Woman Hollering Creek

by Sandra Cisneros

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Multicultural Aspects of "Woman Hollering Creek"

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1123

In her short story "Woman Hollering Creek," Sandra Cisneros demonstrates in her writing the same linguistic and cultural transformations she describes in her narrative. Writing about Mexicans and Mexican-Americans like Cleofilas and her husband, Juan Pedro, who inhabit the border between the United States and Mexico, Cisneros explores the terrible losses and limitations that exist for people who live in the edges of divergent languages and cultures. These borderlands, as Gloria Anzaldua describes them in her book, Borderlands/ La Frontera: The New Mestiza, "are physically present wherever two or more cultures edge each other.… It's not comfortable territory to live in, this place of contradictions. Hatred, anger and exploitation are the prominent features of this landscape. However, there are compensations and certain joys.… Dormant areas of consciousness are… activated, awakened.… There, at the juncture of cultures, languages cross-pollinate and are revitalized." Borderlands are a place where "The new raestiza (a Chicana like Felice) reinterprets history and using new symbols, she shapes new myths."

Along the border language becomes more fluid, and new meanings can be derived as one language infuses another with its vocabulary and syntax. Cisneros talks of the influence of her father's Spanish on her written English. As she tells Dasenbrock and Jussawalla, incorporating Spanish "changes the rhythm of my writing … [and] allows me to create new expressions in English—to say things in English that have never been said before.… All of a sudden something happens to the English, something really new is happening, a new spice is added to the English language.'' For example, in "Woman Hollering Creek," all of the characters have Spanish names that are familiar enough in English, but their true resonance derives from their Spanish meanings. In her Texas town, Cleofilas lives between "Dolores" and "Soledad," that is, between "sorrow" and ''loneliness." In the end of the story, she is saved by ''Graciela'' and ''Felice,'' or ''grace'' and "happiness." The term "compadre" is also familiar in English, but the term "comadre" may not be. Graciela, the physician who identifies Cleofilas' abuse, calls her friend Felice "comadre," but Cisneros does not translate this. Literally, "comadres" are a mother and a godmother to a child, and the cultural expectation is that they will be like co-mothers to that child. In "Woman Hollering Creek," Graciela and Felice are the co-mothers that bring Cleofilas to her new birth, her new understanding of her culture's myths, and her release from her role as passive victim of violence.

Just as language can take on new meaning and new formulations in the borderlands, cultural myths, too, can be transformed. The three principal women of Mexican myth that play roles in Cleofilas' life as described by Gloria Anzaldua are: ''The Virgen de Guadalupe, the virgin mother who has not abandoned us, La Chingada/La Malinche, the raped (taken by Hernan Cortes the Spanish conqueror) mother whom we have abandoned, and La Llorona, the mother who seeks her lost children and is a combination of the two." The Virgin of Guadalupe, who suffers the loss of her son, Jesus, remains the virgin who is available to her children throughout the centuries in prayer. La Malinche, on the other hand, is traditionally believed to have betrayed her people when she became the mistress of Hernan Cortes. Finally, La Llorona suffers the grief of the loss of her children and her lover for all time. These roles, all passive and long-suffering, are the mythic roles the Mexican culture teaches its daughters.

In spite of these legends, Cisneros hastens to add in her conversation with Reed Dasenbrock and Feroza Jussawalla that "the traditional Mexican woman is a fierce woman'' to have survived at all. In fact, the legends can be reclaimed and refrained to emphasize this fierce instinct for survival. For example, it has long been accepted that the subjugation of a native woman, La Malinche, by Cortes is a cause of great shame to the Mexican people. According to Octavio Paz, author of Labyrinth of Solitude, all Mexicans are "sons of La Malinche"; that is, they are illegitimate. And yet in the borderlands, La Malinche can be seen in a new light, not as the passive victim of male violence, but as the Indian mother of the mestizos who survived to create the new race. As Anzaldua writes, "La cultura chicana identifies with the mother (Indian) rather than with the father (Spanish)."

