Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4842
SOURCE: Lewis, L. M. “Ethnic and Gender Identity: Parallel Growth in Sandra Cisneros' Woman Hollering Creek.” Short Story 2, no. 2 (fall 1994): 69-78.
[In the following essay, Lewis classifies the stories in Woman Hollering Creek into three groups and asserts that the stories in the collection concern minority women who “find themselves confronting an external, dominant set of values.”]
Sandra Cisneros once characterized the stories in The House on Mango Street as “lazy poems” (“Do You Know Me?” 79). The collection is surely more crafted than lazy, but her latest collection, Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories, grows dynamically beyond it in form and in theme. According to one account, Mango Street [The House on Mango Street] portrays only “two types of girls”: those who try to escape the patriarchal limits of their culture through education, and those who trade fathers for husbands, one patriarch for another (Olivares 164). In Woman Hollering Creek [Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories], the protagonists grow in several ways, through several ages, from being defined by others, toward some self-definition, from confusion on the margins of two or three ethnic cultures, to a mature and expansive synthesis. In a parallel sequence, the same girl breaks away from a series of patriarchs, acquires a fierce independence, and celebrates her membership in a sustaining community of women. The collection is composed of three parts. The first is of children: all the characters except one are about eleven years old and live in Mexican villages or barrios in the United States. They regard their homes as safe and nurturing, expecting to be happy in them. The girls in the second group of stories are adolescents who experience an initiation or epiphany. One is seduced, learns the truth about sex, and thus becomes wise (“One Holy Night”). The other girl discovers that a father's power is hard to escape, and, as implied by the title “My Tocaya,” (namesake), she sees that all Chicana women share different versions of the same experience. The third group, the longest and most substantive, includes the half-dozen stories in which women act against the dominance of tradition, first to protect themselves, but ultimately to define themselves.
Cisneros' women begin with the work of all minority groups who find themselves confronting an external, dominant set of values. They must “syncretize,” or mix language, social protocol, and mythologies of the two cultural forces. Mayans and Aztecs were eventually forced to incorporate medieval Christian and Spanish symbols and figures into their daily lives and define Mexico for themselves; in the same way, a character like Cleófilas in Cisneros' title story, who has been literally transported into Texas from el otro lado (the other side), must construct a life for herself out of memories of her life in Mexico, episodes from telenovelas [soap operas] and the realities of Seguin, Texas. She sometimes sat on the bank of the creek, recalling stories of La Llorona (The Weeping Woman) from her childhood while her own child played on a Donald Duck blanket (51). Cleófilas is not as successful as other characters in establishing synthesis, but her conflict represents the forces which will eventually be reconciled—the behavior and artifacts of two competing groups.
In early stories, the protagonist, as a child or adolescent, speaks or encounters language which is difficult, alien, clumsy, rough, or mysterious because of an incomplete reconciliation of Spanish and English in communities which demand both. In a group of later stories, there is a shift from painful conflict to a wistful regard for Spanish and an instinct to embrace those who speak it, particularly if they speak it well. Micaela, in “Mericans,” particularly exhibits the pain of not belonging. The girl shifts uneasily from knee to knee in the Mexican church, which is to her grandmother a sanctuary from a grotesque and threatening world. Raised in the U.S., which her grandmother considers barbaric, Micaela can only understand Spanish when she is “paying attention” (19). When the children speak in English, they reveal themselves as not Mexican, but not quite Americans either; they are “Mericans” (20).
There are early efforts to deny the forces of time and the dominance of English. In “One Holy Night,” a young man materializes in a Mexican American neighborhood, identifying himself as Chaq Uxmal Paloquin from “the ancient cities” in the Yucatan (27), “speaking a strange language that no one could understand,” and intending to restore the “ancient ways” and “grandeur” of his people (29-30). However, Chaq did not belong in the old culture he claimed for himself. Most of his mail was addressed to “Occupant” and his real name was Chato (Flat Face) Cruz (32). He was born, not in the Yucatan, home of the Mayan rain god, Chaq, but “on a street with no name” (33). His sister had long since compromised any connection to the ancient ways—she is a Carmelite nun (33). Instead of adopting a fanciful identity from her heritage, one of the Patricias in “My Tocaya” “adopted a phony British accent” and a “breathless” Marilyn Monroe delivery, as if to escape her place in her family and her community (37). Cleófilas abruptly moves from a small town in Mexico to a small town in Texas, remains disenfranchised because she speaks no English, and must listen to “gruff Spanish” (46) or Spanish “pocked with English” (55).
“Never Marry a Mexican” is a pivotal story, one of syncretism which is unsatisfying, bitter, even violent. In it, Clemencia is older and more mobile than earlier characters, but she is not fully at ease with her mixed identity, calling herself an “amphibian who doesn't belong to any class” (71). She is the daughter of “a Mexican girl who couldn't even speak Spanish” (69) and a father who moved to the U.S. and “must've found U.S. Mexicans very strange” (71). Appropriately, she makes part of her living by translating travel brochures, but is still uncomfortable with her idiom: “I can't even get the sayings right, even though I was born in this country” (73). The Mexican American neighborhood she chooses is not apt, but only “cute”; it looks like Sesame Street (72).
Clemencia's lover, Drew, was her “Cortés” with pale skin and a dark beard; her own skin was dark against his (74). She felt some delight at the contrast because he called it “beautiful” and made love to her in Spanish (74). However, their bond, and her resulting identity, never lasted past dawn when he would leave her her to return to his pale-skinned wife who was emphatically “not a Mexican” (74). The relationship is symbolic of a painful, perplexing syncretism. Drew, figuring as the invasive and dominating Cortés, called Clemencia his “Malinche—the Mexican name for Doña Marina, who became Cortés' mistress (Meyer and Sherman 102). She, like Clemencia, must have felt classless, amphibious. A royal Mayan child, she had been sold as a slave to one Aztec tribe, traded to another, then given to the Conquistador, Cortés. The legend demonstrates the cost of her survival and that of Clemencia. “Malinche” is traditionally a traitor's name: she became a spokesman for Cortés, encouraged Aztecs to betray their leaders, ultimately allowed the European conquest of Mexico, and bore the first “mestizo”—child with mixed blood. Clemencia uneasily confronts her alliance with Drew in those terms. She says she can live with herself because Drew's wife wasn't “a brown woman,” but admits “a bit of crazy joy” in sleeping with husbands of other women (76-77). She, like Malinche, has been used and discarded as unacceptable. Drew is fond of Mexican women, “all golden and sun-baked,” but would never marry one (76). Nor would Clemencia consider any Hispanic for a lover, rejecting a whole catalog: “Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban Chilean. …” (69). This, according to some critics, was Malinche's greatest betrayal. Her acceptance of Cortés was a “renunciation of the American Indian male,” symbolic of a “repudiation of the native in favor the foreign” (Cypess 35).
Ramon Saldivar says that Chicano literature, by its nature, must reflect such internal conflicts. It does not portray characters who can establish happy identities for themselves through a synthesis of competing cultures; the narrative “reveals the dialectical tension” without resolving it (174). In his account of Mexican American cultural development, James Vigil also characterizes synthesis as most often difficult, confused, or “shaky” (134). This is Clemencia's condition. However, she anticipates a healthy synthesis that Vigil says is also possible: a “cooperation of a sort” that can occur when the minority group assumes the dominant culture without “unlearning the native one” (134).
Lupita, in “Bien Pretty,” is the Chicana who finally constructs a full, cooperative, and comfortable ethnic identity for herself, one more expansive than a synthesis of only competing cultures. She is a Mexican American who at first wanted, in a way, to be Mexican. Her Spanish is competent, but in her mind not authentic. She had learned some of it in American schools and some from “crazy Graham,” but he “was Welsh and had learned his Spanish running guns to Bolivia” (153).
Flavio is Lupita's last and most likely lover. He ultimately fails her, but because of gender conflicts, not because he fails as a Mexican. His sense of his cultural identity is genuine, not like Chaq's which was a mask to disguise his real, shameful origins. When Flavio makes love to Lupita in Spanish, his phrasing is delicate and devout. He does not call her “Malinche” as Drew had called Clemencia. Flavio's words whispered, crooned, swept, startled, murmured, “whirred like silk, rolled, and puckered, and hissed” (153-4). His speech evokes all the sense of nurture and home from the early stories. And to Lupita, Flavio is an archetype figure. He is, in the folk tale of his grandmother, an Aztec god's third and best effort at making men (152).
Despite his fluency in Spanish which stirred Lupita's soul, she learns that he had achieved a comfortable synthesis of cultures. He moves with ease between English and Spanish, often combining them. Attributing his knowledge of myth and “indigenous” dances to his grandmother, rather than to the Popul Vuh or early ancestors (149), he will not pander to her wish to see him as the end of a clean line from the Mayans or Aztecs. When she scolds him for wearing a shirt with an alligator on it and for anglicizing words, he responds easily: “I don't have to dress in a serape and sombrero to be Mexican. I know who I am” (151). She suggests that they “‘let go of [their] present way of life and search for [their] past,’” but he corrects her:
You think old ages end, but that's not so. It's ridiculous to think one age has overcome another. American time is running along side the calendar of the sun, even if your world doesn't know it.
Ultimately Lupita discovers that she also is a combination of all the cultural forces she encounters and of all the times of her past. Her mature view is anticipated early when she moves into the home of a “Texas poet” who is “directly descended from Ixtaccihuatl or something,” holds a Ph.D. from the Sorbonne, is married to a “Huichol curandero” [folk healer] and is currently in Nayarit on a Fulbright (139). The apartment is cluttered with artifacts from Haiti, various states in Mexico, Texas, Spain, Italy, Sante Fe, England, and Afghanistan (139-140). And the values range between pagan and Christian, modern and primitive, sacred and trivial. She had come to Texas from California with all her “past pared down to what could fit inside a van”: a futon, a wok, her grandmother's molcajete (stone mortar), traditional Mexican clothes, a Tae Kwon Do uniform, new age crystals, Aztec incense, a boom box, a box of Latin tapes, and copy of I Ching (141). There is no pure ethnic identity anywhere in her world.
Lupita's conscious syncretism begins with her “collages” which are constructed from materials she finds in “Casa Preciado Religious Articles, the Mexican voodoo shop” (158), with its “Church-sanctioned powers on one aisle” and “[f]olk powers on the other” (158-9). She seeks comfort from rose quartz crystals, Aztec and American Indian incense, Amazon flutes, Tibetan gongs (157), and finally can no longer even recall if her Peruvian shawl had come from a supermarket in San Antonio or a vendor in New York or Sante Fe (161-2). She has accepted the mixedness of her condition as normal. Lupita may be quizzical or wry about the identity she has established, but it is stable enough and wider than a simple merger of Mexican features and American ones. Like the Maya, she has combined the “fragments of history, the echoes of local events, the incantations, the snatches of Spanish prayers, or astrological lore, … however garbled and dispersed they seem.” (Clendinnen 135). Her choices eventually relieve her earlier anxiety and are like the Maya's, “apposite” to her “needs and meanings” (135). She achieves the “more jubilant, positive symbolism” which Marcienne Rocard says “occasionally” appears in literature which normally reflects “images of schizophrenia” (130).
Besides forming a synthesis of the various ethnic forces, Lupita must also construct a gender identify for herself. To do so, she must, as all Chicanas must, confront “the pernicious effects of a patriarchal system” (Herrera-Sobek 36) and evolve from a recognition of those destructive aspects to a “confidence that depends on love of Chicanas for themselves and each other as Chicanas” (Yabro-Bejareno 140). The characters begin by embracing the patriarchal limits, then protest against them, and finally transcend external definitions.
To the eleven-year-old girls in the early stories, patriarchy is seductive. When fathers appear, they signal celebration or security. But, on the periphery of their consciousness, fathers are often absent and, at critical times, they have no function. Even the most comforting father foreshadows the restrictive behavior of all males, and all males assume the same privileges. Already the Micaela's two brothers exercise their traditional prerogatives, defining her at play, threatening to exile her if she does not conform (18). Grandmothers sometimes assume responsibility for the moral development of children when fathers are absent. However, grandmothers are agents who enforce the cultural patriarchy. They invoke the intercession of the Virgin of Guadalupe, symbolic of the Spaniards' first domination, and have “enforced on Mexican women a cultural model of passivity and guilt” (Saldivar 191).
In the middle stories, “One Holy Night” and “My Tocaya,” the protagonists realize what men do and attempt to announce it. In the first case, the young woman is defined sexually. She goes to her lover expecting the first experience to “come undone like gold thread, like a tentful of birds” (28). Instead, the lovemaking is painful and she runs home, hiding her “bloody panties inside [her] T-shirt,” wanting to “stand on top of the highest building, the top-top floor, and yell, ‘I know’” (30). Patricia Bernadette Benavídez discovers another force of patriarchy in “My Tocaya” and makes a very public announcement of it, though it is only symbolic and ultimately ineffective. She is thirteen and works in her father's taco stand. It is a “life sentence” of “coming home stinking of crispy tacos” (37). Her father may have beaten her and surely sees her as no more than an anonymous resource for his business, the “‘son’ half of Father & Son's Taco Palace” (36). Patricia challenges this exploitation by disappearing and thus establishing a momentary definition for herself. She is featured on TV, on the front page of all the local newspapers, and on the school intercom. However, the identity is not permanent. Her father claims another body in the morgue as hers (40). And, after she had “escaped so clean,” she returns to her servitude. As her namesake says so scornfully, “she couldn't even die right” (40).
The third group of stories traces the composite heroine as she escapes her father for a marriage or a relationship, and then escapes that dependency. “Woman Hollering Creek” opens with one man delivering his daughter to another man: “Don Serafin gave Juan Pedro Martinez Sanchez permission to take Cleófilas Enriqueta DeLeón Hernandez as his bride” (43). Once again the young woman is her father's possession, an asset to be distributed as he chooses. Cleófilas acquiesces out of obedience, and out of not knowing another way. She is the sort of woman Julia Olivares identified in Mango Street: she wants to “grow up fast, get married, and get out,” but discovers that fathers and husbands are both “domineering” (164). Marriage can only exchange the manner in which she is used. As a daughter, her life is one of service to her “good for nothing brothers” (43). As a wife, she silently cares for her child and must endure violence, infidelity, and humiliation from her husband and his friends. Even the town was “built so that you have to depend on husbands” (50-51). She must, at her own cost, protect her husband's status. For his pride she agrees to risk another pregnancy, though the baby might be “turned around” and “split her down the center” (53). And she must not tell the doctor that her bruises are caused by his beatings.
There are two ways the Chicana grows in this story, though Cleófilas is not fully aware of either. First, she encounters a model for behavior that is not restricted by traditional gender roles and second, she forms an initial bond with the Chicanas who have established some independence for themselves. Graciela, a nurse, recognizes Cleófilas' bruises and guesses her to be “one of those brides from across the border” (54). Perhaps only a generation removed from similar origins, Graciela refuses to perpetuate the tradition of silent submission to male power. She sweeps the naive Cleofilas at once into a confederacy with Felicia and they plan her escape without considering for a moment the established male prerogatives.
Felicia gives title to the book as the woman who hollers. To Cleófilas she is a marvel, “like no woman she's ever met” (56). She drives a pickup that does not belong to a husband and pays for it herself (55). More significantly, Felicia expresses herself as she wishes while Cleófilas remains “speechless, motionless, numb” even when she is struck in the face (48). Cleófilas assumes that when women do raise their voices, it is only to express “pain or rage” (47). Thus she is startled when Felicia “let out a yell as loud as any mariachi” as they cross the bridge over La Gritona (55). And Felicia yells for no particular reason, she says, except perhaps to celebrate the creek as the only thing in the town to be “named after a woman.” Despite that example, Cleófilas does not really escape. She, like Patricia, returns to her father and her original bondage. For a moment, though, she manages to laugh as freely as Felicia (56).
In “Never Marry a Mexican,” Clemencia takes action beyond the passivity and retreat which were the only measures available to Cleófilas. She retaliates against the privileges of gender with methods which are contorted, indirect, and not fully satisfying. She refuses to marry, preferring to sleep with married men and risking discovery by leaving clues of their infidelity. She even fantasizes about emasculating Drew's son after she forces him to hunger for her and twist in his sleep. Such revenge only replaces one type of dependence with another and affirms the assumption of men that wives and children are property.
Inés (“Eyes of Zapata”) is defined by her father and her lover/husband at first, but evolves toward a kind of joy that Cleófilas could only experience during a brief moment, a joy that Clemencia never felt. Inés lives through long periods of autonomy. When she first chooses to travel with Zapata, it is against her father's wishes, a challenge to the love and the limits he claims for her. As she left, he cursed her refusal to behave as men thought daughters should. He calls her a “perra” [bitch] for being like her mother (89) who was one of those women “who try to act like men” (111). She had been murdered by her lovers, who seemed to be practicing a ritual to cleanse the community of her sin: her usurpation of the male privilege to be promiscuous. She was left in a field, her “braids undone, a man's sombrero tipped on her head, a cigar in her mouth” (111).
Brutalized by her father's invective, Inés still defiantly embraces the association with her mother. She knows she is not like other women, “afraid of the night,” and seeking sanctuary at each threat of danger (86); she takes pride in her hands which are callused from the “hard man's work” she does (86). Inés claims that same identity with all the women of her family and demonstrates it by naming her daughter after her mother, though her father forbade it (100). Strong women are no longer a curiosity, as they were for Cleofilas; they have become models for their daughters.
Inés has escaped her father's definition; however, like Clemencia and Lupita at first, she suffers because she still relies on lovers to define her. Zapata fathers her children and gives her a wedding gift, but later claims he never promised to marry her (93). He embraces the woman he did marry with the same distinctive embrace he shares with Inés. Betraying both women, he takes mistresses, exploiting their youth and their fervor for revolution or for his own legendary status (100). Inés is tortured, not knowing who she is to Zapata: “Sometime wife? Lover? Whore? Which? To be one is not so terrible as being all” (105). With no identity to be derived from their attachment, she is forced to return to her father, the man who has rejected her association with him. She “didn't know what else to do” (93) but to retreat as Patricia and Cleófilas had.
