Elena Garro Criticism - Essay

Robert K. Anderson (essay date spring 1985)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Anderson, Robert K. “Myth and Archetype in Recollections of Things to Come.Studies in 20th Century Literature 9, no. 2 (spring 1985): 213-27.

[In the following essay, Anderson finds that the Mexican social landscape is secondary to larger existential issues in Garro's Recollections of Things to Come.]

Recollections of Things to Come (1963), Elena Garro's first published novel, vividly portrays life in a small Mexican town, Ixtepec, during the late 1920s. In part, it focuses upon a broad gamut of regional phenomena; yet, in the words of Emmanuel Carballo, “the social relations, economy, politics and religion” depicted therein merely “occupy a secondary position.”1 Essentially, although Garro presents significant “local” concerns in the novel, she also directs our attention toward existential realities. According to her, “the great writer will be the one who presents the Mexican as a universal being.”2 In Recollections of Things to Come she achieves this goal primarily through an incessant infusion of mythic and archetypal motifs—elements that constitute the cornerstone of this study.

The teller of the tale is a “pueblo-narrator,” a semi-personification of the town, which attempts to communicate its tragic history. The basis of the chronicle is a kaleidoscope of memories that appear unordered, “as water flows into water,”3 within a rock or scrying-stone, into which the narrator peers. The rock is located on a hill overlooking the town.4

These reminiscences transport us from one extreme of Ixtepec to another, providing a sketch of small-town Mexican life during the Cristero Rebellion.5 Consequently, we become acquainted with a wide variety of fictional yet credible characters. We overhear their customary chats regarding their social, political and economic woes and are even permitted to perceive their most intimate thoughts.

Continually ordering and interpreting past events, the “pueblo-narrator” concentrates on the brutal government-ordered occupation of Ixtepec by General Francisco Rosas and his soldiers, and its negative effect upon the town. This re-creation of the historical past captures the resultant fear and inertia that spread throughout the populace. In substance, as readers of Recollections of Things to Come, we witness a sweeping spectrum of local activities that constitute the “costumbrista” foundation upon which Garro establishes a universal structure.

As a backdrop for her account, Garro selects a virtual replica of the mythic underworld, or realm of the dead. The terror produced by Rosas' occupation (p. 230) causes the inhabitants to assume a life of estrangement and quietude (p. 208). They renounce hope (p. 111), embrace a “voluntary forgetfulness” (p. 112) and solemnly abjure living within the sight of the general's eyes (p. 264). In effect, they allow alien wills to govern their entire existence.

The result is a village that can be only characterized as a “circular hell” (p. 255), a “dead” community (p. 207) occupied by prisoners (pp. 26 and 230) and “opaque bodies” (p. 28), by the living dead, as it were:

All days seem like the same day, acts become the same act, and all persons are a single useless person. The world loses its variety, light is annihilated, and miracles are abolished. The inertia of those repeated days kept me quiet as I contemplated the vain flight of my hours and waited for the miracle that persisted in not happening. The future was the repetition of the past.

(p. 58)

In such an environment, man finds himself bound to a preternatural destiny, to the iron laws of cyclical process. Hence, the novel's title: Recollections of Things to Come.6

Suddenly and unexpectedly, a foil to the passive Ixtepequeños, a dynamic stranger named Felipe Hurtado enters the moribund town. He and Julia Andrade, Rosas' mistress, presumably fall in love. As the jealous general prepares to lead the young man away to the site of his execution, “time [stops] dead” (p. 138). While the soldiers and the townspeople are for the moment magically reduced to “motionless figures in the streets and on the balconies” (p. 139), Felipe and Julia flee from the constraining circular hell epitomized by the community. Part I concludes as the two open this repressive circle and depart on horseback, never to return.

The second and last section of the novel centers on Rosas and Isabel Moncada, a solitary young woman deeply captivated by Felipe's personal qualities. The now lonely general continually punishes himself and the town for Julia's flight; Isabel, yearning to escape her unendurable solitude, decides to leave her family and live with Rosas.

The chronicle ends as both bemoan their fate. Repentant of his most recent blood-baths and conscious of his increasing alienation, Rosas wallows in anguish. After being disowned by her parents and aware that her brothers have been murdered by her new companion and his troops, Isabel is escorted by a “curandera” to the Sanctuary overlooking the town in order to be exorcised and freed from Rosas' power. There, as the novel concludes, she is transformed into a stone.

The binary framework of Recollections, which encourages comparison and contrast of the positive and negative denouements of the first and second parts, respectively, displays definite mythic underpinnings. In her avowed endeavor to universalize Ixtepec's panorama of passive futility, Garro blends myth and literature. Part I of the novel describes Julia's archetypal voyage through a labyrinth as she seeks deliverance from her negative environment. It also depicts her acceptance of the redemptive path offered by Felipe, a virtual incarnation of the archetypal messenger.7

Part II recounts Isabel's contrasting anti-heroic journey and her consequential petrification, which is reminiscent of several mythic figures who have chosen to decline the noble course of action. In order to enhance the reader's understanding of these mutually contradictory modes of existence and to augment the vital dramatic tension conveyed in both parts, the author also employs three major sets of mytho-poetic antitheses: translucence-opacity, centrifugence-centripetence, and fluidity-petrification. We will now examine each of the mythic components.

A logical point of departure for this study is Felipe, the archetypal messenger created in the image of Hermes, Thoth and the Holy Ghost, figures found in classical, Egyptian and Christian mythologies, respectively.8 According to a consensus of these and other legendary accounts, this type of mythic figure is “the ‘other,’ the ‘alien.’ … He is not of the world, … but he comes and is from elsewhere” (Eliade, p. 132). Moreover, he is given the sacred charge of descending to a region of anguish, silence, sleep, forgetfulness and darkness, of awakening its inhabitants and of encouraging them to raise their eyes toward the light (Eliade, pp. 129-30).

