Last Updated September 5, 2023.
Real Women Have Curves is a two-act play by Mexican-American author Josefina López, who was born in Mexico and emigrated to the United States with her family when she was a young girl. Real Women Have Curves tells the story of a group of first-generation Mexican-American women who work in a sewing factory in Los Angeles in the late 1980s.
The play unfolds over the course of a week in the September of 1987, during which the women share secrets about their lives and yearnings. It is also partially autobiographical: like López, the young protagonist is intellectually curious and yearns to go to college, but has financial needs and struggles with her family’s opposing wishes for her future.
Ana is 18 and is described as “a recent high school graduate and a young feminist.” She wants to go to college. She is waiting for financial aid and working at her sister’s garment factory in the meantime. However, she is very unhappy and resents having to do such menial labor. In her diary, she writes bitterly about the factory:
I don’t want to be here! . . . Is it selfish of me not to want to wake up every morning at 6:30 a.m., Saturdays included, to come work here for 67 dollars a week? Oh, but such is the life of a Chicana in the garment industry. Cheap labor . . . I’m doing the work that mostly illegal aliens do.
Ana’s sister, Estela, is “24, plump, [and] plain-looking.” She owns the factory, but is threatened by her status as an undocumented immigrant with a criminal record—she was once arrested for “trying to ‘abduct’ a lobster,” and is now being sued for payments on her factory’s machines. For example, Estela asks a customer to advance some of their payment so Estela can pay her workers. In response, the customer threatens her by alluding to asking for her immigration papers.
Estela is unmarried and interested in a man who washes his car every day where the women can watch through the factory window. He asks Estela on a date, but tries to take her to the drive-in so that they can be intimate in the back seat of his car. Estela wonders, “Why is this happening to me? I’m going to get deported. I will have let you and everyone down.”
Ana and Estela’s mother Carmen is a “short, large woman” who opposes Ana’s desire to attend college in New York at the other end of the country. She wants Ana to stay in Los Angeles and contribute to the family’s income. Neither of Carmen’s daughters is married and she complains that she should have grandchildren at this point and be able to stay at home to take care of them.
At one point, Carmen mistakenly believes that she herself is pregnant. Ana tells her mother, “You don’t have to keep it.” Carmen responds, "Ana, I don’t want to talk about this." Carmen explains that she grew tired of always being pregnant and having babies so she let herself become fat in the hope that her husband—Ana and Estela's father—would no longer find her attractive. “Why didn’t you just say no?” Ana asks, as she encourages her mother to be more assertive.
Rosali is described as “29, only a bit plump in comparison to the rest of the women” and “sweet and easygoing.” Because she is always dieting, she often feels unwell. She accepts a large order to help Estela, who is always worried about making payroll and covering expenses. Rosali and Pancha, as well as Ana and Carmen, work hard...
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to make sure that the large order gets filled.
Along with its positive depiction of female bonding, the play also shows how difficult it is for the women to labor under the factory’s conditions. It is hot in the factory and the women are in close quarters. Issues with their pay sometimes make the women irritable.
At one point, Pancha complains about having to work in the heat. She tells Estela that the other women should not have to be punished because of Estela’s criminal record and lack of legal documentation. However, when Pancha is hurt, the other women rush to help and offer to take her to the hospital. In the next scene, the other women fear that Pancha will not return. Peering out the window, they see a homeless man on the street and wonder about him. The audience is given to understand that the women fear he is an immigration officer.
In one scene, Ana takes her clothes off because of the heat. “We’re all women,” she says. When the other women ask Ana why she doesn’t lose weight, she responds, “Because I like myself!” Ana also tries to get her sister to realize her dreams. She suggests that Estela go to school to study fashion design and design her own dresses. She promotes ambition and independence in the other woman. However, when they open the door to air out the hot factory, they see “la migra,” or immigration. They quickly put their clothes on and get back to work.
Following this immigration scare, Estela gives her workers the day off. As she closes the factory, she examines the dresses in greater detail and realizes that she can produce larger sizes for “real women.” She begins to measure herself for a prototype of her new line of dresses.
The next day, Estela models the dress she has designed and also gives her workers a gift: a new fan. The women get paid, but give their wages back to Estela so that she can repay the loan on the sewing machines and finally obtain her papers. Ana is reluctant to give her sister the money back because she was going to “save up for a typewriter.” However, she realizes the money’s importance to Estela and gives her back half of her wages.
Probably as a result of Ana’s efforts to encourage greater independence, Estela asserts herself. She calls her biggest customer who once alluded to her immigration status and calls the woman greedy and a capitalist. The play ends with the women in the factory singing happy birthday to Estela. They also acknowledge Ana’s imminent departure to New York so that she can go to college. They are all very happy for her.
The women teach one another about solidarity, teamwork, independence and realizing their dreams. In her closing soliloquy, Ana addresses the audience:
I was only glad to know that because I was educated, I wasn’t going to end up like them. I was going to be better. I was going to teach them about a women’s liberation movement. About sexual liberation and all things a so-called educated American woman knows.But in their subtle ways, they taught me about resistance. About a battle no one was fighting for except themselves. About the loneliness of being women in a country that looked down on us for being mothers and submissive wives. Perhaps the greatest thing I learned from them is that women are powerful, especially when working together.