the knowledge of the genre parodied and understand the rules of the game. Unfortunately, with an overabundance of stereotypes and its crowded cast of theatrical characters, So Far from God stumbles from the outset. Castillo loses control of her marionettes. Even more disturbing, Castillo is never quite sure whether to ridicule her characters or idealize them in spite of their superficiality. As a result, the novel is uneven, conventional, and often annoying.

Still, we must pay attention to Ana Castillo. In due time, her creativity will match her passion to experiment and the outcome will be formidable. In fact, of all the Hispanic writers in the firmament of the current Latino renaissance, she strikes me as the most intellectually sophisticated and thus might end up producing the most intriguing books. Unlike most of her colleagues, a sense of tradition can be found in Castillo's approach to the novel. She is a deeply committed reader whose art, I'm afraid, is not necessarily for the masses. Her tastes are singular, but she has yet to write the book that will display her talent in its full splendor.

Ibis Gómez-Vega (essay date Spring–Summer 1994)

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SOURCE: “Debunking Myths: The Hero's Role in Ana Castillo's Sapogonia,” in Americas Review, Vol. 22, Nos. 1–2, Spring–Summer, 1994, pp. 244–58.

[In the following essay, Gómez-Vega examines the character traits that define Sapogonia's anti-hero, Máximo Madrigal, and the true hero(ine), Pastora.]

The characters in Ana Castillo's Sapogonia evolve out of a cultural mind set defined by sexual identity. In this novel, Castillo creates Máximo Madrigal, the “anti-hero,” a character who functions within an intrinsically male-identified culture in order to expose his lack of human connectedness as the direct result of his living by a male myth that values the mythological male hero's separation from the community as an individual rather than his fusion into the whole. Through this man's eyes, Castillo presents Pastora Velásquez Aké, a woman who epitomizes the Latin male's “myth” of the female. She is seen as an aloof, distant, unattainable beauty, as a castrating bitch who demands male sacrifices, and as a passive sexual object who nevertheless can destroy the man who dares to enter her. However, even as she is defined by Máximo Madrigal's dehumanizing view of women, Pastora emerges as the antagonist who questions the anti-hero's values and as the feminine force who forges connections with other people as the only answer to the male anti-hero's inability to connect.

One of the first male “myths” addressed by Sapogonia is Octavio Paz's claim in El laberinto de la soledad that “el hombre es nostalgia y búsqueda de comunión (man is nostalgia and search for communion)” (175). Castillo provides in Máximo Madrigal an anti-hero as the novel's apparent hero, a man who represents neither nostalgia nor the search for communion. In fact, Máximo's journey through the novel can be seen as a journey away from communion into solitude, and at the core of this journey lies his inability to see women, especially Pastora, as individuals with whom communion is achieved not only through sexual intercourse but also through human intercourse. From the moment he leaves his family home without regard for his family's safety to the time towards the end of the novel when he leaves his wife, Máximo Madrigal is clearly a man who cannot sustain any human connections. Although his journey seems to assume a purpose when he goes in search of his father, what he finds is a man who, like himself, lives a random, disconnected life.

Máximo's search for his father reveals Castillo's commentary on the story of La Malinche and the Mexican man's complex feelings about her. Máximo, like Pastora, springs from a mixture of Spanish and Indian people. His grandfather on his mother's side conquers an Indian wife by first assaulting her, perhaps even raping her, and then later returning to marry her. The chapter in which the grandfather conquers the “indita” reveals a collapsing in Máximo's mind of his grandfather's and his father's behavior towards women. While Máximo claims to be telling his grandfather's story as the grandfather and a friend stop at the spot where “Mayan virgins were once drowned as offerings to the gods” (106), he says “it was here that my father [my italics] and his friend stopped” (106). He inadvertently says “father” rather than “grandfather,” an indication that in this man's life the roles of all men collapse into almost stereotypical sexually defined male behavior.

The story of the Indian girls' conquest, as told by Máximo, becomes a matter-of-fact account of the events without regard for the girls' feelings. One is told that “the young women had been virgins,” which not only indicates that they had not known sex, but that they had not been touched by non-Indian hands. In the grip of the Spaniards, however, the Indian girls submit. Máximo says that “the one my grandfather had, tried to run, but seeing she was done for, submitted without a whimper or complaint” (106). The only comment one gets of the Indian girl's feelings concerning the rape relates entirely to the worth of a deflowered virgin in a male-dominated society. Although the grandfather does not understand what the Indian girl is telling him “half in Quechua and half in Spanish,” he gets the general drift that “because she was no longer a virgin, she had lost her worth” (106). However, whether the deflowered Indian girl's lack of worth is part of her Indian culture or part of what the Spaniard understands from what he hears is a debatable issue. In a male-dominated world, a woman's worth is defined by how she is seen by the men around her, just as La Malinche's basic act of survival has been traditionally interpreted by Mexican males as an act of betrayal, an act that devalues her. The young Spaniard interprets the woman's grief through his own cultural interpretation of women's worth, which assumes that a deflowered virgin has lost her value.

The Spanish young man later returns to marry “his Mayan lover by the customs of her people, and then [takes] her south to his father's house where he then [marries] her by the Church” (107). Like the original conquered Indian woman, La Malinche, the “indita,” must submit her body and mind to the conquering Spaniard, and this pattern of conquering women that begins with this grandfather becomes the standard by which men in this family behave. Máximo will repeat his grandfather's deed when he uses Pastora, a mestiza like himself, exclusively as a sexual object. His own father also repeats the deed when he uses Máximo's mother as a sexual object and then leaves her behind so that he can return to Spain. The pattern of abuse and misuse of women is a cultural legacy that runs deep in Máximo's blood.

Pastora, Máximo's female counterpart, seems to personify Octavio Paz's version of the Mexican woman who “simplemente no tiene voluntad (simply has no will of her own).” In her relationship with Máximo, Pastora appears to represent the male myth of the woman whose “cuerpo duerme y solo se enciende si alguien lo despierta (body sleeps and only awakes if someone awakens it).” She seems to be the passive woman who “nunca es pregunta, sino respuesta, materia fácil y vibrante que la imaginación y la sensualidad masculina esculpen (is never a question but an answer, an easy and vibrant matter that masculine imagination and sensuality sculpt)” (El laberinto 33). It is no coincidence that, in Sapogonia, Máximo Madrigal has become a sculptor by the time he meets Pastora. His most important work throughout the novel seems to be his creation of the myth of Pastora as a woman who accepts him, unquestioningly, physically and emotionally, without making demands on him. This is the Pastora whom the reader sees through Máximo's eyes. Without Máximo, however, Pastora can be seen as a vibrant, fully committed individual who risks her own life to help others.

Pastora, when Máximo first sees her, is described to him as a lesbian, as a woman who “in the next minutes … [yanks] off [Máximo's] testicles, figuratively speaking” (25). Máximo's first perception of Pastora becomes the myth through which one must judge her. He tells the story through which the woman's life is presented. The reader who chooses to believe Máximo's definition of Pastora as a man-eater must ignore the life she presents for herself through the omniscient narrator's story and through her own narrative when she is in jail. Máximo automatically sees her in sexual terms as someone “with a terrific aloofness” who is capable of castrating “a man with a glance” (25) or as a lesbian who has no need of men like him. Both views reveal his inherent inability to recognize the woman as an individual separate from her sexual function, but the reader cannot ignore the fact that, although Máximo is the most predominant narrator in this novel, his perception of Pastora is not totally reliable. As a Sapogonian male, Máximo cannot see beyond the myth of the female propagated by Paz and embraced by other men of his ilk. His version of a woman's character is nothing more than an extension of the female myth being exposed by Castillo.

Close examination of Pastora's character reveals that she is, in fact, not a passive woman. In her involvement with Máximo, she is fully aware that “they were each sources of destruction for the other” (110), but she chooses to maintain the connection with Máximo as disconnected as it is. She chooses not to play the role of the female who clings but to allow this man to come and go in her life without any discernible boundaries. During the duration of their relationship,

there were times when one, in the pit of loneliness, utilized the telephone to call the other, but it ended there. Neither spoke of the wish that the other might satisfy his/her need of consolation. During such brief communication, it was certain that the receiver of the call would put the other off. ‘I have work.’ ‘I was asleep.’ Then silence, as redundant as the hum on the telephone line when the call ended.

(110)

Pastora's relationship with Máximo is defined by its lack of connection, by the casual consistency in its inconsistency, because she seems to know without being told that Máximo is not capable of connection. He comes in and out of her life at will, and she seems to play the role of the passive female who waits for her man and accepts what he has to offer on whatever terms.

Passivity, however, is hardly the term used by Castillo to define Pastora's reaction to Máximo. According to Castillo, in this relationship,

each went her/his own way, parted without the vulgar promises and gestures of tentative lovers. No one knew when the next contact would be, neither dated to suggest it. It all depended on the other's will to resist. These were lovers who, instead of surrendering to the physical heat each felt for the other, engaged in mutual submission to the intrigue, which could only be sustained by the refusal of each to reveal more than one or two secrets with each sporadic meeting.

(110)

Pastora's relationship with Máximo is not a passive one, but it is an unemotional, almost intellectual one; it is also one of “mutual submission,” which implies that, like Máximo, Pastora does indeed have a choice when she chooses to submit. She provides to him the same lack of connection that he expects from her because, for her, the “attraction to Máximo lay at times more in their capacity to share their knowledge and the drive for such. On this level, their souls were equal” (110).

When Castillo justifies Pastora's relationship with Máximo as an examination of “their capacity to share their knowledge and the drive for such,” she is referring to carnal knowledge, which is in fact the only knowledge shared by Máximo and Pastora. As an active participant in this sharing of “knowledge,” Pastora shatters the myth of the passive female whose sexuality must be defined by men. She goes against the grain of what is expected of her in the Sapagonian/Latin culture that allows sexual freedom for the male but denies it to the female. She in fact defies cultural taboos and chooses to share the knowledge and the drive for this knowledge as any male character would, and this is something that many critics (who may be far more influenced by the “myth” of female sexual passivity than they realize) find objectionable.

In “The Multiple Subject in the Writing of Ana Castillo,” Yvonne Yarbro-Bejarano argues that Pastora relates to Máximo on his terms, as if she were his toy, his sexual object, and that she allows this relationship to define her. Yarbro-Bejarano therefore accuses Pastora of “complicity with the objectification of woman necessary for this construction of masculine identity” because she is “deeply attracted by her relationship with Máximo” and “hooked on her own objectification as enigma and object of desire. As female subject, she both desires the Other and desires to be desired as Other” (69). Yarbro-Bejarano, however, provides no evidence that Pastora is an accomplice in her own objectification. What she sees of Pastora is the vision offered by Máximo of the woman who is capable of castrating “a man with a glance” (25) or capable of swallowing him. Pastora herself offers an answer to Yarbro-Bejarano's accusation when she tells Perla that

Latino men always thought that a woman who allowed herself to be thought of sexually and denied any reason to feel shameful of it and had none of the inhibitions or insecurities with relation to commitments as it was considered women should—had to be a witch.

(125)

Her point is that men who could not understand a woman who chose to be sexual simply called her names. They interpreted her difference as a social and cultural transgression, and basically placed the burden of difference on her. Like those men, Yarbro-Bejarano places the burden of complicity in the creation of female objectification on Pastora when her only sin seems to be that she accepts Máximo's sexual offerings for what they are, disconnected encounters.

Pastora recognizes that “Madrigal … always had and always would prefer that she remain a mystery, a personification of sensual fantasy” (Sapogonia 215), but this does not mean that Pastora herself is a mystery. She is only a mystery to the man who does not care to know her, the man who acknowledges women only through his own vision, much like the vision offered by the short love poems that his name represent. The “madrigals” idealized women. They spoke poetically of the love of women who lived in the poet's imagination, women who probably never existed and therefore emerged as mysteries. Likewise, Máximo's version of Pastora is his own creation, but it is a creation based on little knowledge of its subject. Although their encounters run the length of the novel, Máximo “had only made love to [Pastora], at best, a dozen times” (267). But through the years,

He had to continue returning to explore her, knowing with each cycle he would never fully create her. It was Máximo alone who concocted Pastora and he did not ever want to know the formula.

(311)

Not wanting to know the formula, Máximo never learns about the two years that Pastora spends in jail nor about the vision of his Mayan grandmother that she has while she is in prison. He knows practically nothing about her life, and he criticizes what little he knows about her music. By the end of the novel, he does not even know if Pastora's son is his child or her husband's child.

The problem created by Yarbro-Bejarano's interest in Máximo's objectification of Pastora and what she calls Pastora's “complicity” in this objectification is that it victimizes the woman. It assumes that, because Pastora refuses to question Máximo's objectification of women, she accepts it. This argument does not acknowledge that Pastora has very little control over Máximo's objectification of her. She cannot determine how he looks at her; what she can do is recognize his behavior for what it is. As a Sapogonian, a Latin, she knows the socio-cultural background from which he springs. She knows what it is to be the máximo madrigal, the most objectifying man, and she chooses to let him into her life. However, whether or not she is an object, she is still the one who chooses to be an object. Máximo's Mayan Mamá Grande has no such control. Her life is decided for her by one man's actions. Pastora not only opens the door of her bedroom to Máximo, but leads an independent life without him. The objectification of women examined in Sapogonia is an integral part of the message inherent in Castillo's novel about the meaning of myths created by men like Máximo, whether they come in the guise of madrigal poets or philosophers like Octavio Paz.

Yarbro-Bejarano concludes her article by saying that “Sapogonia is a fascinating text that explores male fantasy, its potential for violence against women and the female subject's struggle to interpret herself both within and outside of this discourse on femininity” (69). The problem with Yarbro-Bejarano's article is that it neglects the novel to make a political statement. Sapogonia's female character is not struggling to define herself. If anything can be said about Pastora, it is that she seems to have a firm grasp of who she is and what she wants. And by the end of the novel she has chosen not only to be politically active, but emotionally involved with the man who fathers her child. Pastora's choices make some people uncomfortable because she chooses community rather than individuality. She chooses to mother a child rather than dedicate herself to “the struggle,” whatever that may be in the critic's mind, but her choices are quite consistent with the expectations of a people who value community over individuality.

Máximo's choices in Sapogonia are considerably more questionable than Pastora's choices could ever be. In his erratic, sometimes incomprehensible behavior, he represents the traditional Latin male whom popular culture has come to recognize as the type of man who “loves them and leaves them” without ever getting too emotionally involved. Although he lives with several women through the novel, he does it for convenience, to further his career. In his forward motion from woman to woman, he is in fact repeating the pattern of disconnected sexual encounters begun by his grandfather without bothering to assume the kind of personal, moral responsibility that his grandfather assumes. Máximo does not want human connections or responsibilities; he wants simply to play the sexual game that he started as a young man of conquering the woman who does not want him. He even admits to being conscious of “the constant thrill Pastora [gives] his relentless ego by not allowing herself to be the conquest” (173) that other women have been. Pastora, the female recipient of his sexual favors, has learned to accept his detachment and use it as her own. She turns the female passivity of which Paz speaks into such an aggressive act that Máximo feels compelled to murder her with her own scissors.

Pastora's definition of the anti-hero at the beginning of Sapogonia provides the background against which her own character must be judged. It defines the anti-hero in terms previously used to define a hero as “a man who celebrates his own strength and bold exploits” as “any man who notes his special achievements,” and as “the principal male character in a novel, poem, or dramatic work” (3). In Castillo's poem by the same name published in Women Are Not Roses, another dimension is added to the anti-hero's character. He is not only the man who brags about his exploits, but he is also the man who

always gets the woman
not in the end
an anticlimax instead
in the end
spits on her
stretched out body
a spasmodic carpet
yearning still
washes himself
doesn't know why
it is that way searching
not finding finding
not wanting wanting more
or nothing
in the end the key is
to leave her yearning lest
she discovers that is all.

(24)

The anti-hero in Castillo's poem is a man who is not in a “búsqueda de comunión (search for communion)” as Octavio Paz suggests in El laberinto de la soledad. Instead, he is a man who can only offer sexual intercourse and does so with the fear that the women whom he favors with his gift will one day find out that there is more to life than what he can give. That is the reason why Máximo's first introduction to Pastora as a lesbian becomes a significant footnote to the relationship that develops between these two characters. Whatever misconceptions the reader may have about lesbians, the one constant is that, sexually, lesbians have no need of men. When sex is all that Máximo can offer, one must wonder not about the objectification of women but about the myth of who needs whom in male/female relationships.

Since Pastora, who has no need of Máximo but still plays a significant role in his life, is the antagonist to his “anti-hero,” one must conclude that she is the “hero” of the novel. In The Feminization of Quest-Romance, Dana A. Heller examines the role of the female hero in contemporary literature as she defines “heroism from a female perspective” (9). Heller acknowledges the feminist critics' awareness that “women's images have not been shaped by women themselves but by men,” and she argues that

As soon as a female protagonist becomes the subject of the quest, she sacrifices this man-made aspect of her identity. Her feminized search requires an authentic ‘private image,’ an image that will ultimately benefit both the individual woman and a society where men and women hold equal power.

(12–13)

The most prominent image of Pastora provided to the reader in Sapogonia is the one created by Máximo, but that image is the stereotypical one of the female who passively accepts the male's definition of who she is. The subversive image presented by Pastora herself, through her life, reflects Dana A. Heller's concept of the female hero, the hero whose quest embodies “the opposite impulses of separation and connection.” Unlike Máximo's detached anti-hero who severs connections as soon as the connections become too close for comfort, Pastora's version of the hero is one “who enables self-discovery through the forming of nurturant, reciprocal bonds with others” (Heller 13).

The first three chapters in Sapogonia provide important information about Máximo Madrigal, the principal male character, anti-hero, and occasional narrator of the novel. Chapter one provides a clear example of the extremes to which this man will go in order to keep from connecting with people, an act that Pastora, his antagonist, holds dear. The novel in fact opens as Máximo admits that he has stabbed a woman to death with a pair of scissors. The woman, unknown to the reader at that point, is Pastora, whom Máximo compares to an alley cat who has “conditioned” (8) him to act a certain way. After Máximo stabs the woman, “the yellow spotted cat leaps out at him” (9) and attacks him. The implication created by the analogy between the woman and the yellow cat is that Máximo has come to need the woman more than she needs him. Castillo explains that

Once, he lured a yellow spotted cat into his house with a fish fillet. He left the kitchen window open all summer. At the same hour every day the yellow spotted cat would jump through and have its dinner, leaving without so much as a thank you. But if he happened to be sitting at the table, he was allowed to reach a hand out with ever so much finesse and pet its thick coat, causing the cat to stretch its back into a hump and close its eyes for three intimate seconds. Then it jumped out the window. His Five-Minute Cat he called it.


By the end of the summer, he had been conditioned to have the cat's fillet waiting, and he sitting quietly at the table, if he were to stroke it at all.

(8)

Like the cat, the woman has somehow conditioned the man to need her, and Máximo cannot accept such a need in him. His solution to such a problem is to kill her. However, through this ritualized killing of his antagonist, Máximo provides the concluding act in what Northrop Frye defines in Anatomy of Criticism as “the passage from struggle through a point of ritual death to a recognition scene discovered in comedy” (187) that is also an integral part of romance. Unknown to Máximo, Pastora has lived through a social and emotional struggle and through the recognition scene provided by his grandmother's apparition in a dream sequence. The ritual death confirms the cycle that enhances the reader's understanding of Pastora as the real hero of Sapogonia.

Although the relationship between Máximo and Pastora is not as simple as the analogy of the yellow spotted cat implies, his essential urge to not need her is simple and somehow related to his paternal line. In this man's family, seamstresses play a peculiar feminine role. His father's name is Pio de la Costurera (Pio of the Seamstress), which means that, for some reason, there is no male last name associated with the father, who, by Máximo's own admission, “was not present at [his] birth” (9). The father's name also influences the son through one of the meanings of the word Pio, which is “an ardent desire that one has for something,” a meaning which relates the father's name to the son's story as Máximo desires Pastora, a sometime seamstress, whose name associates her with his father's mother and later in the novel with his own mother, who by the end of the novel has moved to Chicago and has also become a seamstress. Thus Máximo, the grandson of the seamstress, stabs Pastora, a sometime seamstress herself, with her own scissors. The man who, like Máximo, wants to disconnect himself from his female source must kill Pastora, the woman who embodies the womanly link, the connection.

Chapter two records Máximo's Mamá Grande's assertion that Máximo's “life was merely a series of dreams” (12) which are understood by Máximo as “dreams of revelation and prophecy, and those dreams that manifest [his] present” (11). The dreams reveal Máximo's connection to his Mamá Grande, and in a bizarre twist they also reveal Pastora's connection to Máximo when Mamá Grande appears to her three times. Even before Máximo knows what has happened to his grandparents, Pastora, in jail, has three dreams in which an Indian woman appears to her. After the third dream in which the old woman's “cotton nightgown was blood soaked” (196), Pastora realizes that she will never see the old woman again. Máximo, however, sees his grandmother when he visits the ranch. Her visit with him at that point is not a dream but an apparition through which the woman tells him what to do about the bodies rotting in the bed-room. The old woman returns to set her lands in order.

Chapter three reveals, in a matter-of-fact narrative, Máximo's admission that he “forces” himself upon a girl who does not want him and that he tries to strangle his girl friend when she tells him, “Your friend is much better than you” (14) at sex. When Máximo examines the reason why he forces himself on the girl, two of the basic ingredients that make up his character are revealed. The first one is his obvious lack of connection with people. He simply acts without concern for others. The second one is that he is insulted by knowing that a woman does not want him. He admits that

In all honesty, I hardly know why I took that girl by force. It wasn't as if I couldn't have had any other girl that I wanted without a struggle, but somehow it occurred to me to choose this one and once I realized that she didn't love me, that she didn't even like me, it was too late. I was committed to having her.

(13–14)

Máximo concludes his telling of the rape story by stating his belief that his “grandfather understood this and I believe so did her brothers” (14). The “this” which needs no explanation in Máximo's male culture is his flimsy justification for his violent behavior toward women and a direct result of his second basic character trait. Máximo rapes the girl when he realizes that she does not love him, that she does not even like him, but he acts upon this knowledge knowing that men understand and accept this behavior. The fact that the girl admits to not liking him negates his existence, his self-worth, and, to him, her total negation of his person is a serious insult punishable by making that self felt.

Having committed the rape, Máximo is beaten by the girl's “brothers [who] were like mad dogs when they caught up with him” (13). As the brothers beat him, his own grandfather interferes and saves him from being killed, but leaves him “half drowned on the river bank” (13). The irony of this little anecdote is that the rape becomes something to be settled among men. In a culture that values women as extensions of the men behind whom they stand, what the girl thinks or feels is never mentioned; it is not important. Even the Mamá Grande, when Máximo gets home and is being cared for by his mother, comments not on the rape that he commits but on the fact that her earlier prophecy concerning his having drowned in a previous life or his having drowned somebody (“A mí me parece que en una de tus vidas te ahogaste … o si no, tú ahogaste a alguien”) has come to pass. “You see? I told you” (13), she tells him. It is his story that matters, not the girl's story, and Mamá Grande's earlier statement that Máximo is a very old soul (“tú eres un alma mu-uuy vieja”) links Máximo's story of violence against women with other men's stories, especially that of his own grandfather who, one later learns, assaults his own wife the first time he sees her. Thus, Máximo has every reason to believe that his “grandfather understood this” (14), the Sapogonian male's way of dealing with women.

In “The Multiple Subject in the Writing of Ana Castillo,” Yvonne Yarbro-Bejarano continues her social commentary on the works of Chicana writers when she argues that “as we enter the 1990's, we are faced with the appropriation and mis-appropriation of the discourse of difference” (65). She refers to the uses of terms like “difference” and “women of color” as euphemisms “for culture which erases differences of power and experiences of racism that led to the political identification of women of color as women of color in the first place” (65). She adds that

this collapsing of orders of difference in such a way as to depoliticize it, this talk of difference with no talk of racism or power makes the term function as a synonym for the Other, other and different because not the same, the same as white people. For this reason it is important to search for alternative strategies to ‘difference,’ one that will reinscribe women of color in a relationship of otherness to the dominant Same.

(65)

From her politically focused interpretation of human relations and her concept of the “Other,” Yarbro-Bejarano examines how Ana Castillo defines her “subjects,” the characters in her texts, and especially in Sapogonia. She argues that “Castillo's subjects enact the ‘border’ or mestiza consciousness' of which Anzaldúa speaks” (65) in Borderlands. She claims that Castillo's “texts open up what Homi Bhabha” in “The Commitment to Theory” “calls a space of ‘translation,’ ‘neither the one nor the Other,’ a third space of flux and negotiation between colonized and colonizer. These subjects speak from a multiplicity of positions that at times compliment and at times contradict one another” (qtd. in Yarbro-Bejarano 65–66).

Without actually registering an opinion about Castillo's use of this multiplicity of positions, Yarbro-Bejarano says that “Sapogonia presents a … project of negotiation with and translation of male narrative form and male point of view,” and she adds that “the text offers a plurality of narrative positions; a selectively omniscient third-person narrator, a second-person narrator and the ‘I’ of the male subject, Máximo Madrigal” (68), but the reader is left wondering how the “negotiation with” and the “translation of” the male point of view actually function within the novel or what they actually negotiate or translate. Yarbro-Bejarano simply slips into her next point, the political argument concerning Máximo's and Pastora's ancestry, when she claims that “although [Pastora Velásquez Aké] and Máximo share an imaginary (sic) shaped by mestizo culture and history, they are very differently positioned in relation to that culture and history as political subjects and as woman and man” (68).

The explanation provided by Yarbro-Bejarano focuses on the notion that “Máximo's subjectivity is constructed in opposition to Woman as inaccessible enigma and vagina dentata,” the notion that a woman's vagina has teeth that chew on the man who enters it, and that “his masculinity is defined contradictorily in relation to his desire for primordial unity, imaged by the textual fusion of Pastora and Coatlicue, pre-Columbian goddess of the union of opposites, and his terror of the absorption of his identity in that unity” (68). However, it is Máximo's terror of his absorption into Pastora's vagina, her world, that provides the most insight into his character. Although Máximo tells Pastora, “Sometimes, I believe I am Huizilopochtli, ‘Sun of the Aztecs’!” (Sapogonia 121), he acts more like a victim than a sun king. The day he admits to Pastora that he imagines himself a sun king, he suffers chest pains. As he suffers from chest pains, the specific part of the anatomy which the Aztecs made hollow and set on fire, Máximo prays to Xalaquia, the maiden who is sacrificed to Coatlicue. At his moment of weakness, when he feels that Pastora “had swallowed him in his entirety and left him to suffocate inside her entrails” (122), Máximo identifies with a sacrificial victim rather than with the victimizer, although his male legacy, his lineage, has prepared him to identify with power rather than with weakness.

Pastora's choices throughout Sapogonia, unlike Máximo's choices, involve making connections. As a hero of a feminine quest defined by Dana Heller in The Feminization of Quest-Romance, “her specific ties to community, family, and loved ones empower—rather than restrict—her capacities” (13). From the first time she appears, she is said to be “consumed” by the depression caused by her inability to restrain “herself from reflecting on the child she would have had that spring” (17). Unlike Máximo, who seems to have no emotion other than self-preservation, Pastora mourns the lost connection. Later, it is Pastora who invites “Perla over and [lets] her into her life” (21). The relationship between the two women is so close that others around them perceive it as a lesbian one even when it is not.

Pastora also chooses to connect when she not only agrees to perform on behalf of Nicaraguan immigrants, but to help transport “illegal” aliens to safe houses. For her commitment to the cause, she serves two years in jail after she is caught transporting Eduardo's wife, an undesirable, into the city. While in jail, she befriends Mary Lou and maybe becomes her lover. She also keeps in touch with Yvonne, an old friend, and returns to Eduardo after she is out of jail and he is no longer married. Eventually, she bears a child and completes the cycle begun when the novel opens and she is seen mourning the loss of another child. For Pastora, life is a series of connections, although the man who attempts to define her says that she “was tall and slender, with a terrific aloofness” (25). Clearly, in Sapogonia, “aloofness” is defined along gender lines. Máximo sees aloofness in a woman who is totally defined by her connections to other people.

Vernon E. Lattin, in “The Quest for Mythic Vision in Contemporary Native American and Chicano Fiction,” argues that contemporary Native-American and Mexican-American writers are “rejecting the phenomonological limitation of writers like Becket and Kafka, where the dissolution of the hero's quest is the form” and are creating instead a fiction in which “the protagonist [returns] to wholeness and mythic vision and [transcends] the limitations of both society and time” (639). If this is the case, the hero of Ana Castillo's Sapogonia can be no other than Pastora, the one who creates connections and thereby debunks many of the myths that men like Máximo create about women like her. It is Pastora who, by choosing to marry Eduardo, creates a connection that, unlike any of Máximo's marriages, bears fruit. Máximo, the anti-hero, after finally finding his father and learning thereby very little about himself (because he fails to recognize the importance of the women, the seamstresses, in his life), seems to have no purpose other than to keep alive in his own mind the myth of Pastora as a man-eating, sexual object who wants him.

Works Cited

Castillo, Ana. Sapogonia. Tempe, AZ: Bilingual Press/Editorial Bilingüe, 1990.

———. Women Are Not Roses. Houston: Arte Público Press, 1984.

Frye, Northrop. Anatomy of Criticism. New Jersey: Princeton UP, 1957.

Heller, Dana A. The Feminization of Quest Romance. Austin: U of Texas P, 1990.

Lattin, Vernon E. “The Quest for Mythic Vision in Contemporary Native American and Chicano Fiction.” American Literature 50.4 (1979): 625–40.

Paz, Octavio. El laberinto de la soledad. México: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1959.

Yarbro-Bejarano, Yvonne. “The Multiple Subject in the Writing of Ana Castillo.” The Americas Review 20.1 (1992): 65–72.

Tanya Hellein (review date 30 September 1994)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 819

SOURCE: “Simply a Question of Belief,” in Times Literary Supplement, No. 4774, September 30, 1994, p. 25.

[In the following positive review, Hellein finds So Far from God to be a well-written novel full of magic realism and humor.]

Ana Castillo So Far from God creates the illusion of a story told orally, in strong Latin American accents. As in the best tradition of folktales, an informal tone preserves the nuances of spoken narrative and a local flavour is added by a generous sprinkling of Latino-Hispanic words and local lore. Magic is not merely an accoutrement, but it is firmly rooted at the novel's heart and alters the lives of the principal characters; Sofia and her four daughters.

The quarter of daughters, a mixture of the ethereal and the earthly, all Chicana Latin Americans of Spanish descent, are a strange hybrid of Catholic and native spirituality. Sofi's youngest daughter, La Loca, becomes a visionary when, at the age of three, she is wrongly believed dead after an epileptic fit, emerging from her coffin at the funeral service. Thereafter, she develops an allergic reaction to people, whose odour she claims reminds her of her brief visit to hell. Her sister, Caridad, is miraculously restored to her former beauty after an attack leaves her mutilated, and she exchanges her libertine life for that of a hermetic healer. Even Esperanza, the pragmatic journalist, becomes a devotee of mystical native meetings.

Like Laura Esquivel, in Like Water for Chocolate, Castillo mixes stories with recipes—native remedies for such diverse ailments as the evil eye and stress, for Castillo marries beliefs from the Old World and New. Francisco el Penitente, the godson of Dona Felicia, Caridad's friend and mentor, is a “santero”—a man who according to native tradition carves the faces of saints brought from the Old World. Caridad's attack is by a “malogra,” a creature of native myth, and she commits suicide in response to a call from two Mexican goddesses, while La Loca received the news of Esperanza's death from La Lorona, the mythical announcer of death. The surreal effect achieved by such mythology is epitomized by a comment on the death of Fe, Sofi's non-visionary daughter, whose sole peculiarity was to scream for a year after being jilted:

After she died, she did not resurrect as La Loca did at age three. She also did not return ectoplasmically like her tenacious earth bound sister, Esperanza. … And when someone dies that plain dead, it is hard to talk about.

In So Far from God, both life and death are so strange that normality itself becomes an aberration.

Fe's story also shows an awareness of the practical costs of life. She is killed by cancer, developed after using a lethal chemical in a factory, and had earlier suffered a miscarriage because of the same chemical. Her younger sister, La Loca, contracts AIDS. Castillo's women are, for the most part, unfortunate in their choice of men. Esperanza is deserted by her lover, Ruben; Caridad's husband continues to visit his old girlfriend after their marriage; and Fe is jilted by her fiancé, Tom, who, as La Loca divines, sees marriage as being comparable to “having lunch with the devil.” Sofi's husband, the charming but feckless Don Domingo, gambles their house away on his return after twenty years. Domingo is the only man apart from Francisco el Penitente who is sharply drawn. The other men flit vaguely and unreliably in and out of the narrative like migrating swallows. The women's lives mirror the vicissitudes of the Chicana as a whole, lamenting their decline, a lament expressed powerfully in a religious procession at every station of which are spoken not prayers but litanies on the destruction of lives and land. Yet the novel ends on a light note with a description of the “Disneyfication” of the Society of Martyrs and Saints, which is founded by the remarkably resilient Sofia in tribute to her last daughter.

Such an ending is appropriate to the novel, which glimmers throughout with Castillo's exuberant humour. The more magical episodes are infused with glimpses of semi-comic realism, such as the canny opportunism of Domingo who uses his daughters' gift got prophecy to win a fortune at gambling. Even the names are humorous—Francisco dislikes the nickname “Chico” which he was given in Vietnam, because in his native tongue it means a roasted corn or hard kernel. Two of the characters, Maria and Helena, name their cats Artemis, Athena and Xochitl. Occasionally, the humour turns into farce, as when Fe's husband is described as having a genetic tendency to bleat owing to 300 years of ancestral shepherding. Castillo is also wryly ironic at the expense of the Catholic Church, particularly on the reaction of the local priest, Father Jerome, to La Loca's miraculous resurrection. The title itself is ironic, because So Far from God is about faith—in amalgamated Latino beliefs, in Dona Felicia's remedies and in oneself.

Ana Castillo with Samuel Baker (interview date 12 August 1996)

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SOURCE: “Ana Castillo: The Protest Poet Goes Mainstream,” in Publishers Weekly, August 12, 1996, pp. 59–60.

[In the following interview, Castillo discusses her formative years, inspirations for her writing, and her upcoming projects.]

The road from the nearest el stop to Ana Castillo's North Side Chicago home curves for several blocks alongside the solemn, deserted expanse of historic Graceland Cemetery and then enters an offbeat shopping district that features a fortune-teller's storefront, a shuttered nightclub and a Mexican restaurant incongruously named Lolita's. Far from seeming out of place, these picturesque locations mesh perfectly with the bustling everyday Chicago life that surrounds them. Such harmonies between the romantic and the mundane, manifest in Castillo's neighborhood, also resonate in the adventurous chords of her art—as heard most recently in the story collection Loverboys (Forecasts, July 8), out this month from Norton.

Castillo lives halfway down a side-street full of lush lawns and profuse sprinklers, in the ground-floor apartment of a tidy brick two-flat. Her son, Marcel, just out of seventh grade, ushers PW into a modest combination livingroom and study. Decorated in a subtle Southwestern style, the room is dominated by a series of striking paintings of Castillo—self-portraits, it turns out. Literary quarterlies share space on the coffee table with an issue of USA Weekend that features a Castillo story, “Juan in a Million.”

The day has been a scorcher. When Castillo herself enters the room, however, her bold features set off by her long black hair and simple white sun dress, she appears totally imbued with cool. As she begins to hold forth, a wry sense of humor catalyzes energy together with reserve; she couches passion for life and work in gentle ironies. One of the most prominent Latina writers in the U.S., Castillo is already the author of three novels, several volumes of poetry and an essay collection. Today, however, our conversation starts with the latest events in her fast-moving career: the publication of her story in USA Weekend, with its circulation of nearly 40 million, and her appearances at the just-concluded 1996 Chicago ABA, where she did an autograph session and served on the Booksellers for Social Responsibility panel.

Talk of the ABA sparks an account of Castillo's interest in the independent bookstore scene. In the title story in Loverboys, Castillo draws on her experience with, and affinity for, booksellers to create a narrator who “runs the only bookstore in town that deals with the question of the soul.” This protagonist handsells a volume of Camus to a philosophically inclined customer, who subsequently emerges as the main “loverboy” of the piece.

No particular store served as her model, but Castillo has long depended on independent bookstores to nurture her public. When she wrote “Loverboys” she was living in Albuquerque, writing her novel So Far from God (Norton, 1993) and organizing occasional events at the Salt of the Earth bookstore. Castillo extols Salt of the Earth for its support of the writers' community in Albuquerque and across the country and laments its demise this past year. Owner John Randall originally coordinated the Booksellers for Social Responsibility panels at the ABA.

“As a writer whose books were published with small presses,” Castillo says, “it was a natural for me to talk about the importance of bookstores.” She speaks in rapid cadences of full sentences, given a musical lilt by her warm voice. “The kind of literature I write is not directed for the mainstream, although So Far from God did very well, and I'm hoping that we're entering a new era now where it will be more and more the case that writers from the fringes occupy the mainstream.”

If Loverboys bids to occupy the mainstream of contemporary fiction, it nonetheless retains strong connections to Castillo's tremendously varied, and often quite radical, previous body of work. Born and raised in Chicago, Castillo began publishing poetry in the mid-1970s, when she was a college student. Norton's recent edition of her poetry, My Father Was a Toltec and Selected Poems, 1973–1988 (1995), collects work from the period when writing was her calling, but not yet a career. It includes selections from two self-published chapbooks, Otro Canto (1977) and The Invitation (1979), together with many poems from Women Are Not Roses (Arte Publico, 1984) and all of My Father Was a Toltec (West End Press, 1988). Castillo's verse moves freely between English and Spanish, interlacing unvarnished accounts of her life, her family and her friends with boldly erotic passages and matter-of-fact political statements.

Castillo links her impulse to write to idealism. “In the mid-'70s, the idea was to work towards social change. The call of the day for young people everywhere of all colors and backgrounds was to contribute in some way to a more just society. Being of Mexican background, being Indian-looking, being a female, coming from a working-class background, and then becoming politicized in high school, that was my direction. I was going to be an artist, a poet. Never once did I think of it as a career. I certainly never thought I could possibly earn a dime writing protest poetry. So all those years I went around like a lot of young poets—and a lot of old poets—going anywhere I could find an audience, getting on a soapbox and reading. I was a Chicana protest poet, a complete renegade—and I continue to write that way.”

Even as Castillo continues to write as a renegade, however, her work—in particular, her fiction—has found a home with the reading public. Her first novel, The Mixquiahuala Letters, was published by Bilingual Review Press in 1986. It brought Castillo critical acclaim, an American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation and steady sales. Without consulting Castillo, Bilingual Review sold the rights to that novel and to Castillo's subsequent effort, Sapogonia, to Doubleday/Anchor, which brought them out in paperback in 1992 and 1994, respectively. This annoyed Castillo, who would have liked to have had more involvement in the publication (she eventually was able to make some revisions to Sapogonia). Her chief comment on the matter now is to urge young writers to have their contracts vetted, no matter how small and friendly the press.

PROSPERING AT NORTON

In the wake of the success of her first fiction efforts, Castillo signed up with agent Susan Bergholz, of whom she speaks warmly. Bergholz, Castillo says, played a key role in the genesis of what would become Castillo's debut publication with Norton, the novel So Far from God. In an emotionally bleak period during her sojourn in New Mexico, Castillo had happened upon an edition of The Lives of the Saints. Reading its spiritual biographies inspired her to write a story about a modern-day miracle that happens to a little girl known as La Loca. After dying, La Loca does not only rise from the dead: she ascends to the roof of the church that had been about to house her funeral and reproves the Padre for attributing her resurrection to the devil. Upon reading this story, Bergholz suggested that Castillo develop it into a novel.

“So I wrote two more chapters,” she recalls; she sent it out and eventually Gerald Howard took it at Norton. The story grew to encompass the lives of four sisters, martyrs in different ways to the modern Southwest, and of their mother, Sofia, who turns her bereavements to positive account by organizing the community politically and by working to reconfigure the Catholic religion. Castillo speaks very highly of Howard's editing.

“When So Far from God came out,” Castillo declares, “I started looking at writing as a career, because indeed, after 22 years, I began to earn my living from it.” Having settled back into the very same apartment where, more than a decade ago, she wrote The Mixquiahuala Letters, she now plans to write full-time in Chicago, forgoing the itinerant writer-in-residence life that took her in recent years to colleges from Chico State in California to Mount Holyoke in Massachusetts.

Castillo has made forays into writing cultural criticism, collected in Massacre of the Dreamers: Essays on Xicanisma (Univ. of New Mexico Press, 1994), which earned her a Ph.D. from the University of Bremen. While she speaks positively of the resident-writer experience, she is disdainful of fiction-writing workshops. This sentiment has its roots in her own formation. “By no means had I, as many young writers do these days, gone for an M.F.A. and said ‘well, I want to be a writer,’” Castillo says. “I had wanted to be a painter, but I was discouraged in college. And so I thought, I'm not going to go through that with my writing.” For Castillo, a more idiosyncratic, personal path is best.

Castillo does have a strong investment in pedagogy, however, a commitment currently finding its most direct expression in a children's book project, My Daughter, My Son, the Eagle, the Dove. This manuscript consists of two long poems based on Aztec and Nahuatal instructions to youths facing rites of passage. “These poems are teachings from my ancestry,” she says, “hundreds of years old, from the time of the conquest of the Americas, and yet applicable today—we're going to package them with contemporary illustrations.”

Also underway is a new novel, Peel My Love like an Onion. In this project, Castillo focuses on the Chicago gypsy community, for which a good friend serves her as native informant. Uncomfortable with the idea of fully assuming gypsy character in narrating this work, Castillo currently has the novel narrated by a Chicana woman who speaks with a gypsy.

Clearly, Castillo's social conscience continues to inform the choice and development of her projects. Forthcoming in October from Riverhead is Goddess of the Americas, an essay collection which she has edited on the Virgin of Guadalupe, beloved patron of the oppressed peoples of Latin America. Castillo's good friend Sandra Cisneros is one contributor; others include Elena Poniatowska and Luis Rodríguez. The idea for the book originated with its editor at Riverhead, Julie Grau. When Grau “asked if I was interested,” says Castillo, “I couldn't say no to the Virgin of Guadalupe—I saw that as a discreet message to me.” While Castillo herself is not a practicing Catholic, she feels that celebrating the Virgin can help redress the sad fact that “what we could call the feminine principle is too absent from—is too denigrated by—Western society.

“I don't particularly care if people want to worship the Virgin of Guadaloupe,” she continues, “if they get the message that we need to respect the things that we call female, which we don't. You know, we put so much pressure on mothering, and as a single mother I understand that, but how much support and respect do we really give mothers in our society?” Castillo is not afraid to provoke controversy. “One of my goals in life is to get an encyclical from the church—if not from the pope, then from the bishops—to ban the book. I think that would be the best advertisement for the book, if a cardinal or someone would say that it definitely should not be read by any good Catholic in the world.”

It might seem that Castillo's new offerings, Loverboys and Goddess of the Americas, separate sexuality and spirituality into distinct packages. But this is not the case. For Castillo, “spirituality is a manifestation of one's energy, and that energy includes who you are as a total being”—including your sexuality. She sees the propinquity of the two publications as a clear message that “these are not two separate issues for me, but one issue for us to consider.”

The spiritual epiphanies that sexual desires and experiences bring in Loverboys occur not as religious visions but rather as aesthetic fulfillment. Sometimes characters recognize such fulfillment themselves. More often, they remain confused, even lost, even while Castillo's rendering of their lives into stories touches them with grace. This grace works whether the story be a tragic one or more essentially comic. This graceful touch of Castillo's is a powerful and unique gift—as many readers of hers already know, and as many more readers will soon discover.

Sandra Scofield (review date 25 August 1996)

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SOURCE: “An Antidote for Women Who Get Bitten,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, August 25, 1996, p. 8.

[In the following review, Scofield offers a negative assessment of Loverboys, voicing her disappointment with the short and repetitive stories.]

The most astonishing tale in Ana Castillo's new book, a collection of stories, is the last, called “By Way of Acknowledgment.” An itinerant writer, “scattered by the wind” that surrounds her fate, suddenly gets money out of nowhere, suddenly gets a contract for a book she hasn't yet written. She races back to “Chi-town,” where there are her comadres, with their faith and passion and generosity, with their space and discipline and vodka, to make it all happen. Her talent and luck and ethnicity pay off. She finishes her stories, calls the book Loverboys. Of course, this story is true.

I'm not from Chicago, and I'm not Latina and I don't have so many friends, but I do know what a loverboy is. He thinks he's hot, and he thinks you're hot but he's full of promises he can't keep. “His eyes are succulent as oranges and very black. …” He slips in and out of your bed and your life and he's a moving target for your anger and sarcasm but also for your once-in-awhile nostalgic sigh. He makes you think of your papi, who jerked your mother around for years and scorned your independent spirit, but then bragged about your books. He calls you from pay phones. …

And damned if you can keep from talking about him and telling him how much better women are, how much better you are. He's a thorn in your side, he can go straight to hell, but he is something to write about.

Loverboys is an antidote for women who still let themselves get bitten. It's a plate full of tight little taquitos to warm up on the morning after. It's exuberant, gutsy, arrogant (dare you to mind!), passionate. It's in your face.

Loverboys is all about attitude.

The brightest thread running through the 22 stories doesn't actually have to do with men in any “classic” sense. Some women love them, but like as not the women are bisexual and glad of it, and the men were lapses of good sense.

In the title story, the narrator Carmen talks the way someone might who just met you in a bar or on a bus who thinks she'll like you. She tells you about her business—a metaphysical bookstore—and her drinking and her history with Rosie. This story, like most of them, is short on specifics and event. It's more a circle, a kind of Latin Grace Paley story, with ideas linking the way children's notions do—strung together loosely but adding up to an effect.

Besides, Carmen shows up again in the end, in the longest, funniest of the tales, “La Miss Rose,” in which she and her pal Stormy take up with a West Indian gypsy witch and rollick their way to good luck.

In between, there are pieces so slight they are more sliced than shaped, with the feel of tossed-off ideas. There's a lot of talk about writing and writers, with a running subtext of resentment against those who don't pass the narrator's political litmus tests.

In “Vatolandia,” one big-hipped mama calls out her anger-turned-humor in put-downs of arrogant, rude, strutting, snakeskin-boot-wearing “sad-butt bag boys.” In “A Lifetime,” there's actually tenderness when a woman visits her dying ex in the hospital. And pathos in “Foreign Market,” when an immigrant girl makes too much of an Arab fruit vendor's one night of romance. I liked “Subtitles” next best after “La Miss Rose,” “I have lived my life in a foreign film,” the narrator begins. It's an original story, and it stands out for its use of images.

Some pieces are too little or too much of the same ol' same ol'. “Who Was Juana Gallo?” is like a shaggy dog story, despite its reference to the Mexican Revolution. “Again, Like Before” says it all in the title. “A Kiss Errant” reads like juvenilia.

In short, this is an uneven, often self-indulgent collection, with its lusty touches and its good moments of insight and humor. It's short on character and story. (I don't think “plot” would even be an appropriate word to use for evaluation here.) There is an appealing sense of Bohemia; many women will love the earthy, gusty voice. But all in all, despite Ana Castillo's good luck, she'd have done better to take more time and give us a few more real stories. She's a writer with a great range. I know she can do it.

Louise Titchener (review date 1 September 1996)

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SOURCE: “Love among the Golden Cockroaches,” in Washington Post Book World, Vol. XXVI, No. 35, September 1, 1996, p. 6.

[In the following mixed review of Loverboys, Titchener states that the short stories display skillful characterizations, but are lacking in plot.]