Though not yet independent, Cisneros' woman has grown in power. She once could only contemplate howling in rage or pain against the limits of patriarchy; then she felt joy in vengeance. Ines' power is now the company of her gender, her place in a line of women that extends to her from her past and through her to her daughter. When Ines challenges Zapata to identify her, she asks for her daughter as well as herself—“How do you want her treated? Like you treated me?” (105).
The clearly mystical and historical sense of gender identity is intensified in “Little Miracles, Kept Promises,” where Rosario at first feels alone as she attempts to define herself beyond the expectations of her family, who consider her only in traditional gender roles. As a daughter, she is to be sociable and aspire to marriage and motherhood (126). She rejects their standards, intending to be rational and educated; she chooses not to be a mother because that is one of the few choices she is empowered to make (126-7). Her efforts bring ridicule and invective: “‘Heretic. Atheist. Malinche’” (127). No one, in her family or outside it, can model, support, share, or even understand her choice to live alone.
The Virgin of Guadalupe—a Christian synthesis of a half dozen Aztec goddesses—was finally able to establish an allegiance between Rosario and her ancestors. At first Rosario saw the Virgin only as an authority for the pain of her mother and “all [her] mothers' mothers” (127). But the Virgin could also be as fierce as Rosario wanted her to be: bare breasted and carrying snakes, “leaping and somersaulting the backs of bulls,” “swallowing raw hearts and rattling volcanic ash” (127). This sort of model could accommodate her “mother's patience” and her “grandmother's endurance” (128) and teach Rosario to love herself. Thus Cleófilas' escape, Clemencia's revenge, and Inés' vision have expanded the sisterhood that was so powerless in the early stories.
As the last evolution of the woman challenging patriarchy and seeking identity, Lupita still struggles, but finds a way to be happy. Clemencia had thought herself to be beautiful when Drew said she was and, with him, she considered herself “worth loving” (74); in the same way, Lupita has “always been in love with a man” and without Flavio, she considers herself “ugly” (160). She is a kind of infant with him, rocking in his arms while he “cooed” to her (54). When he left her, he “wore all [her] prettiness away” (137). She first thought he was perfect (137) and forgot the lesson of “One Holy Night,” that man's perfection is a “bad joke.” As were Clemencia and Inés, Lupita was abandoned by the man who felt free to define her and then leave because that is in the natural order of things. Flavio had wives in Mexico to “‘attend to’” and excused his bigamy as if his choices are only inevitable results of cosmic forces (157).
Lupita's first reaction is to blame herself for not asking Flavio's forgiveness (160) and to seek comfort, not in revenge, but in prayers and potions (159). Her survival becomes possible only when she realizes that Chicanas can love themselves when they finally reject patriarchal, fictional, and mythological models and establish their own contexts. The notion appears to her in a dream where she is slapping TV heroines to their senses, because, she says,
I want them to be women to make things happen, not women who things happen to. Not loves that are tormentosos. Not men powerful and passionate versus women either volatile and evil, or sweet and resigned. But women. Real women. The ones I've loved all my life … Las girlfriends. Las comadres. Our mamas and tías. Passionate and powerful, tender and volatile, brave. And, above all, fierce.
With such an identity, love would be welcome if it appeared, but it would have no more meaning in a woman's life than “rage and desire, and joy and grief” (163). Love might be arranged with a man, but the woman's life would remain the construct in which love operated; she would be more important than the relationship. As Lupita paraphrased the lyrics of a popular song, “I love you, honey, but I love me more” (163). Words of love for a man, which had been associated with the chattering of “urracas” [grackles] (160), are now seen as intense and jubilant, but leaving a mess that someone would have to “clean up” (165).
Lupita's growth allows her finally to be joyful and her character reaffirms the value of the child Lucy in the first story of the collection. With her comadres, Lupita is able to challenge all the limits imposed from the outside. She might be like Lucy in the company of her friend and wave to people she doesn't know, eat scabs, wear shoes on her hands; and most of all, she might be expressive—somersaulting even if her underwear showed and laughing in her friend's ear (5).
The growth of Lucy's childhood friend through periods of anguish into the adult and confident Lupita can be partially tracked in these figures of play and happiness. Balloons, as symbols of innocence, freedom, and celebration, appear first in the longing of Rachel (“Eleven”). Their joy is inaccessible to her, “far away” and “so tiny-tiny you have to close your eyes to see them” (9). An “awful grandmother” will not allow the children to spend their allowance on balloons, candy, comics, or pony rides (18), and in her church, prayers don't get answered but keep “bumping” against the ceiling like trapped balloons (19). Truth for drunks, like prayers in church, are also trapped balloons (47).
In childhood events, joy was distant, locked into an irretrievable past, receding into a future, or deflected by some external structure or flawed consciousness. Cleófilas experiences the first joy of an adult woman. For a moment, with Felicia, she felt a “gurgling out of her own throat, a long ribbon of laughter” (56). And Lupita, with her final identity, the sustenance of her culture, and the company of her gender, can finally exult again as she had with Lucy: “Just because it's today, today, with not thought of the future or past. Today. Hurray. Hurray?” (165).
Cisneros, Sandra. “Do You Know Me? I Wrote The House on Mango Street.” The American Review 15:1 (1987). 77-79.
———. The House on Mango Street. New York: Vintage Contemporaries, 1991.
———. Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories. New York: Vintage Contemporaries, 1992.
Clendinnen, Inga. Ambivalent Conquests: Maya and Spaniard In Yucatan, 1517-1570. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987.
Cypess, Sandra Messinger. La Malinche in Mexican Literature: From History to Myth. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1991.
Herrera-Sobek, Maria. Introduction. Chicana Creativity and Criticism: Charting New Frontiers in American Literature. Eds. Maria Herrera-Sobek and Helena Maria Viramontes. Houston, Texas: Arte Publico Press, 1988. 9-39.
Meyer, Michael C. and William L. Sherman. The Course of Mexican History. 2nd ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1983.
Olivares, Julian. “Sandra Cisneros' The House on Mango Street.” Chicana Creativity and Criticism” Charting New Frontiers in American Literature. Eds. Maria Herrera-Sobek and Helena Maria Viramontes. Houston, Texas: Arte -Publico Press, 1988. 160-169.
Saldivar, Ramon. Chicano Narrative: The Dialect of Difference. Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1990.
Vigil, James Diego. From Indian to Chicanos: The Dynamics of Mexican American Culture. Illinois: Waveland Press Inc., 1980.
Yabro-Bejarano, Yvonne. “Chicana Literature from a Chicana Feminist Perspective.” Chicana Creativity and Criticism: Charting New Frontiers in American Literature. Eds. Maria Herrera-Sobek and Helena Maria Viramontes. Houston, Texas: Arte Publico Press, 1988. 139-146.
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 786
Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories Sandra Cisneros
Mexican American poet, short story writer, novelist, and author of children's books.
The following entry presents criticism of Cisneros's short fiction collection Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories (1991) from 1994 through 2002. See also, Sandra Cisneros Criticism.
Published in 1991, Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories is Cisneros's second book of short fiction. The stories in the collection explore the struggle of several women living near the border of Mexico and the United States to balance the patriarchal culture of their community and their need for autonomy and self-expression. Critics commend the collection for its innovative compositional style; in fact, commentators have credited the volume—which exhibits the overall completeness of a novel, the dynamic energy of a short story, the pointedness of a vignette, and the lyricism of poetry—with transcending the boundaries of traditional literary genres.
Plot and Major Characters
Woman Hollering Creek features twenty-two narratives that involve numerous Mexican American characters living near San Antonio, Texas. Ranging in length from a few paragraphs to several pages, the stories are first-person narratives of individuals who have been assimilated into American culture but feel a divided sense of loyalty to Mexico. Critics note that the stories can be grouped into three sections. The first category of stories concerns young girls, around the age of eleven, growing up in Mexican villages or barrios in the United States. In these stories, these young girls encounter the growing tension between their Mexican heritage and the demands of an American culture. In “Mericans,” Micaela attends a Mexican church with her grandmother and reflects on her disconnection with the Spanish language and Mexican customs; as an American, she feels alienated from both American and Mexican cultures. The second group of stories in Woman Hollering Creek includes adolescent girls experiencing an initiation or epiphany. “My Tocaya” chronicles the unsuccessful attempt of a young girl, Patricia, to escape the drudgery and servitude of her life, which is defined by working long hours under difficult circumstances at her father's taco stand. The third and largest group of stories explores the challenges of mature women struggling to act against familial and cultural pressures as well as traditional gender roles. In “Woman Hollering Creek,” a Mexican bride, Cleófilas, is given in marriage to an abusive, domineering man living across the border in Texas. After numerous beatings, infidelities, and humiliations, she manages to escape her husband and returns to her father's house—only to find herself subjugated by yet another controlling male presence. In “Never Marry a Mexican,” a young Hispanic woman expresses feelings of contempt for her white lover that are fueled by her emerging sense of inadequacy and guilt resulting from her inability to speak Spanish. “Little Miracles, Kept Promises” recounts the ridicule Rosario faces when she rejects traditional gender roles and chooses an independent, educated life.
Critics have identified the major themes of Woman Hollering Creek as poverty and cultural suppression, the search for self-identity, and the role of women in Mexican American culture. Misogyny, violence, domestic abuse, rape, and the limitations of traditional gender roles are recurring issues for Cisneros's female characters. As many of these women realize the soul-deadening restrictions of familial and cultural expectations, they struggle toward self-definition and control over their own destinies. In several stories, her heroines attempt to escape the patriarchal limits of their culture through education and self-expression. Commentators have investigated the roles that Mexican popular culture as well as mythical figures such as La Llorona, La Malinche, and the Virgin of Guadalupe play in the stories comprising Woman Hollering Creek. Borderland themes are central to the stories in the collection, and border crossing functions as a metaphor for several characters attempting to cross cultural and artistic boundaries. Critics contend that in her stories Cisneros perceptively depicts the situation of Mexican American women caught between two distinct cultures—a kind of cultural borderland.
Reviewers maintain that Woman Hollering Creek follows a structural and thematic pattern similar to her first collection of short fiction, The House on Mango Street (1983), but the female protagonists are more mature and complex. A few critics have deemed Cisneros's dialogue overly simplistic and contend that her recurrent portrayal of male violence toward women in her fiction presents an unflattering view of Hispanic life. Yet others have lauded these same elements in Cisneros's fiction, asserting that her distinctive literary and innovative techniques have been greatly unappreciated and that her concentration on cultural imperialism and women's issues has universal appeal. According to these critics, it is these aspects, in addition to her skillful prose, striking realism, and dynamic characterizations, that have established Woman Hollering Creek as a noteworthy and compelling work of short fiction.
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7003
SOURCE: García, Alesia. “Politics and Indigenous Theory in Leslie Marmon Silko's ‘Yellow Woman’ and Sandra Cisneros' ‘Woman Hollering Creek’.” In Folklore, Literature, and Cultural Theory; Collected Essays, edited by Cathy Lynn Preston, pp. 3-21. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1995.
[In the following essay, García contends that Leslie Marmon Silko's story “Yellow Woman” and Cisneros's “Woman Hollering Creek” are “two contemporary stories in which these writers recognize the importance of their indigenous heritage in relation to their thinking, writing, and identity as Native women in the 20th century.”]
As with any generation the oral tradition depends upon each person listening and remembering a portion and it is together— all of us remembering what we have heard together— that creates the whole story the long story of people. e I remember only a small part. But this is what I remember.
—Leslie Marmon Silko (1981)
In my writing as well as that of other Chicanas … there is the necessary phase of dealing with those ghosts and voices most urgently haunting us, day by day.
—Sandra Cisneros (1987)
One of the most important functions of Native American storytelling is its preservation of indigenous cultural traditions. In any given narrative or story, there is always a direct or implied reference to indigenous ancestors and beliefs, and as the storyteller weaves new stories with old, tribal histories and identities are reaffirmed while new traditions are created. Leslie Marmon Silko's “Yellow Woman” (in Storyteller, 1981) and Sandra Cisneros' “Woman Hollering Creek” (in Woman Hollering Creek [Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories], 1991) are two contemporary stories in which these writers recognize the importance of their indigenous heritage in relation to their thinking, writing, and identity as Native women in the 20th century. Preservation of Native American languages and stories, according to N. Scott Momaday, “represents the only chance … [one] has for survival” (1983:415). Maintaining native cultures and traditions, therefore, is a form of political as well as personal resistance to continuing oppression by an assimilationist dominant culture; Native American literature is a constant challenge to the threat of what Acoma poet Simon J. Ortiz calls “cultural ethnocide” (1987:192).
Historically, indigenous oral narratives collected by anthropologists and others have been considered “authentic” or “traditional” representations of native verbal art; however, until recently, transcriptions of these oral stories rarely acknowledged the continuing tradition of storytelling within the on-going performative contexts of these cultures. The aim of current scholars is to show that indigenous oral narratives resist closure and stasis, for each generation of storytellers continues to sing the songs and tell the stories; they incorporate new experiences, and thus continually recontextualize the stories. Referring specifically to performance of oral literature, folklorist Richard Bauman asserts that
The concept of emergence is necessary to the study of performance as a means toward comprehending the uniqueness of particular performances within the context of performance as a generalized cultural system in a community. The ethnographic construction of the structured, conventionalized performance system standardizes and homogenizes description, but all performances are not the same, and one wants to be able to appreciate the individuality of each, as well as the community-wide patterning of the overall domain.
(1977:37; my emphasis)
“Emergence” in oral tradition has several implications. Bauman indicates that the contexts of oral performances are as diverse as cultures and languages themselves. And as cultures shift and change with time, so do the content and context of many traditional narratives. For example, one of the coyote trickster stories Leslie Marmon Silko tells depicts coyote as a male member of Laguna Pueblo at Hopi pretending to be a Medicine Man. This story has all the humor of “traditional” coyote stories, but through its characters and descriptions, it also shows how the contemporary Pueblo Indian community has been affected by social and historical changes within and around the culture, such as the infusion of popular culture, technology, and the cultural interchange with Mexicans and Mexican-Americans.
Anthropologist James Clifford's theories illuminate the dynamism in Native American storytelling and also recognize a need for contextualizing indigenous oral literatures. In The Predicament of Culture, Clifford states that
Twentieth-century identities no longer presuppose continuous cultures or traditions. Everywhere individuals and groups improvise local performances from (re)collected pasts, drawing on foreign media, symbols, and languages.
Throughout the world indigenous populations have had to reckon with the forces of “progress” and “national” unification. The results have been both destructive and inventive. Many traditions, languages, cosmologies, and values are lost, some literally murdered; but much has simultaneously been invented and revived in complex oppositional contexts. If the victims of progress and empire are weak, they are seldom passive.
Clifford's theories, echoing Momaday, imply that emergent Native traditions have allowed, through language, the assertion of political opposition to Western cultural hierarchies. Indigenous stories give voice to conquered Native cultures, and with each generation, particularly the current generation of contemporary Native writers, the voices gain prominence and, in many contexts, spark controversy. By “politics,” I am not referring to a specific political ideology, but the idea of resistance through language. As Ortiz suggests, the very existence of Native language and storytelling in this sense becomes political because it defies the idea of an homegeneous America or an “American” language and literature. Native American literature need not express an overt political statement or position to be counter-hegemonic and counter-discursive. Native American cultures, therefore, become powerfully resistant to the interpretive modes of Western-European literary discourses and theories.
Specifically resisting ethnographic authority and, by association, Western-European literary authority, Chicano anthropologist Renato Rosaldo argues that
a sea change in cultural studies has eroded once-dominant conceptions of truth and objectivity. The truth of objectivism—absolute, universal, and timeless—has lost its monopoly status. It now competes, on more nearly equal terms, with the truths of case studies that are embedded in local contexts, shaped by local interests, and colored by local perceptions. The agenda for social analysis has shifted to include not only eternal verities and lawlike generalizations but also political processes, social changes, and human differences. Such terms as objectivity, neutrality, and impartiality refer to subject positions once endowed with great institutional authority, but they are arguably neither more nor less valid than those of more engaged, yet equally perceptive, knowledgeable social actors. Social analysis must now grapple with the realization that its objects of analysis are also analyzing subjects who critically interrogate ethnographers—their writings, their ethics, and their politics.
Rosaldo argues for analyses of culture and literature through “subjective” rather than “objective” positions. Similar to Ortiz and, as will be discussed later, Silko, Rosaldo's theory points to the necessity of seeking cultural meaning from within rather than imposing dominant ideologies onto Native cultures. The key point reverberating in Rosaldo's theories as well as those of other scholars is that native cultures, particularly verbal art, are not simply something to be transcribed, catalogued, and archived, but are continually evolving and reasserting their difference.
In an essay, entitled “Song/Poetry and Language—Expression and Perception,” Ortiz describes Acoma Pueblo language as “perception[s] of experience as well as expression” (1983:401). He focuses on the relationship between language and experience, which, he suggests, emphasizes the importance of understanding Native American literature from a Native American perspective and within Native American historical and socio-political contexts. Ortiz describes Pueblo expression as
A song … made substantial by its context—that is its reality, both that which is there and what is brought by the song. The context in which the song is sung or that a prayer song makes possible is what makes a song substantial, gives it that quality of realness. The emotional, cultural, spiritual context in which we thrive—in that, the song is meaningful. The context has to do not only with your being physically present but it has to do also with the context of the mind, how receptive it is, and that usually means familiarity with the culture in which the song is sung.
