Tita de la Garza
Tita de la Garza (TEE-tah), the youngest daughter in a ranch-owning family. The rules of her tradition-bound family dictate that the youngest daughter remain single and care for her mother until the latter dies; therefore, Tita grows up in the kitchen, learning about life and cooking from the ranch’s Indian cook, Nacha. Her childhood sweetheart marries her older sister Rosaura so that he can be near Tita, but Tita’s vengeful mother regularly punishes the lovers for their clandestine meetings. Tita rebels against her fate through the marvelous recipes she prepares, which provoke magical reactions. After the deaths of her mother and her sister, Tita and her lover, Pedro, are united in a passion so intense that they perish in its blaze. Tita is immortalized in her diary and recipe book, in which she had written all of her recipes and the events surrounding their preparation.
Mamá Elena (mah-MAH eh-LEH-nah), Tita’s tyrannical mother, widowed with three daughters. Her attempts to prevent an adulterous relationship between Tita and Pedro occupy much of Mamá Elena’s destructive attention. Fearless in her cruelty, she even intimidates the captain of a marauding band of revolutionary soldiers, thus preserving the ranch’s inhabitants and livestock from attack. Later, she becomes paralyzed from a spinal injury she suffers when a group of bandits try unsuccessfully to rape her. She is then forced to rely on Tita to cook for her. Needlessly suspicious that Tita is poisoning her food, Mamá Elena soon dies from an overdose of the emetic she takes to counteract the food’s supposed noxious effects. She continues to plague Tita and Pedro from beyond the grave. After Mamá Elena’s death, Tita discovers her secret past: Her mother had enjoyed an affair with a mulatto man who fathered Tita’s sister Gertrudis. When her family discovered Mamá Elena’s relationship, they forced her into marriage with a white man and had the mulatto murdered when the affair continued.
Rosaura de la Garza
Rosaura de la Garza (rroh-SOW-rah), Tita’s older sister, who marries Pedro Muzquiz at Mamá Elena’s suggestion. Rosaura lives her life according to her mother’s dictates, attempting to maintain the respect and admiration of the cream of society. Jealous of his love for Tita, Rosaura tries unsuccessfully to impress Pedro with her cooking. Rosaura cannot even produce milk to nurse her son and daughter. Her attitude toward cooking and her knowledge of Pedro’s undying love for Tita are manifested in Rosaura’s obesity and flatulence.
Gertrudis de la Garza
Gertrudis de la Garza (hehr-TREW-dees), Tita’s rebellious older sister, fathered by Mamá Elena’s mulatto lover. Loyal and sympathetic to her sister Tita and a great fan of her sister’s culinary talents, Gertrudis is so overwhelmed by passion after eating one of Tita’s special dishes that she abandons her family and rides off on horseback with a revolutionary soldier. Unable to satisfy her lust with him, she tames her sexual appetite as a prostitute until the soldier returns and marries her. She lives happily, eventually becomes a general in the revolutionary army, and visits the ranch with her soldiers after Mamá Elena’s death.
Pedro Muzquiz (mews-KEES), Tita’s childhood sweetheart, who marries her sister Rosaura to remain near Tita. After her death, Mamá Elena whirls into him in the form of a firecracker, nearly burning him to death, but he recovers under Tita’s care. When Rosaura dies, he is finally freely united with Tita, and his ecstasy is so overwhelming that it proves fatal.
John Brown, the de la Garzas’ family doctor...
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from Texas. A widower with a young son, he visits the de la Garza ranch when Rosaura gives birth. He admires Tita. When she suffers a nervous breakdown, he rescues her and cares for her in his home and later proposes marriage. They become engaged, but when Tita breaks off the relationship, he bows out amicably. He later returns to the ranch happily to celebrate his son Alex’s marriage to Rosaura’s daughter Esperanza.
Nacha (NAH-chah), the de la Garzas’ Indian cook. One of a long line of expert cooks, she rears Tita from childhood in the kitchen and teaches her secrets to Tita, even whispering recipes to her from beyond the grave. On the day of Rosaura’s wedding, after tasting the wedding cake icing in which Tita has shed tears, Nacha dies, overcome with grief and loneliness for the fiancé whom Mamá Elena had forbidden her to marry.
Tita de la Garza, the youngest daughter in her family, wins the reader’s sympathy immediately as the victim of the repressive family tradition that prevents her from marrying. Like most of the characters in the novel, in certain respects she resembles someone from a fairy tale. Beautiful, desirous of pleasing her mother, enormously talented, but cursed by an unfortunate destiny and a wicked mother and sister, Tita can be likened to Cinderella. She propels the novel’s action forward through the effects produced by the dishes she prepares. Tita represents a model of female liberation because, rather than rejecting the domestic space that confines her, she employs the resources of the kitchen to obtain self-fulfillment.