WARNING: I prefer stories with sympathetic or, at least, engaging protagonists. I regard a clear conflict with a satisfying resolution at the story's end as important plot elements. I subscribe to the “show-don't-tell” theory of storytelling and love to watch characters come to life on a page by means of action and dialogue. Unfortunately for me and for readers who share my literary tastes, Ana Castillo's short story collection, Loverboys, rarely satisfies these desires. Love is the central theme in Castillo's short stories. She presents love in its many guises—lustful, yearning, romantic, parental, sanctioned and illicit. But love disappointed and disillusioned is the star of her show. The first story in Castillo's collection is a soliloquy, an artfully self-conscious mode she favors. The narrator, a Hispanic owner of a lesbian bookstore, languishes in a bar bemoaning the desertion of her young male lover. She theorizes that he left her because “his brothers started ragging him about running around with a lesbian … who plays soccer and who knows how to do her own tune-ups and oil change.” Since the only realized character in this claustrophobic narrative is the narrator herself, some readers risk feeling trapped with a personality they'd prefer to know less intimately. Yet on the one occasion when Castillo allows herself to dramatize a cast of characters, she demonstrates real skill. In the book's final story, “La Miss Rose,” Castillo introduces us to a memorable lesbian voodoo priestess. Miss Rose whisks a pair of young Hispanic women off to Chicago, where she charms them (and the reader) with her spells, snakes, ceremonies, humor and intriguing view of life. “La Miss Rose,” like so many other stories in Loverboys, is weak on plot and doesn't conclude with anything resembling a satisfying resolution of the various cloudy issues raised in the narrative. But since Castillo dramatizes her characters in this story so effectively, readers will keep turning pages. Alas, this is not the case with many of her other tales. “Who Was Juana Gallo?,” the second story in the collection, is a dreary lecture extolling the virtues of a Mexican heroine. The narrator's disembodied voice achieves some color only when he mentions at the conclusion of his lecture that he was in love with Juana Gallo. “If Not for the Blessing of a Son” is another less than riveting exercise in telling instead of showing. In this distanced, third-person omniscient account of a dysfunctional Hispanic-American family the narrator hints at incest. But since none of the characters in the story is developed in such a way as to pique our interest and the incest issue is not resolved or even raised until the story's end, the story reads like a shapeless third-hand account from an untrustworthy gossip. “Christmas Story of the Golden Cockroach” does have an engaging plot element. In an entrepreneurial effort unlikely to mollify the anti-immigration faction in California, Paco and Rosa import their cockroach collection to the United States in hopes of breeding golden cockroaches. “I've been aware of the belligerence of the roaches in Paco and Rosa's house and how they don't worry a bit over the possibility of disgusting company,” the narrator muses. Unfortunately, for every golden cockroach the Mexicans produce, many thousands of ordinary ones are spawned. “The tenants in the rest of the building are outraged over the recent infestation. They are sending bomb threats to the realty office that manages the building for the landlord.” In “Conversations with an Absent Lover on a Beachless Afternoon,” Castillo displays the skill that her self-conscious narrative technique demands. In this soliloquy she advises her runaway lover, “We believe we are moving in a straight line when in fact we travel in spirals all our lives—so wide, at first, that for a long time we've thought we were heading forward. But after years, decades perhaps, the spirals have begun to narrow, finally becoming ringlets of memory. “That is when you will come back—a man in a ringlet of fire.” This collection, like most, is a mixture of disappointments, revelations and nice surprises. If its goal is to highlight the quirky, painful and unpredictable nature of love, it succeeds. But we already knew that love was quirky, painful and unpredictable.

Tanya Long Bennett (essay date Fall 1996)

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SOURCE: “No Country to Call Home: A Study of Castillo's Mixquiahuala Letters,” in Style, Vol. 30, No. 3, Fall, 1996, pp. 462–78.

[In the following essay, Bennett provides an in-depth study of the dynamics of the relationship between Teresa and Alicia in The Mixquiahuala Letters.]

I cannot say I am a citizen of the world as Virginia Woolf, speaking as an Anglo woman born to economic means, declared herself; nor can I make the same claim to U.S. citizenship as Adrienne Rich does despite her universal feeling for humanity. As a mestiza born to the lower strata, I am treated at best, as a second class citizen, at worst, as a non-entity. I am commonly perceived as a foreigner everywhere I go, including in the United States and in Mexico.

Ana Castillo, Massacre of the Dreamers

In Ana Castillo's The Mixquiahuala Letters, the narrator struggles with the problem that Castillo describes as being without a home, the problem of having no clearly defined identity to call one's own. As a result, the narrator not only reflects upon her self in the novel, but also, ultimately, recognizes the constructedness of her self. The Mixquiahuala Letters is made up of letters written by a young mestiza woman, Teresa, to her friend Alicia, concerning Teresa's and Alicia's friendship and the forces that work upon both women during their travels in Mexico and the United States. Some features of Castillo's novel are notably postmodern, for example, its particular form of epistolary narrative, the structure of which may only be determined by the reader, and the narrator's reference to herself as “i.” The letters that make up the novel are numbered, but Castillo suggests that their arrangement is arbitrary and that the reader's own preference for the novel's outcome should determine their order. In giving such a flexible structure to the novel, Castillo creates a text that cannot be defined by any unified ideology. Similarly, her choice of “i” as pronoun for her self undermines the notion of the authorial “I” in that it refuses to indicate the authority representing dominant discourses. Yet in saying “i,” Teresa, through her letters, can voice a self, a fragmented self that resists ideological definition.

Teresa is, from the outset, aware of the conflicting identities encompassed by her self. As a mestiza, she is U.S. American (from Chicago), Mexican, and Native-American, or “Indian.”1 Further, she is Catholic, a religion that includes not only Christian superstition but also that of her Native-American heritage, much of which has been absorbed by the Catholic tradition in the mestiza culture; and she is intellectual, a quality that requires her to disregard her superstitions. In addition, to complicate the relationships among these identities, she is a woman. Teresa writes her letters roughly between the ages of twenty and thirty, as a way to “make sense” of both her own and Alicia's experiences. By writing the letters, she is able to gain some distance from both her experiences and her feelings, as she expresses here:

i doubt if what i'm going to recall for both our sakes in the following pages will coincide one hundred percent with your recollections, but as you make use of my determination to attempt a record of some sort, to stir your memory, try not to look for flaws or inaccuracies.


Rather, keep the detachment you've strived for since knowing, if you kept it close, it would go on hurting. This isn't a tale of our experiences, but of two women.

(53)

The act of writing these letters is often disturbing for Teresa, and once having written them, she is not necessarily any more at peace than she was before. As she notes in letter 16, “when one is confronted by the mirror, the spirit trembles” (55). Yet, there is a need to write. Although what Teresa learns by looking in the mirror/writing her letters is not comforting, it allows her a new sense of agency. This agency comes primarily from her observation that reality is constructed, that is, the act of writing gives her a medium, first for deconstructing oppressive ideologies, and then for constructing her own reality, including her self. The constructedness of things is emphasized by the structural play Castillo sets up in the text itself, demanding the reader's recognition of its nature as a construct and participation in the construction of her/his own reality.

As for Alicia's role as recipient of the letters, Teresa is clearly aware of the pitfalls of such a position, thus her acknowledgement that Alicia will undoubtedly have her own version of the narrated events. Anne Lieberman Bower suggests that “Tere's [Teresa's] persistent effort to rewrite the past for herself and for Alicia could be termed, to borrow a phrase from Nancy K. Miller, an effort ‘to unwrite the text which keeps her prisoner’” (105). Yet simply to rewrite the past for Alicia would be to reenact conventions that would imprison her in yet another narrative that is not her own. Erlinda Gonzales-Berry explores The Mixquiahuala Letters in light of a conventional effect of epistolary fiction: the establishment of the subject-object or master-slave hierarchy. This hierarchy results from the control that the writer usually exercises over the narrative, authorizing experience and sending it to the receiver/object of correspondence. Yet, as Gonzales-Berry states, while on a certain level Teresa writes to convey information and feelings to Alicia, Castillo also complicates the conventional paradigm to subvert “traditional trappings” (231). First, she reverses the qualities of the friends so that Teresa, who as writer would traditionally be superior, exhibits traditionally inferior qualities—she is “morena” (brown) with “round fleshy contours” and “Indian Ancestry” (231)—while Alicia's qualities would traditionally be considered superior: she is “fair skinned” with “thin muscular contours” and “Anglo-Spanish Ancestry” (231). Second, Teresa writes, at least to a certain extent, to herself. As Gonzales-Berry states, “The very conventions of the genre which traditionally have marked the boundaries between self and other [dates, clear pronouns, greetings, farewells, and signatures] begin to disappear and ambiguity shows her tantalizing face” (233). While Lieberman Bower's point that Teresa desires a renewal of the bond between herself and Alicia is well-taken, Gonzales-Berry suggests that the very notion of subject/object is broken down in the novel and that the two women begin to merge through “difference—plural, fluid, fragmentary” (234). In spite of this merging, however, Teresa does not intend to absorb Alicia's own narrative, as is evident in her suggestion that their “recollections” will differ. In Teresa's words, Alicia will “make use of [Teresa's] determination to attempt a record of some sort, to stir [Alicia's] memory” rather than simply adopting Teresa's narrative as her own (53; emphasis added). Thus, while Teresa does rewrite her experience, she suggests in her letters to Alicia that her version of those experiences is only that, one version among many others.

The tension between Teresa's conflicting identities and her desire to establish a liberated self that is unconstricted by ideological constructs, including the notion of binary oppositions, is the force that drives the novel. Language, metaphor, and form are the most apparent forums for this tension; the epistolary novel is, of course, a prime genre for developing such tension. By using the epistolary novel, widely considered a conventional women's form (Perry ix), by developing tension through language and metaphor, and by manipulating form to show the nature of Teresa's fragmentation, Castillo places readers—and Teresa—somewhere between a perspective that acknowledges ideology and one that rejects ideological dominance. This fluctuation reflects the impossibility of taking any permanent position and foregrounds the resulting fragmentation of Teresa's self.

As suggested above, it is by no means easy to categorize the elements of Teresa's identities. In her language, both Spanish and English, at times both formal and informal, often venturing even into the poetic, Teresa continually conveys the internal conflict she experiences as a “countryless woman” (Massacre 21). The letters are written primarily in English, and, typical of correspondence to friends, their tone is often informal. Further, Teresa uses idiomatic and slang phrases to create a tone of familiarity in keeping with the conventions of informal letter-writing. For instance, to describe her Tia Filomena, she consistently uses Spanish to describe familial relationships. She says, “She took in laundry, children of working-out-of-the-home-mothers and whipped out some mean drapes on an old pedestal Singer” (17). Of Tia Filomena's oldest son, she says, “Eddie is now Edie—if you get my drift” (18). She uses words like “cool” for Tia Filomena, who does not mind Teresa's sunbathing (17), and “hot” to describe what Eddie/Edie is not, since he has become a woman (18). Though many of the letters are more formal or poetic than letter 1, written usually to reflect and/or to examine rather than to request action from Alicia, idiom and slang appear from time to time throughout the collection. For example, in a parenthetical note to Alicia/the reader in letter 25, Teresa writes, “Years later, only hindsight causes us to look upon the engineers' proposition as ludicrous, but we are not those of then, and if anyone else happens to read this account and would like to give us the benefit of the doubt, i warn him/her not to put money on it” (94). In letter 37, she states, again idiomatically, “i want to take my ghosts, Alicia, confront them face to face, snarl at them, stick out my tongue, wiggle my fingers from the sides of my head, nya-nya!” (130).

On the other hand, there are times when Teresa takes a more formal or, according to white American academic standards, “sophisticated” tone. For example, in letter 11, she offers an explanation of the complex relationship she shares with Alicia: “We weren't free of society's tenets to be convinced we could exist indefinitely without the demands and complications one aggregated with the supreme commitment to a man” (45). In a similar tone in letter 14, she tries to clarify her definition of Alicia's beauty: “i'm not referring to that inner beauty one goes on about with diplomacy and discretion as consolation for the absence of external attributes, ever critical to women beings” (51). Interestingly, following this passage, Teresa moves into a more poetic expression to reveal what she does mean by beauty: “You keep your virgin hair long, long, a snake hung by its tail down the narrow ripples of your vertebrae. Putting antiquated values regarding feminine beauty aside, it is lovely. You know that. That's why you keep it, brushing fastidiously nightly like a weaver of precious silk” (51). Teresa, then, moves repeatedly between formal English, necessary for being heard by a “mainstream” audience, and informal English, which might be more commonly associated with a lower-strata, mestiza culture, and in doing so, she generates poetic expression that draws attention to the power of language itself, the power to produce vision and perspective and/or to explode those things.

Similarly, she shifts between English and Spanish, both factors of her complex identity. While she does not have access to the language of her Native American ancestors, she expresses herself readily in Spanish, even sometimes turning an English word into a Spanish-sounding one, like the substitution of “Nuyorquina” (18) for New Yorker. She relates Spanish dialogue from episodes with her relatives, friends, and acquaintances (for example, “Y traeme una para mi y el nino, hija,' tia Filo said, coming around the house with Peioncito by the hand” [19]), and includes Spanish words and phrases in her poetry as well, such as “Un cuento sin ritmo / Time is Fluid” (70). Her use of the languages associated with her various identities becomes, in fact, something of a collage, a collection of fragments brought together to make a powerful expression of who she is. The shifts in tone and/or dialect and between English and Spanish generate an awareness for the reader that Teresa cannot be defined by any one of these languages, though each one shapes her in some way as we will see, and that the medium of letters accommodates her fragmented identity.

The metaphors that Teresa uses in her letters reveal the same tension as does her use of multiple languages. These metaphors typically address the conflict between the desire for essentialism, for a sense that “home” has a particular and definable essence, and the flaws in the notion that the systems that describe reality can accurately represent such an essence. For example, the religious representations are double-edged. For Teresa, the Catholic religion is inescapable; the church points to life that might be condemned by an almighty, all-knowing God. Teresa asks Alicia in letter 4, “Do you know the smell of a church? … a CATHEDRAL, with doors the height of two very tall men and so heavy that when you pull one open to enter you feel as small as you are destined” (30). Teresa's memory of her past is steeped in the experience of this kind of church: “It smells of incense, hot oils, the wax of constant burning candles, melting at a vigilant pace, the plaster of an army of saints watching with fixed glass eyes, revered in exchange for being mediators and delivering your feeble prayers. It smells of flowers and palms that precede Easter. It smells of death” (30). Here, the church is revealed to be both wonderful and terrifying. Even though at 18 she ran out of the confession box and never returned to church, she cannot disregard its place in her life. When she gives birth to a son, she has him baptized; as she explains in letter 40, “It's been said once a Catholic, always a Catholic. Perhaps it was a superstitious idiosyncracy that provoked me to want Vittorio baptized” (134). Although her early experience in the confession box temporarily drove her away from her religious life, she writes in letter 24 that her regard for her spiritual heritage serves as a liberating force when she and Alicia are threatened by bad spirits while staying for a few days at the home of the young engineers in Mexico. Since Alicia has no belief in spiritual matters, and thus no spiritual power, it is up to Teresa to protect them from the “massive rolling of energy blacker than the darkness in the room” (88): “Clutching the crystal-beaded rosary in my hands and winding it around your fingers against my chest. i whispered with an exorcist's will in your ear … Our Father Who art in heaven …” (88; ellipses and emphasis in original).

Yet, some of Teresa's letters reveal her recognition of the limiting effects of Christianity as well. Even in light of her bad experience in the confessional, she writes in letter I that she was married not in the church but in a park by a Hare Krishna. She reflects back on this when her Madrina warns her of the consequences of divorce: “According to the Church, even if you get a divorce, you'll always be married and you'll live in sin with any other man, Teresita. … We didn't even get married in a church, i added” (22). Likewise, in letter 27, she describes a dream in which she visits a village, one not yet destroyed by a world of “progress.” This village “didn't seek to change the world but lived in good faith and prayer offered to an imposing God” (103). Of course, in light of the impositions of God and of “the world,” this village has no future. Its imposing God will put a stranglehold on it that will allow its absorption by European culture and lead to its virtual annihilation. The metaphors of the death-smell of the church and the dream-village are mitigated, however. For instance, she writes in letter 3 of the Toltec ruins, which are symbols of gods who, for Teresa, pre-existed the Christian God: “monolithic statues in tribute to warriors and a benevolent god in self-exile who reappeared later on Mayan shores, and again, on the back of a four legged beast to display his mortal fallibilities” (25). Even this benevolent vision includes only men, however, and it is still a monolith, a system in which truth is fixed, imposed and imposing. While both Christianity and the system of religion that preceded it ostensibly offer Teresa sources of strength, in actuality they both deny her a “home.”

The essentialist system of patriarchal rule, both in the United States and in Mexico, is represented ambivalently as well in metaphors that reveal its snake-like abilities to embrace as well as to choke. When Alicia joins a women's group in order to become independent enough to pursue her career, the group imposes celibacy as a requirement for membership (111). The problems Alicia encounters after joining the group result from “the absence of what [she] couldn't pinpoint to anything but nature yielding [her] body and spirit despite society's obstacles. Men and women belonged together” (112). Alicia wants a family, someone with whom to share the responsibilities and joys of life. She ends up sharing her apartment with a Viet Nam veteran, Abdel. Teresa has acknowledged in letter 11 that what Alicia seems to be filling in this episode is the need “to seek approval from man through sexual meetings” (45). Yet, Teresa has also betrayed the movement by returning to her husband. Even after she has left him again, Teresa suggests in letter 30 that to commit to celibacy would be “biting your nose off to spite your face” (111). Although the feminist movement of this period succeeds in generating an awareness for women, and for some men, of the inequities experienced in U.S. society, the movement itself is not a saving entity for Alicia or for Teresa. As many have noted, one of the movement's biggest obstacles is the difficulty of effecting separatism in a world in which heterosexuality is dominant. Teresa feels the impossibility of such a thing as separatism, for instance, in the context of Alicia's and her experience. Yet, in letter 30, even as she empathizes with Alicia's desire for a relationship with a man, Teresa describes being choked by her relationship with Alexis, the flamenco artist: “[I]t was a period in which all those ideals were twisted and made perverse by the man who held me rumpled, like composition sheets, in his tight grip” (112).

This image of a hand holding her trapped is enhanced by the snake metaphor used to describe the relationship between men and women. Teresa writes in letter 10 that having rejected men for just a little while, Alicia, Teresa, and her childhood friend, who had left her husband “to find herself” (44) lived together, seeking strength from one another: “We were obsessed / with visions of snakes that threatened / to wind themselves around our yearning hearts …” (44). Although letter 21 describes from a third person point of view either her or Alicia's fascination with snakes as representative of Coatlicue, a version of the Mother Earth,2 this symbol is a complex one. As Teresa and Alicia walk along the Yucatan beach, “[o]ne picked up a dead branch and lingeringly drew something in the sand. She drew a snake. S. She draws another snake. S. Two snakes. S. S. She was obsessed with snakes. The snake woman, Coatlicue” (72). This snake image is of an empowered female, yet it is also an image that depends upon the patriarchy's dominant position for its power. In Massacre of the Dreamers, Castillo explains that by the time the Mother Earth figure evolved into Coatlicue in the sixteenth century,

[t]he death aspect of the dual power of Mother—fertility and death—had taken over. Around her neck a necklace of men's hearts and hands was symbolic of her insatiable thirst for human sacrifice. Let's keep in mind that that image of Coatlicue was created in the context of a war-oriented, conquest-driven society, that of the Aztecs.

(11)

Thus, the snake image in Teresa's letters is an ambivalent one, ultimately reflecting the patriarchy. In letter 19, in a description of Mexico, Teresa expresses her ambivalence toward the place she would like to call her homeland but which rejects her as “revolting” since “the only respect granted a woman is that which a gentleman bestows upon a lady. Clearly, we were no ladies” (65). She also describes this “homeland” using the snake-like image: “Mexico. Melancholy, profoundly right and wrong, it embraces as it strangulates” (65).

The image of self that she has constructed from the internalization of these historical value systems and legends, while it is based on essential systems that pose as unified ones, does not, of course, hold up. As a fundamental proponent of truth, the Church fails. As a mythical homeland with the potential for reestablishment, the pre-Columbian culture of Mexico fails as well. And pervasive in the modern cultures of both the U.S. and Mexico is the deceptive system of the strangulating patriarchy, ostensibly promoting yet actually oppressing individualism. The metaphors for the Church, the Toltec world, and modern-day patriarchy reveal them to be essentialist and frightening. The cathedral with its big heavy doors and the ruins with their monoliths are imposing, limiting even as they claim essential, fixed truth. The patriarchal rule, resting upon the power established by these traditions and on its power to seduce, traps and ultimately destroys.

The ambivalence Teresa feels about all of these ideologies results, then, from her constant movement between conflicting essentialist perspectives. Just as her metaphors of religious and political monoliths function to reveal that ambivalence, the form she chooses, letters, serves as a metaphor for that movement as well. Metaphorically, the letters function as a mirror: not only may they ostensibly reflect an image, but, more accurately, they may also deconstruct/construct an image. When Teresa meets Alvaro Perez in the central square of a small Mexican town, she sees in him a reflection of herself as a result of “the Indian spirit of mutual ancestors” (54). Teresa comments that “[w]hen one is confronted by the mirror, the spirit trembles” (55). Yet Teresa's and Alvaro's different perspectives on the world soon send them on their separate ways, the differences in their views caused mostly by their different genders in a culture that labels a woman travelling without a man a “tramp” (57). The ideal of her Native American ancestral heritage as a “home” does not mirror her fully, so she opts for a mirror that is more fragmented and fluctuating, her letters.

In letter 19, Teresa makes the following statement: “Destiny is not a metaphysical confrontation with one's self, rather, society has knit its pattern so tight that a confrontation with it is inevitable” (65). Although her identity encompasses the tradition of Hispanic Catholicism and its own inheritance of Native-American religious superstitions, including ideas of transcendent spirituality, this statement hits upon the inescapable fact of constructed reality. While the ideal that one has a metaphysical self that exists in a pure form outside of the influences of reality might be interesting, and even feasible in some other realm, in the end, in this realm, reality shapes the way one sees one's very self. For instance, Yvonne Yarbro-Bejarano addresses the notion that Teresa and Alicia mirror one another:

While the text uses the image of the mirror to speak of the relationship between the two women, their mirroring of each other works paradoxically against their identification, due at times to the inaccuracy of the representation. In the other each sees the reflection of her own need and dependence from which she must avert her gaze. Yet they love each other more than men, and are “driven to see the other improved in her own reflection.”

(67)

Teresa's letters exhibit the same subjectivity as a mirror image. Although at various points in the novel Teresa and Alicia achieve what Teresa perceives as a state of oneness, performing “cranelike movements in slow motion one and its mirror” (128), each is actively working to shape the other. As Teresa understands it, “We needled, stabbed, manipulated, cut, and through it all we loved, driven to see the other improved in her own reflection” (29). This comment is interesting in light of the suggestion in the previous quote that Teresa is Alicia's reflection and Alicia is Teresa's. Not only does each seek to improve the other, but each also needles, stabs, manipulates, and cuts at herself, longing to improve the reflection of the other—in other words, her self. Yet for each, the agency she can achieve in trying to shape her self is often frustrated by the pattern society has knit in the shape of herself. What does this fact say about the letters themselves?

Teresa writes the letters as a way to get to know her self, and this purpose gives the letters an essential quality, a reflexive one. Similarly, Teresa's reality as reflected in her letters might seem to be passed on to Alicia as well as to us, just as one might wish to pass on the truth, whole and material. Yet, several things contradict this essential quality traditionally attributed to the written word. First, in referring to her self as “[i],” Teresa reveals that she is not only reflecting her self but also creating her self in the letters. Yarbro-Bejarano notes that

[w]riting the Chicana “I” questions the authority of dominant discourses, and resists the appropriation of the knowing subject either male or female that “forgets” race and class oppression. Chicana writers', like Castillo's, struggle to claim the “I” of literary discourse is inseparable from their struggle for empowerment in the economic, social and political spheres.

(72)

While Teresa is empowered by her ability to speak in the first person, she resists the tendency to become the authorial “I,” instead calling her self “[i].” In her unconventional choice of pronoun for her self, she forces the reader to recognize her role yet at the same time exercises control over the narrative voice. Further, as Teresa suggests, there is no essential Teresa to create that self; rather it is she, whose shape is at least partly molded by society, who is constructing the letters. Thus, it is impossible for her to free her self entirely from what surrounds and constructs her, thwarting, for good or for ill, the idea of total individualism and the benefits attributed to it, including the American dream, are impossible.

Yet, in an act of agency—of a self/empowered by the knowledge that ideologies are only that, ideologies—Teresa/Castillo designs a postmodern text whose shape is not predetermined by her. Barbara Brinson Curiel addresses the postmodern quality of Castillo's text, focusing on the way in which Castillo crosses boundaries between genres. In a discussion of the heteroglossia set up by Castillo's suggested readings of the novel, Curiel describes in particular Castillo's distinction between appearance and reality. She notes that, for example, there are “strong intertextual links between The Mixquiahuala Letters and Miguel de Cervantes's Don Quixote,” revealed most overtly by the suggestion of a Quixotic reading of The Mixquiahuala Letters. She points out that “[b]oth are metafictions, fictions about fictions” (15). Curiel argues further that in setting up this connection, Castillo chooses

to present the range of viewpoints on issues such as gender roles, courtship, and marriage, aspects of contemporary life which are in a supreme state of flux, and so has created a space for her own vision, presented with all of its living conflicts and contradictions. She has created, instead of a monoglot and closed narrative unity, a “dynamic unity which is uniquely capable of representing a conflicting and evolving cultural and social life.

(21)

Curiel suggests that in blurring the boundaries between the novel employing a conventional ending and those lacking a fixed ending, The Mixquiahuala Letters yields a more honest, albeit unresolved, commentary on its subject. Not only does Castillo refuse to provide a traditional fixed ending for her novel, but she forces the reader into an awareness that he/she helps determine his/her experience of reading the novel. Instead of simply reading an account of Teresa's and Alicia's experiences, the reader helps to construct that narrative. Further, Castillo forces the reader to acknowledge that social constructs will influence, perhaps even determine, the way the reader will “choose” to read the narrative. With labels like “cynic,” “conformist,” and “quixotic” to choose from, the reader must ask by what influence she/he leans toward a particular way of reading the narrative. For example, for the conformist Castillo suggests that the story end with Teresa in confronting the memories of her rejection in Mexico and putting to rest (we assume) her resentments of that country. Conversely, the cynic would choose to arrange the letters so that the novel ends with an angry letter in which Teresa chastises her friend for “stealing” an old lover. Regardless of the reader's biases, Teresa's/Castillo's form brings the reader into an awareness of those choices and of the influence of those choices.3 It is this awareness, she suggests, that can effect some agency over one's experience.

In addition, the structural play she sets up raises some questions about dominance and control. As Alvina E. Quintana notes, in the context of her letters, Teresa/Castillo mediates between ethnography and conventional fiction. Quintana argues that Chicana literature in general “functions as a bold cultural invention, which ironically enough resembles what we have come to respect as interpretive or experimental ethnography” (74–75). She suggests that rather than serving strictly as an “objective” account of cultural habits, traditions, and values, as proposed by a conventional ethnographical study or as a fictive account of personal experience, detached from social and cultural forces, The Mixquiahuala Letters does both. Quintana notes, “as a parody of modern ethnography [which would employ the voice of objective authority], Castillo's text becomes an enterprise that provides the voices and experiences involved in growing up Chicana, revealing in [Eric] Wolf's words ‘unsuspected connections among sets of social activities and cultural forms’” (80). This issue of objective authority versus subjective participant overlaps with the issue of Anglo dominance. Although Teresa has no real space in which to create her self, she refuses to repeat the oppressive act of the ethnographer by taking on the voice of authority. Rather, she unravels the objective, ordered account of her experiences and makes it entirely a subjective but nevertheless an important comment on cultural, social, and gender differences.

The main effect of Castillo's use of language, metaphor, and form to exhibit the problems of essentialism is an undermining of dominant ideologies as systems by which one may be fully defined. Within what has historically been accepted by the patriarchy as a “women's form,” Castillo examines patriarchal rule as a factor in the shaping of all facets of society. The variety of contradictory subject positions that Teresa experiences reveals, in turn, her problems of identity under the influence of the patriarchal system. She is not accepted as an orthodox member either of her ancestral religion or of Catholicism since she chooses to pose as a free agent, leaving her husband, travelling through Mexico with “only” another woman as her companion, and calling herself a poet. Here, Teresa faces another problem of identity: she seeks the acceptance and the affirmation of her Mexican roots, yet the more “liberal” definition of her sexuality clashes with cultural ones. Norma Alarcon describes well the conflict for a woman between commitment to cultural revolution and expression of her sexuality, specifically the erotic:

Given the assumed class position of the speaker herself, affirming the erotic, as she takes pause from the class struggle, is tantamount to speaking against herself, or so her “brother/lover” may attest. The implicit suggestion that the erotic and the class struggle may be incompatible in a patriarchal world, when both are made public, places the underclass female in a double bind, since she may be forced to choose between areas of life that, for her, are intertwined or indivisible. In my view, the speakers in Castillo's work refuse to make such choices.

(95–96)

Teresa's refusal to choose presupposes an awareness of the gap between her sexual liberation and her Mexican roots. Yet she refuses to reject her Mexican heritage since it is an important fragment of her world that may be of use to her.

In fact, in some ways Teresa seems to have an easier time of it in Mexico than she does in the United States since in “the old world,” the odds she is up against are overt and therefore more easily challenged. For example, when Alicia is almost raped twice in one evening, Teresa has seen it coming, for she knows that “in the lion's den one doesn't play by one's own rules” (84). She knows that for a woman to dance freely with men in this country is for her to “admit” promiscuity. Although she realizes her own vulnerability in coming to her friend's defense since she has “a vagina too” (84), she hurls words into the air anyway in an attempt to overcome the “spell” the men are under. Significantly, the words are “LEAVE HER ALONE YOU SON OF A GOD-DAMNED FATHERLESS BITCH OR …” (84). The very words she uses to break the spell confirm woman's inferior position in this society: as fatherless, woman is condemned. Yet Teresa's acknowledgement, her understanding of this system, serves her well in such situations. Unlike Alicia, who does not understand the system, she has “an edge on society's contradictions by admitting to their enforced power over us” (92). The advantage Teresa holds while in familiar territory parallels the agility she exhibits in the epistolary mode. Her letters to Alicia, in a “women's form,” offer her space within which to express her fragmented self without being as vulnerable as she might be in other circumstances.

In contrast to her experience in Mexico, in the United States, Teresa does not hold such advantages. She realizes that “[w]omen in the United States could rally around government buildings, flash placards at media cameras, write letters of complaint to their congressmen (or congresswomen if that were the case)” (92); as a result of the women's movement, both Teresa and Alicia have a sense of the attainability of freedom for women in the United States. Yet, the idea of this newfound freedom is in some ways deceptive, for even in the United States both Alicia and Teresa find themselves demeaned in relationships with men, even in the United States, because of their status as women. For instance, Alicia's relationship with Ahmad leaves her drained: “The man/who lived with you was like a mean draft to one in the last phases of pneumonia. He spent the food allowance on smoke and beer. He brought unsavory types to hang out in the apartment. The plants withered” (129). Although it is not only Alicia who suffers in this relationship—Ahmad commits suicide in the end, aware that he does not fit society's definition of a man—what makes her vulnerable to this kind of relationship is her understanding that without a man she is not enough.

Similarly, even in the United States Teresa takes a submissive role in her relationships. Her husband, Libra, subjects her to humiliation even after she has left him once and then returned. After Teresa travels with her husband, his partner Melvin, and Melvin's girlfriend Cristina to visit a farm in the country and see a horse that is for sale, Melvin tells the women to hitch a ride back to town so the men can talk about “business” (41). When Teresa appears shocked at his suggestion, he charges her, “c'mon woman. Don't give Libra a hard time now. You always talkin' 'bout being equal to men, being able to do anything a man can do, don't tell us you afraid of hitching home!” (41). Even after Teresa leaves Libra following this episode, she falls into the role of submissive partner to men. She automatically grants the gay poet who becomes her roommate the superior role as artist even though Teresa considers herself a poet. Yet, at least he does not dominate her in other ways. She explains, “I deferred humbly to his talent and as he was homosexual, he wasn't interested in making me a conquest” (109). As a gay man, he is sensitive to her need to have “someone's approval of [her] existence” (109). But when Alexis moves in, they both submit to him. She explains, “then the fire of Alexis spread, not just throughout our souls that ached for understanding, protection, approval, but to our minds and it manifested in petty jealousies and competitions for his attention” (110). Though Teresa ultimately triumphs in the contest for Alexis, the relationship ends in trauma after she aborts the child that results from the affair. Exhibiting some control over her experience, she has the abortion because “he would never have been out of my life if i'd had his child” (116), but she does not escape without some major scars—she has loved him. After he screams at her, “you bitch!,” tries and fails to injure her physically, and accuses her of “never think[ing] of anyone but [her]self!” (115), she orders him out of her house. Yet, determined to wrest back control over the relationship, control that she has stolen in having the abortion, Alexis refuses to leave “when i wanted him to go” (116). Rather, it is when she is “up and about, able to cook, do his laundry, that he decided to leave” (116). Further, while Teresa exhibits some agency in this episode, she has trouble recovering. She writes Alicia, “i'm much better now and will be up and around soon to gather the pieces of the woman who was my self” (114).

In letter 32, she offers Alicia her definition of love: “In the classic sense, it describes in one syllable all the humiliation that one is born to and pressed upon to surrender to a man” (117). Perhaps it is her failure to understand that in the United States the system oppresses her just as it does in Mexico that makes her vulnerable to this kind of humiliation. In Mexico, her recognition of the inequity of the system gives her an edge. In the U.S., she is deceived into thinking that she is an equal with the men of her society, and this belief keeps her from having any advantages. She writes Alicia, “you had been angry that i never had problems attracting men. You pointed out the obvious, the big breasts, full hips and thighs, the kewpie doll mouth. Underlining the superficial attraction men felt toward me is what you did not recognize. i was docile” (119).4

Perhaps the most striking effect of patriarchal control over these women's experience is that, both in Mexico and in the United States, it keeps them from sharing a homosexual relationship. Although both have been treated badly, even by men with good intentions, Alicia and Teresa never sever sexual ties with men. Ultimately, they need men in order to be defined and approved of in a patriarchal system. Yet, they have also shared an intimacy and, in some ways, an understanding that they never experienced with any of the men they have known. They have been like beacons to one another: “By candlelight we each found our way to a room for the night, like phantoms, called to each other out of the blackness to give a point of destination” (32). Although it has not involved sex, Teresa defines their relationship as a “love affair”: “When i say ours was a love affair, it is an expression of nostalgia and melancholy for the depth of our empathy” (45). And while it is true that they have “never been lovers,” they have shared not just emotional but physical intimacy as well:

It is true we slept together curled up on the rickety Mexican bus that wound its way through the nocturnal roads from one strange place to another; a soft shoulder served as a pillow for the other's head. …


It is true


we bathed together


in the most casual sense, scrubbed each other's back, combed out one another's wet hair, braided it with more care than grandmothers who invariably catch it on broken tooth combs. We pierced each other's ears.


For the first half of the decade we were an objective one, a single entity, nondiscriminate of the other's being.

(127–28)5

There is a paradox, then, in the formation of this intimate relationship: while the patriarchy promotes it, the patriarchy also limits it.

Teresa acknowledges that what has brought her and Alicia so close is struggling with the problems caused them by their status as women. She explains, “our thoughts had been synchronized. The closeness we had felt for each other had been heightened by our desire to survive during our travels that had been filled with unpredictable dilemmas” (98). Thus, it is not biological essentialism that has generated their “uterine comprehension” (24); rather, it is their common experience as women. Teresa explains that “our sticking together had become a habit born of preventative measures” (87). But the patriarchal society has taken measures to keep its control over even such a relationship. The dynamics of Teresa's and Alicia's friendship are altered by the fact that women are defined in such a society by their relationships with men, relationships with other women not being important enough. Even though Teresa describes them as “being one,” they are never completely synchronized because of tension between them with regard to men. Alicia resents Teresa for having a body that men desire. Teresa resents Alicia because she is white: “Society had made them [white women] above all possessions desired. And they believed it” (49). When they seek comfort from the danger and pain they have experienced in Mexico and in the United States at the hands of the men they have known, they turn again to men: “We licked our wounds with the underside of penises and applied semen to our tender bellies and breasts like Tiger's balm” (106). Teresa's partner in this process is Alexis, who ends up hurting her worse, perhaps, than any of her other lovers. Although she and Alicia are compassionate companions to each other, society makes them feel that this relationship is inferior to that between man and woman: “The assumption here is that neither served as a legitimate companion for the other” (66).

This feeling, the result of their own insecurities, leads to bickering between the two friends. When they visit the Zapotec ruins and meet up with a local artist, a native of the area, they mistake his initial interest in Alicia's art for romantic interest. When he begins instead to show romantic interest for Teresa, Alicia becomes jealous and resentful. Back at the hotel, Teresa, anxious to reconcile, speaks aloud of her weariness of men, but this does not break down the barrier that the episode has created between them. Alicia cries, “lifting [her] face to the dull mirror, ‘You … just … don't … understand … Do … you … ?’” Teresa's answer, a lie, is “No!” (64). Even in her attempts to reconcile with Alicia, Teresa cannot admit her own part in the system, a part she later characterizes as docility. Again, in letter 38, Teresa chastises Alicia for stealing a former lover, Vicente, from her: “How long did you think i would tolerate your growing pains?” (131). Not particularly connected to the letters around it, it lies a fragment among fragments, evidence of the element in the two women that is complicit with the patriarchal system to the extent that they cannot be “one.” Teresa's description of Alicia's art seems to describe their relationship: “one angry doll inside the house, before a lopsided table with real, miniature copper utensils and clay vessels. The other drowns in the ocean, visible from the window of the little house” (124). In spite of the apparent merging that took place between them during their experiences, as Gonzales-Berry suggests, their state of oneness has been temporary, if periodic, since patriarchal standards are a force neither woman can ignore.

But the epistolary form does allow a sort of agency. Carl Gutierrez-Jones argues that while in Teresa's failure to transfer her understanding of this ideology's workings to Alicia she fails to transcend patriarchal control over her relationship to men and to Alicia, through her letters, she “challenges the power [of the oppressor] as well as the process of gender construction and its goal of perpetuating silent acceptance” (115). She does what Ramon Saldivar suggests feminism is capable of doing: “pluraliz [ing] meaning by violating the taboos erected by the classist, racist, sexist ruling-order by opening her lips, politicizing the word, and proclaiming its revolutionary force” (198–99). One taboo that has been violated through this form involves the relationship between Teresa and Alicia. Here, in her letters, Teresa can call it a “love affair.” Here, the patriarchy does not keep her from acknowledging the significance of the relationship or its superiority over those Teresa and Alicia have with their male lovers.

In addition, the epistolary form allows Teresa to be all the fragments that make up her self. Her greetings and signatures show the fluctuation in that self. Her addresses to Alicia vary from “My sister, companion, my friend” (24) to “Poor Alicia” (34), “So Alicia, as you may reluctantly recall” (52), “Mi agridulce Alicia” (134), to no greeting at all. Her closures vary also, from “Always, Teresa” (38), to “i'm sorry, Alicia, T.” (64), “just another pretty face” (70), “Amen” (90), “Always, Tere” (125), to no signature at all. At one moment a self who cannot admit to Alicia that she understands the effects of male rejection on her friend, she is in another moment, another letter, a self who can and does: “i wouldn't deny to you again that i understand why you hated yourself” (119). And not only is Teresa a composite of fragments, but she also seems aware of this, that she is like “a collage of imaginary realities” (120). Her description of Alicia's art can also be applied to Teresa's letters: “There are traces of Frida Kahlo and postmortem praise, her exposed heart as a blood pumping organ rather than the romantic metaphor expressing emotional rejection” (127). Teresa's metaphors are not romantic; rather, they serve to deconstruct romantic ones. In addition, she is able through her letters to reconstruct a fragmented self rather than an ostensibly unified one, and, in doing so; to construct a new metaphor of that kind of self.

By choosing the form she does, a collection of fragments that may be organized in any way the reader chooses, Teresa/Castillo suggests that the limits that keep Teresa and Alicia from the full benefits of their relationship can be deconstructed only after they are recognized. Teresa wrestles with the ideologies that shape her view of the world, never achieving a complete escape. The process of constructing the mirror image, however, in which she may view, somewhat objectively, her self, her experiences, is what gives her a certain amount of agency over the definition of her self. Since constructing the self is a process, Castillo infers that it must be a continual activity. Further, the reader is in a state of self-examination immediately upon opening this text and must attempt to organize it according to his/her own preferences, simultaneously beginning a process of deconstruction/construction as well. This process, Castillo suggests, is the only avenue that leads away from the traps of ideological perspective.

Notes

  1. In Massacre of the Dreamers, Castillo comments about her heritage: “The woman in the United States who is politically self-described as Chicana, mestiza in terms of race, and Latina or Hispanic in regards to her Spanish-speaking heritage, and who numbers in the millions in the United States cannot be summarized nor neatly categorized” (1). She later terms herself a “mestiza Amerindian woman” (1). While she does not use the term “Indian” by itself to refer to the Native American, she uses the word “indio” in reference to the indigenous populations of the Americas (2). With respect for Castillo's careful description of her background, I attempt, in this chapter, to use her terminology as scrupulously and as accurately as possible.

  2. Castillo, Massacre of the Dreamers 11.

  3. In an interview with Castillo, Mitchell, et al. ask about a story that parallels The Mixquiahuala Letters in its lack of a conventional plot: “Does that in any way reflect the ‘limbo’ that maybe the Chicano person has to deal with, in regards to identifying himself or herself?” Castillo answers, “I know you don't want that responsibility as a reader, but you got it” (154).

  4. Alarcon points out the contradictions between the “docile” Teresa and the more assertive and angry Teresa. While these contradictions are apparent and offer key evidence of the multiplicity of Teresa's identity, Alarcon's suggestion that Castillo “mocks” Teresa's submissiveness seems misguided. She comments that “confessions [of docility and complicitous hopes] are barely audible. They tend to get lost in Tere's latter-day, after-the-fact sardonic anger” (100). Teresa does mock herself, as Alarcon notes. Rather than mocking Teresa, however, Castillo seems to be generating for the reader a way of sympathizing with Teresa by constructing a narrative in which one can see the nature of her multiplicity. As Alarcon herself argues earlier in her essay, Castillo seems to refuse to commit either to her culture or to feminism to the exclusion of the other. The indication seems, rather, that, for Teresa, separating her culture from the oppressive roles it has set up is an impossibility. It is only the recognition of that fact that seems to liberate Teresa to some extent.

  5. Teresa employs a somewhat poetic format in this passage that I have tried to preserve.

Works Cited

Alarcon, Norma. “The Sardonic Powers of the Erotic in the Work of Ana Castillo.” Breaking Boundaries: Latina Writing and Critical Readings. Ed. Asuncion Horno-Delgado, et al. Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1989. 94–107.

Bower, Anne Lieberman. “Rewriting the Self, Writing the Other: An Investigation of Recent American Epistolary Novels.” Diss. West Virginia U, 1990.

Castillo, Ana. The Mixquiahuala Letters. New York: Doubleday, 1986.

———. Massacre of the Dreamers: Essays on Xicanisma. Albuquerque: U of New Mexico P, 1994.

Curiel, Barbara Brinson. “Heteroglossia in Aria Castillo's The Mixquiahuala Letters.” Discurso: Revista de Estudios Iberoamericanos 7 (1990): 11–23.

Gonzales-Berry, Erlinda. “The (Subversive) Mixquiahuala Letters: An Antidote for Self-Hate.” L'lci et ailleurs. Ed. Jean Beranger, et al. Talence Cedex: PU de Bordeaux, Centre de Resetches sur S'Amerique Anglophone, 1991. 227–40.

Gutierrez-Jones, Carl. Rethinking the Borderlands: Between Chicano Culture and Legal Discourse. Berkeley: U of California P, 1995.

Mitchell, Jacqueline, et al. “Entrevista a Aria Castillo.” Mester 20.2 (1991): 145–56.

Perry, Ruth. Women, Letters, and the Novel. New York. AMS, 1980.

Quintana, Alvina E. “Ana Castillo's The Mixquiahuala Letters: The Novelist as Ethnographer.” Criticism in the Borderlands: Studies in Chicano Literature, Culture, and Ideology. Ed. Hector Calderon and Jose David Saldivar. Durham: Duke UP, 1991. 72–83.

Saldivar, Ramon. Chicano Narrative: The Dialectics of Difference. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1990.

Yarbro-Bejarano, Yvonne. “The Multiple Subject in the Writing of Ana Castillo.” The Americas Review: A Review of Hispanic Literature and Art of the USA 20 (1992): 65–72.

Anne Bower (essay date 1997)

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SOURCE: “Remapping the Territory: Ana Castillo's The Mixquiahuala Letters,” in Epistolary Responses: The Letter in 20th-Century American Fiction and Criticism, University of Alabama Press, 1997, pp. 132–50, 194–95.

[In the following essay, Bower explores Teresa's relationship with herself, Alicia, and the other characters in The Mixquiahuala Letters.]

Epistolary novels place primacy on the acts of writing and reading. I have contended that as they write to others of various events, feelings, and thoughts and as they read others' responses to their letters, characters in these novels rewrite or redefine themselves. In addition, they offer to themselves and others the possibilities of rereadings. That is, the epistolary heroine may use the letter as a place to solve mysteries, undo misconceptions, and perceive patterns previously hidden from her view, discovering new interpretations of past happenings that she can present to herself and others. We might call this use of the epistolary response site remapping, for it takes ground that has been gone over and changes the way characters and readers see it. This term seems apropos for The Mixquiahuala Letters because its letters recount adventures and trips in many locations. The term remapping also appeals to me because it responds to the historic link between conquest of land and conquest of the female body that has characterized patriarchal societies.

Ana Castillo's epistolary novel1 features only one letter writer: the poet, Teresa. Undated letters address her close friend, Alicia, but we know nothing of that artist friend's reading and little of her writing, for Teresa seldom refers to communication from her. Teresa's letters, as succinctly explained by one reviewer, “reflect on [the two women's] experiences in order to confront the ghosts that often haunt women” (Lawhn 1392). Those ghosts, however, are as much internalized attitudes and approaches as external elements of the patriarchal society in which Teresa dwells, as Castillo's epigraph hints: “I stopped loving my father a long time ago. What remained was the slavery to a pattern.” This epigraph, a quote from Anaïs Nin (Under a Glass Bell), who was famous for her ground-breaking personal diaries, forecasts that Castillo's novel will also use a personal writing style to explore troubled relationships with male figures and that it will investigate conformity and nonconformity and the concept of pattern—in art and consciousness itself. The poet/writer heroine and her sketching/painting correspondent must use their arts, both public and private, to repattern or remap the land of former assumptions. Letters function well in such a revisionary effort, but clearly Castillo sees them as but one method.

The responses documented in this particular epistolary novel then are not redefinitions or restorations or regenerations of the protagonist's self. Rather, at the level of story, the letters encompass a search for new ways Teresa and Alicia can perceive, understand, and live with their continuing, conflicted, and known selves. In addition, as Teresa explains to Alicia, this personal effort may serve others: it may become “pertinent, not just to benefit our lives, but womanhood” (47). For this study of pattern, Castillo chooses a highly patterned form—the letter novel—and enacts her call for change by playing with that form.

Castillo reinforces the importance of pattern with introductory material that provides three tables of contents for reading the novel's letters, telling us to decide which plan to follow. Labeled “For the Conformist,” “For the Cynic,” and “For the Quixotic,” these lists leave out certain letters, rearrange their sequence, or both. Of course they also ask that the external reader label herself, thus setting up the expectation that part of Castillo's project is to question the reader's role. What label applies to the reader who, because of the cover-to-cover reading habit, reads letters one through forty in that order, a pattern Castillo does not recommend? Is such a reader to see herself as the ultimate conformist or, in this particular case, relative to the author's instructions, a nonconformist? After providing the three labeled reading strategies, the author also advises us that each letter is a short story in and of itself, and she opens the door to our own participation by wishing us well no matter what pattern of reading we select: “Good luck whichever journey you choose!” Regardless of which path one follows, an initial letter focuses on journeying. In letter 1, Teresa plots the complications of a trip the two women hope to take to Mixquiahuala, Mexico; in letter 2, she refers to a trip to Mexico ten years earlier; in letter 3, she details the two women's first meeting during a summer culture and language course in Mexico City. Thus the notion of pattern becomes intertwined with trips south of the border.

This is very much a quest novel, subsequent letters leading us on various journeys and visits to Mexico, New York, California, and Chicago, but with form and explanation taking us into the women's emotional and artistic searches. The quest here is not for a grail of selfhood, but for a way to live out that selfhood. Eliana Ortega and Nancy Saporta Sternbach assert that Latina writers, when depicting a “search,” usually do so in terms of “a search for the expression or articulation of that identity, but not for … identity itself” (3). Indeed, Castillo's heroine never expresses doubts about her sexuality, desires, pleasures, her mestizo background, or her career choice. Her letters demonstrate, however, that she does struggle with discovering the writing self's best modes of expression, questing for more suitable patterns (in writing and living) than the ones the past has cut.

