Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1806
Ana Castillo's 1993 novel, So Far From God , explores the relationship between family members and their community in a traditional Hispanic community, making this community more accessible to non-Hispanic cultures. While critics like bell hooks and Theresa Delgadillo have argued that the home in this novel is a place...
(The entire section contains 19322 words.)
See This Study Guide Now
Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.
Ana Castillo's 1993 novel, So Far From God, explores the relationship between family members and their community in a traditional Hispanic community, making this community more accessible to non-Hispanic cultures. While critics like bell hooks and Theresa Delgadillo have argued that the home in this novel is a place where spirituality and selfhood get reworked and re-organized, the idea that Sofi rebels against the traditions of daughter, wife, and mother have generally been under-examined and have not been explored in the context of Sofi's "failed'' yet successful rebellion.
Sofi's resistance to the patriarchal attitudes of her culture begins early in her life, but comes as a flashback in the novel. Sofi attends her cousin's coming-out party and meets Domingo. He is universally disliked by her middle-class Hispanic family, but Sofi is in love. She challenges the rules and her family by marrying him over her family's and her community's objections. Even the local priest refuses to perform the ceremony. From a traditional feminist point of view, Sofi's rebellion is a powerful act of independence. However, Castillo seems to cast it in a much more negative light. From the very beginning of the novel, Castillo paints Domingo as a loser, a gambler, and a player. In the flashback episode, Domingo is young and suave and just a bit dangerous. By rebelling against the social order, Sofi is opening herself up to a dangerous man. While Castillo seems to be suggesting that women should remain in the traditional role as dutiful daughters who always do what Daddy says, the subtext of the novel makes it clear that it is Sofi's family's fault that she ends up with Domingo. Castillo is critiquing Hispanic (and American) culture by suggesting that if Sofi's family had not been so dead-set against Domingo, she would not have fallen so hard for him and ruined her life.
Sofi herself realizes what she has given up after her daughter Caridad's death. She realizes that her duty to her parents should not supersede her duty to herself, but at the same time, her parents failed in their duty to her by making life with Domingo so attractive. These same ideas about family duty are illustrated in the ways Sofi's daughters behave as daughters. Unlike their mother, Esperanza, Caridad, Fe, and La Loca are free to do what they want with their lives, marry whomever they please, find their own career paths, and do everything that Sofi did not. Yet here, too, Castillo shifts the terms of the feminist debate by making the outcomes of these daughters' actions just as painful and ultimately unsuccessful as Sofi's own choices.
Sofi's behavior as a wife again goes against the traditional role of Hispanic wife and therefore the definition of a "good'' Hispanic woman. For most of her married life, Sofi did follow the traditional path. She married Domingo instead of just sleeping with him; she took care of the house and her husband, and even welcomed him back after a fifteen-year absence. In feminist terms, Sofi is a victim of patriarchal rage because she does not do anything for herself. She allows Domingo to leave and then accepts him back with no questions asked. However, she does start to stand up for herself when Domingo loses the house and butcher shop in a card game. Sofi makes the decision to divorce her husband. While divorce is common in American culture and many Hispanic women do divorce every year, the idea of divorce is not culturally accepted in Chicana/o culture. Due in part to the overwhelming influence of Catholicism, divorce is a fate to be avoided at all costs. Sofi displays her understanding of this by having not divorced Domingo when he left her the first time. However, her reason for not divorcing Domingo had nothing to do with any love she had for him; it was merely to keep up appearances. Sofi worries more about how she appears than whether or not she is happy. Happiness is not part of the equation for a wife in Sofi's mindset.
Sofi is finally able to break this pattern when she finds out that Domingo has lost her land and her house. She has been the long-suffering wife. She put up with his gambling, his desertion, his broken promises, and his lies. She sacrificed everything to play the role of a good wife. Domingo bet her house—the house was hers, not his, a gift from her father—on the turn of a card. He lost. And like a traditional Hispanic wife, she lost right along with him. Sofi had finally had enough. She divorced Domingo and forced him to sign over his half of the house he had built for Caridad so that La Loca would have a place to live when Sofi died. She completely wrote him out of her life. It is in her rejection of the role of wife that Sofi acts most like a feminist heroine.
Sofi's rejection of the traditional roles for Hispanic women comes to it fullest expression in the way she mothers her four daughters: Esperanza, Caridad, Fe, and La Loca. Throughout the novel, Sofi never encourages her daughters to be anything, not even traditional Hispanic women. She does not discourage them either, but she does not raise her daughters the way she was raised. She allows all of her daughters room to express their sexuality, their talents, and their realities. But it does not do her any good. All four of her daughters die in tragic circumstances, leaving Sofi more devastated and alone each time.
Esperanza has never been Sofi's favorite, but Sofi does care for her eldest daughter. She tries to advise her on sex without being overbearing and does not voice objections to her career decisions. It is only after Esperanza's death during the Gulf War that Sofi starts to question her parenting methods. She realizes that she hardly knows her daughters, but, at the same time, feels that it is too late to do anything about it. Sofi did exactly what her culture told her to do in all such situations.
When Tom breaks off his engagement to Fe, Sofi's third daughter, she suffers a breakdown and spends an entire year screaming and banging her head against the walls of her house. Sofi behaves like the "good'' mother. She does not interfere, but tries to get Fe to eat and come to her senses. Sofi is much more active in Fe's life because she knows about love. She approaches Tom and his mother and accuses him of destroying her daughter. She attacks him verbally as only a mother can and relishes her part in the drama. Yet, she goes back home without seeing Tom himself and lets her daughter scream her head off. Sofi does not try to end Fe's behavior, but then neither does she punish her for it. After Fe recovers, she is still welcome in her mother's house and no mention is made about the way she speaks or behaves. Sofi does not encourage Fe's engagement to Casimiro, but neither does she stand in the way of Fe's chance at happiness. Sofi seems almost detached from her daughters' lives after Esperanza's death, afraid that getting too close will bring bad luck. She deals with Fe's death in this stoic fashion. Sofi is still caught up in her public appearance and cannot see what her daughters need from her.
Perhaps her most traditional yet unconventional expression of motherhood is the way Sofi deals with Caridad and La Loca. Caridad seems to be her favorite child, and throughout the novel, Sofi is either excusing her behavior or finding ways to justify it. After Caridad is attacked and beaten, Sofi dedicates all of her energy to nursing her daughter, yet she can do nothing more than sit by her bedside and pray. After Caridad's "miraculous" recovery, Sofi plays down her maternal role by letting her daughter move out of the house and into a trailer of her own. Even the death of Caridad's horse and her own year-long disappearance in the mountains cannot shake Sofi's determination to play the good mother. As tragedies mount around her, Sofi gives up more and more of her own self to be the good mother that society tells her she must be. Even after Caridad's death, Sofi feels that she must continue to play the good-mother role. She turns her attention to her remaining daughter and her community.
Sofi's relationship with her youngest daughter, known as La Loca, the Crazy One, is complicated at best. She witnessed her daughter's "death" at age three, was prepared to bury her, and smothered her with mothering after she rose from the dead at her own funeral. Sofi never tries to make La Loca fit into society; she never takes her to school or church nor does she push her to socialize in any way. La Loca is her crazy one, her eternal baby. Yet, she does express genuine concern for her strange daughter. Sofi questions her daughter's relationship with the ghosts and the animals and insists that she wear clean clothes. Sofi tries to make her daughter's last months comfortable and realizes that she is not in control of events but is merely an observer to the unfolding of her family's lives.
In this characterization, Castillo seems to be condemning the traditional role of motherhood as one that cannot really affect how people or things turn out. Yet, in a blast of heavy-handed sarcasm, Castillo creates a character who turns her failed role of mother into a successful national role as the president and founder of an organization devoted to memorializing children who have died or been killed young. Sofi also takes on the role of mothering her entire community; she is able to do for her town what she cannot do for her children. Sofi is able to provide ways of getting living wages for the farm hands, providing better food through a co-op program, and provide better medical and utility services through a real hospital and decent sewer and water systems.
It is only when Sofi has lost everything that she realizes that she, as a person, must matter before she can do anything worthwhile. ‘‘Sofi had devoted her life to being a good daughter, a good wife, and a good mother, . . . and now there was no mother to honor, no father to respect, no 'jitas (children) to sacrifice for, no rancho to maintain, and no land left to work.’’ It is through the characterization of Sofi, a woman who loses everything that her society says makes her a woman, that Castillo argues most passionately for a new definition of womanhood both for Hispanic women and women all over the world.
Source: Michael Rex, in an essay for Literature of Developing Nations for Students, Gale, 2000.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 656
In So Far From God Castillo creates community--defined by Tomas Rivera as "place, values, personal relationships, and conversation’’ by means of a "speakerly" magico-realist narrative texture. The driving forces of this process are women: women who think, dream, act and relate in what Anzaldua has called a "pluralistic mode,'' transcending binary oppositions, a rational "dualistic thinking in the individual and collective consciousness,’’ in an effort to heal "the split that originates in the very foundation of our lives, our culture, our languages, our thoughts’’ (Borderlands). The keyword of this worldview, carried as in Sapogonia by a discourse in which the natural and supernatural categories of reality are harmoniously intertwined, is faith: a faith that facilitates a dynamic relationship between human beings and their surroundings and an implicit magico-realist conception of the world in which the imaginary is regarded as factual reality. Faith is the fundamental principle which underlies La Loca's resurrection, Caridad's miraculous recovery and predictions, Felicia's holistic treatments, and the appearance of living (mythical) spirits. This peculiar type of faith, which is revised and actualized through female agency, is the driving force behind the collective activism and the implicit alternative mode of living and relating outlined in the novel; a counter-hegemonic mode conceived as possible solution to the postmodern fragmentation and dislocation experienced in the borderlands.
This magico-realist worldview, whose fundamental essence resides in "the interconnectedness of things,'' is expressed by means of a "speakerly'' texture in which a skaz-like discourse, being at work in and acting on the actual discourse, an unnamed narrator, who as a storyteller represents both a communal and an individual voice, and the use of multiple points of view and perspectives recreate and interweave individual and collective experiences as the novel's political unconscious. A telling example of this fluid dialogical texture is the episode in which Sofi, La Loca's mother, announces to a comadre her plan to run for mayor of Tome. On entering Sofi's house just before the actual dialogue between the two women, the comadre, whose namelessness suggests her collective identity, is lost in thoughts about Sofi and her family. Introduced by the phrase, ‘‘. . .for when she repeated the story later to the other in the Chicano borderlands through an affirmation of otherness—an otherness not imposed but recreated: an identity based on difference with the capacity to relocate, a "differential consciousness’’—whose nature shifts from individual separateness to collective multiplicity that posits no ‘‘ultimate answers, no terminal utopia. . .no predictable final outcomes’’ but transcends hegemony via concrete utopia, a strategic use of deconstructive difference that traces the necessity for change and anticipates the possibility of an alternative lifestyle. By locating the agency of change in the mestiza—the re-creation of woman as creator who has a vision, is not "afraid to speak that vision'' (Saeta Interview), and, most importantly, acts accordingly. And by restoring their indigenous roots, Castillo invests her female characters with a historicized and politicized consciousness—a nonessentialized consciousness based on a radical mestiza subjectivity, that is, a subversive position of intelligibility and mode of knowing necessary for the transformation of cultural practices—as strategy of empowerment and liberation. For that reason I read her politics of dislocation and relocation as resistance Xicanisma that envisions the mestiza consciousness as ‘‘a crossroads sin fronteras,’’ (Borderlands) a ‘‘locus of possibility'' (Sandoval), a motivating force behind ‘‘the development of an alternative social system’’ (Castillo Massacre). The deconstructive nature of this undertaking resides in the revelation of the necessity for insurgency/activism without legitimating the envisioned results as transcendental truths: a ‘‘talking back’’ whose echos do not spiral down into abyme but create a "real state of emergency’’ (Benjamin) that carries the possibility of ‘‘new life and new growth,’’ (Hooks) or to use Heidegger's phrase, ‘‘something begins its presencing’’ in the Chicano borderlands (Bhabha).