(1983:403; my emphasis)
The necessity of using a contextualized and indigenous approach to understanding Native American culture could not be more directly expressed. However, to argue that an indigenous theoretical approach should replace dominant theories, or that it is more valid, would simply result in shifting the hierarchy. Rather than replacing one ethnocentric theory for another, the key is to recognize how Native cultures have always had their own theories about language and storytelling already woven into their traditions. As scholars, we must not devalue these indigenous theories; neither should we erase the historical affects of colonization upon the traditions of indigenous cultures by continuing to privilege theories of the dominant culture that reduce our understanding of native cultures. The radical aspect of indigenous theory is that, unlike other theoretical frameworks, it cannot be easily categorized or defined; it is not static and unchanging. Like the Native oral texts it critiques, indigenous theory is itself emergent and must shift and change in different contexts.
LAGUNA PUEBLO CULTURE AND INDIGENOUS THEORY
As has been demonstrated here, Native American culture and language has been explored by many scholars, both Native and non-Native, but Leslie Marmon Silko perhaps best articulates a theory of storytelling based on oral tradition within the context of the Laguna Pueblo Indian community in New Mexico in her 1979 essay, “Language and Literature from a Pueblo Indian Perspective.” Pueblo Indian theories, as Silko explains, focus on the dynamic process of oral literature whose structure demands interpretations that resist distorting Pueblo Indian cultural codes and contexts. Silko introduces an indigenous literary theory which is coterminous with the theories of many contemporary anthropologists, ethnographers, and folklorists who have rallied against “classic” modes of cultural and literary interpretations that misappropriate and decontextualize Native rituals and texts.
In her essay, Silko shows that Pueblo language and storytelling is emergent and appears in many forms. The stories all have distinct patterns. Pueblo language is
English in a nontraditional structure, a structure that follows patterns from the oral tradition … the structure of Pueblo expression resembles something like a spider's web with many little threads radiating from a center, criss-crossing each other. As with the web, the structure will emerge as it is made and you must simply listen and trust.
Literary critic Linda L. Danielson has outlined how Silko has patterned her book, Storyteller (1981), to resist Western-European, linear narrative formats and has, instead, woven the book like a spider's web with interconnected stories emerging from a center. Danielson points out that although the book has a cover, title page and prominently displays the author's name, the
non-linear structure of the book provides the reader with the principle subtext. This structure, which may appear baffling and haphazard at first glance, makes sense when one looks hard at it, as one sometimes has to do in morning light to recognize a spider web.
Using such metaphors as “radiating spokes” (1988:333), “filament” (1988:333), “lateral connections” (1988:341), and “strand” (1988:343) to describe Silko's narrative strategy, Danielson, theorizing from a Pueblo Indian perspective, deftly explains how Silko's writing is an extension of Pueblo thought. As Silko has noted:
each version [of the story] is true and … correct and what matters is to have as many of the stories as possible and to have them together and to understand the emergence, keeping all the stories in mind at the same time.
(Silko and Wright 1986:87)
Even as individual stories converge and diverge, Pueblo storytellers are conscious of a center, or the “original thought” myth of “Tseitsinako, Thought Woman” (Silko 1979:55); therefore, keeping the concept of original thought in mind, Pueblo storytellers weave their stories like Grandmother Spider.
Another important characteristic of Pueblo oral tradition is that the culture is linked to a specific geographic location: the individual pueblos in New Mexico. Silko has pointed out that
one of the … advantages that … [Pueblos] have enjoyed is that … [we] have always been able to stay with the land. The stories cannot be separated from geographical locations, from actual physical places within the land. [Pueblos] … were not relocated like so many Native American groups who were torn away from … [their] ancestral land. And the stories are so much a part of these places that it is almost impossible for future generations to lose the stories.
Laguna stories frequently mention landscapes and locations in and around their actual geographic setting. The stories, according to Silko, are like maps that teach generations about the history of their ancestral homeland. “So long as the human consciousness remains within the hills, canyons, cliffs, and the plants, clouds, and sky,” says Silko, “the term landscape as it has entered the English language, is misleading” (1986:84); therefore, Pueblo consciousness is synonymous with Pueblo landscape.
The Pueblo culture was originally an oral culture. Commenting on Pueblo orality, Silko refers to the “ancient Pueblo people” who
depended upon collective memory through successive generations to maintain and transmit an entire culture, a world view complete with proven strategies for survival. The oral narrative or “story,” became the medium in which the complex of Pueblo knowledge and belief was maintained.
Silko has shown, that even though Laguna Pueblo stories are often handed down through the generations in English as well as Laguna, it is more important that the stories are told rather than insisting on recreating stories in their original tribal language:
if you begin to look at the core of the importance of the language and how it fits in with the culture, it is the story and the feeling of the story which matters more that what language it's told in.
Laguna Pueblos learn about who they are through the stories they tell; a sense of cultural identity and community is passed on. Story structures, the Pueblo origin myth, the idea of an ancestral homeland, and the continuity of the stories are all ideas embodied in the Pueblo theory of language and literature, and all of these elements of thought and language can be found in Yellow Woman stories. Many variations of the Yellow Woman myth have been recorded by anthropologists and ethnographers over the past century. In The Sacred Hoop, Laguna Pueblo writer Paula Gunn Allen states that
Yellow Woman stories are about all sorts of things—abduction, meeting with happy powerful spirits, birth of twins, getting power from the spirit worlds and returning it to the people, refusing to marry, weaving, grinding corn, getting water, outsmarting witches, eluding or escaping from malintentioned spirits, and more.
Joan Thompson points out that Silko includes “six versions” (1989:22) of the Yellow Woman myth in Storyteller; however, according to Gunn Allen, Yellow Woman is also associated with Mother Corn Woman, and her sister Corn Mother (sacred corn-ear bundle) (1986:226); therefore, theorizing from a Pueblo Indian perspective, I suggest that there are actually two more versions of Yellow Woman in Storyteller: Aunt Susie's story of “the little girl who ran away” in which the mother prepares Yashtoah, the hardened crust of corn meal mush (1981:7-5), and the story of Reed Woman, Corn Woman, and the drought (1981:158-159). With eight emergent versions or representations of Yellow Woman, Silko uses stories to represent the eight legs of Grandmother Spider.
Within the narrative of “Yellow Woman,” Silko again enacts Pueblo theories of storytelling. This story is emergent in its inclusion of many socio-historical changes which have affected the Pueblo culture. Abduction by Kat'sinas becomes abduction by invading cultures. Gunn Allen has suggested that
… abduction and captivity by spirit people preoccupied earlier tribal women, and, after the coming of the white man, narratives of that sort proliferated because abduction by Spaniards, Mexicans, Frenchmen, and Anglos, as well as by other Native people, became a relatively frequent occurence. The narrator's confusion in “Yellow Woman” reflects the confusion in the tradition, as spiritual and historical events blend into one another in American Indian life and consciousness.
(1989:219; my emphasis)
“Confusion” is a misleading term. Rather, Silko's story represents an emergent, contextualized version of Yellow Woman—an oppositional text which resists hegemonic structural and temporal linearity. Even though Silko's version has been framed like a short story, she includes many Yellow Woman stories within the larger framework of the Storyteller text.
In “Yellow Woman,” a married Pueblo woman is abducted by a stranger named Silva, a cattle rustler who wears Levi's and carries a.30-30. In many “traditional” versions, Yellow Woman is rescued; but in Silko's version, she escapes from her captor and returns to her pueblo on her own. Replacing mythic characters such as Whirlwind Man and Buffalo Man are characters who are “real” people who live in contemporary communities, talk about places like Concha Valley and Marquez, and refer to such things as tribal police and Jell-O. With these themes, Silko recontextualizes the entire story within a 20th century setting, showing that, though “progress” and “national” unification have affected the lifestyles of Laguna Pueblos, Yellow Woman remains a part of their oral tradition. Silko's story represents an emergent, oppositional text which resists containment by more conventional theories.
Another important aspect of Pueblo storytelling is what Silko refers to as “stories within stories” (1979:56), an emergent quality that also subverts a linear form. Silko's Yellow Woman, much like Thought Woman, thinks about creation and identity. On several occasions, Silko's Yellow Woman protagonist ponders the Yellow Woman myth:
I was wondering if Yellow Woman had known who she was—if she knew that she would become part of the stories. Maybe she'd had another name that her husband and relatives called her so that only the kat'sina from the north and the storytellers would know her as Yellow Woman.
At first, Yellow Woman is not able to “simply listen and trust” that she is a part of the tradition of Yellow Woman stories although she accepts their existence in “time immemorial” (1981:55):
I will see someone, eventually I will see someone, and then I will be certain that he [Silva] is only a man—some man from nearby—and I will be sure that I am not Yellow Woman. Because she is from out of time past and I live now and I've been to school and there are highways and pickup trucks that Yellow Woman never saw.
With this expression of ambivalence that a native person may feel when confronting indigenous traditions and cosmological beliefs that colonizing cultures have denied her—Silko echoes one of the themes addressed in Ceremony, her novel which shows how storytelling works to heal this ambivalence. Colonization has historically attempted to purge indigenous beliefs and practices of their value for Native Americans, replacing them with “education” and “technology.” Silko addresses this political issue directly by telling a story about a people who have resisted these attempts of cultural ethnocide.
Yellow Woman finally does trust in the stories; however, as the story “ends,” she has a new dilemma; feeling ambivalent about which world she would rather inhabit, the spiritual or the “real.” She thinks:
I came back to the place on the river bank where he [Silva] had been sitting the first time I saw him. The green willow leaves that he had trimmed from the branch were still lying there, wilted in the sand. I saw the leaves and I wanted to go back to him—to kiss him and to touch him—but the mountains were too far away now. And I told myself, because I believe it, he will come back sometime and be waiting again by the river.
I followed the path up from the river into the village. The sun was setting low, and I could smell supper cooking when I got to the screen door of my house. I could hear their voices inside—my mother was telling my grandmother how to fix the Jell-O and my husband, Al, was playing with the baby. I decided to tell them that some Navajo had kidnaped me, but I was sorry that old Grandpa wasn't alive to hear my story because it was the Yellow Woman stories he liked to tell best.
In “Yellow Woman,” Silko enacts emergent Pueblo theories of storytelling, or the theory of the web, which in its criss-cross pattern represents a literary tradition that is just as important and complex as dominant literary theories. Like Pueblo oral tradition, Chicano oral and literary tradition is emergent, but there are several distinct differences between the two cultures. Most profoundly, Chicanos vary in their particular awareness of and identification with indigenous myths and an ancestral homeland.
CHICANO CULTURE AND THE RECLAIMING OF INDIGENOUS THEORY
Although there is no single text outlining Chicano oral tradition the way Silko has for Laguna Pueblos, many Chicano and Chicana scholars have theorized about their culture's language and literature. As Ortiz does in his discussion of Pueblo expression, Chicano literary critic Juan Bruce-Novoa recognizes that “Chicano literature is a ritual of communal cohesion and transcendance in the face of constant threats to existence” (1990a:81). Furthermore, although there have been attempts by dominant culture to categorize Chicanos into one homogeneous group, Bruce-Novoa argues that Chicanos
refuse to fit these patterns. We [Chicanos] insist on being, not those who have crossed an absolute boundary, but the active producers of interchange and synthesis between the would-be binary opposites. We construct the alternative, if nothing else on the ideal plane, of transcendance. … Chicanismo calls for a definition of culture as process, open ended process, not a static code of permanent characteristics.
Bruce-Novoa shows that, unlike Laguna Pueblo Indian culture, Chicanos live in an “intercultural space” (1990b:71) and are comprised of diverse groups of people. “In contrast with the classic view, which posits culture as a self-contained whole made up of coherent patterns,” states Rosaldo in Culture and Truth, “[Chicano] culture can arguably be conceived as a more porous array of intersections where distinct processes criss-cross from within and beyond its borders” (1989:20). The idea of crossing borders is imperative to the understanding of Chicano oral tradition because transculturation has not only affected where Chicanos make their homes, but also how they choose to identify themselves in relation to Mexico and their indigenous heritage, and has determined the ways they tell their stories about La Llorona. Because the scope of this essay does not allow for a complete analysis of the vast range of Chicano verbal art, I must limit my theoretical exploration to the legend of La Llorona as transmitted among Chicanos, people of Mexican descent in the United States.
Chicanos do not usually associate La Llorona stories with the beliefs of their indigenous ancestors as do Laguna Pueblos. La Llorona stories, as many Chicanos tell them, are fragmented from a deliberate Mexican Indian perspective. Emergence and origin myths did exist in pre-Columbian cultures and have been recorded by many historians and anthropologists, such as Mexican scholar Miguel León-Portilla whose works were among those consulted by members of the Chicano Movement when reclaiming their indigenous heritage (Bruce-Novoa 1990a:81) in a formal act of resistance to assimilation of dominant culture. A recent example of this reclamation of indigenous heritage can be seen in Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza (1987). In this text, Gloria Anzaldúa positions herself within a pre-Columbian, specifically Aztec, world view and fuses it with a Western-European world view, which culminates in her New Mestiza theory. Working through her theories, she attributes pre-Columbian origins to La Llorona. Folkorist Américo Paredes is another Chicano scholar who unequivically assumes an Aztec origin of the legend (1970:xvi). It would be false, however, to assume that all Chicanos in the United States acknowledge connections between contemporary La Llorona stories and the beliefs of their indigenous ancestors. For most Chicanos growing up in the United States, indigenous myths are not commonly introduced as part of cultural traditions. However, since the turn of the century, and specifically within the last thirty years, these myths have been rediscovered, reappropriated, and recontextualized by many Chicano poets, writers, and scholars in an effort to reclaim an indigenous, Native American link between all Chicanos.
In an essay, entitled “Aztlán: A Homeland Without Boundaries,” Rudolpho Anaya explains that
two crucial decisions were made during [the Chicano Movement]: one was the naming of the Chicano community and the second was the declaration of Aztlán as the ancestral homeland. … By using this term the Chicano community consciously and publicly acknowledged its Native American heritage, and thus opened new avenues of exploration by which we could more clearly define the Mestizo who is the synthesis of European and Indian ancestry. …
Part of the Movement's work was to revive our connection with our Indian past, and to seek a truer definition of that past. This meant reviving the history, myths, spiritual thought, legends, and symbols from Native America which were part of the Chicano's collective history. The search found the umbilical cord which led to Indian Mesoamerica and the Pueblos of the Rio Grande; that is, in the act of declaring our identity and nationality, we acknowledged our American Indian heritage.
This “rebirth” of indigenous heritage can itself be considered a contemporary creation myth, a reference for Chicano consciousness which points to a pre-Columbian past.1
The language in which La Llorona stories are told vary according to the predominant language and geographic location of the storyteller. Sometimes the story is told only in Spanish, sometimes only in English, and sometimes the story represents a linguistic synthesis and is told in a mixture of both languages or various dialects. The languages within Chicano culture are themselves emergent and are created differently within each Chicano context. Bruce-Novoa agrees that Chicano texts and languages have at times emerged as “interlingual … a blend of Spanish and English” (1990c:49) and that the
instinctual use of one's personal native idiom is … much more complex than a simple preference for English over Spanish. It is interlingualism—not bilingualism. Chicanos blend Spanish and English, at times in obvious ways, such as juxtaposing words from both languages, but more often in such subtle fusions of grammar, syntax or cross-cultural allusions. … Interlingualism is a linquistic practice highly sensitive to the context of speech acts, able to shift add-mixtures of languages according to situational needs or affects desired.
This interlingual form of expression is the true native language of Chicano communities.
Therefore, like Pueblo stories, Chicano versions of La Llorona depend more upon the preservation of the stories rather than upon an original tribal language.
Within Chicano culture, La Llorona emerges in many forms. Descriptions of both her behavior and appearance vary according to the landscapes and socio-historical contexts within each Chicano community. In some contexts, La Llorona is represented as a malevolent child murderer; in others, she appears as a warning to those who see her; still in others, she transforms into a benevolent protectress. Some storytellers always associate her with water; others only hear her wailing in the wind. There is no single description or composite variant that would serve as a justifiable text of La Llorona; she is many things to many people.
There are many origin theories about La Llorona. In the scholarship conducted in the past several decades, she has been attributed to actual women from Mexico City (Janvier 1910:162); La Malínche, Hernan Cortés' translator and mistress (Anaya 1984); the Medusa (Anzaldúa 1987:47); and the Germanic floating legend of “The White Lady” (Kirtley 1960:157). Using historical documents such as Bernardino Sahagún's 1585 General History of the Things of New Spain, Chicano scholars, such as Anzaldúa and others, have most often attributed her origins to the pre-Columbian goddesses Cihuacóatl and Coatlicue primarily because Sahagun's descriptions are strikingly similar to variant descriptions and representations of La Llorona that appear in both Mexicano and Chicano culture.
Sandra Cisneros is one Chicana who has recently reappropriated the legend of La Llorona. In “Woman Hollering Creek,” Cisneros alludes to a pre-Columbian origin for La Llorona, weaves in existing versions of the legend, such as the major motifs of La Llorona as she is associated with water, El Borracho, and her depiction as both a mother and a betrayed lover, and shows how Chicano culture has responded to ongoing socio-historical events by recontextualizing the legend and placing La Llorona in a contemporary setting much like Silko does in “Yellow Woman.”
The protagonist, Cleófilas Enriqueta De León Hernandez, is a young, inexperienced Mexicana who is married off by her father to a young Chicano who brings her across the border to Seguín, Texas. Like Silko's reference to the negative aftermath of colonization, Cisneros addresses the plight that some Mexicanas and Chicanas face in a patriarchal system, which makes “Woman Hollering Creek” an oppositional text. Ramón Saldívar asserts that contemporary Chicano narratives
embody new ways of perceiving social reality and significant changes in ideology. As resistant ideological forces in their own right, their function is to shape modes of perception in order to effect new ways of interpreting social reality and to produce in turn a general social, spiritual, and literary revaluation of values.
Cisneros' narrator comments on Cleófilas' identity as a married woman:
But what Cleófilas has been waiting for, has been whispering and sighing and giggling for, has been anticipating since she was old enough to lean against the window displays of gauze and butterflies and lace, is passion.
