Laura Esquivel Esquivel, Laura - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Como agua para chocolate Laura Esquivel

Mexican screenwriter, novelist, and theater director.

The following entry presents criticism on Esquivel's Como agua para chocolate (1989; Like Water for Chocolate) through 1997.

Esquivel was born circa 1951 in Mexico, and became a noted writer due to the success of the film Chido Guan (1985), for which she wrote the screenplay. By the time of the publication of Como agua para chocolate (1989; Like Water for Chocolate), Esquivel had achieved a measure of critical success, and the work was widely celebrated as one of the best-selling novels written by a Mexican author. It became a number one bestseller in Mexico in 1990, and its English translation enjoyed a lengthy stay on the New York Times Book Review best sellers list in 1993. Como agua para chocolate has been translated into many different languages, and the release of the film of the same name (1993), for which Esquivel wrote the screenplay and her former husband Alfonso Arau directed, brought her more commercial success and international acclaim. The film version broke several American box-office records to become one of the highest grossing foreign films released in the U.S.

Plot and Major Characters

Like Water for Chocolate is written in a unique style; it combines elements of a cookbook and a romance novel and is actually a parody of both genres. The work contains monthly entries, and is actually a parody of both genres. The book relates the story of Tita de la Garza, the third and youngest daughter of Mamá Elena, a widow. Tita is born on a kitchen table in Mexico on the eve of the Mexican Revolution. In this novel, Esquivel invents a Mexican family tradition that dictates the youngest daughter must forsake all personal aspirations, including marriage, in order to feed and care for her mother until the mother's death. Therefore, Tita is thrust into the role of caregiver. During her youth, Tita is exiled to the kitchen, where she learns various recipes and cooking skills from Nacha, the family's Indian servant. Mamá Elena is a tyrannical parent, and Tita's only refuge becomes the kitchen, where she pours her emotions into her cooking. As time goes by, Tita falls in love with a man named Pedro. Mamá Elena refuses to allow the marriage, but offers Rosaura, the oldest sister, to Pedro instead. Pedro accepts in order to be near Tita, but he does not tell her his reason for accepting the marriage to Rosaura. The responsibility of preparing the wedding feast falls to Tita and Nacha. During the preparation of the cake Tita's tears fall into the batter, and her sorrow and remorse are magically transferred into the cake when Nacha bakes it. The result is disastrous—when the guests eat the cake, they sob uncontrollably, become violently ill, and rush home. Afterwards, Pedro tells Tita his reasons for marrying Rosaura, and the two reconcile. Later, the jealousy and bitterness Tita feels toward Rosaura is transferred again into Tita's cooking, and the food gives Rosaura bad breath, flatulence, and horrible body odor. She is so repugnant that Pedro is driven from her, and Rosaura's baby is given to Tita to nurture. Despite this, Tita's emotions continue to be transferred into her cooking. One day Pedro gives her roses. Filled with passion, she crushes the roses to her chest, drawing blood. Denied a physical outlet for her love, she cooks a dish called “Quail in Rose Petal Sauce” with the roses. After eating the dish, Gertrudis, the middle daughter, is consumed with passion, and her body sets the bathroom ablaze. Gertrudis then runs naked through the fields until she is picked up by one of Pancho Villa's revolutionary horsemen and the two engage in a sexual relationship while riding at full gallop. Gertrudis becomes enflamed with desire that no man can satisfy, and she spends time working at a bordello to quell her cravings. When Mamá Elena discovers what has happened between Pedro and Tita, she banishes Pedro and his family to the United States. Pedro's son dies in America, and when Tita learns of his death, she suffers a nervous breakdown. She convalesces at the home of John Brown, a doctor who lives in Texas. Her recovery is slow due to her disgust at the lack of taste and culture in North American cooking. However, during her stay, she encounters the smell of wonderful cooking coming from a small room. The cook is Luz, Dr. Brown's grandmother, who is a Kickapoo Indian. Luz's cooking revives Tita from the brink of death and makes her strong again. Dr. Brown cures Tita's hysteria; as a result, Tita feels indebted to him. When Mamá Elena dies, Tita agrees to marry Dr. Brown. Then, finding that Rosaura has died, Tita decides to reunite with Pedro, and when the two are finally together, their love magically ignites a flame that destroys Pedro, Tita, and the ranch.