Source: Roland Walter, ‘‘The Cultural Politics of Disclocation and Relocation in the Novels of Ana Castillo,’’ in MELUS, Vol. 23, No. 1, Spring, 1998, pp. 81-97.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5877
In the nineteenth century, Louisa May Alcott made subjects of objects when she wrote her domestic novel Little Women, which centered on four sisters and their mother during the American Civil War. Alcott created a home for the March girls that was removed from the world of war and male supremacy. In the twentieth century most critics who have devoted their attention to home space and domestic ritual have concentrated on white, middle-class homes (Matthews). It is necessary, however, to begin including working-class homes and the homes of women of color in this dialectic. The subject of home space has not gone unnoticed by some women of color, like cultural theorists bell hooks and Gloria Anzaldua, and novelist Toni Morrison. Each of these writers is re-visioning the home space and its significance regarding gender roles, racism and spirituality in the homes of working-class women of color. For example, in her essay, ‘‘Homeplace: a Site of Resistance,’’ bell hooks is not interested in further exploration of the "white bourgeois norms (where home is conceptualized as politically neutral space).’’ Instead, she uses her theory to examine the "homeplace'' of African American women, a space she defines as a "site of resistance and liberation struggle.’’
Bell hooks's theory on "the homeplace'' can be used to explore the domestic world that Ana Castillo has created in her novel, So Far From God. In this novel, Castillo, like hooks and other women writers of color, constructs the home as a ‘‘site of resistance" for the woman of color living in a racist and sexist world. Deconstructing physical, political and spiritual boundaries, Castillo takes on the role Gloria Anzaldua describes in her book, Borderlands/La Frontera, as ‘‘the new mestiza.’’ With its playful and ironic style, and its insistence on ambiguity and contradictions, So Far From God offers a postmodern inversion of Alcott's Little Women. Both works are American novels dealing with the primary relationships of four sisters; however, Castillo's novel is concerned with four Chicana sisters and a mother living a working class life in Tome, New Mexico. According to Cordelia Chavez Candelaria, Castillo is "one of the earliest Chicana voices to articulate a sexual politics through textual poetics,’’ and this is clearly seen in So Far From God. Unlike Alcott's created home space that for the most part is politically neutral, the home space in Castillo's novel is infused with political resistance. It is a place where women of color have an "opportunity to grow and develop’’ spiritually and politically, which is not always possible or allowable in a "culture of white supremacy.’’
The daughters in So Far From God are dealing with power relations that the March girls in nineteenth century middle class America did not even have to think about. The March girls, despite their own oppression in a patriarchal culture and their own sympathy for the poor and destitute, were part of the hegemony of white culture. The sisters in So Far From God, on the other hand, must construct a home space that will offer them sustenance, security and spirituality in order to move into a white world as subjects. This is crucial, for according to hooks, "when a people no longer have the space to construct homeplace, we cannot build a meaningful community of resistance.’’ The daughters in So Far From God are given the opportunity to "reconceptualize ideas of homeplace, once again considering the primacy of domesticity as a site for subversion...’’ (hooks).
I am sitting at my kitchen table, thinking about the anger in Ana Castillo's novel—and how it is masked in humor. A narrator's voice disguising rage with flippancy, telling the story of four daughters who cannot live their entire lives in their mother's home, womb, female space. My baby starts to cry—he is angry because he's hungry, and I have to stop thinking about why Caridad is wearing Fe' s wedding gown when she floats across the room in her healing vision. I get a bottle for the baby and it is love in action; it is a political act; it is a moment when my private sphere, my home space is directly connected to the growth of another human being. I think about what Louise Erdrich said regarding mothering and how that relates to my home, my so-called private life:
One reason there is not a great deal written about what it is like to be the mother of a new infant is that there is rarely a moment to think of anything else besides that infant's needs. Endless time with a small baby is spent asking, "What do you want? What do you want?''
It is the opposite of war. The ego is put aside; ideas, philosophies, theories all shrink down in the chthonic force of sustaining life—feeding another person.
It is in this continuous state of childbirth, moving into grace with all my resistance, that I want to say, ‘‘Leave me alone, I'm busy.’’ But I don't. According to Clarissa Pinkola Estes, ‘‘There is a saying, 'You can't go home again.' It is not true. While you cannot crawl back into the uterus again, you can return to the soul-home. It is not only possible, it is requisite.’’ I wash and sweep within the four walls and create stories; and like Ana Castillo, Toni Morrison, Gloria Anzaldua, and Louise Erdrich, I want to give voice to the ‘‘cultural silence of the domestic sphere’’ (Wright). Writing a poem while writing a poem in my home space.
In the first chapter of So Far From God, the voice of the matriarchy is clearly heard through the mother, Sofi, when her daughter, La Loca, comes back from the dead. After Loca awakens from her other state of consciousness (whether she actually dies or suffers from epilepsy is irrelevant), opens her coffin and flies up to the church roof, the priest immediately declares his judgement by asking,'"Are you the devil's messenger or a winged angel?''' He is embodying the voice of institutions-Christianity, patriarchy. La Loca can either be a devil or an angel, a virgin or a whore according to his linear thinking. Sofi, however, will not allow this destructive language of dichotomy to continue. She demands in the voices of Coatlicue, Hestia, Demeter, Guadalupe:
'Don't you dare!. . .Don't you dare start this about my baby! If our Lord in this heaven has sent my child back to me, don't you start this backward thinking against her; the devil doesn't produce miracles! And this is a miracle, an answer to the prayers of a brokenhearted mother. . .'
Sofi is the head of her home, a home she has created for her daughters. For one daughter, Loca, the home is the only space she can call her own. She stays home, not playing the role of angel or devil, and is "without exception, healing her sisters from the traumas and injustices they were dealt by society--a society she herself never experienced firsthand.’’ As for the other daughters, they ‘‘had gone out into the world and had all eventually returned to their mother's home.’’ They become trapped in the ‘‘quest-pattern that has dominated Western literature" (Romines). They are unwilling to accept what Kathryn Allen Rabuzzi describes in her book about spirituality and domesticity, The Sacred and the Feminine: Toward a Theology of Housework, as the ‘‘positive face of chaos, a letting go into possibilities that freedom from externally fixed routine allows’’ and that external routine is the world of male domination and the world of racism. In the novel, the daughters can only face chaos when they reenter their mother's home and re-discover their identity, their spirituality, and their strength. Eventually all of the daughters, including La Loca, experience loss in the collision of their need to create a home space with the destructive forces outside.
where I am born, I fall
in the snow you and I cannot open our mouths
to the ice house of rules and minutes,
quick thoughts of before buildings and I
feel muscles in every brick, steel girder,
I cannot breathe and try to explain what it feels
like to live in a world as an alien.
What is our place in the universe at a time
that goddess and poet have both made their excuses
leaving us biting our nails in the dark trying to
turn the highway into a bowl,
melting another iceberg with our tongues,
‘‘Suck on this,’’
‘‘housework doesn't suck because if it did, men would love it,"
From a greeting card that was given to a friend.
We wait inside Emily's poem,
the freezing people walking in circles
making our tombstone from a home and we can no longer
resign or revision or remember our honey moon.
The first daughter to move away from the home and into the perilous and destructive outside world is Esperanza. She enters her "quest-pattern'' when she chooses to leave home and work as a television anchorwoman in Washington, D.C. On the surface, her decision appears sensible: ". . it was pretty clear to her that there was no need of her on the homefront. Her sisters had recovered’’ from their encounters with physical and emotional abuse. Esperanza also believes her mother no longer needs her because her father has returned home years after abandoning the family. Esperanza, however, misjudges her own position and the source of power within her family. In turning away from her home, her mother, her sisters, she is turning away from ‘‘the great and terrifying mother earth from whom all life emerges, but to whom it likewise all returns'' (Rabuzzi). Her sisters continue to need her and her father is as ineffective now as he has always been. Esperanza is deceived by the male values that dominate the outside world in the novel; in turning from the female world of her home space (which her mother and sisters created) to the male world of war, she is moving towards self-destruction and can only return home after she is dead, in the form of a spirit. At first she speaks through La Llorona, who is described in the novel as ‘‘a loving mother goddess.’’ La Llorona is a messenger who informs La Loca (they were on a ‘‘first-name basis’’) that Esperanza has died. After that, Esperanza is seen by all the members of the family including the father who is a bit disturbed by his ‘‘transparent daughter. " Sofi sees Esperanza as a little girl who "had had a nightmare and went to be near her mother for comfort.’’ Caridad has one-sided conversations with Esperanza talking mostly about politics, and La Loca sees and talks to her by the river behind their home.
As a spirit, Esperanza returns to the home space to be comforted by her mother and sisters and to also teach them. Once Esperanza becomes a spirit, she is no longer a victim or an object of the white world. She belongs to a world that Anzaldua boldly asserts exists, a spiritual world that ‘‘the whites are so adamant in denying.’’ It is no accident that the dead Esperanza communicates with La Llorona, "a woman who had been given a bad rap by every generation of people since the beginning of time. . .’’ (Castillo). While she lived, Esperanza was also given a ‘‘bad rap.’’ But in death, La Llorona is revisioned and so is Esperanza. Both are liberated from the boundaries of white culture. Both can finally return home-and the home can be a river or a mother's arms.
After Esperanza accepts her job in Washington, D.C., she is assigned to Saudi Arabia, a place about to erupt in war. Esperanza accepts this fate because she desires to move away from the home where the "mothers are the ones who actually have to change, feed, and connect with children for all their bodily functions,’’ and move towards the ‘‘male saviors’’ whose ‘‘relative absence. . .from homelife automatically places them in a privileged position’’ (Rabuzzi). It is ironic (or maybe not so ironic) that Esperanza, in choosing the male hero as her model-leaving home, participating in a patriarchal institution, war, because '‘‘it's part of my job'’’—is really choosing torture and death. Esperanza is experiencing what Anzaldua aptly describes in La Frontera as ‘‘shutting down.’’ She is living with the fear of rejection from the outside culture and she is also living with the fear of losing her home, her mother, ‘‘La Raza.’’ Esperanza experiences this psychic paralysis. She is a woman of color who is:
Alienated from her mother culture, 'alien' in the dominant culture, the woman of color does not feel safe with the inner life of her Self. Petrified, she can't respond, her face caught between los intersticios, the spaces between the different worlds she inhabits.
It is only after Esperanza has died that she can return to her ‘‘mother culture.’’
Smoothing the sheets down on the bed,
stroking a window pane,
carrying a book to the table
and I think of hands making him soup,
carrying dirty underwear to the washing machine,
ripping lettuce under cold water,
stretching the chicken legs apart,
slamming the ice tray against the table,
holding, pushing, patting, kneading,
punching the pillow down under my stomach and
looking at the light spilling out to the street,
"you are not my mother and you never will be,’’
tasting my blood with honey
on my finger, around the corners of my mouth
and I wonder how I have lasted another
in this place.
Fe is another one of the daughters in So Far From God who chooses a patriarchal institution that moves her away from her home space and eventually destroys her. Fe chooses marriage and in a literal and symbolic way, it poisons her to death.
The daughter who chooses marriage, chooses to create a new domestic environment, echoes the myth of Demeter and Persephone. Persephone does leave her mother, but she eventually returns to her for at least some of the year's cycle:
Persephone therefore has two homes: her home of origins with her mother and her present adult home with her husband. Because the story is told from the perspective of her mother, Persephone's homecoming is her ascent to Demeter, not her descent to Hades. (Rabuzzi)
Anzaldua discusses her own separation and return to her origins which involves the dance of rebelling, celebrating, and defending aspects of her own Chicana culture. She asserts that it was necessary for her to leave home in order "to live life on my own.’’ Yet she concludes, ‘‘in leaving home I did not lose touch with my origins because lo mexicano is in my system. I am a turtle, wherever I go I carry 'home' on my back.’’ Fe, in marrying Casimiro and moving to the land of ‘‘the long-dreamed-of automatic dishwasher, microwave, Cuisinart and the VCR,’’ is trying in her own way to return to her mother but she cannot truly find her way back because of her inability to view her home and her culture in all of its complexity. She can only look at her mother's home and her sisters as a source of embarrassment or pity:
As it was, while Fe had a little something to talk to Esperanza about, she kept away from her other sisters, her mother, and the animals, because she just didn't understand how they could all be so self-defeating, so unambitious.