In the case of La Llorona, the mythical figure is transformed linguistically and culturally. Renamed La Gritona, and reincarnated as a woman who yells rather than weeps, La Llorona becomes a symbol of power and rebellion, not submission. Jussawalla comments to Cisneros, "[Y]ou've revised the myth in 'Woman Hollering Creek.' La Llorona doesn't kill … the children as she does in the stories told here along the border, she gives laughter." Cisneros adds, "This Chicana woman (Felice) could understand the myth in a new way. She could see it as a grito (a yell), not a Uanto (a sob). And all of a sudden, [Cleofilas] who came with all her Mexican assumptions learned something. The Chicana woman (Felice) showed her a new way of looking at a Mexican myth. And it took someone from a little bit outside of the culture to see the myth in a new way."

For readers outside of both Mexican and Chicana culture and for readers who do not know Spanish, the subtle connotations of the myths and of Cisneros' language choices might be lost were it not for her ability to both tell and demonstrate the transformations that take place in the story. Cisneros acknowledges in her talk with Dasenbrock and Jussawalla that "the readers who are going to like my stories the best and catch all the subtexts and all the subtitles … are the Chicanas.… But I also realize I am opening doors for people who don't know the culture.'' Because it is so well constructed, "Woman Hollering Creek" is a story that can be read in different ways by different audiences. Readers familiar with the Southwestern and Mexican myths and legends of La Llorona, La Malinche, and the Virgin of Guadalupe may see the cultural transformation of women's roles Cisneros describes, while readers unfamiliar with these legends may focus on the particular transformation of the vividly drawn lead character, Cleofilas, the classic battered woman.

Source: Jennifer Hicks and Barbara Smith, Overview of "Woman Hollering Creek," for Short Stones for Students, Gale, 1998.
Hicks has a Master's Degree in English literature, and has written extensively for academic journals, and is CEO of WordsWork, a freelance writing firm that provides website content. Smith has Master's Degrees in both bilingual studies and humanistic and behavioral studies. She has designed and facilitated several multicultural workshops for educators.

Patriarchy in "Woman Hollering Creek"

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1651

"Woman Hollering Creek" by Sandra Cisneros was published in Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories in 1991. This story deals with the pain and suffering of women in a patriarchal, or male-dominated, society. Patriarchy, as defined by Bruce Kokopeli and George Lakey in More Power Than We Want, refers to ''the systematic domination of women by men through unequal opportunities, rewards, punishments, and the internalization of unequal expectations through sex role differentiation." Patriarchy is evident in a number of ways in the women's world of "Woman Hollering Creek.'' The women tend to have mundane low-paying jobs, like Trini, the laundromat attendant, or no jobs outside of the house, like Dolores and Cleofilas. The men make all of the decisions and do all of the talking when men and women are present in this story. Further, the men are able to mistreat the women with impunity.

Patriarchy is also seen in the preoccupation these women, particularly Cleofilas, have with finding a man to love, an obsession which seems to dominate their lives. Cleofilas has been anticipating finding the man of her dreams since she can remember:

But what Cleofilas has been waiting for is passion in its crystalline essence. The kind the book and songs and telenovelas describe. When one finds, finally, the great love of one's life, and does whatever one can, must do, at whatever the cost.

As her idol, Cleofilas takes Lucia Mendez, heroine of the popular telenovela You or No One, who lives on her show the kind of life described above: "The beautiful Lucia Mendez having to put up with all kinds of hardships of the heart, separation and betrayal, and loving, always loving no matter what, because that is the important thing."

The image of the woman who will keep loving her abusive betraying man no matter what is critical to the maintenance of the patriarchal society. If women can be socialized to believe that "to suffer for love is good," then the men can basically do as they please, and women will put up with it because they believe "the pain [will] all [be] sweet somehow. In the end." Thus, the men can be unfaithful and beat their wives with no fear of recrimination. Furthermore, if women put men on pedestals and make their main goal in life loving them no matter what, then the men are automatically given the predominant position in society.