Major Themes

Esquivel consistently alters expectations of readers with the use of magical realism, a term that refers to literature in which elements of the marvelous, mythical, or dreamlike are injected into an otherwise realistic story without breaking the narrative flow. In Like Water for Chocolate Esquivel takes traditional situations and adds magical elements, completely exaggerating otherwise normal scenarios with fantastic details. When the wedding guests become ill after eating the wedding cake, they vomit in quantities to cover the patio in a river. Tita and Pedro's final lovemaking is passionate and intense; it starts an explosive blaze that is viewed from miles away as fireworks. The magical realm is most evident in Tita's kitchen. There, Tita, who has never been pregnant, is able to nurse her nephew. She also develops the ability to cook emotions into her dishes. Sadness is cooked into a wedding cake, uncontrollable passion results from eating a dish with rose petals, fiery anger is magically transferred into chiles. All Tita's emotions are infused into her dishes, and those she feeds experience magical results. Each of Esquivel's chapters begins with a recipe and concludes with an ingredient having slightly changed to alter the dish, filling it with magical powers. Tita's tears also have magical qualities. Before she is born, she cries in the womb when onions are being cut. When she is born on the kitchen table, she cries sufficient tears that when dried, the tears are swept up to fill a ten-pound sack. While recovering at Dr. Brown's, Tita grieves so violently that her tears run down the stairs in a torrent. A major theme within Like Water for Chocolate concerns struggles for power. A contest for authority develops very early in the novel when Mamá Elena forces Tita to become her caregiver. Later in the novel, Rosaura becomes jealous of Tita and marries Pedro to flaunt power over Tita. Eventually Tita becomes more powerful than both these women by doing the very tasks that Mamá and Rosaura have forced her to do. Tita ruins Rosaura's wedding and Rosaura, after gorging on Tita's food, dies of intestinal gas. Mamá grows to distrust Tita, and erroneously believes that Tita is poisoning her. Mamá dies while vomiting after months of continual Ipecac syrup use. Another struggle for power involves Gertrudis, who is discovered to be an illegitimate daughter, and therefore considered by traditional society as a person unworthy of wielding any type of power or authority. In a reversal of this stereotype, Esquivel portrays Gertrudis as a strong figure who emerges as a powerful general during the Mexican Revolution. In another reversal, Esquivel portrays the male characters in Like Water for Chocolate as weak, insipid, and incapable of making important decisions. The men in the novel are manipulated and coerced by various women into situations the women deem appropriate. Pedro allows himself to be talked into marrying Rosaura. He also allows himself to be sent away to America. At the conclusion of the novel, he does ask Tita to marry him, but it is ultimately Tita who decides whether they will marry or not. Dr. Brown is also portrayed as a passive character. He does not hold Tita to their engagement; he allows her to return to Pedro. Esquivel is able to parody the Mexican romance novel genre through her use of weak, ineffectual male characters. In the traditional romance novel, strong, swaggering men rule the docile females' lives, dictating how women live. Esquivel effectively rejects the traditional romance novel hierarchy by empowering her female characters with intelligence and strength—traits typically associated with male characters.

Critical Reception

Most critics consider Like Water for Chocolate to be a well-written and intelligent parody of the standard romance novel and have noted that Esquivel's adept use of metaphors and symbolism give the love story many deeper levels of meaning. Though many critics have difficulty placing the book into any one genre of writing because it contains elements of a traditional novel, a romance novel, a fantasy, a parody, and a cookbook, they generally find Like Water for Chocolate to be both thought-provoking and highly entertaining.

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

*Chido Guan (screenplay) 1985

Como agua para chocolate: Novela de entregas mensuales con recetas, amores y remedios caseros [Like Water for Chocolate: Novel of monthly installments with recipes, loves, and home remedies] (novel) 1989

Little Ocean Star (screenplay) 1994

La ley del amor [The Law of Love] (novel) 1995

*This film, directed by Alfonso Arau, is also known as Chido One and Tacos de Oro.