Fe wants desperately to re-vision her mother's home by making it sterile, shiny, closer to the definition of home by mainstream white culture. She cannot see the spiritual richness in her home. In fact, Fe describes one of her sisters, La Loca, as "a soulless creature’’ because she always wears the same clothes and doesn't bother with shoes. For herself, Fe insists on imitating the mainstream culture with a considerable amount of effort: "Fe was beyond reproach. She maintained her image above all-from the organized desk at work to weekly manicured fingernails and a neat coiffure.’’ Anzaldua points out that fear is the cause of this denial of home, a kind of "homophobia." She states:
We're afraid of being abandoned by the mother, the culture, la Raza, for being unacceptable, faulty, damaged. . .To avoid rejection, some of us conform to the values of the culture, push the unacceptable parts in the shadows. Which leaves only one fear—that we will be found out and that the Shadow-Beast will break out of its cage.
At the beginning of the novel, Fe embraces mainstream white culture; she wants to be like the white women she works with. She chooses ‘‘three gabachas’’ from her job to be her bridesmaids instead of her sisters. But instead of gaining any power, she ends up wrapped in the shower curtain, screaming her way back to the matriarchal circle of her mother and sisters. Her first boyfriend, Tom, decides he isn't ready for intimacy and commitment. And it is her mother and her sisters who become the healers and nurse, who clean and pray over Fe. Fe loses her voice as a result of her constant screaming yet she still does not learn how to integrate her home space with the world outside.
Eventually, Fe marries one of her cousins, Casimiro. She still desires to live in a suburb in a house that does not smell the way her mother's house smells.
Fe's journey does end back at home and she is finally able to see her home as a source of comfort, wisdom and spirituality but it is only after the outside world has done its best to destroy her. After being exposed unknowingly to a very toxic chemical, Fe goes home to die:
A year from the time of her wedding, everything ended, dreams and nightmares alike, for that daughter of Sofi who had all her life sought to escape her mother's depressing home-with its smell of animal urine and hot animal breath and its couch and cobijas that itched with ticks and fleas; where the coming and goings of the vecinos had become routine because of her mom's mayoral calling. . .Despite all this and more, Fe found herself wanting to go nowhere else but back to her mom and La Loca and even to the animals to die just before her twenty-seventh birthday. Sofia's chaotic home became a sanctuary from the even more incomprehensible world that Fe encountered that last year of her pathetic life.
In Fe's chase for the American Dream, she only finds infertility, deception, and ultimately a death that unlike her sisters' deaths, offers no spiritual transformation or resurrection: ‘‘Fe just died. And when someone dies that plain dead, it is hard to talk about.’’
Caridad, the other sister who leaves, like Fe and Esperanza also finds violence and ultimate destruction in the world outside the home. Early in the novel Caridad is physically attacked. It is a brutal sexual invasion, an attack on the female body:
Sofi was told that her daughter's nipples had been bitten off. She had also been scourged with something, branded like cattle. Worst of all, a tracheotomy was performed because she had also been stabbed in the throat.
Caridad's attack is treated by her society as merely a cause for prayer, because ‘‘the mutilation of the lovely young woman was akin to martyrdom." And it is treated with contempt by the police department who felt she deserved what she got because of her sexual promiscuity. In the end Caridad is ‘‘left in the hands of her family, a nightmare incarnated.’’ Caridad's attack is an attack on the female, on what is closest to home—death, birth, blood. According to Anzaldua in Borderlands/La Frontera:
The female, by virtue of creating entities of flesh and blood in her stomach (she bleeds every month but does not die), by virtue by being in tune with nature's cycles, is feared. Because, according to Christianity and most major religions, woman is carnal, animal, and closer to the undivine, she must be protected. Protected from herself. Woman is the stranger, the other. She is man's recognized nightmarish pieces, his Shadow-Beast. The sight of her sends him into a frenzy of anger and fear.
Caridad becomes ‘‘the stranger, the other’’ when she is attacked, and she is only healed through her sisters and mother at home. She floats through the living room wearing Fe's wedding gown and is beautiful again; her wounds all vanish because La Loca prays for her. She moves into a transcendent world by no longer existing as an object for the world. Instead, Caridad meets an older woman, Dona Felicia, a surrogate mother who teachers her to become a healer. Dona Felicia is the one who points out the power that Caridad and her family possess:
All they did at the hospital was patch you up and send you home, more dead than alive. It was with the help of God, heaven knows how He watches over that house where you come from. . . .
Therefore, it is through the rituals of the home that Caridad enters into a spiritual life. Caridad's renewed life ‘‘became a rhythm of scented baths, tea remedies, rubdowns, and general good feeling.'' She makes particular chores like dusting her altar and her statues and pictures of saints, taking baths, and cleaning her incense brazier part of her spiritual life. She takes on the role of a priestess, who "enacts her purification rites primarily for her own benefit’’ (Rabuzzi).
In the outside dominant culture where ‘‘We've been taught that the spirit is outside our bodies or above our heads somewhere up in the sky with God’’ (Anzaldua), Caridad's actions may be perceived as "cultlike" or even superstitious. But for women of color, her actions not only contradict what hooks identified as ‘‘white bourgeois norms (where home is conceptualized as politically neutral space),’’ they re-connect and re-member the home to the body to the spirit.
Caridad's mentor, Dona Felicia, creates a home in her trailer that is overflowing with the smells of beans cooking and incense burning. She is creating in her home ‘‘the spiritual life and ceremonies of multi-colored people’’ (Anzaldua) and is moving out of the ‘‘consciousness of duality’’ (Anzaldua). There is nothing neutral about her home (as there is nothing neutral about Sofi's home, filled with the smells of animals). They do not imitate the white culture with the "white sterility they have in their kitchens, bathrooms, hospitals, mortuaries and missile bases’’ (Anzaldua). Instead, Caridad and Dona Felicia's homes echo Anzaldua's words on institutionalized religions and home:
Institutionalized religion fears trafficking with the spirit world and stigmatizes it as witchcraft. ... In my own life, the Catholic Church fails to give meaning to my daily acts, to my continuing encounters with the 'other world.' It and other institutionalized religions impoverish all life, beauty, pleasure.
Anzaldua also writes about her own home rituals and how they are strongly connected to her creative and spiritual life:
I make my offerings of incense and cracked corn, light my candle. In my head I sometimes will say a prayer—an affirmation and a voicing of intent. Then I run water, wash the dishes or my underthings, take a bath, or mop the kitchen floor.
Despite Caridad's rejection of institutionalized religions and her attempts to create a protective home space for herself, whether it is in a trailer or in a cave, she is again terrorized by the outside world. The woman she loves, Esmeralda, is raped by Francisco, a man who is obsessed with Caridad. Because of this man's desire to own a woman at any cost, because of his "machismo," which Anzaldua defines as a need to "put down women and even to brutalize them’’ (a concept which Anzaldua connects to racism and shame), Caridad and Esperanza both commit suicide at Acoma. They go to Acoma after Esmeralda's attack, and when Caridad realizes that Esmeralda was violated, and that Francisco followed them, they hold hands and jump off the mesa and are taken by Tsichtinako, "the Invisible One who had nourished the first two humans, who were also both females.’’ This spirit leads both women back to the womb, back to a safe home: not out toward the sun's rays or up to the clouds but down, deep within the soft, moist dark earth where Esmeralda and Caridad would be safe and live forever.
we cannot talk,
it is better to only hear
the water running in the kitchen sink
dreaming of rooms and you sitting
across from me saying ‘‘yes, yes
I will defend you, I know exactly what I will say’’
but after you leave your words change,
you lie and eat food my dead grandmother prepares and
I know I must change all my poems now,
throwing books at you in front of my parents' house
and you laugh and hold your breath waiting
for the hysterical woman to stop so you can
go on walking down the street,
so you can go on driving in the car,
so you can go on your horse to another town and fuck another woman
with your words, your money and your gun.
As long as woman is put down, the Indian and the Black in all of us is put down. The struggle of the mestiza is above all a feminist one. As long as los hombres think they have to chingar mujeres and each other to be men, as long as men are taught that they are superior and therefore culturally favored over la mujer, as long as to be a vieja is a thing of derision, there can be no real healing of our psyches. We're halfway there—we have such love of the Mother, the good mother. The first step is to unlearn the puta/virgin dichotomy and to see CoatlapopeuhCoatlicue in the Mother, Guadalupe. (Anzaldua)
The two women in the novel who do not leave home are the mother, Sofi, and one daughter, La Loca. Both women look to their home space as a source for spiritual growth and as a reconnection between their own culture and the outside dominating culture. Neither Sofi nor Loca desire the objects, the static role or the sterile, domestic environment of mainstream white culture. They are rooted in their own history, and at the same time, they accept their world in its playful state of constant change, and contradictions. This tension between rootedness and flexibility is observed by Anzaldua in Borderlands/La Frontera:
Los Chicanos, how patient we seem, how very patient. . . .We know how to survive. When other races have given up their tongue, we' ve kept ours. We know what it is to live under the hammer blow of the dominant norteamericano culture. But more than we count the blows, we count the days the weeks the years the centuries the eons until the white laws and commerce and customs will rot in the deserts they've created, lie bleached. Humildes yet proud, quietos yet wild, nosotros los mexicanos-Chicanos will walk by the crumbling ashes as we go about our business. Stubborn, persevering, impenetrable as stone, yet possessing a malleability that renders us unbreakable, we, the mestizas and mestizos, will remain.
Sofi was married Domingo, who was:
little by little betting away the land she [Sofi] had inherited from her father, and finally she couldn't take no more and gave him his walking papers. Just like that, she said, 'Go, hombre, before you leave us all out on the street.
Domingo returns years later and attempts to win back Sofi's affection but she has no desire to share a life with him again. She will no longer accept his perceptions as law: ‘‘'And don't call me 'silly Sofi' no more neither.' . . . 'Do I look like a silly woman to you, Domingo?'’’ Sofi is participating in what Norma Alarcon describes as "the ironically erotic dance that Castillo's speaking subjects often take up with men''; however, Sofi is no longer allowing herself to be victimized by the dance.
Domingo makes the mistake of losing Sofi's house in a gambling bet and that is one mistake Sofi cannot forgive, for her identity, her history is her house:
But the house, that home of mud and straw and stucco and in some places brick—which had been her mother's and father's and her grandparents', for that matter, and in which she and her sister had been born and raised—that house had belonged to her.
Domingo's insensitivity and carelessness concerning this loss is what finally pushes Sofi to file divorce papers. She also manages to hold on to her house. Like the matriarchal goddess, Hestia, who will not allow any god to "share her strictly matriarchal province,'' and who nurtures a fire in the hearth that was ‘‘the center of the earth,’’ (Walker), Sofi cannot let the fires in her home go out or let the fires consume her in rage. In her book, The Sacred and the Feminine, Rabuzzi describes this balancing act of the housewife who must carefully dance between her own home rituals, which includes spirituality, and outside influence:
. . .all the domestic rites a housewife performs are designed to maintain Hestia's fire properly. If she allows the fire to go out, her house is no longer a home. . .if a homemaker allows the fire to rage out of control, her home will vanish along with its physical embodiment. (Rabuzzi)
Sofi balances her dedication to her home, her duty to ‘‘La Loquita, her eternal baby’’ and her devotion to herself when she decides to finally bring closure to her failed marriage. Sofi does not act in a fit of rage; in fact with a charitable and flexible nature, she offers him a small house in Chimayo (which was built for Caridad). She may not want to be married to Domingo but she refuses to see him homeless.