Castillo's prefatory ploy emphasizes the difference between story and novel because, as Barbara Dale May explains, each approach yields “a very different resolution and interpretation of each life” (314). Castillo's strategy also calls into question the whole notion of letters' verisimilitude and forces the external reader to question his or her own reasons for and ways of reading the novel. Reading as quest (and for what?), reading as linear journey (and to where?) enter the situation, and again Castillo comments on reading processes through introductory material, for her book is dedicated “In memory of the master of the game, Julio Cortázar.” If reading and, by implication, writing are games, then they amuse, they have rules, but they also can leave behind losers and winners. For these games, the winning strategies, I believe Cortázar and Castillo would agree, are those that open up self-awareness and choice.2

In this highly self-reflexive novel, strangely enough, the relationship between experience and language goes largely unquestioned. The narrative's Chicana protagonist seems to accept experience as the precursor to language and language as an adequate transmitter of that experience. Castillo however, undercuts this conviction somewhat through the work's epistolary form and through her postmodern tactic of alternative orderings for the letters. No matter what a letter novel is about ostensibly, its letter quality makes it about giving and withholding information, about language's ability to transmit thoughts and feelings or to mask them, and about how we construct or misconstruct meaning from language and how we are constructed or misconstructed by language. In the conventional epistolary novel, pen-wielders write “to the moment,” providing their addressees with incomplete, new, fragmentary sections of experience. In this novel however, Alicia knows most of what Teresa writes. The communication focuses not on passing information but on reworking that information, making new sense out of it. Also, if one does not perceive that Teresa seeks new responses to old patterns—that this goal is at the heart of The Mixquiahuala Letters—then its epistolary format will seem very strange. One puzzled anonymous reviewer wrote: “What is not clear is why anyone would write such elaborate letters simply to retell, without analysis, what the recipient already knows” (Rocky Mountain Review 128). Analysis does exist, however. The reviewer neglects the highly reflective quality of the content, along with the possibility that writing here functions to reexamine the experiences, cultural norms, and selves with which the two women have lived. Castillo's heroine participates in the integrative process Ortega and Sternbach claim for Latina writers, in their particular bicultural situation: “She [the Latina writer] accomplishes this integrity by the act of writing itself. This process constitutes an affirmation, and then definition, of that inter-cultural self and serves as her way of returning to the community those stories they have collectively and historically shared with her, recreating them now into new imaginary worlds” (17). In a way, Teresa writes for a small community—that of herself and her best friend—but she also blazes a trial for others.3

The affirmative work of The Mixquiahuala Letters documents the woman writer's ability to overcome patriarchally imposed conformity and quiescence of women, particularly minority women. Writing itself becomes a way to reach understanding of both the near past, involving unresolved jealousies and needs these two women experienced during their twenties, and the farther past, involving their separate youths and family backgrounds. Letter writing also affirms a bond between these two women in a society where, typically, women's friendship is seen as a pallid substitute for marriage or heterosexual relationship. Teresa writes that society decrees a woman should be satisfied by male sustenance: “Her needs had to be sustained by him. If not, she was to keep her emptiness to herself” (29). Nevertheless, for the two women in this novel, unsatisfied by their relationships with men (yet very much involved in heterosexual pursuits), writing can fill some of the emptiness. Teresa creates letters and poems; Alicia prefers visual arts. Words and artwork alike trace new patterns, new understandings, and new supportive lifelines between them.

The self-reflexivity typical of all letter novels is especially strong in The Mixquiahuala Letters. Because, as James Watson reminds us, a letter is always about writing as much as anything else (8), and because Teresa herself is also a professional writer, her letters not only interrogate the stories of her own and her confidante's pasts but also question the telling of those stories. The letter form's particular claim to authenticity—as a document of the writer's heart, as fiction that is nonfiction, as private confession—all of this is questioned in the complex of recollections, imaginings, stories, poems, and diatribe produced by Teresa. For some letter-writing characters, writing is a way to uncover or reveal the truth about an idea or event; for others it is a way to imagine it. As Barbara Hardy observes in her study of narration, any kind of narrative can be compounded of “lies, truths, boasts, gossips, confessions, confidences, secrets, jokes” (7). Castillo and her heroine run the gamut.

In The Mixquiahuala Letters, Teresa goes over experience (her own, her friend's, their shared times) to try to discover what did happen. The character occasionally questions the probability that this process will yield truth. For example, recounting a time when she rescued Alicia from aggressive males, assuming that her friend would be grateful, Teresa admits that her perception of Alicia's reaction may have been off the mark. Perhaps Alicia did not really want to be rescued: “perhaps, you hated me too” (79). However, such expression of doubt is rare in the protagonist. It is primarily Castillo who questions the difficulty of ascertaining the truth, signaling her doubts through the novel's game plan. Norma Alarcón finds that “Castillo mocks [Teresa] … by framing her with the ‘reading charts’ offered to the reader” (100).

Although Castillo's format takes potshots at the notion of some knowable, fixable truth, this author is clearly dedicated to the idea that writing clears paths to experiences otherwise unavailable, for her protagonist can write herself into new understandings and into others' experiences.4 For instance, letter 4 recounts for Alicia material about Teresa's relationship to the Catholic Church, giving the addressee a specific event to experience as her own; letter 5 recounts Alicia's background, clearly unnecessary information for Alicia but presumably an exercise in which the writer is wondering whether her comprehension of her friend's past is accurate. Letter 33 includes a poem Teresa writes from the point of view of an old lover, Alexis, expressing his reactions to seeing Teresa after five years, and in letter 40 Teresa imagines what Alicia must have seen and felt at her lover's suicide. In this exploratory, imaginative use of writing, the character and her author seem fully agreed, confident that the writing act is a powerful transformative enactment of desire and subjectivity, a way to create and maintain human bonds.

Epistolary characters will transmit the belief either that writing is a direct way to express emotion or that it is a way to master emotion. In discussing Jane Austen's novel-in-letters, Lady Susan, Patricia Meyer Spacks sorts out the two ways epistolary characters write emotion. The traditional emotive and sentimental character, whose emotions are represented as overwhelming, supposedly transfers emotional content directly to the letter's recipient. The nontraditional, aggressive character, whose emotions are elements to be mastered or disguised, uses writing as an artifice by which to manipulate the recipient (64–67). In Castillo's novel, the protagonist, although never manipulative of her addressee, takes both the traditional and nontraditional roles in relationship to the letters' emotionalism.

One way Teresa exorcises remembered events and their pain is by writing. She can explain and reflect on Alicia's and her own conflicts over a particular man or over their ways of dealing with strangers. Expression of feelings is sometimes unbearable, however; exploring a shared experience in Yucatan, Teresa explains to Alicia that “to be rid of it, i must create distance” (64). Recounting events is a way to control the emotions that would otherwise overwhelm her. Yet, at times she reaches an impasse and has to admit loss of control: “i don't want to go on with this story. You know the rest” (68). Sometimes story, in the classic sense of beginning, middle, and end, is more than Teresa can, or perhaps wants to, impose on experience and emotion.5 In such instances Castillo allows her poet-protagonist to shift (within the letters) into other forms: dreams, poems, third-person fiction, and reporting of uninterrupted dialogue. Here we find Castillo extending the epistolary format, crossing genres to repattern the discourse form itself and the content it represents. She exploits the form's power to communicate emotion, modifying the protagonist's letter content and writing style, so that either can communicate changing motives, states of mind, and so on. As has been noted in earlier chapters, the formal aspects of writing can represent complex emotional relationships even when the relationships themselves are not the precise content of the letters: “to write a letter is to map one's coordinates—temporal, spatial, emotional, intellectual—in order to tell someone else where one is located at a particular time and how far one has traveled since the last writing” (Altman Epistolarity 119).

Emotional conflicts can also be implied in terms of the materials and circumstances of writing itself. This inscription has a long history. In Clarissa, for instance, Lovelace's ability to control the heroine's access to pen and paper, his easy interception and reading of her correspondence to others, and his forging of letters all represent his control of her body and his power to control the relationship (Castle 22–23). Teresa's dedication to the writing act and the lack of letters from her addressee imply a conflict over much of how the two women understand the past, a conflict Teresa wants to resolve because she continually asks Alicia to “recall” and “remember” the past. These letters form a bond, one Teresa insists she can create in spite of the men who come and go in both their lives, in spite of the miles between them.

Teresa's letters to Alicia, undated, but covering we are told at least a ten-year period, clearly demonstrate the writer's desire to affirm and continue a relationship. A variety of closings indicate a wide range of feelings. “Amen” closes a letter that recounts a night in a haunted house during which Teresa's background of mixed Catholic and folk faiths assisted the two women (84). A letter that delves into the difficult topic of how women attract men and confesses her own docility before men is signed with an unassuming “T” (113), whereas a letter hopeful about the future of both women inscribes futurity with “Always, / Tere” (119).

The letters' salutations similarly encode a variety of emotional ties, moving within three letters, for example, from nothing at all to “Querida Alicia” to “A—” (104–11). Not only is the emotional tone of the letters subject to fluctuation; presumably silences or nonverbal responses (such as the drawings or small gifts Alicia reportedly sends) are tenable parts of the relationship as well. Although the emotional content of Teresa's letters may vary, their steadfast commitment to retelling the past and clarifying it for both women is indicated by the fact that none of the letters is a note: each entails a substantial allocation of space and time. Teresa's persistent effort to rewrite the past for herself and for Alicia could be termed, to borrow a phrase from Nancy K. Miller, an effort to “unwrite the text which keeps her prisoner” (The Heroine's Text 95). Miller finds that the early “feminocentric novel in letters … is the locus of an exchange of desires unauthorized by the fathers” (150). Certainly this generalization about earlier texts applies to Castillo's novel, for it is the world of their fathers which both characters struggle against and which Teresa attempts to rewrite.

Of Teresa's biological father we hear nothing, other than that he was “a migrant worker or a laborer in the North” (21)—her uncertainty is a comment in and of itself. Another father, the priest to whom she confesses, interrogates her, probing suggestively, and providing no guidance or comfort (24). Alicia's father plays no part in the story. The art instructor under whom Teresa and Alicia study in Mexico City is “an adequate instructor, could be charming,” but teaches them little and flirts with the blonde students (20). Rather than actual fathers or father figures, what Castillo's heroine rails against are authoritarian, male-dominated social systems that constantly threaten women's autonomy and freedom. Thus she writes that in Mexico “society has knit its pattern so tight that a confrontation with it is inevitable” (59), and the confrontations there with men young and old, college educated or street smart, seldom yield anything but pain. America is no better: a place where women's lives and hopes are constantly at risk. Husbands and lovers are ineffective at best, brutish or self-destructive at worst. Thus, although both women crave “a family, to share life with a steady man, children to sit around the table together, hold fast to each other during winters, and to go out to play in better days, always as one unit” (106), each must find another life pattern, one that does not revolve around male figures, to satisfy their needs for community and communion.

Castillo's novel gives us a body of letters addressed to one individual, in a pattern typical of much epistolary fiction. By frequently positioning personal correspondence within a broader social context this novel also accepts epistolary tradition. The social (and political, economic, and historic) commentary in letter novels, as Spacks and others have pointed out, can subvert given social norms or contribute to their inculcation, or it can critique some aspects of society while accepting others.6 It can also explore an individual's ideas and feelings about social freedoms.

For the protagonist of Castillo's novel, social and personal freedoms must be wrested from the patriarchal power system, a system she evidently presumes will endure. Teresa is a young Chicana who has experienced the so-called liberation of the sixties and seventies and yet not found herself freed of psychological or social burdens, and because her sole correspondent is another woman of similar experience (though of Spanish, not Mexican, descent), this novel's letters are very much a critique of the patriarchy. Repeated incidents detail the psychological and physical freedoms men take with women, liberties patterned into both the American and the Mexican social systems. Yet the letters always return to the personal, focusing on the protagonist's relationship to her correspondent Alicia, who can be seen as both an alter ego and an Other with whom the writer experiences conflict.

Depending on how one reads this novel, the letters resolve the writer's relationship to herself and to her friend in different ways. If one ends with letter 1 (the “quixotic” route) one sees the letters as working toward a new resolve and maturity, but facing an unknown outcome. The two women seem to be planning a new trip to Mexico, a place of past adventures. However, Teresa seems to accept her own situation: “At thirty, i feel like i'm beginning a new phase in life: adulthood” (15). At the same time, she wonders if the reason that the women seem not to have reached their idealistic goals is that they “were not furious enough” (16).

If one ends with letter 34 (the path recommended for “the conformist”) one is left with the picture of both women entering new phases of their lives with determination and assurance. Alicia has just had her first one-woman art show, a show Teresa praises for the works' power to perform “the exorcism of the artist's rite” (118). The artist-friend has survived the past and become capable of expressing her anger at and rejection of the existing social power structure. Teresa, meanwhile, has chosen a different path. She announces to her friend that she is “going home” to Mexico, where she and her son will be enveloped in the love and acceptance of the boy's grandparents and where Teresa's husband (from whom she has had long separations) will play a vaguely benevolent nonthreatening role (119). Teresa will teach, but mentions nothing about her poetry. This version of the story is for the conformist because it plots a divided womanhood: either one is the artist or one is the domestic, as so often in the past. The alter ego splits off. Alicia goes to Europe, to art; Teresa turns to motherhood, teaching. This is the plot that women have known for years.

If one follows the “cynic” track of this novel, then letter 8 closes the story. In this angry letter Teresa asks Alicia, “How long did you think i would tolerate your growing pains?” (125). Teresa is jealous of Alicia's flirtation with Vicente, once her own companion. Here is another trapping plot: the one that says a man will always come between women.

In letter 40, placed at the end of the physical novel, Teresa recounts the christening of her son and Alicia's participation in that ritual. This letter, written after the suicide of Alicia's lover, includes a second narrative of participation, for in it Teresa creates an account of the events surrounding the suicide, events she, Teresa, never witnessed. In this writing, Teresa makes herself into Alicia and demonstrates to Alicia her empathic understanding of the friend's terrifying experience. The telling of the story is the making or proving of the relationship. Writing becomes a way the correspondent creates herself and her friend and their importance to each other.

The internal reader in The Mixquiahuala Letters is the nonwriting painter friend Alicia. Yet one realizes that the other internal reader of Teresa's letters is Teresa herself. These recountings of the past are as much self-directed as other-directed. For this protagonist (as for many other epistolary protagonists), writing a letter is an opportunity to read herself, an “interpretive rereading” (Irigaray 75). Thus both of the posited readers in this text assume that reading a text can change the way one sees the events reported in that text and, consequently, can change one's beliefs or actions. Castillo, in spite of her metafictional and postmodern stance, seems to have considerable faith that language can reconstruct reality.

The third letter in the novel states that the two women's earliest letters were “passion bound by uterine comprehension” (18), associating friendship with a maternal bond. Sexuality and physical action are inscribed in the letter too, for Teresa refers to their then correspondence as a way they could know each other and themselves: “We needled, stabbed, manipulated, cut and through it all we loved, driven to see the other improved in her own reflection” (23). Reading is here intimately tied to writing, and both acts are metaphors for physical violence and love. Verbal acts are also related by Teresa to the exchange of other items: jewelry, poems, and sketches (23). The metonymy of the letter as a piece of the self is as strong for the reader/receiver as for the writer/sender. Teresa and Alicia serve various roles for each other: friend, quasi-lover (one might say a sexless lesbianism), colearner, sister, confidante, guide, guardian (in the case of Teresa, who sees herself as rescuer of the more delicate Alicia), rival, alter ego. Castillo here follows a model common to Latina artists. As Ortega and Sternbach explain: “In Latina writing, the entire extended family of women—mothers, daughters, sisters, aunts, cousins, godmothers, lovers, neighbors, fortune-tellers, curanderas (healers), midwives, teachers, and friends, especially girlhood friends—makes up a cast of characters” (12). Teresa's mother, other female friends, her grandmother, and Alicia in a multitude of roles fill out that circle of female characters. Latina “writers have often displaced a central patriarchal figure, replacing it with a woman-headed and woman-populated household” (Ortega and Sternbach 12). Yet Castillo is clear on the heterosexuality of the two women, their desires for and interest in men, even as she establishes the two women's distrust of particular men and anger at a male-dominated society.

In spite of her discursive strength, Teresa worries that a woman's words can never make enough difference to another woman. When she frets that her attempts to help Alicia see herself as beautiful have failed because they are not a man's words (45), is she not casting doubts on the whole project of convincing Alicia of anything? Here she questions the power of her woman's voice to use society's language to dismantle that society, a questioning she shares with many feminists. Although Teresa seems content that she can reread the world around her, she fears that Alicia will not be able to do so. These doubts do not deter her, however; she continues to write, “fighting” (127).

It seems logical for Teresa to place her most intimate trust in another woman. Although Alicia may not read Teresa's texts with complete accuracy, and although Alicia is capable of keeping secrets and deceiving her, still this old friend is more likely to understand Teresa's experience (and her own) than any man. Castillo gives her protagonist the implicit belief that, as Judith Fetterley puts it, “Women can read women's texts because they live women's lives; men can not read women's texts because they don't lead women's lives” (“Reading about Reading” 149). Throughout The Mixquiahuala Letters men are depicted as imposing egotistical or sexual needs on women, and they do not perceive the women as separate or distinctive from themselves. Teresa reports a simple instance of this in a scene between herself and her uncle Chino early in the novel: “i said i was going in to get a beer as an excuse to get away. He said, no thanks, he already had one. i said, it wasn't for him, but for me. The look i got could've stopped a charging bull” (13). Chino, like most of the other men both Alicia and Teresa have known, is incapable of perceiving that women have their own needs—their own stories. The men here are like the men in Susan Glaspell's “A Jury of Her Peers.” As Fetterley explains, “It is not simply that the men can not read the text that is placed before them. Rather, they literally can not recognize it as a text because they can not imagine that women have stories” (“Reading about Reading” 147–48). For Castillo, women have many stories, and, presumably, other women will best understand them.

In The Mixquiahuala Letters both the pleasure of the quest and the pleasure of the text are deliberately frustrated by the author's refusal to create a plot of conquest or a set timeline. In addition, tension arises because of confusion the external reader will probably experience concerning the possibility of a lesbian relationship between the two women. Various letters suggest such a bond, but at one point Teresa pointedly denies it, affirming to Alicia that “you and I had never been lovers” (121). What to conclude? The external reader may discover that he or she becomes complicit with a culture that refuses the possibilities of intimacy or sensuality without genital sexuality.

With its content-level focus on the ways women interpret the actions of men and women, The Mixquiahuala Letters forces reflection on how women readers respond to texts by women versus texts by men (and, consequently, how men respond to male-and female-authored texts). Castillo's novel encourages us to think about whether we read for mastery and knowledge or for intimacy and the sharing of experience. Castillo incorporates her own theory of reading that highlights indeterminacy, multiple interpretations, and the need for re-readings. Then too, as Patrocinio Schweickart explains about feminist reading in general, this text heightens one's awareness of how the woman's text exists in its social context. What Schweickart says of feminist reading is true of this feminist text: it stresses “the difference between men and women, … the way the experience and perspective of women have been systematically and fallaciously assimilated into the generic masculine, and … the need to correct this error” (39).

Nonetheless, although The Mixquiahuala Letters presents a woman-centered reading of society, it does so while also situating that reading within the specifics of place and history. To read this novel is necessarily to delve into how one reads individual women affected by their class, race, ethnicity, education, and roles as artists, teachers, mothers, and so on. Because Teresa's letters are preponderantly retellings of past events and fastidiously rooted in the particulars of places and times, Castillo does not seem to dictate to each reader what she should think about women in general. Rather, she asks each of us to read as we wish. We can take each letter as a short story, follow one of the three patterns the author recommends, or read from cover to cover. The hope of recovering the personal past to repattern the future will still exist. Reading Teresa's letters could encourage one's own act of redefinition, but would ask that we consistently confront stereotypes with particular experiences, just as Teresa does.

The letters in this novel permit us to see that Teresa can read herself and Alicia in different ways, just as society can interpret either woman's actions in different ways. To see with one's own eyes becomes not only the goal of the artist but also the goal of the socially and personally responsible individual who wants to move past sexism and prejudice of all kinds. Yet, reading this epistolary novel, as Alarcón notes, “brings into question our own reading practices, for the apparently unconventional suggested readings actually lead to resolutions that are more conventional than the handful of letters attributed to Tere” (105). Alarcón believes that each of the suggested reading maps provided by the author actually provides “an ideological nexus … that forces us to reconstruct the meaning of Teresa's letters as always and already leading in that direction,” thus countering the notion of play and choice that her introduction apparently introduced. That is, each of us carries textual reading patterns in our heads that we need to question, just as Teresa carries patterns for “reading” relationships which she very much wishes to question.

The Mixquiahuala Letters uses various techniques to repattern our assumptions about the epistolary novel. The most obvious, certainly, is the “hopscotch” possibility of alternative reading routes. Just as important is Castillo's demonstration that letters need not contain “news.” Kauffman notes that “it may seem quixotic to study ‘epistolarity’ … when letter writing has practically become a lost art, supplanted by telephones, fax machines, computers, camcorders and tape cassettes” Special Delivery xiv).7 Yet we see here that the letter form retains specific helpful properties not provided by newer technologies. The writer of a personal letter requires no special equipment or special training. Letters can be adapted to the needs of the individual (formal, informal, including poems, sketches, and so forth); they pass from writer to reader, carrying the touch of one individual to the other, and they can be kept and reread. No other means of communication combines these particular qualities and is so readily available to the poor and rich, the itinerant and the stay-at-home, the radical and the conservative. For Castillo's protagonist what other means would do?

Whether we see Teresa's struggle for a new life pattern as successful or not, we will necessarily focus on the sources of accepted or considered patterns. Alarcón refers to the protagonist being “framed by certain ‘semantic charters,’ using terminology borrowed from Pierre Maranda (100).8 Such charters exist within each of us, but, if we follow Castillo, the hope exists that they can be restructured. Through the writing act, which entails also acts or rereading the self, others, and experiences, we may discover new maps of understanding, new patterns of greater freedom. To adapt DuPlessis's well-known book title, we could engage in reading as well as “writing beyond the ending.”

When I began working on Castillo's novel, I wrote to her with various questions, inviting her to respond with a letter that would then form part of this chapter. Among the topics I suggested she might explore were the way that Teresa uses writing to retell her own and her friend's experiences and how the character of Alicia functions—did Castillo see her mostly as Teresa's construction or as her alter ego or as her friend? I also asked what influenced Castillo to choose the epistolary form. The letter I received, echoing The Mixquiahuala Letters' use of narrative as a reflective tool, tells a story of its own.

Yes, dear critic, there really is an Alicia:


The last time I saw her—head bobbing just above the crowd, predictably slender, Alicia was taking brisk New Yorker strides towards me. I was standing katty-corner from Washington Square Park in front of my hotel. We spotted each other and smiled what could be said to have been sad smiled, then we each looked away. She was hardly recognizable, not only to me, she remarked later, but to everyone who knew her. Her hair, which as long as I had known her, she had always kept waist length, was now in a crew-cut.


The color of that hair, which matches her shiney coal black eyes, comes from her father's side, the Andalusian gitana grandmother, the one who retired in a trailer park in Pensacola and who called herself “exotic,” who knew a rosary of men after the brief marriage to Alicia's grandfather in New York, after she disappeared one day, leaving husband, children behind and emerging decades later in that peninsula of exiles, Florida. Eyes and hair and tannable skin, all made my friend the non-fit of her mother's family that came from Eastern European stock. Alicia, the foreign-looking child whose blood must surely be darker. She remembered a family member remarking once, as dark as a monkey's, the relative joked at a family gathering. Alicia's mother did not laugh—her mother and her Czech grandmother who never learned English very well and therefore had not understood the “joke.”


On her own Alicia would never have cut that straight sheet of dark hair, never. That was the Latina side of her, the one tell-tale betrayal to her feminism, keeping her hair so long because men loved it so much. Maybe it was the Eastern European side of her, too, inherited from her mother's mother, the one who hid her flaxen braids under babushkas when she cleaned houses in Queens in the early decades of this century, wrapped tight and covered like Alicia does when she is at the potter's wheel and the way she looked the very first time I saw her in Mexico, studying art in a gringo summer program, nearly two decades ago.


We were having orientation and all the students were sitting outside on metal fold-out chairs beneath the sheathed Mexico City sun. A little restless, maybe bored, for sure already disappointed in the summer program I had worked so hard and traveled so far for and had dreamed of attending for so long, I turned all the way around, to take a glance at my soon-to-be classmates, who had turned out to be mostly all gringas, and my gaze fell on her who later was to become known to me—and to you, as Alicia. Her chiseled cheekbones, the bandanna tied around her slender head, black eyes and lashes, in a Georgia O'Keefe kind of way, she was utterly stunning. That Stieglitzian image has been locked permanently in my memory bank. That is, that young woman who was at that moment a stranger to me had, not the kind of beauty that turns heads on the street, but a photographable remarkableness, chiaroscuro, black and white, hung in galleries later where you might find yourself staring, wondering, what was she like? I asked myself that question that afternoon, twenty years ago. And not long after that, perhaps starting that same afternoon, because of the fusion fomented by an instant friendship, I was no longer wondering. She was funny. She was difficult—an incorrigible Yo-Se-Todo. She was too frugal for my comfort. (She'd rather wait at night for a bus in the pouring rain than spring for a cab for us.) And she was formidably talented. At not quite twenty-one years of age she was—compared to my urban provincialism—well travelled—from art school in Rome to pottery classes on a Navajo reservation. She could find her way around New York like I, a young renegade Mexican-American wife, knew my way around my apartment kitchen in Chicago. She was sharp as a tack. And after that summer, I loved her for years.


Ronnie, a good friend, having known me for many years said he had observed that I invent myself as I do the characters in my novels, or rather transform my image: stylish vintage in Chicago, fluorescent beachwear in Southern California and yes, Tony Lamas in New Mexico. And once, this same poet friend told a third party when I had taken up residence in San Francisco and having seen me go through these various stylistic reincarnations living in different cities, “Ana is like a chameleon, she blends right into any environment she inhabits.”


But Alicia, to my knowledge, is not a chameleon. You, above all the readers of The Mixquiahuala Letters I think, would agree to that. She was born in New York and has never lived elsewhere. Her life is a constant, the daughter of New York liberals, she was raised a vegetarian, as a child with her mother walked the UFW picket lines, growing up as an only child, studied karate and guitar and for a long time, as a young adult, lived alone. She is the product of an American city that belongs to the world. A Manhattanite through and through, she is anything but American and everything American. She has been an artist her whole life and although she has never been terribly ambitious, over the years she made a name for herself around town—a town where no doubt to make your mark as an artist is nothing to sneeze at. She still loves to dance as she did in dancehalls and nightclubs from Puerto Rico to Puebla, Mexico, merengueing from Santo Domingo to San Francisco, although as she settled into her thirties, she did less and less of it. Her art, the man who stayed who does not dance and is also an artist: her life, mostly a quiet one. For complicated reasons, no children, because of allergies no pets and as a matter of preference perhaps rather than economics, her life became a stable affair, unfettered by the kind of spontaneity that is usually attributed to the artist's nature.


Alicia and I embraced and then walked to find a café open for lunch. She immediately took note of my post-modern sunglasses, asked to take a look at them and said she didn't like them. I inquired about her health. Alicia, as I've already mentioned, has always eaten organic; she has never smoked cigarettes not even tolerated cigarette smoking in her living quarters. She never cared for the taste of alcohol, not even a glass of champagne on New Year's Eve. A glass of sparkling apple cider at the stroke of midnight and then off to bed. She has never been into caffeine, no café au laits, no Cokes, nothing but herbal teas for our Alicia. But she still breathed New York City pollution all her life. And she still drank New York City tap water, at least on occasion, I would guess. In short, she was a product of this neo-civilization of ours and like one out of every four U.S. residents today, she got cancer. The crew-cut was one of the results of recent chemotherapy treatments. “You lose all your hair,” she said to me sardonically, over lunch, “everywhere.”


Four years after the publication of The Mixquiahuala Letters Alicia was fighting cancer, my friend Ronnie—who I met the day after Reagan was first elected—tested HIV positive, and I was grateful to be biting the heels of “almost 40” with both breasts, uterus and ovaries intact, no surgical scars, no “positive results” on any of my annual tests. So far a virtual model of good health. Considering the odds, a miracle in itself.


There are certain almost perfunctory questions I am always asked concerning my first novel, The Mixquiahuala Letters. The most common one usually comes from students, those poor innocents whom I always fear will be turned off to my writing altogether because of having to develop a critical eye for interpretation, being prodded to find hidden meaning in the text in order to satisfy academia rather than simply enjoying or not enjoying the stories I enjoyed (as well as in some passages did not enjoy) telling. The most popular question concerning that text has to do with the use of the lower case “i” for the personal pronoun. Although the letters are not dated, one letter does clearly set the time of the novel which is in the mid-seventies. As you may know, the use of the lower case “i” for poets was at that time a trademark of protest poetry. Teresa saw herself as a political activist and hoped to become a poet.


Different languages do not give different names for the same thing, they give different names for very different things. In Teresa's other language, Spanish, the personal pronoun is not capitalized. However the abbreviated formal “you,” Ud., is. You,—Ud.—are important, i—yo—am no one, simply your humble servant—Spanish, baroque and elegant, a tango of reflexive verbs and reversed syntax, perhaps falsely humble but provocative and charming nevertheless, a veritable concert of courtesies. The Spanish yo of the poor, the agricultural pickers and factory workers was a we—at least then, at least in spirit, at least in our stories.


The second most common question refers to the authenticity of the events told in the novel. In other words, is The Mixquiahuala Letters autobiographical? My standard answer is that approximately forty per cent of the novel is based on actual occurrences; however, it is up to the reader to decide for her/himself what in the novel comprises autobiography and what is only and always possibility.


As to the ingenuous opinion of one of your colleagues, who wrote in a review that it is “unclear as to why anyone would write such elaborate letters simply to retell, without analysis, what the recipient already knows,” I would have to suggest for that scholar to do as he most surely demands of his students and that is to kindly take the time for a more careful reading of the text.


To my knowledge, Alicia herself has never read The Mixquiahuala Letters. I never asked why or if I did she did not answer. She told me that afternoon over lunch that she kept the copy I sent her in a closet, hidden from view.


After lunch Alicia gave me a small gift of a pair of pastel flowered socks. I picked up the tab. We hugged, arms wound tight around each other, breasts to breasts, and then let go. As we parted in front of the restaurant I remembered to give her saludos from Teresa, who still lives in Chicago. “Oh yeah,” Alicia replied, smiling a bit and seeming suddenly to be caught up in private reflection, “By the way, is she still gaining weight?” she asked.


“Oh no!” I said, as usual a little put off by Alicia's bluntness and this unshakable feeling that she can be, for all her political correctness, catty. “The last time I saw her, Teresa looked fantastic—beautiful, in fact—as always!” I added. Alicia shrugged her shoulders, or maybe it was a reflex, and waved good-bye and turning around, was immediately sucked into the mesh of the Manhattan lunchtime crowd.


Another question I have frequently been asked regarding the book is what I think about what critics think about it. Well, for a long time, I didn't. But increasingly there is a tendency for that entity known as the critic to split and multiply; and with time, appear in all manner of shapes, tones and sizes everywhere I go. There are critics who believe that without them my work has no meaning. I am sure, dear critic, that you are not one of them.


Franz Capra in his book The Tao of Physics, states “… In atomic physics, we can never speak about nature without, at the same time, speaking about ourselves.” Likewise, no matter how sure of himself or herself a critic may feel behind the illusion of an empirical argument, I think the critic cannot speak on a text without revealing him/herself. Susan Sontag, critic and novelist, in her essay, “Against Interpretation,” states that ultimately all thought is interpretation. Therefore, I feel that even my own comments here on my novel several years after its publication are very likely interpretations of others' interpretations of The Mixquiahuala Letters, rather than untainted reflections of my own. I can only add that the writing process was an experience that I would like to remember as being one of unselfconsciousness, having been a self-taught and relatively unknown poet at the time that I completed the second version of the manuscript and with not so much as a presumption about my first novel's potential publication. I close with a simple thanks for your interest in my work.


Te deseo mucha suerte con tu proyecto—Siempre,

Ana Castillo

July 18, 1992 / 'Burque, Nuevo Méjico

y June 6, 1995, Gainesville, Florida

Notes

  1. The novel was published in 1986 and won the 1987 American Book Award. Published originally by Bilingual Press, the book is now more widely available in a paperback edition from Doubleday.

  2. One of the strongest statements I have ever read about reading strategies comes from Patrocinio P. Schweickart, discussing feminist approaches. “The point is not merely to interpret literature in various ways; the point is to change the world. We cannot afford to ignore the activity of reading, for it is here that literature is realized as praxis. Literature acts on the world by acting on its readers.” Reading and writing are critical aspects of “interpreting the world in order to change it” (39).

  3. Although Teresa's primary community for her writing is herself and her best friend, the letters' content mentions other outlets. Because both Teresa and Alicia actively produce art (Teresa teaches and writes, although she does not mention publishing; Alicia meets with success as a visual artist), their artistic products can influence others. Teresa also selfconsciously and humorously notes the possibility of others reading the letters (88).

  4. Given Alicia's art, Castillo presumes that nonverbal and verbal processes can yield new insight. Alicia's one-woman exhibit (described by Teresa in letter 34, the final letter for “the conformist” reader, but absent for “the cynic” and “the quixotic”) contains a project titled La casita—mixed media pieces that analyze stereotypes of domestic women (118).

  5. Norma Alarcón analyzes the way this distancing is linked to the emotions surrounding “romantic love” that “cannot be spoken of, intimately or directly” (103).

  6. Spacks contends that most epistolary novels have “reinforced the status quo by assuming it. Declaring in their reliance on epistolary form their concern only with ‘private’ matters, women novelists apparently accepted the necessity of the system under which they suffered” (75). Janet G. Altman also finds that little epistolary fiction of the past “overtly challenged the privilege accorded to male conqueror figures” (“Graffigny's Epistemology” 173). Like Jane Austen, whose epistolary Lady Susan is a “female character capable of play and mastery through play” (Spacks 75), Castillo invents a heroine who uses word play and verbal mastery to explore a range of public and private issues.

  7. Note, however, that fax machines, e-mail, and computers still often use the basic letter form. One difference is the speed of the letter's transmission. Video and audio recording devices certainly depart radically from the letter format, especially the first, which (especially when edited) can become nonlinear and contains different ways of reflecting on or analyzing

  8. Maranda proposes that “semantic charters condition our thoughts and emotions. They are culture specific networks that we internalize as we undergo the process of socialization” and “have an inertia and a momentum of their own” (qtd. in Alarcón, 106).

Brian Evenson (review date Spring 1997)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 345

SOURCE: A review of Loverboys, in Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. 17, No. 1, Spring, 1997, p. 201.

[In the following review, Evenson offers a mixed assessment of certain stories in Loverboys, but overall receives the collection favorably.]

As one of the more accomplished of Latina writers, Castillo is often able to paint a vivid image of characters and the way in which they are affected by their sense of who they are and what their cultures tell them to be. Nevertheless, despite the fact that many of its individual stories are successful, Loverboys is interesting less for the stories taken separately than for the resonances that begin to become established between stories.

As intriguing as the book's culture depictions is the complex way in which gender and desire are figured and refigured from story to story. We have desire of all types, heterosexual and homosexual, from women who flirt with other women despite feeling themselves largely heterosexual, to the lesbian in the title story who finds herself drawn irresistibly to a young man. With the stories often showing passage from gay to straight relationships or vice versa, with the characters often torn between different desires, sexuality is envisioned as fluid. Sometimes this is echoed culturally when characters seem to experience similar fluidity in terms of possessing a social identity that makes multiple claims on the individual.

In addition to providing a number of stories that fit fairly snugly into our sense of what a conventional story is or does, Castillo also offers some that quietly test the boundaries. The three paragraph “A Kiss Errant,” for instance, reduces a relationship to a single gesture. Others, like “Crawfish Love,” seem to break off just as the story is beginning. “If Not for the Blessing of a Son” ends where it begins, the story cyclic in a way that suggests its enormous hidden secret. While some of the stories stumble—such as “Who Was Juana Gallo?” which telegraphs its ending or “A Lifetime” which risks sentimentality—few fall on their faces, and the other, stronger stories keep the collection moving forward.

Colette Morrow (essay date Spring 1997)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8307

SOURCE: “Queering Chicano/a Narratives: Lesbian as a Healer, Saint and Warrior in Ana Castillo's So Far from God,” in Midwest Modern Language Association, Vol. 30, Nos. 1–2, Spring, 1997, pp. 63–80.

[In the following essay, Morrow examines the character Caridad in So Far from God, and how Caridad's lesbianism is a liberating factor in the male-dominant Mexican culture.]

One of the most conspicuous features of Mexican-American liberatory and feminist discourses is their radicalization of traditional narratives for the purpose of social reform.1 These discourses were constructed by Chicana/o rights activists in the 1960s and Chicana feminists in the 1970s and 1980s. Both civil rights and feminist discourses contextualized historic Mexican-American models of communal and individual identities in late-twentieth-century terms. Such revisionist pre-Columbian, colonial and post-colonial narratives argued for programs of ethnic and gender empowerment. Much of their appeal to Mexican-American audiences derived from their cultural familiarity. Contemporary ideas were framed in the conventions and icons used by old stories, for example, about Aztlán, the Aztec homeland, and Malinche/Malintzin, the sixteenth-century Aztec noblewoman who is said to have given birth to the first Mexicans and Mexican-Americans. Recently, as various discourse communities in the United States are discussing LesBiGay civil rights with increasing seriousness, this strategy of politicizing traditional narratives has been revived in Chicana fiction. Notably, Ana Castillo's 1993 novel So Far from God revises narratives commonly used to socialize Chicanas into traditional gender roles in order to refute a belief widely held among Mexican-Americans that lesbianism constitutes ethnic as well as sexual deviance, that lesbianism is a product and problem of Euro-American social values. Hence, in So Far from God an empowered lesbian subject assumes the roles of healer, virgin-saint, and warrior, the commonplaces for female identity in traditional Mexican and Native American discourses. This represents lesbianism as one of many culturally indigenous identities available to Mexican-American women rather than a betrayal, a “selling out” to the dominant culture.

Historic Mexican-American narratives have been invoked in service of social change since the civil rights movement of the 1960s when traditional stories and symbols were re-read from the perspective of contemporary liberation politics. For instance, during this period, the idea of Aztlán, a Chicano/a homeland, was used to establish a much needed sense of political solidarity among Mexican-Americans. Such solidarity, critical to the success of the civil rights movement, had been impeded by at least two factors. Mexican-Americans are dispersed throughout the United States, complicating attempts to organize a national effort. Moreover, they constitute a population group whose origins and identity lie in a broader experience of cultural diaspora.

In Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza Gloria Anzaldúa uses the metaphor of frontier borderlands, the strip of land where Mexico adjoins the United States, to describe this experience. She explains that the Chicano/a diaspora is a consequence of cultural formation that occurs “between the borders” of other ethnic and national populations rather than in a discrete geo-national unit.

Nosotros los [We the] Chicanos straddle the borderlands. … We don't identify with the Anglo-American cultural values and we don't totally identify with the Mexican cultural values. We are a synergy of two cultures with various degrees of Mexicanness or Angloness. I have so internalized the borderland conflict that sometimes I feel like one cancels out the other and we are zero, nothing, no one. A veces no soy nada ni nadie [Sometimes I am neither nothing nor nobody].

(62–63)

The idea of Aztlán, the Aztec homeland featured in pre-Columbian discourses, was revived during the Chicano/a rights movement to remedy the feeling of ethnic “nothingness” experienced by Anzaldza and others. The rhetoric of Aztlan played an important role in establishing a Chicano/a national sensibility and fostered Chicano/as' self-conscious identification of themselves as a ‘people.’ Aztlan supplied Chicano/as a symbolic space in which a communal identity could be forged and answered the need for a sense of unity among Mexican-Americans: “Aztlán simboliza la unión espiritual de los chicanos, algo que se lleva en el corazón, no importa dónde se viva o se encuentre [Aztlán symbolizes the spiritual union of the Chicanos, something that lifted up the heart, no matter where they lived or were encountered]” (Leal 22–23).

Furthermore, attempts to locate Aztlán in a specific geography, most often identified as the territory Mexico ceded to the United States in the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, supported claims of Chicano/a socio-economic entitlement. For example, the “Plan Espiritual de Aztlán,” the Chicano/a rights manifesto drafted in 1969, figured twentieth-century Mexican-Americans as the political, spiritual, and material heirs of the Aztecs. This authorized the manifesto's argument that Mexican-American farm workers were entitled to a greater share of the economic benefits from the lands they farmed, the same lands that had been taken from their indigenous ancestors by the governments of Mexico and the United States.

While this rhetoric of Aztlán and other rhetorics of empowerment described and denounced Mexican-Americans' experience of disenfranchisement in the United States, they also perpetuated traditional, misogynous attitudes toward women, as Alma García recounts in “The Development of Chicana Feminist Discourse, 1970–1980.” Such attitudes are epitomized in the traditional biography of La Malinche or Malintzin, perhaps the most popular Mexican and Mexican-American narrative of ethnic origin. According to this traditional version of her life's story, Malinche/Malintzin, an Aztec noblewoman, was responsible for Western Europeans' subordination of the indigenous peoples of Mexico. Malinche/Malintzin was the slave and mistress of the Spanish conqueror, Hernán Cortés. The children she bore him were “mixed-blood,” the first mestizas and mestizos—Mexicans and Mexican-Americans. Hence, Malinche is blamed for giving birth to a “bastard” or hybrid “race,” Octavio Paz tells us in The Labyrinth of Solitude. Paz represents Malinche acquiescing to sexual violation, a representation that suggests Malinche was a whore who betrayed her children to the conqueror even as she conceived them. Explaining how chingada [the female who is fucked] became a synonym for Malinche/Malintzin, Paz reveals how her story circulates in the Mexican and, we can infer, the Mexican-American social imagination: “The Chingada is the Mother forcibly opened, violated, deceived. … In effect, every woman—even when she gives herself willingly—is torn open by the man, is the Chingada …” (80).

Chicana feminists began to reread and rewrite such narratives when it became clear that “traditional gender roles … limited [Chicanas'] participation and acceptance within the Chicano movement” and that gender equity was not included in the civil rights agenda (García 221). As disenfranchised by a patriarchal cultural ethic as by the dominant Euro-American ideology, Chicanas constructed “alternate mythical and even historical accounts of women” (Ordóñez 19). For example, Norma Alarcón, in “Chicana's Feminist Literature: A Re-Vision Through Malintzin/or Malintzin: Putting Flesh Back on the Object,” imputed pejorative representations of Malinche/Malinztin to male authorship: “The male myth of Malintzin is made to seem betrayal first of all in her very sexuality, which makes it nearly impossible at any given moment to go beyond the vagina as the supreme site of evil …” (183). Other feminist accounts, such as those by Juana Armanda Alegría in Psicologma de las mexicanas and Marta Cotera in Diosa y Hembra, provided new perspectives on Malinche/Malintzin by reconsidering her relationship with Cortés (Cotera 30–35; Alegría 65–79). Emphasizing that she was sold into the service of Western Europeans by her own family, they showed that she was betrayed rather than a betrayer. These feminist revisions contended that Malinche/Malintzin, fluent in Spanish as well as several dialects, was Cortés's advisor and translator. They depicted her as intelligent and authoritative rather than colluding in her own sexual violation or implicated in the subjugation of her descendants. Her role in the Spanish conquest, explained Cordelia Candelaria, was a model for Chicanas resisting traditional gender roles: “La Malinche embodies those personal characteristics—such as intelligence, initiative, adaptability, and leadership—which are most often associated with Mexican-American women unfettered by traditional restraints against public achievement” (qtd. in Fox 22). For three decades such revisionist narratives both reshaped and embodied the “personal and collective identity” of Mexican-American women (Ordóñez 19). They participated in revising traditional models of identity, offered women alternative subjective formulae, and involved writers and readers in radical acts of subject constitution whose scope was both individual and communal.

One of the reasons both these revisionist rhetorics—feminist and Chicano/a rights—appealed to Mexican-American audiences is that the programs they advanced were phrased in traditional, culturally familiar narratives. The trope of Aztlán as an idyllic homeland stolen from the heirs of the Aztecs supported the political mobilization of Mexican-Americans. Narratives recasting La Malinche as a model of leadership and resistance rather than submission and sexual surrender argued the cultural appropriateness of feminism. This strategy, slightly modified, is repeated in Ana Castillo's So Far from God in order to refute a belief widely held among Mexican-Americans that lesbianism constitutes ethnic deviance, that lesbianism is a troubling manifestation of Euro-American socio-sexual mores.

Lesbianism almost unanimously is designated a category of ethnic and class alterity by an otherwise ideologically diverse Mexican-American population. Colloquially labeled a “white” or “Anglo thing” by Mexican-Americans whose political and religious beliefs range from traditional to radical, lesbianism is excluded from culturally appropriate identities. As Carla Trujillo explains in her insightful essay, “Chicana Lesbians: Fear and Loathing in the Chicano Community,” a woman cannot be both lesbian and Mexican-American unless she is a vendida—a sellout or ethnic traitor. This belief was well summarized by a young woman attending the 1993 conference of the National Association of Chicano Studies (NACS) in San Diego. During a session on the future of lesbian and gay studies in NACS, she said:

I'm a heterosexual and I'm really surprised actually to be here in a place where there's 50 to 60 Chicanos and Chicanas and they say this is an issue in our community. … I'm really surprised because to me this is an Anglo thing and I'm not trying to be racist or anything.

Asked “what's an Anglo thing?” by another audience member, she continued: “I mean to be homosexual. … To me it's just so different because I never thought it was in our community. … It's something from another race, another culture. I'm really surprised.” Such a response to lesbianism, argues Trujillo, originates in a sexist as well as homophobic/heterosexist ethic: “Chicana lesbians are perceived as a greater threat to the Chicano community because their existence disrupts the established order of male dominance, and raises the consciousness of many Chicanas regarding their own independence and control” (255).

This ethic, writes Cherríe Moraga in a series of essays in The Last Generation, caused lesbians and gays to be excluded from psychological and spiritual citizenship in the Chicano/a nation/union conceived during the civil rights movement: “When ‘El Plan Espiritual de Aztlán’ was conceived a generation ago, lesbians and gay men were not envisioned as members of the ‘house’; we were not … counted as members of the ‘bronze continent’” (159). Lesbians and gays subsequently were left out of the Chicano/a rights movement because it was organized on the model of the traditional Chicano family:

The preservation of the Chicano familia became the Movimiento's mandate and within this constricted “familia” structure, Chicano politicos ensured that the patriarchal father figure remained in charge both in their private and political lives. … In the name of this “culturally correct” familia, certain topics were censored both in cultural and political spheres as not “socially relevant” to Chicano and not typically sanctioned in the Mexican household. These issues included female sexuality generally and male homosexuality and lesbianism specifically. … In the process, the Chicano Movement forfeited the participation and vision of some very significant female and gay leaders and never achieved the kind of harmonious Chicano “familia” they ostensibly sought.

(Moraga 158)

So Far from God attempts to redress such exclusion of lesbians and gays by countering charges that “lesbian” is an ethnically alien model of identity for Mexican-American women and by attacking patriarchal cultural institutions that perpetuate those charges. Set in the Sangre de Cristo [Blood of Christ] Mountains of New Mexico, where historically sheepherding was the primary economic enterprise, So Far from God chronicles two decades in the lives of Sofi and her four daughters, Fe [Faith], Esperanza [Hope], Caridad [Charity], and la Loca [the Crazy One]. Their stories are told in Castillo's trademark style, a conspicuously ironic form of magical realism that in this book facilitates a lesbianization of Mexican, Mexican Catholic and Native American discourses.

This lesbianization of traditional discourses is brought about through the figure of Caridad who, unexpectedly falling in love with a woman, eventually occupies each of the principal models of female identity offered by these discourses. Caridad first experiences lesbian desire when she undertakes a Lenten Week pilgrimage to el Santuario de Chimayo [the Chimayo shrine] as part of her training in curanderismo, the arts of spiritual, psychological and physical healing that originated in pre-Columbian Latin America. At the shrine, a chapel built on lands sacred to Native Americans where a statue of Christ had been found in the nineteenth century, Caridad becomes infatuated at her first sight of another pilgrim, a woman.

The setting and circumstances of this moment clearly foreground it in multiple spiritual and religious traditions. As an apprentice curandera, a practitioner of curanderismo, Caridad embodies a pre-Columbian model of female identity while participating in a Mexican Catholic ritual at a site considered holy by Mexican and Roman Catholics and Native Americans. Caridad's response to her desire for a woman and, in turn, the community's response to Caridad lends a lesbian inflection to these traditions and their discourses.

Caridad is so affected by the woman, literally and metaphorically idolizing her, that she disappears from her community and for a year lives in a mountain cave. When discovered, Caridad resists returning to society, is beatified in local legend, and becomes a media icon venerated as the “handmaiden of Christ” (87). Consecrated by popular acclaim, Caridad comes to embody a feminist version of a second model of female identity—saint—that was introduced to Latin America by Spanish colonizers. When Caridad's story circulates further, among Native American Yaquis, she embodies yet a third identity, for she is said to be the ghost of Lozen, a legendary female Apache warrior. This convergence of three subjective forms in the figure of Caridad, brought about through the agency of lesbian desire, demonstrates that lesbianismo [Chicana lesbianism] is culturally authentic and profoundly transformational. Moreover, lesbian desire is portrayed as a force empowering Chicanas to resist sexist/heterosexist forms of control.