Unfortunately for Cleofilas, who, it is suggested, was named for a Mexican martyred saint, her married life does not contain many of the positive elements of the telenovelas, just the negative ones. She envisions herself as being married, living in a nice house, having plenty of money, and buying the kinds of clothes that Lucia Mendez gets to wear. In reality, she ends up having very little money, and the house she moves into is a shabby little place located on Woman Hollering Creek in the desolate town of Seguin, Texas.

None of the women with whom Cleofilas is acquainted knows where the creek got its name: "a name no one from these parts questioned, little less understood … Who knows, the townspeople shrugged, because it was of no concern to their lives how this trickle of water received its curious name." A critical element for keeping a practice in place is that the people do not question it and that it seems as if life has always been that way. The fact that no one questions the name of the creek, but just accepts it as is, represents how they accept patriarchy without question. Just as the creek was always named that and always would be, so men have always been in power and always would be and women would always be hollering. Who cares why women are hollering anyway? Since they have no power, their reasons for hollering are unimportant. Cleofilas, however, wants to find out the story behind the meaning of the creek's name and she wants to know why the women were hollering. Her experience on Woman Hollering Creek leads her to believe that the woman's holler was one of pain and rage.

This belief is reinforced by the two widows who live next door to Cleofilas, one on each side. To the left lives Soledad, who calls herself a widow, but who will not say how she lost her husband. Cleofilas suspects that he may have simply left her. Dolores, living to the right, keeps altars topped with burning incense and candles for the two sons killed in the war and the husband who died of grief soon after. Every Sunday she leaves fresh flowers on their graves. Across the street lives a man who shot his wife when she attacked him with a mop during a fight at the ice house. The women on Woman Hollering Creek suffer much from their dealings with the men in their lives.

The women in Seguin have no real power, the town was not built to empower women: "the towns here are built so that you have to depend on husbands. Or you stay home. Or you drive. If you're rich enough to own, allowed to drive, your own car.'' Even if they have cars, the women may not be allowed to drive them. This powerlessness extends to social gatherings at the ice house, the center of the Seguin social world, where the women come and sit in silence next to their men, as the men tried to solve the problems of the world. This is as it should be in patriarchy: the men attempt to take care of the world's difficulties while the women sit in silence, admiring them.

Probably more than in any other place, the reader gets to see the havoc patriarchy can wreak on women. Cleofilas's situation is much like that of Nora's in Henrik Ibsen's The Doll House: both go from their father's house to their husband's house and have very little real power in either place. Unlike Nora, though, Cleofilas experiences some of the more overtly physically and emotionally painful aspects of patriarchy. Her husband, Juan Pedro, takes advantage of the power inherent in a man's position in such a society by beating her, and she just takes it: "When the moment came, and he slapped her once, and then again, and again; until the lip split and bled an orchid of blood, she didn't fight back, she didn't break into tears, she didn't run away." She is beaten so often and so severely that by the time she decides to leave him, the lady at the health clinic notes in astonishment that "This poor lady's got black-and-blue marks all over." In a moment full of symbolism, her husband even hits her in the face with a romance novel, leaving a welt on one cheek. The critical element here is that her husband feels free to beat Cleofilas at will, with little or no fear of punishment. In a patriarchal society such as this, men often beat their wives with total impunity because the women are relatively powerless. Many women, such as Cleofilas, have no income apart from their husbands, so where will they go if they leave?

In addition, Cleofilas has no power in the household. She has no transportation of her own and likely cannot drive anyway. She is not allowed to have any contact with her family in Mexico. Furthermore, she has to beg her husband to take her to the doctor in order to ensure that her pregnancy will go well and that she will not be injured in childbirth. She does not even have the power to defend herself when he beats her. When she asks him to fix something, he abuses her emotionally, kicking the refrigerator and shouting:

He hates this shitty house and is going out where he won't be bothered with the baby's howling and her suspicious questions, and her requests to fix this and this and this because if she had any brains in her head she'd realize he's been up before the rooster earning his living to pay for the food in her belly and the roof over her head

This man is all too aware of the power he has in the household as the breadwinner. She refers to him as "this keeper, this lord, this master." When she decides to leave him she has to sneak out, in fear that he will catch her, like a dog trying to sneak out of the yard, and beat her again and prevent her from leaving.