This balancing act is also evident when Sofi, despite the fact that her own grandparents built the house, accepts an arrangement with the judge who won the house in a cockfight. He allows Sofi to "reside in her own home after she agreed to pay him a modest rent.’’
Like her mother, La Loca uses the home space as a source of spiritual nourishment and a source of strength. Loca does all her work, whether it is healing her sisters or talking to La Llorona, within the domestic sphere. While living in her mother's home, Loca becomes a mythic force in her own right. She becomes a player in a scene far older and larger than her individual self. No longer does she participate in profane historical time; instead she is participating in mythic time (Rabuzza). Loca visits hell, heals her sisters Fe and Caridad, and can smell other people's agony. She participates in a ‘‘mortal collision between the rituals of a house'' (Romines) when she describes to Sofi how she can smell her father's spiritual pain:
Mom, 'La Loca said, 'I smell my dad. And he was in hell, too. . . .
Mom, I been to hell. You never forget that smell. And my dad. . .he was there, too."
So you think I should forgive your dad for leaving me, for leaving us all those years?' Sofi asked.
'Here we don't forgive, Mom. . . . Only in hell do we learn to forgive and you got to die first. . . . Mom, hell is where you go to see yourself.
This dad out there, sitting watching T.V., he was in hell a long time.'
Loca, like Hestia, is a virgin who is ‘‘the representative of pure homelife’’ (Rabuzzi). Since her experience of death and resurrection at age three, Loca never leaves home, and she only allows her mother to come close to her. She never went to school, to mass, to any social activity. Her entire world is the house, the stalls, and the river by the house. She does not attempt to assimilate into the dominant culture like her sisters, Fe and Esperanza. She plays the violin without having to go to a teacher outside the home; she just learns using her own ability and talent. Loca doesn't rely on mainstream institutions for anything, whether it be to gain knowledge or spirituality in her life.
Yet the world comes to Loca in the shape of a disease, AIDS. Castillo does not explain how Loca contracts the disease, which adds to Loca's role in the novel as a character who is larger than her own self (Rabuzzi). The disease, which Castillo describes as the ‘‘Murder of the Innocent,’’ seeks Loca out.
In the end, like Caridad, Loca is taken away by a female deity, the Lady in Blue who is wearing a horsehair vest under her habit. The lady can be Guadalupe, La Llorona, ‘‘My-Mother-Who-Gives’’ Coatlicue—all aspects of the goddess who was ‘‘usurped of ancient feminine prerogatives’’ (Walker) by the outside culture but has found a voice within the home space. Loca, within her domestic sphere, is still disrupted by the racism and sexism of the patriarchy. She is the representative feminist healer and speaker operating from within the home. She is also the queer that Anzaldua speaks about when she says, ‘‘People, listen to what your joteria is saying.’’ And because of the disease she contracts, a disease of the postmodern world, she, like her sisters, Esperanza, Fe and Caridad, is a representative victim of the patriarchy. For only Sofi remains at the end of the novel, as the president of Mothers of Martyrs and Saints, an organization that worships another symbol of the home, the womb.
I wanted to write about this dream and call it ‘‘peeling garlic’’ smelling my fingers hours after I cooked and no, I do not believe women would start a war because they are not looking at the beginning or the end
What is home? Is it ‘‘the space in which you feel secure enough to be most fully yourself’’ (Rabuzzi)? Is domestic ritual only a private act? ‘‘I am writing a book, performing a public act that seems a far cry from my turkey dressing,’’ writes Romines. Is it? What do women learn in the home? Is the ‘‘place where all that truly mattered in life took place-the warmth and comfort of shelter, the feeding of our bodies, the nurturing of our souls. There we learned dignity, integrity of being; there we learned to have faith’’ (hooks). Anzaldua writes, ‘‘I am a turtle, wherever I go I carry home on my back.’’ I stand outside, bleeding. I watch the lunar eclipse, a heavy moon pulling on my womb; the moon is slowly disappearing above my house, and I hear my baby breathing under my skin. Five months ago, home for him was my body. I want to join the voices of the private and public that will not look at what is done in the home as disconnected to what is done outside the home, that will not disconnect the female body from the female spirit. I want to join the force ‘‘making a new culture—una cultura mestiza—with my own lumber, my own bricks and mortar and my own feminist architecture’’ (Anzaldua).
Source: Carmela Delia Lanza, ‘‘Hearing the Voices: Women and Home and Ana Castillo’s So Far From God,’’ in MELUS, Vol. 23, No. 1, Spring, 1998, pp. 65–79.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 10042
Ana Castillo's 1993 novel So Far from God counters a pervasive stereotype of Chicanas as passive individuals victimized by oppression or subordinated by a patriarchal church by presenting a cast of female characters who resist domination every day of their lives—though some days more successfully than others. The awakenings that these characters experience emerge from a continual battle against subjugation in which they shift the terms and tactics of their struggle as circumstances permit. The novel insists that the transformative effort of human life engaged in struggle also finds expression in the spiritual, metaphysical, and religious life of the oppressed. Through an emphasis on communities of women, a Chicana feminism fueled by a woman-centered spirituality emerges to challenge the subjugation of women within and without Chicana/o cultures, the marginalization of other sectors of U.S. society, and the destruction of the environment. Because it highlights the centrality of hybrid spirituality in the lives of characters engaged in cultural and political resistance, the novel challenges pervasive notions of religion as an obstacle to progressive action and perceptions of the sway of Catholicism in Chicana communities. It also asks us to see cultural resistance alongside political resistance, and to recognize women as agents of social change.
So Far from God tells the story of a family of women including Sofi, a single mother for much of her daughters' lives, and her four daughters: Esperanza, a political activist and broadcast journalist; Caridad, who is first a nurse's aide, then a battered woman, and, finally, a curandera (healer); Fe, a jilted bride whose job as a factory worker leads to her death by cancer; and Loca, a childhood saint, a recluse, and a healer.
Through its depiction of these lives the novel creates what Ramón Saldívar terms an "oppositional ideological form'' that can serve "both a unifying communal function as well as an oppositional and differentiating end.’’ Saldívar argues that Chicano narrative goes beyond realism to facilitate social change by systematically uncovering "the underlying structures by which real men and women may either perpetuate or reformulate’’ the ‘‘world of social hardship and economic deprivation.’’ Castillo's novel embraces the creative and transformative truth-telling that Saldívar sees as characteristic of Chicano narrative.
The Native as Resistance Central in this process is the recovery of the india/mestiza voice, what Norma Alarcón describes as the "recodification of the native woman'' essential to a sense of self and communal identity that can combat cultural, political, social, and economic oppression. In many ways, this novel follows the lead established by Alarcón in her seminal article, ‘‘Chicana's Feminist Literature: A Re-Vision Through Malintzin/or Malintzin: Putting Flesh Back on the Object,’’ by retracing, albeit fictionally, a history of india/mestiza women's subjugation and resistance. For Loca and Esperanza, in particular, the hybrid spirituality they practice becomes one with their political action. The link between their faith and their action parallels the practice of liberation theology, as, for example, in Nicaragua, where Christians were inspired by their faith to participate in a revolution (Betto). As in the exercise of liberation theology, this hybrid spirituality makes concrete the connection between the spiritual and the material, and between the personal and the public— not only for Loca and Esperanza, but for Caridad, Fe, and Sofi as well. However, the radical nature of this hybrid spirituality's challenge to the status quo arises not from a reinterpretation of Christianity, but from its embrace of both indigenous and Christian elements. In the Americas, a sense of the abiding validity of native beliefs and practices springs both from existence in the materiality (topography, landscape) of these continents and their human communities, as well as from the uninterrupted insistence of native populations on defining the world and themselves, that is, from their history of resistance to oppression. Castillo's novel more specifically links itself to what Gloria Anzaldúa calls the "Indian woman's history of resistance,'' creating a narrative that corresponds to Arnold Krupat' s conception of ‘‘anti-imperial translation’’ because, like Native American literature, it is ‘‘saturated with the worldviews and the performative conventions of traditional, oral, Native American expressive genres’’ (Krupat). The acceptance of Christianity and native beliefs allows for the incorporation of diverse ways of knowing and interpreting the world.
Although the novel offers examples of religious syncretism, which are inevitable where hybrid spirituality is possible, it does not take a syncretic view of spirituality. That is, it does not attempt to fuse divergent spiritual and religious practices into a unified whole. Instead, the novel emphasizes differing traditions and practices coexisting in the same world as aspects of the multiple subjectivities that define its characters. Though divergent traditions inform the lives of the characters in So Far from God, Castillo often takes the "heterodoxical stance'' toward both indigenous- and Christian-inspired practices that Kimberly Blaeser notes is also a feature of much Native American fiction.
This novel asserts that indigenous cosmologies and perspectives that challenge not only Western conceptions of history as linear and teleological but also Western notions of progress form an essential component of resistance. It thereby challenges Western epistemology, particularly what Ashis Nandy terms the "unilinear pathway from primitivism to modernity, and from political immaturity to political adulthood, which the ideology of colonialism would have the subject society and the 'child races' walk.’’ Because the hybridity that results is neither accomodationist nor assimilationist, but disruptive, the novel's religious interlacing becomes a site for radical change.
In the Americas that "unilinear pathway'' became the doctrine of Manifest Destiny, and, as Castillo deftly conveys in relation to one community and one family in So Far from God, its achievements were far from progress for those whose suffering was their price. These accomplishments include the genocide and subjugation of indigenous peoples from New England to Hawaii, the institution of chattel slavery, the Mexican-American War, and the invasions of Nicaragua, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Grenada, and Panama.
The novel's stress on the harm caused by such notions of progress rests on both this negative history and the continued presence of Western conceptions of progress in the lives of its characters. Yet, the novel challenges those conceptions by emphasizing not one past but many, and by bringing these into the present. The narrative offers stories about past events, such as the Mexican Revolution and the Chicano student movement, that reveal the officially unrecognized role of women. Castillo's characters also occasionally become the figures of indigenous myths—new versions of old stories. Finally, Sofi and Esperanza both confront patriarchal views of their roles and lives only by remembering their own past. Homi Bhabha argues that in "redefining the signifying relation to a disjunctive 'present'’’ by ‘‘staging the past as symbol, myth, memory, history, the ancestral—but a past whose iterative value as sign reinscribes the 'lessons of the past' into the very textuality of the present,’’ the postcolonial subject, the subordinated, the native, determines her "identification with'' and "interrogation of’’ modernity. She has agency. Castillo's narrative undoubtedly creates Chicana characters who actively participate in the construction of their world, yet the text goes beyond questioning to confront, as Nandy has described it, the responsibility that Western conceptions of history, progress, and political economy bear for the ‘‘genocides, ecodisasters and ethnocides'' that have affected the entire globe. From this perspective flows Nandy's "defence of non-modern cultures and traditions'' as integral to resistant hybridity, a position that Castillo's text also sustains.
Practitioners of the hybrid spirituality of So Far from God accept multiple forms and systems of knowledge, including the intuitive, mythical, native, psychic, folkloric, spiritual, material, and rational, as well as traditional practices and ceremonies. The novel's identification with indigenous cultural practices, beliefs, and traditions speaks to the complexity of the experience of the colonized and oppressed. Its hybridity expresses this life experience—not the genetic makeup—of subordinated groups, and in so doing it challenges the corruption, exploitation, and environmental destruction of the strictly rational center from its previously silenced margins.