Cleófilas has been raised in a Mexican Catholic culture which expects women to suppress their sexuality and bear many children at the same time. Anzaldúa points out that after the Conquest, the Catholic Church desexualized indigenous goddesses, thereby enforcing a new model for Mestizo women in the form of La Virgen de Guadalupe (1987:27). José E. Limón corroborates Anzaldúa's analyses of Mexicano and Chicano culture. He argues that the image of La Virgen has also been politically appropriated by the Mexican “masculinized official church and the Partido Revoluccionario Institucional (PRI)” (1990:405-6). In an article entitled: “La Llorona, the Third Legend of Greater Mexico: Cultural Symbols and the Political Unconscious,” Limón states that La Virgen in Mexicano and Chicano culture has come to represent “a pure, maternal yet virginal figure [who] sets the ideological standard by which real ordinary women are judged and controlled” (1990:404). Limón, as well as Anzaldúa, has shown that among the symbols most associated with women in Mexicano and Chicano culture—La Malínche and La Virgen de Guadalupe—La Llorona is often overlooked as an essential part of an interchangable triad of representations of Mexicanas/Chicanas, a figure who, if contextualized historically, may be understood “as a positive, contestative symbol” (1990:400).
While deciding whether to leave her husband, Cleófilas realizes the consequences she confronts when faced with the ideological standards that juxtaposes real women against icons of purity and contamination:
Sometimes she thinks of her father's house. But how could she go back there? What a disgrace? What would the neighbors say? Coming home like that with one baby on her hip and one in the oven. Where's your husband?
While her husband spends time at the cantina, Cleófilas and her male child spend their days sitting on the edge of a creek that runs through her backyard. Here, she is like La Llorona who often roams the waterways; however, Cleófilas is not a malevolent child murderer. Instead, as a representation of La Llorona, Cleófilas is a positive mother figure who is leaning toward independence as she and the other women in the story create a woman-centered community. But rather than sentimentalizing female bonding and the theme of motherhood, Cisneros empowers the story with a Chicana feminism, a resistant ideology anchored in working class origins and the Mexicana/Chicana community.
In a passage that parallels Silko's “Yellow Woman,” Cisneros' story exemplifies how Chicano storytelling tradition has also begun weaving stories within stories similar to Laguna Pueblo tradition. And at the same time, Cisneros alludes to a indigenous link to La Llorona:
La Gritona. Such a funny name for such a lovely arroyo. But that's what they called the creek that ran behind her house. Though no one could say whether the woman had hollered from anger or pain. The natives only knew the arroyo one crossed on the way to San António, and then once again on the way back, was called Woman Hollering, a name no one from these parts questioned, little less understood. Pues, allá de los indios, quién sabe—who knows, the townspeople shrugged, because it was of no concern to their lives how this trickle of water received its curious name.
The reference to los indios is ironic. The “natives” do not question or understand La Llorona's origins because years of colonization and pressures to assimilate into dominant culture have conditioned them not to know. Their ignorance of indigenous origins resembles Yellow Woman's ambivalence toward her native history.
Many Lloronas exist in “Woman Hollering Creek.” Female characters who represent negative aspects of La Llorona include Cleófilas, for the first seven pages; Dolores (“the pains”); and Soledad (“lonely” or “grieving”). Soledad and Dolores each live alone—the result of either being a widow or of abandonment by a husband. Both are childless, Dolores' sons having died in “the last war” (1991:47), which, because of the contemporary setting of the story, is presumably Viet Nam.
Cleófilas, as a battered woman, is in the midst of a war herself:
The first time she had been so surprised she didn't cry or try to defend herself. She had always said she would strike back if a man, any man, were to strike her. …
In her home her parents had never raised a hand to each other or to their children. Although she admitted she may have been brought up a little leniently as an only daughter—la consentida, the princess—there were some things she would never tolerate. Ever.
Instead, when it happened the first time … she had done nothing but reach up to the heat on her mouth and stare at the blood on her hand as if even then she didn't understand.
She could think of nothing to say, said nothing. Just stroked the dark curls of the man who wept and would weep like a child, his tears of repentance and shame, this time and each.
Cleófilas' husband cannot decide whether he should worship her or abuse her. His weeping is a sign of the unstable position Chicanos occupy because of ambiguous and unrealistic gender roles constructed by the male-centered Catholic Church. Women are at once pure and impure; men become “father, rival, keeper, lord, master, and husband” (1991:49).
Positive aspects of La Llorona are represented by the female characters Graciela (grace) and Felice (happiness). While she is pregnant with her second child, Cleófilas' husband physically beats her. One day as she is waiting in her doctor's office, a Chicana nurse, Graciela, and her friend Felice, a Chicana who drives a pickup which she owns and has paid for herself, notice the signs of physical abuse on Cleófilas' body. They then conspire to help her leave her abusive husband. Felice offers to drive Cleófilas to the Greyhound Bus Station; and as she drives over the arroyo, Felice “let[s] out a yell as loud as any mariachi” (1991:55)—La Llorona self-fashioned.
These strong women, whom Chicana feminist Sonia Saldivar-Hull calls “mujeres de fuerza” (women of strength) (1991), have a profound affect on Cleófilas because from them she learns that women in her culture have more choices than she has been lead to believe. Cleófilas, as an aspect of La Llorona, aligns herself with a community of women, which includes Cisneros, who have recontextualized the story of La Llorona and have reappropriated her from the misappropriated texts and contexts of dominant culture.
Sandra Cisneros and Leslie Marmon Silko represent Native women writers who have participated in the emergent storytelling traditions of their cultures. As women who have consciously reappropriated “traditional” oral narratives, they have recognized the implicit responsibility to sustain their indigenous heritage; to practice resistance through language and literature. Momaday reminds us that “language involves the elements of risk and responsibility, and in this it seeks to confirm itself. In a word, everything is a risk. That may be true, and it may also be that the whole of literature rests upon that truth” (1983:415).
It should be emphasized as well that not all Americans of Mexican descent identify themselves as “Chicano,” and in identifying myself as a Chicana, I am both privileging this term and aligning myself with other scholars whose goal is to reclaim our indigenous heritage. In addition, in this essay, I initially adopt the position of “objective” Western-European literary critic; however, my position shifts to the “subjective” when I identify myself as a Chicana who is privileging an emergent, intercultural theoretical point of view. In doing so it is my intention to intersect theory and practice.
Anaya, Rudolfo A. 1984. The Legend of La Llorona. Berkeley: Quinto Sol.
———. 1989. A Homeland Without Boundaries. In Aztlán: Essays on the Chicano Homeland, ed. Rudolfo A. Anaya and Francisco Lomelí, pp. 230-241. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.
Anzaldúa, Gloria. 1987. Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza. San Francisco: Spinsters/Aunt Lute.
Bauman, Richard. 1977. Verbal Art as Performance. Illinois: Waveland.
Bruce-Novoa, Juan. 1990a. Chicano Literary Production. In Retrospace, by Juan Bruce-Novoa, pp. 75-90. Houston: Arte Público.
———. 1990b. Chicanos in Mexican Literature. In Retrospace, by Juan Bruce-Novoa, pp. 63-74. Houston: Arte Público.
———. 1990c. Spanish-language Loyalty and Literature. In Retrospace, by Juan Bruce-Novoa, pp. 49-50. Houston: Arte Público.
Brundage, Burr Cartwright. 1979. The Fifth Sun: Aztec Gods, Aztec World. Austin: University of Texas Press.
Cisneros, Sandra. 1987. Ghosts and Voices: Writing from Obsession. The Americas Review 15,1:69-73.
———. 1991. Woman Hollering Creek. New York: Random House.
Clifford, James. 1988. The Predicament of Culture: Twentieth-Century Ethnography, Literature, and Art. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Danielson, Linda L. 1988. Storyteller: Grandmother Spider's Web. Journal of the Southwest 30:325-355.
Gunn Allen, Paula. 1986. The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions. Boston: Beacon Press.
———, ed. 1989. Spider Woman's Granddaughters. New York: Fawcett.
Janvier, Thomas A. 1910. Legends of The City of Mexico. New York: Harper.
Kirtley, Bacil F. 1960. La Llorona and Related Themes. Western Folklore 19:155-168.
León-Portilla, Miguel. 1986. Pre-Columbian Literatures of Mexico. Translated by Grace Lobano and Miguel León-Portilla. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.
Limón, José E. 1990. La Llorona, The Third Legend of Greater Mexico: Cultural Symbols, Women, and the Political Unconsciousness. In Between Borders: Essays on Mexicana/Chicana History, ed. Adelaida R. Del Castíllo, pp. 399-431. Encino: Floricanto Press.
N. Scott Momaday. 1983. The Man Made of Words. In Symposium of the Whole: A Range of Discourse on the Study of Ethnopoetics, ed. Jerome Rothenberg and Diane Rothenberg, pp. 414-416. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Ortiz, Simon J. 1983. Song/Poetry and Language—Expression and Perception. In Symposium of the Whole: A Range of Discourse on the Study of Ethnopoetics, ed. Jerome Rothenberg and Diane Rothenberg, 399-407. Berkeley: University of California Press.
———. 1987. The Language We Know. In I Tell You Now: Autobiographical Essays by Native Americans, ed. Brian Swann and Arnold Krupat, pp. 185-194. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.
Paredes, Américo, ed. 1970. The Folktales of Mexico. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Rosaldo, Renato. 1989. Culture and Truth: The Remaking of Social Analysis. Boston: Beacon Press.
Sahagún, Bernardino de. 1950-1968. Florentine Codex: General History of the Things of New Spain, 12 Vols. Edited and Translated by Arthur J. O. Anderson and Charles E. Dibble. Santa Fe: School of American Research, and Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press.
Saldívar, Ramón. 1990. Chicano Narrative: The Dialectics of Difference. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.
Saldívar-Hull, Sonia. 1991. Mujeres de Fuerza/Women of Strength in Sandra Cisneros' “Woman Hollering Creek.” Lecture. Arizona Quarterly Symposium. Tucson.
Silko, Leslie Marmon. 1979. Language and Literature from a Pueblo Indian Perspective. Selected Papers from the English Institute, pp. 54-72. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press.
———. 1981. Storyteller. New York: Little Brown.
———. 1986. Landscape, History, and the Pueblo Imagination. Antaeus 51: 83-94.
———. 1988. Ceremony. New York: Penquin.
———and James Wright. 1986. The Delicacy and Strength of Lace, ed. Anne Wright, pp. 87. Saint Paul: Graywolf.
Thompson, Joan. 1989. Yellow Woman, Old and New: Oral Tradition and Leslie Marmon Silko's Storyteller. Wicaso Sa Review 5(Fall):22-25.
Montenyohl, Eric L. 1991. Folklore Studies and the Modern Language Association. Midwestern Folklore 17(2):110-124.
Nystrand, Martin. 1987. The Role of Context in Written Communication. In Comprehending Oral and Written Language, eds. Rosalind Horowitz and S. Jay Samuels, pp. 197-214. San Diego: Academic Press.
Okpewho, Isidore. 1979. The Epic in Africa: Toward a Poetics of the Oral Performance. New York: Columbia University Press.
Olson, David R., Nancy Torrance, and Angela Hildyard, eds. 1985. Literacy, Language, and Learning: The Nature and Consequences of Reading and Writing. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Ong, Walter J. 1965. Oral Residue in Tudor Prose Style. PMLA 80:145-54.
———. 1967. The Presence of the Word: Some Prolegomena for Cultural and Religious History. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
———. 1977. Interfaces of the Word: Studies in the Evolution of Consciousness and Culture. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
———. 1982. Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. New Accents. London and New York: Methuen.
———. 1988. Before Textuality: Orality and Interpretation. Oral Tradition 3(3):259-69.
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Zumthor, Paul. 1990. Oral Poetry: An Introduction. Theory and History of Literature, Volume 70. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Zumwalt, Rosemary Lévy. 1988. American Folklore Scholarship: A Dialogue of Dissent. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 35
The House on Mango Street (short stories) 1983
Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories (short stories) 1991
Bad Boys (poetry) 1980
The Rodrigo Poems (poetry) 1985
My Wicked Wicked Ways (poetry) 1987
Hairs: Pelitos (juvenilia) 1994
Loose Woman (poetry) 1994
Caramelo (novel) 2002
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7385
SOURCE: Doyle, Jacqueline. “Haunting the Borderlands: La Llorona in Sandra Cisneros's ‘Woman Hollering Creek’.” Frontiers 16, no. 1 (1996): 53-70.
[In the following essay, Doyle examines Cisneros's utilization of the La Llorona myth in her story “Woman Hollering Creek” and argues that the story “charts psychological, linguistic, and spiritual border crossings.”]
Aiiii aiiii aiiiii
She is crying for her dead child
the lover gone, the lover not yet come:
Her grito splinters the night
—Gloria Anzaldúa, “My Black Angelos,” Borderlands/La Frontera1
“If I were asked what it is I write about,” Sandra Cisneros commented in a lecture in 1986, “I would have to say I write about those ghosts inside that haunt me, that will not let me sleep, of that which even memory does not like to mention.”2 Poverty, the unrecorded lives of the powerless, the unheard voices of “thousands of silent women,” are some of the ghosts that haunt The House on Mango Street,3 dedicated in two languages, “A las Mujeres/To the Women.” Cisneros's narrator Esperanza chronicles the unhappy histories of “the ones who cannot out,” women immobilized by poverty, cultural and linguistic barriers, restrictive gender roles, and domestic violence. Gazing out of windows they cannot open, standing in doorways they cannot exit, woman after woman on Mango Street is trapped at the threshold or boundary of a room or house not her own. Marin moons in the doorway, “waiting for a car to stop, a star to fall, someone to change her life.” Mamacita “sits all day by the window and plays the Spanish radio show,” afraid to go outside because she doesn't speak English. Because Rafaela is young and beautiful, her husband locks her in her room each Tuesday night while he plays dominoes. Minerva comes over each week “black and blue” with the “same story.” Sally claims her father “never hits [her] hard,” but she marries to escape, only to sit alone in her husband's house “because she is afraid to go outside without his permission.” She looks “at the walls, at how neatly their corners meet, the linoleum roses on the floor, the ceiling smooth as wedding cake.”4
The story of Cleófilas in Cisneros's “Woman Hollering Creek” extends and revises such histories, opening a borderland space where old myths take on new resonance and new forms and where new stories are possible. Haunted by the legendary wail of la Llorona, Cleófilas seeks a language to articulate her own story and the stories of the mute feminine victims of male violence in the newspapers. As Adrienne Rich writes in “Natural Resources,” “we have lived with violence so long”:
Am I to go on saying for myself, for her This is my body take and destroy it?(5)
Reconstituting the “communion of saints” as a community including women, Cisneros transfigures the grito of la Llorona and mines new natural resources for the expectant mother Cleófilas and her sisters and comadres. Felice's joyous holler as she and Cleófilas cross Woman Hollering Creek releases new mother tongues. “What kind of talk was that coming from a woman,” Cleófilas marvels of her border crossing. “But then again, Felice was like no woman she'd ever met. Can you imagine, when we crossed the arroyo she just started yelling like a crazy, she would later say to her father and brothers. Just like that. Who would've thought?”6
In an interview in 1988, Cisneros discussed the difficulties of growing up as a Mexican American woman, “always straddling two countries … but not belonging to either culture,” “trying to define some middle ground” where revision and reinvention of cultural and sexual roles might be possible, only to be “told you're a traitor to your culture.”7 Gloria Anzaldúa constructs her “new mestiza identity” in just such a “middle ground” or borderland area, where languages, cultures, religions, and gender identities collide and cross. The “borderlands,” as Anzaldúa defines them, encompass both geographic and psychic spaces, a polyglot interzone that is “physically present wherever two or more cultures edge each other, where people of different races occupy the same territory, where under, lower, middle and upper classes touch, where the space between two individuals shrinks with intimacy.”8 This borderland terrain exists both inside and outside the individual; Anzaldúa maps the competing cultural, national, racial, sexual, and linguistic discourses occupying the spaces within and surrounding the Mexican American woman, even as she undoes the static oppositions that would confine and immobilize her. Moving beyond the “virgen/puta (whore) dichotomy,” Anzaldúa reconstructs mestiza identity as dynamic and multiple,9 the borderlands as a region of constant transition and transformation, where “languages cross-pollinate and are revitalized … die and are born.”10 The new mestiza speaks “a forked tongue, a variation of two languages” and numerous dialects.11 “She reinterprets history and, using new symbols, she shapes new myths.”12 She remothers herself and refashions her gods to give birth to her own identity.
The issue of “redefining myself or controlling my own destiny or my own sexuality,” Cisneros said in an interview, is the “ghost I'm still wrestling with.”13 In the stories in Woman Hollering Creek [Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories], Cisneros reshapes the myths that define Chicana identity, conjuring the ghostly apparitions of what Anzaldúa calls “Our Mothers”: la Virgen de Guadalupe, la Malinche, la Llorona.14 Norma Alarcón compellingly argues that these highly charged “symbolic figures” have been used as “reference point[s] not only for controlling, interpreting, or visualizing women” in Mexican American culture, “but also to wage a domestic battle of stifling proportions.”15 Cisneros re-enters the “quiet war” zone defined by Esperanza in The House on Mango Street to chart the interstices and in-betweens of the borderlands,16 to remap symbolic maternal landscapes, and to open a protean space where la Llorona's ghostly wail is replaced by “a voice all [her] own,” a “high, silver voice” that calls Cleófilas to a new spiritual birth (51). If Octavio Paz famously defined Mexicans as “the sons of la Malinche,” Cisneros surveys the possibilities for the daughters of la Llorona.17
“Woman Hollering Creek” charts psychological, linguistic, and spiritual border crossings. The story appropriately begins on a literal threshold and a literal border. Don Serafín grants Juan Pedro Martínez Sánchez “permission” to take his daughter Cleófilas Enriqueta DeLeón Hernández “as his bride, across her father's threshold, over several miles of dirt road and several miles of paved, over one border and beyond to a town en el otro lado—on the other side” (43). Cleófilas crosses these physical boundaries only within the confines of a patriarchal economy where she is permitted to exchange residence in her father's house for residence in her husband's, to exchange a town on one side of the border for a town much like it on the other. Trapped with her abusive husband in Seguín, Texas, Cleófilas thinks of Mexico: “The town of gossips. The town of dust and despair. Which she has traded for this town of gossips. This town of dust, despair” (50).