In Part I, Felipe's unexpected arrival is accompanied by a number of allusions aligning him with the universally recognizable essence of this archetypal hero. The most obvious of these is the following: “The stranger's unexpected presence broke the silence. He was the messenger” (p. 59). Moreover, his descent to the valley floor (pp. 3 and 111) takes him to the underworld setting for his calling, an inferno of “menacing darkness” (p. 18).

While the Ixtepequeños passively endure their self-imposed quiescence and opacity, this alien or “stranger” (pp. 33, 34, 35, 44, 48, 49 ff.)—an epithet designed and repeatedly employed to dissociate him from the townspeople and to reinforce the aforementioned parallel—is, from the very beginning, clearly defined as “a modern man, a man of action” (p. 3). He belongs to “that group of dynamic young men who are looking for employment—something brilliant, productive” (p. 69). His entrance into the town is particularly suggestive in that he refuses to look upon the everyday realities of Ixtepec's solitary, indifferent and inactive spectators. Instead, he symbolically directs his eyes toward “the roofs and the trees” (p. 34).9

He enters the town as though magically sensing the layout of the streets (p. 34). During his short but influential sojourn his supernatural aura is intensified as he makes already lit cigarettes appear in thin air by merely stretching out his arm (p. 35), steps on plants without leaving an imprint (p. 51), passes through a storm with a lamp still lit and his clothes and hair dry (p. 100) and accomplishes other similar feats. It is not surprising, then, that he is characterized as a “magician” (p. 143).

There is no denying that Elena Garro takes great care to specify and maintain a distinction between Felipe and the inferior townspeople, whose excess of inertia evokes within Felipe a great deal of anguish (p. 112). Unlike them, this mythic figure refuses to be corrupted by their “misfortune” (p. 59). On the contrary, his actions are responsible for some noteworthy (though temporary) changes in Ixtepec. Obviously, one of the most memorable of his contributions is the introduction of poetry (pp. 100-01) and “magic theater” (p. 112) which are capable of infusing “ilusión” (pp. 100 and 113),10 or hope, into the lives of his newly acquired friends. This “ilusión” opens the way for some of them to transcend temporarily their unhappy “enchantment” (p. 115) and the repressive circle in which they find themselves trapped.

Felipe's mission clearly consists of teaching the Ixtepequeños to renounce their self-imposed solitude and inertia and to embrace a dream. Only then can they develop into “something more than spectators of the violent life of the soldiers” (p. 116). His calling as a metamorphic agent is especially highlighted in his reaction to the word “metamorphosis”: Felipe's “face turned into the face of a ten-year old boy. … The word caused a carnival to light up in [his] eyes” (p. 56).

Julia similarly exudes a mythic aura. In her case, however, the supernatural quality is revealed through her luminosity and capacity to break through the bonds of a figurative centripetence, traits that will be detailed later. In essence, she exhibits vital, positive personal attributes that ultimately enable her to escape the penumbra of the townspeople. Like Felipe, Julia seems strikingly incongruous to them: “There had never been anyone like her in Ixtepec. Her manner, her way of talking, walking, and looking at men, everything about Julia was different” (p. 35).

Totally different in attitude from the Ixtepequeños, Julia shares Felipe's hope and dynamism. He is depicted as the “unexpected traveler” (p. 112); she is similarly portrayed as a voyager dedicated to transcending her blocked and petrified environment:

She walked on in bare feet, in the presence of a future that rose before her eyes like a white wall. Behind the wall was the story that had guided her as a child: “Once upon a time there was a talking bird, a singing fountain, and a tree that bore golden fruit.” Julia walked on in the certainty of finding it.

(p. 130)

Julia's guiding light incorporates universal elements commonly associated with an odyssey. It is apparent that their inclusion in the novel is part of the author's deliberate and concerted effort to strengthen the work's mythic framework.

The fairy tale's major motifs—a talking bird, a fountain, and a tree—appear together in a number of folktales. Some of the Mexican versions highlighting these three thematic elements are: “The Singing Tree, the Speaking Bird and the Golden Water,”11 “The Talking Bird, the Singing Tree and the Water of Life,”12 “The Golden Fountain, the Speaking Bird and the Singing Tree,”13 “The Speaking Bird,”14 and “The Singing Tree.”15 All share the following underlying mythic features: 1) a protagonist's separation from a familiar environment; 2) a demanding journey (following a warning to the hero/heroine against distraction from the mission at hand, lest he/she be turned to stone), during which the traveler seeks the universally recognizable bird, fountain and tree; and 3) a transcendence, or successful return, to the original point of departure.

Julia's paradigm, then, is a fairy tale, and these are often narrative re-creations of the quest...

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Sandra Messinger Cypess (essay date 1985)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Cypess, Sandra Messinger. “Visual and Verbal Distances in the Mexican Theater: The Plays of Elena Garro.” In Woman as Myth and Metaphor in Latin American Literature, edited by Carmelo Virgillo and Naomi Lindstrom, pp. 44-62. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1985.

[In the following essay, Cyppess discusses how Garro's plays affect the constructed image of Mexican women in literature.]

The concepts developed by Michel Foucault regarding the use of discourse bring to our attention the fact that implicit in a system of discourse are rules and restrictions, privileges and exclusions.1 The rules that govern the production of discourse and the...

(The entire section is 7683 words.)

Catherine Larson (essay date spring 1989)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Larson, Catherine. “Recollections of Plays to Come: Time in the Theatre of Elena Garro.” Latin American Theatre Review 22, no. 2 (spring 1989): 5-17.

[In the following essay, Larson explores Garro's experimentation with temporal reality in her plays.]

Elena Garro's dramatic works frequently test the limits of theatrical representation by detailing a clash between illusion and reality. Indeed, Frank Dauster observed this aspect of Garro's theatre, noting, “el teatro de Elena Garro demuestra una marcada preferencia por el tema de las relaciones entre diversas realidades. Sus personajes oscilan entre realidad e ilusión” (66). One way in which Garro calls...