It is in leaving Juan Pedro that she learns a new meaning for Woman Hollering Creek other than the rage and anger she has experienced. The woman who picks her up to drive her to the bus station in San Antonio, Felice, whose name means ''happy,'' drives a truck—her own truck—is unmarried, and swears just like a man. She is not controlled by patriarchy, at least not directly. As they are crossing the creek she yells like Tarzan, a victory yell, one of strength. She says she yells like that every time she crosses the bridge because nothing in the area is named after women, except virgins and that one creek, and it makes her want to holler. Passing over the creek with Felice, Cleofilas glimpses a world where a woman can take care of herself and gain control over her life. She is going back to her father's house in Mexico, but she is returning with a new awareness. In telling her father and brothers about Felice's yell, "Felice began to laugh again, but it wasn't Felice laughing. It was gurgling out of her own throat, a long ribbon of laughter, like water."

Source: William Rouster, for Short Stories for Students, Gale, 1998.
Rousterhas a Ph.D, in Composition and Rhetoric and has published a number of pieces in different composition journals and on ERIC.

A Silence Between Us Like a Language: The Untranslatabilty of Experience in Sandra Cisneros's Woman Hollering Creek

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1146

In jests, dreams, magic, poetry, and poetic prose, Sandra Cisneros finds abundant examples of the ''everyday verbal mythology'' of Mexican-American culture. Language and literacy as sites of cultural and class conflict, or what Paulo Freire and Donaldo Macedo describe as the "antagonistic" yet potentially "positive" relationship of minority to dominant linguistic and cultural codes, are critical matters in Woman Hollering Creek. The text includes frequent references to the specificity and difference coded into any and all languages; to the violence of inadequacy of translation and interpretation; to the translator's and, by extension, the writer's unfaithful role as betrayer of the culture's inside secrets, and to the existence of encoded messages, which are more accessible to readers familiar with various insider codes and cryptographic devices deployed in the text.

These attributes Cisneros's text shares with texts by other Chicano, Latino, and minority writers, who implicitly or explicitly refer to their own ambiguous relationships to both dominant and subordinated cultures in their roles as translators and interpreters of minority experience.

Woman Hollering Creek offers stories of a variety of women trying various means of escape, through resistance to traditional female socialization, through sexual and economic independence, self-fashioning, and feminist activism, as well as through fantasy, prayer, magic, and art. Cisneros's most complex characters are those who, like adult Esperanzas, have left and returned to the barrio as artists. For them, art is a powerfully seductive way of "Making the world look at you from my eyes. And if that's not power, what is?"

In addition to her portraits of the artist as a Chicana, Cisneros is concerned with representing the silenced and marginalized, including children, homosexuals, and working class and immigrant Chicanos and Mexicanos, whose stories have been untold or untranslated. Her particular focus on the silencing of women is signaled in the title story, "Woman Hollering Creek." The creek called "La Gritona" is reminiscent of popular folktales about "La Llorona," a nameless tragic woman who drowned herself and her children. The creek, the border, and the telenovelas define the mythic spaces given to Cleofilas in her fantasies of escape from a battering husband. The cultural scripts associated with each space offer her different escape fantasies: homicide and/or suicide, like La Llorona; dramatic border crossings, like the escape of an outlaw desperado from the U.S. into Mexico, or the crossings of mojados and smuggler coyotes; or telenovelas, soap operas that provide the escape of entertainment. Cisneros creates a new destiny in a story that revises all three of these cultural scripts, allowing Cleofilas a realistic escape with the help of Chicana feminist activists. Translating from "La Llorona" (weeping woman) to "La Gritona'' (shouting woman) to the English "Woman Hollering Creek" allows a greater set of possibilities for interpreting the cry of the restless spirit. With its haunting sound of wind and water, the creek speaks with an enigmatic voice—crying, weeping, wailing, shouting, hollering "like Tarzan," perhaps even laughing—a voice too often denied in traditional representations of Latinas. Paradoxically, "La Llorona," a woman silenced in life, wails her grief in death. Cleofilas learns to decode a feminist message of survival in the haunted voice of the creek that hollers with the rage of a silenced woman. Much as Chicana feminists have revised folklore, legend, and myth to open up possibilities for new representations of women, the activism of Felice and her companeras helps Cleofilas to reinterpret the message of "La Gritona", translating her voice from a wail, to a holler, to a shout, to laughter; from an arroyo associated with a tragic legend to "a creek … full of happily ever after."