James Polk (review date 18 October 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “A Novel Recipe for Sensuality and Romance,” in Chicago Tribune, October 18, 1992, section 14, p. 8.

[In the following review, Polk discusses the role of food and food preparation in Like Water for Chocolate.]

Printed on the menu of the diner where I used to have lunch was the message, “Eating is Important,” another of those little truths we often take for granted. But after reading the Mexican screenwriter Laura Esquivel’s funny, raunchy, sensual and hugely romantic first novel, Like Water for Chocolate, it’s obvious we’re not just dealing with another everyday fact of life. Eating, we discover, is more than important, it’s decisive,...

(The entire section is 1036 words.)

Claudia Loewenstein with Laura Esquivel (interview date 25 July 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Revolución interior al exterior: An Interview with Laura Esquivel,” in Southwest Review, Vol. 79, No. 4, Autumn, 1994, pp. 592–607.

[In the following interview, which was conducted on July 25, 1993, Loewenstein and Esquivel discuss Como agua para chocolate and its impact on readers and on Esquivel herself.]

Author’s note: This interview was conducted on 25 July 1993 in the Spanish School at Middlebury College, where Laura Esquivel was a visiting lecturer. The interview was conducted in Spanish and translated into English by Anne Marie Wiseman.

[Loewenstein:] Laura, your book opens and closes with the weepy,...

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Janice Jaffe (essay date 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Hispanic American Women Writers' Novel Recipes and Laura Esquivel's Como agua para chocolate (Like Water for Chocolate),” in Women's Studies, Vol. 22, No. 2, 1993, pp. 217–30.

[In the following essay, Jaffe examines the community-like qualities of recipe sharing and the empowerment women can obtain from the kitchen.]

The women of this city are somewhat light in their carriage, and have learned from the Devil many enticing lessons and baits to draw poor souls to sin and damnation; and if they cannot have their wills, they will surely work revenge either by chocolate or conserves, or some fair present, which shall surely...

(The entire section is 6076 words.)

Linda Britt (review date 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Translation, Criticism or Subversion? The Case of Like Water for Chocolate,” in Translation Review, Vols. 48 & 49, 1995, pp. 10–4.

[In the following review, Britt disparages the translation of Como agua para chocolate because of numerous errors and altered text.]

“What is being translated? A text?

A reader’s experience? An interpretation?”

—Eugene Chen Eoyang

The premise of this essay hinges on the question: “What level of betrayal is acceptable in translation?”...

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Kristine Ibsen (essay date Spring 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “On Recipes, Reading and Revolution: Postboom Parody in Como agua para chocolate,1” in Hispanic Review, Vol. 63, No. 2, Spring, 1995, pp. 133–46.

[In the following essay, Ibsen explains that Como agua para chocolate is not feminine literature as much as it is a parody of male-orientated literature.]

Despite its popularity with the reading public, initial critical reaction to Laura Esquivel’s Como agua para chocolate (1989) has often tended to dismiss the work as, at best, a poor imitation of the male canon. Probably the most extreme reaction thus far has been Antonio Marquet's analysis, which characterizes the novel as...

(The entire section is 5188 words.)

María Elena de Valdés (essay date Winter 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Verbal and Visual Representation of Women: Como agua para chocolate/Like Water for Chocolate,” in World Literature Today, Vol. 69, No. 1, Winter, 1995, pp. 78–82.

[In the following essay, de Valdés discusses the effect of feminist imagery in both the novel and the film Como agua para chocolate.]

Como agua para chocolate is the first novel by Laura Esquivel (b. 1950). Published in Spanish in 1989 and in English translation in 1992, followed by the release of the feature film that same year, the novel has thrust this Mexican woman writer into the world of international critical acclaim as well as best-seller popularity. Since Esquivel...

(The entire section is 4637 words.)

Susan Lucas Dobrian (essay date July 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Romancing the Cook: Parodic Consumption of Popular Romance Myths in Como agua para chocolate,” in Latin American Literary Review, Vol. 24, No. 48, July, 1996, pp. 56–66.

[In the following essay, Dobrian states that through the use of parody in Como agua para chocolate, Esquivel is not ridiculing romance novels, she is denouncing the male-domination in society that makes women want to read romance novels.]