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Sandra Boschetto (essay date fall 1989)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Boschetto, Sandra. “Romancing the Stone in Elena Garro's Los recuerdos del porvenir.Midwest Modern Language Association 22, no. 2 (fall 1989): 1-11.

[In the following essay, Boschetto discusses the meaning and implications of the protagonist's petrification at the end of Recollections of Things to Come.]

Elena Garro's first published novel, Los recuerdos del porvenir (1963), has in recent years captured the attention of readers who recognize in its ambivalent discourse a notable contribution to “escritura femenina.” Borrowing terminology from Heléne Cixous, Adriana Méndez Rodenas has termed the novel, “un ejemplo de ‘sexto’...

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Bettina Knapp (essay date spring 1990)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Knapp, Bettina. “Elena Garro's Recollections of Things to Come: ‘Exiles from Happiness’.” Confluencia 5, no. 2 (spring 1990): 69-77.

[In the following essay, Knapp discusses alienation in Recollections of Things to Come.]

Elena Garro's novel, Recollections of Things to Come (1963)1 sketches certain events in the lives of a community of Mexicans during the politically difficult 1920's. Not only are the families involved cloistered in their small town, Ixtepec, and therefore exiled from the rest of their country, but they are cut off from the other members of their community—and themselves. Alienated, they are “exiles from...

(The entire section is 5683 words.)

Becky Boling (essay date 1990)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Boling, Becky. “Tracking the Feminine Subject in Elena Garro's El Rastro.” In Continental, Latin-American, and Francophone Women Writers. Volume II. Selected Papers from the Wichita State University Conference on Foreign Literature, 1986-1987, edited by Ginette Adamson and Eunice Myers, pp. 7-14. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1990.

[In the following essay, Boling argues that Garro's play El Rastro introduces woman as the equally alienated figure in Mexican history, serving as a counterpoint to Octavio Paz's notion of the male mestizo figure.]

Al repudiar a la Malinche-Eva mexicana, según la representa...

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Cynthia Duncan (essay date 1990)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Duncan, Cynthia. “The Theme of the Avenging Dead in ‘Perfecto Luna’: A Magical Realist Approach.” In A Different Reality. Studies on the Work of Elena Garro, edited by Anita K. Stoll, pp. 90-101. London and Toronto: Bucknell University Press, 1990.

[In the following essay, Duncan finds elements of magic realism, which are based on Mexican folklore, in Garros’ story “Perfecto Luna.”.]

Nowhere is the Mexican fascination with death more evident than in the folklore of that country. For example, the notion that the dead sometimes remain among the living as almas en pena [suffering souls] is a familiar one that appears in countless songs,...

(The entire section is 5718 words.)

Mark Frisch (essay date 1990)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Frisch, Mark. “Absurdity, Death, and the Search for Meaning in Two of Elena Garro's Novels.” In A Different Reality. Studies on the Work of Elena Garro, edited by Anita K. Stoll, pp. 183-93. London and Toronto: Bucknell University Press, 1990.

[In the following essay, Frisch discusses Garro's affirmation of identity and order in Testimonios sobre Mariana and La casa junto al río.]

The absurdities of life, the void of death, and the order and meaningfulness of existence are major concerns in several of Elena Garro's works. These problems, with all their ramifications, are central both to the protagonists and to the very fabric of Garro's two recent...

(The entire section is 5045 words.)

Julie Jones (essay date March 1991)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Jones, Julie. “Text and Authority in Elena Garro's Reencuentro de personajes.Canadian Review of Comparative Literature 18, no. 1 (March 1991): 41-50.

[In the following essay, Jones explores notions of identity—particularly Mexican identity—and authority in Reencuentro de personajes.]

Reencuentro de personajes involves a cast of Mexican expatriates whose sense of self is based on their having met Scott Fitzgerald years ago and their conviction that he has described them in Tender Is the Night and that they also served as models for characters in Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited. The protagonist of Reencuentro, a...

(The entire section is 4633 words.)

Michael Hardin (essay date spring 1995)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Hardin, Michael. “Inscribing and Incorporating the Marginal: (P)Recreating the Female Artist in Elena Garro's Recollections of Things to Come.Hispanic Journal 16, no. 1 (spring 1995): 147-59.

[In the following essay, Hardin argues that Garro's use of the stone as the framing device and central metaphor in Recollections of Things to Come allows her to foreground the marginalized female and indigenous identities as well as position herself, as a woman writer, at the center of human expressions of artistry.]

The Journey has just begun. Seek the meaning of the sacred knowledge. Seek the meaning of cycles within cycles. The...

(The entire section is 5449 words.)

Julie A. Winkler (essay date spring 1996)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Winkler, Julie A. “Insiders, Outsiders, and the Slippery Center: Marginality in Los recuerdos del porvenir.Indiana Journal of Hispanic Literatures, no. 8 (spring 1996): 177-95.

[In the following essay, Winkler examines the concepts of marginality and centrality in Los recuerdos del porvenir.]

Los recuerdos del porvenir, the novel many consider Elena Garro's best achievement, has furnished material for a wide array of critical approaches as well as a wide variety of readings. Winner of the prestigious Villaurrutia prize in 1963, Los recuerdos del porvenir has since provided its author with no small measure of respect in the literary...

(The entire section is 7793 words.)

Stacy Southerland (essay date 1998)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Southerland, Stacy. “Elusive Dreams, Shattered Illusions. The Theater of Elena Garro.” In Latin American Women Dramatists. Theater, Texts, and Theories, edited by Catherine Larson and Margarita Vargas, pp. 243-62. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998.

[In the following essay, Southerland traces Garro's manipulation of time and reality throughout her literary canon.]

Regarded as one of the most important contemporary Mexican authors, Elena Garro, born on December 11, 1920, in Puebla, Mexico, is perhaps best known for her unique and diverse representations of vastly different perspectives of reality. Her distinctive ability to manipulate—often...

(The entire section is 8601 words.)

Kristine Ibsen (essay date spring 1999)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Ibsen, Kristine. “Self-Representation, Silence, and the Discourse of Madness in Testimonios sobre Mariana.Confluencia 14, no. 2 (spring 1999): 93-102.