Mamá Elena, Tita’s cruel mother, like most female characters in the novel, is characterized largely by her relationship to the activities of the kitchen. In contrast to Tita, who uses ingredients creatively and generously, Mamá Elena displays and demands rigid obedience to rules in cooking. She is the principal villain, notorious for loving any destructive culinary activity, such as dividing, dismembering, detaching, or carving. She inspires a modicum of sympathy after her death, when Tita discovers Mamá Elena’s secret: Before and during marriage, she had enjoyed an affair with a mulatto until her scandalized family had the lover murdered. Readers interpret her authoritarian ways as the tragic result of being so severely punished herself for defying repressive societal rules.
Rosaura, the unattractive and inept sister obsessed with keeping up appearances, resembles a fairy-tale wicked stepsister and thus gains virtually no sympathy from the reader. Diametrically opposed to Tita, she shows her lack of creativity in her fear of the kitchen. Her death is an act of poetic justice, punishment for unquestioning allegiance to societal norms.
Gertrudis, the rebellious, unfettered daughter of Mamá Elena and her mulatto lover, is depicted in stark contrast to Rosaura. She fully appreciates Tita’s talents and observes that an entire family history is contained in Tita’s recipes. She is the receptacle for the erotic response that one of Tita’s recipes provokes and is the embodiment of unbridled female freedom.
Nacha, the ranch’s Indian cook, serves as a kind of surrogate mother to Tita. She is the representative of a centuries-long tradition of culinary art that is transmitted only orally until Tita begins writing down her recipes. Through this character, Esquivel pays tribute to the contributions of Mexico’s indigenous female population.
Pedro Muzquiz, Tita’s lover and Rosaura’s husband, like all the male characters in the novel, remains relatively undeveloped. He exists principally as the object of Tita’s quest for romantic happiness and as the lens through which to admire Tita’s beauty and talent.
John Brown, the family doctor and Pedro’s rival for Tita’s affections, is a relatively bland stock character, as his name might suggest. His kindly presence serves to highlight Tita’s virtues and to introduce tension into Pedro and Tita’s love story.
Women dominate Esquivel's cast of characters. The three sisters—Rosaura, Gertrudis, and Tita—exemplify three possible responses to the tyranny of conventions and expectations. Rosaura follows the rules to the letter, Gertrudis breaks all the rules, and Tita follows the rules outwardly while rebelling inwardly. Their mother, Mama Elena, who tried to rebel in her youth, grows into a cold tyrant, incapable of love. The men, on the other hand, hardly matter.
Mama Elena is the tragic character of Esquivel's tale. She is the villain of Tita's life, who abandoned her to the kitchen at birth, forbids her to marry, and seems bent on destroying her every hope for love and happiness, but she is a victim, too. Her punishments are creative—and brutal. When she notices a sparkle in Tita's eye, for example, at Roberto's baptism celebration (which arose from an innocent encounter in the kitchen with Pedro while she was nursing Roberto), Mama hits on the worst possible punishment—to send Rosaura and family to San Antonio to live, thus denying Tita not only of Pedro's company but of the child, whom she loves as her own son. When this decision results in the child's death, Mama's response to the tragedy is to forbid mourning: "We can't give in to sorrow, there's work to do. First work, then do as you please, except crying, do you hear?" Tita grows to hate her for her arbitrary meanness and her constant fault finding, but she remains the faithful daughter, even returning to the ranch after being disowned to care for Mama Elena in her dying days. After her death, however, Tita discovers the truth about her mother. In a secret bundle of letters, she reads of the love of her mother's life—a mulatto named Jose, father of Gertrudis—who was killed the very night they were to run off together. Forced to marry a man she did not love, who later died of the shock of discovering the truth about Gertrudis, Mama Elena turns into a masculinized woman, feared by family and servants alike. As Tita remarks after watching her perfectly cut a watermelon, "Unquestionably when it came to dividing, dismantling, dismembering, desolating, detaching, dispossessing, destroying, or dominating, Mama Elena was a pro." Still, once Tita knows her secret, she can weep at her mother's death: "Not for the castrating mother who had repressed Tita her entire life, but for the person who had lived a frustrated love. And she swore in front of Mama Elena's tomb that come what may, she would never renounce love."