In Domination and the Arts of Resistance, James Scott argues that subordinate or marginalized populations seek to improve or reverse the conditions of their subordination both covertly and overtly; his discussion clarifies the link between seeming submission and overt rebellion. As Scott explains, ‘‘relations of domination are, at the same time, relations of resistance.’’ This continual negotiation of power reveals itself in both the public roles played by the powerful and powerless as well as the private roles and practices each group allows itself when "hidden" from view of others. Although Scott does not suggest that the privacy from which one critiques power necessarily requires a particular physical space, spatialization of resistance can be important. For example, domestic space—gendered as the space of women—or barrio space can nurture covert resistance to domination, not because these are "safe" sites (they often are not), but because they are mostly hidden from the view of dominants. Scott's discussion of what he terms the ‘‘hidden transcript,’’ the exchanges, communications, and actions of each group invisible to the others allows us to see subordinate group members not simply as victims who are not yet aware of their own oppression, but as actors engaged in a process of struggle that sometimes has room to erupt publicly. Scott sees in the religious practices of subordinate groups their imaginative capacity ‘‘to reverse or negate dominant ideologies.’’ This ideological resistance is not limited to the locus of the hidden transcript, but also asserts itself in public and may influence a dominant group to accept a practice of subordinates in order to protect the public performance of their power. In this novel the home functions as the restricted space where the hidden transcript can unfold, while the community of Tome shifts between public and restricted space. Here we see women attempting, in myriad ways and with varying degrees of success, to deflect subordination and to effect changes that will gain them power.
Through an exploration of the experiences, perspectives, and imaginations of subordinated populations, Scott, Bhabha, and Nandy challenge notions of subjectivity and culture as static and unitary, and of culture as the terrain of dominants alone. Unlike the concept of syncretism, which emphasizes the reconciliation of diverse beliefs, systems, or practices in anew form, the conceptions of cultural hybridity that these theorists offer allow us to recognize the heterogeneity and ongoing negotiations that constitute culture in general, and the unique way in which this is performed in Castillo's text.
Given the contentious history of the Chicana/o population in U.S., it is not surprising that much of its literature is politically charged or deals with political, economic, social, and cultural resistance to oppression. It is not unusual for the literature of this heterogeneous community to grapple with conflicting claims and demands, for its characters engage a discourse of identity in which issues of power and opposition to the dominant society are central. Consequently, Chicana/o literature has demonstrated a preoccupation with the multiplicity of subject positions that colonized and oppressed people must of necessity occupy in their experiences. In this respect, Castillo's novel is no exception, representing a virtual catalog of the subjectivities, often in opposition to one another, in Chicana communities. Alarcón suggests that this is one of Castillo's trademarks (‘‘Sardonic Powers’’), while Yvonne Yarbro-Bejarano notes that Castillo's characters perform what Anzaldúa terms mestiza consciousness, whereby individual subjects ‘‘speak from a multiplicity of positions.’’ However, So Far from God also expands our definitions of what constitutes "resistance," of what is "political," and of who is capable of effecting social change by focusing on the defiance that characterizes the family of women at its center and the insurgency that erupts as they engage in ongoing battles.
La Loca's Resurrection The death of the child La Loca and her funeral are powerful opening images that indicate clearly and strongly the direction of this story. From unexplained violence to Sleeping-Beauty-like death, then to rebellion, which transforms her to a living and respected female healer, La Loca's journey in the first few pages presages the journeys of each of her sisters and her mother in the rest of the novel.
Significantly, La Loca's journey is four-part and she is also one of four sisters/daughters—Loca, Fe, Caridad, and Esperanza. The number four is particularly important in many Native American cosmologies because it represents the earth's directions and air currents. It is symbolic of a balance of elements, including both the material and spiritual, as well as the links between them. In The Sacred Hoop, Paula Gunn Allen cites numerous examples of the prevalence of four as an organizing number in ritual and ceremony of many Native American nations. In Literature ofthe American Indian, edited by Sanders and Peek, documents, stories, and poems from diverse tribes also attest to the widespread use of the number four as an organizing principle in oratory and literature. In fact, Allen believes that the uses of the number four among Laguna and other nations indicates that"four is a categorical symbol-statement about the primacy of female power in tribal ritual life’’ (The Sacred Hoop).
The prevalence of fours in this text de-emphasizes the centrality of Catholic hierarchy, and yet coexists with the three of the Holy Trinity that Father Jerome represents. Despite his strict devotion, or perhaps because of it, the priest appears to be little more than a figurehead, unable to establish a relationship with La Loca, either at her resurrection or later in her life. Father Jerome is also notably absent from the Holy Friday procession in chapter 15 that melds spiritual with cultural and political resistance. His religion is a rarefied practice, divorced from the material, emotional, and social world around him. However, as the novel demonstrates, it is not the priest or the Catholic hierarchy who determine what faith is nor how it is practiced.
The opening scene of the novel frames the issue of woman-centered healing in opposition to the patriarchal church that predominates throughout the narrative. Loca's resurrection as well as her ability to fly to the top of the church confound Father Jerome, who asks her,"Are you the devil's messenger or a winged angel?'' (Castillo). Father Jerome's words have several effects. Unsure about what he sees, he asks for clarification and thereby implicates Loca, a female, in deception. Second, his question calls attention to the possible presence of a dangerous power as well as a healing one, emphasizing a dualistic view of good and evil. Third, his question reflects a preoccupation with the institution and doctrine of the church rather than its adherents.
Father Jerome, ‘‘a little concerned about the grieving mother,’’ stops the funeral from proceeding into the church, despite the intense outdoor heat, because he wants to avoid a scene inside. Father Jerome's decision to detain the funeral procession outside, in 118—degree heat, for what, as our narrator tells us, is a lecture on ‘‘funeral decorum’’ reveals how, for him, doctrine comes before people. Sofi's intense grief is juxtaposed with this callous act of a representative of what he claims is a compassionate institution. Despite his sermon, Sofi cries out in agony over what is to her the inexplicable death of her daughter.
Sofi's cry challenges Father Jerome's sermon and insists on her own right and ability to "know'' why her daughter has died. Her very human reaction of grief and the stir it creates could also well be the catalyst for waking Loca up from the "dead," or what is later described as a type of epileptic coma. Hence, Sofi's action also has practical repercussions in changing the course of events because Loca does awaken, to the surprise and fear of all present, and ascends to the church roof, primarily to avoid contact with Father Jerome. This striking scene suggests that Castillo is engaged in revisionism on a small scale, substituting a Chicana resurrection for Christ's resurrection, and accordingly creating an alternate religious history or perhaps a new myth. La Loca's resurrection at the beginning of the novel indicates that this will be a story about the recovery of Chicana power and voice. Perhaps, in keeping with Jarold Ramsey's view of how myths tell their audience ‘‘who they are,’’ Loca's resurrection, and Sofi's role in bringing it about, speaks to Chicanas about their individual and collective qualities.
When Father Jerome suggests that Loca might be a messenger of the devil, Sofi defends Loca, and by extension herself and every other woman, and scolds the priest, rejecting his authority to name or define the phenomenon before him. Sofi's action here, while mildly censured by the surrounding crowd, is indicative of the kind of independence of spirit that her daughters inherit.
The third challenge to Father Jerome's authority to interpret faith occurs when the priest calls La Loca down from the roof of the building and tells her, "we'll all pray for you.’’ Loca does float down to the ground but corrects the father, saying, "Remember, it is I who am here to pray for you.’’ By insisting on the miraculousness of her experience and her communion with other realms, Loca insists on her spiritual power and agency. She is a character whose very presence refutes the Church's propositions that she is either merely a victim, offered by Father Jerome, or the product of an ignorant family and community, a position later taken by the Bishop.
The three challenges to the doctrine represented by Father Jerome comprise strong evidence of Castillo's revisionism. In this case, she has placed Father Jerome in the position of St. Peter, who denies his association with Jesus three times following the Last Supper. In the Bible, Peter realizes his error and repents, but Father Jerome experiences no such realization about the power or equality of women. After many unsuccessful attempts to bring La Loca into his flock, he decides to take "pity on her and finally dismisse[s] Loca as a person who [is] really not responsible for her mind.''
Pilgrimage to Tsimayo/Chimayo Loca's funeral procession is only one of several important public rituals in the novel. A second important procession is the pilgrimage to Chimayo or Tsimayo. The alternate spellings and different pronunciations of this sacred site—"ch" versus "ts"—highlight the distinction between Catholic and indigenous traditions of worship at this site: Castillo uses the "ch" spelling when describing Doña Felicia's annual Lenten Week trip, but offers the "ts" spelling when locating the site within ‘‘the land of the Tewa.’’ Embedded in each spelling of the word is a distinct cultural, social, political, and economic history of divergent populations defining the same space for themselves. Although the use of the Spanish sound "ch'' may appear to be simply an attempt to render the sound of native pronunciation in Spanish, the effort to make the word part of the Spanish language becomes emblematic of the adoption of indigenous religious practice. The word, however, comes from a native language, although there have been varied opinions on its origin and meaning: ‘‘The word chimayo is seemingly Maya in origin. It meant the dark wood of a tree particularly favored by cabinet makers in their work. Others claim it to be a Tewa word meaning 'good flaking stone'’’ (Stanley).
Caridad, beginning her apprenticeship as a curandera , accompanies Doña Felicia on the pilgrimage. The narrative informs us of the history of worship at Tsimayo/Chimayo as well as the later Catholic adoption of the site as sacred. Both the Catholic Our Lord of Esquipulas and the natural earth are worshipped at Tsimayo/Chimayo, but the narrative emphasizes this Catholic adoption of native practice when it describes the long lines of Catholics waiting to collect a little bit of the holy earth that heals from a small dirt well in the chapel. Historically, the worship of Our Lord of Esquipulas at this site began in the latter half of the eighteenth century, although native peoples had valued the "curing potentials of the mud and dirt'' at Tsimayo/ Chimayo since before the arrival of whites (Stanley), a resource embraced later by Catholics who referred to the site as the "Lourdes of New Mexico’’ (Stanley).
Caridad, in making the pilgrimage, understands that"the Catholic Church endorsed as sacred what the Native peoples had known all along since the beginning of time’’ (Castillo). Her attitude toward the Church's adoption of the veneration at Tsimayo/ Chimayo is ironic, meant to draw our attention to the social and economic reasons for such a gesture on the part of the Catholic Church. Her comment also points to the convergence of religious practices and beliefs in the site itself and among the people there—a syncretic rather than hybrid site for many who worship there (but not including Caridad) because it fuses two spiritual traditions.
The devotion at Tsimayo/Chimayo also suggests other instances of Catholic acceptance of native practice, especially Guadalupe worship. A common view of this practice, expressed by Saldívar, regards it as a manifestation of Catholic hegemony over Mexican women: ‘‘the holy mother Catholic Church has enforced on Mexican women a cultural model of passivity and guilt figured in the Virgin of Guadalupe to ensure their allegiance to a transcendental, phallocentric Logos.’’ Castillo's novel, however, asks us to see in the worship of Our Lady of Guadalupe not the ever-brilliant colonizers duping those poor Indians, but instead the possibility that an indigenous practice continues under a different name: "Just like a country changed its name, so did the names of their legends change’’ (Castillo). Many have argued that the worship of Guadalupe is the Catholic version or name for "Tonantzin, the mother goddess of the Mexica, whose temple or center of devotion was at the hill of Tepeyac’’ (Poole), and who was ‘‘sometimes identified with two other mother deities, Coatlicue (serpent skirt) and Cihuacoatl (woman serpent)’’ (Poole).
Guadalupe-worship illustrates how a type of covert critique of domination by subordinates—the assertion of agency in maintaining one's ability to define the world that is inherent in the maintenance of native cosmologies and epistemologies by colonized populations—can become part of the public transcript of power relations. The sixteenth-century historian of pre-Hispanic life in Mexico, Bernardino de Sahagún, ‘‘considered the devotion itself to smack of neopaganism.’’ (Poole). Instead of a clever ploy by the conquering Spaniards to convert the Indians, Guadalupe worship appeared to at least some of those conquering Spaniards to show that, in fact, the Indians had transformed one of their indigenous deities into an object of the Spaniards' worship.
Contemporary Chicana critical theory and Chicana visual and literary art have altered our view of the syncretism of Guadalupe worship, encouraging us to revalue the survival of native female power in this figure. Anzaldúa suggests that the veneration of Guadalupe may have origins in the matrilineal Azteca/Mexica culture that was overturned by Aztec centralization and forced into a covert existence, a view that problematizes any notion of a romantically unified indigenous past and expands our understanding of that past by identifying indigenous women's resistance. The analogy that Castillo's text creates between Caridad and La Virgen de Guadalupe brings the history of Indian women's resistance into the present: the dark-skinned Caridad who has suffered beating and mutilation, who has begun an apprenticeship as curandera, and who has rediscovered love for women, is taken for a saint and compared both to Guadalupe and the Apache woman warrior Lozen when discovered alone on the mountain to which she retreated.