In her role as curandera, Caridad receives, preserves, and exercises a form of knowledge, curanderismo, that emerged from the synthesis of fifteenth-century Spanish and Latin American medical practices. Fifteenth-century Spanish medical theories, combining the ideas of Galen, Aristotle and Hippocrates, were brought to Latin America by Spanish friars. These theories were especially compatible with the beliefs of indigenous populations, as Ari Kiev explains in Curanderismo: Mexican-American Folk Psychiatry. In Mexico, the two knowledge paradigms intermixed, fused by curandero/as into an integrated set of medical practices which have remained intact through the twentieth century (Kiev 22–30).

Both traditionally and in contemporary practice, the curandera mediates multiple domains—spiritual, temporal and cultural—for the community because she is understood as simultaneously occupying the borders of the natural and supernatural. This unique position endows the power of spiritual, psychological and physical healing on the curandera, whose cures typically reflect the belief that health is a composite of all three categories.

In addition to fulfilling her role as healer, the curandera often negotiates large-scale social changes for the community. Trained in an ancient form of knowledge but practicing in present day United States, the Mexican-American curandera mediates two historical times and three cultures—Mexican, Mexican-American, and Euro-American. As Kiev explains, she “represents a link with Mexican traditions and can interpret contemporary problems and conflicts with a time-tested … ideology” that continues to hold meaning for the community (38). Therefore, in the figure of the curandera, unlike the lesbian, alterity betokens authority, and the curandera's position at the borders of her community is cause for centrality within it. Curanderas are greatly revered, and in Latin America some achieve considerable fame as healers and mystics. For instance, “La Madre María,” a curandera who practiced in Buenos Aires, is remembered as a saint because her cures were effected through her great faith, Raul Ortelli tells us in Brujos y curanderas, describing widespread popular devotion to Madre Maria which continued years after her death.2

In So Far from God, however, Caridad initially is better known for her frequent and energetic sexual encounters with men than for her healing powers. These encounters began when she discovered that her husband, Memo, had impregnated another woman. The community interpreted Caridad's sexual energy as promiscuity. Therefore, when she is viciously raped and mutilated by the malogra, the evil wool spirit of local legend, it is widely understood as the natural consequence of promiscuity, an interpretation that embroiled her father in numerous fights: “Domingo had heard many insulting stories about his daughter and had defended her honor more than once in Valencia County bars when it was suggested that she had for all intents and purposes ‘asked for it’ when she was attacked” (83).

Disparaged by the community, Caridad's sexual energy is transformed into healing power after she miraculously recovers from the malogra attack. Chapter four, “Of the Telling of Our Clairvoyant Caridad Who After Being Afflicted with the Pangs of Love Disappears and Upon Discovery is Henceforth Known as La Armitaña,” relates how Caridad fell in love with a woman. The ironic voice of the narrator explains that in the eyes of doña Felicia, a curandera of many years' experience, Caridad's sexual energy was an abundance of heart that made her ideally suited to study the mystical arts of healing:

It was a funny thing because you might figure that after what happened to her not only with Memo, but especially because of that nightmarish night in Caridad's life, she might have become an embittered woman, who hated men for having served little purpose in her life but to bring her misery and shame. But she didn't. Caridad was incapable of hating anyone or anything, which is why doña Felicia had elected her heiress to her healing legacy. Hating came quite easy in this life of injustices, doña Felicia figured, but having an abundant heart took the kind of resiliency a curandera required.

(77)

Caridad acquires the functions and authority of the curandera when she begins her apprenticeship with doña Felicia. Applying Kiev's description of the curandera's social role to Caridad allows us to see her as a link with tradition, a character who keeps ancient practices and forms of knowledge alive. When she experiences the sexual energy that qualified her to become a curandera as lesbian desire, an oral tradition that curanderas often are lesbians is textualized.3 Such textualization of this oral tradition explicitly represents lesbianism as central to Mexican-American culture because the curandera occupies a central position in it. Lesbianism is portrayed as being within rather than alien to Mexican-American culture. Hence, the figure of Caridad interprets lesbian identity as a culturally indigenous subjective possibility for Mexican-American women just as previous revisions of the male myth of Malintzin provided a cultural context for feminist agendas.

Framing Caridad's initial experience of lesbian desire in Mexican Catholic rituals, iconography and discourses also argues that lesbianism is a culturally appropriate identity. Roman Catholicism was imposed upon the indigenous populations of Latin America in the Spanish Conquest and remains a dominant socio-cultural construct. Historically, its ideologies have organized multiple aspects of Mexican and Mexican-American culture, especially gender relationships. Contextualizing a lesbian love story in the forms and practices of Mexican Catholicism claims a central cultural position for homosexuality.

One such practice exercised by New Mexican Catholics living in the region where the novel is set is a Holy Week procession to el Santuario de Chimayo. Significantly, the history of this chapel is linked intertextually with Native American, Mexican colonial, and New Mexican Catholic religious narratives. Before the arrival of Spanish Catholics in New Mexico, Native Americans attributed healing powers to the land on which the chapel sits. Early in the nineteenth century, an incarnation of Christ known as Nuestro Señor de Esquipulas, el Cristo Negro [Our Lord of Esquipulas, the Black Christ] came to be worshipped by New Mexican Catholics living in the region. Nuestro Señor de Esquipulas, according to Stephen F. Borhegyi in his history of El Santuario de Chimayo, is a statue that was used by sixteenth-century Spaniards to convert the indigenous population of Esquipulas, Guatemala, to Christianity. Carved from a dark wood, this image was more appealing to native Guatemalans than Eurocentric likenesses of Christ. A chapel honoring Nuestro Señor de Esquipulas was built at a site in Esquipulas where, like Chimayo, the soil is thought to have curative properties. Borhegyi speculates that someone transferred worship of Nuestro Señor de Esquipulas to New Mexico because of this connection between the otherwise disparate places. Other explanations are articulated in local legend.4 The most widely known, cited by Castillo in So Far from God, is that during Holy Week a Penitente brother, a member of a Mexican Catholic fraternity, who was performing penances in the Sangre de Cristo hills saw a light coming out of the ground. Digging, he found a statue of Nuestro Señor de Esquipulas near the Santa Cruz river. The statue, identical to the Guatemalan Christ except that it is not black, was installed at the Santuario de Chimayo. This spot continues to play a prominent role in the spiritual practices of regional Mexican and Roman Catholics as well as Christian and non-Christian Native Americans. Annually, thousands of pilgrims honor Nuestro Señor de Esquipulas by journeying to the Santuario which the archbishop of New Mexico, Michael J. Sheehan, S.T.L., J.C.D., recently described as “un centro de fe tricultural [a tri-cultural center of faith].”5

During such a pilgrimage to el Santuario Caridad falls in love with a lesbian: “She was dark. Indian or Mexican. Black, black hair. Big sturdy thighs” (79). Caridad first sees the woman on Good Friday when she and doña Felicia reach the Santuario after a three-day journey on foot:

It was then … that she stopped short at the sight of the most beautiful woman she had ever seen sitting on the adobe wall that surrounds the sanctinary. At that moment the woman also turned toward Caridad, but since she was wearing sunglasses, Caridad wasn't sure whether her gaze was being returned. “Come on, come on,” doña Felicia summoned Caridad the way one does with children. Caridad, completely overwhelmed by the sight of the woman, blushed and followed doña Felicia into the church without a word.

(76)

This and subsequent passages detailing Caridad's feelings for the beautiful Chicana lesbian are framed in the conventions of Roman and Mexican Catholic apparitional narratives relating encounters with a divine or sanctified figure, often the Virgin Mary. Clearly, the tale recounting the discovery of the statue of Nuestro Señor de Esquipulas at Chimayo is a variant of such narratives, but the most influential Mexican Catholic apparitional narrative is the archetypal story of Juan Diego's encounter with the Virgen de Guadalupe.6 In fact, it provides one of the behavioral models traditionally prescribed Chicanas, the virgin-saint.

Although each apparitional story differs in detail, such accounts share a number of distinctive narrative conventions. Vision recipients are astonished when they first see a divine figure. Sometimes they doubt the vision's authenticity, thinking that it is a hallucination caused by a debilitating physical condition such as illness. The divine figure provides a variety of proofs to reassure them and to persuade others that the vision is authentic. Vision recipients characteristically assume a posture that signifies respect and awe for the divine figure. Frequently, their eyes are averted from the vision because it is too majestic to be seen by mortals. Vision recipients inevitably are transformed by the encounter, a transformation that often is consummated by gazing directly on the divine figure. Usually, a miraculous event or healing marks vision recipients' transformation. Such miracles almost always cause the community to recognize vision recipients' transformation as beatifying. As in the story of Juan Diego's encounter with the Virgen de Guadalupe, vision recipients and the divine figure subsequently become objects of veneration, the divine figure often known by the place where the apparition occurred. The Virgin Mary, for example, is variously identified as Our Lady of Lourdes, Our Lady of Fatima, Our Lady of Knock, etc., because she appeared at these locations.

Such narratives are composed within the patriarchal cultures of Roman and Mexican Catholicism and long have been critiqued by feminists for socializing women into traditional, limiting gender roles. For example, the story of the Virgen de Guadalupe, according to Trujillo's analysis, has been employed to exercise control over Chicanas by mandating motherhood and, further, by teaching that passive suffering renders the experience of motherhood redemptive:

Religion, based on the tradition of patriarchal control and sexual, emotional, and psychological repression, has historically been a dual means of hope for a better afterlife and social control in the present one. Personified by the Virgen de Guadalupe, the concept of motherhood and martyrdom go hand in hand in the Catholic religion.

(258)

The figure of the Virgin Mother, Mary, has been so important in perpetuating this and related beliefs regulating Mexican American women that they are referred to as marianismo by behavioral scientists. Marianismo, according to Rosa Maria Gil and Carmen Inoa Vazquez in The Maria Paradox: How Latinas Can Merge Old World Traditions with New World Self-Esteem, masks women's subordination to men as veneration and adoration. In general terms, marianismo inhibits women's self-realization: “The noble sacrifice of self (the ultimate expression of marianismo) is the force which has for generations prevented Hispanic women from even entertaining the notion of personal validation” (7–8). Specifically, female sexuality is the object of marianismo regulation. Olivia Espín writes that women's sexual repression is the consequence of the mother/martyr mandate embodied in the figure of the Virgin Mother.

To shun sexual pleasure and to regard sexual pleasure as an unwelcome obligation toward her husband a necessary evil in order to have children may be seen as a manifestation of virtue. In fact, some women even express pride at their own lack of sexual pleasure or desire.

(qtd. in Castillo, Massacre 125)

Castillo shows, moreover, that the belief that women's sexual pleasure is evil is problematic when internalized by Mexican American women, especially lesbians:

The Mexican Catholic lesbian, rejected by family and ostracized by her immediate community, may find it painful and even impossible to acknowledge a direct connection between her faith and the rejection she suffers as a woman who loves women because Catholicism is so much a part of her sense of self.

(Massacre 139)

The “choice” this ethic forces on Mexican Catholic lesbians, Castillo suggests, is to reject their culture and religion or to reject themselves.

Offering a representation of lesbian desire as empowering and sanctifying, So Far from God repudiates the sexist/heterosexist belief that it is evil for women to claim their sexuality and take pleasure in it. This representation is constructed by using the narrative conventions of apparitional literature to organize Caridad's performance of lesbian desire in her encounters with the beautiful woman. In initial encounters, the woman occupies the position of the divine figure while Caridad operates as the vision recipient. This configuration is suggested by Caridad's astonishment at her first sight of the woman. Summoned into the chapel by doña Felicia, Caridad “could do nothing but think of the woman on the wall” (76). Unconvinced that the sight of a woman could induce such overwhelming desire, Caridad ascribes her feelings to the affects of the hot sun: “Maybe she had sunstroke and had just imagined her. She was exhausted and nearly dehydrated and surely she could not have experienced what she felt throughout her entire body just from the sight of a woman!” (76). A second vision of the beautiful woman, however, offers proof that the woman is real and that Caridad's desire is authentic:

But as soon as they were outside, coming around from the back of the church, she saw the woman in question, more real than before, still on the wall. Moreover, the woman on the wall was looking over her shoulders in Caridad's direction!


All the while, Caridad kept sneaking glances over at the woman on the wall who, as far as she could tell, was unabashedly staring at her as well.

(76)

Significantly, the two women's gazes intersect, a moment that parallels the juncture in apparitional narratives when the vision recipient looks directly at the divine figure. This intersection of the women's gazes catalyzes a multi-valenced set of transformations that have far reaching consequences in terms of character and plot development and as a response to the idea that lesbian identity and desire constitute cultural betrayal.

Having her gaze reciprocated by the lesbian is crucial to Caridad's development as a character and the telling of her life's story. Like vision recipients in Roman and Mexican Catholic apparitional narratives, Caridad is transformed. Gazing upon the lesbian and having her gaze returned is healing, for it restores her ability to love. It cures Caridad of the heartsickness caused by male transgression, her betrayal and abandonment by her husband, Memo, that had led to so many loveless sexual encounters with men: “for the first time in years, since way before the attack, her heart was renewed, moved by another human being” (79).

Caridad's recovery, literally a recovery of desire, leads to another transformation, her sanctification, for Caridad is beatified by popular acclaim at the end of a year-long pilgrimage that she is prompted to undertake by the sight of the lesbian. When she returns, Caridad is venerated as la Santa Armitaña.7 The spectacular nature of these transformations, miraculous healing and sanctification, suggests that the intersection of lesbian gazes is analogous to the exchange of gazes featured in apparitional narratives—it has supernatural force. Likewise, lesbian desire is shown to have parallel consequences to encountering a divine being. On one hand, the beautiful Chicana lesbian is herself divinized, both in Caridad's perception and by the narrative devices framing the story. On the other hand, Caridad plays a role in the community reminiscent of Juan Diego's and vision recipients in other more conventional apparitional narratives.

In spite of its spectacular motivation and ending, Caridad's pilgrimage has an ordinary enough beginning. Seeking to understand her inexplicable desire for a woman, Caridad sets out to meet her. She asks doña Felicia to approach the woman: “Will you go up to that woman for me and ask her where she thinks she knows me from … if that's why she keeps looking at me?” (78). However, the woman has disappeared from the wall. When doña Felicia points out that the crowd of worshippers at the Santuario makes it impractical to seek out and speak with the woman, Caridad prostrates herself in prayer-like despair:

Caridad sat back down. Her whole body was affected by a stranger and she couldn't explain why. And now the woman on the wall was lost to her in the thick of the crowd. In total despair, sitting on the ground with her legs tucked beneath her, she threw her body forward, arms stretched out, and let out a deep sigh of despair like a prayer.

(78)

Significantly, this despairing, full-body genuflection honors the beautiful Chicana lesbian rather than Our Lord of Esquipulas. The woman clearly has replaced the Black Christ and Chimayo's healing earth as the object of Caridad's attention, of her adoration. That Caridad literally as well as metaphorically worships the lesbian is confirmed for the reader when the narrator refers to the beautiful Chicana as “Woman-on-the-wall.” Later, this appellation is expanded to “Woman-on-the-wall-now-on-a-hill” and “Woman-on-the-wall-later-woman-on-a-hill-with-someone-else.” Like the titles given divine figures in apparitional literature, these names for the lesbian are derived from the site(s) where she appeared.

Despairing but undeterred, Caridad sets out to find the beautiful woman. Spotting her on a hill, Caridad climbs toward her and greets the woman and her companion. Caridad falls in love when the lesbian returns her greeting which, says the narrator, becomes “the most dramatic moment in Caridad's life thus far” (80). Overwhelmed, Caridad retreats down the hill and, accompanied by doña Felicia, leaves el Santuario. Once home, Caridad is obsessed by the memory of Woman-on-the-wall. Unable to sleep, she cleans house without cessation. Intervening, doña Felicia suggests that she pray for enlightenment. Caridad prays until she passes out two days later. Revived by doña Felicia but still unenlightened, Caridad sets out for a mineral bath at Ojo Caliente [Hot Eye] but never arrives there. Instead, she retreats to an isolated cave in the Sangre de Cristo mountains where she first felt lesbian desire.

Despite a search effort and the prayers of doña Felicia, it is a year before Caridad is discovered by doña Felicia's godson, Francisco el Penitente, who, as his name indicates, is a member of the same fraternity as the man who found the statue of Nuestro Señor de Esquipulas at Chimayo. Francisco and three of his fellow Penitentes spot Caridad as they are riding horseback in the mountains. What follows is a feminist-lesbian miracle, for Caridad emerges from her cave empowered to resist the ecclesiastical, patriarchal control embodied in Francisco and his fellow Penitentes:

“You're coming with us!” one of the brothers said sternly. …


Caridad shook her head. The man dismounted from his Arabian steed and went over to her to pull her firmly toward his horse. She resisted and let herself drop on the ground. He bent down to take her up in his arms, figuring she would be even easier to get on the horse without any resistance but he couldn't lift her. “What the … !” he said, dumbfounded at how heavy she was although she was only half his size.


The other man joined him and finally Francisco el Penitente and yet the young woman could not be budged. The first brother, irate that his strength seemed no match for such a slight person, motioned to yank her along by the hair.

(86–87)

Francisco piously interprets Caridad's strength as a sign of holiness: “Stop,” he calls, “It is not for us to bring this handmaiden of Christ back. … Can't you all see that? It is not our Lord's will” (87). But Caridad is nothing like any “handmaiden of Christ” depicted in Roman and Mexican Catholic discourses. In fact, Caridad's refusal to obey the men radically revises the model of female obedience and submission to patriarchal authority personified in the female saints and virgins who populate Roman and Mexican Catholic apparitional narratives.8 Caridad resists the men rather than surrendering to them and is miraculously strengthened because of it.

The news “that a woman hermit was living in a cave … and that she resisted with passive yet herculean strength three men who tried to carry her home” spreads quickly. Revised in the repetition, the dimensions of Caridad's resistance are amplified to the extent that she is portrayed as a female warrior before whom men bow in supplication:

The three men whom Caridad resisted by making herself into lead weight turned into a score of men as the story spread. Francisco's humble gesture of delivering a prayer for her well-being became the act of many men brought to their knees before the holy hermit, all begging forgiveness for their audacious attempt at manhandling her. It was said that she lifted the very horse that the hermano [brother] had tried to force her to mount—with him on it—but out of benevolence brought it back down safely without so much as spooking the horse with her defiant magic.

(87–88)

A series of exaggerations and embellishments thus amplifies the challenge to male authority depicted in the story of Caridad's “rescue”: Caridad's strength is magnified; the number of men is increased; and the men are depicted begging for forgiveness. In addition, Caridad's original gesture of passive resistance—refusing to mount the horse—is portrayed as the more aggressive act of lifting the horse and rider. Rather than merely adding detail to the story, this revision is a play on the commonplace sexual metaphor in which riding signifies heterosexual intercourse. Not only does Caridad refuse to mount (ride), but she mounts (lifts up) the horse with its male rider still in the saddle. When read in the context of the embedded sexual innuendo, Caridad's active resistance to the male rider bespeaks a woman in control of her own sexuality, a control that she gained through the agency of lesbian desire. This representation of a physically and sexually empowered woman contrasts radically with the community's belief, revealed when she was attacked by the malogra, that Caridad colluded in her own sexual violation by men. Hence, the story of Caridad's “rescue” replaces this image of Caridad with the vision of a woman defying traditional heterosexist constructions of gender.

The farther this story of female empowerment spreads, the greater impact it has on the community. During Holy Week the local population forsakes their churches to make pilgrimages to Caridad's cave:

[H]undreds of people made their way up the mountain to La Caridad's cave in hopes of obtaining her blessing and just as many with hopes of being cured of some ailment or another. Not only the nuevo mejicano-style Spanish Catholics went to see her but also Natives from the pueblos, since for more than a year Caridad's disappearance had been a mystery through the state and her spartan mountain survival alone seemed incredible.

(87)

Significantly, traditional religious practices in the region are disrupted by the spectacle of a woman successfully living outside patriarchal society for a year and subsequently defying male attempts to re-impose control over her. Caridad's cave replaces the Santuario de Chïmayo and local churches as sites of worship. Caridad is sanctified by the community's application to her for blessing and healing just as recipients of divine visions and extraordinary curanderas are popularly venerated. In Caridad's case, however, her transformation is achieved through the agency of lesbian desire.

This phenomenon attracts media attention. By the time the story is reported in the newspapers, Caridad's beatification for feminist resistance to male authority is consummated in the imagination of the community:

[T]he daily newspapers had reported the pilgrimage to her mountain with “eyewitnesses” who had supposedly seen her. Some claimed to have been touched and blessed by her and still some others insisted that she had cured them! One man said that when he laid eyes on her, he saw a beautiful halo radiate around her whole body, like the Virgen de Guadalupe, and that she had relieved him of his drinking problem. One woman showed the press a small scrap of cloth that she said she had torn from la Santita Armitaña's robe.

(90)

These reports shift Caridad from the position of vision recipient to divine figure. Caridad, the reports claim, miraculously cures physical and social ills. She, like the Virgen de Guadalupe, is said to emanate a gold, glowing light. The Mexican Catholic community subsequently borrows traditional forms and practices used to venerate the Virgen de Guadalupe and Nuestro Señor de Esquipulas and adapts them to its worship of Caridad. Hence, commonplace items associated with Caridad are treated as sacred relics just as the faithful collect and cherish saints' artifacts and other articles such as holy medals, prayer cards, statues, etc. As a result, veneration of a feminist, lesbian curandera replaces worship of figures such as Nuestro Señor de Esquipulas and the Virgen de Guadalupe whose sanctity is licensed by ecclesial authority. This revision of religious iconography, discourses and practices argues that Mexican Catholic forms of spirituality and lesbianism are compatible rather than oppositional. Consequently, Mexican Catholic lesbians need not feel compelled choose between religion/culture and self.

In addition to being designated a feminist-style saint in the tradition of Mexican and Roman Catholicism, Caridad comes to be associated with a legendary female warrior, Lozen, figured in New Mexican, Native American discourses. When her story circulates beyond the immediate area of Chimayo to Sonora where, the narrator tells us, the Yaqui live, Caridad is acclaimed as the ghost of Lozen, an “Apache mystic woman warrior.” Lozen, according to the narrator, was the sister of chief Victorio “who had vowed ‘to make war against the white man forever’” (88). The only woman among thirty-eight male warriors, Lozen alerted the company when the enemy approached: “being warned herself first by the tingling of her palms and her hands turning purple” (88). Like Caridad, Lozen is said to have travelled through the wilderness alone. Lozen's strength during this journey was derived from her spirituality: “When left by herself, Lozen turned toward the four directions and sang to her god Ussen to guide her through the wilderness” (88). Learning of Caridad's similar, year-long sojourn in the mountains, the Yaqui attribute her ability to resist Francisco and his fellow Penitentes to being Lozen's spirit-memory rather than the handmaiden of Christ.

The appropriation of Caridad's story by each of these discourses clearly executes a multi-directional parody of various social and discursive conventions. Framing a lesbian love story in the conventions of Roman and Mexican Catholic apparitional literatures satirizes these discourses and the social practices associated with them. Likewise, ironically exaggerating—burlesquing—the hyperbole that marks media and oral storytelling parodies these discourses as well.

Nevertheless, serious claims about subject constitution are articulated in the passages dedicated to Caridad's first lesbian love and its consequences for her and the community. The story of Caridad in So Far from God revises/lesbianizes images of women proffered by three discursive traditions: Mexican/Mexican-American curanderismo, Mexican Catholic marianismo, and Native American accounts of resistance against Euro-American aggression. It textualizes the oral tradition that some curanderas are lesbian. It revises Mexican Catholic narratives used to socialize Chicanas into traditional gender roles by projecting the spectacle of a feminist/lesbian saint. Finally, it lesbianizes the model of female identity articulated in Native American discourses by figuring Caridad the spirit of the Apache warrior Lozen. Consequently, multiple and diverse subjective modes available to Chicanas—the curandera, the saint, and warrior—are conflated in the figure of Caridad through the agency of lesbian desire. As a fictional character, therefore, Caridad actualizes Castillo's contention “that lesbians can “remain true to a … Mexican/Chicana/Latina/India/Mestiza … socio-political identity” while exploring their “erotic selves” (Massacre 45). This, in turn, demonstrates that lesbianism and Mexican-American identity are overlapping categories, mutually inclusive rather than exclusive and refutes the idea that homosexuality constitutes ethnic betrayal. Hence, So Far from God makes a space for lesbians in the Mexican American community.

Notes

  1. I wish to make explicit my position in relation to Chicano/a scholarship and literature. I am a Euro-American feminist and lesbian rearing a Mexican-American daughter. Hence, my critical perspective is shaped by the anomalous experience of being simultaneously inside and outside Chicano/a culture.

    This paper is written primarily for a non-Chicano/a audience unfamiliar with Chicano/a discourses. Consequently, translations from Spanish to English are provided in the text.

    I also wish to thank my colleagues, Jane Campbell, Theresa Carilli, Julie Hagemann, Janet Jackson, Zenobia Mistri, and Robert Selig, for their generous assistance on this project. Their insightful comments have contributed significantly to my reading of Ana Castillo's So Far from God.

  2. Such veneration of curandero/as is not uncommon. They are commonly considered holy figures and, as Ortelli explains, can be revered as saints. Consequently, some theologians think of curanderismo as competing with institutional religions for devotees. In contrast, most practitioners of curanderismo consider themselves collaborating with institutional religions to sustain the good health and spirituality of their clients. For most, curanderismo is a vocation to which they are called by God. A variety of studies show that consulting curandero/as about both spiritual and physical concerns is commonplace because, in part, curanderismo is grounded in the premise that spirituality and materiality are integrally linked.

  3. I refer to the belief that some curanderas are lesbians as primarily an oral tradition because only once have I seen it explicitly stated in Chicana fiction, critical scholarship, or in sociological studies of curanderismo. Moraga, in The Last Generation, includes curanderas in a list of lesbian and gay Chicano/as who play a significant role in the community: “Somos activistas, académicos y artistas, parteras y políticos, curanderas y campesinos [We are activists, academics and artists, midwives and politicians, healers and farm workers]” (164–65). The healer, of course, is a prominent figure in contemporary lesbian culture, and lesbian and gay social histories such as Judy Grahn's Another Mother Tongue: Gay Words, Gay Words give healers a central place in the “mythic/spiritual/religious aspects of Gay culture” (120). Grahn identifies lesbian and gay healers and rituals in contemporary and historic cultures: ancient Greek, Celtic, Native American, African, Caribbean, etc.

  4. The ironic explanation offered by the narrator of So Far from God is that with the appearance of Nuestro Señor de Esquipulas at Chimayo, “the Catholic Church endorsed as sacred what the Native peoples had known all along since the beginning of time” (73).

  5. El Santuario de Chimayo also is featured in one of the poems, “La Despedida” [“The Final Verse”], in Moraga's Last Generation. In this poem, El Santuario is described as a place of healing and renewal where spiritual rebirth is made possible by the holy earth: “Soy la santa [I am the saint] / five feet of human / dimension and heart. / I birth electric / from the flames of the faithful. / Their burnt offerings singe / my cracked desert lips. Holy water / lagrinas [tears] stain my ashen cheeks” (48).

  6. The following version of the story of Juan Diego and the Virgen de Guadalupe is taken from A Woman Clothed with the Sun: Eight Great Appearances of Our Lady in Modern Times, edited by John J. Delaney. According to an account written in Nahuatl (c. 1560), in December 1531 the Virgen de Guadalupe appeared to an Aztec-Mexican field worker named Juan Diego at Tepeyac, a hill where a temple dedicated to the Aztec mother-goddess formerly had stood. Speaking in Juan Diego's dialect, the Virgin charged him with petitioning the Spanish Bishop-elect of Mexico City, Juan de Zumarraga, to build a church at Tepeyac in her honor. When Zumarraga refused, the Virgin again appeared to Juan Diego, instructing him to repeat the request. This time, Zumarraga asked for a sign from the Virgin. When the Virgin appeared a third time, she caused exotic Castilian roses to grow on the cold, barren hill and simultaneously appeared to his dying uncle, Juan Bernardino, curing him and announcing her name. Furthermore, her image was imprinted on the tilma [an Aztec-style cape] in which Juan Diego carried the roses to Zumarraga. A chapel and a hermitage for Juan Diego were built on the hill at Tepeyac; eight million Native Mexicans were baptized between 1532 and 1538. Until his death in 1548, Juan Diego received pilgrims at the hermitage where he recounted his story and displayed the tilma. Juan Diego continues to be honored in celebrations venerating the Virgen de Guadalupe, who has been named the patron of the Americas by the Roman Catholic church.

  7. This term conflates two words, arma and ermitaña/o. Arma translates as weapon or arm while ermitaña/o is a hermit. Consequently we can understand La Santa Armitaña as a play on words that refers to Caridad's pilgrimage as well as to the physical strength (symbolic of her empowerment) that she acquires during this year.

  8. Female martyrs who died rather than renounce their faith or acquiesce to sexual aggression, of course, did engage in acts of resistance, but in order to obey, fulfill, and perpetuate the teachings of ecclesial authorities.

Works Cited

Alarcón, Norma. “Chicana's Feminist Literature: A Re-Vision Through Malintzin/or Malintzin: Putting Flesh Back on the Object.” This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color. Ed. Cherríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa. Watertown, Massachusetts: Persephone, 1981. 182–90.

Alegría, Juana Armanda. Psicología de las Méxicanas. Asia 29; Serie: Cuarta Dimensión. Coyoan, México: Editorial Samo, 1974.

Anzaldúa, Gloria. Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza. San Francisco: Spinsters/Aunt Lute, 1987.

Castillo, Ana. “La Macha: Toward a Beautiful Whole Self.” Massacre of the Dreamers: Essays on Xicanisma. Albuquerque: U of New Mexico P, 1994.

———. So Far from God. New York: Norton, 1993.

Cotera, Martha P. Diosa y Hembra: The History and Heritage of Chicanas in the United States. Rptd. from Profile on the Mexican American Woman. Austin: Information Systems Development, 1976.

de Borhegyi, Stephen F. El Santuario de Chimayo. Santa Fe: Ancient City, 1956.

Delaney, John J., ed. A Woman Clothed with the Sun: Eight Great Appearances of Our Lady in Modern Times. 1961. New York: Doubleday, 1990.

Fox, Linda C. “Obedience and Rebellion: Re-Vision of Chicana Myths of Motherhood.” Women's Studies Quarterly 11.4 (1983): 20–22.

Gárcia, Alma M. “The Development of Chicana Feminist Discourse, 1970–1980.” Gender and Society. 3.2 (1989): 217–38.

Grahn, Judy. Another Mother Tongue: Gay Words, Gay Worlds. 1984. Boston: Beacon, 1990.

Kiev, Ari. Curanderismo: Mexican-American Folk Psychiatry. New York: Free, 1968.

Leal, Luis. Aztlán y Mexico: perfiles literarios e historicos. Binghampton: Bilingual Press/Editorial Bilingue, 1985.

Moraga, Cherríe. The Last Generation. Boston: South End, 1993.

Ordoñez, Elizabeth. “Sexual Politics and the Theme of Sexuality in Chicana Poetry.Women in Hispanic Literature: Icons and Fallen Idols. Ed. Beth Miller. Berkeley: U of California P, 1983. 316–39.

Ortelli, Raul. Brujos y curanderas. Mercedes, Argentina, 1966.

Paz, Octavio. The Labyrinth of Solitude. New York: Grove, 1961.

Sanchez, Rosaura. Chicano Discourse: Socio-historic Perspectives. Houston: Arte Publico, 1994.

Sheehan, Michael J. Television interview. Chicago. 27 June 96.

Trujillo, Carla. “Chicana Lesbians: Fear and Loathing in the Chicano Community.” Chicana Lesbians: The Girls Our Mothers Warned Us About. Ed. Carla Trujillo. Berkeley: Third Woman, 1991.

Jane Caputi (review date May 1997)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1892

SOURCE: “Divinely Subversive,” in Women's Review of Books, Vol. 14, No. 8, May, 1997, pp. 16–17.

[In the following review of Goddess of the Americas: Writings on the Virgin of Guadalupe, Caputi shows appreciation for the provocative essays in the collection, but criticizes the brief annotations and the lack of a concluding essay.]

My Italian immigrant grandmother, Margaret, was extremely religious, but not the variety I had experienced in Church. She practiced a folk Catholicism that entailed petitions to specific saints and special devotion to the Blessed Virgin. Her bedroom housed scores of statues of these saints as well as many Madonnas. I would sit there for hours, awed. Perhaps that was where I first learned to make altars of my own, always to the Mother, and in my case always outdoors. At the same time, the Church brought out in me a lifelong propensity to rebel. By early adolescence, deeply and finally frustrated with the emptiness of the spiritual experience that was offered by the institution, I quit.

This early intuition of female cosmic powers never left me. Now living in New Mexico, I recognize, though I have not actively participated in, a popular tradition of Goddess worship in the reverence accorded the Virgin of Guadalupe. Her image, from sacred high art to votive candles, tattoos and T-shirts, is ubiquitous in Mexican and Mexican American cultures. She appears not only in these religious and popular cultural contexts but also in overtly political ones. Her image mobilized and guided the movement to gain Mexican independence from Spain and, more recently, graced the banner of the United Farmworkers Union. Contemporary Chicana artists such as Esther Hernández and Yolanda Lopez reclaim her as a radically unsubmissive, indigenous, simultaneously ancient and utterly modern Goddess.

Goddess of the Americas begins with a prayer. Indeed, its overall purpose is a reverent one: to pay “homage to Our Mother, at the end of this century and the end of a millennium of migrations, miscegenation, conquests, and endless hope and prayer.” Essays in the collection range over the history of the Virgen de Guadalupe; her significance to Mexicans, Mexican Americans and others; the subversive powers of her iconography, particularly her special relationships with the indigenous, with women, and with the poor; her sexuality; her relationship to divine and folk figures from other traditions; and her mystery.

The anthology includes a diverse range of voices, political stances and beliefs: the message seems to be that Guadalupe is for all of us. As Chicana novelist, poet and essayist Ana Castillo notes in her preface, all contributors—believers and nonbelievers, Catholics and Jews, Mexicans, Mexican Americans and others, feminists and non-feminists, women and men—are bound “by common respect for Her and Her power over the spiritual life of millions.” Any of us can embrace her and, Castillo believes, we should: “These writings also all serve as impassioned testimony of the need for recognition of the Mother in a world that is hanging by a thin thread of hope.”

The history of Our Lady of Guadalupe is told most completely by F. Gonzalez-Crussi in “The Anatomy of a Virgin.” Her story begins with attempted deicide. “When the Spaniards first arrived at the sacred hill of Tepeyacac … they encountered, on top of a low hill, the temple to the goddess Tonantzin, meaning ‘Our Mother.’” Her image scandalized the Spaniards, who deemed it indecent, and they ordered her demolition and replacement by a cross. Tonantzin was linked then and continues to be linked to the “Snake Woman” goddesses, Cihuacoatl and Coatlicue, and the “sex goddesses” Tlazolteotl and Totzin.

Guadalupe was the name of a child-holding Madonna from Extremadura, Spain, and the Spaniards soon installed her in Tonantzin's site. Yet, as Gonzalez-Crussi reads it, the chthonic Tonantzin, gaining strength from her burial in the earth, effects a means to indigenize the imported Virgin. According to the “rationalist” account of her origins, soon after the conquest an anonymous Indian painter transferred the features of the Virgin onto a fabric made of agave fibers. She now wears a rebozo-like mantle, holds her palms in an Indian gesture of prayer and is framed by the sun while her feet rest upon a crescent moon. Her complexion is bronze, as is that of the angel beneath her.

In the far more widely accepted “apparitionist tradition,” the Virgin appeared on December 12th, 1531, several times to an Indian, Cuautlatóhuac, known also as Juan Diego, imprinting her image on his cloak and giving him roses in the midst of winter to prove the miracle to a doubting bishop. A great festival commemorating this event is celebrated in Mexico each December.

Clearly, the phenomenon of Guadalupe-Tonantzin facilitated the conversion of the Indians to Catholicism, yet it is the belief of all the contributors to this volume that her cult transcends and powerfully subverts that form of colonization, working eventually not only to absorb Catholicism into Indian spirituality but to revitalize a people who, through conquest, were “spiritually dead, abandoned by their gods.” Her “coming restored the people's reason to live and to hope.” Gonzalez-Crussi points out that the shade of her skin and her features mark her not as an Indian but a “mestizo woman … her physiology is prophetic, announcing the foundation of a new race.”

The Guadalupe's power to instill devotion is remarkable. She is, as Gloria Anzaldúa writes,

the single most potent religious, political and cultural image of the Chicano/mexicano … She is the symbol of the mestizo true to his or her Indian values … Because Guadalupe took upon herself the psychological and physical devastation of the conquered and oppressed indio, she is our spiritual, political and psychological symbol. As a symbol of hope and faith, she sustains and insures our survival. The Indian, despite extreme despair, suffering and near genocide, has survived. To Mexicans on both sides of the border, Guadalupe is the symbol of our rebellion against the rich, upper and middle class; against their subjugation of the poor and the indio.

(pp. 53–54)

This theme resounds throughout the anthology. Pilgrimages to Guadalupe take the supplicant to Mexico City on December 12th, and to the “immigration jail.” Chicano activist Reubén Martinez names her the “Undocumented Virgin.” Through her, he claims, we can learn of a national connectedness relevant to the current debate over the “illegal” immigration of people to the America that is now dominated by immigrant European peoples. As Martinez sees it, European-American deification of individualism would probably make the togetherness of the annual Mexican festival of la Virgen incomprehensible if not distasteful. Yet, “what Americans misunderstand about Mexicans is precisely what they need the most. Americans need to embrace themselves. I've found in Mexico, through Guadalupe-Tonantzin, what I'd lost in Prop 187, three-strikes-you're-out California.”

Guadalupe is also the guardian of gang members, the Mother figure who through ritual can lead men away from violence and into rebirth. She is “an exhorter to social action” on behalf of the poor and homeless. And she is the face and body of female divinity, empowering women to honor ourselves and resist the oppressions of patriarchy.

Ana Castillo tells a powerful story of the way her abuelita (grandmother) and other women honor the Virgen, protect themselves and aid the young through a secret abortion rite for a teenage member of the family. Luisah Teish, the feminist activist, storyteller and priestess in the Yoruba Lucumi tradition, links Guadalupe to African and African American traditions and offers one of her unfailingly potent rituals to be performed for the Guadalupe during times of strife in women's communities.

Cherríe Moraga pays tribute to the Moon Goddess Coyolxauhqui, the divine being who is recognized in patriarchal culture only through such acceptable representatives as the Catholicized Virgin of Guadalupe. In Mexico, Moraga attends a ceremony marking the moon's eclipse of the sun: “During those six minutes of darkness … I understood for the first time the depth and wonder of the feminine, although I confess I have been awed by it before, as my own female face gazes upon its glory and I press my lips to that apex in the woman I love.”

Also reclaiming the associations with the female divine with sex is Sandra Cisneros, in an exquisitely impudent essay, “Guadalupe, the Sex Goddess.” Cisneros details the ways in which Latinas' bodies are rendered taboo, forbidden zones even to themselves, and the dangers to which this profound silencing exposed her as a young adult. At first, in her rebellion against this personal oppression, she understood Guadalupe only as a “goody goody,” pointing the way to the living death of patriarchal marriage and motherhood. But as she matured as a feminist she realized an alternate presence—“Guadalupe the sex goddess, a goddess who makes me feel good about my sexual power, my sexual energy … My Virgen de Guadalupe is not the mother of God. She is God.”

Cisneros writes of a horrifying image from a porn movie:

The film star's panocha—a tidy, elliptical opening, pink and shiny like a rabbit's ear. To make matters worse, it was shaved and looked especially childlike and unsexual … my own sex has no resemblance to this woman's. My sex, dark as an orchid, rubbery and blue as pulpo, an octopus, does not look nice and tidy, but otherworldly … When I see la Virgen de Guadalupe I want to lift her dress as I did my dolls' and look to see if she comes with chones [underwear], and does her panocha look like mine, and does she have dark nipples too? Yes, I am certain she does. She is not neuter like Barbie. She gave birth. She has a womb. Blessed art thou and blessed is the fruit of thy womb … Blessed art thou, Lupe, and, therefore blessed am I.

(p. 51)

Cisneros and many of the other activist-authors here are testifying to and accomplishing a type of contemporary myth-making, what performance artist Guillermo Gomez-Peña describes as a radical and empowering popular revision and use of a mythically charged mainstream symbol. In his experience in Mexico, Guadalupe was used as a “demagogic tool of control.” But in the States, Chicanas and Chicanos “had expropriated it, reactivated it, recontextualized it, and turned it into a symbol of resistance”—an anti-racist warrior goddess and muse who “in the Chicano feminist Olympus … stood defiant and compassionate as a symbol of female strength, right next to la Malinche, Frida, Sor Juana, and more recently, Selena.”

Reading this, I was surprised to find, a few pages later, Octavio Paz's “The Sons of La Malinche,” a 1950 essay which many Chicanas have pointed to as troubling if not misogynist because of its identification of the “feminine condition” with “Nothingness” and its projection of woman's alleged psychological and biological “openness,” leading inevitably to passivity, submission and an utter lack of agency. Here some editorial commentary or contextualization would have been especially helpful.

Anthologies—even ones that, like Goddess of the Americas, grace their readers with insight and passion—frequently mete out such frustrations. In general I would have welcomed a greater presence from the editor, Ana Castillo, in more extensive introductions to the individual contributions, as well as a concluding essay reflecting on Guadalupe from the vantage-point of the diverse perspectives the reader experiences as she reads the essays. The homage is to Our Mother at the end of a millennium; but what does She tell us about the next?

Carmela Delia Lanza (essay date Spring 1998)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6107

SOURCE: “Hearing the Voices: Women and Home and Ana Castillo's So Far from God,” in MELUS, Vol. 23, No. 1, Spring, 1998, pp. 65–80.

[In the following essay, Lanza examines both the physical and the abstract idea of “home” in So Far from God.]

I tie up my hair into loose braids, and trust only what I have built with my own hands.

—Lorna Dee Cervantes

In the nineteenth century, Louisa May Alcott made subjects of objects when she wrote her domestic novel Little Women, which centered on four sisters and their mother during the American Civil War. Alcott created a home for the March girls that was removed from the world of war and male supremacy. In the twentieth century most critics who have devoted their attention to home space and domestic ritual have concentrated on white, middle-class homes (Matthews xvi). It is necessary, however, to begin including working-class homes and the homes of women of color in this dialectic. The subject of home space has not gone unnoticed by some women of color, like cultural theorists bell hooks and Gloria Anzaldua, and novelist Toni Morrison. Each of these writers is re-visioning the home space and its significance regarding gender roles, racism and spirituality in the homes of working-class women of color. For example, in her essay, “Homeplace: a Site of Resistance,” bell hooks is not interested in further exploration of the “white bourgeois norms (where home is conceptualized as politically neutral space)” (47). Instead, she uses her theory to examine the “homeplace” of African American women, a space she defines as a “site of resistance and liberation struggle” (43).

Bell hooks's theory on “the homeplace” can be used to explore the domestic world that Ana Castillo has created in her novel, So Far from God. In this novel, Castillo, like hooks and other women writers of color, constructs the home as a “site of resistance” for the woman of color living in a racist and sexist world. Deconstructing physical, political and spiritual boundaries, Castillo takes on the role Gloria Anzaldua describes in her book, Borderlands/La Frontera, as “the new mestiza' (79). With its playful and ironic style, and its insistence on ambiguity and contradictions, So Far from God offers a postmodern inversion of Alcott's Little Women. Both works are American novels dealing with the primary relationships of four sisters; however, Castillo's novel is concerned with four Chicana sisters and a mother living a working class life in Tome, New Mexico. According to Cordelia Chavez Candelaria, Castillo is “one of the earliest Chicana voices to articulate a sexual politics through textual poetics” (146), and this is clearly seen in So Far from God. Unlike Alcott's created home space that for the most part is politically neutral, the home space in Castillo's novel is infused with political resistance. It is a place where women of color have an “opportunity to grow and develop” spiritually and politically, which is not always possible or allowable in a “culture of white supremacy” (hooks 42).

The daughters in So Far from God are dealing with power relations that the March girls in nineteenth century middle class America did not even have to think about. The March girls, despite their own oppression in a patriarchal culture and their own sympathy for the poor and destitute, were part of the hegemony of white culture. The sisters in So Far from God, on the other hand, must construct a home space that will offer them sustenance, security and spirituality in order to move into a white world as subjects. This is crucial, for according to hooks, “when a people no longer have the space to construct homeplace, we cannot build a meaningful community of resistance” (47). The daughters in So Far from God are given the opportunity to “reconceptualize ideas of homeplace, once again considering the primacy of domesticity as a site for subversion …” (hooks 48).

I am sitting at my kitchen table, thinking about the anger in Ana Castillo's novel—and how it is masked in humor. A narrator's voice disguising rage with flippancy, telling the story of four daughters who cannot live their entire lives in their mother's home, womb, female space. My baby starts to cry—he is angry because he's hungry, and I have to stop thinking about why Caridad is wearing Fe's wedding gown when she floats across the room in her healing vision. I get a bottle for the baby and it is love in action; it is a political act; it is a moment when my private sphere, my home space is directly connected to the growth of another human being. I think about what Louise Erdrich said regarding mothering and how that relates to my home, my so-called private life:

One reason there is not a great deal written about what it is like to be the mother of a new infant is that there is rarely a moment to think of anything else besides that infant's needs. Endless time with a small baby is spent asking, “What do you want? What do you want?”

(38)

It is the opposite of war. The ego is put aside; ideas, philosophies, theories all shrink down in the chthonic force of sustaining life—feeding another person.

It is in this continuous state of childbirth, moving into grace with all my resistance that I want to say, “Leave me alone, I'm busy.” But I don't. According to Clarissa Pinkola Estes “There is a saying, ‘You can't go home again.’ It is not true. While you cannot crawl back into the uterus again, you can return to the soul-home. It is not only possible, it is requisite” (284). I wash and sweep within the four walls and create stories; and like Ana Castillo, Toni Morrison, Gloria Anzaldua, and Louise Erdrich, I want to give voice to the “cultural silence of the domestic sphere” (Wright 113). Writing a poem while writing a poem in my home space.

In the first chapter of So Far from God, the voice of the matriarchy is clearly heard through the mother, Sofi, when her daughter, La Loca, comes back from the dead. After Loca awakens from her other state of consciousness (whether she actually dies or suffers from epilepsy is irrelevant), opens her coffin and flies up to the church roof, the priest immediately declares his judgement by asking, “‘Are you the devil's messenger or a winged angel?’” (23). He is embodying the voice of institutions—Christianity, patriarchy. La Loca can either be a devil or an angel, a virgin or a whore according to his linear thinking. Sofi, however, will not allow this destructive language of dichotomy to continue. She demands in the voices of Coatlicue, Hestia, Demeter, Guadalupe:

‘Don't you dare! … Don't you dare start this about my baby! If our Lord in this heaven has sent my child back to me, don't you start this backward thinking against her; the devil doesn't produce miracles! And this is a miracle, an answer to the prayers of a brokenhearted mother …’

(23)

Sofi is the head of her home, a home she has created for her daughters. For one daughter, Loca, the home is the only space she can call her own. She stays home, not playing the role of angel or devil, and is “without exception, healing her sisters from the traumas and injustices they were dealt by society—a society she herself never experienced firsthand” (27). As for the other daughters, they “had gone out into the world and had all eventually returned to their mother's home” (25). They become trapped in the “quest-pattern that has dominated Western literature” (Romines 7). They are unwilling to accept what Kathryn Allen Rabuzzi describes in her book about spirituality and domesticity, The Sacred and the Feminine: Toward a Theology of Housework, as the “positive face of chaos, a letting go into possibilities that freedom from externally fixed routine allows” (153) and that external routine is the world of male domination and the world of racism. In the novel, the daughters can only face chaos when they re-enter their mother's home and re-discover their identity, their spirituality, and their strength. Eventually all of the daughters, including La Loca, experience loss in the collision of their need to create a home space with the destructive forces outside.

          where I am born, I fall
in the snow you and I cannot open our mouths
to the ice house of rules and minutes,
quick thoughts of before buildings and I
feel muscles in every brick, steel girder,
I cannot breathe and try to explain what it feels
like to live in a world as an alien.
What is our place in the universe at a time
that goddess and poet have both made their excuses
leaving us biting our nails in the dark trying to
turn the highway into a bowl,
melting another iceberg with our tongues,
“Suck on this,”
“housework doesn't suck
because if it did, men would love it,”*
          *From a greeting card that was given to a friend.
We wait inside Emily's poem,
the freezing people walking in circles
making our tombstone from a home and we can no longer
resign or revision or remember our honey moon.