In her 1993 interview with Loewenstein, Esquivel explains that "Mama Elena transforms herself into a repressor because she herself was repressed, they did not let her follow her heart." Part of her harshness with Tita, no doubt, arises from her knowledge of what thwarted love can do. But the irony is that she herself perpetuates the tragedy, by enforcing a rule that condemns Tita to stand by while her sister marries the man she loves.
Mama Elena's daughters each reflect their mother in some important way. Rosaura, according to Esquivel herself, is just like her mother in accepting society and holding to tradition. The critic Maria Elena DeValdes observes that Rosaura tries to model herself on her mother, invoking her mother's authority because she has none of her own. Rosaura learns nothing, it seems, from the charade of her loveless marriage. Otherwise how could she condemn her own daughter Esperanza to the same fate foisted on Tita by her mother. Sadly, she has never known love herself, so perhaps she has no idea of the cruelty of the sentence. Her inability to deal with food (her death from flatulence, her killing her son by not knowing how to feed him) are fitting deficiencies for someone who doesn't know the first thing about love, for which food is an emblem in this book.
Gertrudis fares better, taking from her Mama the passion of her youth which has been so long suppressed it is now dead. Critics have observed that in Gertrudis' passionate response to and escape from the confines of the ranch she is acting out the love of Pedro and Tita as it might be if left unfettered. After all, it was Tita's dish of love—quail in rose petal sauce made from the roses she was not allowed to accept from Pedro—that orchestrated her escape. Society would ascribe her passion and unconventionality, no doubt, to heredity, if only they knew. Still, neighbors are captivated by her fantastic stories of battle, her cigarette smoking, even her hitching up her skirt to dance the polka. Her androgynous lifestyle allows her to have it all, including control over the men around her, especially her husband Juan and the comically devoted Sergeant Trevino.
Tita, left behind, is confined to a tradition she has not the will to break. Zamudio-Taylor and Guiu, in their analysis, make the distinction between voluntary and involuntary memory and observe that conscious behavior in this book is marked by duty and conservativism while change and transgression of tradition become possibilities that exist outside the realm of choices, and are triggered by the remembrance of love, and by a blind desire willing to take risks. Tita sometimes acts out her wishes on instinct in the first half of the story and she clearly has an inner strength that allows her to act decisively in small ways (like killing quails quickly to prevent their suffering), but it is only under John's tutelage away from the ranch that she learns that choices are available to everyone.
John teaches her to articulate her needs, and she credits him with showing her the way to freedom. As she places the porcelain doll in the Three Kings' Day Bread before baking, she is able for the first time to be honest about her wishes. She thinks how easy childhood wishes are to make and how "growing up, one realizes how many things one cannot wish for, the things that are forbidden, sinful. Indecent. But what is decent? To deny everything that you really want?" She then goes on to state her real wishes, the forbidden ones, most of which do come true in the end. Gradually she is able to speak her mind to her sister Rosaura, to Pedro, and even to her mother's ghost, thus vanquishing her. When Pedro proposes marriage, she weeps "her first tears of joy." And when Pedro dies at their moment of greatest ecstasy, she makes conscious choices about life and death, at first to resist the tunnel by checking her passion, and then to approach the tunnel again and let herself go so that she can leave with him for the lost Eden. Tita at the end is in charge, having become a full person, though she dies in the process.
Pedro and John, the two men who helped her reach this climax, are more emblematic than real. Pedro, with his selfish declarations of love, his sexual passion for Tita, and his strong jealousy, is the perfect embodiment of machismo. But he is not much of a man, whispering in Tita's ear on his and Rosaura's wedding day that "through this marriage I have gained what I really wanted: the chance to be near you, the woman I really love" and snatching occasional intimate moments with Tita, but lacking the strength to do what is really necessary—standing up to Mama Elena. He acquiesces to a marriage his own father questions and acts like a child when Tita seems on the verge of a new life with John. Tita herself calls him what is he, a coward. Conveniently, he dies at the moment at which their love is to be made public, leaving his resolve untested. John Brown, on the other hand, is everything Pedro is not. He is calm, reasonable, intelligent, gentle, and open-minded. He is a nurturer, willing to sacrifice his own needs for the happiness of someone he loves. Male and female qualities are mixed in him; he is perhaps the New Man Esquivel idealizes. He makes Tita happy, grateful, and at peace. But he is not the man for her. Love comes not from the head but from the heart, and Pedro, not John, is Tita's soul mate. Knowing that without Pedro she will be forever dark, cold, and alone, she makes that conscious choice to "light all her matches at once," ensuring that "never again would they be apart."