Patricia Lattin and Vernon Lattin (essay date 1979)
SOURCE: Lattin, Patricia and Vernon Lattin. “Power and Freedom in the Stories of Estela Portillo Trambley.” Critique 21, no. 1 (1979): 93-101.
[In the following essay, the critics investigate the treatment of women and power in Portillo Trambley's short fiction, asserting that many of her female characters “resist being merely a passive reflection of man's will and rebel against the unjust system of power and order that has enslaved them.”]
Malinalli Tenepal, called “La Malinche,” took her place in the “history of man” as the betrayer responsible for the Spanish conquest of the Indians, for she is said to have revealed important military information to Cortez. One must realize, however, that “La Malinche” was not a free citizen, having been first sold into slavery by her parents and then given to Cortez by her owner.1 Her position as slave to both Aztec and Spanish masters raises questions about the meaning of her “betrayal.” Did she as woman/slave owe loyalty to any of her masters? Was her act a rebellion against the social powers that made her a slave and concubine? As a victim of oppression, did she seek in the only possible way a form of individual freedom and expression? Ironically, the myth that makes her responsible for the conquest also makes her the mother of the first mestizo, whose descendants threw off the Spanish conquerors. As a woman, she is both Eve and the Serpent, created by men who failed to see history from the woman's point of view.
In 1975 a mestizo descendant of “La Malinche” added the voice of la mujer Chicana to American fiction, publishing Rain of Scorpions and Other Writings, the first book of fiction by a Chicana. Not surprisingly, one of the central themes of the collection is the relationship between freedom and power as these forces affect women. Examining the cosmic, social, and psychological dimensions of women's struggle to be free in a power structure that has historically oppressed them, Estela Portillo Trambley takes the reader back to the Garden of Eden to rediscover not the American Adam but la mujer living in her own garden, cultivating her flowers, and seeking her own sun.
Cosmically, Trambley sees a world in which the human spirit, unwilling to accept a universe of mere stasis and repetition, challenges the “tried pattern” of existence. Meditating on the night sounds, the narrator of “Duende” considers Chance itself as merely the substrata of “a careful calculation” but then rejects such a view, believing that acts of will, the assertion of human feeling, and the individual spirit of duende defy a fixed order and fate. As her vision clears, she sees man “standing alone” and calls this “good.” She recognizes, however, that freedom has been only for man: “And woman? Each woman sadly waits.”2
Throughout the ten stories Trambley shows us many waiting women who have no gardens to cultivate, because they have no freedom to participate in their creation. Most of these women form a social backdrop to the fiction: nameless, faceless people playing secondary roles in life, day by day ground down by the male power-structure. Such were the women of Cetna (“The Trees”) before Nina came, women who “followed in silent steps, fulfilled in their women ways. … The lives were well patterned like the rows of apple trees and the trenches that fed them” (13). The image suggests that the women are like the apples, used and cultivated, but never themselves the Adamic cultivators. Juana in “Pay the Criers,” defined as “among the vanquished,” seems to spend all her time waiting for her husband, Chuco; he, who can “do as he wished,” beats her when she resists his taking her mother's burial money, part of which he uses to visit prostitutes. Without freedoms to nourish them, such women of the barrio become what Triano sees in “Duende”: “worn-faced women with fringes and traces of dreams,” trapped “within a cubicle that makes small demands, but that kills with that same smallness” (56).
Many of Trambley's women resist being merely a passive reflection of man's will and rebel against the unjust system of power and order that has enslaved them. These heroic women express a value system that honors freedom, instinct, wholeness, feeling, and primitiveness against slavery, barbarized reason, tradition, civilized order, and inequality. In the image of the wild, untamed garden Trambley sees the symbol of women's freedom, while in the ordered, symmetrical garden she sees the patriarchal traditions that have limited and tortured women.
In “The Paris Gown” Clotilde Romero de Traske is “a liberated form from civilized order” (2). Reared at a time when women “had small freedoms” (1), she seized freedom many years ago by daring to come down the stairs naked, in the middle of the party where her father was to announce her coming arranged marriage to a repulsive elderly man. Significantly, the idea for rebellion had come to her as she viewed a symmetrical, manicured garden with swans in a pond and “flowers arranged by species” (6). A small child playing in this patterned world spontaneously removed his clothes and waded into the water, prompting a spanking from his nurse. From this innocent rebellion against order and orders, Clo saw a model for escaping the “overwhelming, unfair tradition” (3) that gave woman the role of sexual servant in a marriage which was often “a patterned, strict garden of dead things, poisoned things” (4).
Clo of the present is a sophisticated woman of the world who has found in Paris her own freedom and also developed a strong hope that others can know a similar freedom. Rejecting Greek thought in favor of Romanticism, she sees reason as a “boxed-in circumstance” that has been violent against human beings and has produced “barbarism”; in contrast, she presents instinct as the saving element in life, “an innate law without barriers,” “a part of what gathers a wholeness.” More specifically, she expresses to her granddaughter the belief that although “overwhelming, unfair tradition” has reigned for many years, surviving in each person is “the instinct that respects all life, the instinct that understands equality.” Such instinct, she believes, can eliminate “the violence of men against women” (3).
Key elements of Clo's optimistic view of human possibility appear in her description of Gaudier-Brzeska, the sculptor whose works express the values by which she has tried to live: “Gaudier was a man of great passion; many consider him a primitive. He plunged into the instinctual and emotional to surface with an energy, a feeling, an ability free of barbarism” (2, emphasis added). Reinforcing the image of Gaudier-Brzeska's sculpture, which Clo touches “reverently,” is her garden which she and Teresa see outside the window: “It had no symmetry, no pattern; the lawn and trailing vines, the cypress trees and profuse flowers had only been given a kind of order, only to free the life from complete chaos. Everything reached for the sun in its own way” (3-4). Thus Clotilde's energies, once destined for a dead garden, have created a free, larger Edenic existence.
Significantly, Trambley has taken the romantic myth of the regeneration and rebirth of human kind, the return to a golden age by way of instinctive, free-feeling, child-like innocence and rebellion from restraint, and has transferred the hope for the New Millennium, the New Jerusalem, into the hands of women who can break the pattern of oppression. Her optimism parallels that expressed by writers in the decade following the French Revolution, a belief in the indestructability of the human spirit of freedom. For Trambley, however, the future even of men lies in the hands of women who can change the enslaving tradition.
Trambley presents a static but complete illustration of the kind of woman who can free others when she creates Elsa of “The Secret Room.” Since she is not the main character of the story, Elsa does not take an active, revolutionary role, but her natural freedom and ability to give love without seeking power over the loved one form the catalyst that frees Julio (Julius Otto Vass Schleifer). Sweet and childlike but also passionate and wise, she has given herself freely to Julio, but she makes...
(The entire section is 3483 words.)