The first daughter to move away from the home and into the perilous and destructive outside world is Esperanza. She enters her “quest-pattern” when she chooses to leave home and work as a television anchorwoman in Washington, D.C. On the surface, her decision appears sensible: “… it was pretty clear to her that there was no need of her on the homefront. Her sisters had recovered” (46) from their encounters with physical and emotional abuse. Esperanza also believes her mother no longer needs her because her father has returned home years after abandoning the family. Esperanza, however, misjudges her own position and the source of power within her family. In turning away from her home, her mother, her sisters, she is turning away from “the great and terrifying mother earth from whom all life emerges, but to whom it likewise all returns” (Rabuzzi 51). Her sisters continue to need her and her father is as ineffective now as he has always been. Esperanza is deceived by the male values that dominate the outside world in the novel; in turning from the female world of her home space (which her mother and sisters created) to the male world of war, she is moving towards self-destruction and can only return home after she is dead, in the form of a spirit. At first she speaks through La Llorona, who is described in the novel as “a loving mother goddess” (163). La Llorona is a messenger who informs La Loca (they were on a “first-name basis” [163]) that Esperanza has died. After that, Esperanza is seen by all the members of the family including the father who is a bit disturbed by his “transparent daughter” (163). Sofi sees Esperanza as a little girl who “had had a nightmare and went to be near her mother for comfort” (163). Caridad has one-sided conversations with Esperanza talking mostly about politics, and La Loca sees and talks to her by the river behind their home.

As a spirit, Esperanza returns to the home space to be comforted by her mother and sisters and to also teach them. Once Esperanza becomes a spirit, she is no longer a victim or an object of the white world. She belongs to a world that Anzaldua boldly asserts exists, a spiritual world that “the whites are so adamant in denying” (38). It is no accident that the dead Esperanza communicates with La Llorona, “a woman who had been given a bad rap by every generation of people since the beginning of time …” (Castillo 162–63). While she lived, Esperanza was also given a “bad rap.” But in death, La Llorona is revisioned and so is Esperanza. Both are liberated from the boundaries of white culture. Both can finally return home—and the home can be a river or a mother's arms.

After Esperanza accepts her job in Washington, D.C., she is assigned to Saudi Arabia, a place about to erupt in war. Esperanza accepts this fate because she desires to move away from the home where the “mothers are the ones who actually have to change, feed, and connect with children for all their bodily functions,” and move towards the “male saviors” whose “relative absence … from homelife automatically places them in a privileged position” (Rabuzzi 19). It is ironic (or maybe not so ironic) that Esperanza, in choosing the male hero as her model—leaving home, participating in a patriarchal institution, war, because “‘it's part of my job’” (48)—is really choosing torture and death. Esperanza is experiencing what Anzaldua aptly describes in La Frontera as “shutting down” (20). She is living with the fear of rejection from the outside culture and she is also living with the fear of losing her home, her mother, “La Raza” (20). Esperanza experiences this psychic paralysis. She is a woman of color who is:

Alienated from her mother culture, ‘alien’ in the dominant culture, the woman of color does not feel safe with the inner life of her Self. Petrified, she can't respond, her face caught between los intersticios, the spaces between the different worlds she inhabits.

(20)

It is only after Esperanza has died that she can return to her “mother culture.”

Smoothing the sheets down on the bed,
stroking a window pane,
carrying a book to the table
and I think of hands making him soup,
carrying dirty underwear to the washing machine,
ripping lettuce under cold water,
stretching the chicken legs apart,
slamming the ice tray against the table,
holding, pushing, patting, kneading,
punching the pillow down under my stomach and
looking at the light spilling out to the street,
“you are not my mother and you never will be,”
tasting my blood with honey
on my finger, around the corners of my mouth
and I wonder how I have lasted another moon cycle
in this place.

Fe is another one of the daughters in So Far from God who chooses a patriarchal institution that moves her away from her home space and eventually destroys her. Fe chooses marriage and in a literal and symbolic way, it poisons her to death.

The daughter who chooses marriage, chooses to create a new domestic environment echoes the myth of Demeter and Persephone. Persephone does leave her mother but she eventually returns to her for at least some of the year's cycle:

Persephone therefore has two homes: her home of origins with her mother and her present adult home with her husband. Because the story is told from the perspective of her mother, Persephone's homecoming is her ascent to Demeter, not her descent to Hades.

(Rabuzzi 135)

Anzaldua discusses her own separation and return to her origins which involves the dance of rebelling, celebrating, and defending aspects of her own Chicana culture. She asserts that it was necessary for her to leave home in order “to live life on my own.” Yet she concludes, “in leaving home I did not lose touch with my origins because lo mexicano is in my system. I am a turtle, wherever I go I carry ‘home’ on my back” (21). Fe, in marrying Casimiro and moving to the land of “the long-dreamed-of automatic dishwasher, microwave, Cuisinart and the VCR” (171), is trying in her own way to return to her mother but she cannot truly find her way back because of her inability to view her home and her culture in all of its complexity. She can only look at her mother's home and her sisters as a source of embarrassment or pity:

As it was, while Fe had a little something to talk to Esperanza about, she kept away from her other sisters, her mother, and the animals, because she just didn't understand how they could all be so self-defeating, so unambitious.

(28)

Fe wants desperately to re-vision her mother's home by making it sterile, shiny, closer to the definition of home by mainstream white culture. She cannot see the spiritual richness in her home. In fact, Fe describes one of her sisters, La Loca, as “a soulless creature” (28) because she always wears the same clothes and doesn't bother with shoes. For herself, Fe insists on imitating the mainstream culture with a considerable amount of effort: “Fe was beyond reproach. She maintained her image above all—from the organized desk at work to weekly manicured fingernails and a neat coiffure” (28). Anzaldua points out that fear is the cause of this denial of home, a kind of “homophobia.” She states:

We're afraid of being abandoned by the mother, the culture, la Raza, for being unacceptable, faulty, damaged … To avoid rejection, some of us conform to the values of the culture, push the unacceptable parts in the shadows. Which leaves only one fear—that we will be found out and that the Shadow-Beast will break out of its cage.

(20)

At the beginning of the novel, Fe embraces mainstream white culture; she wants to be like the white women she works with. She chooses “three gabachas” from her job to be her bridesmaids instead of her sisters (29). But instead of gaining any power, she ends up wrapped in the shower curtain, screaming her way back to the matriarchal circle of her mother and sisters. Her first boyfriend, Tom, decides he isn't ready for intimacy and commitment. And it is her mother and her sisters who become the healers and nurse, who clean and pray over Fe. Fe loses her voice as a result of her constant screaming yet she still does not learn how to integrate her home space with the world outside. Eventually, Fe marries one of her cousins, Casimiro. She still desires to live in a suburb in a house that does not smell the way her mother's house smells.

Fe's journey does end back at home and she is finally able to see her home as a source of comfort, wisdom and spirituality but it is only after the outside world has done its best to destroy her. After being exposed unknowingly to a very toxic chemical, Fe goes home to die:

A year from the time of her wedding, everything ended, dreams and nightmares alike, for that daughter of Sofi who had all her life sought to escape her mother's depressing home—with its smell of animal urine and hot animal breath and its couch and cobijas that itched with ticks and fleas; where the coming and goings of the vecinos had become routine because of her mom's mayoral calling … Despite all this and more, Fe found herself wanting to go nowhere else but back to her mom and La Loca and even to the animals to die just before her twenty-seventh birthday. Sofia's chaotic home became a sanctuary from the even more incomprehensible world that Fe encountered that last year of her pathetic life.

(171–72)

In Fe's chase for the American Dream, she only finds infertility, deception, and ultimately a death that unlike her sisters' deaths, offers no spiritual transformation or resurrection: “Fe just died. And when someone dies that plain dead, it is hard to talk about” (186).

Caridad, the other sister who leaves, like Fe and Esperanza also finds violence and ultimate destruction in the world outside the home. Early in the novel Caridad is physically attacked. It is a brutal sexual invasion, an attack on the female body:

Sofi was told that her daughter's nipples had been bitten off. She had also been scourged with something, branded like cattle. Worst of all, a tracheotomy was performed because she had also been stabbed in the throat.

(33)

Caridad's attack is treated by her society as merely a cause for prayer, because “the mutilation of the lovely young woman was akin to martyrdom” (33). And it is treated with contempt by the police department who felt she deserved what she got because of her sexual promiscuity. In the end Caridad is “left in the hands of her family, a nightmare incarnated” (33). Caridad's attack is an attack on the female, on what is closest to home—death, birth, blood. According to Anzaldua in Borderlands/La Frontera:

The female, by virtue of creating entities of flesh and blood in her stomach (she bleeds every month but does not die), by virtue by being in tune with nature's cycles, is feared. Because, according to Christianity and most major religions, woman is carnal, animal, and closer to the undivine, she must be protected. Protected from herself. Woman is the stranger, the other. She is man's recognized nightmarish pieces, his Shadow-Beast. The sight of her sends him into a frenzy of anger and fear.

(17)

Caridad becomes “the stranger, the other” when she is attacked, and she is only healed through her sisters and mother at home. She floats through the living room wearing Fe's wedding gown and is beautiful again; her wounds all vanish because La Loca prays for her. She moves into a transcendent world by no longer existing as an object for the world. Instead, Caridad meets an older woman, Dona Felicia, a surrogate mother who teachers her to become a healer. Dona Felicia is the one who points out the power that Caridad and her family possess:

All they did at the hospital was patch you up and send you home, more dead than alive. It was with the help of God, heaven knows how He watches over that house where you come from. …

(55)

Therefore, it is through the rituals of the home that Caridad enters into a spiritual life. Caridad's renewed life “became a rhythm of scented baths, tea remedies, rubdowns, and general good feeling” (63). She makes particular chores like dusting her altar and her statues and pictures of saints, taking baths, and cleaning her incense brazier part of her spiritual life. She takes on the role of a priestess, who “enacts her purification rites primarily for her own benefit” (Rabuzzi 114).

In the outside dominant culture where “We've been taught that the spirit is outside our bodies or above our heads somewhere up in the sky with God” (Anzaldua 36), Caridad's actions may be perceived as “cultlike” or even superstitious. But for women of color, her actions not only contradict what hooks identified as “white bourgeois norms (where home is conceptualized as politically neutral space)” (47), they re-connect and remember the home to the body to the spirit.

Caridad's mentor, Dona Felicia, creates a home in her trailer that is overflowing with the smells of beans cooking and incense burning. She is creating in her home “the spiritual life and ceremonies of multi-colored people” (Anzaldua 69) and is moving out of the “consciousness of duality” (Anzaldua 37). There is nothing neutral about her home (as there is nothing neutral about Sofi's home, filled with the smells of animals). They do not imitate the white culture with the “white sterility they have in their kitchens, bathrooms, hospitals, mortuaries and missile bases” (Anzaldua 69). Instead, Caridad and Dona Felicia's homes echo Anzaldua's words on institutionalized religions and home:

Institutionalized religion fears trafficking with the spirit world and stigmatizes it as witchcraft. … In my own life, the Catholic Church fails to give meaning to my daily acts, to my continuing encounters with the ‘other world.’ It and other institutionalized religions impoverish all life, beauty, pleasure.

(37)

Anzaldua also writes about her own home rituals and how they are strongly connected to her creative and spiritual life:

I make my offerings of incense and cracked corn, light my candle. In my head I sometimes will say a prayer—an affirmation and a voicing of intent. Then I run water, wash the dishes or my underthings, take a bath, or mop the kitchen floor.

(67)

Despite Caridad's rejection of institutionalized religions and her attempts to create a protective home space for herself, whether it is in a trailer or in a cave, she is again terrorized by the outside world. The woman she loves, Esmeralda, is raped by Francisco, a man who is obsessed with Caridad. Because of this man's desire to own a woman at any cost, because of his “machismo,” which Anzaldua defines as a need to “put down women and even to brutalize them” (83) (a concept which Anzaldua connects to racism and shame), Caridad and Esmeralda both commit suicide at Acoma. They go to Acoma after Esmeralda's attack, and when Caridad realizes that Esmeralda was violated, and that Francisco followed them, they hold hands and jump off the mesa and are taken by Tsichtinako, “the Invisible One who had nourished the first two humans, who were also both females” (211). This spirit leads both women back to the womb, back to a safe home:

not out toward the sun's rays or up to the clouds but down, deep
          within
the soft, moist dark earth where Esmeralda and Caridad would be
safe and live forever.

(211)

we cannot talk,
it is better to only hear
the water running in the kitchen sink
dreaming of rooms and you sitting
across from me saying “yes, yes
I will defend you, I know exactly what I will say”
but after you leave your words change,
you lie and eat food my dead grandmother prepares and
I know I must change all my poems now,
throwing books at you in front of my parents' house
and you laugh and hold your breath waiting
for the hysterical woman to stop so you can
go on walking down the street,
so you can go on driving in the car,
so you can go on your horse
to another town and fuck another woman
with your words, your money and your gun.

As long as woman is put down, the Indian and the Black in all of us is put down. The struggle of the mestiza is above all a feminist one. As long as los hombres think they have to chingar mujeres and each other to be men, as long as men are taught that they are superior and therefore culturally favored over la mujer, as long as to be a vieja is a thing of derision, there can be no real healing of our psyches. We're halfway there—we have such love of the Mother, the good mother. The first step is to unlearn the puta/virgin dichotomy and to see Coatlapopeuh-Coatlicue in the Mother, Guadalupe. (Anzaldua 84)

The two women in the novel who do not leave home are the mother, Sofi, and one daughter, La Loca. Both women look to their home space as a source for spiritual growth and as a reconnection between their own culture and the outside dominating culture. Neither Sofi nor Loca desire the objects, the static role or the sterile, domestic environment of mainstream white culture. They are rooted in their own history and at the same time, they accept their world in its playful state of constant change, and contradictions. This tension between rootedness and flexibility is observed by Anzaldua in Borderlands/La Frontera:

Los Chicanos, how patient we seem, how very patient … We know how to survive. When other races have given up their tongue, we've kept ours. We know what it is to live under the hammer blow of the dominant norteamericano culture. But more than we count the blows, we count the days the weeks the years the centuries the eons until the white laws and commerce and customs will rot in the deserts they've created, lie bleached. Humildes yet proud, quietos yet wild, nosotros los mexicanos-Chicanos will walk by the crumbling ashes as we go about our business. Stubborn, persevering, impenetrable as stone, yet possessing a malleability that renders us unbreakable, we, the mestizas and mestizos, will remain.

(63–64)

Sofi was married to a gambler, Domingo, who was:

little by little betting away the land she [Sofi] had inherited from her father, and finally she couldn't take no more and gave him his walking papers. Just like that, she said, Go, hombre, before you leave us all out on the street!

(214)

Domingo returns years later and attempts to win back Sofi's affection but she has no desire to share a life with him again. She will no longer accept his perceptions as law: “‘And don't call me ‘silly Sofi no more neither.’ … ‘Do I look like a silly woman to you, Domingo?’” (109–10). Sofi is participating in what Norma Alarcon describes as “the ironically erotic dance that Castillo's speaking subjects often take up with men” (94); however, Sofi is no longer allowing herself to be victimized by the dance.

Domingo makes the mistake of losing Sofi's house in a gambling bet and that is one mistake Sofi cannot forgive, for her identity, her history is her house:

But the house, that home of mud and straw and stucco and in some places brick—which had been her mother's and father's and her grandparents', for that matter, and in which she and her sister had been born and raised—that house had belonged to her.

(215)

Domingo's insensitivity and carelessness concerning this loss is what finally pushes Sofi to file divorce papers. She also manages to hold on to her house. Like the matriarchal goddess, Hestia, who will not allow any god to “share her strictly matriarchal province,” and who nurtures a fire in the hearth that was “the center of the earth,” (Walker 400), Sofi cannot let the fires in her home go out or let the fires consume her in rage. In her book, The Sacred and the Feminine, Rabuzzi describes this balancing act of the housewife who must carefully dance between her own home rituals, which includes spirituality, and outside influence:

… all the domestic rites a housewife performs are designed to maintain Hestia's fire properly. If she allows the fire to go out, her house is no longer a home … if a homemaker allows the fire to rage out of control, her home will vanish along with its physical embodiment.

(Rabuzzi 95)

Sofi balances her dedication to her home, her duty to “La Loquita, her eternal baby” and her devotion to herself when she decides to finally bring closure to her failed marriage. Sofi does not act in a fit of rage; in fact with a charitable and flexible nature, she offers him a small house in Chimayo (which was built for Caridad). She may not want to be married to Domingo but she refuses to see him homeless.

This balancing act is also evident when Sofi, despite the fact that her own grandparents built the house, accepts an arrangement with the judge who won the house in a cockfight. He allows Sofi to “reside in her own home after she agreed to pay him a modest rent” (216).

Like her mother, La Loca uses the home space as a source of spiritual nourishment and a source of strength. Loca does all her work, whether it is healing her sisters or talking to La Llorona, within the domestic sphere. While living in her mother's home, Loca becomes a mythic force in her own right. She becomes a player in a scene far older and larger than her individual self. No longer does she participate in profane historical time; instead she is participating in mythic time (Rabuzza 96). Loca visits hell, heals her sisters Fe and Caridad, and can smell other people's agony. She participates in a “mortal collision between the rituals of a house” (Romines 198) when she describes to Sofi how she can smell her father's spiritual pain:

‘Mom,’ La Loca said, ‘I smell my dad. And he was in hell, too. … Mom, I been to hell. You never forget that smell. And my dad … he was there, too.’ ‘So you think I should forgive you dad for leaving me, for leaving us all those years?’ Sofi asked. ‘Here we don't forgive, Mom. … Only in hell do we learn to forgive and you got to die first. … Mom, hell is where you go to see yourself. This dad out there, sitting watching T. V., he was in hell a long time.’

(41–42)

Loca, like Hestia, is a virgin who is “the representative of pure homelife” (Rabuzzi 95). Since her experience of death and resurrection at age three, Loca never leaves home, and she only allows her mother to come close to her. She never went to school, to mass, to any social activity. Her entire world is the house, the stalls, and the river by the house. She does not attempt to assimilate into the dominant culture like her sisters, Fe and Esperanza. She plays the violin without having to go to a teacher outside the home; she just learns using her own ability and talent. Loca doesn't rely on mainstream institutions for anything, whether it be to gain knowledge or spirituality in her life.

Yet the world comes to Loca in the shape of a disease, AIDS. Castillo does not explain how Loca contracts the disease, which adds to Loca's role in the novel as a character who is larger than her own self (Rabuzzi 96). The disease, which Castillo describes as the “Murder of the Innocent” (243), seeks Loca out.

In the end, like Caridad, Loca is taken away by a female deity, the Lady in Blue who is wearing a horsehair vest under her habit. The lady can be Guadalupe, La Llorona, “My-Mother-Who-Gives” Coatlicue—all aspects of the goddess who was “usurped of ancient feminine prerogatives” (Walker 526) by the outside culture but has found a voice within the home space. Loca, within her domestic sphere, is still disrupted by the racism and sexism of the patriarchy. She is the representative feminist healer and speaker operating from within the home. She is also the queer that Anzaldua speaks about when she says, “People, listen to what your joteria is saying” (85). And because of the disease she contracts, a disease of the postmodern world, she, like her sisters, Esperanza, Fe and Caridad, is a representative victim of the patriarchy. For only Sofi remains at the end of the novel, as the president of Mothers of Martyrs and Saints, an organization that worships another symbol of the home, the womb.

I wanted to write about this dream and call it
“peeling garlic” smelling my fingers
hours after I cooked
and no, I do not believe women would start a war
because they are not looking
at the beginning or the end

What is home? Is it “the space in which you feel secure enough to be most fully yourself” (Rabuzzi 139)? Is domestic ritual only a private act? “I am writing a book, performing a public act that seems a far cry from my turkey dressing,” writes Romines (293). Is it? What do women learn in the home? Is the “place where all that truly mattered in life took place—the warmth and comfort of shelter, the feeding of our bodies, the nurturing of our souls. There we learned dignity, integrity of being; there we learned to have faith” (hooks 41–42). Anzaldua writes, “I am a turtle, wherever I go I carry home on my back” (21). I stand outside, bleeding. I watch the lunar eclipse, a heavy moon pulling on my womb; the moon is slowly disappearing above my house, and I hear my baby breathing under my skin. Five months ago, home for him was my body. I want to join the voices of the private and public that will not look at what is done in the home as disconnected to what is done outside the home, that will not disconnect the female body from the female spirit. I want to join the force “making a new culture—una cultura mestiza—with my own lumber, my own bricks and mortar and my own feminist architecture” (Anzaldua 22).

Works Cited

Alarcon, Norma. “The Sardonic Powers of the Erotic in the Work of Ana Castillo.” Breaking Boundaries: Latina Writing and Critical Readings. Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1989. 94–107.

Anzaldua, Gloria. Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza. San Francisco: Aunt Lute, 1987.

Candelaria, Cordelia Chavez. “Latina Women Writers: Chicana, Cuban American and Puerto Rican Voices.” Handbook of Hispanic Cultures in the United States. Vol. 4. Ed. Francisco Lomeli. Houston: Arte Publico, 1993. 134–162.

Castillo, Ana. So Far from God. New York: Norton, 1993.

Erdrich, Louise. “A Woman's Work.” Harper's, May 1993: 35–46.

Estes, Clarissa Pinkola. Women Who Run with the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype. New York: Ballantine, 1992.

hooks, bell. “Homeplace: A Site of Resistance.” Yearning: Race, Gender and Cultural Politics. Boston: South End, 1990. 41–49.

Matthews, Glenna. “Just a Housewife”: The Rise and Fall of Domesticity in America. New York: Oxford UP, 1987.

Rabuzzi, Kathryn Allen. The Sacred and the Feminine: Toward a Theology of Housework. New York: Seabury, 1982.

Romines, Ann. The Home Plot: Women, Writing and Domestic Ritual. Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1992.

Walker, Barbara G. The Woman's Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets. New York: Harper Collins, 1983.

Wright, Wendy M. Sacred Dwelling: A Spirituality of Family Life. New York: Crossroad, 1989.

Roland Walter (essay date Spring 1998)

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SOURCE: “The Cultural Politics of Dislocation and Relocation in the Novels of Ana Castillo,” in MELUS, Vol. 23, No. 1, Spring, 1998, pp. 81–97.

[In the following essay, Walter analyzes how characters in Ana Castillo's novels are often subjected to struggles for identity and for freedom from oppression.]

Now, I-woman am going to blow up the Law … in language.

(Cixous “The Laughing Medusa” 887)

By creating a new mythos—that is, a change in the way we perceive reality, the way we see ourselves, and the ways we behave—la mestiza creates a new consciousness.

(Anzaldúa Borderlands/La Frontera 80)

Ever since the initial success of vanguard Chicana writers such as Lorna Dee Cervantes, Estela Portillo-Trambley, Gina Valdés, Bernice Zamora, Lucha Corpi and Alma Villanueva in the late 1970s and early 1980s and throughout the boom of Chicana literary output from the mid 1980s until now, Chicana writers have used the written word in order to “reveal” and “change,” that is, they have been engage writers in one way or another.1 According to María Hererra-Sobek, Chicana writers have been making “daring inroads into ‘new frontiers’ … exploring new vistas … and new perspectives” which reveal “new dimensions” for both Chicano and mainstream American literatures (10–11). Focusing upon Ana Castillo's novels, The Mixquiahuala Letters, Sapogonia, and So Far from God, this essay addresses the politics of dislocation and relocation as a key aspect of the interacting social and cultural practices and ideological discourses that constitute the narrative's signifying process.

In Borderlands/La Frontera Gloria Anzaldúa describes the border space as “a vague and undetermined place created by the emotional residue of an unnatural boundary,” a space “in a constant state of transition” (3). Those who live in the Chicano borderlands, this interstitial cross-cultural space, are “plagued by psychic restlessness … torn between ways … a product of the transfer of the cultural and spiritual values of one group to another” (78). I want to suggest that Castillo's characters, male and female, are border subjects positioned between cultures and in search of an alternative to their lived “nepantla” state of invisibility and transition.2 In terms of her female characters, this state is aggravated by what Castillo calls in Massacre of the Dreamers “double sexism, being female and indigenous,” that is, by the Chicana's identity as man's specularized Other,3 a subject-position conditioned by racism and misogyny. Castillo, I want to demonstrate, uses writing to reveal and change the mestiza's imposed “subject-position,” which, according to JanMohamed, can be defined only “in terms of the effects of economic exploitation, political disenfranchisement, social manipulation, and ideological domination on the cultural formation of minority subjects and discourses” (9). In this process her narrative problematizes the “ethos” and “worldview” of Chicano and Anglo-American cultures through the aesthetic creation of a new mestiza consciousness, a repositioning of the marginalized subject by means of a counter-hegemonic discourse that establishes what Göran Therborn has called a narrative “alterideology” (Identity of Power 28): a narrative “dialectic of difference”4 as socially symbolic act with an ideological utopian function intent on finding imaginary solutions to existing social conflicts. This utopian function—an impulse of liberation and salvation—embraces the relation between both the individual and the collective and life as it is lived and experienced imaginatively. Hence, I want to argue that Ana Castillo's narrative instantiates counter-hegemony (culture/ideology) as a substance of Chicana/o thinking and is therefore, in Frederic Jameson's terms, “informed by … a political unconscious … a symbolic meditation on the destiny of community” (The Political Unconscious 70). It becomes, as it creates, what Bhabha based on Jacques Lacan has termed the place of “the signifying time-lag of cultural difference” (The Location of Culture 237).

In The Mixquiahuala Letters Castillo describes a Chicana's search for identity in the borderlands by foregrounding “the psychic restlessness” which characterizes the protagonist's endeavors to deconstruct her imposed identity as man's Other and create an authentic consciousness. The novel, an indignant outcry against the Chicana's fragmented and alienated existence in a racist, patriarchal order—an outcry that characterizes the narrative style, structure, and theme—centers on the experiences of two Chicanas, Teresa and Alicia, living and traveling in the United States and Mexico. Playing Julio Cortázar's game without sticking to his rules, Castillo uses a fragmented epistolary style—40 letters written by Teresa—and invites the reader to read in different, nonchronological ways.5 This device, the use of multiple perspectives and a protean, lyrical prose revealing both the conscious and unconscious levels of Teresa's mental life break with the chronological order of the narrative and connote free choice and otherness. Style and structure furthermore intimate the implicit author's renunciation of authority and, based on the theme, suggest a radical deconstruction of the symbolic order as a solution to Teresa's identity crisis and search for selfhood. This mode of presentation reflects two basic interacting “structures of feeling”6: the confusion / anxiety / crisis of being “torn between ways” that characterizes life in the shifting space of the borderlands and the desire to transcend this state, to put the fragmented pieces of one's colonized identity together—structures conditioned by what Erlinda Gonzales-Berry has described as “the discrepancies between women's desires to act and define themselves and the world's reception and suppression of those desires” (237).

Teresa experiences a cultural crisis of dislocation which I propose to read within the context of the following questions: who am I-Chicana living in the United States? How do I-woman relate to the other, male and female? Teresa “was no longer prepared to face a mundane life of need and resentment, accept monogamous commitments and honor patriarchal traditions and wanted to be rid of the husband's guiding hand, holidays with family and in-laws, led by a contradicting God, society …” (22–23). The novel's epigraph, taken from Anais Nin's Under the Glass Bell, introduces Castillo's outcry against a system that reduces women to objects of men's will: “I quit loving my father a long time ago. What remained was a slavery to a pattern.” Father, church, husband, the three pillars of a system that stifles Teresa's self-determination, are on trial in the novel. In several letters Teresa denounces what Luce Irigaray has described as “the natural substratum” of “the [hierarchically structured] patriarchal social body,” namely, “woman-as-other”: (Je, tu, nous 45).

A woman takes care of the man she has made her life with, cleans, cooks, washes his underwear, does as if he were her only child, as if he had come from her womb. In exchange, he may pay her bills, he may not. He may give her acceptance into society by replacing her father's name with his, or he may choose to not. He may make her feel like a woman, or rather, how she has been told a woman feels with a man or he may not.

(112)

The narrative initiates Teresa's redefinition of selfhood as growth in consciousness from this subaltern position, this “periphery of authorized power and privilege,” (Bhabha 2) in a deconstructive process; a process that reveals and challenges her experience of otherization and thereby opens an in-between space—a space separating the I-woman from the ‘woman-as-other'—that gradually becomes a place of emergence, a terrain for insurrection, an interstice where Teresa's new mestiza consciousness is negotiated as a strategy of representation. The necessity for this redefinition, which implies a renegotiation of culture, ideology and society, is nowhere better expressed than in the following statement: “In rage, i tore open the worn shirt to reveal flesh: ‘i was a woman,’ i shouted, ‘but i was first human’”(97). One could argue that this exclamation is an emblem of the novel's politics of dislocation and relocation: a Chicana who through writing reveals the psychic wounds inflicted upon her by a racist, sexist and classist order, turning her into a stranger, into man's and society's “Shadow-Beast,” (Anzaldúa Borderlands 17) and “speak[s] from the cracked spaces … con voz del abismo … to subvert the status quo,” employing her voice as a strategy of resistance to hegemonic cultural constructions (Anzaldúa “Haciendo caras, una entrada” xxii–xxv). By using her voice in a gesture of defiance, insisting upon her right of self-determination, Teresa moves from silence into speech, from invisibility into visibility: an act of cultural revision intent on transforming the “abismo,” this unhomely liminal space, into a home.

Unable to find a satisfactory solution to her double dislocation, Teresa, together with her friend Alicia, travels to Mexico, the mythical homeland which she has only known from stories told by her grandmother, in order to satisfy her “yearning spirit, the Indian in me that had begun to cure the ails of humble folk distrustful of modern medicine; a need for the sapling woman for the fertile earth that nurtured her growth.”7 Mexico, however, as Teresa gradually realizes after two journeys, embraces her with its indigenous roots—“i sometimes saw the ancient Tenochtitlan, home of my mother, my grandmothers and greatmother, as an embracing bosom, to welcome me back … people of the sun and earth … i too was of that small corner of the world, i was of that mixed blood, of fire and stone …” (92, 95–96)—and strangles her with its machismo at the same time. While the journeys to Mexico do not provide her with clear-cut answers, the mere fact of moving within nepantla signifies a radical change from mere interrogation to initiation. Traveling and writing about this experience enable Teresa to rethink and renegotiate individual and collective cultural values of the Chicano border experience. In this process, she creates her own migratory in-between space in which self-definition is initiated in an ambivalent way and no definite answers and solutions are found. Female bonding—one of the principal messages of Castillo's poetry8—and relationships with men are problematized and render the shifting and multiple forms of existence in the borderlands. The “dialectics of attraction and repulsion”9 characterizing the friendship between Teresa and Alicia as well as their relationships with men, reflect the “struggle of … Self amidst adversity and violation” (Anzaldúa Borderlands Preface) and refract the social and psychic dislocation from which the possibilities of consciousness-raising and reconstruction of identity emerge. A possible solution to the gender war, hinted at in the short moments of sexual pleasure shared with emancipated men—“We licked our wounds with the underside of penises and applied semen to our tender bellies and breasts like Tiger's balm” (100)—resides in the education of boys (in this specific case Teresa's son) and/or the re-education of men: “… he should be taught to look after himself, mend his own clothes, cook, clean up and do his share. He should be allowed to do whatever it was that little boys liked to do but he should also be sensitive … Vittorio must learn … to grow up to be a decent companion to a woman” (130). I am inclined, then, to read this alternative as a counter-hegemonic utopian move intent on changing what Lacan termed the Symbolic Order.

In terms of what Edward Said has described as “being at home in a place” (The World 8). Teresa's problem remains unresolved. A vision, expressed via dreams and imagination, however, hints at a utopian solution to her existence-in-crisis: in line with Anzaldúa's survival strategies in the borderlands, Teresa is depicted as becoming “a crossroads” where her individual struggle transcends the horizon of Chicano culture and conjoins the one of the oppressed, marginalized people “of mixed blood, people of the sun and earth” (Borderlands 95). Even though Teresa feels empowered by this dream, the roads to be traveled as well as the destinations to be reached are undefined, vaguely recognizable. Given the fragmentary character of style and structure and the narrative's undecidability—that is signification exists as meaning-possibilities in an unresolved, ambiguous state10The Mixquiahuala Letters can be seen as the aesthetic creation of a strategical interstitial space-in-process that instantiates counter-hegemony as cultural politics of dislocation and relocation from the margin with the intention of facilitating a renegotiation of ideological and cultural values. In this sense, the novel supports Frantz Fanon's claim that the process of decolonization and liberation is always initiated in a “zone of occult instability,” an atmosphere of crisis and anxiety. The novel's importance, therefore, does not so much reside in the ways and outcome of the liberatory struggle, but rather in the fact that such a struggle is necessary and, as Teresa's case demonstrates, that one has to become conscious of its necessity. Hence, the image of the ‘opaque window’ and the ‘weapon’ illustrates “the need to know what one's needs are.”11

In Sapogonia Castillo succeeds in broadening the issues of gender and race in the borderland experience. By focusing on Máximo, a sculptor from Sapogonia (a fictitious country somewhere in the Americas), and his affairs with women, Castillo delves into the male and female psyche in order to reveal and problematize not only the difficulties of survival in the borderlands but also, and most importantly, effects of a borderland existence on individuals. Máximo could be seen as Teresa's male counterpart insofar as he is another border subject experiencing an existential crisis. Máximo, who leaves his country torn by civil war, begins his migratory odyssey in Europe and finally comes to the United States, establishing himself as a successful artist. Yet Castillo emphasizes the underside of this success story, namely, the alienated and fragmented psyche of a man who sells his soul to the American Dream, (ab)uses women and denies his indigenous roots. Throughout the narrative Máximo is delineated as a reified antihero, a symbol of postmodern man who, on account of his attitude and way of thinking, contributes to the perpetuation of the patriarchal order and the implicit objectification of woman's existence. Furthermore, Castillo uses this male protagonist and his experience to render an image of the border subject's estrangement from his natural roots, from a wholesome cosmic relation to nature and reality, or to use Cixous's phrase, his “lacking earth and flesh.”12 Unlike Teresa, who by shouting “i was a woman … i was first human” reclaims her womanhood and humanness in an act of renaming and possession, Máximo internalizes the value system of the dominant culture—the frenzy for commodities, money, fame and individual recognition based on a highly competitive spirit—and thereby accentuates what Castillo called the “spiritual split in his collective psyche.”13

Castillo sets Máximo's “spatial and social confusion”14 against an alternative mode of thinking, living and relating, a mode personified by Mamá Grande, Máximo's grandmother, and Pastora, a Joan Baez-type singer and activist. Earthy women with a cosmic worldview, they embody the potential for change. Mamá Grande familiarizes Máximo with the mytho-magical worldview of his indigenous ancestors, a cyclical worldview based upon “the inborn awareness of equality with other living things on earth,”15 and warns him not to “deceive woman … not to use woman like an animal” (104). Mamá Grande, a woman who has visions, sees into the future, and appears after her death as a living spirit, exists in a timeless, mythical present. In these passages of the novel, Castillo uses a magico-realist discourse to express a worldview that goes beyond the rational empirical categories of reality, including the visualized ones, those categories in which dreams are transformed into a visible and tangible reality. This type of weltanschauung is characterized by a harmonious and dynamic relationship between man and his surroundings; a relationship in which man plays an active role and in which significations can constantly assume new dimensions.16 This dynamic harmony is carried by a discourse that naturalizes the supernatural categories of reality, that is, both levels of the discourse, the natural and the supernatural, are harmoniously intertwined, producing what Roland Barthes termed an “effet de réel” (Le bruissement de la langue 174). Throughout the episodes in which Mamá Grande's spirit appears to Máximo and Pastora this naturalization is achieved by three principal devices, namely, a matter-of-fact style, authorial reticence and the characters' reaction; neither the characters nor the narrator show signs of hesitation and / or surprise with regard to the supernatural categories, accepting them as vital parts of their belief system: “‘¿Mamá Grande?’ I uttered. It was an eerie meeting from the start. She didn't move any closer, but stood where she was. … ‘How good that you came back, son,’ she said. Yes it was the voice of Mama Grande, but she remained still as if her feet were dug in the ground where she stood. She wrapped her shawl tighter about her little body as if she were cold. ‘I knew you would come back soon’” (220). This magico-realist texture signifies, on the one hand, the transcendence of binary oppositions characterizing the rational and patriarchal Western metaphysics of presence and, on the other, a revaluation of the indigenous worldview as an integral element of Chicano culture.

This indigenous mytho-magical worldview with its sense of fluidity, its harmony between the material and the spiritual, is further personified by Pastora. Paradoxically it is Máximo who, while denying his own indigenous roots, calls her “Coatlicue”; Coatlicue, the Aztec snake goddess, the symbol of fused opposites, “the eagle and the serpent, heaven and the underworld, life and death, mobility and immobility, beauty and horror” (Borderlands 47). It is through Pastora-Coatlicue, a woman who ‘gives and takes’ life, that Castillo re-creates the Aztec goddess as an incarnation of contradictory cosmic processes. Máximo, who describes Pastora's supernatural powers as witch-type magic, is enchanted, irresistibly attracted and repelled by her beauty and sensuality, that is, he experiences what Anzaldúa has termed “the Coatlicue State,” a contradictory sensation, a nepantla death-in-life and life-in-death existence/crisis:

Pastora was a witch, an unequivocal bruja who'd undoubtedly used her wicked powers to hex him. … Somehow, she had managed to take something so vital and potent from his being, like the umbilical cord his grandmother had severed with her teeth the dawn he was born. … Pastora Ake had severed something in him with her bare teeth, like a savage monster acting upon a primal female instinct, because what bound him to her was unquestionably physical,. …

(172)

Like Fanon in The Wretched of the Earth and Bhabha in The Location of Culture, Anzaldúa in Borderlands/La Frontera delineates this space/sensation/state of betweenness and transition as a possible place of emergence, “a prelude of crossing” from darkness to light, invisibility to visibility, confusion to “knowing,” in short, as a place where strategies of representation, empowerment, and change can (and are necessary to) be developed. It is in this sense that I read Máximo's incapacity to make meaning out of his experience: “When I made love to Pastora, I wasn't even on earth. … I lost my substance, became the molecules of which my body was made and became formless and erratic, unlike with the women with whom I felt I could challenge anything. I was Goliath … with them, and the clever David did not exist. With Pastora I was only a man” (296). Pastora's matriarchal powers provoke Máximo's fear and confusion, a feeling of “vulnerability” (296), precisely because they undermine his image of male conquistador. Relishing his patriarchal inheritance as Spanish Goliath while denying not only his indigenous roots but also his willingness to be “only a man,” Máximo fails to cross from confusion to knowledge, or as Gayatri Spivak would say, to deconstruct his textuality, and is lead to destruction. Máximo's possible rebirth is thwarted by his inability to undo the patriarchal effects of power, as Michel Foucault would say, which constitute him and act through him.17 By dividing Pastora-Coatlicue's contradictory powers and foregrounding her life-taking forces, Máximo deprives himself of a possible recreation through her: “Awesome Coatlicue. … She was the blood that appeared on your penis the first time you entered a woman who was menstruating and you feared it would curse you. She was the breast that, without milk, still comforted. She was the dark tunnel through which you passed and began your first memory of this world” (312).18

The implicit deconstruction of the patriarchal order, which appears as the novel's political unconscious in the temporal/spatial break in between the signs, the said and the unsaid, this caesura that reveals Máximo's disjunctive experience and is the place of a possible utopian counter hegemonic revision, is based on female agency, a (mythical) revaluation of woman's life-giving powers, a rendering visible of the female body and mind as text, as discourse that reclaims the indigenous matriarchal social structure and way of thinking and asserts/demands a radically new male and female consciousness and subject-position. The strong images of the two earthy women suggest not only that a new mestiza consciousness has already emerged but also, and most importantly, that this consciousness carries a potential for change—a change of ideology and culture, that is, lived hegemony.19

Whereas Sapogonia and The Mixquiahuala Letters emphasize the postmodern alienation and fragmentation of individuals in the borderlands, their dislocation in an interstitial cross-cultural nepantla space, So Far from God can be regarded as an aesthetic attempt at tracing a state of selfhood that involves collective self-definition, a place among one's people. In this process, Castillo uses a counter-hegemonic worldview and mestiza consciousness as imaginary solution to what Norma Alarcón has called “the crisis of meaning as women” and, I would add, to the postmodern crisis of meaning as human beings, the “desyoización” of the individual.20

In So Far from God Castillo creates community—defined by Tomas Rivera as “place, values, personal relationships, and conversation”21—by means of a “speakerly”22 magico-realist narrative texture. The driving forces of this process are women: women who think, dream, act and relate in what Anzaldúa has called a “pluralistic mode,” transcending binary oppositions, a rational “dualistic thinking in the individual and collective consciousness,” in an effort to heal “the split that originates in the very foundation of our lives, our culture, our languages, our thoughts” (Borderlands 80). The keyword of this worldview, carried as in Sapogonia by a discourse in which the natural and supernatural categories of reality are harmoniously intertwined, is faith: a faith that facilitates a dynamic relationship between human beings and their surroundings and an implicit magico-realist conception of the world in which the imaginary is regarded as factual reality.23 Faith is the fundamental principle which underlies La Loca's resurrection, Caridad's miraculous recovery and predictions, Felicia's holistic treatments, and the appearance of living (mythical) spirits. This peculiar type of faith, which is revised and actualized through female agency,24 is the driving force behind the collective activism and the implicit alternative mode of living and relating outlined in the novel; a counter-hegemonic mode conceived as possible solution to the postmodern fragmentation and dislocation experienced in the borderlands.

This magico-realist worldview, whose fundamental essence resides in “the interconnectedness of things” (242), is expressed by means of a “speakerly” texture in which a skaz-like discourse, being at work in and acting on the actual discourse, an unnamed narrator, who as a storyteller represents both a communal and an individual voice, and the use of multiple points of view and perspectives re-create and interweave individual and collective experiences as the novel's political unconscious. A telling example of this fluid dialogical texture is the episode in which Sofi, La Loca's mother, announces to a comadre her plan to run for mayor of Tome. On entering Sofi's house, just before the actual dialogue between the two women, the comadre, whose namelessness suggests her collective identity, is lost in thoughts about Sofi and her family. Introduced by the phrase, “… for when she repeated the story later to the other comadres …” (133), her reflections take on a highly oral tone: she seems to speak to herself and the community at the same time. Phrases such as “You know, la pobre Sofi …,” “But everyone understood …” (133), “Everybody still remembered …,” and “nobody … had been able to explain …” (135), lend an oral coating to this interior monologue, a “speakerly” texture in which the above-mentioned rhetorical devices exist not only “as representations of oral narration” but also “as integral aspects of plot and character development.”25 By means of this polyphonic discourse the community of Tome is created in a time-space continuum in which a condensation and a concretization of the temporal and spatial indexes constitute a radical present-ation of time in space and space in time. The effect upon plot and character development can be called accretive insofar as Sofi's decision to run for mayor is accompanied and, as the unfolding story shows, supported by the rest of the female population and leads to the construction of an alternative, economically self-sufficient community (146–48). In other words, women are the driving force behind the creation of an alternative space of living, thinking and relating based on justice and equality; a process made possible by a worldview whose accretive dynamics are created and expressed on the level of discourse by orality and the mode of magical realism.

Influenced by her children—La Loca's and Caridad's faith in an expanded reality, Esperanza's rebellious restiveness, and Fe's suicidal materialist attitude—Sofi becomes the emblem of female activism. Her daughters show her that it is possible and necessary to make choices in life and that life itself should be “defined as a state of courage and wisdom and not an uncontrollable participation in society” (250). While the possibility of change is articulated and actualized through a culturally specific faith in an expanded reality, its necessity is made explicit through what Sartre called “dévoiler,” that is, the revelation of past and present Chicano experience in New Mexico: the encroachment of Anglo culture and its devastating impact on the Chicano way of life, the loss of land and identity. The necessity for activism, then, is a matter of survival as is demonstrated by Fe's selling out to the American way of life and thinking26 and by the factory workers' ignorance of “what was going on around them” (189). Against this background of ongoing cultural imperialism (aggravated by internalization) and the ensuring fragmentation of the individual, I read Castillo's creation of community—the collective activism that results in progressive change symbolized by “the sheep-grazing” and “wool-weaving cooperative,” selling “hormone-free meat” to food co-ops run by and for the benefit of the people of Tome (147–48)—as a utopian solution to the loss of identity, assimilation and the spread of Anglo culture.27

I want to suggest that this is not only community but also “cultural revolution” in the making. The counter-hegemonic discourse that Castillo employs in her three novels—a rhetoric that deconstructs the marginal position of the mestiza in the Chicano borderlands and recreates, via concrete utopia,28 a new mestiza consciousness as an organic process of interrelated individual and collective experiences—is a discourse of radical cultural liberation: it does not only “blow up the Law” (Cixous) and create a “new mythos” (Anzaldúa) but redefines relationships, lifestyles, and the conception of reality from a Chicana perspective.29 While The Mixquiahuala Letters and Sapogonia initiate what Spivak has called “subaltern insurgency,”30So Far from God adds to the initial moment of negation, an individual existence in a state of crisis, one of affirmation, a communal existence in the borderlands. The three novels can be seen as examples of liberating fiction precisely because they offer a humanizing vision by attempting explanations, interpretations, and alternative solutions to the postmodern nepantla existence in the Chicano borderlands without glossing over the “intracultural conflict.”31 The journey from The Mixquiahuala Letters to So Far from God, a movement form interrogation (dislocation) to initiation (relocation), stages the search for selfhood as an examination of self through both individual and collective history, linking it to a search for place among one's people.

If, according to Said, the word culture suggests “an environment, process, and hegemony in which individuals (in their private circumstances) and their works are embedded,” if it “is in culture that we can seek out the range of meanings and ideas conveyed by the phrases belonging to or in a place, being at home in a place,” and if culture “is used to designate not merely something to which one belongs but something that one possesses” (The World 8–9), then this search for selfhood in Castillo's novels implies a revolutionary cultural redefinition; a redefinition that aims, on the one hand, at what Foucault has described as “the insurrection of subjugated knowledge,” the rediscovery and rectification of knowledge and experience suppressed by the dominant system and its ideology (Power/Knowledge 81) and, on the other, at a radical transformation of our sense of being, living and thinking. The politics of dislocation and relocation, seen as the political unconscious of the novels, instantiate counterhegemony in the Chicano borderlands through an affirmation of otherness—an otherness not imposed but recreated: an identity based on difference with the capacity to relocate, a “differential consciousness”—whose nature shifts from individual separateness to collective multiplicity—that posits no “ultimate answers, no terminal utopia … no predictable final outcomes”32 but transcends hegemony via concrete utopia, a strategic use of deconstructive différance that traces the necessity for change and anticipates the possibility of an alternative lifestyle. By locating the agency of change in the mestiza—the re-creation of woman as creator who has a vision, is not “afraid to speak that vision” (Saeta Interview), and, most importantly, acts accordingly. And by restoring their indigenous roots, Castillo invests her female characters with a historicized and politicized consciousness—a nonessentialized consciousness based on a radical mestiza subjectivity, that is, a subversive position of intelligibility and mode of knowing necessary for the transformation of cultural practices—as strategy of empowerment and liberation.33 For that reason I read her politics of dislocation and relocation as resistance Xicanisma that envisions the mestiza consciousness as “a crossroads sin fronteras,” (Borderlands 195) a “locus of possibility” (Sandoval 14), a motivating force behind “the development of an alternative social system” (Castillo Massacre 22). The deconstructive nature of this undertaking resides in the revelation of the necessity for insurgency/activism34 without legitimating the envisioned results as transcendental truths: a “talking back” whose echoes do not spiral down into abyme but create a “real state of emergency” (Benjamin 257) that carries the possibility of “new life and new growth,” (hooks 211) or to use Heidegger's phrase, “something begins its presencing” in the Chicano borderlands (Bhabha 1).

Notes

  1. Jean-Paul Sartre, Qu'est-ce que la litterature (Paris: Gallimard, 1948) 30: “L'ecrivain engagé sait que dévoiler c'est changer et qu'on ne peut dévoiler qu'en projetant de changer.”

  2. Rosario Castellanos translated the Aztec expression ‘nepantla’ as “terra intermediária … terra de ninguém.” See Gunter W. Lorenz, Diálogo coma America Latina (Sao Paulo: EPU, 1973) 194.

  3. See Luce Irigaray, Speculum de l'autre femme (Paris: Minuit, 1974).

  4. See Ramon Saldivar, “A Dialectic of Difference. Towards a Theory of the Chicano Novel,” MELUS 6.3 (Fall 1979): 73–92.

  5. Umberto Eco called this type of novel “open work.” See Umberto Eco, The Role of the Reader: Explorations in the Semiotics of Texts (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1979) 63.

  6. Raymond Williams, Problems in Materialism and Culture (London: Verso, 1997) 22–27. See also Edward Said, Culture and Imperialism (New York: Vintage, 1994) 14, 52.

  7. Ana Castillo, The Mixquiahuala Letters (Binghampton, NY: Bilingual Press, 1986) 46. All further references will be included in the text.

  8. See also Castillo's statements in Partial Autobiographies, Interviews with Twenty Chicano Poets, ed. Wolfgang Binder (Erlangen: Palm & Enke, 1985) 37.