To reach this residence north of the border, Juan Pedro drove Cleófilas over a bridge spanning La Gritona, the creek behind his house, another significant border or crossing point. “The natives only knew the arroyo one crossed on the way to San Antonio, and then once again on the way back, was called Woman Hollering, a name no one from these parts questioned, little less understood” (46). As a newly-wed crossing the bridge, Cleófilas wondered whether “pain or rage” inspired the woman's “holler” but laughed, too, at the “funny name for a creek so pretty and full of happily ever after” (46). The “orchid of blood” from her first split lip replaces her bridal bouquet and girlish dreams of “happily ever after” (47, 43). Now she sits each day “by the creek's edge,” with one child by her side and one in her womb, confined at this boundary line just beyond the back threshold of Juan Pedro's house, because “there is no place to go” (43, 53, 51).
The creek's mysterious name, and perhaps her own situation, reminds Cleófilas of another unhappy wife and mother confined to the banks of a river: “Is it La Llorona, the weeping woman? La Llorona, who drowned her own children. Perhaps La Llorona is the one they named the creek after, she thinks, remembering all the stories she learned as a child” (51). A folktale told for centuries in Mexico and the Southwest, “La Llorona” survives today in many forms. In one common version, a proud young girl marries above her station and is so enraged when her husband takes a mistress of his own class that she drowns their children in the river. Stricken by grief when she is unable to retrieve them, la Llorona dies on the river's edge. But to this day the villagers hear a voice in the wind and the water—“Aaaaiiiii … my children. Where are my children?”—and see a wailing apparition in white walking up and down the riverbank after dark.18 The story of “La Llorona” often ends with a warning to children to stay indoors at night, for outside they may fall into her clutches. Cleófilas's neighbors tell her to stay away from the creek: “Don't go out there after dark, mi'jita. Stay near the house. … You'll catch a fright wandering about in the dark, and then you'll see how right we were” (51).
Immersed in romance novels and the telenovelas, Cleófilas is initiated into a culture of weeping women, the tale of “La Llorona” retold in countless ways around her. She is imaginatively stirred by the telenovela María de Nadie without noticing the parallels to la Llorona's story in the “poor Argentine country girl who had the ill fortune of falling in love” with the son of her wealthy employer: “it was she who had to say No, no, we are not of the same class, and remind him it was not his place nor hers to fall in love, while all the while her heart was breaking, can you imagine” (52). Cleófilas's own life begins to resemble la Llorona's, as she decodes and erases evidence of her husband's infidelities:
A doubt. Slender as a hair. A washed cup set back on the shelf wrong-side-up. Her lipstick, and body talc, and hairbrush all arranged in the bathroom a different way. No. Her imagination. The house the same as always. Nothing.
Looking for the “great love of [her] life” and to move up in the world, Cleófilas has crossed the border to find a life “like a telenovela, only now the episodes got sadder and sadder” (44, 45, 52). The names of her two widowed neighbors, Dolores and Soledad, suggest “pain” and “solitude”: the tears of la Llorona and of the Virgin Mary as Mater Dolorosa.19 Reconsidering the archetypal figures she calls “Our Mothers” in Borderlands, Anzaldúa exposes the “institutionalized oppression” in the Catholic Church's use of la Virgen “to make us docile and enduring” and the exploitation of la Llorona “to make us a long-suffering people.”20 So Cleófilas, dreaming of romance and marriage, absorbs the message of fidelity and suffering from her favorite telenovela in Mexico, Tú o Nadie: “You or no one. Because to suffer for love is good. The pain all sweet somehow in the end” (45). She is marked doubly by the romances that enthrall her when her husband throws a book—“her book, a love story by Corín Telado”—across the room and raises “a hot welt across [her] cheek” (52).
La Llorona weeps, Anzaldúa observes, because there are no other options in her culture. “Wailing is the Indian, Mexican and Chicana woman's feeble protest when she has no other recourse.”21 Octavio Paz notoriously interpreted all of the “Mexican representations of Maternity” as essentially “passive figures”: the Blessed Virgin signifying “pure receptivity”; Cortés's Indian mistress la Malinche/la Chingada signifying the raped mother “who has suffered—metaphorically or actually—the corrosive and defaming accusation implicit in the verb [chingar] that gives her her name”; and la Llorona signifying “the ‘long-suffering Mexican mother’ we celebrate on the tenth of May.”22 Paz did not explore the contradictions implicit in celebrating on Mother's Day a mother who murders her own children, however. Nor did he release these figures from the immobilizing virgen/puta opposition that elevates la Llorona as a Mexican Mater Dolorosa while it debases her as a mujer mala akin to la Malinche. As Cordelia Candelaria has recently argued, “the Llorona legend begs for reconsideration and possible recuperation.” Candelaria's poem “La Llorona: Portrait by the River” opens, “La luz es todo: light is crucial.” The “light” in which this ghostly foremother is seen determines our perspective:
The splash of ripples As she bends to rinse tired feet Paint her flesh an instant shine Bright as tears. Or hope.(23)
Traditionally her reflection has been dark. A borderland figure who combines aspects of both the long-suffering virgen and the rebellious puta, she is most often depicted as a “wicked woman” and a “monstrous image of depravity.”24 Like la Malinche, she “roams the streets … wailing for her children and revenging herself on men”; both women have been known to entice men from their paths after dark, “calling to them in the familiar voice of their wives and sweethearts.” In some legends, la Llorona is explicitly identified with la Malinche, who murdered herself and her son by Cortés when he threatened to take the boy to Spain.25 In “Malinchista, A Myth Revised,” Alicia Gaspar de Alba locates la Llorona in the borderlands where nations cross and history is silent:
The woman shrieking along the littered bank of the Río Grande is not sorry. She is looking for revenge. Centuries she has been blamed for the murder of her child, the loss of her people, as if Tenochtitlan would not have fallen without her sin. History does not sing of the conquistador who prayed to a white god as he pulled two ripe hearts out of the land.(26)
Candelaria suggests that la Llorona survives because her “meanings are multiple” and culturally resonant.27 While her story appears in many forms and her origins remain subterranean and obscure, many commentators believe that she substantially predates la Malinche and colonial history. Richard Dorson discovers la Llorona in “an Aztec goddess who sacrificed babies and disappeared shrieking into lakes or rivers.” She appears sometimes as the goddesses Cihuapipítlin, who died in childbirth and then returned to haunt the living, more often as Cihuacóhuatl, who roamed the night “dressed in white with a cradle on her shoulders, wailing for her lost child.”28 In Borderlands/La Frontera, Anzaldúa resurrects Cihuacoatl/la Llorona as “Snake Woman … Daughter of the Night, traveling the dark terrains of the unknown searching for the lost parts of herself.”29
In “My Black Angelos,” Anzaldúa explores the lost terrains of her foremothers Cihuacoatl and la Llorona, taking on the power and darkness of the spirit who whimpers softly at her door, and whose “grito splinters the night.” The poet's black Angel “turns upwind tracking” her, sensing “fear” and the “stink of carrion,” their dark kinship. First “putting words” in the poet's head, then crawling into her very spine, “shining under my skin in the dark/whirling my bones twirling/till they're hollow reeds,” the Muse crosses the threshold of her “door,” erases the boundaries between self and other, and finally between the living and the dead: “We sweep through the streets / con el viento corremos / we roam with the souls of the dead.”30
Like Anzaldúa's speaker, Cisneros's Cleófilas also feels the urgent tug of personal connection with la Llorona. She hears “La Llorona calling to her. She is sure of it” (51). The stream that is “only a muddy puddle in the summer” rushes now that it is spring—“because of the rains, a good-size alive thing, a thing with a voice all its own, all day and all night calling in its high, silver voice” (51). The “alive thing” does not call Cleófilas to death, however, but to a springlike renewal. As Cisneros renews la Llorona's story and rewrites her fate, she releases her to leave her unfaithful and abusive husband and to take her children away with her—to choose life instead of death and to cross the river instead of remaining eternally trapped on its banks.
She releases la Llorona from her tears. “I'd like to think that [la Llorona] was crying for her lost children, los Chicanos/mexicanos,” writes Anzaldúa.31 Cisneros's Llorona cries for the lost women, mourning the victims and casualties of male violence, mourning Cleófilas. As the men laugh outside the kitchen window, Cleófilas washes dishes and thinks of Maximiliano from across the road, “who was said to have killed his wife in an ice-house brawl when she came at him with a mop” (51), and of the mute and nameless women whose stories flood the newspapers:
Was Cleófilas just exaggerating as her husband always said? It seemed the newspapers were full of such stories. This woman found on the side of the interstate. This one pushed from a moving car. This one's cadaver, this one unconscious, this one beaten blue. Her ex-husband, her husband, her lover, her father, her brother, her uncle, her friend, her co-worker. Always. The same grisly news in the pages of the dailies. She dunked a glass under the soapy water for a moment—shivered.
If her husband “always” discredits Cleófilas's fears, nevertheless the “grisly news” is “always” the same. Her own bruises bear mute witness to the reality of “such stories” even if her husband dismisses her recital of the facts as “just exaggerating.”
Beneath the talk at home and in the icehouse a silent subtext struggles for expression. Cleófilas is mute in the face of her husband's violence; “speechless, motionless, numb,” the first time and each time thereafter, “she could think of nothing to say, said nothing” (48). She is also voiceless with the men in the icehouse, where she “sits mute beside their conversation … and finally becomes good at predicting where the talk will lead” (48). Their talk will lead nowhere, for the discourse of the men is strangled as well:
They want to tell each other what they want to tell themselves. But what is bumping like a helium balloon at the ceiling of the brain never finds its way out. It bubbles and rises, it gurgles in the throat, it rolls across the surface of the tongue, and erupts from the lips—a belch.
Their long evenings will end in tears “if they are lucky.” If they are not lucky, violence will be their only mode of expression, as their “fists try to speak” (48). In her own home Cleófilas suffers both modes of strangled male utterance. After every beating, she silently “stroked the dark curls of the man who wept and would weep like a child, his tears of repentance and shame” (48).
While Juan Pedro stays out late, Cleófilas lies alone in their bed “listening to the hollow roar of the interstate, a distant dog barking, the pecan trees rustling like ladies in stiff petticoats—shh-shh-shh, shh-shh-shh—soothing her to sleep” (44). The sounds of nature and distant travel and the “silver voice” of la Llorona in the creek counterpoint the “whispering” and “murmur of talk” in Seguín, where there is “no more privacy” than there was in the town of her birth (50). Communication among the women on both sides of the border revolves around the telenovelas and around men. Her Texan neighbors Soledad and Dolores might have known more about the etymology of “Woman Hollering Creek,” Cleófilas guesses, but “they were too busy remembering the men who had left through either choice or circumstance and would never come back” (47). Gossip, in this town as in the other, is the provenance not just of women but of men as well. In Mexico she locates it in the town center and on the church steps; in Texas at the icehouse, a gathering place for the men (50). While some anthropologists suggest that gossip functions as “an important source of social power for women,” others have concluded that “being under constant verbal surveillance restricts the behavior of women and helps keep them in their place.”32 Cleófilas fears her husband, but she also fears the “whispering” and “murmur of talk” in both towns, the social “disgrace” that would attend her return to her father's house. “What would the neighbors say?” (50).
If town gossip and her husband's strictures keep her in her place, Cleófilas mobilizes another discourse of power to break free from them: “Because the doctor has said so” (53). Deploying the American doctor's voice to counter her husband's voice, she secures permission to cross the arroyo and journey to San Antonio for the health of her unborn child and for her own safety. “Because she is going to make sure the baby is not turned around backward this time to split her down the center” (53). In return, she agrees to maintain silence, assuring her husband: “No, she won't mention it. She promises. If the doctor asks she can say she fell down the front steps or slipped when she was in the backyard, slipped out back, she could tell him that” (53). She keeps her promise, but la Llorona speaks through her: Cleófilas's torrent of tears and the “black-and-blue marks all over” her body tell the story she still has no voice for. “This lady doesn't even speak English,” says Graciela to Felice on the phone as they plan Cleófilas's escape. “She hasn't been allowed to call home or write or nothing” (54).
“Another one of those brides from across the border,” Graciela remarks (54). Now crossing in reverse her husband's threshold, the bridge over Woman Hollering Creek, the U.S./Mexico border, and her father's threshold, Cleófilas has “slipped out back” in another sense, slipping out while her husband is still at work. Although she remains within the patriarchal economy of exchange in returning from husband to father, she has also encountered a woman “like no woman she'd ever met” (56). Felice drives her to San Antonio in a pickup that is “hers,” that “she herself had chosen,” that “she herself was paying for” (55). Cleófilas wonders “what kind of talk” this is “coming from a woman” when Felice explains, “I used to have a Pontiac Sunbird. But those cars are for viejas. Pussy cars. Now this here is a real car” (54). And she is even more amazed by the “yell as loud as any mariachi” that Felice lets rip as they cross Woman Hollering Creek (55). When Cleófilas had asked about la Gritona, “no one could say whether the woman had hollered from anger or pain” (46). Now through Felice this binary opposition is undone; la Llorona/la Gritona begins to laugh.33 “Who would've thought?” Cleófilas wonders back in Mexico. “Who would've? Pain or rage, perhaps, but not a hoot like the one Felice had just let go. Makes you want to holler like Tarzan, Felice had said” (56).
When the motherless Cleófilas returns, by way of two women—or comadres,34 to her father and brothers, maternal bonds crisscross with paternal bonds. It is through maternity that she realizes the strength of the literal bond between parent and child, as opposed to the symbolic bond conferred by marriage. She remembers her father's words—“I am your father, I will never abandon you” (43)—only “as a mother,” with her son beside her and her unborn child inside her:
Only now as a mother did she remember. Now, when she and Juan Pedrito sat by the creek's edge. How when a man and a woman love each other, sometimes that love sours. But a parent's love for a child, a child's for its parents, is another thing entirely.
Felice and Graciela speculate that Cleófilas has been named after “one of those Mexican saints … a martyr or something” (54).35 Her son, Juan Pedrito, has been named after his father. But she may pass on new knowledge and new names to her next child, for as Graciela and Felice joke, “When her kid's born she'll have to name her after us, right?” (55). Graciela's sonogram of the child in utero is on more than one level a sounding of the invisible, a cloudy and fluid image of a form still forming, a picture of the future.36 The nationality, language, appearance, and even the sex of the baby is indeterminate, as the doctor—or perhaps Cleófilas herself—refers to “he,” and Graciela later—perhaps on the basis of the sonogram—refers to “her” (53, 55). Occupying what Julia Kristeva lyrically evokes as a realm before language, a realm without “borders, separations,” the “formless unnameable embryo” curled within the body of the mother transcends boundaries and definitions: “FLASH—instant of time or of dream without time; inordinately swollen atoms of a bond, a vision, a shiver … photos of what is not yet visible and that language necessarily skims from afar, allusively.”37
Cleófilas's new child embodies an emerging “hybrid” mestiza language and consciousness, as Graciela, Felice, Cleófilas, and the child yet to be born, yet to be named cross over in the polyglot interzone of the borderlands. When Cleófilas tells the story of Felice to her father and brothers, she enacts this crossing in a moment of laughter where she interchanges identities to become Felice, la Llorona, and the “silver voice” of the creek, thereby giving birth to her own felicity (Felice, felicidad) and grace (Graciela, gracia): “Then Felice began laughing again, but it wasn't Felice laughing. It was gurgling out of her own throat, a long ribbon of laughter, like water” (56).
The creek itself contains a linguistic crossing, known both as Woman Hollering and as La Gritona. When Cleófilas wants to know more about the name, the natives can only speculate that the Indians might know: “Pues, allá de les indios, quién sabe—who knows” (46). The languages mark shifting national boundaries: before the institution, in the 1840s, of the border that Cleófilas crosses twice, Texas was part of Mexico; before the Spanish conquest of Mexico, Mexico was Indian. Indeed Mexican independence from Spain was launched with a revolutionary “cry” or grito: Hidalgo y Castillo's Grito de Dolores in 1810. And this town north of the border, once south of the border, was named after a creek before 1838, when it was renamed Seguín in honor of the tejano Juan Seguín, who sided with the Americans over the annexation of his Mexican homeland Texas.38 The “townspeople shrugged” at Cleófilas's questions, “because it was of no concern to their lives how this trickle of water received its curious name” (46). Yet it is through the hidden strata of meaning in the creek that Cleófilas recollects and claims her own life, history, identity, and voice.
In Borderlands/La Frontera, Anzaldúa insists on the importance to the mestiza of recuperating history and prehistory, of establishing a multitongued linguistic identity, “twin skin” to ethnic identity: “I will have my voice: Indian, Spanish, white. I will have my serpent's tongue—my woman's voice, my sexual voice, my poet's voice. I will overcome the tradition of silence.”39 Cisneros invokes the centuries-old tradition of female silence, subservience, and suffering underwritten by Mexican culture and the Catholic Church in the names of Cleófilas's neighbors, both aspects of the Virgin celebrated widely in Mexico: la Virgen de la Soledad (“Virgin of the Lonely”) and Nuestra Señora de los Dolores (Mater Dolorosa, “Our Lady of Sorrows”).40 As Cleófilas and her driver hurtle over the bridge spanning Woman Hollering Creek, Felice laughs at the ubiquity of the Blessed Virgin, and the singularity of the mysterious Gritona: “Did you ever notice, Felice continued, how nothing around here is named after a woman? Really. Unless she's the Virgin” (55). In this androcentric culture of weeping women, where Soledad and Dolores devote themselves to the memories of their lost men, Cleófilas is bound to “this man, this father, this rival, this keeper, this master, this husband till kingdom come” (49). The language reinscribes the “Our Father”—“Thy kingdom come: Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,”41—and the rigid ecclesiastical hierarchy used to subjugate women and sanction male dominance. “Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord,” instructed Saint Paul. “For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church. … Therefore as the church is subject unto Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in every thing.”42 On earth as defined by this heaven, it is the will of Cleófilas's husband, of Maximiliano from across the road, of the men in the icehouse and the newspapers that will be done.