Historically, Our Lady of Guadalupe has been deployed in the service of both accommodation, that is, to win Indian converts to the Church, and rebellion, to symbolize Mexican nationalism against Spanish domination in the revolution launched by Miguel Hidalgo in 1810 and to figure native claims to land and other rights for Emiliano Zapata' s army a century later (Poole). In the 1960s, members and supporters of the United Farm Workers in California marched under banners of Guadalupe. Playwright Luis Valdez described the significance of this as follows: ‘‘The Virgin of Guadalupe was the first hint to farm workers that the pilgrimage [to Sacramento in the spring of 1966] implied social revolution'' (qtd. in Chávez). Devotion to her, then, can hardly be characterized simply as an exercise in submission.
Even the seemingly harsh view of the Penitente Brothers becomes a complex exploration of the power relations and cultural values inscribed in the practices of this society:
While it's not every day that you see a crowd following a Christ-like figure carrying a cross along the highway (unless your people are from Chimayo or Tome or similar places throughout the territory controlled by the Spanish queen and friars for centuries with such ferocity that neither Mexican nor U.S. appropriation diluted the religious practices of the descendants of the Spaniards who settled there, including this procession that has been performed annually for two hundred years and will probably go on for two hundred more, such is their fervent devotion). (Castillo)
This passage emphasizes "control" over territory coupled with the historical facts of Spanish, Mexican, then U.S. appropriation, thereby suggesting that the cultural value of a group practice can shift relative to the political and economic power of that group. The practices of the Penitente Brothers are clearly cultural markers of a now less-powerful population. By also focusing on the "ferocity" of possession and linking it to the depth of cultural practice, the text demonstrates how seemingly contradictory cultural practices can exist side by side— because they become embedded in a social and material landscape. The text, therefore, qualifies the notion of complete conquest by revealing the complexity of the past and continued negotiation between dominants and subordinates from the perspective of the native, rather than that of the conqueror.
Female Power and Its Links to the Natural World The affinity with the natural world and natural order characteristic of a native spirituality that these Chicana characters embrace leads to a site of female strength and power in this novel: ‘‘La Loca was only three years old when she died. Her mother Sofi woke at twelve midnight to the howling and neighing of the five dogs, six cats, and four horses, whose custom it was to go freely in and out of the house'' (Castillo).
The sensitivity of the animals, the intensity of their attempts at communication, and their proximity to the members of the household are striking. Sofi listens, gets up to check the house, and discovers the baby in convulsions. The scene highlights the interconnection between human and animal, and communication between the two, a dialogue that continues throughout the novel, as, for example, when the animals signal that Caridad has fully recovered (Castillo).
Loca subsequently spends much time outdoors and with animals, rather than in the house, indicating her own individual affinity with the surrounding natural world. She is not, however, the only female character who places herself in the natural world instead of the man-made world. She and other women in this novel do so in a very distinct fashion. In a discussion of the relationship between the natural world and humans evident in contemporary women's writing, Alicia Ostriker notes Annette Kolodny's view that ‘‘the power of men's fantasies depends consistently on a vision of nature and woman, as alive, fecund, and essentially mindless. Women who identify their own bodies with earth, however, tend not merely to celebrate the concept of fecundity but to link earth's powers with a critical and subversive intelligence, or with the creative imagination itself.’’ For many contemporary female writers ‘‘nature [. . .] is always that in which we are embedded rather than that from which we are divided’’ (Ostriker). The women of So Far from God, and in particular the curanderas, are examples of the phenomenon in contemporary writing of imagining a relationship to nature different from the one that predominates in our society and of linking this distinctive relationship with another kind of intelligence. This kind of writing eliminates the dichotomy between the individual and what Allen calls the ‘‘out there’’ (Sacred Hoop).
Caridad and Esmeralda' s leap from the top of the mesa at Acoma poignantly illustrates the idea that humans are of nature, rather than above nature. When Francisco and others look over to see what happened to Esmeralda and Caridad, they don't see anything but hear ‘‘the spirit deity Tsichtinako calling loudly with a voice like wind, guiding the two women back, not out toward the sun's rays or up to the clouds but down, deep within the soft, moist dark earth where Esmeralda and Caridad would be safe and live forever.’’ In this image, the earth is not a coffin, but "alive in the same sense that human beings are alive’’ (Sacred Hoop). This image stands in stark contrast to the Western view of earth as surface, as female body to be exploited.
At first, this scene might appear to minimize the demise of two women who have been stalked by an obviously disturbed man. The text conveys, however, the intertwining relationships between human and natural worlds in its vision of a world beneath ours. This scene suggests both the Laguna creation story of the four worlds beneath ours from which humans emerged (Silko) and versions of the The Woman Who Fell from the Sky (Sanders and Peek; Allen, Spider)—stories that challenge the single-minded conception of land as exploitable resource. In the Seneca story, the act of falling is not a metaphorical representation of destruction, but instead a birth into another world and therefore an act of creation (Sanders and Peek). By linking Chicana characters with Native American worldviews, Castillo identifies and valorizes an indigenist aspect of Chicana/o identity. By refusing to sensationalize the demise of Caridad and Esmeralda, the text also counterposes the assumed importance of human death with the often unconsidered issue of destruction of the living earth.
Most importantly, the scene of Caridad and Esmeralda’s death contrasts their way of living in this world with that of Francisco el Penitente. The two women share a perspective that helps them understand their world, a spirituality consistently grounded in the landscape and people around them, a religious practice that values their selves and their bodies, and a life dedicated to helping others— Esmeralda as a rape counselor and Caridad as a curandera. Both women also participate in hybrid worship at Chimayo/Tsimayo—where they first meet.
Francisco, on the other hand, follows another kind of faith. The text describes his initiation into the santero (a shaman/artist who creates religious figures and images, a sanctuary-keeper) practice as a move driven by his deep respect and love for the men of his family who had always been ‘‘devoted to their homes and land’’ (Castillo). When Francisco joins his tío (uncle) Pedro in the process of creating a bulto (a carved or sculpted image of a holy figure or saint)—carefully selecting a tree for wood, preparing and carving the wood, harvesting plants and soils for paint—he seems, like Caridad, Loca, and even Sofi, to combine contemplative silence and engagement with the surrounding world in his religious practice. Yet the text also suggests that the tradition of creating bultos, handed down through the generations, continues to embody the feeling of those first Spanish santeros in what is now New Mexico that they were in a ‘‘strange land’’ that was ‘‘so far from God.’’
Later, Francisco’s faith becomes increasingly defined by abnegation, as, for example, when he mixes ashes with his food. While working on a bulto of San Isidro for a neighbor, his ritual repetition of prayer seems aimed not at focusing on the place where he is but at forgetting and denying that place and his own developing love interest in Caridad. Francisco’s veneration of his deceased mother, coupled with his alternating disgust for and adoration of Caridad, comprise the dangerous extremes of the objectification of women—an attitude that is not simply a product of Penitente membership but has multiple sources—that will eventually lead him to violence against Caridad and Esmeralda. Francisco’s religion is not entirely responsible for everything else in his life, although, at times, he clearly longs for such a situation. The text veers away from stereotyping Francisco as simply a fanatic Penitente by bringing other elements into the picture. His troubled state is, in part, attributable to his service in the Vietnam War, a life-and therefore also faithaltering experience. He also seems to have been the unwitting exotic foil for a privileged young white woman’s sexual experimentation. Although we might attribute greater significance to Francisco’s war experience in influencing his later behavior, the example of a short-lived relationship with a white woman serves to remind us of the numerous, perhaps even seemingly trivial, manifestations of his marginalization in Anglo society that affect his individual psyche.
By including a Penitente brother among a cast of characters who practice a home-centered faith, such as Sofi, Loca, and doña Felicia, the text offers us another example of an alternative religious tradition: what Anthony Stevens-Arroyo describes as the ‘‘indifference to the institutional church’’ yet ‘‘loyalty to Catholic heritage’’ that has characterized Latino experience over four centuries. Historically, the Penitente societies emerged to lead the communal practice of faith at a time when there were few priests in the region, and the bultos, retablos (religious altar pieces), and other religious decorative items they produced were not valued by the French and Mexican clergy (Wallis, Ortega, Stanley). Some analyses of Penitente traditions stress their origins in a conceptualization of religious life offered by early Franciscan missionaries in New Mexico (Hewett and Fisher, Wallis). However, Jose Amaro Hernandez cites evidence that suggests Penitente associations were native to New Mexico. A reading of Ramón Gutiérrez’s When Jesus Came, the Corn Mothers Went Away reveals similarities between Penitente activities and some Pueblo religious practices. According to Hernandez, in addition to religious and spiritual activities, Penitente associations functioned as mutual aid organizations and agricultural cooperatives dedicated to maintaining communities. The traditional institutional schism between the Catholic Church and Penitente societies became even more pronounced in the post-1848 period, when the Catholic Church replaced the primarily Spanish-origin clergy throughout the Southwest with French and Anglo priests, exacerbating the cultural conflict. During this period, Penitente associations were subjected to the combined prejudice of newly arrived Anglo and French Catholic clergy as well as Protestant ministers (Hernandez). Nonetheless, they were for a short time also able to exert some influence on the political events and legislation affecting the now-dispossessed population of Chicanos (Hernandez). Their history as a lay confraternity is, therefore, not devoid of conflict with the institutional Church or surrounding populations; in recent years, Penitentes have again faced discriminatory attacks, this time from hateful vandals. The Penitentes, too, are heirs to a history of resistance to social, political, and cultural domination.
Like the female characters in this novel—each of whom is defined not only by her spiritual practice, but also by her race, class, and gender, that is, by her place in the material world around her— Francisco is not simply a Penitente. Despite the fact that he carves a bulto for a neighboring farmer, his family history, economic opportunities, education, war experience, and social status all contribute to shaping a religious practice that is not primarily concerned with community, but with self-testing. Consequently Francisco leaves this world alone, while Caridad and Esmeralda accompany each other. Francisco’s story challenges readers to consider, first, how culpable is religion in Francisco’s action? And, second, has the resistant character of a traditional practice been altered through the generations? By bringing Francisco, Caridad, and Esmeralda together to illustrate the contradictions among divergent spiritual practices as they intersect with other aspects of existence, the text rejects a type of happy-ending fusion of all interests into a superior culture—a sentimental version of multiculturalism— and instead advocates a greater acceptance of the ‘‘American Indian universe’’ ‘‘based on dynamic self-esteem,’’ in contrast to the more widely accepted ‘‘Christian universe’’ that is ‘‘based primarily on a sense of separation and loss’’ (Allen, Sacred). Yet it does so without rejecting those aspects of Christianity that have engendered resistance.
The voice that calls to Caridad and Esmeralda as they descend, Tsichtinako or Tse che nako, is Thought Woman in the Keres cosmology, the female spirit and intelligence that is everywhere and is everything, (Allen, Sacred), who ‘‘is the true creatrix for she is thought itself.’’ The presence of an originary female spirit here, a common figure in Native American belief systems (Allen, Sacred), points to the ‘‘affirmation of tribal values, tribal thought, and tribal understandings,’’ which ‘‘can result in a real decrease in human and planetary destruction and in a real increase in quality of life for all inhabitants of planet earth.’’ In reclaiming a woman-centered spirituality in which women are also healers, Castillo constructs a feminist, indigenist cultural identity, and, as Alvina Quintana points out, deconstructs male cultural paradigms that oppress Chicanas—and everybody else, too (Quintana).