[In the following essay, Ibsen examines the meaning of Mariana's silence in Testimonios sobre Mariana.]

Not with a Club, the Heart is broken
Nor with a Stone—
A Whip so small you could not see it.

—Emily Dickinson

In societies where the female subject has traditionally been more closely affiliated with the private, rather than the public, sphere, the act of writing itself may suggest a transgression of authority. The integration of autobiographical elements in...

(The entire section is 4848 words.)

Sandra Messinger Cypess (essay date 2000)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Cypess, Sandra Messinger. “Dis(re)membered Bodies and Temporal Games in the Texts of Elena Garro.” In Studies in Honor of Myron Lichtblau, edited by Fernándo Burgos, pp. 65-78. Newark, N.J.: Juan de la Cuesta, 2000.

[In the following essay, Cypess argues that Garro's use of temporal and physical subversions in Los recuerdos del porvenir and Benito Fernández undermine patriarchal historical control.]

If Elena Garro has a place in the Latin American canon (as well she should), it is based primarily on her narrative masterpiece Los recuerdos del porvenir (1963). A number of her other narratives have also received careful scrutiny, while the theatrical pieces of the early sixties have received only selective appraisals from the critics. In this essay I would like to relate some aspects of Los recuerdos del porvenir with those found in a relatively unknown play, Benito Fernández. Although I will also make reference to other texts, both her magnum opus and Benito Fernández show the diversity of her style and tone at the same time they reflect a consistent preoccupation with the way Mexican history is represented, especially with regard to marginalized figures. Moreover, as much as they rest on realistic motifs, both include magical transformations of reality. While it is not my intention to explore whether Garro's writings are examples of magical realism or the fantastic, their presentation of events which disrupt normative reality leads the reader to question the standard approach to reality, to our socio-political world. My focus centers on how Garro subverts our conventional sense of time and the body—two essential aspects of the human condition—in order to undermine patriarchal society, “the symbolic order of modern culture” (Jackson as qtd by Duncan 51).

From various comments made by Garro and her textual inscriptions themselves, readers are able to determine that she had an abiding interest in questioning official history. In choosing a topic for her first play, for example, she selected an historical topic that also examined the nature of the historical enterprise and the representation of “official history.” Her Felipe Ángeles (1956; 1978)1 does not yet reveal Garro's interest in exploring the boundaries between verifiable reality and the mysterious world of magic or fantasy; it does open up, however, a new space in the way she treats not only historical facts but also the role of women in that traditionally masculine arena (Cypess, “Dramaturgia”). According to Garro, her decision to present the last days of General Felipe Angeles, as a way to comment on the Mexican Revolution and national topics, was directly related to a need to break official prohibitions: “Empecé a investigar y vi que era una figura prohibida oficialmente. Como me gusta lo que no es oficial …” (Muncy as quoted by Galván 35). Garro's playful expression belies her serious intent in trying to expose the flaws in the official perspective on the success of the Revolution and on Mexican history in general. Whether the text is an historical drama that is structurally traditional, as is the three-act Felipe Angeles, or the innovative magical realist plays like Benito Fernández, or the inventive Recuerdos del porvenir, Garro shows that the truth can be reached by the use of the imagination rather than a reliance on documents that are also easily manipulated. Although I have studied this theme in greater detail elsewhere, Garro's perspective bears reviewing here for it does give us a clear understanding of the way she approaches the concepts of “history” and “fiction”—or works of the imagination: Felipe Angeles himself expresses the idea: “quizá podríamos inventar la historia que nos falta. La historia, como las matemáticas, es un acto de la imaginación” (Felipe Angeles 52). As if to emphasize this point, Garro elaborates this concept again in one of her last interviews, in 1991: “En general se dice que lo de la imaginación son mentiras. Dicen: ‘Eso se lo imaginó’ Y no, yo creo que la imaginación es un poder para llegar a la verdad. …” (Rosas Lopátegui and Toruño 55).

Garro's imaginative vision is amply displayed in Recuerdos from the provocative title to the final narrative episode. As Cristina Galli reminds us, “El título de la novela Recuerdos del porvenir también es una transgresión” (223). Indeed, the oxymoronic title signals to the reader that the text rejects a rigid concept of time and chronological sequence. In one of the more famous episodes of the novel, many critics have pointed out that time freezes so as to erase the concept of chronology. That is, when the beautiful Julia attempts to flee from General Rosas and the town of Ixtepec, she and her lover Felipe Hurtado are successful because time stops still to enable them to escape. Their departure from the town controlled by the authoritarian Rosas is accomplished when somehow, they are able to create their own enchanted space. The narrator tells us that “el tiempo se detuvo en seco” (144) so that night remained or perhaps it was a dream (No sé si se detuvo o si se fue y sólo cayó el sueño …”) This rupture of chronological time is confirmed by a visitor to the town, a mule driver who arrived at daybreak, only to see the town still shrouded in darkness. His comments about the event include specific details that function to confirm the magical moment for the villagers and for readers as well.

Se asustó al ver que sólo en Ixtepec seguía la noche. Nos dijo que es más negra rodeada por la mañana. En su miedo no sabía si cruzar aquella frontera de luz y sombra. Estaba dudando cuando vio pasar a un jinete llevando en sus brazos a una mujer vestida de color de rosa. El iba de oscuro. Con un brazo detenía a la joven y con el otro llevaba las riendas del caballo. La mujer se iba riendo. El arriero les dio los buenos días.

—!Buenas noches!—gritó Julia.

—El arriero entró al pueblo y nos contó como todo Ixtepec dormía redondo y negro con las figuras inmóviles en las calles y en los balcones.