Fleeing Juan Pedro, named for John and Peter, the two Apostles associated with the patriarchal foundations of the Word and the Church,43 Cleófilas returns to her father, Don Serafín, whose name derives from both “serpent” and “seraphim,” the choir of angels most ardently devoted to the divine.44 When she married, “already did he divine the morning his daughter would … dream of returning” (43). His parting words to Cleófilas, which she repeats with growing certainty, evoke a merciful God who will not abandon her in her distress. At first her memory of Don Serafín's promise is oddly tentative:
He had said, after all, in the hubbub of parting: I am your father, I will never abandon you. He had said that, hadn't he, when he hugged and then let her go. But at the moment Cleófilas was busy looking for Chela, her maid of honor, to fulfill their bouquet conspiracy. She would not remember her father's parting words until later. I am your father, I will never abandon you.
Cleófilas's initial uncertainty might suggest that the words are not her father's, but her gradual sense of conviction, the firmness of the italics, could also suggest her increasing confidence in her own scriptural interpretation.
Sensing what “drives a woman to the darkness under the trees” where la Llorona wails for her forsaken children (51), Cleófilas meditates on the bond between parent and child and the fate of her unborn infant. Her father's promise echoes lines from a Catholic hymn: “Could the Lord ever leave you? Could the Lord forget his love? Though a mother forsake her child, he will not abandon you.”45 Freeing herself from the scriptural interpretations that would designate Juan Pedro “this father … this husband till kingdom come,” Cleófilas undergoes a spiritual transformation from sorrow to grace, turning from the aptly named Soledad and Dolores to accept the help of Graciela and Felice.46
Back home with her children, father, and brothers, Cleófilas overcomes the “tradition of silence” and claims her right to speak in tongues. Her gurgling laughter bears what Julia Kristeva terms “the imprint of an archaic moment.” If place names function as “a replacement for what the speaker perceives as an archaic mother,” then Cleófilas summons the mother tongue before or behind “Woman Hollering,” “La Gritona,” and the creek's hidden Indian name, a maternal semiotic chora preceding the paternal symbolic order.47 Felice spoke a “Spanish pocked with English” with her passenger, and Cleófilas “doesn't even speak English” (55, 54), but their crossing has released a lost mother tongue “like water,” suggesting both the words from the Catholic Pentecost vigil—“He who believes in Me, from within him there shall flow rivers of living water”48 and the ancient Aztec “goddess of running water, springs, and streams,” Chalchiuhtlicue, who was invoked by her worshipers for the “protection of newborn children.”49
Fluid and multiple, Cleófilas herself has become “woman hollering creek.”50
Cleófilas's crossing through the borderland territory of the new mestiza is complex. As Anzaldúa writes, “Every increment of consciousness, every step forward is a travesía, a crossing. I am again an alien in new territory. And again, and again.”51 The shifting borders in “Woman Hollering Creek” are geographical, national, political, historical. They are also gendered—in the social divisions between men and women; biological—in the newborn's passage from its mother's body; psychological and spiritual—in Cleófilas's “step forward” into a new mestiza consciousness and voice; linguistic—in the crossing of languages, the recovery of lost tongues, and of new etymologies and definitions for the river and the legendary mother who haunts its banks: “now in springtime, because of the rains, a good-size alive thing, a thing with a voice all its own, all day and all night calling in its high, silver voice. Is it La Llorona, the weeping woman?” (51).
Through successive dislocations, Cleófilas relocates herself and her posterity, leaving behind a dusty town “built so that you have to depend on husbands,” reclaiming herself in the fluid liminal space of this “trickle of water” with its “curious name,” this “muddy puddle” growing in strength to become a musical torrent (50-51, 46, 51). If she made her first passage across the Rio Grande in thrall to romantic dreams, she frees herself from this ethos of feminine submission in her passage back. The creek with its multiple names and meanings serves as a natural resource for Cleófilas's new self-expression and emerging identity. In her “long ribbon of laughter, like water,” la Llorona's ghostly llanto, or tearful lament, becomes a grito or shout, a Tarzan whoop of joyous strength and independence.52
Gloria Anzaldúa, Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza (San Francisco: Spinsters/Aunt Lute, 1987), 184.
Sandra Cisneros, “Ghosts and Voices: Writing from Obsession” in “From a Writer's Notebook,” The Americas Review 15:1 (Spring 1987): 73.
See “Ghosts and Voices” and “Notes to a Young(er) Writer,” The Americas Review, 72, 76.
Sandra Cisneros, The House on Mango Street (New York: Random House, Vintage, 1984, rev. 1989), 110, 27, 77, 85, 92, 102.
Adrienne Rich, “Natural Resources,” The Dream of a Common Language: Poems 1974-1977 (New York: W. W. Norton, 1978), 64-65.
Sandra Cisneros, “Woman Hollering Creek,” Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories (New York: Random House, 1991), 55-56. Subsequent page numbers from this story will be supplied parenthetically in the text.
Pilar E. Rodríguez Aranda, “On the Solitary Fate of Being Mexican, Female, Wicked and Thirty-three: An Interview with Writer Sandra Cisneros,” The Americas Review 18:1 (Spring 1990): 65-66.
Anzaldúa, Preface, n.p.
Anzaldúa, Preface, n.p.
Cisneros in Aranda, “On the Solitary Fate,” 67.
Norma Alarcón, “Chicana's Feminist Literature: A Re-vision Through Malintzin/or Malintzin: Putting Flesh Back on the Object,” in This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color, ed. Cherríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa (Watertown, Mass. Persephone Press, 1982), 182; 189, n.1. For further significant rereadings of la Malinche and la Llorona see: Emma Pérez, “Sexuality and Discourse: Notes from a Chicana Survivor,” in Chicana Critical Issues, ed. Norma Alarcón, Rafaela Castro, Emma Pérez, Beatriz Pesquera, Adaljiza Sosa Riddell, and Patricia Zavella (Berkeley: Third Woman Press, 1993), esp. 53-56; Cordelia Candelaria, “La Malinche, Feminist Prototype,” Frontiers 5:2 (1980): 1-6; and Cordelia Candelaria, “Letting La Llorona Go, or Re/reading History's Tender Mercies,” Heresies 7:3 (1993): 111-115.
“I have begun my own quiet war,” announces Esperanza, “Simple. Sure. I am one who leaves the table like a man, without putting back the chair or picking up the plate.” Cisneros, The House on Mango Street, 89.
See Octavio Paz, The Labyrinth of Solitude: Life and Thought in Mexico, trans. Lysander Kemp (New York: Grove Press, 1950, 1959, 1961), ch. 4.
In another common version, her children have been born out of wedlock, and her rage is provoked by her lover's pending marriage. See Candelaria, “Letting La Llorona Go,” 112-113, and José E. Limon, “La Llorona, the Third Legend of Greater Mexico: Cultural Symbols, Women, and the Political Unconscious,” in Between Borders: Essays on Mexicana/Chicana History, ed. Adelaida R. Del Castillo (Encino, Calif.: Floricanto Press, 1990), 399-432.
On the cult surrounding the Mater Dolorosa (“Our Lady of Sorrows”)—the Virgin as Pietà, mother grieving her dead son—see Marina Warner, Alone of All Her Sex: The Myth and the Cult of the Virgin Mary (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1976), 206-223.
Paz, “The Sons of La Malinche,” The Labyrinth of Solitude, 75, 85.
Candelaria, “Letting La Llorona Go,” 113, 115.
See Anzaldúa, Borderlands/La Frontera, 30; Frances Toor, A Treasury of Mexican Folkways (New York: Crown Publishers, 1947), 532-533; and Ramón Saldívar, Chicano Narrative: The Dialectics of Difference (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1990), 189.
See, for example, Candelaria, “Letting La Llorona Go,” 113; John M. Ingham, Mary, Michael, and Lucifer: Folk Catholicism in Central Mexico (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1986), 110-112; and Edward Garcia Kraul and Judith Beatty, “Foreword,” The Weeping Woman: Encounters with La Llorona, ed. Edward Garcia Kraul and Judith Beatty (Santa Fe: The Word Process, 1988), xi. José E. Limón surveys other precedents for this identification in “La Llorona, the Third Legend of Greater Mexico,” 416.
Alicia Gaspar de Alba, “Malinchista, A Myth Revised,” in Alicia Gaspar de Alba, María Herrera-Sobek, and Demetria Martínez, Three Times a Woman: Chicana Poetry (Tempe, Ariz.: Bilingual Review/Press, 1989), 17.
Candelaria, “Letting La Llorona Go,” 114.
See Richard Dorson, “Foreword,” Folktales of Mexico, Américo Paredes (Chicago: University Press of Chicago Press, 1970), xvi; and Toor, A Treasury of Mexican Folkways, 534.
See Ruth Borker, “Anthropology: Social and Cultural Perspectives,” in Women and Language in Literature and Society, ed. Sally McConnell-Ginet, Ruth Borker, and Nelly Furman (New York: Praeger, 1980), 34, 36.
Cisneros's revision of la Llorona suggests parallels to Hélène Cixous's revision of Medusa: women's history as a history of silences, a language written in mother's milk, and above all a liberation from false polarities within male discourse. “You only have to look at the Medusa straight on to see her. And she's not deadly. She's beautiful and she's laughing.” “The Laugh of the Medusa,” trans. Keith Cohen and Paula Cohen, in New French Feminisms: An Anthology, ed. Elaine Marks and Isabelle de Courtivron (New York: Schocken Books, 1981), 255.
The term comadre, or, literally translated, “co-mother,” traditionally refers to the woman a mother has chosen as godmother for her child. Today it is also used simply as a term of respect and affection for a female friend. Graciela calls Felice comadre at the end of their phone call (55).
My research has not yielded a saint or martyr named Cleófilas, but Saint Felicitas is famous as one of the relatively few saints and martyrs who were not virgins; she faced martyrdom as an expectant mother. This cross of names and saints prefigures the crossing of Cleófilas and Felice in the last lines of the story. See Rev. Hugo H. Hoever, ed., Saint Joseph Daily Missal (New York: Catholic Book Publishing, 1957), 816.
Given the fluidity of the embryo's boundaries, and the fluid interchange between the women in the border zone, it is interesting to note that José Limón identifies “fluid boundaries” as the central characteristic of the legends of La Llorona. Not only are the contours of the narrative fluid (the tale survives in countless variants), but the content is as well:
For a female sensibility of fluid boundaries is precisely what is articulated in la Llorona's initial denial of her children through water; her fluid crying of tears for them and finally her implied hope of their restoration from the water-of-birth even as she herself becomes fluidity itself walking at the boundaries of the water in her flowing gown.
“La Llorona, the Third Legend of Greater Mexico,” 418.
Julia Kristeva, “Stabat Mater,” trans. Léon S. Roudiez, The Kristeva Reader, ed. Toril Moi (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986), 176, 162. For a particularly suggestive treatment of language, pregnancy, and laughter, see also Kristeva's “Place Names” in Desire in Language: A Semiotic Approach to Literature and Art, ed. Leon S. Roudiez, trans. Thomas Gora, Alice Jardine, and Leon S. Roudiez (New York: Columbia University Press, 1980).
Juan Seguín straddles the border in his divided loyalties and also in the mixed treatment he was accorded by Texan Anglo-Americans, who drove him out of San Antonio into Mexico in 1842. He thereafter occupied an uneasy political position between the United States and Mexico, living in one and then the other country. He died in Mexico in 1890; in 1974 he was reburied in Seguín (formerly Walnut Creek), Texas. See Genaro M. Padilla, My History, Not Yours: The Formation of Mexican American Autobiography (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1993), esp. 64-72.
See Toor, A Treasury of Mexican Folkways, 246, and Joseph L. Cassidy, Mexico: Land of Mary's Wonders (Paterson, N.J.: St. Anthony Guild Press, 1958), 92-102. In “Little Miracles, Kept Promises,” Cisneros mentions Nuestra Señora de la Soledad, Nuestra Señora del Perpetuo Socorro, and also “Our Lady of Sorrows”; in “My Tocaya,” a student at “Our Lady of Sorrows High School” disappears somewhere “in the vicinity of Dolorosa and Soledad” (Woman Hollering Creek, 128, 38).
Hoever, Saint Joseph Daily Missal, 685.
See John 1:1 (“In the beginning as the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God”) and Matthew 17:18 (“thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church”). Much controversy surrounds the question of apostolic authority and the silencing of women in the early Christian community. See ch. 5, “Taming a Wild Tongue,” in Anzaldúa's Borderlands/La Frontera; ch. 10 and ch. 11 in Margaret Brackenbury Crook, Women and Religion (Boston: Beacon Press, 1964); ch. 3 in Elaine Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels (New York: Random House, Vintage, 1979, 1981); and ch. 8 in Rosemary Radford Ruether, Readings Toward a Feminist Theology (Boston: Beacon Press, 1985).
See Jori Bas i Vidal, Diccionario de los Nombres de Persona (Barcelona: Editorial de Vecchi, S.A., 1988), 297.
See Dan Schutte, “Though the Mountains May Fall,” Seasonal Missalette (June 6, 1993), 8(8):S8. This section of the hymn adapts Isaiah 49:15.
This spiritual transformation parallels the healing process for battered women that Susan Brooks Thistlewaite describes in “Every Two Minutes: Battered Women and Feminist Interpretation,”in Weaving the Visions: New Patterns in Feminist Spirituality, ed. Judith Plaskow and Carol P. Christ (New York: Harper and Row, 1989). Thistlewaite emphasizes the importance for battered women of taking control of biblical texts—through feminist scriptural reinterpretation, through a liberation theology that stresses Jesus's protection of the powerless and care for women, and through a recognition of the active role women played in discipleship, apostolic witness, and leadership in the early Catholic Church.
See Kristeva, “Place Names,” esp. 283, 291, 276, 281.
Hoever, Saint Joseph Daily Missal, 426. The words are from John 7:37-39.
Felix Guirand, ed., New Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology, trans. Richard Aldington and Delano Ames (London: Hamlyn, 1959, 1968), 438. Cisneros includes Chalchiuhtlicue among the names and aspects of her revised Virgen de Guadalupe in “Little Miracles, Kept Promises” (Woman Hollering Creek, 128).
Margaret Homans argues that “the reproduction of mothering will also be the reproduction of a presymbolic communicativeness, a literal language,” and that the “lost relation to the mother” might possibly be found in the “nonsymbolic figure” of a “new child.” Positing childbirth itself as a “structure of literalization,” Homans identifies moments of passage from the figurative to the literal in literary texts as embodying a specifically female linguistic practice “at the heart of gender difference in language.” The conclusion of “Woman Hollering Creek” would seem to exemplify one such moment. See ch. 1, “Representation, Reproduction, and Women's Place in Language,” in Homans's Bearing the Word: Language and Female Experience in Nineteenth-Century Women's Writing (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986), esp. 25, 26, 29-30.
In an interview Cisneros emphasizes the crossing of cultures in la Llorona's new “holler”:
Yes, this other woman—the Chicana woman—could understand the myth in a new way. She could see it as a grito, not a llanto. And all of a sudden, that woman who came with all of her Mexican assumptions learned something. The Chicana woman showed her a new way of looking at a Mexican myth. And it took someone who was a little bit outside the culture to see the myth in a new way.
Reed Way Dasenbrock, “Sandra Cisneros,” Interviews with Writers of the Post-Colonial World, ed. Feroza Jussawalla and Reed Way Dasenbrock (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1992), 294.
A shorter version of this essay was presented at the American Literature Association Conference in San Diego, June 1994. Special thanks to Ruth Jenkins (California State University, Fresno), Stephen D. Gutierrez (California State University, Hayward), Susan Roberson (Auburn University), and William Howarth (Princeton University) for their attentive readings of early drafts of the paper.
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Fiore, Teresa. “Crossing and Recrossing ‘Woman Hollering Creek’.” Prospero 1 (1994): 61-75.
Offers a thematic and stylistic analysis of the story “Woman Hollering Creek,” focusing on Cisneros's feminist intentions.
Gonzalez, Maria. “Love and Conflict: Mexican American Women Writers as Daughters.” In Women of Color: Mother-Daughter Relationships in 20th-Century Literature, edited by Elizabeth Brown-Guillory, pp. 153-71. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1996.
Explores the role of the mythical figures La Virgen, La Malinche, and La Llorona in the work of several Mexican American women authors, including Sandra Cisneros.
Additional coverage of Cisneros's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: American Writers Supplement, Vol. 7; Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vols. 9, 53; Contemporary Authors, Vol. 131; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 64, 118; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 69, 118; Contemporary Women Poets; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 122, 152; DISCovering Authors: Multicultural Authors; DISCovering Authors 3.0; Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Ed. 3; Exploring Novels; Feminist Writers; Hispanic Literature Criticism, Ed. 1; Hispanic Writers, Eds. 1, 2; Latino and Latina Writers, Vol. 1; Literature and Its Times, Vol. 5; Literature and Its Times Supplement, Ed. 1; Literature Resource Center; Major Authors and Illustrators for Children and Young Adults, Ed. 2; Major 20th-Century Writers, Ed. 2; Novels for Students, Vol. 2; Poetry Criticism, Vol. 52; Poetry for Students, Vol. 19; Reference Guide to American Literature, Ed. 4; Reference Guide to Short Fiction, Ed. 2; Short Stories for Students, Vols. 3, 13; Short Story Criticism, Vol. 32; St. James Guide to Young Adult Writers; and World Literature and Its Times, Ed. 1.