Searching for and validating folk and popular articulations often excluded from "the literary," Cisneros employs throughout the entire text of Woman Hollering Creek a network of epigraphs taken, not from the literary traditions of the United States or Europe or Latin America, but instead from Mexican ballads and romantic popular songs that circulate throughout, and indeed help to constitute, Spanish-speaking communities through dissemination of recordings, through jukeboxes located in restaurants and nightclubs located (along with tortillerias, mercados, tines, and botanicas) in Latino neighborhoods, and through Spanish-language radio stations broadcasting to cities or geographic regions with large Spanish-speaking populations. Cisneros privileges such commercial/cultural sites in which commodities and services are aimed at a culturally specific clientele, such as the cinemas devoted to the showing of films from Mexico or telenovelas, soap operas, produced for Mexican television and syndicated in the U.S.

The church functions similarly, as a cultural as well as religious site: specifically as a site of origin for insider discourses specific to Mexican-American and other Latino cultures, through the exchange of prayers and religious services for offerings made and thanks given by devout Catholics whose religion syncretically embraces folk beliefs. Cisneros recognizes and acknowledges the prayers of ordinary people addressing the Christian God, Catholic saints fused with Aztec goddesses, and even African deities, as a folk discourse worthy of inclusion in a literary text of an emergent minority literature. As Rosario offers her braid to the Virgin in thanks for the opportunity to become an artist rather than a mother, Cisneros offers her book (with its elaborate list of acknowledgments to family, friends, colleagues, la Divina Providencia, and Virgen de Guadalupe Tonantzin) as a kind of literary ex voto devoted to Chicano culture. Her text associates this folk genre with the religious articles and folk healing paraphernalia referred to in "Anguiano Religious Articles," "Little Miracles, Kept Promises" and "Bien Pretty." These religious or quasi-religious cultural sites, like such fixtures of U.S. commercial culture as Kwik Wash laundromats, K-Mart, Woolworth's, Cash N Carry, Luby's Cafeteria, and flea markets where fire-damaged Barbie doll Dream Houses can be purchased by families who could not afford to buy them even at K-Mart, are markers of class and gender, as well as sites for the reproduction of the dominant culture and the production of a resistant ethnic minority culture, which is neither entirely of the U.S. nor Mexico.

Cisneros's text registers tensions implicit in a community where the border between the U.S. and Mexico is reproduced within the psyche of the individual, and where the "Mericans" are also the "Mexicans." The computer spell checker suggests "Mexican" as a substitute for "Merican," Cisneros's paragrammatic truncation of "American." The alteration, like translation, makes distinct signifiers equivalent. The words are equal in length if not identical in meaning. After all, Mexicans are Americans and, as the North American Free Trade Agreement reminds those who needed reminding, Mexico is part of North America. The spell checker also suggests "Moroccan" as a possible replacement for the unrecognized word, but that is another story.

Source: Harryette Mullen, '"A Silence Between Us Like a Language': The Untranslatability of Experience in Sandra Cisneros's Woman Hollering Creek," in MELUS, Vol. 21, No. 2, Summer, 1996, pp 3-20.
Mullen is an educator at Cornell University.

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Critical Overview


Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories, Sandra Cisneros