The above narration clearly marks the alternative world in which Julia and Felipe Hurtado were able to make their escape. For them it was night, while for the mule driver, though he saw the darkness, lived still in the everyday reality, in which daylight was breaking; hence, he greets them with a “Good morning,” while Julia corrects him with her reply (Buenas noches), affirming her existence in the magical world. Ixtepec, too, appeared to be experiencing the alternative time, since the whole town is described as “redondo y negro” and any visible bodies were “inmóviles en las calles y en los balcones.”

The novel also shows how some events repeat over the course of an individual lifetime, over the course of a national period. As the text clearly states, in Ixtepec time follows its own course. The cessation of time is rare, for more often, events repeat themselves:

Los días se convierten en el mismo día, los actos en el mismo acto y las personas en un sólo personaje inútil. El mundo pierde su variedad, la luz se aniquila y los milagros quedan abolidos … El porvenir era la repetición del pasado.


In his study, “Myth and Archetype in Recollections of Things to Come, Robert Anderson reminds us that the cyclical process of time described in the novel relates to the Indian substratum. “Specifically, this author has admitted her fascination for the “difference between western time brought by the Spaniards and finite time which existed in the ancient Mexican world” (225, note 6). In her treatment of time Garro indeed demonstrates the shortcomings of rigid definitions of past, present and future, of the way things are supposed to be according to the laws of physics and logic.

Just as time loses its normal configurations, so, too, does the human body. One of the more famous episodes has to do with the transformation of Isabel Moncada into a stone, the “piedra aparente” upon which the narrative voice rests. Again, there is a character who willingly recounts this magical transformation. One of the women of the town, Gregoria, like the mule driver, happens upon Isabel who had disappeared from the town. “Después de mucho buscarla, Gregoria la halló tirada muy abajo, convertida en una piedra … Gregoria se acercó a la piedra maldita y se dirigió a Dios pidiéndole misericordia. Toda la noche pasó Gregoria empujando a la piedra cuesta arriba para dejarla a los pies de la Virgen” (294). Gregoria interprets this metamorphosis of Isabel's body into stone as a literal manifestation of her sinful behavior. Isabel had chosen to enter the forbidden Hotel Jardín to become the lover of General Rosas. As Cynthia Duncan observes, “Gregoria writes what she and the other people of Ixtepec have come to believe about Isabel, that her petrification was God's punishment for an immoral love affair (40). Duncan goes on to note that the interpretation of Gregoria is not based on fact or real knowledge but a hypothesis. In offering the reader Gregoria's version, Garro presents, in Duncan's words, “a veiled comment about the nature of history as it is portrayed in the text: it does not always capture the whole truth or the whole story” (40). While I concur with Duncan's observations regarding the incomplete nature of historical inscription, I would like to comment on another aspect of Isabel's transformation into stone.

Various critics have commented on the meaning of this provocative image, which nevertheless invokes other literary texts and traditions, as Adriana Méndez Ródenas reminds us (846). She mentions “El convidado de Piedra” of Tirso's El burlador de Sevilla and to the Biblical figure of Lot's wife. In all these cases, the conversion of the body into a material object may be considered a literalization of a typical metaphor; instead of being called obstinate as a rock, or adamant, these figures transform materially into their intangible character traits. In Isabel's example, she is transformed into stone because her disobedient acts have to do with sexual transgressions.2 If one's misdeeds “weigh heavily” on the conscience, in a figurative sense, then surely Isabel is very heavy, as weighty as a stone. However, Garro is playing here with the polysemous nature of signs, as I have shown in my discussion elsewhere of her work (“Visual and Verbal Distances”), and as I shall elaborate in the discussion of Benito Fernández. Just as it is possible to read Isabel's transformation into stone as a symbol of her literal transgressions, one can also view her presence as a stone in a more positive manner. The stone is called “piedra aparente,” after all, as if Garro were signaling us to think beyond its obvious associations. Just as her treatment of time incorporates both Western and indigenous views, so, too, the stone has an indigenous as well as a European significance; moreover, it also offers a feminist reading in addition to the traditional patriarchal perspective. As Michael Hardin points out, the stone had positive connotations in indigenous cultures and can be considered signs of permanence, moreover, of narrative permanence. Hardin quotes the Mayan Hunbatz Men to prove this idea: “The stones know. They are the old ones which show the way. They are the ones that speak” (147). The solidity of Isabel as stone, then, may be a reference to her permanence, her eternal presence. This presence of woman in relation to narration—since it is the voice of Ixtepec seated on this ‘piedra aparente” that directly addresses the reader—is yet another example of the way Garro attempts to provide a space for women in national discourse.

While Isabel's body becomes weighted with permanence, others seem to disappear. The sacristán, whom the townspeople hope to protect against the government forces, is killed, yet his body is never found by General Rosas, the military figure who represents the patriarchal and authoritarian objectives that Garro wishes to undermine. In contrast to Isabel's role in the community, the sacristan is supported by the people, and his body dissolves into space. For Rosas, “Nada tenía cuerpo en Ixtepec, ni siquiera el sacristán que había muerto sin dejar cuerpo. El pueblo entero era de humo y se le escapabda de entre las manos” (181). Despite General Rosas's attempts to control the lives of all the townspeople of Ixtepec, he finds himself thwarted in subtle ways. Julia escapes from his “Hotel Jardín,” the antithesis of edenic paradise for her, when time magically stands still; the sacristan's body escapes as well, from the General's grasp. For Rosas, Ixtepec is “un pueblo irreal” which has also affected him, “que había terminado por convertirlo a él también en un fantasma” (181). One notes the great irony that Isabel's durability in the town is guaranteed by her presence as a stone, while Rosas, the feared military man, turns into a “fantasma.”

This subversion of the traditional way of thinking of women and men, their relationship to narrative history, and the presentation of their bodies, so much part of Los recuerdos, is also found in Benito Fernández. I would like to review now Garro's approach to the human body in that play.