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4823
SOURCE: Carroll, Michael, and Susan Maher. “‘A Las Mujeres’: Cultural Context and the Process of Maturity in Sandra Cisneros' Woman Hollering Creek.” North Dakota Quarterly 64, no. 1 (winter 1997): 70-80.
[In the following essay, Carroll and Maher maintain that the stories in Woman Hollering Creek traverse artistic and cultural borders in that “her narratives unfold within a temporally variegated framework of Latina sisterhood, stretching back to mythic Aztlan yet detailing the very real confines of contemporary barrio life.”]
This is a powerful time we're living in. We have to let go of our present way of life and search for our past, remember our destinies, so to speak. Like the I Ching says, returning to one's roots is returning to one's destiny.
(Woman Hollering Creek [Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories] 149)
Along with such other Chicana writers as Gloria Anzaldua and Pat Mora, for whom border-crossing stands as a major metaphor, stories that pivot on a sense of return are central in the work of Sandra Cisneros. In her first collection of short fiction, The House on Mango Street (1984, 1989), Cisneros binds her vignettes of life in a Chicago barrio through the central intelligence of persona/narrator Esperanza Cordero, a teenaged Chicana who must leave her dilapidated, economically shattered community to discover her powers as a human and as a writer. Observing the material, moral, and spiritual confines that other barrio women—friends and family—must suffer, she speaks of her impending departure in the collection's final pieces but also determines that she will come back “For the ones I left behind. For the ones who cannot out” (110). Through art, Esperanza hopes that she will be able to bridge the tension between individual fulfillment and community responsibility. Correspondingly, Cisneros herself has dedicated The House on Mango Street “a las mujeres / to the women,” marking her own significant rapprochement with the world that birthed her.
Indeed, as Yvonne Yarbro-Bejarano asserts, Chicana literature posits a sense of community that fights against “damaging fragmentation” (140): “The Chicana writer,” she argues, “finds that the self she seeks to define and love is not merely an individual self, but a collective one” (141). Identity shaped within community is of central importance in Cisneros' growing ouevre as well. Esperanza Cordero, the “collective subject” in The House on Mango Street (143), refracts experiences beyond herself, voices the struggles and small victories of barrio women, and embeds their stories in her memories-turned-narrative. The title's emphases on “house” and “Mango Street” foreground Esperanza's emerging social consciousness and figure “a nourishing structure within which … the child comes into a sense of [her] own being” (Gonzalez-Berry and Rebolledo 114). Yet Esperanza's maturation, a mix of heady experimentation and disillusioning contraction, chronicles a paradoxical loss of innocence that leads to artistic grace. Imagination becomes a redemptive force that both tethers and untethers the barrio women, preserves their disparate tales, and centers Esperanza's vulnerable identity. “In growing up and writing,” critic Julian Olivares points out, “she will come to inhabit a special house [storytelling] and to fit into, find comfort, in her name” (163).
Throughout The House on Mango Street, Esperanza's links with las mujeres provide an imaginative matrix in “the creation of an authentic self” (Gonzalez-Berry and Rebolledo 118), engendering her growth as an artist. Esperanza, however, must emerge from bleak soil. As Cisneros has explained, “It's nice to go visit a poor neighborhood, but if you've got to live there every day, and deal with garbage that doesn't get picked up, and kids getting shot in your backyard, and people running through your gangway at night, and rats, and poor housing … It loses its charm real quick!” (Cisneros, “On the Solitary Fate” 69). But though the poverty, degradation, and decay of barrio life oppress its people, Mango Street pulses with artistic expression. Here Esperanza learns that her art must evolve through attachment and sympathy—not through withdrawal and rejection. Though one day her neighbors might ask, “What happened to Esperanza? Where did she go with all those books and paper? Why did she march so far away?” (110), in reality Esperanza lives with them, creates through them: “I have gone away to come back. For the ones I left behind” (110). In returning, Esperanza evolves into the quintessential Chicana writer. As Yarbro-Bejarano explains,
The love of Chicanas for themselves and each other is at the heart of Chicana writing, for without this love they could never make the courageous move to place Chicana subjectivity in the center of literary representation, or depict pivotal relationships among women past and present, or even obey the first audacious impulse to put pen to paper.
In Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories (1991), Cisneros' latest prose collection, the ordering of these 22 more loosely-connected cuentos shows Cisneros returning, as Esperanza might, to reclaim the lives of a much more varied assembly of marginalized Chicanas, las mujeres of the earlier book's dedication. But this return is resonantly mythic. This time, most of Cisnero's exploration of female maturation traverses within the rich yet conflicted cultural context of the Texas/Mexican borderlands. As in the first collection, the order and structure of stories turn on the loss of innocence of a young Latina. In Woman Hollering Creek, however, this key event is featured early on, in “One Holy Night,” as part of the stories' hypothesis rather than as their climax at collection's end. This early positioning of the loss-of-innocence theme gives Cisneros the freedom to survey her adult female protagonists' various lives and to explore their experiences in stories that cross artistic and cultural borders. Her narratives unfold within a temporally variegated framework of Latina sisterhood, stretching back to mythic Aztlan yet detailing the very real confines of contemporary barrio life.
Notwithstanding the manifold circumstances in the stories, their thematic ordering and division provide the collection with diverse characters linked by their longings for self-actualization. Moreover, Cisneros' tripartite structure in Woman Hollering Creek deliberately evokes stages of a younger woman's life, as L. M. Lewis has recently suggested (69). Section 1, “My Lucy Friend Who Smells Like Corn,” the only section wherein males receive much gentle treatment, reflects a pre-lapsarian childhood world. Thus it contains little of the texturing of Aztlan that will bind together the archetypal mestiza imagery in the collection's latter two sections. Appropriately, then, the passageway story out of section 1, “Tepeyec,” brings together the theme of female maturation with traditional borderlands imagery of women, as a grown-up Latina lyrically and wistfully recalls her Abuelito and her own “irretrievable” childhood under his care, growing up in Mexico City under the shadows of la Basilica de Nuestra Señora. At this site Our Lady of Guadalupe miraculously appeared to the Indian neophyte Juan Diego over 450 years before—a site, more than coincidentally, where stood the Aztec temple to another female deity in Cisneros' pantheon, the goddess Tonantzin.1 This vignette's lush, sensory descriptions and very title show the characters under the mixed spells of the patroness of Mexican Catholicism and her Aztec antecedent, a syncretic deity that Cisneros evokes in the last of the book's “Los Acknowledgments,” to “Virgen de Guadalupe Tonantzin, infinitas gracias. Estos cuentitos te los ofrezco a ti, a nuestra gente. A toditos. Mil gracias. A thousand thanks from el corazon” (x).
In the brief but seminal section 2, “One Holy Night,” adolescent girls endure the pains and jealousies of sexual awakening. In this section's important title story, the virginity of a young Chicana is replaced by claims and invocations of an exalted and indigenous Mayan past. In fact, the tension for the story relies on the narrator's crafty appropriation of this mythos, as her sexual experience makes her not only “a part of history [but of] all women” (30). With this piece, Cisneros provides her collection with its first dramatic crossing of the crucial sexual border. Her narrator comes to understand a definition of love that extends from ecstasy to deflation, like “a crazy [man walking] around all day with this harmonica in his mouth. … That's how it is with me. Love I mean” (35).
As suggested by the divided equality of the title of Section 3, “There Was a Man, There Was a Woman,” Cisneros' protagonists have passed into adulthood and attempt to stand as independent, self-determined actors. Throughout this section, references and revisions of culturally significant female archetypes—la Virgen, Tonantzin, Malinche, la Llorona—appear throughout the remaining vignettes, always in the service of modern mestizas, who in turn work in the service of one another. The narrator of “Bien Pretty,” the collection's closing piece, speaks for this final section's mature women. She declares her independence of those who would legislate against a woman's desire to be comfortable and assertive at the same time:
in my dreams I'm slapping the heroine to her senses, because I want them to be women who make things happen, not women who things happen to … Real women. The ones I've loved all my life … The ones I've known everywhere except on TV, in books and magazines. Las girlfriends. Las comadres. Our mamas and tías. Passionate and powerful, tender and volatile, brave. And, above all, fierce.
As these characters grapple with betrayal, rage, and patriarchal control, they gain a deepening appreciation of the cultural myths that have shaped Latina lives for centuries and the strength to claim personal agency and embrace the community of “fierce” women.
The crowded neighborhood that Cisneros maps in The House on Mango Street encloses a mix of girlhood friends, female rebels, and patron figures, as does Woman Hollering Creek. The latter collection, though, houses an expanded, varied and matured artistic voice experimenting with the limits of both form and content. This Chicana cartography crosses borders imposed by genre and gender, history and place. The mosaic of prose poems distilled through Esperanza's maturation has given way in Woman Hollering Creek to a variety of stylistic tellings. Most of the narrative voices remain first-person, one notable exception being that in the collection's remarkable title story. In some of the more experimental pieces, Cisneros lays written artifacts—dialogues, notes to saints and especially la Virgencita, an overdrawn love poem from a pest exterminator—on the offrenda of her recent house of fiction. Her voices shift in age and class, filtering the reader through multiple perspectives and levels of experience. Thus the univocal The House on Mango Street focuses its stories through Esperanza's young eyes, while Woman Hollering Creek is joyously dialogical, flourishing with its orchestration and timbre.
As with genre, gender is not limited to a single perspective in Woman Hollering Creek. In the ironically titled “Remember the Alamo,” one of two stories in the 22-piece collection not devoted to a female, Rudy Cantu, a transvestite, bisexual dancer in a San Antonio dancehall called the Travesty, has the tragic yet ecstatic confession of his glittery life on stage repeatedly interrupted on the page by italicized clusters of proper names. These names, both male and female, presumably represent sexual partners of Rudy, a.k.a. Tristán, and suggest his mortal flirtation with AIDS. Bisexual Rudy embodies the collection's heterogeneity: as Tristán the artist, he changes masks, his imagination transfiguring popular culture. His “high” art has “nothing to do with the ugly, the ordinary” (67); it erupts out of common Rudy “to give and give of itself” from the body (67), a fatal fandango that gives expression to the longings and desires of the poor. His ability to be both male and female pushes against the borders of gender constructs, just as his story resists linear form or satisfying resolution.
Without a central figure like Esperanza, Cisneros presents stories united more by oppressive circumstance and her own demythologizing method than by the traditional unities of time or space. Although most of the pieces fall within the time frame of Cisneros' own biography (i.e., the early 1950s to the present), one story claims as its narrator the paramour of the legendary hero of Mexican independence, Emiliano Zapata. “The Eyes of Zapata” shows that Cisneros is willing to humanize not only history but hagiography. Here again in the collection, Cisneros continues her strategy of revisioning another culture hero through a Latina lens. In the story, the historical “el gran general Emiliano Zapata” (86), the hallowed revolutionary, is not so much enshrined as a doer of brave deeds, chronicled with passing objectivity. Instead, Cisneros renders him subjectively entirely through an interior monologue directed to him by his lover, Inez. A reputed bruja who prays to “the old gods” and to La Virgen (99), Inez bears the passionate but faithless Zapata a daughter and a son who ironically betrays the revolution that his father had begun. As a far-seeing and long-suffering curandera, Inez inscribes a previously unwritten herstory of four generations of Mexican women: from her mother's betrayal and brutal murder by the men of the town as fit punishment for “women who try to act like men” (111) to her granddaughters, “twins, who will never marry, two brave solteronas living out their lives selling herbs in La Merced in Mexico City” (111). In sum, the words of Inez to her absent lover establish that a fair rendering of (his)story would find more vision and valor in the previously voiceless women of Zapata's life and loins than in the hero himself.
Just as Cisneros' more recent prose collection reaches across decades and even centuries for its narratives and imagery, spatial mappings, too, are more varied in this collection. For example, the nearly claustrophobic Chicago barrio of Esperanza does find its way into at least one story of adolescence, “Barbie-Q.” But whether in Chicago, San Antonio, or Mexico, the drama and action of these newer stories belong ultimately to Aztlan, the mytho-geographical homeland of the Aztecs and the mestizo offspring of Spanish adventurer Hernan Cortez and the densely metaphorical figure of la Malinche, the mother of la Raza. Cisneros' text intercalates myth, history, and place, adding resonance to her exploration of las mujeres.
This rich cultural subtext, rooted in Aztlan, is largely absent from Mango Street [The House on Mango Street]. When Esperanza augers her future, she does so with the title characters of “The Three Sisters,” who recall the Fates of Greek mythology, as Maria Elena de Valdés has pointed out (65). By contrast, Woman Hollering Creek is informed throughout with the iconography and traditions of Meso-America that underscore the sufferings and painful maturations of Cisneros' women.
Most prominent among the powerful icons in the culture of Aztlan continue to be two mother-patroness figures who so often seem to divide the contemporary Chicana world between them: la Malinche, whose name has signified “traitor” in both the culture and la causa (Pratt 860), and la Virgen de Guadalupe, Mexico's saintly patroness whose importance to the culture, both artistic and vernacular, can scarcely be overestimated. In fact, Cisneros has recently argued against the either-or polarity traditionally assigned to these two figures in limiting the roles available to Latinas (Interview). Reaching beyond such polarity, Cisneros animates the mythic context for her stories by calling upon other maternal figures, such as la Llorona, the weeping woman.2
In the critical conversation of the past two decades, an increasing number of Chicana writers and thinkers have refused to accept the negative connotations of Malinche's putative betrayal of Mexico's indigenous peoples. These women urge recognition of the largely masculine tenor to the political and cultural origins of chicanismo in the 1960s and 70s. These writers have refigured Malinche's defining historical act as one of positive agency rather than active betrayal, passive victimization, or mere acquiescence to the patriarchal systems engendered by either Madrid or Tenochtitlan.
In Woman Hollering Creek, Cisneros assumes and extends this positive revisionist perspective. Whereas the historical Malinche was forced to give up the son she bore Cortez, who sent her child to Spain for his education, in Cisneros' strongest invocation of Malinche, in “Never Marry a Mexican,” the artist-narrator, Clemencia, “brown as river sand” (76), is repeatedly called Malinche or the variant Malinalli by her lover and teacher, Drew (74), whose faithless and patronizing behavior ultimately leads Clemencia to reverse Malinche's fate. She takes a young lover “[w]ith skin like roses in December” (77), the son of Drew and his pale, redheaded Barbie-doll of a wife. The narrator lays further claim to the boy's begetting when she explains that she had sexual intercourse with his father at the time of his mother's labor and that she had convinced his father “to let him be born” (74-75). And in what may be read as a subtle inversion of the stories of Malinche/la Llorona, who are betrayed and whose loss of their children is associated with water, Clemencia departs from a tryst with Drew, described as “look[ing] like a Cortez” (74), kidnapping from his house a wooden babushka doll that he had given his wife as a gift. On her way home Clemencia stops her car on a bridge in order to cast the tiny effigy into the “muddy creek where winos piss and rats swim” (82). Once again, the original mestizo encounter is reinscribed so that the female figure acts rather than being acted upon.
In a like recasting of another mythic union, “One Holy Night” revisits Aztlan for much of its imagery and turns of story. Choosing her own fate, the teenaged narrator decides to give up her virginity to a portentious garage apprentice who represents himself to the narrator as the product of “an ancient line of Mayan kings” (27) and who is convincing enough that she conceives their act of union as an initiation “beneath an ancient sky by a great and mighty heir—Chaq Uxmal Paloquin. I, Ixchel, his queen” (30). Chaq's proposed union suggests a reversal of Malinche's fate, a near theogonic mating untainted by cultural hegemony. The titanic nature of this fated romance, though, is immediately undercut in the next paragraph when the narrator-consort deadpans, “It wasn't a big deal,” appropriating informal language and common sense to demonstrate her assent and agency in her own loss of innocence. Compounding this deflation is Chaq's exposure; the “mighty heir” in fact turns out to be a serial killer of young, pubescent girls. His seduction occasions yet another form of betrayal against a Chicana, another old story in a line of stories the narrator is just beginning to comprehend.
Also representing the indigenous side of the mestiza comes an additional mythic forebear of Cisneros' las mujeres: the spectral, haunting figure of la Llorona of Mexican folklore. It is this spirit, “la Llorona, who drowned her own children,” that calls to Cleófilas in the collection's title story (51). Mexican-born Cleófilas, in the loneliness and trouble of her marriage, hears the voice of the creek—with its vitality, its flux, its ultimate freedom all embodied in its passionate song—and she senses the voice of la Llorona.
Here la Llorona embodies a kind of mestiza naiad who may inspire Cleófilas to abandon her accepting, passive personality and fate, and to liberate herself from her abusive husband and dead-end marriage. As Cleófilas departs her past life, riding in a pickup truck across the magical arroyo, she almost unconsciously punctuates her new freedom when she hears, in the story's closing line, a sound associating her with the creek as it comes “gurgling out of her own throat, a long ribbon of laughter, like water” (56), like the marking of her maturation that the creek and its guardian spirit provide.
Thus, no single female spirit seems sufficiently comprehensive to serve as midwife to the maturation of the many different women in the collection. Cisneros' vision has become too full. But with clear modification, Cisneros still seems willing to have her characters accept the benediction of the single most prominent icon, male or female, in Mexican America for the past 450 years. The frequent incarnation of la Virgencita de Guadalupe in the stories continues Cisneros' use of traditional Mexican iconography, albeit here evoking the colonial and Catholic origins of la Moreñita (the paternal side of the mestizaje, the mixing of the Hispano and the Indio). However, just as la Llorona brings Cleófilas to life in the passageway story of the collection's final, mature section, so Cisneros animates la Virgencita into an active, powerful female (like the figures imaged by Chicana painter Yolanda Lopez) rather than the stilled image of a Mexican retablo or altarpiece.