  9. Dieter Helms, “Developments in the Chicana Cultural Movement and Two Works of Chicana Prose Fiction in 1986: Estela Portillo's Trini and Ana Castillo's The Mixquiahuala Letters,Minority Literatures in North America: Contemporary Perspectives, eds. W. Karrer and H. Lutz (Frankfurt: Vervuert, 1990) 153.

  10. This narrative fragmentation and undecidability has been described by Heiner Bus as “a constant interplay of opposites and recurrent cycles of closeness and detachment.” See Heiner Bus, “‘i too was of that small corner of the world’: The Cross-Cultural Experience in Ana Castillo's The Mixquiahuala Letters (1986)” 11 (Manuscript presented at the Conference of the Association for the Study of the New Literatures in English, Munich, Germany 1993).

  11. Terry Eagleton, “Nationalism: Irony and Commitment,” in Nationalism, Colonialism, and Literature, ed. Seamus Deane (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1990) 29.

  12. Helene Cixous, “The Place of Crime, the Place of Forgiveness,” in The Hélène Cixous Reader, ed. Susan Sellers (London/New York: Routledge, 1994) 152.

  13. Castillo, Massacre 169. She argues that “the alienation of” man's “own connection to living matter” set in with the “dominance of man over woman's psyche” and is one of the basic constitutive elements of “man's view of woman as ‘other.’”

  14. Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Durham: Duke UP, 1991) 54. In the era of late capitalism when geographical and cultural borders give way to globalism, transnationalism, and transmigrational borderlands, in our postmodern mass-mediatized world, human emotions are walled up. This, I would say, is one of the principal implicit messages underlying Máximo's role in the novel.

  15. Ana Castillo, Sapogonia (Tempe: Bilingual, 1990) 16. Further references will be given in the text. According to Castillo it is natural that women represent this weltanschauung and that it is translated into their writing because “nosotras las mujeres no pensamos linearly. We think in the spiral, or … in circles … that's the only way that I could think of writing.” Jacqueline Mitchell et al., “Entrevista a Ana Castillo,” Mester 20.2 (Fall 1991): 155.

  16. For a detailed analysis of this topic see my Magical Realism in Contemporary Chicano Fiction (Frankfurt: Vervuert, 1993) 13–21 and 129–37.

  17. Castillo links his state of confusion and resultant attitude to the collective male profanation of Coatlicue, a process that began when, according to Anzaldúa, “the male-dominated Aztec-Mexica culture drove the powerful female deities underground by giving them monstrous attributes and by substituting male deities in their place.” Gloria Anzaldúa, Borderlands 27. Máximo continues this tradition and the novel shows how he does not only other Pastora-Coatlicue through his attitude but himself too.

  18. Unlike Sixo in Morrison's Beloved, Máximo, unable to share love, does not regard Pastora as a friend of his mind, a woman capable of gathering the pieces of his fragmented identity and giving them back to him “in all the right order.” See Toni Morrison, Beloved (New York: Signet, 1989) 335.

  19. Norma Alarcon, “Making Familia From Scratch: Split Subjectivities in the Work of Helena María Viramontes and Cherrie Moraga,” in Chicana Creativity and Criticism: Charting New Frontiers in American Literature, eds. Maria Hererra-Sobek and Helena María Viramontes 157.

  20. Carlos Fuentes used the term to describe the “disintegration of the human personality.” See John King, “Carlos Fuentes: An Interview,” in Modern Latin American Fiction: A Survey, ed. John King (London: Faber and Faber, 1987) 142.

  21. Tomas Rivera, “Chicano Literature: The Establishment of Community,” in A Decade of Chicano Literature (1970–1979). Critical Essays and Bibliography, eds. Luis Leal et al. (Santa Barbara: La Causa, 1982) 9–17.

  22. For the definition of a “speakerly text” see Henry Louis Gates, Jr., “Zora Neale Hurston and the Speakerly Text,” in Southern Literature and Literary Theory, ed. Jefferson Humphries (Athens: U of Georgia P, 1990) 150.

  23. On the role of faith in a magico-realist worldview see Alejo Carpentier, El reino de este mundo (La Habana: Letras Cubanas, 1984) 7 and Mircea Eliade, Mito y realidad (Madrid: Guadarrama, 1968) 19. On the imaginary as factual reality see Paula Gunn Allen, The Sacred Hoop (Boston: Beacon, 1992) and Miguel Angel Asturias' statements in Lorenz, Diálogo 256–257.

  24. See, for example, the episode in which La Loca's actions and statements challenge Father Jerome's patriarchal Christian notion of faith (22–25), or the scene in which Felicia says to Caridad, “… you healed yourself by pure will” (55). Ana Castillo, So Far from God (New York: Plume, 1994). Further references will be given in the text.

  25. The fundamental difference between Their Eyes Were Watching God and So Far from God lies in the interplay of orality and magical realism that characterizes the creation of community in Castillo's novel—a difference which serves as the basis for my elaboration on Gates' definition.

  26. Fe is the emblem of reification, the transformation of all human functions into commodities, and her role in the novel stresses what Lukács described as the “dehumanized and dehumanizing function of the commodity relation.” See Georg Lukacs, History and Class Consciousness (London: Merlin, 1971) 83.

  27. It could be argued, then, that Castillo rewrites faith—the fundamental principle of this process—as a political force of subversion and a strategy of subaltern representation and empowerment as it is the faith in an enlarged reality—a magico-realist worldview—that functions as the in-between space which provides the terrain for an articulation of cultural difference.

  28. Ernst Bloch, in Das Prinzip Hoffnung (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1985) 163–65, defines a “concrete utopia” as being based on “imaginary ideas which extend existing things to the future possibilities of their difference and betterment in an anticipatory way.” According to Bloch, this type of utopia, unlike abstract utopias, expresses hope based on reality. My translation.

  29. Kenneth Burke called this rhetoric “negativism,” that is, the creation of counter-values through a process of negation as ideological struggle on the discursive level. See Kenneth Burke, Counter-Statement (Berkeley: U of California P, 1968) 111.

  30. Defined by her as “an effort to involve oneself in representation, not according to the lines laid down by the official institutional structures of representation.” Gayatri Spivak, “Subaltern Talk,” in The Spivak Reader, eds. Donna Landry and Gerald MacLean (London: Routledge, 1996) 306.

  31. Bruce-Novoa argues that Chicana writers of the first two decades of contemporary Chicano literature have revealed “the fissures in the interior circle.” “The dialogue between the sexes” used by contemporary Chicana writers to problematize their invisibility and articulate the problems of self-representation (and the implicit necessity to refashion themselves and society), continues to play an important role in Castillo's creative work as is attested by her stories in Loverboys (1996). Juan Bruce-Novoa, “Dialogical Strategies, Monological Goals: Chicano Literature,” in An Other Tongue, ed. Alfred Arteaga (Durham: Duke UP, 1994) 240.

  32. Chela Sandoval, “U.S. Third World Feminism: The Theory and Method of Oppositional Consciousness in the Postmodern World,” Genders 10 (Spring 1991): 23.

  33. A strategy that moves from what Williams called an “alternative practice” in The Mixquiahuala Letters and Sapogonia to an “oppositional practice” in So Far from God. See Raymond Williams, Problems in Materialism and Culture (London: Verso, 1997) 41–42.

  34. This necessity, which is the core of what Castillo calls “conscientizacion” (Massacre 10; 220) and constitutes one of the basic subtexts of her novels, is maybe best expressed in the following remark by the narrator in So Far from God: “Every single step of launching off the cooperative took a lot of effort, a lot of time, and mostly a lot of not only changing everyone's minds about why not to do it but also changing their whole way of thinking so that they could do it” (146).

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Anzaldúa, Gloria. Borderlands/La Frontera. San Francisco: Spinsters Aunt Lute, 1987.

———. ed. Making Face, Making Soul/Haciendo Caras: Creative and Critical Perspectives by Feminists of Color. San Francisco: Spinsters/Aunt Lute, 1990.

Barthes, Roland. Le bruissement de la langue. Paris: Seuil, 1984.

Benjamin, Walter. Illuminations. New York: Schocken, 1969.

Bhabha, Homi M. The Location of Culture. New York: Routledge, 1994.

Binder, Wolfgang, ed. Partial Autobiographies, Interviews with Twenty Chicano Poets. Erlangen: Palm & Enke, 1985.

Bloch, Ernst. Das Prinzip Hoffnung. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1985.

Bruce-Novoa, Juan. “Dialogical Strategies, Monological Goals: Chicano Literature.” An Other Tongue. Ed. Alfred Arteaga. Durham: Duke UP, 1994. 225–45.

Burke, Kenneth. Counter-Statement. Berkeley: U of California P, 1968.

Bus, Heiner. “‘i too was of that small corner of the world’: The Cross-Cultural Experience in Ana Castillo's The Mixquiahuala Letters (1986): Manuscript, 1993.

Carpentier, Alejo. El reino de este mundo. La Habana: Letras Cubanas, 1984.

Castillo, Ana. Sapogonia. Tempe: Bilingual, 1990.

———. So Far from God. New York: Plume, 1994.

———. Massacre of the Dreamers. Albuquerque: U of New Mexico P, 19.

———. The Mixquiahuala Letters. Binghamton, NY: Bilingual, 1986.

Cixous, Hélène. “The Laugh of the Medusa.” Signs 1.4 (Summer 1976): 875–93.

———. “The Place of Crime, the Place of Forgiveness.” The Hélène Cixous Reader. Ed. Susan Sellers.

London: Routledge, 1994. 149–56.

Deane, Seamus, ed. Nationalism, Colonialism, and Literature. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1990.

Derrida, Jacques. “Differance.” The Continental Philosophy Reader. Eds. Richard Kearney and Mara Rainwater. London: Routledge, 1996. 441–64.

Eco, Umberto. The Role of the Reader: Explorations in the Semiotics of Texts. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1979.

Eliade, Mircea. Mito y realidad. Madrid: Guadarrama, 1968.

Foucault, Michel. Power/Knowledge. Ed. Colin Gordon. New York: Pantheon, 1980.

Gonzales-Berry, Erlinda. “The (Subversive) Mixquiahuala Letters: An Antidote for Self-Hate.” L'ici et l'ailleurs: Multilinguisme et multiculturalisme en Amerique du Nord. Ed. Jean Beranger. Bordeaux: Presses de l'Universite de Bordeaux, 1991. 227–40.

Hererra-Sobek, Maria, and Helena Maria Viramontes, eds. Chicana Creativity and Criticism: Charting New Frontiers in American Literature. Americas Review 15. 3–4 (1987).

hooks, bell. “Talking Back.” Making Face, Making Soul/Haciendo Caras. Ed. Gloria Anzaldúa. San Francisco: Aunt Lute, 1990. 207–11.

Humphries, Jefferson, ed. Southern Literature and Literary Theory. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1990.

Fanon, Frantz. The Wretched of the Earth. New York: Penguin, 1967.

Geertz, Clifford. The Interpretation of Cultures. New York: Basic, 1973.

Irigaray, Luce. Je, tu, nous. Toward a Culture of Difference. London: Routledge, 1993.

———. Speculum de l'autre femme. Paris: Minuit, 1974.

Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham: Duke UP, 1991.

———. The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1981.

JanMohamed, Abdul R., and David Lloyd, eds. The Nature and Context of Minority Discourse. New York: Oxford UP, 1990.

Karrer, Wolfgang, and H. Lutz, eds. Minority Literatures in North America: Contemporary Perspectives. Frankfurt: Vervuert, 1990.

King, John, ed. Modern Latin American Fiction: A Survey. London: Faber and Faber, 1987.

Lentricchia, Frank. Criticism and Social Change. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1985.

Lorenz, Gunter W. Diálogo coma América Latina. São Paulo: EPU, 1973.

Lukacs, Georg. History and Class Conscience. London: Merlin, 1971.

Mitchell, Jacqueline, et al. “Entrevista a Ana Castillo.” Mester 20.2 (Fall 1991): 145–56.

Morrison, Toni. Beloved. New York: Signet, 1989.

Rivera, Tomas. “Chicano Literature: The Establishment of Community.” A Decade of Chicano Literature (1970–1979). Critical Essays and Bibliography. Eds. Luis Leal, Fernando de Necochea, Francisco Lomeli and Roberto G. Trujillo. Santa Barbara: La Causa, 1982. 9–17.

Saeta, Elsa. “A MELUS Interview: Ana Castillo. MELUS 22.3 (Fall 1997): 133–49.

Said, Edward W. The World, the Text, and the Critic. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1983.

———. Culture and Imperialism. New York: Vintage, 1994.

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———. Problems in Materialism and Culture. London: Verso, 1997.

Manuel Luis Martinez (review date 26 September 1999)

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SOURCE: “Ana Castillo's Story of a Worn Woman Who Seeks to Understand Her Past and Imagine Her Future,” in Chicago Tribune Books, September 26, 1999, pp. 1, 3.

[In the following review, Martinez offers a positive assessment of Peel My Love like an Onion and commends Castillo's ability to create compelling stories.]

Carmen Santos suffers, and we learn from it. The wise and able self-styled “crippled” flamenco dancer of Ana Castillo's latest novel, Peel My Love like an Onion, takes us on a journey through a subculture so esoteric it seems as strange as the men who love and leave and love Carmen, and yet is made familiar by the stirring recollections of peculiar but recognizable inner life.

On the surface the novel covers old ground: a love triangle involving an older, married man who discovers and then shapes a young, beautiful girl with a tragic physical flaw, and a later emotional entanglement with a handsome, talented younger man who happens to be the older man's protege. But the seemingly inevitable, agonizing choice we expect never quite materializes, and we find, surprisingly, that this is not so much a well-wrought romance as it is the stoic memoir of one of the bravest and most intelligent narrators in recent memory.

We find Carmen living with her aging, somewhat insensitive mother and a father and set of brothers who are distant and not particularly interested in her travails. Fearing that her childhood polio has returned, Carmen hobbles back and forth to work at an airport cafe as she tries to understand how she has ended up so destitute. “Time in and of itself does not shape you forever,” she reflects, “but incidents, people, a single place can. Something happens and suddenly you look around and you don't recognize anything, not even yourself.” Thus the novel is fueled not by its familiar romantic elements so much as by a worn woman's desire to recount and then reconcile herself to her past, and in so doing, to perhaps imagine a future.

Introduced by a kind and inspiring high school teacher to Agustin, the Cleveland-born gypsy leader of a flamenco troupe, the teenage Carmen begins to dance professionally. Agustin is domineering and ruthless, and yet Carmen finds that she gains strength in his refusal to see her as disabled:

“A good lover will … see something worthwhile in you that you never knew was there. And when there's something you don't like to see in yourself a good lover won't see it either.”

A stormy, 17-year love affair begins. As the relationship peters out, Manolo, Agustin's god-son, captures Carmen's affections.

Young Manolo is impetuous, handsome, passionate and deeply in love with Carmen. But he is also loyal to his godfather and unwilling to take Carmen from him, even though Agustin is unwilling to commit wholly to her. All three must deal with conflicting desire and loyalty. Mean-while Carmen's physical condition begins to deteriorate and she finds an unlikely source of comfort and strength in her estranged mother, who is suffering from a heart condition. Reconciliation emerges as the dominant and compelling theme in this complex novel.

In lesser hands, the plot could easily devolve into melodrama. But Castillo has shown in her past novels, especially in her last, So Far from God, that drama and romance are still excellent vehicles for serious, if not downright philosophic, contemplation. Castillo defies stereotypes even while she evokes them: Gypsies, romantic Latinos, sultry dancers, Chicago Chicanas, domineering mothers and spunky drag queens populate the novel, all the while being drawn in ways that successfully reconsider all the characters in all their flawed, empathic, comic humanity. “If you believe one thing to be true about a people, the very opposite will also be true,” Carmen says. Castillo's novel gives proof to that observation, paring away the vellum her characters hide beneath in order to reveal the multifaceted personas lurking there.

Carmen, of course, is the center of this thoughtful and engaging novel. She is in many ways the novel personified, a compelling work through which we are willing to peel away page after page in order to come to a comprehensible core, And Carmen is a compelling character: beautiful, funny, intelligent and articulate. She invites the reader to listen to her story of love, betrayal, incredible affliction and heart-rending sorrow. Survival, however, is the main subject of this novel, and Carmen is too smart and too strong to wallow in self-pity.

In a world where one must name and then claim one's own redemption, Carmen is wise enough to know that one must learn to love one-self. For her that means accepting her atrophied leg, understanding her flawed lovers and coming to terms with a willful, sometimes cruel mother.

Carmen knows that achieving these goals is not a matter of coming to some sudden Jamesian moment of clarity, but is a matter of painful, life-long lessons and observations:

“[S]ometimes you have to look real close for the tiniest sign of something green. Like a lotus that has grown out of the mud underneath water and blossoms when it reaches light and a new life unfolds.”

In reading, we are fortunate not only to witness Carmen's observations, but to come to a few of our own.

Carmen has suffered, and she tells us all about it. Along the way we remember our own pain, be it caused by old, half-remembered lovers, siblings and parents only half-conscious of the pain they inflict, or our own treacherous bodies breaking down in the face of relentless time or oblivious disease. We all hurt, we all strive to survive.

Reading Peel My Love like an Onion reminds us of our own small but glorious victories. Ana Castillo has written her best novel to date, one that ministers to the pain of love and the self-knowledge and self-acceptance that suffering, in all hope, engenders.

Maya Socolovsky (essay date Fall 1999)

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SOURCE: “Borrowed Homes, Homesickness, and Memory in Ana Castillo's Sapogonia,” in AZTLAN: A Journal of Chicano Studies, Vol. 24, No. 2, Fall, 1999, pp. 73–94.

[In the following essay, Socolovsky highlights the contradictory elements of Máximo Madrigal, the anti-hero of Sapogonia: hero versus antihero, power versus loss of control, exile versus tourist, memories of the past versus the present, and Madrigal's homesickness for his fatherland versus his yearning for a motherland.]

We pretend that we are trees and speak of roots. Look under your feet. You will not find gnarled growths sprouting through the soles. Roots, I sometimes think, are a conservative myth designed to keep us in our place.

—Salman Rushdie, Shame

In this paper, I examine the formation of home through ideas of tourism and exile, homesickness, and houses, in Ana Castillo's second novel, Sapogonia. I claim that the protagonist of the novel, Máximo Madrigal, manipulates and borrows others' spaces to form a memory of a myth which might serve as a remnant of home from the past. I show that for Máximo, home as a migrant concept consists not only of a moving place but also of moving memories that “ground” that place.

As a starting point, it is useful to interrogate two models of home and houses offered by Alfred Arteaga in Chicano Poetics: Heterotexts and Hybridities (1997) and by Gaston Bachelard in The Poetics of Space (1994). Much has been written on the impact of Bachelard's writing on Sandra Cisneros's work;1 allegedly Cisneros was driven to write her first novel, The House on Mango Street, in answer to a seminar discussion of Bachelard's Poetics. Cisneros writes, in response to Poetics, “what did I know except third-floor flats. Surely my classmates knew nothing about that. That's precisely what I chose to write: about third floor flats, and fear of rats, and drunk husbands sending rocks through windows, anything as far from the poetic as possible” (1987, 73). Cisneros's statement can be seen as a call to critics to recognize not the lack of the poetic in her work, but the way in which her writing, and the writing of other Chicana and minority women in America, redefine the poetics of home and memory as a migrant one. Furthermore, the statement shows the need for the Chicana writer to articulate her own theory of home and space. I choose to develop this theory of home as one that is in opposition to Bachelard's writing, combined with elements of Arteaga's discussion of Aztlán and the borderlands.

Arteaga offers a precise model of two alternating and opposing conceptions of space for the Chicano/a people. Aztlán, as the mythical home of the Aztecs, is located as the ancient homeland: “to be a Chicano and to live in Aztlán is to have historical precedence over Anglos in the Southwest; it is to declare a historical fact of descent” (Arteaga 1997, 9). The “Plan Espirituel de Aztlán,” drawn up in 1969 in the first Chicano National Conference in Denver, declared Aztlán as the Chicano homeland, pointing out that it answers the “call of our blood” and evoking a rural existence: “Aztlán belongs to those who plant the seeds, water the fields, and gather the crops, and not to the foreign Europeans” (Arteaga 1997, 12). The Aztlán represented here speaks to the male Chicano, the “brotherhood,” and locates itself within American political borders, so that what is called for is a cultural nationalism rather than a political one: “The conceived homeland is ambiguous enough to arouse passion, yet not mandate revolution” (Arteaga 1997, 14).2 What I would like to take from the concept of Aztlán as a homeland is its understanding that the notion of a “return” to it is not needed because one is already there, and the idea that “it functions as the national myth in a manner similar to the myths of any people” (Arteaga 1997, 14). We can see elements of racial memory and pride being sown here, however, that will be appropriated by Chicana and Latina writers later on, such as Castillo, and interrogated, as she constructs, in Sapogonia, a hero and heroine unable to “settle at home” anywhere.

For Arteaga, the borderlands, in contrast to Aztlán, offer a “poorer conception of homeland because one never knows where the real borderland ends and the metaphoric one begins” and although Aztlán is a myth, “the borderlands is an argument” (Arteaga 1997, 18). Yet it is the combination of myth and argument developed from this that precisely offers a fertile ground for beginning to consider ideas of home and memory for Chicanas and other minority women writers in America. The state of relations and differences that the borderlands represent indicates the need for movement-as-home, but the myth that a homeland offers represents the importance of belief and of storytelling that come to make up a nation. To combine argument with myth in the formation of a homeland is to leave all myths of that homeland constantly open to reinterpretation and reappropriation, and Castillo's portrayal of Pastora in the text demonstrates an alternative response to such myths, that Chicana and Latina writers attempt to subvert. To build one's own myths is, therefore, akin to being the architect of one's own home in the here and now, and the impossibility of return to a country that one is in exile from is resolved when that return becomes represented by the movement of that country to the present location and time, through memory. As Iain Chambers has suggested, once we are led away from nostalgic dreams of going home to a mythic, metaphysical location, we enter the realm of theorizing a way of “being at home” that accounts for “the myths we know to be myths yet continue to cling to, cherish and dream” (Chambers 1990, 104). If the community clinging to the myth has also been active in building and renewing that myth, an understanding of home will be found in migrancy and displacement.

In Sapogonia, Ana Castillo has created a metaphorical country set in Latin America, from which all mestizos originate. The story follows the travels of an expatriate of Sapogonia, Máximo Madrigal, who moves from his hometown to Paris, from there to Barcelona and Madrid, and then to various locations in North America. During this time, he meets and comes to know his father in Spain, travels in America, and becomes obsessed with Pastora Ake, an American woman of Spanish and Native American blood who tries to escape all his attempts to control her. The text alternates between a first-person and a third-person narration of events, a process which is, I will argue, significant in demonstrating Max's vacillating position as both an exile and a traveling tourist. In this reading of the text, I suggest that Máximo Madrigal needs to be seen as a dual tourist-exile figure who narrates his own heroic adventures only to have his narration and invented heroism constantly interrupted by pangs of exilic homesickness, both for his homeland Sapogonia and inspired by his disturbing relationship with Pastora. He is thus positioned as a lighthearted tourist who gets struck by intense and melancholy homesickness. Max wavers on the line between exile and tourist, and through his narrative, a rewritten myth of home and memory is created.3 I begin with a discussion of Sapogonia—the country—itself, and from that develop a reading of Max's tourism, his promiscuity as a tourist, the relevance of the text's various slippages between first- and third-person narrators, and its definition of the “antihero.” I then turn to an analysis of Max's relationship to the land, both in terms of his personal relations to his grandfather and father, and his consideration of father/mother lands. Finally, I trace the ways in which he becomes homesick for a woman and a country, and briefly look at the ways in which Pastora herself breaks various cycles of myth.

THE SAPAGONIAN TOURIST-EXILE

What is significant in Castillo's creation of Sapogonia is that as a homeland based on a borderland consciousness, it merges the mythical Aztlán with the contemporary and argumentative borderlands. Described as “a distinct place in the Americas where all mestizos reside, regardless of nationality, individual racial composition, or legal residential status” (1), Sapogonia represents a situation where, as Saldívar writes, “culture is understood in terms of material hybridity, not purity” (Saldívar 1997, 19). In Sapogonia, Castillo has not only housed people of mixed European and Native Central or South American blood but has also distinguished them as natives of the country. That is, the borderland mestizo no longer originates from more than one place, but instead has a single and pure place of origin: Sapogonia. But that pure origin of Sapogonia is itself based in hybridity, so that hybridity becomes the origin of one's race. In a brief description of Sapogonia's history, the reader learns that the country has undergone slavery, genocide, immigration, and civil uprising, and Max's first departure from Sapogonia occurs alongside his anticipation and fear of another civil overthrow. On his return to Sapogonia halfway through the text, Max notices the markings of civil dispute and unrest, saying, “what was new to my eyes, the eyes of a new generation of adults, was the foreboding presence of the military among civilians” (86). Thus, Max abroad represents the duality of the tourist-exile figure. Although on his initial departure from Sapogonia he leaves with his friend El Tinto in disguise and escapes the mounting political tension, he himself is not at any personal risk. El Tinto, whose brother has just enacted the ancient myth of becoming un desaparesido due to his involvement with the university periodical, is perhaps more at risk, but Max, as the protagonist, performs a borrowing of El Tinto's exilic status and mingles it with his own tourism. His tourist self delegitimates his self-imposed exilic despair and homesickness, reminding us both that his exile is self-imposed, and that the comparative luxury of his bohemian lifestyle in Europe is financed by his grandfather in Sapogonia. Thus, he remains a visitor even while he is a migrant in that he borrows and chooses the lifestyle of the immigrant, lives among immigrants, but always with a touristic awareness of the self-imposed exile he has undertaken, with some of the privileges of choice.

As a country that asserts itself as home to mestizos, Sapogonia locates the ambiguities and difficulties of living on the border, both metaphorically and politically within its own borders. It is a borderland Aztlán, a mythical country that creates a diasporic homeland. Thus, the creation of Sapogonia can be seen as an attempt both to demythologize the distant Aztlán that remains fixed in a specific historical heritage and cultural past, and to mythologize the arguments and differences of Arteaga's borderlands to give rise to an active political nation that functions like any other through its own myths and imagined communities. As far as the ruling metaphor of this nation is that it locates hybridity as its origin, it also performs the impossibility of a static home that is fixed to a particular place, and with the figure of Máximo Madrigal, sets up the possibility of a migrant and moving existence as the only ultimate home. Sapogonia, set in the homeland of the migrant Máximo, acts as a rewriting of the traditional Aztlán myth, in which the specificity of a return to a location is interrogated and demythologized.

Against this backdrop of his homeland, two layers are at work in the text. First, Máximo's double narrative represents the dual nature of his tourist-exile status, and interrogates both his relationship to home, and to his homeland Sapogonia. The third-person narrative situates Máximo Madrigal as the quintessential roaming traveler, a blundering and arrogant hero figure on a vaguely articulated quest that alternates between sometimes attempting to find himself, his father, or Pastora, but at other times not looking for anything in particular. He eventually settles down more or less temporarily in America and becomes a considerably well-known sculptor. The switches between the first- and the third-person narratives demonstrate a particular edginess to this travel narrative, in that the hero is simultaneously the narrator of his own heroic escapades and the participating hero in them. This, as I will go on to demonstrate, has significant implications for the construction of the tourist exile as an antiheroic figure. As Caren Kaplan has argued, tourism has been seen to stress the mystique surrounding exile and modes of travel associated in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and Máximo, in his authoring of himself, self-consciously poses as an artist in exile, a state of displacement which allows for considerable “aesthetic gain through exile” (Kaplan 1996, 36).

Interrupting and thus delegitimizing this lighthearted travel narrative is the second layer in the text: that of the homesick exile. The homesickness, which works against the grain of the tourism, incorporates both what could be read as traditional longings for a distant homeland, and a more disturbing and affective sickness that is located around and inspired by Max's relationship with Pastora Ake. Positioned as a lighthearted tourist who is nevertheless struck by intense and melancholy homesickness, Máximo Madrigal wavers constantly on the line between the two, and through his experiences, a rewriting of the myth of home emerges. In the following section I examine the idea of Max as a tourist and as a travel writer, before I go on to look at how this is interrupted by the homesickness latent in the text.

THE PROMISCUOUS TOURIST: NARRATING ANTI-HEROISM

As a traveler, Máximo becomes the promiscuous tourist who performs a search for home, and for the articulation of the American dream. After deciding to go to North America, he imagines how “he would arrive, get lost in the Romanesque arena of anonymous characters and freaks found in the streets of Manhattan, and … concentrate on seeking that promised fortune” (62). Kaplan says that the tourist aims “to realize fantasies of erotic freedom,” (Kaplan 1996, 54) but Kristeva has written that “the shattering of repression is what leads one to cross a border and find oneself in a foreign country,” and that “tearing oneself away from family, language and country in order to settle down elsewhere is a daring action accompanied by sexual frenzy …” (Kristeva 1991, 30). Máximo Madrigal's borrowing of homes is based on his determination to cease all attachment to his past. Through his promiscuity, he performs a “shattering of the former body” that Kristeva also describes as part of the exilic process (Kristeva 1991, 30), legitimating himself as a traveler who constantly leaves behind his past and cannot live in any time but the present tense. For example, he is able to leave his girlfriend Hilda easily because of this particular disassociation between past and present:

already he thought of [Hilda] as something that had been rather than still existing somewhere else … To Max, Hilda was nonexistent. All that Max left behind ceased to exist, was unreal, like the celluloid on which a whole story was told; it was all imaginary, pictures contrived and pieced together for the sake of entertainment.

(74–75)

In the text, what would be devastating events for the exile, are instead articulated by the lighthearted tourist as mere excursions and diversions. For example, when Max is suddenly deported while working in a restaurant in Los Angeles, he writes that he “was deported to Tijuana and … stayed to sight-see for a few days” (82). This is the jaunty tone of an unperturbed narrator who is unconcerned for the real safety of his character because of the innate certainty that as a hero nothing can go wrong for him. This persists throughout, so that when Max decides to return to the United States with a valid student visa and consequently has to undergo much red tape and bureaucracy, we learn that “undaunted in the face of perpetual obstacles, our principal character in this tale made two trips to the capital before he was issued a passport” (111). On his way to America, Max has to spend time in Mexico where he gets his papers organized and works at a temporary job. Even at this point, on the threshold of a migrancy that could determine the status of his exile, he becomes distracted and spends a few months on the beach, “unable to resist the fabulous beaches, outdone only by the European and American beauties basking on white shores. Máximo stayed on in the peninsula for a month” (112).

The way in which the tourist-status of Máximo is undermined and thwarted by his inevitable self-exile can be demonstrated through the definition of an antihero at the start of the book. It is Pastora who describes the antihero, and this is significant in that it is ultimately Pastora who, in representing homesickness for Max, makes it impossible for Max to be a hero in the travel-narrative sense of the word, and indeed, later on explicitly refuses to see him as one, saying to him “you are less of a god than you think” (148–49). Pastora describes the antihero as someone who “in mythology and legend, [is] a man who celebrates his own strength and bold exploits.” That is, rather than defining the antihero as a person who lacks heroic qualities, Pastora turns the antithesis of hero into someone who celebrates those qualities himself. What is negated is not the presence of specific qualities but the presence of an audience and perspective of outsiders and followers. An antihero is thus a man who establishes himself as a mythical figure, a legend, and Max becomes the embodiment of the antihero every time his first-person narrator slips into the third-person; that is, every time Max's “I” decides to tell a story about himself in the third person, he positions himself as a hero in his own narrative. The question of origins is also pertinent here; in slipping between the first and third person, Max succeeds in being both the hero and thus the central origin and source within the legend, and the narrator of that legend; he is the author and originating storyteller of the myth.

This simultaneous authoring of and participation in his own legend becomes the only way for the exile to tell his own story, because running against the desire to be a hero, and to narrate his travels (to be different), is the need to remain invisible (to assimilate). At one point in the text, Máximo is waiting at the bus station when he notices two immigration officials who stop two women (who we, together with Max, learn are Pastora and her friend Perla) and ask for documentation. The women arouse suspicion because they are dressed in their native garb as a contrast to Max who fears being found un-documented but is pale and “dressed in denim pants and his sheepskin coat” (76). As an illegal immigrant and a tourist, he has achieved a third status, that of an anonymous native of the place in which he stands at that present moment. Max is presented as chameleon-like throughout: “Máximo changed with his environment as the chameleon became the color of the leaf or a rock to protect it from being detected easily by a predator” (80). The officials attract his attention by calling him “buddy” and returning his ticket to him, which he had accidentally dropped on the floor. The moment in which he turns and responds to the interpolation “buddy” is also the moment he realizes that “he had been able to get past the immigration officials, right below their noses, without arousing the least suspicion” (76). The interpolation embeds him in a discursive matrix where “hey buddy” means “you're one of us.”4 As long as he remains silent and does not reveal his “foreign” accent—he responds to the returned ticket with a nod of his head—he can perform both the nationality and camaraderie that the officials impose on him and demonstrate his exilic status. After this, Max feels “a curious sense of freedom … that came to the person whose identity had been completely erased” (76) and he watches the immigration officials hound a “small man with a mane of black hair … his collar up, as if wishing he were invisible” (77). Max, who needs this anonymity and invisibility, is forced to limit the audience of his heroic tales to only himself. In other words, the only way to reconcile being a hero with being anonymous and invisible is to become the antihero that Pastora describes, in which he narrates his exploits to himself. Pastora, who meets Max in the second part of the book, disrupts his antiheroic performance because the homesickness she inspires in him makes him wish for visibility, for a past and for an affective memory of that past. She thus destroys the fine line he has been able to maintain between being a travel narrator describing his own touristic exploits and a native of Sapogonia undergoing self-imposed political exile.

THE ATTACHMENT TO LAND

Max also compares his own touristic antiheroism with his stately and heroic grandfather, and his absent and much built up father. When young, Max believed his father to be “a grand man in or about Galicia, Spain, an enchanted place way across the body of massive water that separated us” (8). The search for his father begins with a self-consciously heroic and epic tone: “I bought a train ticket to Madrid the next morning, and a few days later I was on my way in the dramatic search for my father” (43). Of his grandfather Max says, “I adored my grandfather … I often thought he was larger than life, a man whom I could never replace on the ranch, nor would I have wanted to” (54). Throughout the text his grandfather is carefully located in one place, the ranch, and an inextricable connection is made between the land and heroism.5 We learn that even as a young man, his grandfather “preferred to return to his country … so that he might learn the business of running the ranch. He wanted to have his hands blackened with the soil of the land” (99). As an advocate for a rural existence, much like the Plan Espiritual de Aztlán, his grandfather represents the filial link to the land, and an origin that Máximo rejects in favor of travel and tourism. His grandfather says to him “you, I can tell, have no intentions of staying … the earth is not in your blood” (93). To fight for the land, as Max's dead uncle did, or to feel an intimacy toward it, is to demonstrate a heroism that Max cannot copy.

Máximo's intimate love for the land does eventually emerge, however, and is translated into the migrant's reappropriation of the traveling tourist-exile. As a sculptor in Chicago, Max sends for the sculptures he made while in Sapogonia and on their arrival, he finds that they are completely ruined. But the loss, he explains, would have been overwhelming if the sculptures had been lost because, he says, “I had used wood from my grandfather's land” (265). Max thus rewrites the myth of an attachment to land by quite literally transplanting that land, and setting it down elsewhere. His use of the ranch's wood for his artwork demonstrates the way in which the place follows the migrant, rather than the migrant returning to the place and calling it home. The notion of a return home is thus reworked; as for this native of the borderland, a return comes to mean an uprooting and transplanting of the land, a change for the land, rather than a return, through nostalgic flashbacks to the past, to an unchanged terrain. The “place” of Sapogonia becomes raw material for varying artistic production and creativity, rather than a fixed source of previously given meaning. The migrant thus refuses to leave the past as having “passed” through this transplanting of place, and the understanding of time as a separation of past and present is collapsed. Time is renegotiated so that the present is able to become familiar through the presence of an object from the past (the wood from the ranch in Sapogonia), and the memory inspired by looking at the sculpture challenges the onset of nostalgia because it is focused on an object that is simultaneously old and new: the old wood has a new form. The familiar, or the home, is thus translated as a place in being brought forward in time and space to the present.

Sapogonia is also partly an examination of the workings of one's relationship to the home country as alternately paternal and maternal. The text progresses to show Máximo moving from an attachment to his homeland as his fatherland—whereby he focuses mostly on the patriarchs in his family—to an attachment to Sapogonia as a motherland, a mother and a home, through his possessive obsession with Pastora. By the end, when Pastora herself becomes a mother and bears a son, she and Max both perform a denial of parenthood, in refusing to interpolate themselves as “mother” and “father.” As Pastora says to Max, “my son is not a continuation of you or me, who've considered ourselves exceptional individuals among the species, but a continuity of the species, a simple and humble fact” (304). She then adds, “there are no mothers and no fathers” (304). Alongside Pastora's rejection of an origin linked to lineage, Max states that it is his goals that are “a way of preserving his notion of immortality, much more than a son, who grows to become a stranger, or worse, betrays you, your ideals” (305). Máximo himself, as a tourist, has demonstrated this same strangeness that alienates him from his grandfather's Sapogonia. One's native home, in this context, becomes foreign to its own children, and one's children become strangers to their home (their parents and/or their land). The myth of homeland and heroism is thus rewritten as one of travel and rootlessness, in which the origin is always and only traceable as far back as its narrative origin, that is, its authorial voice. The origin, the primary source and beginning of something, the location of ancestry or parentage, is translated into a hybridity of narration.

In his work as a sculptor, Max authors and shapes forms based on an original, yet locates himself as the creator and father of that work of art. In this way, he is able to position himself both as an origin who provides a home for his art, and as a traveler who finds a home in the art. Like the first person Max who provides a place and home for the legend of his third person Max, he is both parent and child, demonstrating the freedom of being an exile and “a foreigner … from nowhere, from everywhere, citizen of the world …” (Kristeva 1991, 30). For the migrant tourist, home comes from positioning the self temporarily as an origin, and from positioning that self as representative of a beginning. The hybridity that makes up Max's origins allows the hierarchy of origins to break down. That is, there is no longer a prior attachment or right to a particular place, history, or parent. Instead, every element of the tourist exile is in itself an origin, a beginning, and an end.

As a traveler and anonymous wanderer, Max is a borrower and trespasser of homes, women, and land, and in being a borrower, he finds that returning the home is easy because he has refused it a place in memory. The happiness that comes with the freedom of invisibility is based on the lack of origins to weigh him down from the past, and the knowledge that as his own creator, he can simply speed on into a future and make more homes. Two episodes illustrate his borrowing of origins and the ease with which he returns them to the past. First, after bidding his father farewell in Spain, Max goes to America, where he tracks down Hilda, a girl who fell in love with his father Pío twenty years earlier, did not consummate her love for him, and who continues to send him Christmas and birthday cards each year. Max begins a relationship with Hilda that clearly originates in an unrequited relationship from the past. Hilda has been “given” to Max by his father as a specific gift: “One night Pío made another gift to me, the gift of a woman,” and Pío assures Max that “when she sees you, she'll love you with the same adulation that she showed me twenty years ago” (59–60). Eventually however, Hilda's “adulation” develops into a “possessiveness [which] was no longer guised in caring or protectiveness over a naive foreigner. The obsession that motivated the string of cards sent to a man she had not seen in more than twenty years lapsed over to the fear of losing the surrogate” (69). In her relationship with Max, Hilda herself performs a homesickness for the home (Pío) she was never allowed to know, and demonstrates the making of a home as possession. Prior to his escape from Hilda, Max is the possession in a borrowed home, both the imagined fatherland and the child of that land.

The second instance of borrowed origins occurs when Max arrives in New York. There, he describes seeing his father's face “on every face on New York City streets, every hustler, every immigrant worker in the subway …” (60). In doing this, he constructs a father figure in every immigrant's face, creating the immigrant class as a part of his own lineage, and constructing a sense of origin that enables him to feel less strange in a foreign land because every stranger's face is in fact his father's face. This “homing” of his foreign environment is a temporary laying down of roots, a borrowing of the immigrant status of migrancy for his own origins. This constructed origin of immigration is, importantly, a hybrid one, in that “Asian-faced or East Indian” (60) they are all his father. Finally, in seeing Pío's face everywhere, Max repeats the act of fathering over and over again, and the act of making himself a “son” to that father(land) in the streets of New York, thus inventing himself again as a hero in a legendary myth. This performance of fathering and of making an origin occurs only in the “now,” making the telling of a nation's story or history particular to the present and making it work against the possibility of recording it in memory. It only exists through myth and retelling, where it is always subject to change. Hybridity, once again, replaces the purity of origin. Max is told the story of the hero for light entertainment, and the erasure of the past allows for extensive tourism and borrowing of homes. The “whole story” that Max imagines, with himself as the central hero, illustrates his construction of origins that leave no impressions, and of the past as always entirely “passed.” His determination to experience time only in the present is a denial of nostalgia, but it is also an intricate denial of home, because the erasing of past events and history means an erasing of memory. Without memory to make associations between the past and present, the here and elsewhere, there is nothing to make the present time or place familiar in any way, and it is ultimately the familiarity which presents itself in the form of Pastora that makes Max susceptible to homesickness.

HOMESICKNESS AND MYTH

Kaplan, in writing on the exile and the tourist, says that “the exile is homesick at home or away,” and despite being a carefree tourist, Max experiences occasional pangs of homesickness that seem nostalgic and focus on the familiar: either Sapogonia (that is, a specific place), or Pastora, a woman whom he reads as a metaphor for his motherland. His particular longing for a home is filtered retrospectively, through memory. For example, during his stay in Sapogonia after his grandparents' funeral he says that “I'd begun to refer to Sapogonia as my country for the first time in my life. Home as represented by a territory set off by political borders became Sapogonia when it not only gave to me, but took away” (255). Typically, he knows Sapogonia to be his home only when it can represent itself as a loss and an absence. This retrospective nostalgia, in which he mourns the loss of knowledge of home, as well as the loss of a home never experienced in the present tense, also occurs when, at the beginning of his travels, Max sleeps with Catherine, the daughter of a woman that he and El Tinto stay with on their arrival in Paris. He writes, “I felt nostalgia for the virgin after penetration. Why couldn't I love her and let her remain whole, as she had been loved by the mother? Why in the process of loving woman, did man have to nullify something so profound that it was no longer physical?” (32).6 Here, Max experiences the presence of something only after its absence and loss. The wholeness and purity he describes as having been there before penetration signifies a beginning, reminiscent of the origins of motherly love. Catherine's body is described as being “trespassed” on (32), and Max is the tourist who treads all over someone else's motherland or home.

With Pastora, Max's homesickness emerges as that of the exile that he realizes is always within him. Although he mistreats her, she mistreats him too, diluting the stereotyped “macho” paradigm of their relationship. Ibís Gómez-Vega, in her analysis of the text, claims that Max is not capable of making connections, and that Pastora is, breaking the myth that Max has of her as a typically passive Latina woman. I read Max's relationship with the past, however, as one of struggle (with nostalgia, homesickness, and rootlessness), rather than of complete absence or diffidence. He continually experiences and makes connections between his exilic state (in New York, for example) and his memories of his parents and grandparents, between Pastora's music and his childhood in Sapogonia. Although it is true to say that a great deal of Pastora and Max's relationship is based on carnal knowledge, the text suggests other connections between them. For example, connections on a mystical level are implied when Pastora, during her time in jail, has visions of Max's dead grandmother. The fact that she is unable to tell Max about this does not signify a lack of intuitive connection between them as much as a difficulty in communication.7 Max refers to Pastora as a disease: “Everything was going well again in my life when … I got the symptoms: Pastora was festering beneath my skin once again” (285). For Max, Pastora is Sapogonia, and to enter a relationship with her is to enter a homely and uncanny relationship with an unfamiliar space that is also home. In his courting of Pastora, Max nurtures a familiarity with her that is unlike all his previous conquests of women: “I saw her a good many times so that finally I felt I had never seen her for the first time at all, but had always been aware of Pastora on the periphery of my existence. It seemed her name had come to me in veiled fragments, perhaps in dreams or conversations I'd overheard” (135).8 From the start, then, Pastora takes on an unusual temporal significance for Max in that she seems to exist both in his past and in his present. Once they are together, they each reveal themselves as a history of familiar territory for the other: “intimate childhood memories easing from a half-conscious state … all so familiar to the other as to call up … a momentary recognition” (157). Later on, Max differentiates between Pastora and other women, saying that with other women he feels he can challenge anything: “I was Goliath himself with them” but “with Pastora I was only a man” (336). Importantly, Pastora will not let Máximo sustain his heroism because around her he desires visibility: “I tried to make myself visible” (135). Pastora's initial refusal to notice him, and her subsequent refusal to need him all work to undo his heroism. By then, however, his invisibility and anonymity are destroyed, and his home becomes the constant and nagging presence of homesickness that is Pastora, both in her absence and her presence.

Just as Max's previous relationships with women defied memory, the one with Pastora precisely roots itself more in memory than in the present moment. In trying to cure himself of her, Max “escaped from her to every woman as unlike her as he could find. … Meanwhile, he remembered her. He remembered her especially when he worked, when he welded, when he stared at what might be no more than the beginning of a wall, a crosspiece in an iron fence, and in his mind's eye saw it take form” (6). Memory invokes Pastora even through difference (Max seeks women “unlike her”), a sense of beginnings and origins is created, and of their physical relationship only “the recollection would remain the trophy” (157). Memory defines a performance that is sustainable only in the present, and inspires their time together with a constellation of past and future absences and presences. Along with memory, Pastora brings to Max the experience of affectiveness that works to make whichever place he is in at that moment into a home. Pastora's music reminds him of Sapogonia without the nostalgia of loss, but with the embrace and touch of a home transplanted to the present in that moment: “her performance … had carried him to heights and depths he had only recalled during his childhood in Sapogonia, the thrill of riding bare horseback, when his grandfather took him out to deer hunt” (145). The familiarity of home, which is only appreciated in retrospect, after its loss, can in this way be reenacted in the present.

Pastora is also depicted through images of edifices and houses. For Max, in her haughtiness, she seems to exist behind some kind of a wall, and he determines that “he was about to defy that opaque wall from which behind she observed the world and all its inhabitants” (146). Max constructs Pastora as living in a separate building, as entering and exiting, and as being permitted or denied access. Thus, entering Pastora, in the sexual and emotional sense, also means entering a house that might serve as an actual home. Although he entertains the notion of wondering “what would life be, packing his bags, showing up at her door, surrendering once and for all?” (192); the “surrender” of himself to any definite house or place is something he fears too much. He fears Pastora's basement apartment “where one had to reach out to the cold walls in the dark descent of the cement steps to her door” (184). Max, we learn “was afraid of stairs. He had always been afraid of stairs, especially this kind that led to attics and creaked when no one else was around” (176, emphasis in original text). The explanation given for this fear is that as a child, Max's friend Mario told him of an incident when Mario's brother Guillermo saw the ghost of their dead grandmother going up the stairs and crying out to him. The uncanny connotations that stairs carry for Max are based on his uncertainty about what realm they lead to, and the extent to which the place to which they lead will remain unchanged. The dual nature of Pastora's familiarity and strangeness leads Max to fear settling in a home that is uncanny in its homesickness.

Although Pastora's body and land is something Max has to “surrender” to, he is otherwise the “Cortés of every vagina he crosses” (160). The image of a woman's body as a territory to be conquered and as a home space to be borrowed while visiting takes on a political edge. For example, Max needs a green card to stay in America, and he acquires this green card by marrying Laura Marie Jefferson, a woman who has helped his career take off due to her contacts at the Museum of Progressive Art.9 The metaphor of Cortés conquering land and women is enacted by Máximo's ability to gain citizenship through marital and sexual relations with a woman. Her body becomes the geography of the land he adopts as home, and which in turn nourishes him as a son. Pastora's body, however, which seems to defy frequent trespassing, is portrayed as mythical due to the parallels drawn between herself and the goddess Coatlicue. It thus exists beyond the confines of a geographical nation with politically drawn borders. At one level she becomes a reworking of the Chicana temptress/seductress figure who is impossible to conquer and who consumes men. Anzaldúa writes that “Coatlicue is a rupture in our everyday world. As the Earth, she opens and swallows us, plunging us into the underworld …” (Anzaldúa 1987, 46) while Tey Diana Rebolledo describes Coatlicue as both a goddess and a monster who, when portrayed as a decapitated earth goddess, comes to resemble land.10 Jésus, Max's acquaintance, says of Pastora, “I think she's a witch” (143), and later on, Max similarly mythologizes her: “Coatlicue, he said to himself, tonight she was a goddess incarnated … tonight Pastora was dust particles and ether” (144). When he dreams of Pastora as Coatlicue with her face painted red and yellow, and he wakens to ask “are you Coatlicue as I've dreamt?,” Pastora responds “have you been so conceited as to believe Coatlicue your mother? You are less of a god than you think” (148–49). To imagine himself as Coatlicue's son is to imagine himself located within a particular legend that is told and retold, and to imagine himself as an offshoot of that myth. Pastora as Coatlicue offers Max a way of placing his attempt at a heroism that is based on a legend rather than on the travel narrative myth that cannot find expression for the homesickness he has encountered through Pastora. Later on, Pastora's marriage to Eduardo, and her motherhood, makes even this placement in the Coatlicue myth unsustainable for Max. He has particular difficulty in coming to terms with a deity giving birth to a mortal and thinks, “Pastora ceased to be the exalted celestial being. Pastora now labored and toiled like every woman” (300–301). Pastora has rewritten the Coatlicue myth in that she represents a corporeal Coatlicue, who is subordinate to the experiences of the flesh. She undoes the specific traditional myth of a celestial being and instead makes mythological the concept of a real woman. That is, the myth can now represent a corporeal toiling woman like Pastora.