Benito Fernández is based on the conceit that there is a disjunction between the body and the head; it is not that bodies disappear or are lost, but that a body may search for another head. In brief, the anecdote is simple: accompanied by his aunt, the headless body of Benito Fernández comes to La Lagunilla to search for an appropriate head that will suit his opinion of himself. More dialogue than action, the play exposes what the clients of don Julián's “head shop” (really, a stand) thinks about him/herself and also about Mexican history. As they examine the different samples on display, they provide an achronological review of key episodes in Mexican history, showing various perspectives on events from the conquest to the mid-twentieth century.

Garro's “unrealistic” story is treated in a comically satiric tone and offers a critique of those patriarchal values that demean marginalized figures in the Mexican socio-cultural environment: Indians, women, blacks—the gender and ethnicities that have been peripheral to the central power structure. Garro may well have derived the idea of a headless figure from a popular Mexican expression that reflects a stereotypic ethnic commentary; “Bien dice el dicho que los mestizos o son de mala cabeza o no tienen ninguna” (285). This negative commentary about mestizos uses signs in a metaphorical sense, implying that mestizos are somehow not completely whole.3 That the missing part is their head, or that their head may be “bad” suggests that they lack the rational aspect of the human being. Mestizos, in the power structure, are not as complete, as pure, as the Europeans—an idea that certainly has a long tradition in Mexican society among the elite. Garro is clearly incorporating this concept into the play in order to mock those Mexicans who denigrate their mestizo past. For it is Benito Fernández and his Aunt Luisita who repeat racist and ethnic remarks that make them sound as foolish as the headless Benito looks! By his name, Benito Fernández appears to be a mestizo, the very people he and his aunt denigrate: “Benito,” although a Spanish name, within Mexican history is associated with Benito Juárez, the first full-blooded Indian to become President. “Fernández” as a surname is derived from Hernández, which, in turn, reminds us of Hernán Cortés. Thus, the eponymous hero of the play stands for mestizo Mexico, and based on his actions and words, for those who reject this heritage.

That Garro is intent on critiquing Mexican history and its patriarchal discourse is evident from the comments made by Benito in his search for the proper head. As needy as he may be, Benito reveals his intolerant views when he tells don Julián, the “head-keeper” that he does not want any head “que nos recuerde a nuestra desdichada historia patria, tan llena de errores y crímenes. Esa famosa historia patria a la que si fuerámos normales deberíamos llamar nuestra prehistoria patria” (283-84) Benito is eager to convince Julián that he is worthy of a European head, and that “Es el pueblo, la indiada, que desconoce el honor, las maneras y el protocolo” (283). When Julián suggests that Benito may be fortunate in not having a head, because in that way he may be morally superior, he links the ethnic with the ethical, but in a way which highlights Benito's ethnic and ethical lapses: “Por algo Dios lo premió y no le dio cabeza, así los malos pensamientos no han cruzado por su mente” (293). Nevertheless, Benito shows both the audience and Julián that “malos pensamientos” mark his existence. For example, Benito and his Aunt Luisita are offended when Julián offers them the head of a Black or Indian (294, 295). According to Luisita, the Indians are worthless, but the Spaniards, in contrast, “reunen todos los requisitos de la decencia, de la hombría, del señorío …” (295), and beauty is defined as “lo rubio” (296). Based on such prejudicial remarks, it is understandable why Garro always has the character referred to by the diminutive form of her name: she is “little” Luisa in both the physical and intellectual sense.

Their lack of patriotism is evident in yet another humorous exchange. When Julián suggests the head of one of the “niños héroes”—that is “uno de los que murieron en Chapultepec envueltos en la bandera” (282), Luisita's reaction is narrow-minded and show how foolish she is: “Ay! Tan exagerados los pobrecitos. Además el suicidio es un pecado mortal. ¿Qué haría mi sobrino con la cabeza de un loco vertiginoso?” (282). Her exaggeratedly conservative perspective on the behavior of these famous cadets reveals once again her conflictive approach to Mexican national identity. After all, the “Niños Héroes” had fought valiantly with seasoned soldiers in heroic defense of their country during one of the most famous battles of the Mexican-American War. As depicted in paintings and in the popular imagination, they held fast to the Mexican flag (“envueltos en la bandera,” as Julián says), to keep it from American hands. Their bravery has become synonymous with love of country, and their story is meant to instill civic and political pride in Mexican youth. Their faces are familiar icons, successful representatives of the best of Mexican youth, so the Fernández family refusal of the head is tantamount to their rejection of “la patria,” and Mexican national identity.4 Aunt Luisita's comments, like those of Benito, are foolish and show that both act as thoughtless as a headless person might. It is not their ethnicity that causes them to behave and think the way they do, but their own misguided opinions. Their “structures of certainty”—their ideas about people, Mexican history and socio-cultural mores, are not facts, but ways of thinking to keep themselves in power, to seek a solidarity with the “European side” rather than with Mexicans. Garro exposes the fallacies of the dominant ideology all the more in having these ideas voiced by obvious non-elite figures.

On the one hand, Benito's lack of a head, a visually powerful image on stage, is ironically emblematic of his “mestizohood” and thus indicates his dissociation from the dominant, European culture to which he aspires. One can also imagine a number of other possible meanings for this provocative visual image of a headless body. Without a head, Benito suffers as an outsider and his girlfriend has requested that he find a head to complete himself before she will agree to marry him (279). Is Garro claiming, then, that Mexican mestizos are prevented from growing to their full human potential because of the many social prejudices against them? Is it because of his “low profile” as a mestizo that he yearns for a head that is European-looking? While he denigrates the Indian and Blacks, he speaks well of the English, the Finns, etc. In fact, Julián confesses that “las cabezas extranjeras me vuelan” (294). Benito's personal ambitions are clearly not unique desires in Mexico!

I would suggest, furthermore, that Garro is also disparaging that “other” remark which has to do with the body and the head, in which women are generally considered significant as “bodies” with no need for a “head.” The presence of the headless Benito thus not only ridicules the ethnic aspects of society's discriminatory practices, but subverts as well an important gender issue. If we are used to thinking of women as “headless bodies,” here it is the male figure that is headless and silly.