Hybrid and Mestiza Healers
The hybridity that Caridad and Esmeralda display in this text is even more pronounced in the figure of doña Felicia, who blends indigenous and Catholic beliefs in the vocations of living and healing. Doña Felicia’s acceptance of Catholic holy figures and natural spirits parallels that of the Nahuas, who ‘‘freely accepted other gods into their pantheon, where they were worshiped together with the ancestral gods’’ (Poole). Doña Felicia’s hybrid spirituality also suggests the new mestiza consciousness that Anzaldúa delineates as the hope of the future in an increasingly hybrid universe—a ‘‘tolerance for contradictions’’ fueled by ‘‘continual creative motion that keeps breaking down the unitary aspect of each new paradigm’’ and creates the possibility for change.
Doña Felicia’s embrace of Catholicism comes late in life, and is ‘‘based not on an institution but on the bits and pieces of the souls and knowledge of the wise teachers that she met along the way’’ (Castillo). The narrator describes her faith as ‘‘a compromise with the religion of her people’’ that develops into a greater reverence for God and the Catholic saints. Key in this description of doña Felicia is her attentiveness to those around her, for in this way she learns not only about Catholicism, but also about indigenous healing. She later trains Caridad in the skills of observation and listening essential to the practice of a curandera, and schools Caridad in the natural elements that can be used in healing. Considering the life that Caridad previously led—drowning her sorrows in alcohol—and the brutal assault that ended this phase of her existence, doña Felicia’s lessons would also appear to be immediate and sound advice for Caridad.
In this novel women (with the exception of Dr. Tolentino) practice natural medicine primarily in the home, where the hidden transcript unfolds. This space is revealed to be a center of survival, recovery, and self-knowledge. For example, Esperanza returns home after college and the break-up with Cuauhtemoc/Rubén. The sisters, together, help Fe recover from her broken engagement at home, and later, on a visit home, Sofi insists that Fe see a doctor about her poor health. Caridad experiences a miraculous recovery at home following the attack on her. Loca assists each of her sisters through these difficulties, but when her own health fails, she, too, is cared for at home by several pairs of loving hands. That these sisters support and nurture each other in times of need, yet remain childless, strengthens the novel’s feminist positioning by replacing the tendency to biologize compassion and nurturance with a depiction of the active formation of solidarity among women who are oppressed. Although these women directly feel the effects of a sexist, racist, and exploitative society, they also manifest the power to heal themselves and their communities through prayer, the application of traditional remedios (cures) and action.
Stevens-Arroyo notes the centrality of the home in Latino religious practice, which he attributes to a form of ‘‘popular religiosity’’: ‘‘the home-centered aspects of Catholicism are much stronger among Latinos than among Euro-American Catholics, assuming a primacy over clerically dominated and institutionally-based traditions like mass attendance and obedience to the clergy.’’ Stevens-Arroyo maintains that this ‘‘home-centered religion’’ forms a ‘‘resistance against imperialism,’’ particularly in the late 60s and early 70s period of political upheaval. In So Far from God, Loca epitomizes what Stevens-Arroyo describes as a Latino variation of Catholicism, but as we have seen, Loca is only one of many healers, all of whom rely on both Catholic and traditional forms of healing, thereby transforming their homes into sites of hybrid healing practice.
Yet Caridad, Esperanza, Fe, and Loca die. Except for Loca’s first miraculous resurrection, there are no quick fixes, no easy solutions, no sure cures. Neither the hybrid practice of faith nor indigenous medicine and spirituality can prevent their deaths. And this fact makes this aspect of the text all the more clear: faith, spirituality, and religion are also about how we live in this world, not just about what happens to us after we die.
By privileging indigenous culture and history, and indigenous women’s healing practices, the novelist reclaims an aspect of the ancestral past that Ortega and Sternbach call the delineation of ‘‘a matriarchal heritage’’ common in Latina literary discourse, to create agency and subjectivity for her mestiza and native characters. An aspect of Castillo’s embrace of this cultural heritage includes her attention to the centrality of the curandera, who as Tey Diana Rebolledo suggests, ‘‘has emerged as a powerful figure in the writing of women and men’’ and whose appearance ‘‘demonstrates not only her enduring representational qualities as myth and symbol but also the close identification of the culture with her mystic and spiritual qualities.’’
Overcoming Violence and Silence
In So Far from God, Caridad, who has fallen into a life of drink and one-night stands with men she meets in bars, suffers a brutal and overpowering physical attack. The narrator reports that some townspeople regard the attack as the natural outcome of what they consider Caridad’s questionable behavior, and we are left with the impression that Caridad has learned ‘‘the bitter truth’’ about the violent enforcement of women’s second-class status in this society (Ostriker). However, while Castillo shows us the real physical oppression that all women face in the figure of a beaten and mutilated Caridad, she does not simply point the finger at men. Caridad, Loca, and doña Felicia know that
it wasn’t a man with a face and a name who had attacked and left Caridad mangled like a run-down rabbit. Nor two or three men. That was why she had never been able to give no information to the police. It was not a stray and desperate coyote either, but a thing, both tangible and amorphous. A thing that might be described as made of sharp metal and splintered wood, of limestone, gold, and brittle parchment. It held the weight of a continent and was indelible as ink, centuries old and yet as strong as a young wolf.
Rather than the all-too-familiar story of a woman’s brutalization, Caridad’s experience directs us to the purpose of re-visioning Chicana and Chicano lives, for what is so destructive and evil, always present yet not always easy to pin down, but the sexism of our society? Similar to the power of the state swooping down on an Indian family like a ‘‘thing coming out of the sky with barbs and chains’’ in Louise Erdrich’s ‘‘American Horse,’’ Castillo’s malogra (evil spirit) metaphorically describes the force of the institutionalized patriarchal relations that foster disregard for women at every level of society. When these ideas take hold of individuals and then are practiced by them, they can create the kind of violence against women experienced by Caridad. By envisioning the violence against herself as one caused by the malogra, Caridad allows us to see it in all its systemic force—it represents the overarching hegemonic discourse of patriarchy to and from which, as Rosaura Sánchez points out, individuals either consent or dissent. Francisco, and even Caridad herself at this point in her life, consent. Castillo thereby illuminates both the real physical threats that women face and the ideological discourse that authorizes that violence.
This episode of Caridad’s life, however, does not end with mutilation but with renewal. Sánchez’s caution to remember that ‘‘human beings are both products and producers of the society they inhabit’’ speaks directly to Castillo’s portrayals of women. Because Caridad shifts from a position of consent to one of dissent in relation to the ideology that endorses violence against her and other women, she demonstrates that both men and women can alter the underlying reasons for violence against women. The stages of her physical and spiritual transformation pose the challenges of engaging in this process. Looked down upon by the police who found her (Castillo) and ‘‘half repaired by modern medical technology’’ (Castillo)—both highly representative of the dominant power and the difficulty of undertaking to alter that power—Caridad returns home to experience a miraculous recovery while in the care of her sisters and mother. She then dedicates her life to helping others by learning how to become a curandera. But the realization that she finds herself attracted to another woman leads Caridad to a year of isolation and reflection; this experience strengthens her to such a degree that when she is discovered in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains she is literally immovable despite her small physical size. When Francisco and several other men attempt to relocate her from the cave where they find her, they are both angry and stumped by her amazing power (Castillo). Like her sister Loca, Caridad’s curanderismo and spiritual life, combining attention to her own health with a vocation for healing others, allows her to challenge her own marginality and to assume agency. Her acceptance of love for women is a part of this change and contrasts sharply with her previous relations with men.
So Far from God confirms Rebolledo’s observation that ‘‘silence, and overcoming it, are signifi- cant concerns in Chicana literature.’’ In this novel several characters labor to overcome silence and testify to their own lives, a process that allows them to break out of their isolation and join together with other women. For Esperanza, Fe, and Caridad, silence leads to suffering and destruction. Esperanza, though a political activist and broadcast journalist, does not protest the way in which Rubén treats her, and consequently falls victim to his selfishness. Her inability to demand more from Rubén stems in part from societal constraints against female self-fulfillment that lead her to feel ‘‘like a woman with brains was as good as dead for all the happiness it brought her in the love department.’’
Similarly unhappy, Fe, shocked by the refusal of her fiancé Tom to go through with their wedding and plans for living the American Dream, unleashes an unending scream. Fe’s overt expression of pain, rage, and frustration temporarily brings her closer to what is in her view an overly emotional and superstitious family from whom she had previously remained aloof. Her release, however, is only a partial escape from her dependence on dominant ideologies. When Fe finally stops screaming, her vocal chords are damaged, signaling that her recovery is incomplete. Though no longer dependent on Tom, she remains vulnerable to the consumerist American Dream of life, buying her way to happiness and then placing herself at the service of Acme International in her quest to get ahead, a company whose illegal and environmentally unsound practices kill her. Fe spurns her family, particularly her sister Loca, in her drive to assimilate. Embarrassed by what she sees as an odd family, she moves away from her home and neighborhood. Her uncritical acceptance of the hegemonic discourse of middleclass America imposes distance between Fe and a family not considered typically American in such discourses because of its gender composition, race, ethnicity, and culture (Sánchez). Fe’s isolation contributes to a silence and passivity that eventually kills her. She recognizes this in her last visit to the Acme plant even if the realization comes too late to save her: ‘‘The whole plant had been completely remodeled . . . all the stations . . . which used to be open to everybody and everything, were partitioned off. Nobody and nothing able to know what was going on around them no more. And everybody, meanwhile, was working in silence as usual.’’ In light of her newly acquired knowledge about the poisonous work environment at Acme and the company’s practice of releasing toxic pollutants outside of the plant, Fe’s graphic description of the physical divisions between silent workers indicates a developing class-consciousness that was previously blocked by her acceptance of dominant discourses. But her observation on the silence of the workers also speaks to a re-evaluation of her cultural, ethnic, and racial consciousness as well. Previously, Fe considered Sofi, Loca, and Caridad ‘‘self-defeating’’ and ‘‘unambitious’’ because they were not interested in becoming wage-workers; she felt ‘‘disappointment and disgust’’ for Loca’s condition; although she respected Esperanza’s television job, she ‘‘had no desire to copy Esperanza’s La Raza politics.’’ Because her family did not fit the profile of the American Dream, Fe limited her interaction with them and maintained silence regarding her own life and plans. The scene of her return to the Acme plant represents her awakening to the many divisions that Fe has unwittingly allowed to dominate her life.
Sofi overcomes her own longstanding silence when she notices the disintegration invading her community. The people, and especially the men, on whom Sofi had always relied to keep things running smoothly seem unable to do anything to solve the town’s problems. As unofficial Mayor of Tome, she organizes a town-wide cooperative project, involving both women and men, and wins the respect of her community. When her husband Domingo soon gambles away their income from the effort, Sofi finally remembers that twenty years before it was not he who had walked out on his family but she who had kicked him out.
The fact that this ‘‘one little detail’’ was ‘‘forgotten’’ by Sofi and everybody else in the community suggests that there were no other roles for women beyond wife/mother or abandoned wife/ mother. Sofi could not, in a sense, truly speak her life until she had created new roles for women in which she and others could be appreciated for something other than being a wife/mother. When this happens, Sofi remembers this story of her breakup with Domingo. In the meantime however, she has, with difficulty, lived an independent life apart from this unsatisfying relationship, even if disguised in abandonment. Although for many years Sofi’s effort to avoid the pattern of subordination forced on other women is covert, her resistance does eventually become a public effort to include women fully in communal governance.
These characters reveal the many ways that Chicanas have been silenced by the dominant society and by their communities, as well as the ways that Chicanas have struggled against this erasure. Although Fe’s rejection of her sisters is most pronounced, both Caridad and Esperanza also distance themselves from a family of women that somehow shames them; yet for all three, and even for Sofi, too, that distance is bridged by the communal sharing of grief, caring, and healing that the women together provide for one in need.