To bring all the issues I have discussed together, I see the text as one that begins as a travel narrative in which Max performs the role of the antihero, telling the story of the invisible but heroic exile. In Part 2, however, this travel narrative is interrupted through Max's meetings with Pastora. The myth of antiheroism is destroyed because Pastora demands visibility and constantly cuts down his attempts at both mythologizing her, and through his proximity and familiarity with her, mythologizing himself. Demythologizing thus occurs at the level of storytelling; and parenting, origins, and father/mother lands are further demythologized when Max and Pastora together, at the end of the book, come to believe in no fathers and no mothers, and to deny “place” as a location for setting down roots. Instead, they see themselves as a species that travels and dislocates itself continually. In this way, Max and Pastora are true hybrid Sapogonians.

As Tey Diana Rebolledo says, “Mythology often functions as a collective symbolic code that identifies how we should live. Cultures use myths and the stories of heroines and heroes to create role models” (Rebolledo 1995, 49). The particular transported and renewed myths of these borderland migrants dissolve the rigid paradigms of role models through their translation into other locations and other cultures. They work against nostalgic dreams of going home to a mythic location, and instead, theorize a way of being at home in which it is the arrival of the past place to the present which replaces the migrant's return to place through nostalgia and longing. Homesickness, for this borderland consciousness, is thus not a question of longing for a lost home or the realization of the construct of that home.11 Instead, homesickness is the underlying familiarity of the always-borrowed “home-space” in the present, because it incorporates not a reminder of loss, but a manifestation of a new and purposefully built structure or edifice. The incorporation of old and new is in effect the rewriting of an old myth, or the appropriation of an old legend for new purposes. The myths, transportable, are carried by migrants, and come to represent both homesickness (as a borrowed familiarity rather than disease) and renewal.

Notes

  1. Among others, Ellen McCracken (1989), and Julian Olivares (1996).

  2. Gloria Anzaldúa develops a space that is a queer Aztlán: queering the queer so that Aztlán no longer exists in an impossible past nor in the never-here future, but in the here-and-now present. Three years after the conference, the Aztlán plan was written down in a more gender-sensitive way.

  3. Critics have read Sapogonia in various ways that tend to focus mostly on Max's “badness” and machismo. Juan Antonio Perles Rochel considers the narrative switches of the text when he states that Castillo draws, in Max, “a rootless Latino immigrant in search of an impossible identity, the picture of pathological masculinity, and thus does not wish easy identification with the character” and he considers Pastora eventually “the true heroine and model of empowered femininity” (Rochel 1997, 130). Ibíz Gómez-Vega's reading (Gómez-Vega 1994) also sees Pastora as the heroine of the text, and Max as failing in this role because he lacks the ability to make connections to the past. Although Gómez-Vega offers an excellent analysis of the text, I see a gap precisely in her declaration that Max cannot experience nostalgia: my interpretation of the text finds nostalgia and memory in Max's character. Her reading also depends on seeing Pastora and Max's relationship as a purely carnal one, a slippage which I shall attend to later on in this section. A last important element of the text is that of the level of dream versus reality along which the events function. Elsa Saeta draws attention to the fact that for much of the novel, we cannot know if events are dreamed or if they actually occur (Saeta 1994). This important consideration blurs boundaries between the real and the dream, and affects the extent to which the characters are trust-worthy or reliable as narrators of their own desires, activities, and lives. Although here I choose to focus on the tourist-exile figure of the hero in my analysis, I am aware that in the text everything is filtered through a series of potentially unreliable narrators, and that to an extent, the reader can never fully know the other characters of the text. Overall, although I do not wish to dismiss a sympathetic reading of Pastora, I read Max as more multidimensional and problematic than most critics have. Elyette Benjamin-Labarthe (1996) gives an interesting psychoanalytic reading of the text, seeing both Max and Pastora as heroic, claiming that they are involved in a sadomasochistic, narcissistic relationship that is only realized through the frustration of hatred. Taking an interesting angle, Benjamin-Labarthe reads the text as divided into “white” and “nonwhite,” where both Pastora and Max harbor internalized desires for whiteness, and she particularly cites Pastora and Perla's relationship as one where the former is attracted to the latter's whiteness, even though Pastora adopts the “Chicana” label that allows her to celebrate brownness.

  4. Althusser's assessment of the policeman's hailing or interpellation of the subject suggests that the individual hailed almost always turns around at the sound of the “hey, you there,” and that this hailing of individuals exemplifies the existence of ideology. In this ideology, the relationship between two individuals is established at the moment of interaction. An authority figure's “you there” interpellates the subject as about to be interrogated and examined. (Althusser, 1994, 131). The fact that the Immigration and Naturalization Service officials wrongly interpellate Max as one of them, as a member of their community, suggests that there are cracks in the ideological system, cracks in which masked, anonymous performers, liars, or exiles reside.

  5. Importantly, Max's grandparents are shot inside their own house, thus showing how the civil uprisings of the country enter and disrupt the interior private space of citizens.

  6. In a similar vein, Sandra Cisneros writes about a man's regret in loving a woman: “If I knew the words I'd explain / how a man loves a woman before love / and how he loves her after / is never the same. How the two halves split / and can't be put back whole again” (Cisneros 1994, 63).

  7. This argument still leaves open the question that some critics ask, that is, who the hero of the text is. Those who view Pastora as the hero do so because she goes against the grain of what is expected of her, demanding sexual freedom and promiscuity. However, some, like Yvonne Yarbro-Bejarano, see Pastora as entirely passive, insisting that she relate to him on his own terms, as a sexual toy (1992, 69). A decision about the hero of the text is not crucial in my analysis, but I would agree that Pastora's subversive impulses move her to separate and connect memories in her quest for community. Max, on the other hand, is preoccupied with a more individualistic quest, but insofar as his quest overlaps with Pastora's, he also undergoes experiences of connection and memory. Calling Pastora the hero of the text, in short, should not eliminate the complexities of Max's relationship with her and with his past. I would go so far as to say that the text even shows the fragility of applying the concept of hero to a borderland place, because the hero narrative normally requires a natural and naturalized context that is missing in a border text.

  8. Max's experience of Pastora in dreams is part of the undecidable dream tone of the whole text. The dream intrusion here is symptomatic, for example, of the tourists being haunted by his suppressed home (his Other).

  9. It is perhaps significant that Laura's surname, Jefferson, is that of the founding father, Thomas Jefferson, who wrote the Declaration of Independence. The Jefferson that represents the giving of a green card carries echoes of the document that originally created the American state. Thomas Jefferson himself designed and built his own house.

  10. “When her adversaries had mutilated Coatlicue—says the myth—her hair turned to grass, to trees, to flowers. Her skin was transformed into fertile soil, her eyes to holes filled with water, wells and springs. Her mouth changed into great caves, which offered shelter to men. Out of her nose were formed hills and valleys …” (Rebolledo 1995, 50). This depiction of Coatlicue as land furthers the interpretation of Pastora as a manifestation of Sapogonia.

  11. Rosemary Marangoly George writes “the sentiment accompanying the absence of home—homesickness—can cut two ways: it could be a yearning for the authentic home (situated in the past or in the future) or it could be the recognition of the inauthenticity or the created aura of all homes” (George 1996, 175).

Works Cited

Althusser, Louis. 1994. “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses (Notes Towards an Investigation).” In Mapping Ideology, ed. Slavoj Zizek, 100–140. London: Verso.

Anzaldúa, Gloria. 1987. Borderlands/La Frontera. San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books.

Arteaga, Alfred. 1997. Chicano Poetics: Heterotexts and Hybrídítíes. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Bachelard, Gaston. 1994. The Poetics of Space. trans. Maria Jolas. 2nd ed. Boston: Beacon Press. Originally published as La poétique de l'espace. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1958.

Benjamin-Labarthe, Elyette. 1996. “L'amour et la haine dans un roman Chicano contemporain: Sapogonia d'Ana Castillo.” In États-Unis/Mexique: Fascinations et Répulsions Réciproques. ed. Serge Ricard, 193–208. Paris: L'Harmattan.

Castillo, Ana. 1994. Sapogonia. New York: Anchor Books.

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Cisneros, Sandra. 1987. “Ghosts and Voices: Writing from Obsession” The Americas Review 15: 69–79.

———. 1994. “With Lorenzo at the Center of the Universe, el Zócalo, Mexico City.” In Loose Woman, 60–63. New York: Vintage.

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Gómez-Vega, Ibíz. 1994. “Debunking Myths: The Hero's Role in Ana Castillo's Sapogonia.” In The Americas Review: A Review of Hispanic Literature and Arts in the U.S.A. 22:1–2, 244–58.

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Olivares, Julian. 1996. “Sandra Cisneros' The House on Mango Street and the Poetics of Space.” In Chicana Creativity and Criticism: New Frontiers in American Literature, ed. Maña Herrera-Sobek, Helena Maña Viramontes, 233–244. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.

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Saeta, Elsa. 1994. “Ana Castillo's Sapogonia: Narrative Point of View as a Study in Perception.” Confluencia: Revista Hispánica de Cultura y Literatura, 10:1, 67–72.

Saldívar, José David. 1997. Border Matters: Remapping American Cultural Studies. Berkeley: University of California Press.

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Renee H. Shea (essay date March–April 2000)

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SOURCE: “No Silence for This Dreamer: The Stories of Ana Castillo,” in Poets & Writers, Vol. 28, No. 2, March–April, 2000, pp. 32–39.

[In the following essay, Shea discusses Castillo's life, writings on feminism and Xicanisma, and her upcoming works.]

Ana Castillo was on the ballot. When the Chicago Sun Times put together a survey in 1999 to determine the greatest Chicagoans of the century, Castillo, “writer,” was featured in an alphabetical list that included a saint—Mother Cabrini—legendary sportscaster Harry Caray, and First Lady Hillary Clinton. Does that inclusion mean that this outspoken, passionate, and determined woman, who has gained an international reputation as one of the strongest voices in contemporary Chicana literature, has gone mainstream? Or has the mainstream, with its growing interest in Latin culture, finally discovered her work and worth? It's probably a little of both for Castillo, who for the past 25 years has been steadily gaining both attention and acclaim for her poetry, essays, fiction, and journalism, and who has now written a children's book, My Daughter, My Son, the Eagle, the Dove, forthcoming from Dutton Books this spring.

To survey Castillo's career is to chronicle the growing recognition of Chicana literature in the United States during the last three decades, when many of these writers have moved from small presses to more powerful publishing houses. Her first novel, The Mixquiahuala Letters, published by the small Bilingual Press in 1986, won an American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation, and Sapogonia (1994), her next novel, was published by the same press. Norton published her third novel, So Far from God (1993), which won both a Carl Sandburg Award and a Mountains and Plains Booksellers Award. In 1995, Norton republished its edition of her 1988 book My Father Was a Toltec, a collection of poems, some written in English, some in Spanish, telling the story of her father as member of the Toltec street gang, and included in the volume a selection of her earlier poems. Along with the publication last September of Peel My Love like an Onion, Doubleday reissued her first two novels. By Carolyn Heilbrun's definition of power as “the ability to take one's place in whatever discourse is central to action and the right to have one's part matter” (Writing a Woman's Life, 1988), Castillo has become a powerful presence not only in the literature of Chicanas—Mexican-American women—but in the literature of the Americas.

She specifically identifies herself with Chicana authors: the vanguard writers publishing in the early 1970s, such as Lorna Dee Cervantes and Lucha Corpi, and her contemporaries and friends like Sandra Cisneros, Cherrie Moraga, and Denise Chavez. The label Chicana is problematic, however, according to Castillo, because it is a matter of perception as well as bloodline. She points out that women of Mexican descent or background—Mexic Amerindians—or Latinas born in the U.S. but closely linked to Mexican culture all might be called Chicana because they are all part of the Chicana/o diaspora in the U.S. In fact, she champions the working-class “brown women,” who are joined by their economic position regardless of ethnicity, in a world where the black/white dichotomy prevails.

These are the people who are the subject of her fiction and the people with whom she grew up. Born, raised, and still living in Chicago, Castillo is the daughter of Mexican-American parents Raymond and Raquel Rocha Castillo. She declines discussion of her upbringing—“It wasn't horrible or anything,” she says, “but I prefer not to discuss it with the public”—although she will talk about her father. He was born in 1933 in Chicago and “raised in the neighborhood for so many immigrants of that period—Jewish, Italian, black, Mexican. … He had an ear for the mambo and learned to beat out rhythms on cardboard suitcases in the factory where he worked as a teenager.” Castillo attended public schools, became a political activist in the 1970s, and received a BA degree in liberal arts from Northeastern University and an MA in Latin and Caribbean Studies from the University of Chicago. For years she made her living as a teacher—early on in Chicago at Malcolm X Junior College, later at Sonoma State College, the University of California at Santa Barbara, and the University of New Mexico—but never considered teaching as a primary career. A self-taught writer who is deliberate about her decision not to participate in traditional MFA programs or workshops, she began writing, she says, not out of a desire to become a writer but out of a firm conviction that she had something to say: “My academic background is in the social sciences—philosophy, women's studies, sociology, literature. I figured that would all inform my writing. Twenty-five years after I started writing, I feel I still have a message to share. I don't want to see myself proselytizing but sharing some real concerns, and I will find ways to do that one way or the other.”

In her most recent novel, Peel My Love like an Onion, the central character is the unlikely heroine Carmen la Coja, a flamenco dancer whose childhood bout with polio left one foot “bald and featherless, a limp dead heron fallen from its nest.” Carmen might be a reincarnation of the Mexican painter Frida Kahlo—who also suffered from polio as a child—or at least her spiritual heir, particularly since in her journal she quotes Kahlo: “What do I need feet for when I have wings?” Castillo is quick to play the similarity down, conceding that they're “both passionate artists,” but pointing out that Carmen reflects on that quote in her usual irreverent way, saying, “Easy for her to say. She was a painter, not a dancer.”

Perhaps more apt is a link between Kahlo and Castillo, because Castillo is known for her hard-hitting political art. In The Mixquiahuala Letters, an epistolary novel written when she was 23, and Sapogonia, she explores gender relationships in a patriarchal and racist society and the cost of living as a marginalized group. In So Far from God, a magical realist narrative, she posits an alternative worldview in a spiritual community created by the main character, Sofi, and her three daughters. Critic Roland Walter, writing in the journal MELUSMulti-Ethnic Literature in the United States—sees all three novels as “an examination of self through both individual and collective history, linking it to a search for place among one's people.” These are serious works that challenge the balance of power.

The quirky characters and the love story of Carmen and Manolo and his godson Augustin suggest that Peel My Love like an Onion is a departure from the probing political consciousness of the earlier work, but Castillo disagrees: “I think this story is very political. Carmen is not naive or a victim; she understands the consequences of her choices, and she is telling us all the things that concern Ana Castillo as a Chicano, a Latina, a woman of color, and one of them is the abuse of female labor and children's labor. We learn about that not by the narrator beating us over the head with the message, but by virtue of her experience [when Carmen and her mother go to work in a sweatshop].”

While, of course, Castillo would like for her work to be admired and to have a wide readership, what is most important to her is for it to be understood, particularly by the brown women who are so much like her—the audience she imagines when she is writing and an audience she feels has been overlooked and undervalued. She has made these ideas quite explicit in her ground-breaking theoretical work, Massacre of the Dreamers: Essays on Xicanisma (University of New Mexico, 1994), in which she defines the “Mestiza/Mexic Amerindian woman's identity” through the concept of “Xicanisma,” a term she coined to capture the concept of Chicana feminism. Writing against an Anglocentric perspective and carefully distinguishing her concerns and position from those of white feminists, Castillo's essay collection is a manifesto on racism, machisma, sexuality, mothering, spirituality, and language. The title derives from the legend that the Aztec ruler Montezuma sought out the people who he had heard dreamed of the fall of his empire and had them massacred. No one, after that, dared tell of their dreams. Castillo includes herself in “we, the silenced dreamers” who must reclaim the vision of wholeness—a spiritually grounded self defined apart from “the greed on which patriarchy is based” and living in harmony with the natural world. In this work, she analyzes the forces that have instilled self-contempt in the mestiza and calls for recognition of the vast difference between the reality of the mestiza and that of the dominant cultures. Castillo intends for this collection, as she writes in her introduction, to be a contribution to “the ongoing polemic of our 500-year status as countryless residents on land that is now the United States.”

Massacre of the Dreamers made her Dr. Castillo. The University of Bremen in Germany awarded her a Doctorate in American Studies in 1991, accepting this collection in lieu of a conventional doctoral dissertation. Castillo explains that since the 1970s, European academics have taken an interest in Native American and Chicano studies, and by the 1980s had become interested in women within these groups. Dieter Herms, former dean of the American Studies Program at the University of Bremen, had traveled to the U.S., where he met Castillo and invited her to give a keynote address for an annual conference of German Americanists. My Father Was a Toltec and The Mixquiahuala Letters were being used in Germany as Chicana feminist theory, and when Castillo told Herms that one day she was going to sit down and write her ideas out in essay form, he told her that when she did, she should submit it as a formal dissertation.

In the tradition of the academic world, the approval process was lengthy and often contentious, but Herms, who became very ill with cancer, remained Castillo's champion and shepherded the book through the necessary channels. Castillo traveled to Germany, where she successfully defended the work a few months before Herms's death. While Massacre of the Dreamers has the requisite theoretical underpinnings expected of a dissertation in interdisciplinary studies, including references to critical work in social sciences, history, and literature, the stark difference is in approach. Subverting the objective voice of an allegedly impartial researcher, this work, as Castillo announces in her introduction, “directed itself to the subject of this thesis rather than to the academy.” This is a dissertation by, for, and about Chicanas. It seeks to raise consciousness of their history and to incite change in their self-awareness and, thus, their future. In the call for inclusion, its message is a revolutionary one calling for change throughout the culture.

Not surprisingly, one of those changes, Castillo argues, will come about through a “re-visioning” of language. Not interested in becoming part of an existing discourse, Castillo looks toward creating a new, more inclusive one. She calls for a critical understanding of the consequences of being marginalized from the language of the dominant society and writes of the need to take on “the re-visioning of our own culture's metaphors”—not only to understand but to act on the bone-and-blood link between language and identity, the topic of an earlier poem, “A Christmas Gift for the President of the United States, Chicano Poets, and a Marxist or Two I've Known in My Time”:

My verses have no legitimacy.
A white woman inherits
her father's library,
her brother's friends, Privilege
gives language that escapes me.
Past my Nahua eyes
and Spanish surname, English syntax
makes its way to my mouth
with the grace of a club foot.

Castillo writes and publishes some poetry in Spanish, but she writes mostly in English, a decision, she says, she made over 20 years ago—“not because I was trying to reach a gringo audience. But I was raised in Chicago without the privilege of bilingual education, so the people I thought would read my work would be the Chicanos who read English. I didn't learn to write in Spanish.” She has stated in interviews that the English she writes is not “white standard English” and that an essential element of her work is the distinctive language of the narrator, particularly in Sapogonia, where the narrator's pretentiousness is signaled by the second-language English he proudly uses.

When she sits down to write, language is not the only choice Castillo has to make, since she feels equally at home in poetry, fiction, and nonfiction. She claims that the choice is sometimes hers, sometimes not—“Sometimes with poetry, it's like a meteorite”—and that sometimes there is no real need for choice: “I have what people have told me is a quick left brain/right brain switch. I have worked, for example, on Massacre of the Dreamers with So Far from God, then the short stories, then back to painting, then some poetry—and that was all in one day! At some point, I say, ‘Enough is enough,’ go back to the easel, and spend the rest of the day painting.” Although Castillo originally intended to be a visual artist, she had stopped painting for over 17 years, then resumed around 1990 when she was in New Mexico and a friend gave her a box of paints and brushes, along with the encouragement to take up art again: “I felt confident enough in my writing at that time that it didn't matter what people thought of me as a painter. I paint for myself.” And she paints herself: “My son has gotten me to do a couple of him, but very rarely. Usually, I paint myself in whatever is going on at the moment. Then, I don't necessarily put that in my writing.”

Castillo is never alone in her creative process. One of the key chapters in Massacre of the Dreamers is about spirituality. In the doctrine of Xicanisma, spirituality involves acceptance of self in the context of forces that Western thought might consider “supernatural” and requires rejection of the hierarchical thinking characteristic of Western culture. In Chicana culture, spiritualism is embodied in curanderas and brujas, the latter spiritual healers or psychics, by Castillo's definition, the former “specialized healers, learned in the knowledge of specifically healing the body.” Castillo is the granddaughter of a curandera, and it is she, Castillo says, “who taught me how to love and care for other living things. We lived in the heart of Chicago in a flat in the back with a kitchen looking out into a nasty, rat-infested alley. Yet she grew her herbs there, in coffee cans.” In the introduction to Toltec, Castillo tells a moving story of beginning to write at age nine when this grandmother, her abuelita, died. “My lines were short, roughly whittled saetas [flamenco-style songs] of sorrow spun out of the biting late winter of Chicago,” she writes—and so Ana the writer was born out of the death of the woman who was and is her spiritual guide.

Castillo is herself a curandera, but explains that she has been reluctant to take on that lifestyle. In 1997, she was crowned “a curandera and hail-maker by the Nahua people of Central Mexico, the region of my ancestry.” She believes this is work she is destined to do, but chooses not to elaborate on what that means: “I'm not trying to be mysterious, but as I learn and accept my responsibilities and duties, I must humbly keep them private.”

Castillo is also a follower of the Virgin of Guadalupe and always wears a large square ring honoring this figure. Her poem “La Wild Woman” is dedicated “Para Clarissa” to Clarissa Pinkola Estés, kindred spirit and author of the best-seller Women Who Run With the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype (1992). They met at a convention, and, Castillo explains, “When she got close to give me a hug, I saw she wore a medal of the Virgin of Guadalupe, so I saw we had a connection.” In 1996, Castillo published Goddess of the Americas: Writings on the Virgin of Guadalupe, a series of pieces she commissioned from Latino artists and writers, including Estés, to explore the meaning of “la Virgencita at the end of the millennium.” Authors of these essays refuse to separate spirituality and sexuality, much as Castillo herself refused in Massacre of the Dreamers, seeing them as part of the same energy. Reviewing the essays in Commonweal magazine, Robert Orsi saw nothing surprising about their “pervasive eroticism,” claiming that “the erotic here signals the refusal of the writers to be rendered other by an image of the sacred that excludes or denies them or that would prohibit them, for whatever politically repressive, racist, homophobic reason, from living inside their skins.”

The erotic and spiritual coexist in Peel My Love like an Onion, which Margot Mifflin, in reviewing it for the New York Times, called a “fiery novel; it's all hot chili peppers.” At 40 years old, Carmen describes herself as starting “to look like a Picasso forgery,” but, as Castillo puts it, “she knows herself to be beautiful inside and out. This novel's about self-love.” Unlike the Carmen of Bizet's opera, this one refuses to be a tragic heroine: “Something about a grand final exit doesn't appeal to me as much as the idea of being asked for an encore.” She's the one who brings clients in the beauty parlor, where she is the shampoo girl, to tears when she demonstrates the flamenco—in her cross-trainers.

Where did Castillo find this unlikely middle-aged, feisty, working-class Carmen? Carmen found her, Castillo insists, during the hot Chicago summer of 1995. She was staying with her mother, who was not well at the time, in a non-air-conditioned house, working, usually after midnight, on a borrowed laptop in the basement, trying to meet the deadline for Loverboys (1997), her short story collection: “I would turn on a fan my parents had nailed to the window about twenty years ago—when you cranked it up, it sounded like a small plane starting—and work every night until about two in the morning. One of those nights, when I turned on the laptop, this narrator begins to speak. She's taking a power walk, and she starts talking about when she was in love, and, co-incidentally, she's also in Chicago. When she bends down to tie one of her new cross-trainers, she says, ‘It isn't easy with the leg brace on.’ That's when I realized there was a problem here, a condition, and somehow I knew this would not be the voice for a short story.”

So Carmen didn't merely waltz into Castillo's imagination, she flamencoed into a novel about the Chicano and gypsy cultures of Chicago. An irresistible metaphor, flamenco is more a way of life than a dance, one that begins not with the feet but with the heart. Although Castillo is not a professional flamenco dancer, she does not deny that she can do some fancy footwork herself: “You don't have to be tall and svelte or have shiny hair or even all your teeth. The other night on the book tour, there was a flamenco dancer as part of the event—and she's about sixty years old, five feet tall, and sort of all-the-way round—and she gave a really great performance! Flamenco is a very passionate dance, like the tango; it comes from the streets, from poor people, and it's like the blues, an expression of loss, oppression, migrations.”

In her latest venture Castillo has taken on yet another genre: children's literature. My Daughter, My Son, the Eagle, the Dove is a collection of poems based on Aztec rites of passage from the conquest period in Mexico that Castillo discovered during her research for Massacre of the Dreamers: “There are chronicles of talking. Imagine that you're coming of age, getting married, going off to war, and you're brought to the elders, who tell you the significance of the event. I took passages of those speeches, which the Spaniards documented from the Aztecs, and turned them into two chants—one for the son, one for the daughter.” This lyrical advice is not so different, Castillo says, from what parents say—or should say—to children today when offering counsel about life:

When you speak, speak
not too loud
and not soft
but with honest words
always.

Like Castillo's other work, there is an emphasis on ancestry and history as a source of pride:

Understand, my daughter
that you are of noble
and generous blood;
you are precious as an emerald,
precious
as sapphire.
You were sculpted
of relations
cultivated like jade.

Castillo says she is particularly excited about the book, as well as its sequel—for the newborn—because of her own son, Marcel Ramon, who is 16 and the subject of a number of poems in her newest, unpublished collection, I Ask the Impossible. One of these, the whimsical “El Chicle,” appears in the New York City subway as part of the Poetry in Motion series and recalls a younger Marcel in more innocent times. Castillo says her major concern today is how her son is perceived as a young, brown-skinned male on the streets of Chicago: “I grew up in a world that was racist, and young people were harassed by the police and by kids from other neighborhoods, but we're living now in a much more dangerous time. My biggest worry is not the choices he's going to make, but how the world has become so much more violent and aggressive.”

How does Castillo feel about the mainstreaming of Latino culture or about phenomena like the immensely popular Ricky Martin? “No pun intended,” she says slyly, “but what does it all have to do with the price of beans? The mass appeal really doesn't affect most people, except the thirteen-year-old girls who spend their money to hear him. It doesn't translate into much of a difference in everyday lives. The idea that we can become homogenized and rendered as sheer entertainment is not a personal victory for me as a Chicana.” Still, Castillo never entirely closes off a possibility, and without a doubt, her Carmen la Coja is an appealing character for film. So, she muses, “On the other hand, if he wants to play in the movie …” And it hardly seems a stretch to imagine poet, novelist, activist, journalist, teacher, curandera, editor, and theorist Ana Castillo adding “screenwriter,” or even “director,” to her vita.

Ralph E. Rodriguez (essay date Summer 2000)

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SOURCE: “Chicana/o Fiction from Resistance to Contestation: The Role of Creation in Ana Castillo's So Far from God,” in MELUS, Vol. 25, No. 2, Summer, 2000, pp. 63–82.

[In the following essay, Rodriguez explores Castillo's contesting of political, social, sexual, and religious standards and beliefs in So Far from God.]

The past two decades have given us a wealth of Chicana and Chicano literature, both because of the exemplary work of the Recovering the U.S. Hispanic Literary Heritage project in discovering and recovering older texts and because of the sheer boom in Chicana/o publications over the last fifteen years. Even the nonspecialist now recognizes the names of Chicana/o authors such as Sandra Cisneros, Benjamin Alire Saenz, Ana Castillo, Rolando Hinojosa, and Denise Chavez, to name only a few. Their work, as well as that of their contemporaries, complements the publications of the heralded Chicana/o movement, which included Corky Gonzalez's epic poem “Yo Soy Joaquin” (1967), Tomas Rivera's Y no se lo trago la tierra … / And the Earth did not Devour Him … (1971), Rudolfo Anaya's Bless Me, Ultima (1972), Oscar Zeta Acosta's Revolt of the Cockroach People (1973), and Estela Portillo Trambley's Rain of Scorpions and Other Writings (1975). The corpus of Chicana/o writing, in short, has grown exponentially. While many of the contemporary writers share the social and political concerns of the Movement writers, what I find particularly interesting is the strategic shift these writers have made from a resistance literature to what I identify as a contestatory literature. This essay examines the theoretical framework and historical conditions surrounding that shift and illustrates by example how a contestatory literature engages in social critique. After charting the historical and theoretical ground for the shift from resistance to contestation, I examine the role of the creation narrative in Ana Castillo's romance So Far from God (1993).1

In establishing a framework for my definition of contestatory literature, I would like first to consider resistance literature. Taking her lead from the Palestinian writer and critic Ghassan Kanafani, Barbara Harlow has written the definitive text on resistance literature, a text which carefully examines the relationship between this literature and third world national liberation movements. “Resistance literature,” states Harlow, “calls attention to itself, and to literature in general, as a political and politicized activity. The literature of resistance sees itself furthermore as immediately and directly involved in a struggle against ascendant or dominant forms of ideological and cultural production” (28–29). The writers from the various sites (e.g., Palestine, Lebanon, and South Africa) that she discusses, though not necessarily bearing arms, are so intimately tied into the armed struggle, that she is able to demonstrate powerfully the mutually reinforcing relationship between the cultural and paramilitary programs. Indeed, Harlow asserts, “The resistance writer, like the guerrilla of the armed liberation struggle, is actively engaged in an urgent historical confrontation. The questions raised by the resistance leaders are the questions faced by the writers as well” (100).

Consequently, the alliance between the national liberation movements and the literature that Harlow discusses demarcates a sharp boundary for me between resistance literature and contestatory literature. For the term “resistance literature” is used most appropriately when discussing armed liberation movements that have direct links to territorial claims, where there is literally a battle for terrain and governance at stake. In addition while Harlow takes the necessary measures to define the terms of her argument, the term “resistance literature” has become nearly ubiquitous since the publication of her book eleven years ago. Critical omnipresence of a term, though not necessarily bad, typically drains it of its specificity. In short, I believe the term “resistance literature” has been bandied about so much that it has lost its critical impact and function.

Before moving further ahead, I would like to reflect for a moment on the role of resistance literature in the United States, which Harlow has absented from her study,2 though many scholars, Ramon Saldivar among them, have subsequently adopted her model to talk about Chicana and Chicano literature. How compatible, though, is the resistance model for Chicana/o literature? The corpus of Chicana/o writing which most closely approximates the literature Harlow discusses is the writing that came out of the Chicana and Chicano movement (ca. 1966–1972). Many people at that time were interested in reclaiming Aztlan as the Chicana/o homeland (see Anaya and Lomeli), otherwise known as the Southwest United States. This section of land, stretching from Texas to California, was violently taken from Mexico in the Mexican-U.S. War (1846–1848), a war which saw Mexico lose half of its territory for a paltry fifteen million dollars, not to mention the loss of innumerable lives. As chronicled in Rudolfo Acuna's aptly titled Occupied America (1972), the desire to reclaim Aztlan, the territory lost in the war and the site from which the Aztecs initiated their pilgrimage into Mexico, manifested itself most vociferously in the 1960s and 1970s. Witness, for example, Reies Lopez Tijerina's armed efforts to expropriate territories from the U.S. which, according to Spanish land grants and under the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, rightfully belonged to their Mexican inheritors.3 Similarly most consider “The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez” (so eloquently retold and assayed by Americo Paredes in his 1958 study With His Pistol in His Hand) a strong articulation of Mexican resistance against a racist Anglo power structure. Though the ballad, about a man unjustly accused of theft who single-handedly fought off numerous Texas Rangers and defied a racist legal system, clearly predates the Chicana/o movement, Paredes' critical study gave the heroic image of Gregorio Cortez a new life for many young Chicana/os and generated intellectual inspiration for Chicana and Chicano writers, intellectuals, and activists4

In addition to the impact of Paredes' study, consider the assessment of Alurista, who is regarded as one of the celebrated poets of the Chicano/a movement. In a 1973 study, he offered an analysis and a proposed plan of action:

The Chicano experience is one of internal kolonization which is bound to a dehumanizing degree with economic dependence on the cultural, political, and military paternalism of the Yankee Empire. Internal revolution is inevitable and imperative. But … where do we begin? … with the rifle or the pen? With the armed revolt for the popular take-over of the Yankee state or with the cultural revolution for the organization of the popular revolutionary conscience of the Chicano peoples north of Mexico. The first alternative is heroic suicide. The second is protracted (long-range) insurrection, the aim of which, must be fourfold: 1) the organization of Chicano peoples, 2) The liberation of land north of Mexico, 3) the unification of the mestizo nations of Amerindia, and 4) The humanization of the socioeconomic order of the earth. This cultural revolution against kolonization combats repression with reflection and dedicated study, combats suppression with the expression and communication of knowledge and social conscience. And, finally, overcomes oppression with the liberation of people and land occupied and dominated by the Yankee Empire in Amerindia.

(Alurista n. pag., ellipsis in original)

Alurista's revolutionary discourse—his invocation of armed insurrection and internal colonization, his orthographic flourishes, and his belief in self-empowerment—is characteristic of much of this period's writing. Moreover his proposed bilateral approach, which includes cultural as well as armed insurrection, resonates harmoniously with Harlow's model of resistance literature. Indeed, it mandates that I recognize a tradition of resistance literature in Chicana/o letters. Consequently, I submit that some of the writing from this period exhibits traces of resistance literature.

However, the corpus of Chicana and Chicano fiction from roughly 1984 to the present, what might perhaps be called a new wave of Chicana/o writing, bears no resemblance to what Harlow describes as resistance literature. The fundamental union in resistance literature between the armed national liberation fronts and the cultural workers is not to be found in this new wave of Chicana/o fiction. Sandra Cisneros' House on Mango Street (1984), for instance, tellingly unveils patterns of gender oppression and of class exploitation, but it is not part of a unified national liberation struggle as are resistance texts such as Manlio Argueta's One Day of Life (1980), which comes out of revolutionary El Salvador, or Omar Cabezas' autobiographical Fire from the Mountain (1985) about the Sandinistas. In contrast, consider Benjamin Alire Saenz's “Cebolleros” (1992), which subtly exposes the problems of commodity fetishism and of alienated labor in the Chicana/o farmworker community. Both Cisneros and Saenz engage in important social critiques, but the quintessential union between armed struggles for national liberation and cultural production is absent from their work and from other examples of this new wave of Chicana/o fiction. Consequently, I find it ineffective to use the resistance model to analyze these texts. Lest I be misunderstood, I am not valorizing one form of cultural production over the other; rather I am noting a paradigmatic shift from resistance to contestation. While not part of territorial or governance battles per se, these new wave texts continue to struggle against antagonistic forces of oppression, such as racism and sexism. Thus, I opt for the terms contestatory literature or a literature of contestation.

A contestatory literature employs varying narrative strategies to critique, resist, and oppose racism, sexism, homophobia, and/or classism. A particular text need not be solely engaged in enumerating the sundry forms of social injustice to be deemed contestatory. Indeed, if it were engaged exclusively in contestation, I imagine it would become laboriously dogmatic and tiringly doctrinaire. Further, a ready-made formula cannot be had that equates x incidents of critique with a contestatory text, for any mathematical attempt to quantify a work's merits sterilizes the function of the text. If a work fundamentally opposes the deprecation of an individual or a group based on race, class, gender, or sexuality, let us consider that text an exemplar of the literature of contestation. Bear in mind, too, that a contestatory literature is not necessarily a revolutionary literature. To contest something, to call something into question at the linguistic level, does not axiomatically translate into material change.

Though tangible manifestations are certainly desired, the positive results of a writer's act of contestation are not easily assessed. For example, the effects of Ana Castillo's trenchant critique of corrupt dictatorial regimes in her anti-romance, Sapogonia (1990), are not easily measured. Does this render her critique futile? Does this make Sapogonia any less of a contestatory text? To both questions I answer resoundingly no. Though the results of Castillo's efforts may not be easily charted, she has demonstrated a fundamental opposition to the system of social abuse she describes, rendering hers a contestatory text. In other words, one can demonstrate with textual examples the contestatory capacity of a particular utterance, paragraph, text, etc., without necessarily being able to measure the results of that contestation, though those results, of course, remain of interest.

What precipitated the change from a literature of resistance to a literature of contestation in Chicana/o fiction? The answer can be found, I believe, in the consolidation of the forces of late capital and the historical maturation of the postmodern. Late capital follows the two prior stages of capital: market and then monopoly or imperial capital. Although periodization is a sticky affair, theorists generally consider that the onset of late capital followed the second World War, a period which witnessed a dramatic change in the production sector (i.e., a shift from Fordism to flexible accumulation)5 as well as an unprecedented rise in consumption. While the principal analysis of late capital remains Ernest Mandel's Late Capital (1975), Fredric Jameson offers a useful summary of its constituent features:

Besides the forms of transnational business mentioned above, its features include the new international division of labor, a vertiginous new dynamic in international banking and the stock exchanges (including the enormous Second and Third World debt), new forms of media interrelationship (very much including transportation systems such as containerization), computers and automation, the flight of production to advanced Third World areas, along with all the more familiar social consequences, including the crisis of traditional labor, the emergence of yuppies, and gentrification on a now-global scale.

(xix)

Above all, Jameson demonstrates the sundry ways in which capital has grown exponentially and has become increasingly more savvy in militating against the forces of labor. Capital has, for Jameson, spun a vast web which entraps all and reduces culture to a mere commodity. Postmodernism and its attendant disorders, which include superficiality, the waning of affect, a fragmented subjectivity, schizophrenia, loss of a historical sense, and life in the continuous present, represent the cultural logic of late capital in the same way that realism and modernism represented respectively the cultural logic of market and monopoly capital (Jameson ix–54).

Why then if postmodernism is the cultural logic of late capital and if the mid-forties marked the onset of late capital, did we witness a resistance literature in Chicana/o letters in the 1960s and 1970s? My answer is two-fold. First, I would argue that from the 1940s to the 1970s late capital was in its incipient stages; it had not worked itself out in all the complexities that Jameson was able to enumerate in 1991. Second, we must remember that, as Jameson is careful to note, postmodernism is a cultural dominant. It does not nor cannot constitute all cultural production:

the totalizing account of the postmodern always included a space for various forms of oppositional culture: those of marginal groups, those of radically distinct residual or emergent cultural languages, their existence being already predicated by the necessarily uneven development of late capitalism, whose First World produces a Third World within itself by its own inner dynamic. In this sense postmodernism is “merely” a cultural dominant. To describe it in terms of cultural hegemony is not to suggest some massive and uniform cultural homogeneity of the social field but very precisely to imply its coexistence with other resistant and heterogeneous forces which it has a vocation to subdue and incorporate.

(159)

The Chicana and Chicano fiction I discuss forms one such group working outside of the cultural dominant of late capital. These writers have developed strategies of contestation able to cope with the machinations of late capital.

I suggested in the first part of my answer that late capital was in an incipient state in the 40s to 70s, but had fully matured by the 1980s and 1990s. Therefore, the 1960s and 70s strategies of resistance were no longer applicable. In “Beyond the Gender Gap,” for example, an article which details a five-step program for revitalizing the women's movement, Martha Burk, president of the Center for the Advancement of Public Policy and steering committee member of the Council of Presidents of National Women's Organizations, and Heidi Hartman, president of the Institute for Women's Policy Research and co-chair of the council's Welfare Reform Task Force, note that “While young people may yet be induced to come out to the streets, again, activism in the old sense is increasingly difficult to sustain for the average woman. To become more effective as a movement we must invent new forms of activism” (20; emphasis mine). In short a correlative relationship developed between capital and alternative cultural formations. As the workings of capital and its accompanying economic and social oppression became more subtle, so too did the corresponding forms of opposition, creating what I call a literature of contestation or a contestatory literature.6 We witness this contestatory turn in Ana Castillo's So Far from God.

Let's first think more specifically about Ana Castillo and the cultural, historical, political, aesthetic, and regional contexts within which she wrote So Far from God, in order to provide a richer understanding of her contestatory practices. We know from Castillo's Massacre of the Dreamers: Essays on Xicanisma (1994) that Sigrid Weigel's essay, “Double Focus: On the History of Women's Writing” influenced Castillo's own writing: “In 1987 I found this article [Weigel's] immensely insightful and helpful in viewing my own works and my life as a woman writer” (236; fn 17). Given that Castillo received her Ph.D. in American Studies in 1991 from the University of Bremen, Germany, it is not odd that someone like Castillo, who identifies so closely with both her indigenous and Mexican heritage, should be influenced by a German feminist. The confluence between Weigel's feminist theory and Castillo's feminist literary practice strikes one immediately. Moreover, the majority, if not the entirety, of Castillo's contestations in So Far from God stem from the oppression of women, meriting a closer look at Weigel, whom Castillo identifies as influencing her own feminism.

In contemplating the representation of women in literature and the emergence of the woman author, Weigel traces a history of women's writing. She concerns herself with finding that space in which women can write as an “authentic” not a “second” sex. “The history of a female literary tradition,” states Weigel, “can be described as the step-by-step liberation of writing from the male perspective to an authentic women's writing and language” (64). Although the modifier “authentic” confounds precise definitions and though the term “woman” is not a homogenous one (consider issues of race, class, and sexuality), her meaning is clear. She is talking about the writing of women-defined women, female characters as presented by women. The shift away from the male perspective to a liberatory women's writing manifests itself clearly in So Far from God in which Castillo recounts the story of “a woman named Sofia and her four fated daughters.” For those readers unfamiliar with the text, Castillo's narrator conveys the, at times, supernatural story of Sofia and her four daughters, Fe (Faith), Esperanza (Hope), Caridad (Charity), and La Loca. With the exception of the inclusion of a fourth daughter, La Loca, the story of Sofia and her daughters modernizes the myth of Faith, Hope, and Charity, and their mother Sophia (Wisdom) dating back to perhaps the second century.7

So Far from God follows the lives of Sofia and her four daughters, as they pass from youth to maturity in the town of Tome. The story opens with the supposed death of La Loca and her resurrection. By the close of the text, we witness the martyrdom of each of the four daughters. As we move through the approximately 250 pages of the text, Ana Castillo, via her female narrator, writes almost exclusively of these women, with men playing, at best, supporting roles. Although Castillo certainly is not the first woman to author a woman-defined text, So Far from God, in addition to her other writings, marks the important shift from the male perspective to authentic women's writing.

Furthermore, Weigel goes on to note the efficacy of using fiction as a weapon against oppression. Noting that non-fiction critiques of patriarchy did not begin to surface until the mid-nineteenth-century, Weigel asserts that “Disguise in the form of literature gives protection as well as the chance to overstep the boundaries of the real and to postulate utopias.” “Fiction,” she continues, “is a space in which to learn to walk, to fantasize, and to experiment in order to open up a creative way out of the tension between the ‘limitations of the strategies and the unsuitability of the desires in the real lives of women’” (67). We hear in Weigel a testimony to the power of fiction as a zone of contestation.

In addition to Weigel's more general feminist positioning, Castillo situates herself and is informed by Chicana feminism, or in her terms, Xicanisma. Anglo feminism has come under attack for failing to recognize class and race differences among women. Many of the early Anglo feminists treated “woman” as a stable and homogenous category; however, as texts such as This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color (1981) attest, the experiences of women are multifarious and need to be dealt with in their fullest complexities. More specifically, the male dominated Chicano movement of the 1960s and 1970s brought many Chicanas to push for Chicana feminism. In “The Development of Chicana Feminist Discourse, 1970–1980,” Alma Garcia states that “Chicana feminists began the search for a ‘room of their own’ by assessing their participation within the Chicano movement. Their feminist consciousness emerged from a struggle for equality with Chicano men and from a reassessment of the role of the family as a means of resistance to oppressive societal conditions” (219, see also Chabram-Dernersesian, Fernandez, Garcia's Chicana Feminist Thought, Martinez, and Moraga). In So Far from God, Castillo critically refigures the role of the mother in the family, as she raises her daughters by herself. Castillo's romance circulates and participates in the ongoing discourse of Chicana feminism and is intimately linked to the Chicana and Chicano struggle: “This political movement [Chicana feminism] is inseparable from the historical experience of Chicanos in this country since 1848, an experience marked by economic exploitation as a class and systematic racial, social and linguistic discrimination designed to keep Chicanos at the bottom as a reserve pool of cheap labor” (Yarbro-Bejarano 732). So Far from God, then, must be situated in a series of interlocking aesthetic, political, and cultural discussions.

In his study of the American Renaissance, Visionary Compacts, Donald Pease suggests that in the anxious years preceding the Civil War, the American Renaissance writers looked to the nation's past to find common ground to unite the nation:

Restoring these [agreed-upon] relations meant reminding Americans of the agreements that made them possible, which meant reminding nineteenth-century Americans of the hopes, ideals, and purposes they shared with their ancestors. It meant restoring their relationship with the nation's past, and involved an acknowledgment of a living tradition of cultural ideals, begun in the past but demanding realization and renewal by subsequent generations. Such a collective memory would remind individuals of the memorable life they shared with everyone else in the community.

(x)

While Pease's writers—Hawthorne, Whitman, Poe, Emerson, and Melville—looked for past cultural agreement and commitment to restore civil order to social relations in nineteenth-century America, Castillo, writing in the romance tradition, likewise looks to the past in So Far from God for an originary myth which does not denigrate the role of women. This impulse to create or revive past mythologies is consonant with the historical inclination of the romance, which Nathaniel Hawthorne identifies as an “attempt to connect a by-gone time with the very Present that is flitting away from us. It is a Legend, prolonging itself, from an epoch now gray in the distance” (3). Castillo quests for a myth which will move women away from the role of “second sex” to the stature of “authentic sex.”

Indeed, one of the principally contested grounds in So Far from God is the subordination and oppression of women, which Castillo traces back to the Bible and the Catholic church. “I argue,” states Castillo,

that we have been forced into believing that we, as women, only existed to serve man under the guise of serving a Father God. Furthermore, our spirituality has been thoroughly subverted by institutionalized religious customs. The key to that spiritual oppression has been the repression of our sexuality, primarily through the control of our reproductive ability and bodies”

(Massacre 13).

In the service of a patriarchal religion, women have been made subordinate to their male counterparts; we need think only of Eve and the accountability thrust on her for being cast out of Eden. More directly linked to our generic discussion, we should consider the role women have played in romances dating back to the medieval quest romances. In the Roman de la Rose, the story of Virginius who murdered his daughter to keep her from Appius reappears; Chaucer also recounts this story in his “Physician's Tale.” As with Eve, women in romances have traditionally had their fates determined by men. Consequently, Castillo searches for a spirituality devoid of gender oppression.

In So Far from God, the quest for this spirituality surfaces most explicitly in the character of Caridad. Like her two older sisters, Esperanza and Fe, Caridad experiences the infidelity of man. While Caridad is pregnant with her husband Memo's child, he carries on an adulterous affair. Subsequently Caridad leaves him and begins to live it up in the bars around Tome. One evening, she is violently raped and mutilated by what is described as a supernatural force (the malogra). The rape leaves her in the hospital for three months, and it is only through the miraculous healing powers of her baby sister, La Loca, that Caridad is saved. After her recovery and a brief display of her nascent clairvoyant powers, Caridad opts to take her mare, Corazon, and move out of her parents' house. Upon vacating her parents' home, Caridad engages most fully with alternative forms of spirituality, not prescribed nor circumscribed by the practices of the Catholic church.

Accompanied by her mare, Caridad finds and rents a trailer from dona Felicia, the local curandera. Dona Felicia teaches Caridad how to be a healer, for which the key to success is invoking faith in God. Consequently, dona Felicia makes an annual pilgrimage to Chimayo during Holy Week, and she brings her new apprentice, Caridad, along with her: “She [dona Felicia] prepared a lonche to last three days, put on a cap with ‘Raiders’ written across it to protect her head from the sun, and gave another one to Caridad, signaling to her that she was going along and that was that” (72). It appears that dona Felicia and Caridad are simply readying themselves for the journey to Chimayo, yet couched within this description of their preparation lurks an indication of suspicion about this pilgrimage, namely the sartorial expression of donning “Raiders” caps: black caps with a silver and black logo of a modified skull-and-cross-bones' pirate flag. The caps suggest that this holy pilgrimage may be something less than holy; the pilgrims may be seen as raiders, encroachers on holy space. Recall that the Oakland Raiders' dynasty, dating back to the 1970s, was founded on an identity as the National Football League's nasty outsiders. The Raiders established a tradition of excellence, but in a new tenor. While the cap clearly refers to the football team, one also remembers Steven Spielberg's Indiana Jones's movies in which Jones does battle with the dubious efforts of other archaeologists and villains to recover the Holy Grail, the chalice from which Jesus drank at the last supper. The potential exists, then, for understanding the pilgrims en route to Chimayo as religious poachers.