It is helpful at this point to recall Andarse por las ramas, another play by Garro that also explores a popular saying in both its literal and metaphorical meanings, as well as in relation to its impact on gender discrimination. As I have shown elsewhere, Don Fernando de las Siete y Cinco uses the term ‘andarse por las ramas” in its metaphorical sense, to propose that Titina evades reality, does not have her “feet on the ground” (“Visual and Verbal Distances”). Ironically, he is correct in the literal sense, since in the play, Titina is literally on the branches of a tree (andando por las ramas) and does not have her feet on the ground. Don Fernando labels his wife and all women as “lunáticas” and as living in “otra dimensión” (71). While Don Fernando attempts to describe with metaphors the challenges to his ideal of cultural hegemony, Garro shows that he is unable to understand Titina's “excentric” experience. Moreover, it is Titina who is literally on a higher plane than her husband is, since he is grounded and she is above him in the trees. Both are “right’ in some way in their description of reality, but Don Fernando cannot, or refuses, to see another perspective. He does not recognize dimensions other than his own. Although he wishes to believe that he relies on “facts” and has the proper view of life, through Titina Garro shows that he merely holds on to a distorted construction of reality composed of skewed images. Don Fernando's treatment of his wife Titina causes the receivers of his actions to enjoy Titina's mockery of him. While he does not brand women as “headless,” without doubt he devalues them and would agree with the above-mentioned slogan, whether it uses the word “mujer” or “mestizo.”

If Don Fernando, like General Rosas, represents the dominant powers in Mexico, which Garro's many texts challenge, the character Benito Fernández is one more of her satiric representations of the pseudo-authoritarian figure; his distorted sense of reality is visualized, made dramatic, in his unfinished body. Both plays expose the “lunacy” of “conventional wisdom,” that is, accepted beliefs that have hardened into set ideas that harm all those who have been left out of the power circle. Both Don Fernando and Benito appear to live in a world in which there is no disjunction between the literal sense of words and “reality”—in other words, it is a unidimensional world, a “fixed reality” whose constructs are invalidated by Garro. The characters who are validated are those who reject univocity and appreciate the polysemous nature of discourse. This approach, to paraphrase Deborah Cohen, is “motivated by the sense that the referent of supposedly mimetic realist narrative does not correspond to the experience of groups which have been excluded from mainstream reality and deprived of its benefits (374). That is, Garro's works represent the struggle of the powerless to leave the margins and find a discursive space that will include their experiences, ideas, vision.

Luisita and Benito finally agree on the choice of a head for Benito, but it turns out to be the last choice they agree on. No sooner does Julián adjust the new head onto Benito's body that he transforms himself from Luisita's obedient nephew to a radically different individual. He scorns his aunt and her Orthodox Catholic ideas, her Porfirista ideology, and claims that he is now a “priista” (305). (It is left to the imagination of the receptors to fill in the definition of “priista: is it opportunist? Political power boss?) In practice, his manner of speech and his thoughts have altered so much that he charms a young woman who has come to don Julián in search of heads for her own business, a new bar named “Safari.” In comparison with other clients, she is willing to buy all the heads of Negroes that are available, since she wants them as decorations. Her opportunism and frankness, her breezy manner, contrast sharply with the other visitors to Don Julián's stand. Named Victoria, she is attracted to this freshly finished Benito Fernández, who decides to run away with her. If the names of this freshly formed couple are read metaphorically, it seems that Garro wishes to indicate here that mestizo Mexico (in the figure of the newly “capitated” Benito Fernández) does have an opportunity to create a positive future for itself (joining up with Victoria). While the two apparently share few characteristics, being different in class, ethnicity, education, attitude, they are both Mexican. Indeed, when the suspicious Luisita questions her about her nickname, “Vicky,” the dark-haired Victoria emphatically states: “¿No ve que soy pura mexicana?” (299). She appears to be proud of her nationality, unlike the Fernández family. Benito and his Aunt Luisita were a pair that shared many characteristics—ethnicity, class, kinship—yet they represented a noxious twosome that offered little for the “body politic.” Their expressed racism and prejudices are shown to be false ideas that lead nowhere; when Benito runs off, Luisita remains behind, waiting patiently at the stand for what is described as seven years by Julián. Her steadfast state is representative of the static quality of her thought and her way of life. She represents an inflexible tradition that has no place in modern Mexico.

With the original headless icon of the first scene and the immobile woman of the final act, Garro captures in striking visual images a way to represent a theme that has become quite important in recent studies about national identity. Whether it is the idea of negotiating identities,5 or, to paraphrase Judith Butler's term, performing identities, Garro has created a most ingenious and provocative image to explore the breakdown of a dominant ideology and an official discourse within a socio-cultural milieu. When Benito and his aunt first visit Don Julián in search of a new head, they are involved in a literal negotiation of identities. Garro has indeed anticipated the theories referring to social construction of identity, since with each head, a new identity is offered. One also recalls the same kind of play with identities that Rosario Castellanos represents in the third act of El eterno femenino; with each new wig that Lupita puts on, she changes her character. Both writers reveal that they understand fully that one plays a role in society and that often, dress and outward appearances are used as indicators of a person's inner worth. One's identity is not fixed, so that it is within the possibilities of a human being to develop and change any pre-established patterns. As one of Castellanos's avatars suggests: “No basta adaptarnos a una sociedad que cambia en la superficie y permanece idéntica en la raíz. No basta imitar los modelos que se nos proponen y que son la respuesta a otras circunstancias que las nuestras. No basta siquiera descubrir lo que somos. Hay que inventarnos” (194). With the selection of a head, Benito does invent a new self.