Laura Esquivel’s Como agua para chocolate represents a parody of popular myths that, by encapsulating female characters within formulaic and prescriptive roles, strive to eliminate feminine diversity and individuality....

(The entire section is 4811 words.)

Rosa Fernández-Levin (essay date Fall 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Ritual and ‘Sacred Space’ in Laura Esquivel's Like Water for Chocolate,” in Confluencia: Revista Hispánica de Cultura y Literatura, Vol. 12, No. 1, Fall, 1996, pp. 106–20.

[In the following essay, Fernández-Levin analyzes the metaphors and symbolism found in Like Water for Chocolate and how Tita, the novel's protagonist, transforms the drudgery of the kitchen into a magical experience.]

Laura Esquivel’s novel Like Water for Chocolate resonates with metaphors that cannot be extricated from Mexican culture, its social conventions and myths. The novel allows readers to follow the metamorphosis of the protagonist, a young Mexican...

(The entire section is 6884 words.)

Ksenija Bilbija (essay date Winter 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Spanish American Women Writers: Simmering Identity Over a Low Fire,” in Studies in the Novel, Vol. 20, No. 1, Winter, 1996, pp. 147–65.

[In the following essay, Bilbija compares and contrasts Esquivel's Like Water for Chocolate and Silvia Plager's Like Potatoes for Varenike.]

“… for example, food is to be eaten; but it also serves to signify (conditions, circumstances, tastes); food is therefore a signifying system, and must one day be described as such.”

—Roland Barthes, Critical Essays

“Introducing The CanLit Foodbook


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Cecelia Lawless (essay date 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Cooking, Community, Culture: A Reading of Like Water for Chocolate,” in Recipes for Reading: Community Cookbooks, Stories, Histories, University of Massachusetts Press, 1997, pp. 216–35.

[In the following essay, Lawless claims that Like Water for Chocolate can not be easily classified as simply a novel or simply a cookbook; it contains the elements of both genres. Lawless gives detailed examples of this genre blending.]

Laura Esquivel has written an unclassifiable work that simultaneously breaks and brings together boundaries of genre so as to concoct something new in Mexican literature. Like Water for Chocolate: A Novel in Monthly...

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Jerry Hoeg (essay date Spring 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Como agua para chocolate and the Question of Viable Alternatives to Technologies of Domination,” in Confluencia: Revista Hispánica de Cultura y Literatura, Vol. 12, No. 2, Spring, 1997, pp. 112–27.

[In the following essay, Hoeg studies the importance of the “gringo” scientist, Dr. John Brown, in Como agua para chocolate.]

In Becoming a Scientist in Mexico: The Challenge of Creating a Scientific Community in an Underdeveloped Country, Jacqueline Fortes and Larissa Adler Lomnitz paint a rather gloomy picture of the possibility of developing a ‘critical scientific mass’ in Mexico or, indeed, in any Latin American country. The specific...

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Mónica Zapata (essay date 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Like Water for Chocolate and the Free Circulation of Clichés,” in Latin American Postmodernisms, Rodopi, 1997, pp. 205–20.

[In the following essay, Zapata examines the effects of clichés and metaphors in Like Water for Chocolate]

Retrieval or recycling is one of the most generally accepted characteristics of what in the last decades of our century has been called the postmodern aesthetic. The term is applied as much to intertextual as to interdiscursive phenomena—parody, pastiche, citation—and encompasses the collapse of traditional borders between genres thanks to the new investiture it gives to texts from different contexts: popular and...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Alameda, Soledad. “Laura Esquivel, el sueño y la vida.” El país semanal 247 (12 November 1995): 40–46.

An short interview that was also reprinted in the February 1996 issue of World Press Review, Vol. 43, No. 2. Esquivel discusses her impetus to write, her book The Law of Love, and her decision to write in the science fiction genre, among other things.

Houston, Robert. “Karma Chameleons.” New York Times Book Review (17 November 1996): 11.

Review of The Law of Love, a “multimedia” novel that includes a variety of additional materials such as a compact disc with music,...

(The entire section is 169 words.)