A Holy Friday for Our Time
Though this novel focuses on Chicana characters, it does not do so at the expense of other women or other struggles. Manifesting a commitment to alliances with other marginalized groups, the text creates a bridge between the divergent populations it describes in the Holy Friday procession scene. The novel thereby fashions a creative and fictional counterpart to the voices of women united in the collection This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color, in which Audre Lorde says that joining with others in battle is essential to one’s own freedom: ‘‘Without community, there is no liberation, only the most vulnerable and temporary armistice between an individual and her oppression.’’ In the foreword to the second edition of this collection both Gloria Anzaldúa and Cherríe Moraga underscore the urgency of building alliances globally and of doing this through action; Anzaldúa says, ‘‘Caminante, no hay puentes, se hace puentes al andar (Voyager, there are no bridges, one builds them as one walks).’’ The women of Tome do walk in the final Holy Friday ceremony, not just for themselves but for future generations, and not by themselves but in unison with others. The visit to each station of the cross in this procession symbolically creates the bridge between those in struggle. In contrast to earlier scenes of the Penitente ceremony that literally recreates Christ’s suffering at Tsimayo/Chimayo, this ceremony exposes the widespread suffering caused by capitalist exploitation. Rather than accepting suffering as the route to salvation, the participants in this Holy Friday ceremony enact a protest against the destruction of the environment. As one Navajo woman says, ‘‘[W]e are trying very hard now to save ourselves before it’s too late. Don’t anybody care about that?’’ (Castillo).
La Loca, who has spent much of her life caring for her sisters, not only participates in this public event, but is figured as a central character of its drama. Weak from illness, Loca rides her horse in the procession, in effect presiding over it. The description of her attire alludes to the familiar folk wisdom regarding the garments to be worn on one’s wedding day. Loca wears something borrowed— her father’s suspenders and her mother’s boots; something blue—her sister Esperanza’s blue chenille robe; and something old—jeans with holes where there was a brand-name tag that Loca has cut off to honor a boycott of the company. Her outfit, significantly, is missing something new. In a ceremony that enacts a renewed commitment to struggle, Loca’s garb highlights the old while the ceremony itself suggests that commitment to a community may be more important than commitment to an individual marriage. In fact, few of the marriages described in this novel endure.
The cultural and political activities of the women— linked throughout the novel—culminate in the Holy Friday procession, in which each station of the cross marks the contemporary suffering of working peoples and oppressed populations. Fe’s presence is particularly felt in this scene. Her painful death from cancer illustrates the future awaiting a woman and a community who buy into the consumerist American Dream, who live only in the present and not also in the past and future. Her mother Sofi carries a picture of Fe in the procession. This act simultaneously honors Fe and joins her in struggle with all those participating in the Holy Friday march, a gesture reminiscent of the many declarations of ‘‘Presente!’’ (‘‘Present!’’) heard among the peoples of Latin America when honoring the martyrs and heroes of revolutionary battle.
Sofi’s action testifies to her daughters’ and her own struggle against oppression, which, as Rebolledo suggests, is an integral aspect of Chicana literature that is often personal and collective, often including the names and stories of mothers, grandmothers, sisters, aunts, and friends (Rebolledo). Castillo writes the lives not only of four sisters and their mother but also includes the stories of doña Felicia, Maria, Esmeralda, Helena, Rita de Belen, Mrs. Torres, doña Severa, garment workers on strike, workers suffering toxic poisoning at work, Navajo women trying to save future generations from uranium contamination, the many suffering from AIDS, and more. These characters exemplify the emergence of a Chicana subjectivity that defines itself within the context of community and in league with the struggles of others attempting to overcome marginality, subordination, and silence. This chapter embodies an idea that Sonia Saldívar-Hull articulates: ‘‘For the Chicana feminists it is through our affiliation with the struggles of other Third World people that we find our theories and our methods’’ The Holy Friday procession merges the concerns of Chicanas, working people, Native people, environmentalists, and antiwar activists, and in doing so it parallels the complex subjectivities in the community of Tome, particularly those of the five women whose lives are at the center of the novel. In the blend of Catholicism, native belief, self-respect, political action, and reflection, the procession epitomizes the power of a hybrid resistance.
Sofi’s lament to her comadre (intimate female friend) that they are all ‘‘so poor and forgotten’’ echoes Francisco’s sentiments (Castillo). Yet Sofi and her comadre both come to understand that they can get closer to ‘‘God’’ through their own actions. The efforts they initiate to improve the economic self-sufficiency of Tome for the benefit of everyone in the community also succeed in restoring communal social relations and dignity. Sánchez says that the ‘‘concept of centering subjectivity in collectivities is an important cultural and political construct in Chicano literature.’’ This novel allows us to see the multiple—sometimes competing, sometimes converging— interests in Chicana subjectivity through female characters who struggle to name, assert, and lead their complicated selves against societies that continually seek to categorize them with one-dimensional labels, such as single mother, jilted woman, slut, devil, Catholic, troublemaker, or loyal worker. What Sofi and her comadre accomplish in Tome results just as much from their religious faith as it does from their ethnic, gender, and class identifications, and it demonstrates that spirituality and religious faith both shape and are shaped by questions of gender, class, race, ethnicity, and sexuality. The strength of the women in this novel flows from their ability to embrace all aspects of themselves to effect such astonishing change. Like other characters, Sofi and her comadre are grounded in the multiple material, social, economic, political, and religious realities of their world.
By focusing on communities of women who engage in resistance, the text offers an alternative to the dominant literary paradigms wherein ‘‘individualism often represents the strength of male power, while community becomes equated with female weakness’’ (TuSmith). This novel attacks the individualism that fuels a chaotic live-for-themoment mentality by showing us how that individualist ethic harms women, communities, and the environment.
Their spiritual hybridity is central to the process of self-discovery, assertion, and union with others in which Castillo’s female characters engage. Their practice of Catholicism represents endurance, survival, and sometimes conformity, but it is also a faith shaped by its practitioners into what they need. And yet, as Anita Valerio explains, ‘‘Some would like to believe that the values of the Roman Catholic Church and the values of the Native American tribal religions are one and the same.’’ They are not. A hybrid practice also maintains and recovers the knowledge of a spirituality wherein women partake and heal. Some women gain this knowledge directly, as in the case of Caridad, Loca, and doña Felicia, while others acquire it indirectly—for example, Sofi learns from her daughters—but all are empowered and fortified by it. When Sofi and her comadre enlist other women and men in revitalizing the town of Tome, they create a contemporary version of the Pueblo historical legacy of matriarchy, a system in which women shared equally with men the governance of the economic and spiritual life of their communities. Setting the novel in Tome, New Mexico, creates a textual link to a specific history of indigenous women that reminds us of the constructedness of patriarchal economic relations.
So Far from God illustrates the complexity of Chicana lives and the varied perspectives necessary to enact transformation because it depicts a community both defined and moved to action by diverse subjects. The novelist adds to an economic analysis the cultural resistance of oppressed nationalities and honors the role of women in this resistance. By doing so, she reveals a strength, not an obstacle, in her culture.
Source: Theresa Delgadillo, ‘‘Forms of Chicana Feminist Resistance: Hybrid Spirituality in Ana Castillo’s So Far From God,’’ in Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. 44, No. 4, Winter, 1998, pp. 888–916.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 941
The recent renaissance of Latino letters is led by a number of very accomplished women. This, of course, is good news. It has, after all, taken far too long to find Hispanic women a room of their own in the library of world literature. With the exception of Sor Juana Ines de La Cruz, a seventeenth-century Mexican nun who astonished the Spanish-speaking world with her conceptual sonnets and philosophical prose (Octavio Paz wrote a spellbinding biography, Sor Juana Or, The Traps of Faith, [see Commonweal, January 27, 1989]), women have rarely been read and discussed by mainstream Latino culture. Rosario Castellanos, Isabel Allende, Elena Poniatowska, and Gabriela Mistral—the latter received the 1945 Nobel Prize—are a few of the better-known women authors. Prominent among the new wave of Latino writers in English are Sandra Cisneros, Julia Alvarez, and Cristina Garcia. In opening a window across gender lines, each revisits the Hispanic's innermost fears and hopes.
On the very same list is Ana Castillo, a veteran novelist, poet, translator, and editor whose previous books were published by small presses in Arizona, Texas, and New Mexico. Unfortunately, Castillo remains relatively unnoticed by the media. She is the most daring and experimental of Latino novelists, and as American novelists Robert Coover and William Gaddis well know, experimentalism has its costs. Born in 1953 in Chicago and now living in Albuquerque, Castillo was educated at Northern Illinois University and the University of Chicago. She is the author of Sapogonia: An Anti-Romance in 3/8 Meter, published in 1989, and of the poetry collections Women Are Not Roses, The Invitation and My Father Was a Toltec. Her most memorable work, to my mind, is The Mixquiahuala Letters, an avant-garde epistolary novel published in 1986 and recently reissued by Anchor-Doubleday. Letters received a Before Columbus Foundation's American Book Award.
The novel concerns the friendship of two independent Hispanic women, Alicia and Teresa, whom we accompany, through the device of introspective letters, from their youthful travels to Mexico to their middle-years in the United States. Stylistically Letters is a tribute to Julio Cortazar, the Argentine master responsible for Hopscotch, a novel typical of the sixties' French nouveau roman, and is designed as a labyrinth in which the writer suggests at least two possible sequences for reading—two possible ways of ordering the chapters. Similarly, Castillo's book offers three alternative readings: one for the conformist, another for the cynic, and the last for the Quixotic. Among the very few people I know who have read The Maxquiahuala Letters, none (including me) has had the patience to attempt each of the three possibilities.
While Castillo's experimental spirit, much like Carlos Fuentes's, often strikes me as derivative and academically fashionable, her desire to find creative alternatives and to take risks is admirable. An accomplished parodist, Castillo's obsession, it seems, is to turn popular and sophisticated genres upside down—to revisit their structure by decomposing them. In recent years, however, her avant-garde ambitions seem to be fading. Lately, she has become a client of Susan Bergholtz, a powerful New York literary agent whose list includes such Latino writers as Cisneros, Alvarez, and Rudolfo A. Anaya. In many ways, Bergholtz is occupying a role similar to that of Carmen Balcells in Barcelona, who launched the careers of south-of-the-border luminaries such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Mario Vargas Llosa. Bergholtz is convincing major publishing houses to put big bucks into novels by and about Hispanics. Moving from the periphery to the center necessarily entails sacrifice, however. So Far from God is a case in point: the experimental spirit is absent here.
The novel's intent is original: to parody the Spanish-speaking telenovela, e.g., the popular television soap operas that enchant millions in Mexico and South America. Framed by two decades of life in Tome, a small hamlet in central New Mexico, the novel tells the story of a Chicana mother, Sofia, and her four daughters: Fe, Esperanza, Caridad (their names, as Spanish speakers can testify, recall a famous south-of-the-border melodrama), and La Loca. The terrain is overtly sentimental and cartoonish. Magic realism is combined with social satire: whores, miracles, prophecies, resurrections, and a visit to the Chicano activism of the late sixties intertwine.
Melodrama is indeed the key word here. Castillo is involved in a dramatic embroidery characterized by heavy reliance on suspense, sensational episodes, and romantic sentiment. Any parody works through a tacit agreement between writer and reader, who share the knowledge of the genre parodied and understand the rules of the game. Unfortunately, with an overabundance of stereotypes and its crowded cast of theatrical characters, So Far from God stumbles from the outset. Castillo loses control of her marionettes. Even more disturbing, Castillo is never quite sure whether to ridicule her characters or idealize them in spite of their superficiality. As a result, the novel is uneven, conventional, and often annoying.
Still, we must pay attention to Ana Castillo. In due time, her creativity will match her passion to experiment and the outcome will be formidable. In fact, of all the Hispanic writers in the firmament of the current Latino renaissance, she strikes in me as the most intellectually sophisticated and thus might end up producing the most intriguing books. Unlike most of her colleagues, a sense of tradition can be found in Castillo's approach to the novel. She is a deeply committed reader whose art, I'm afraid, is not necessarily for the masses. Her tastes are singular, but she has yet to write the book that will display her talent in its full splendor.
Source: Ilan Stavans, ‘‘And so close to the United States— So Far From God by Ana Castillo,'' in Commonweal, Vol. 121, Issue 1, January 14, 1994, p. 37.