An unstable and fluid identity, represented by the head disassociated from the body, brings us to the idea of the body in Judith Butler's view, as “the legacy of sedimented acts rather than a predetermined or foreclosed structure, essence or fact, whether natural, cultural, or linguistic” (523). The dynamic process of the play, in which Benito's body searches for a head offers us another way to view the body as a “legacy of sedimented acts rather than a predetermined or foreclosed structure.” The sign “Benito” clearly embodies this idea, since his head is chosen from one person and his body from another. And just as the somatic nature of the human body is polysemous (polysomous, too!), so, is life itself. Change and mobility are the values Garro stresses in contrast to the ideology of stasis. It is Julián who tells Benito: “La vida no es fija, cambia, joven, cambia, ya lo verá por usted mismo” (300). The characters who are successful in Garro's world are those who can change and adapt to difference. It is useful to compare the presentation in both texts of characters who appear fixed in time in contrast with those who take flight.

I would suggest that the image of Luisita remaining next to Julián's stand reminds us of Isabel in that she also has become like a stone—fixed and unable to break out of her programmed responses to life. In another essay I proposed that Isabel be read as a tragic example of La Malinche, showing that she cannot break out of the negative hold of the past (“The Figure of La Malinche”). Her transformation into a “piedra,” links Isabel to tradition and precedence despite her ardent desires to reject that past history. Although Luisita never expresses the longings of Isabel to live an independent life, she too, ends her days in an eternal time period, almost as if she were living out the pattern of time described in the novel: “Los días se convierten en el mismo día, los actos en el mismo acto y las personas en un sólo personaje inútil. El mundo pierde su variedad, la luz se aniquila y los milagros quedan abolidos. … El porvenir era la repetición del pasado” (63). Indeed, Luisita admits to Julián: “quiero seguir aquí, hasta que llegue el fin del mundo” (308). Ironically, after this admission, a whirlwind of ashes covers the scene so that Luisita disappears, as does Julián and his stand. Instead of a stone remaining behind to generate the narration, left behind is a poster: “Comprése una cabeza y sabrá quién es” (308). It appears that Garro rejects any closure to her piece, just as there is no closure to Recuerdos. The reader/audience is left to provide endings for the characters, recount the events, and create new associations.

Despite their major differences in anecdote, genre, and tone, there are striking similarities in Garro's treatment of time and reality in Recuerdos del porvenir and Benito Fernández. While Luisita and Isabel offer us similar images of stasis, Julia and Benito are able to depart their confining environments in ways that disrupt the boundaries of conventional realism. Both Julia and Benito find escape routes with lovers, albeit Benito's escapade is cast in a satiric tone while Julia's is magically romantic. Julia escapes from Rosas, from the patriarchy and the authoritarian space he wanted to control. Benito likewise escapes from the orthodoxies of his family and tradition, with the help of Victoria, a liberated woman—perhaps a representative of a new Mexico. They escape time and historical reality because they refuse to limit their imagination to what has already happened. Garro, after all, has already told us that she believes that “la imaginación es un poder para llegar a la verdad.” The truth here is that those who attempt to return to the past relinquish their life force, while those who are willing to invent a future survive in the future, as memory, legend, eternal presence.


  1. This play was begun in 1954 and finished in 1956, but it did not open in México until 1978.

  2. One recalls that the Biblical punishment for transgressions was often stoning. For further approaches to the significance of the stone in the novel, see Sandra Boschetto, “Romancing the Stone in Elena Garro's Los recuerdos del porvenir,Journal of the Midwest Modern Language Association, 22.2 (1989): 1-11; Hardin.

  3. It is interesting to compare the phrase for mestizos in English slang—“half-breeds,” which also can be read as an allusion to their “incomplete” status. Instead of viewing a person with dual heritage as doubly rich, the prejudiced view is to consider them as only “half” there.

  4. See this web site for an interesting perspective on this myth of the “niños héroes. Note, for example, this comment on the faces: “Por eso los Niños Héroes adquieron el rostro de todos los niños de México, de ahí que en sus distintas representaciones—retratos, estatuas, estampas escolares—, sean tan parecidos entre sí, para inferir que ese único rostro podía ser el de cualquier niño mexicano.”

  5. On the topic of construction of identities, among the many references, consult Steven Epstein, “Gay Politics, Ethnic Identity: The Limits of Social Constructionism.” Socialist Review 17:3-4 (1987): 9-54; Diana Fuss, Essentially Speaking; Iris Zavala, “Las formas y funciones de una teoría crítica feminista. Feminismo dialógico,” in Breve historia feminista de la literatura española (en lengua castellana) I. Coord. Myriam Díaz-Diocaretz y Iris M. Zavala (Madrid: Anthropos, 1993) 27-76, esp. 68-76 where she considers the “construction of the subject.”

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Butler, Judith. “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory.” Theatre Journal 40 (1988): 519-31.

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Cohen, Deborah. “To See or Not to See: Invisibility, Clairvoyance, and Re-visions of History in Invisible Man and La casa de los espíritus.Comparative Literature Studies 33.4 (1996): 372-95.

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———. “The Figure of La Malinche in the Narratives of Elena Garro.” A Different Reality: Studies in the Works of Elena Garro. Ed. Anita Stoll. Lewisberg, PA: Bucknell UP, 1989. 117-135.

———. “Visual and Verbal Distances in the Mexican Theater: The Plays of Elena Garro.” Women as Myth and Metaphor in Latin American Literature. Columbia, U-Missouri Press, 1985. 44-62.

Duncan, Cynthia. “Time and Memory as Structural Unifiers in Elena Garro's Los recuerdos del porvenir.Journal of Interdisciplinary Literary Studies 4.1-2 (1992): 31-53.

Galli, Cristina. “Las formas de la violencia en Los recuerdos del porvenir.Revista Iberoamericana 56.150 (1990): 213-224.

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Garro, Elena. “Benito Fernández.” Un hogar sólido y otras piezas. Xalapa, Mexico: Universidad Veracruzana, 1983. 275-309.

———. Felipe Angeles. Guadalajara, Jalisco: Cóatl, 1967.

———. Los recuerdos del porvenir. Mexico: Joaquin Mortiz, 1963.

Hardin, Michael. “Inscribing and Incorporating the Marginal: (P)Recreating the Female Artist in Elena Garro's Recollections of Things to Come.Hispanic Journal 16.1 (1995): 147-59.

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