Furthermore, the pilgrimage witnesses the first clash between institutionalized religion and indigenous spiritual practice as the narrator recounts the founding of Chimayo as a holy site:

In that valley in the Sangre de Cristo foothills nearly two centuries before, a Penitente Brother performing his penances during Holy Week ran toward a bright light coming out of the ground not far from the river. He dug at the spot where the light emitted and found a statue of Our Lord of Esquipulas.


Now, of course there are a lot of amazing aspects to this legend because Nuestro Senor de Esquipulas was the black Christ of the far-off land of the converted Indians of Esquipulas, Guatemala, and how He got to the land of the Tewa is anybody's guess! But he most certainly had a mission, which was to let people know of the healing powers of the sacred earth of Tsimayo—just like he had done in Esquipulas—so shortly after his appearance, the Catholic Church endorsed as sacred what the Native peoples had known all along since the beginning of time.

(73)

Surrounded by the legendary mist of Chimayo and Nuestro Senor de Esquipulas, the reluctant-to-attend Caridad grows interested in the pilgrimage. One cannot help but think that her growing interest stems from this alternative construction of the Christ-figure as a person of color, a black Christ. In his essay “Comrade Jesus: Postcolonial Literature and the Story of Christ,” Norman Carey asserts that this refiguration of Eurocentric Christianity has been a powerful tool of liberation for many postcolonial authors: “they subvert and replace the central figure [Jesus] in the Christian discourse they have received with ‘hybridized’ figures who are interpreted in terms of the very religions and cultures the Europeans sought to supplant. The postcolonial Jesus becomes an indigenous Jesus” (171). In its attempt to undermine through parody the hegemonic force of the church, the black Christ thus symbolizes a potentially liberatory moment for Caridad.

Further, it should also be noted that the reappearance of Nuestro Senor de Esquipulas in Chimayo marks a trail of Spanish conquest in the Americas which bleeds through in the narrator's flippant assertion that how the black Christ got to the land of the Tewa “is anybody's guess!.” The exclamation mark underscores the narrator's sarcastic tone. The Spanish Conquistadors commissioned the carving of the black Christ in 1594 in Esquipulas, Guatemala, and, upon its completion in 1595 it was placed in the local church.8 Recall that Don Juan de Onate's conquest of New Mexico began in 1595, shortly after the carving of the black Christ. Consequently, one can, without much hesitation, speculate that replicas of the black Christ made their way to North America, with the spread of Spanish colonization. Combined with this narrative of the alternative Christ figure, Castillo critiques the Catholic Church for positioning itself as the arbiter of religious affairs and for arrogantly assuming the authority to deem what counts as sacred and what as profane for the peoples of the world. This air of religious superiority informed their efforts to Christianize the “heathen” Indians.

While the legend of Nuestro Senor de Esquipulas sparks Caridad's interest in the pilgrimage, her enthusiasm wanes when she falls in love for the first time since her relationship with Memo. The narrator even glibly comments that she will focus on the story of Caridad falling in love, for it surpasses the spectacle of the pilgrimage. Ultimately, this romance becomes a narrative strategy for ruminating on creation and offering an alternate genesis myth. Incapable of approaching her new love interest, Woman-on-the-wall, Caridad returns home from the pilgrimage distracted beyond relief. dona Felicia suggests that she go to Ojo Caliente for a mineral bath and a vacation. Caridad subsequently disappears and becomes a hermit for a year, during which time the town members convince themselves that she must have saintly powers, for she was able to resist “with passive yet herculean strength” the efforts of three men to remove her from the cave. Like her sister La Loca she seems to be not of this earth. Caridad does finally make it to Ojo Caliente, where she encounters Woman-on-the-wall (also known as Esmeralda) working as an attendant at the mineral bath. By this juncture, Castillo has created such a mythical aura around Caridad that we expect nothing short of the supernormal. A brief relationship develops between Caridad and Esmeralda which culminates with their jumping off the mesa in Sky City because they hear the spirit god Tsichtintako calling. Esmeralda and Caridad are not (as they would be in a realist novel) shattered by the fall, but, rather, are subsumed by the earth, taken in whole:

But much to all their [the onlookers] surprise, there were no morbid remains of splintered bodies tossed to the ground, down, down, like bad pottery or glass or old bread. There weren't even whole bodies lying peaceful. There was nothing.


Just the spirit deity Tsichtintako calling loudly with a voice like wind, guiding the two women back, not out toward the sun's rays or up to the clouds but down, deep within the soft, moist dark earth where Esmeralda and Caridad would be safe and live forever.

(211)

One senses not a tragedy in these lines, but a romantic connection to the earth and a rebirth. A deep feeling of spirituality fills the termination of Caridad's and Esmeralda's lives, as they forsake them for a nobler spiritual union. They have returned to what the Acoma myth of creation refers to as the earth's womb (Adams Leeming 3).

The deaths of Esmeralda and Caridad for the sake of Tsichtintako provide the reader with another effort on Castillo's part to refigure the patriarchal constructions of Catholicism. Indeed, many of Castillo's contestations consist of the production of counter-narratives, narratives written against the grain of dominant discourses. The legend of Tsichtintako tells the story of creation not with woman as the second sex or as the guilty partner responsible for the eviction of humans from paradise. Rather the story of Tsichtintako and Castillo's adoption of it give us a genesis myth and romance which venerate women. The Acoma society from which this story springs is a matrilineal society; that is, ownership of property is passed down through the female. In the Acoma story of creation, two sister-spirits—later named Iatiku (Life-Bringer) and Nautsiti (Full Basket)—are born underground. Tsichtintako, a female spirit, raises them. When the appropriate time comes, the sisters are each given a basket, one contains plant seeds and the other clay sculptures of animals. With the assistance of a badger, a locust, and Tsichtintako, the sister-spirits leave the underground world to populate the world created by Uchtsiti with their plants and animals. The emphasis on women's worldly creational abilities in this narrative dramatically diverges from the dominant creation story of the Book of Genesis.9 Though the world comes from a blood clot of the male god, Uchtsiti, the sister spirits play a fundamental role in completing the creation of the world. They are, if you will, co-participants in this genesis story, which figures the Earth as a life-bearing mother from whose womb the two sisters, Iatiku and Nautsiti, usher forth.

Castillo connects her 1990s romance to the Acoma creation myth in order to question the pattern of female submission passed down through the Biblical account of creation. Indeed, the importance of this alternative genesis myth for Castillo must not be underestimated. In her essay, ‘“In the Beginning, There Was Eva,”’ she states “As Xicanistas and heiresses of a Christian based culture, the book of Genesis is the document where we may witness the male takeover of woman's autonomy” (Massacre 108). The sacrificial deaths of Esmeralda and Caridad to Tsichtintako permit Castillo to draw on the myth-making potential of the romance to reinsert an alternative creation narrative into So Far from God, countering what she identifies as the, not a, source of the loss of woman's autonomy.

With the legendary impulse of the romance, Castillo reaches back into an epoch now distant from us to unsettle the foundations of patriarchal dominance. This move to destabilize patriarchal structures exemplifies the writings of a contestatory author, for Castillo finds herself not as part of an armed movement for national liberation, but as a strong voice in an on-going struggle for social justice. Drawing on the legends of the second-century martyrs (Faith, Hope, Charity, and Sophia), of Nuestro Senor de Esquipulas, and of Tsichtintako, Castillo revitalizes and emboldens the representation of women, in the face of the ideological construction of supposed preternatural myths, such as the Christian genesis myth. Indeed, Castillo recuperates the Acoma creation myth to demonstrate the availability of alternative originary narratives and their usefulness in critiquing social domination. This polyphonic structure, the pitting, that is, of what Bakhtin has called centripetal, homogenous voices against centrifugal, heterogeneous ones, wrests control away from the hegemonizing, masculinist, creation narratives which serve to subordinate women. Thus, this act of rewriting creation places Castillo squarely in the realm of a contestatory literature, a literature which uses varying narrative strategies to oppose social domination. In a world in which gross social inequities exist, the cultural and political significance of these contestatory voices cannot be underestimated. The struggle for social justice continues.

Notes

  1. I use Castillo as an illustrative, not exhaustive, example of the shift from resistance to contestation. I am currently engaged in a book-length study which explores this shift across a much broader range of genres and writers than I am capable of exploring in this brief essay.

  2. In the case of the United States, the term resistance literature could be most adequately applied to the writing of Native Americans, especially during the early genocidal phases of US colonization, as well as to many of the slave narratives.

  3. Nabokov offers a more extensive treatment of Tijerina and the Alianza Federal de Pueblos Libres.

  4. For a more comprehensive treatment of Paredes and “The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez,” see Limon's Mexican Ballads, especially chapters 2 and 3. Saldivar's discussion of Paredes in chapter 2 of Chicano Narrative is also insightful. The interested reader will find an encyclopedic study of Chicano politics in Gomez-Quinones' two volumes.

  5. See Harvey for a thorough analysis of the shift from Fordism to flexible accumulation. For now, his brief definition of flexible accumulation will suffice: “Flexible accumulation, as I shall tentatively call it, is marked by a direct confrontation with the rigidities of Fordism. It rests on flexibility with respect to labour processes, labour markets, products and patterns of consumption. It is characterized by the emergence of entirely new sectors of production, new ways of providing financial services, new markets, and, above all, greatly intensified rates of commercial, technological, and organizational innovation. It has entrained rapid shifts in the patterning of uneven development, both between sectors and between geographical regions, giving rise, for example, to a vast surge in so-called ‘service-sector’ employment as well as to entirely new industrial ensembles in hitherto underdeveloped regions (such as the ‘Third Italy,’ Flanders, the various silicon valleys and glens, to say nothing of the vast profusion of activities in newly industrializing countries)” (147).

  6. For a similar argument about the effects of late capital and postmodernism on the Chicana/o community, an argument from which I have greatly benefited, see Limon's Dancing With the Devil, especially chapter five, “Emergent Postmodern Mexicano.”

  7. Butler offers the following account of the legend of the four martyrs:

    The Roman widow St. Wisdom and her three daughters suffered for the faith under the emperor Hadrian. According to a spurious legend St. Faith, aged twelve, was scourged, thrown into boiling pitch, taken out alive, and beheaded; St. Hope, aged ten, and St. Charity, aged nine, being unhurt in a furnace, were also beheaded; and their mother suffered while praying over the bodies of her children. Some have maintained that the whole story is a myth, but the universality of their cultus both in the East and the West suggests that there may have been early martyrs of these names. Indeed, there is reference to two groups of them; a family martyred under Hadrian and buried on the Aurelian Way, where their tomb under the church of St. Pancras was afterwards resorted to: their names were Greek Sophia, Pistis, Elpis, and Agape; and another group of martyrs of an unknown date, Sapientia, Fides, Sapes, and Caritas, buried in the cemetery of St. Callistus of the Appian Way.

    (8)

    See also the brief entries in Meagher, O'Brien, and Aheme.

  8. For a more detailed account of Nuestro Senor de Esquipulas, see Branas and Solorzano Pas.

  9. For a fuller account of the Acoma creation myth, see Adams Leeming (3–4). Weigle examines the myth in even greater detail.

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———. Massacre of the Dreamers: Essays on Xicanisma. New York: Plume, 1995.

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———. The Roots of Chicano Politics, 1600–1940. Albuquerque: U of New Mexico P, 1990.

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Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The House of Seven Gables. 1851. Rutland, VT: Everyman, 1995.

Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. 1991. Durham: Duke UP, 1993.

Limon, Jose. Mexican Ballads, Chicano Poems: History and Influence in Mexican-American Social Poetry. Berkeley and Los Angeles: U of California P, 1992.

———. Dancing with the Devil: Society and Cultural Poetics in Mexican-American South Texas. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1994.

Mandel, Ernest, Late Capitalism. London: Verson, 1980.

Martinez, Elizabeth. “Chingon Politics Die Hard: Reflections on the First Chicano Activists Reunion.” Z Magazine Apr. 1990: 46–50.

Meagher, Paul Kevin, Thomas C. O'Brien, and Sister Consuelo Maria Aheme, eds. The Roman Martyrology and Encyclopedic Dictionary of Religion. Vol. F-N. Washington, D.C.: Corpus Publications, 1979.

Moraga, Cherrie. The Last Generation: Prose and Poetry. Boston: South End Press, 1993.

Nabokov, Peter. Tijerina and the Courthouse Raid. 1969. Berkeley: Ramparts Press, 1970.

Paredes, Americo. With His Pistol in His Hand: A Border Ballad and Its Hero. 1958. Austin: U of Texas P, 1988.

Pas Solorzano, Juan. Historia del Santo Cristo de Esquipulas. 2nd ed. Guatemala de la Asuncion: n.p., 1943.

Pease, Donald. Visionary Compacts: American Renaissance Writings in Cultural Context. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1987.

Saenz, Benjamin Alire. “Cebolleros.” Flowers for the Broken. Seattle: Broken Moon P, 1992. 3–16.

Saldivar, Ramon. Chicano Narrative: The Dialectics of Difference. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1990.

Weigel, Sigrid. “Double Focus: On the History of Women's Writing.” Feminist Aesthetics. Trans. Harriet Anderson. Ed. Gisela Ecker. Boston: Beacon, 1985. 59–80.

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Silvio Sirias and Richard McGarry (essay date Summer 2000)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7030

SOURCE: “Rebellion and Tradition in Ana Castillo's So Far from God and Sylvia López-Medina's Cantora,” in MELUS, Vol. 25, No. 2, Summer, 2000, p. 83.

[In the following essay, Sirias and McGarry compare Castillo's So Far from God and Sylvia López-Medina's Cantora, noting similar characters and situations in both novels, but contrasting the characters' responses and actions.]

The Chicana “voice” in literature, according to Ramón Saldivar, comprises a discourse that creates “an instructive alternative to the exclusively phallocentric subject of contemporary Chicano narrative” (175). As Cordelia Chávez Candelaria reports, Chicana/Latina and other women writers have struggled for centuries to attain the right “to express and assert the validity of woman-space and the textured zone of women's experience” (26). Over the last two decades, the body of work that Chicana novelists have contributed to the totality of Chicano artistic discourse has managed to expand the formally predominant socio-political themes of the text so that it now includes the politics of gender. In the process, the Chicana novel has appropriated topics considered taboo in Latino culture: physical and sexual abuse, and heterosexual and lesbian sexuality (Arias and Gonzales-Berry 649). This new discourse is rebellious and can at times become very subversive. Its exploration of previously censored areas holds up an unforgiving mirror to the patriarchal practices of Chicano/Latino culture. Alvina Quintana asserts, while referring directly to Ana Castillo's writings, that the Chicana feminist is “interested in scrutinizing the assumptions that root her own cultural influences, unpacking so called traditions and political institutions that shape patriarchal ways of seeing” (“The Novelist” 74).

Although most Chicana novelists address similar feminist preoccupations in their writings, they employ vastly different discursive strategies in their narratives. They may tell similar stories, but the form, vision, and tone with which they approach their objective reflect the heterogeneity that exists in the Chicana novel. Evidence of this difference arises when we compare Ana Castillo's So Far from God (1994) and Sylvia López-Medina's Cantora (1993). Both works tell of the losses and hardships in the lives of the female characters, and of how these women find the strength to survive. Nevertheless, the discourses that Castillo and López-Medina employ reside at opposite ends of the narrative spectrum. So Far from God is a novel that incites rebellion against the norms and values of Chicano patriarchal society while Cantora, although calling for changes, always does so within a framework that respects centuries' worth of traditions and cultural beliefs. This essay compares the importance that naming, gender relations, and religion play in the development of the female characters. It also examines how the novelistic discourse of Castillo and López-Medina either calls for rebellion or demonstrates a deep respect for tradition.

In Women Singing in the Snow, Tey Diana Rebolledo recognizes the importance that naming plays in the “struggle for interpretive power.” A central concept in marginalized American cultures, naming describes and therefore expresses the identity of the named. Under patriarchy, naming constitutes a tool of domination through its power to symbolically confine the named within the parameters of an imposed gender identity. Naming, however, can also function as a tool for empowering self-definition, a means by which to redefine women's identity and reject imposed descriptions of the self. Rebolledo states that “Chicanas are very much engaged in an articulation of accurate naming and the acceptance of all the cultural and social premises that lie behind the ‘names’” (103). Ana Castillo's So Far from God reflects the positive dynamics of naming. The novel has Sofia, the embodiment of “wisdom,” at its core, a mother who survives the death of her four daughters: Esperanza, Fe, Caridad, and La Loca. The names of the first three daughters denote the three major Christian ideals. However, in the cruelest of ironies, the destiny of each of these characters is the antithesis of the ideal the name represents.

Esperanza, the most liberated of the sisters, devotes the energy of her college years to the Chicano Movement. She lives her life as a glowing example of La Raza Politics, working to better the lives of her people. But her death as a television reporter covering the Gulf Crisis is utterly meaningless. The reader is left without any hope or, better yet, “Esperanza,” of finding redemption in this character's demise.

Fe, the sister who most subscribes to the traditions of her culture, desires nothing more than to participate fully in society's patriarchal mandate for women to marry and serve their husbands.1 When her first fiancé, Tom, bails out of their engagement, she surrenders to her first crisis of faith and of identity. Her reaction to her disillusionment humorously becomes known to the members of her family as the era of “El Big Grito,” which consisted of “one loud continuous scream that would have woken the dead” (30). For months after she is jilted, Fe is unable to produce any discourse other than the scream. As a result of the straining of her vocal cords during her crisis, Fe is left with a speech impediment whereby she cannot vocalize every word in a sentence.2 Although “El Big Grito” disqualifies Fe from realizing her potential (for instance, she is refused a promotion at work), she does find a man who will fulfill her dream of marrying: her cousin Casimiro. He is completely devoted to her, and together they plan a blissful future. In order to secure this, however, Fe leaves her safe position at the bank for a higher paying job at an arms manufacturing company. She tackles her work with her usual diligence and earns a promotion. Thus, her faith in the American Way of Life is rewarded. This “promotion,” however, proves fatal as the company exposes her to a hazardous chemical that causes her death from cancer. In the end, the faith that Fe places in the basic tenets of society and its culture completely fails her. Thus, faith also becomes meaningless.

Caridad, after being abandoned by her husband, became known for “loving anyone she met at the bars who vaguely resembled Memo” (27). Because of her promiscuous life, she is brutally raped and disfigured by a mysterious and misogynist spirit identity known as the “malogra.” In this manner, Caridad's charity towards men is severely punished.3 However, she heals miraculously and from that moment on, she no longer has an interest in men. Caridad becomes an apprentice curandera, and during a religious pilgrimage with her mentor, she spots a woman with whom she instantly falls in love. Caridad never reconciles herself with her homosexual feelings until she suddenly and dramatically leaps off of a cliff while holding hands with Esmeralda, the object of her affection, as they are being pursued by Francisco el Penitente, Caridad's obsessed stalker.4 Those who witness the jump search for the bodies, but they are never found. What the witnesses do hear, however, is:

the spirit deity Tsichtinako calling loudly with a voice like wind, guiding the two women back, not out toward the sun's rays or up to the clouds but down, deep within the soft moist dark earth where Esmeralda and Caridad would be safe and live forever.

(211)

An ancient Pre-Columbian god emerges at the appropriate moment and wholly embraces the lovers, taking them into mother earth's womb where they can become one and live in peace.5 There they will dwell far from society's condemnation of their relationship, and be free to plant the seeds of their affection.6 In spite of her life-affirming end, Caridad constitutes a pharmakos for the community of Tome. Her lesbianism is unacceptable, and she is sacrificed in order to purify patriarchal society.

La Loca is without question the most intriguing of the sisters. Dead at age three, she resurrects and is immediately believed to possess miraculous powers. The residents of Tome accept the young girl's return from the dead as being of a divine nature and they dub her “La Loca Santa.” Following her return, however, she shuns human contact and only lets her mother touch her. She also rarely speaks, but her resurrection has spoken volumes for her. La Loca is the embodiment of a miracle; she cannot be preoccupied with the mundane task of finding a job, like her sisters. She remains at home, content in her solitude. Her household chores are to tend her animals, keep the house clean, and cook. She does, though, assist in the healing of Fe and Caridad, and she performs abortions for the latter because La Loca instinctively “knew all about a woman's pregnancy cycle” (164). Toward the novel's end, she becomes ill and is diagnosed with the HIV virus, even though she had never participated in any activity commonly associated with its acquisition. La Loca's virtually unexplainable illness becomes one of the novel's most subversive moments in terms of its discourse. It represents a remarkable case of aporia. The gap between the linguistic and the philosophical coherence of the event causes the text to resist interpretation. Such subversion serves not only to reverse interpretation, but also to open the text to a myriad of possibilities, thus making the text undecidable while at the same time challenging the patriarchal quest for systematization.

Ultimately, La Loca's destiny, like those of her sisters, is to die at an early age. On a surreal death pilgrimage to an Albuquerque hospital, the people canonize her and eventually declare her the patron saint of kitchens, new brides, and progressive grooms. La Loca's life, then, is characterized by her first death, resurrection, contraction of AIDS without human contact, and her canonization. After the deaths of hope, faith, and charity, the three theological ideals of the Church, and the death of what can arguably be construed as the female personification of Jesus Christ in the personage of La Loca, all that remains is Sofia's wisdom.

In this tale of the lives and deaths of Sofia's daughters, Castillo destroys several powerful archetypes of patriarchal society in order to build the world anew. A timid character at the novel's onset, Sofia begins to awaken as a character when she declares to her comadre that she will run for “La Mayor of Tome.” Her discourse from this point on becomes assertive. She organizes several collectives and the women of Tome benefit as a result. Sofia begins to devote herself to the good of the collective. Through her efforts her fellow citizens gain a class consciousness and become acutely aware of the political and material conditions of their existences. She also awakens the women of Tome, and although she suffers the loss of her four daughters, in the end she gains wisdom. When a set of tarot cards is created to commemorate “La Loca Santa,” Sofia is “simultaneously represented by the Empress card and by the Queen of Swords, a quick-witted, dance-loving strong woman who was nevertheless powerless to the sorrow she suffered” (250). With her hard-earned wisdom and her newly-discovered talents for social activism, Sofia founds M.O.M.A.S. (“Mothers of Martyrs and Saints”). This organization, by its very nature, excludes men, and its yearly convention becomes more popular than the World Series and the Olympics. By establishing this organization, Sofia has created a social movement that outshines any male-dominated one. With the painful lessons learned throughout her life, she empowers women like herself who have long suffered, and with their help she sets out to redefine society. Her actions represent a call for women to rebel against patriarchal practices, and that call resides at the heart of the novel's practice in naming.7

The relationship between the names of the predominant female characters and their actions is also important in Sylvia López-Medina's Cantora. The story gravitates around Amparo, the book's narrator, who tells us of her quest to reconstruct her family's history. With regard to this character, Rebolledo writes:

López-Medina's narrative hero reconstructs a history of her family as well as an identity for herself. Her name, appropriately, is Amparo, from the Spanish Amparar, meaning to help, to assist, to shelter. It is through her “translation” of the not-said, of the silence in the stories told to her by her great-grandmother, grandmother, and mother that she comes to understand the family secrets—to identify and name them—thus liberating herself as well as the women who have preceded her in the family clan.

(199)

This pattern of women struggling to liberate themselves, to determine their own futures, repeats itself throughout the novel. Rosario, Amparo's great-grandmother, claims her life for herself. In fact, the familiar usage of the name Rosario means “backbone.” Her “backbone” enables her to flee from her father's control. Rosario eventually faces the hardships of a young widow with six children with strength and resolve. It is thanks to her fortitude and bravery that they endure.

The narrative then turns its focus upon Pilar, the “pillar” of the story. Left at an early age in a convent, she grows up in a silent and peaceful environment, completely isolated from the society that exists beyond the walls of the religious institution. Later in the narrative, with Pilar unable to fend for herself, her family enters into a contract with a wealthy store-owner that provides the young girl with enough financial support for the remainder of her life. This includes the purchase of a house that he places in her name. All of this is given in return for allowing Pilar to become his mistress, though eventually they will fall genuinely in love. Several years later, after Gabriel's death, Pilar's inherited wealth allows her to help her family move to Santa Barbara, California. As a young woman with economic means, Pilar flexes her muscles before the traditions of patriarchal society and becomes the decision-maker in her family. Perhaps most importantly, she constitutes the bridge that allows the family's tale to span across four generations.

Amparo, the novel's narrator, grows up in admiration of her “Aunt” Pilar's storytelling abilities:

There was always a hush when Pilar related the family's history. As a child, I sat quietly while she told me of her memories of the tiny Mexican village where she was born. There are Yaqui Indians in her memories, swooping down into the village, taking food and every young girl they could find. There are villages burned and families moving on to other places to rebuild their lives. There is the love story, the magical love story of my aunt; and there are the brutal deaths of her father and older brother. There is the exodus to western Mexico, a trek by my twenty-three-year-old Grandmother Rosario and her six remaining small children through a mountain range. There is the survival. This is the story of that survival, my Grandmother Rosario's and my Aunt Pilar's.

(2)

As we can see, Amparo's narrative acknowledges that Pilar's tales are the foundation of her work.8 Motivated by certain gaps, or more appropriately, deliberate silences in her Aunt Pilar's stories, and by ongoing events in her own life, Amparo begins to investigate in earnest her maternal family's history. She discovers that her life parallels many of the tales that she uncovers about her family. Like the women in her family who preceded her, Amparo finds the strength to cope with life's difficulties after the death of her mate, and she states that she will raise her daughter with the same values and traditions as the women before her.9 Through the strength and caring reflected in their names, the characters protect their legacy throughout the generations. As the narrative voice explicitly states. Cantora is a simple tale of survival. Its discourse is not overtly rebellious or subversive. In contrast to So Far from God, the meaning of the story rests upon the surface, at the grasp of every reader.

In both novels, the female characters and their stories need to be examined in opposition to their male counterparts. The men represent patriarchy's systematic domination of women as achieved and maintained through male control of cultural, social, and economic institutions. In So Far from God, Castillo creates a cast of male characters who are, in essence, emasculated. Sofia's husband, Domingo, an addicted gambler, cannot earn a living or fix a thing. His sole purpose in the household is to watch television and decipher Caridad's cryptic episodes of clairvoyance so he can place winning bets. Eventually, he begins gambling away Sofia's property, and when she discovers her own assertive voice, she serves him with divorce papers, and Domingo meekly disappears from the narrative.

Her daughter, Esperanza, had one love in her life: her college sweetheart Rubén. He holds a formidable spell over Esperanza and controls her until she wises up and leaves him to pursue her career. In the end, after Esperanza's death, Rubén becomes a pathetic figure who, sad and alone, remembers how the days with most meaning in his life were those of his youth spent observing and admiring Esperanza's militancy in the cause of La Raza:

Back in college, if it wasn't for la Esperanza who led the protest, they never would have had one Chicano Studies class offered on the curriculum. If it wasn't for la Esperanza, who would have known about the struggle of the United Farm Workers on campus? Who would have ever told him about anything at all?

(239)

Without Esperanza to open his eyes, Rubén would have seen very little. Now, without her, he will see nothing and therefore signify even less.10

Fe has two men in her life. The first one, Tom, breaks his engagement with Fe, prompting the era of “El Big Grito.” When Sofia visits Tom's house in search of an explanation for the breakup, his mother informs her that Tom has become a victim of susto, or, simply put, cold feet. In response, Sofia angrily questions Tom's manhood: “¿Susto? ¿Susto? … You think that cowardly son of yours without pelos on his maracas has susto” (30). Tom's destiny following his relationship with Fe is to lead a desperate, lonely life, where he remains forever locked into repairing Big Slurpy machines as the manager of a convenience store. Fe's second love is her cousin, Casimiro, a man totally and hopelessly devoted to her. Although college-educated, or perhaps because he is college-educated, Casimiro is as meek as men come. A soft-spoken man, his gentle discourse includes bleating like a sheep, a trait inherited over seven generations of sheepherding. As Fe becomes increasingly ill, Casimiro is too timid to urge her to seek medical attention, and he waits until Sofia intervenes. By then it is too late.

By far the most intriguing male character in So Far from God is Francisco el Penitente. A Vietnam veteran who after the war loses himself in drugs and failed relationships, Francisco finds his calling as a santero, a maker of bultos (figures of saints carved from wood), whose creations are guided by divine inspiration. It does not take long before Francisco el Penitente becomes a religious fanatic. He deprives himself of all worldly pleasures and lives his entire life in penance. He meets Caridad after she has taken on the identity of “La Armitana,” the hermit who lived for a year in seclusion in a cave, and he falls hopelessly and platonically in love with her.11 He dubs Caridad “The Handmaiden of Christ” and projects qualities of sainthood upon her. He imagines her pure and virginal, a strong confirmation of one of Castillo's beliefs that society forces Chicanas to deny their sexuality: “Most of our female saints, maintained as our models,” notes Castillo, “established their beatitude as a result of the repudiation of sex” (“La Macha” 33).

Francisco el Penitente, however, is diametrically opposed to his gentle namesake, Saint Francis of Assisi. Obsessed with Caridad, Francisco el Penitente begins stalking her, and while spying on her he discovers her secret passion for Esmeralda. At first, Francisco's distant relationship indicates a simple case of scopophilia. His voyeurism appears to be an intermediary stage along the path to some sort of sexual/religious fulfillment. However, Caridad's lesbianism violates the patriarchal codes to which he strongly subscribes, and he perversely snaps. Castillo implies that his fanatical pursuit and condemnation of their homosexuality force the women to leap from the cliff. Like Judas Iscariot, Francisco el Penitente is incapable of forgiving himself for the extreme act to which he drove Caridad and he hangs himself from a tree. As we can observe, the male characters in So Far from God are either powerless beings, completely lacking in fortitude, or zealots, as in the case of Francisco el Penitente, who will go to any length to protect male dominance in our society.12

The males in Cantora, on the other hand, loom powerful over the female characters. They intimidate and dominate the women, thus behaving fully within the accepted parameters of Chicano/Latino society and culture. In family decisions, the men's desires always supercede those of the women. In spite of this, genuinely caring relationships develop between men and women. Both sets of characters subscribe to the codes of patriarchy. Because of those shared values, deep emotional connections between the genders are allowed to be made. Alejandro, Rosario's husband, tells her after she flees from her father: “It is all right, Rosario. It will be all right. I am going to take care of you now” (37). This leitmotif recurs throughout the successive generations of women.

Following Alejandro's death, Rosario takes responsibility for her family, but she later abdicates this when her eldest son, Victorio, becomes old enough to make the decisions. It is Victorio who negotiates the contract with Don Gabriel so that the wealthy merchant can “take care of Pilar, as if she were (his) wife” (137). It is also Victorio who takes away Pilar and Gabriel's child and invents an elaborate story so that the child may be raised in legitimacy. Victorio is dispassionate and controlling as the substitute father figure. Rosario, adhering to tradition, relinquishes all control of the family to her son. Even as a weakened old man, when Amparo confronts him in search of the truth, Victorio constitutes a terrifying entity: “He looked at Amparo sternly, and she was just as frightened of him then as she was when she was a child. Sitting in his chair, he was still an imposing man, dominating, controlling everyone in his line of vision” (262). His power as head of the family extends far into the clan's horizon. In the end, Amparo liberates him from his fabrication at the same time that she assures him that he did “the right thing” (269). Although his choices afflicted everyone in the family, Amparo forgives him in the name of tradition and honor.

Genuine love and concern for one another characterize Gabriel and Pilar's union. The wealthiest person in Hermosillo, Gabriel literally buys Pilar. Yet he gently wins her affection, his patience being rewarded on the day that he brings her a simple gift of flowers that they plant together in the courtyard. He provides generously for Pilar's well-being. His death, although devastating to Pilar, allows her to move along and discover her strong, independent self.

Peter, the man in Amparo's life, is, like the other men in Cantora, a dominating figure. Also a wealthy individual, he provides for his mate. Upon Peter's death, Amparo realizes what his loss means to her because “He always took care of everything” (246). Her abbreviated union with John, Peter's friend, permits her to look at her life from a new perspective, and she realizes that she does not need a man in order to grow and be happy. She, like the other women in her family, finds within herself the strength to continue her life independently.

The man who establishes himself as the most dominant male figure in Cantora is Amparo's great-grandfather, Don Ramón. A Spanish aristocrat, he adheres fully to Old World traditions of male dominance. He “loved and ruled over Pilar (his wife) for the twenty-one turbulent years that ended in her death at the age of thirty-eight” (60). He arranges a marriage for his daughter and forbids his wife to voice her opinion on the matter. The narrative describes him as being “proud, stern, and forceful” (33) as well as cold and aloof. With his sense of honor violated when Rosario refuses his marriage arrangement and instead runs away from home with a commoner, he cannot find forgiveness in his heart for this transgression. He sends his daughter and grandchildren on a trek across the Sierra Madre that nearly costs them their lives. In what the reader may consider a case of divine retribution, Don Ramón dies alone and senile, hallucinating in a world full of distant ghosts. In spite of their overwhelming dominance, the male figures in Cantora are, with the exception of Don Ramón, caring individuals who operate respectably, and forcefully when necessary, within the narrow confines of their social paradigms. They are extremely protective of their mates, and it is upon their premature deaths that the women embark on journeys that lead them to the discovery of their inner strength and independence.

Both novels also explore the most formidable force in the Hispanic patriarchal universe: the Catholic Church. Indeed, the discourse in So Far from God constitutes a direct confrontation with Catholicism. In an interview with Marta A. Navarro, Castillo states: “One of the guiding principles in our life is Catholicism. And as much as we try not to subscribe to it, it's completely permeated into our psyche” (119). Indeed, Catholicism and its principles loom significantly and oppressively in Castillo's work. From the novel's title to the basic tenets that Castillo deconstructs through her archetypal female characters, the church is the focus of an aggressive attack. Father Jerome, the priest of Tome, questions whether La Loca's resurrection is of divine or Satanic origins. Sofia responds to his query by “calling the holy priest a pendejo [“pubic hair”] and hitting him” (24). To counterbalance Francisco el Penitente's fanatical devotion to Catholicism and its patriarchal structure, Sofia creates M.O.M.A.S. (Mothers of Martyrs and Saints). This purely matriarchal response will determine for itself the religious beliefs of the women who join the organization. Castillo's authorial stance makes it evident that the Church's strong patriarchal posture and its binary philosophical system alienates Hispanic American women. Castillo's characters seek inclusion, freedom of action, and freedom of thought within the Catholic Church. Yet, what they find in So Far from God is the condemnation of their humanity rather than its exaltation.

Cantora also portrays Catholicism as unresponsive to the needs of women. The priests in López-Medina's novel are just as ineffectual as they are in Castillo's work. A village priest is too cowardly to protect the women and children from the Yaqui raids. He later informs them that during the next raid no one is to seek refuge in the church, leaving the villagers to fend for themselves. Another church serves as a refuge for Rosario and her family after they cross the treacherous Sierra Madre. However, this protection is ephemeral. When Rosario seeks the church's help in caring for her children while she establishes herself in Hermosillo, the convent director reluctantly agrees to take care of only one child, obliging Rosario to leave Pilar there alone. But the church fails to protect her as Pilar is raped while in the convent's care. By the time the family arrives in the United States, Catholicism no longer plays an important part in their lives. Amparo recalls her great-grandmother Rosario performing her own worship services, made up of ancient Mayan religious practices with Christian undertones, which the young girl finds much more genuine and meaningful than the empty rituals of the Masses performed at the Catholic school that she attends. As with the female characters of So Far from God, the female characters of Cantora find that the church has little relevance in their lives. Although they do not venture so far as to show disrespect, they withdraw from this oppressive institution that seeks to negate their independence.

As we have observed up to this point, So Far from God revolves around the theme of rebellion. The novel even rebels against the normative use of language for narrative.13 Traditionalists would accuse Castillo of abusing or ignoring the proper use of English grammar.14 Castillo's sentences repeatedly employ double negatives, and in at least two cases a triple negative [“The truth of it was that she was just truly a santita from ever since her fatal experience at the age of three and she didn't have to prove nothing to no one” (248); “Nobody and nothing able to know what was going on around them no more” (189)]. Castillo, however, does code-switch with great imagination and agility. The language that Castillo employs clearly coincides with her artistic goal: to write a novel that narrates the story of women who rebel against the norms imposed on them by patriarchal society.

In contrast, the discourse employed in Cantora reveals the profound respect that López-Medina has for the traditional narrative. Her language usage is evocative. She strives to place the reader in the midst of a world governed by traditions that must be respected and held dearly, and she succeeds. However, her language, at times, can be excessively formal and, unfortunately, contrived. The author seldom uses contractions, even in the most informal situations of dialogue. Code-switching is non-existent, and she translates terms of endearment from Spanish into English (“My little sky,” “My heart,” “My little one”). Yet again, this matches perfectly with the novel's macro-discursive strategy of narrating a tale of survival in the midst of the restrictions placed on women by outmoded traditions while in the same instance realizing the need to approach these with respect. López-Medina recognizes that customs, values, beliefs, styles, and other forms of culture are passed down from one generation to the next, as well as the feeling, both encouraged and resented, that this inheritance should be respected for the important influence that is exerts on the present.

In contrast, So Far from God constitutes a modern-day allegory that attacks tradition. It is a narrative that has multiple meanings, several of which are partially concealed by the visible or literal meaning. Castillo incorporates abstractions into her novel that are present in society and religion and presents them in the form of the leading female characters. Therefore, Sofia and her daughters represent archetypes. They are models of certain important continuities of Hispanic American life throughout time. The difference lies in that now women have the choice of whether to pass on the traditions or break the hold that these have over them. The narrative of So Far from God represents what Quintana labels the “literature of new vision.” This literature holds “the possibility for real social change and transformation” (Home Girls 89). This is why the reader is not deeply moved by the deaths of Sofia's daughters. The reader remains aware, whether consciously or unconsciously, that Castillo is destroying abstractions and not people. Furthermore, this story extends well beyond its conclusion. Its dianoia, or general meaning, is archetypal. In the end, what matters most upon reading the last page of the book is Sofia's potential to transform society.15

Cantora, on the other hand, employs a discourse that is soothing, gently embracing the emotions of the reader. Perhaps it is the narrator of the story who describes it best as she invites us during the novel's prologue to become immersed in her tale:

My name is Amparo. Join me here with my aunt. Sit here beside us. Cover yourself with this quilt. My grandmother Rosario made it. Warm yourself with it. The mystery of our lives is to be found in its varicolored threads. I will share the tears and the triumphs of these lives. I will show you how to survive anything. We will show you how to survive everything.

(2)

What the reader encounters here is a promise of warmth and comfort in this tale. There is also the explicit promise of learning skills vital for us all: the skill to survive and the skill to protect and shelter our own stories. Cantora reads like a wonderful lesson, with all the traditions and culture that the art of quilt-making involves. The novel stands for what Quintana terms the “literature of apology.” This literature “is liberal in the sense that it develops the argument that traditions and cultural values kept women from developing to their full potential” (Home Girls 39).

So Far from God is rebellious; Cantora seeks comfort in tradition. Still, they tell the same story of women who discover their inner-strength and independence as they confront enormous sorrows. In addition, each text directly challenges what Saldivar refers to as “the ideologies of patriarchal oppression” (173). Both writers admirably represent their communities at the same time that they illustrate the vast heterogeneity that exists in Chicana literary discourse. As Rebolledo states:

Chicana writers have struggled to become the subjects of their own discourse, … they have created not only a discourse of resistance to the dominant culture in multiple subversive ways, but also a dialogue of affirmation that sees the positive sides of self, family, culture and community.

(208)

The success that Ana Castillo's and Sylvia López-Medina's novels have found with major publishing companies is an indication that Chicana discourse is becoming respected and valued by the dominant reading community that has long neglected the Chicana/Latina artistic voice. Both authors fulfill the demand that Trujillo makes of all Chicanas: “Chicanas, both lesbian and heterosexual, have a dual purpose ahead of us. We must fight for our own voices as women, since this will ultimately serve to uplift us a people” (124).16

Notes

  1. Trujillo best describes the possible consequences for women who, like Fe, rely on a male to establish their identity: “Women who participate in the privileges of a male sexual alliance may often do so at the cost of their own sense of self, since they must often subvert their needs, voice, intellect, and personal development in these alliances” (119).

  2. In the text, morphemes, function words, and a few content words are omitted leaving the reader, the interpreter of the discourse, with the responsibility of filling in the empty spaces.

  3. Gonzales-Berry finds suffering similar to that of Caridad to be a common component of feminist literary discourse: “Trials leading to sexual maturity are important components of the bildungsroman. In the female version, however, coming to terms with sexuality is often more difficult and painful than it is for the male protagonists” (42).

  4. Caridad's secrecy about her homosexuality reflects Castillo's belief that: “Because of the strict social attitudes towards open sexual expression, most lesbians of our culture have not politicized their desires nor declared them openly as a way of life” (Interview by Navarro 37).

  5. The event that Castillo narrates falls well within the parameters of magical realism, which Walter considers an integral part of the Chicano novel: “the Chicano magical realism is a fusion of two conflicting views of reality, the rational mode which is centered upon reasoning … and the magical mode which is centered on the unconscious, dreams and imaginations—a mode grounded on the Chicano's Hispanic and Indian Heritage” (136).

  6. Chicano/Latino society remains unaccepting of homosexuality. The women's life-affirming plunge reflects Castillo's hope that society can one day accept the validity of homosexual feelings: “if we cannot claim anything for ourselves, let us begin at least the gradual process of integration of the mind, soul and body, however we can, and make our principal struggle one toward which we ultimately experience the beauty of our whole selves—an organic, unified entity rejoicing in our connection with all living things on earth” (Interview by Navarro 47).

  7. Castillo, in an interview conducted by Saeta, explains her authorial intent in the following quote: “In the early Christian medieval mythology, they've taken Sofia, who is a Greek goddess, and her daughters and turned them into martyrs. At the very ending of that story of the martyrs, Sofia is on the grave crying for her three martyred daughters. So that's how I originally ended my story. But my agent, who was reading the manuscript commented that ‘Well, this is very depressing. You know, you promised Norton a happy ending.’ So I thought, ‘what would she [Sofia] do to change that, particularly as a religious figure. What would she do?’ She takes over, she doesn't submit to that point in history when patriarchy took over her authority” (8).

  8. Eysturoy reminds us that there is an inherent danger in Amparo's acceptance of Pilar as a role model: “In a patriarchal context, … the relationship between mother and daughter is charged with ambiguities, because accepting the mother as a role model may signify accepting oppressive, socially prescribed norms of womanhood” (116).

  9. Amparo's societal stance falls into the following category of feminism defined by Pesquera and Segura: “Chicana Cultural Nationalism articulates a feminist vision anchored in the ideology of la familia. While advocating feminism this perspective retains allegiance to cultural nationalism which glorifies Chicana culture. Chicana Cultural Nationalism overlooks the possibility that these cultural traditions often uphold patriarchy. This speaks to the difficulty of reconciling a critique of gender relations within the Chicano community while calling for the preservation of Chicano culture” (107–108).

  10. The dynamic among Esperanza, Rubén, and the La Raza Movement, reveals Castillo's personal frustration when she was a socially committed young woman: “As a political activist from El Movimiento Chicano/Latino, I had come away from it with a great sense of despair as a woman. Inherent to my despair, I felt, was a physiology that was demeaned, misunderstood, objectified, and excluded by the politic of those men with whom I had aligned myself on the basis of our mutual subjugation as Latinos in the United States” (Interview by Navarro, 124).

  11. Caridad withdrew from society because of her guilt about homosexuality. Caridad's withdrawal embodies the premise that Trujillo espouses: “A Chicana lesbian must learn to love herself, both as a woman and a sexual being, before she can love another (118).

  12. The acts of Francisco el Penitente typify the fears that Chicano society at large have toward lesbians. This is evident in the following statement by Trujillo: “The vast majority of Chicano heterosexuals perceive Chicana lesbians as a threat to the community. Homophobia, that is, irrational fear of gay or lesbian people and behaviors, accounts for part of the heterosexist response to the lesbian community. However, I argue that Chicana lesbians are perceived as a greater threat to the Chicano community because their existence disrupts the established order of male dominance, and raises the consciousness of many Chicano women regarding their own independence and control” (117).

  13. In reference precisely to Castillo's subversive discourse, Yarbro-Bejarano states: “Writing the Chicana ‘I’ questions the authority of dominant discourses, and resists the appropriation of the knowing subject either male or female that ‘forgets’ race and class oppression. Chicana writers', like Castillo's, struggle to claim the ‘I’ of literary discourse is inseparable from their struggle for empowerment in the economic, social, and political spheres” (72).

  14. The following quote from Saeta's interview reveals Castillo's attitude towards traditionalists who teach both English and Spanish: “I decided that I would never ever take a class with anybody or any university … because I was so afraid that I would be discouraged and told that I had no right to be writing poetry, that I didn't write English well enough, that I didn't write Spanish well enough. Now, I don't have the fear as much because I suppose I've learned—after 20 years on my own—to have an eye for what I want to do in my work” (6).

  15. Although Castillo, not known for her happy endings, had yet to write So Far from God, she foresaw at the time of Navarro's interview the possibility of providing a hopeful ending in her future works: “I have been asked why I don't portray some of my figures in a happy state, and obviously, I don't see us living in a happy state. We're bombarded by so much. But now that we've survived, there's a possibility to introduce that, even if only in terms of a vision” (114).

  16. The authors would like to acknowledge their indebtedness to their colleague, Professor Judith Rothschild, for her valuable comments with regard to the content and form of this essay.

Works Cited

Arias, Santa, and Erlinda Gonzales-Berry. “Latino Writing in the United States.” Handbook of Latin American Literature. Ed. David William Foster. 2nd ed. New York: Garland, 1987.

Castillo, Ana. Interview with Ana Castillo by Marta A. Navarro. Chicana Lesbians: The Girls Our Mothers Warned Us About. Ed. Carla Trujillo. Berkeley: Third Woman P, 1991.113–32.

———. Interview with Ana Castillo by Elsa Sacra. Baneke: A Latino Arts and Literature Review 2 (1995): 6–11.

———. “La Macha: Toward a Beautiful Whole Self.” Chicana Lesbians: The Girls Our Mothers Warned Us About. Ed. Carla Trujillo. Berkeley: Third Woman P, 1991.24–48.

———. So Far from God. New York: Plume, 1994.

Chávez Candelaria, Cordelia. “The ‘Wild Zone’ Thesis as Gloss in Chicana Literary Study.” Chicana Critical Issues. Ed. Norma Alarcón et al. Berkeley: Third Woman P, 1993.21–31.

Eysturoy, Annie O. Daughters of Self-Creation: The Contemporary Chicana Novel. Albuquerque: U of New Mexico P, 1996.

Gonzales-Berry, Erlinda. “Unveiling Athena: Women in the Chicano Novel.” Chicana Critical Issues. Ed. Norma Alarcón et al. Berkeley: Third Woman P, 1993.33–44.

López-Medina, Sylvia. Cantora. New York: Ballantine, 1993.

Pesquera, Beatriz M., and Denise A. Segura. “There Is No Going Back: Chicanas and Feminism.” Chicana Critical Issues. Ed. Norma Alarcón et al. Berkeley: Third Woman P, 1993.95–115.

Quintana, Alvina E. “Ana Castillo's The Mixquiahuala Letters: The Novelist as Ethnographer.” Criticism in the Borderlands: Studies in Chicano Literature, Culture, and Ideology. Ed. Héctor Calderón and José David Saldívar. Durham: Duke U P, 1991.72–83.

———. Home Girls: Chicana Literary Voices. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 1996.

Rebolledo, Tey Diana. Women Singing in the Snow: A Cultural Analysis of Chicana Literature. Tucson: U Of Arizona P, 1995.

Saldívar, Ramón. “The Dialetics of Subjectivity: Gender and Difference in Isabella Ríos, Sandra Cisneros, and Cherríe Moraga.” Chicano Narrative: The Dialectics of Difference. Ed. Ramón Saldívar. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1990. 171–99.

Trujillo, Carla. “Chicana Lesbians: Fear and Loathing in the Chicano Community.” Chicana Critical Issues. Ed. Norma Alarcón et al. Berkeley: Third Woman P, 1993. 117–25.

Walter, Roland. Magical Realism in Contemporary Chicano Fiction. Frankfurt am Main: Vervuet Verlag, 1993.

Yarbro-Bejarano, Yvonne. “The Multiple Subject in the Writing of Ana Castillo.” The Americas Review 20.1 (1992): 65–72.

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