Cisneros' Virgin is no passive cipher. The final petition of “Little Miracles, Kept Promises” revises the Virgin's significance, giving her a machisma spin. In the longest of the letters and in the voice closest to that of Cisneros in her interviews, the petitioner, Rosario (Chayo) de Leon, tells la Virgencita de Guadalupe that if the Virgin represented no more than passive acceptance of macho patriarchy, then the narrator “couldn't let [her] in my house” (127). The young Tejana realizes, though, that the Virgin could embody a virtual, vital, and expanding pantheon of incarnations: the pre-Christian (“Tonantzin,” “Coatlicue”), the Christian (“Nuestra Señora de la Soledad,” “Our Lady of Lourdes”), and the non-Christian (“Yahweh,” “Allah,” “the Light”). Rosario thus can willingly accept such a confluent deity as her patron and provider, thanking her with the gift of her freshly severed braid, uncut from birth (129). Invoking both the native and the colonial female traditions along with a host of others as her offering continues, Rosario gains cumulative strength from drawing upon a multiple cultural heritage, a theme central to all of Woman Hollering Creek.
“Bien Pretty,” the collection's final piece, synthesizes the author's prominent themes: betrayal, maturation, and cultural rootedness. Narrator Lupe Arredondo drifts into San Antonio, an itinerant artist fleeing a man's rejection only to find herself abandoned yet again. In the process of loving and losing, however, Lupe redefines herself as an artist and becomes poignantly aware of life's blessings. San Antonio, linked as by an artery to the heart of Mexico, brings her back to her heritage. In attempting to paint the celebrated legend of Prince Popo and his beloved, Princess Ixtaccíhuatl, Lupe abandons the tradition now reduced “to kitsch calendar art” (144) and remakes legend in her own image:
Prince Popo and Princess Ixta trade places. After all, who's to say the sleeping mountain isn't the prince, and the voyeur the princess, right? So I've done it my way. With Prince Popocatépetl lying on his back instead of the Princess. Of course, I had to make some anatomical adjustments in order to simulate the geographical silhouettes. I think I'm going to call it El Pipi del Popo. I kind of like it.
That a quick romance and jilting by a cockroach killer/poet inspires a renewal of her art and soul underscores the unexpectedly elevating nature of loss.
Through the body and through the tongue, the exterminator Flavio Munguía Galinda brings Mexico to Lupe. The grandson of a woman named Oralia, Flavio spins story upon story as he poses as Prince Popo. When he predictably beds down with Lupe, he speaks in Spanish that “whirred like silk, rolled and puckered and hissed” (154). Indeed, their brief, intensely sensuous affair connects Lupe to the touches and smells of childhood, to the wellsprings of her culture:
¡Aye! To make love in Spanish, in a manner as intricate and devout as la Alhambra. To have a lover sigh mi vida, mi preciosa, mi chiquitita, and whisper things in that language crooned to babies, that language murmured by grandmothers, those words that smelled like your house, like flour tortillas, and the inside of your daddy's hat, like everyone talking in the kitchen at the same time … That language. That sweep of palm leaves and fringed shawls. That startled fluttering, like the heart of a goldfinch or a fan.
His voice, like a tidal force, pulls and centers her, “that kind of gravelly, charcoal and shell and glass rasp to it” (155). His presence blesses with depth and significance the braided culture of the borderlands, where the mix of language and tradition encourages such comical juxtapositions as Mi Tierra Bakery, Torres Taco Haven, Casa Preciado Religious Articles, and Ricky's Poco Loco Club. Unlike Lupe, Flavio can declare, “I know who I am” (151) and mean it. Sexual union with him makes Lupe feel closer to her Mexican origins than she has ever felt. Even after he dumps her, Lupe does not completely revile his culture with its legacy of betrayal; rather, she goes in quest of its meaning, searching “Church-sanctioned powders” and “folk powders” at Casa Preciado Religious Articles, listening to Mexican love ballads, watching the telenovelas for the right connection, the salient channel to her cultural source.
Finally she realizes the answer is not external. In the end, she returns to herself, to her art, and to her inner vitality urging her to “live our lives the way lives were meant to be lived. With the throat and wrists. With rage and desire, and joy and grief, and love till it hurts, maybe. But goddamn girl. Live” (163). Rather than reject her mixed heritage, she accepts its amalgam as a personal strength. At story's end, Lupe joins the grackles—urracas—as they gather by the thousands one January night to sing at sunset. With her artist's eye and her poet's ear, Lupe sees a natural congregation, a sacred, unconscious invocation of life and creativity. Her small world for that moment throbs, rattles, explodes, and quivers. This crazy, raucous unity goes beyond “bien pretty”: it is expansive if ephemeral beauty, the profane made sacred, the paradox of art that emerges from diminishment.
Kinetic, multiplicitous, choric, innovative, Woman Hollering Creek signals a significant turn in Cisneros' own artistry. Her tripartite collection, bridging stories of innocence and experience, braiding diverse iconographies and traditions, gives voice to las mujeres and their struggles in an inhospitable, patriarchal world. “I found it very hard to deal with redefining myself or controling my own destiny or my own sexuality,” Cisneros has remarked about wrestling her personal “ghosts” (“On the Solitary Fate” 67). Woman Hollering Creek confirms Cisneros's continuing need to wrestle language, defeat the inner censor, and tell the stories, old and new, that define Chicana lives. By returning to the cultural past that shadows the present, her art bears witness to powerful times.
Throughout the last two sections of her book, Cisneros relies on the cultural tensions between the Hispano intercessor, La Virgen de Guadalupe, and her indigenous predecessor, Tonantzin, yet urges a sense of connection between these often linked figures. (For more complete discussion of the past and present cultural context of these figures, especially la Virgen, see Peterson and Chavez.)
La Malinche, the Aztec consort of conquistador Hernando Cortez, has for centuries carried the connotation of betrayer of the indigenous Mexican past to European dominion. Contemporary Chicana artists and writers have refigured Malinche as the mother of the Mestizo race and as a worthy feminist foil to the colonizer Cortez. The borderlands folk figure known as la Llorona is often represented as a woman betrayed and then compelled to murder her own children (nearly always male). Her restless spirit, empty cradle in hand, seeks her drowned children near moonlit riverbanks. La Llorona is often linked with Malinche on account of their common suffering and losses. (For further discussion of these two indigenous female icons, see Rebolledo and Rivera, especially chapter 5, “Myths and Archetypes,” 189-271; Angie Chabram-Dernersesian, “I Throw Punches”; and Rudolfo Anaya's conflation of the two women in the novella The Legend of la Llorona.)
Anaya, Rudolfo. The Legend of la Llorona. Berkeley: Tonatiuh-Quinto Sol, 1984.
Anzaldua, Gloria. Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza. San Francisco: Aunt Lute, 1987.
Chavez, Denise. “Our Lady of Guadalupe.” New Mexico Magazine Dec. 1986: 55-62.
Chabram-Dernersesian, Angie. “I Throw Punches for My Race, but I Don't Want to Be a Man: Writing Us—Chica-nos (Girl/Us)/ Chicanas—into the Movement Script.” Cultural Studies 4.3 (1990): 203-12.
Cisneros, Sandra. The House on Mango Street. 1984, 1989. New York: Vintage, 1991.
———. Interview. Bookworm. By Michael Silverblatt. National Public Radio. 11 May 1995.
———. “On the Solitary Fate of Being Mexican, Female, Wicked and Thirty-three: An Interview with Sandra Cisneros.” By Pilar E. Rodríguez Aranda. The Americas Review 18 (1990): 64-80.
———. Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories. 1991. New York: Vintage, 1992.
de Valdés, Maria Elena. “In Search of Identity in Cisneros's The House on Mango Street.” Canadian Review of American Studies 23 (1992): 55-72.
González-Berry, Erlinda, and Tey Diana Robelledo. “Growing Up Chicana: Tomás Rivera and Sandra Cisneros.” Revista 13 (1985): 109-19.
Lewis, L. M. “Ethnic and Gender Identity: Parallel Growth in Sandra Cisneros' Woman Hollering Creek.” Short Story 2 (1994): 69-78.
Mora, Pat. Borders. Houston: Arte Publico, 1986.
Peterson, Jeanette F. “The Virgin of Guadalupe: Symbol of Conquest or Liberation?” Art Journal Winter 1992: 39-47.
Pratt, Mary Louise. “‘Yo Soy la Malinche’: Chicana Writers and the Politics of Ethnonationalism.” Callaloo 16 (1993): 859-73.
Olivares, Julián. “Sandra Cisneros' The House on Mango Street and the Poetics of Space.” Chicana Creativity and Criticism: Charting New Frontiers in American Literature. María Herrera-Sobek and Helena María Viramontes, eds. Houston: Arte Publico, 1988. 160-69.
Rebolledo, Tey Diana, and Eliana S. Rivero, eds. Infinite Divisions: An Anthology of Chicana Literature. Tucson: U of Arizona P, 1993.
Yarbro-Bejarano, Yvonne. “Chicana Literature: From a Chicana Feminist Perspective.” Americas Review 15 (1987): 139-45.
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4916
SOURCE: Griffin, Susan E. “Resistance and Reinvention in Sandra Cisneros' Woman Hollering Creek.” In Ethnicity and the American Short Story, edited by Julie Brown, pp. 85-96. New York: Garland Publishing, 1997.
[In the following essay, Griffin considers how cultural influences shape and limit the lives of the women in Woman Hollering Creek.]
In her prefatory poem to My Wicked, Wicked Ways, Sandra Cisneros asks, “What does a woman [like me] inherit that tells her how to go?” (x). This question about the cultural inheritance of Mexican American women and how it shapes their perceptions of the choices available to them is central to Cisneros' work. Throughout her poetry and fiction, she has depicted the material and ideological forces that circumscribe Mexican American women's lives.1 In her novel The House on Mango Street, and in several of the poems in My Wicked, Wicked Ways, Cisneros portrays women who are trapped by poverty and controlling, often violent, relationships with men. In her second book of fiction, Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories, she explores the cultural as well as the material limitations of the lives of Mexican American women. Like Cisneros herself, her female characters often must come to terms with a cultural tradition that they love but also view as oppressive because of the limited conception of appropriate behavior for women available within Mexican narratives and culture (Rodríguez Aranda 66). In Woman Hollering Creek [Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories], the role that Mexican popular culture and traditional Mexican narratives play in limiting women's sense of identity becomes one of Cisneros' central concerns.
The limitations of traditional Mexican representations of women are embodied in the dichotomy between two of the most influential women in Mexican myth and culture—the Virgin of Guadalupe and Malintzin Temepal, often referred to as Malinche, the translator for and lover of Hernan Cortes, the Spanish conqueror of Mexico. Cisneros describes growing up with these two female figures—the Virgin of Guadalupe and Malinche—as the two primary role models for women in her culture as “a hard route to go”—a position in which she felt she must choose “one or the other, there's no in-between” (Rodríguez Aranda 65). Traditionally, Mary is defined primarily in terms of her role as a mother and is associated with family life and the beliefs of the Catholic Church; because of the story of her appearance to Juan Diego in Teyapec, she is also seen by many Mexicans as the protector of their people, their patron saint. Malinche, in contrast, is associated with lust, selfishness, and the betrayal of her race. In “From a Long Line of Vendidas: Chicanas and Feminism,” Cherríe Moraga describes how Malinizin's actions are perceived: “To put it in its most base terms: Malinizin, also called Malinche, fucked the white man who conquered the Indian people of Mexico and destroyed their culture. Ever since, brown men have been accusing her of betraying her race” (175).
In Cisneros' depiction of the cultural influences upon Mexican American women in Woman Hollering Creek, it is not only the literal figures of the Virgin and Malinche that influence women's views of identity, however. The women in her stories are also influenced by all the contemporary forms of popular culture, like movies, television, and songs—particularly genres within these media that emphasize romance—which utilize the Virgin/Malinche, good/evil, pure/fallen paradigm and define women primarily in terms of their relationships with men. In stories like “Woman Hollering Creek,” television is the primary medium that embodies beliefs about appropriate behavior for women. In this story, Cisneros depicts a world in which television, along with movies and songs, is becoming our common mythology (77).2 But she portrays these forms of popular culture as reinforcing the same limited roles for women as narratives about Malinche and the Virgin. These limitations are illustrated by the two types of women depicted in the telenovelas3 of “Woman Hollering Creek” and “Bien Pretty,” the evil scheming woman and the pure, passive, long-suffering woman who must endure great hardships for love.
Cisneros and other Mexican American women authors and feminist critics have noted that Mexican women who reject traditional familial roles are often perceived by those within their culture as Malinche has been, as traitors to their race. The question that Sandra Cisneros attempts to work out in Woman Hollering Creek is how Mexican American women can create new roles for themselves—ones that reject the Virgin/Malinche dichotomy and the definition of women mainly in terms of their relations with men—without wholly rejecting Mexican culture. For Cisneros, this means not abandoning the narratives of her culture but reinventing and revising both traditional myths and the narratives of current popular culture. Through the short stories in this collection, Cisneros is able to illustrate different ways in which women can reject and even rewrite traditional narratives.
Cisneros' title story, “Woman Hollering Creek,” is the story in which she most clearly illustrates the negative effects of popular romance genres' portrayal of women, and it is also the story in which she begins to illustrate how women can resist the romance narrative. Within this work, Cleófilas, the story's central character, interprets the events that happen to her in the literal, chronological narrative of the story within the context of another narrative—one she has absorbed from the telenovelas she watches and the romance novels she reads. Cleófilas's actions in “Woman Hollering Creek” are constructed by—and eventually in resistance to—this type of romance narrative.
Cleófilas, like several of the girls in The House on Mango Street, believes in a view of romantic love that is perpetuated through the media and the popular culture of both Mexico and the United States. This view is connected to what she reads in romance novels and sees in the telenovelas. Like American soap operas, telenovelas focus on women characters and romance, but, because they have endings and include a limited number of characters, they have more in common with romance novels—both the Spanish-language Corín Tellado type, which Cleófilas reads, and the similar English-language Harlequins—than with American soap operas.
Cleófilas accepts the idea promoted by the telenovelas that love is the ultimate good, “the most important thing” (44). She daydreams about the characters in the telenovelas—handsome men who finally confess their love and devotion to the women who adore them—and she imagines this kind of passion in her own life. What Cleófilas has been waiting for all her life is “passion … passion in its purest crystalline essence. The kind the books and songs and telenovelas describe when one finds finally the great love of one's life” (44).
The love of the telenovelas and romance novels, however, is linked with images of wealth and escape and, at the same time, connected with suffering and self-sacrifice. Like the ideas of the women in The House on Mango Street, Cleófilas' ideas about romance and her decision to marry are connected to her desire to be materially better off. The girls on Mango Street are aware of the shabbiness of their shoes and clothes and the houses they live in, and, with the exceptions of Esperanza and Alicia, they believe that marriage is their best opportunity to have better things. This wish for more material wealth is intertwined with romantic visions of being rescued by a man who will carry them away from their present lives. What they desire most is a means of escape, so love, distant places, beautiful clothes, jewelry, and houses all become part of the same fantasy. Marín, a friend of Esperanza, the narrator of The House on Mango Street, tells Esperanza that the best jobs for girls are downtown because there you “get to wear nice clothes and can meet someone in the subway who might marry you and take you to live in a big house far away” (26). This is the kind of fantasy—a man rescuing a woman from a dreary life and taking her away to a life of love and luxury—toward which romance novels' plots build. As Ann Barr Snitow explains in “Mass Market Romance: Pornography for Women Is Different,” romances like Harlequins are based on “a sustaining fantasy of rescue, glamour, and change” that includes descriptions of exotic places and detailed descriptions of consumer items, like furniture, clothes, and gourmet food (248, 250).4 It is this fantasy of glamour and change that Cleófilas believes in when she marries. After hearing the name of the town where Juan Pedro, the man who has proposed to her, lives, she thinks it has “[a] nice sterling ring to it. The tinkle of money. She would get to wear outfits like the women on the tele, like Lucía Mendez. And have a lovely house …” (45).
Cleófilas daydreams about the passionate professions of love on the telenovelas, but there is a sharp contrast between this romantic passion and her thoughts about her husband with acne scars and a pot-belly “whose whiskers she finds each morning in the sink, whose shoes she must air every evening on the porch, this husband … who doesn't care at all for music or telenovelas or romance or roses or the moon floating over the arroyo” (49). In even greater contrast to the perfect passion of the telenovelas is the violence that Cleófilas is a victim of in her own life and is aware of in the world around her. The first time her husband hits her—an incident in which he slaps her “again and again” until her lip splits and bleeds “an orchid of blood” (47)—is only the first of many beatings that begin soon after he and Cleófilas are married and sometimes leave her with black and blue marks all over her body. Cleófilas also notices that the newspapers seem filled with tales of women being beaten and killed:
This woman found on the side of the interstate. This one's cadaver, this one unconscious, this one beaten blue. Her ex-husband, her lover, her father, her brother, her uncle, her friend, her co-worker. Always. The same grisly news in the pages of the dailies.
Although the combination of the myths of romantic love and the reality of men's control over and violence against women initially may appear to be antithetical, the romantic myths play a role in perpetuating the cycle of violence in “Woman Hollering Creek” because both are dependent upon male action and female passivity. At one point in “Woman Hollering Creek,” Juan Pedro throws one of Cleófilas's Spanish romance novels across the room, hitting her and leaving a raised welt on her cheek. In this scene, the language of romance embodied by the book and the reality of violence literally intersect, and the romance novel becomes something that Juan Pedro uses as a weapon against his wife, but telenovelas and romance novels also function as destructive forces in more subtle, less literal ways in “Woman Hollering Creek.” They bring love and sacrifice or love and suffering together. After the telenovela episode when Lucía Mendez from Tú o Nadie confesses her love, Cleófilas thinks that the sacrifices this character has made and the hardships she has endured are worth the price “because to suffer for love is good, The pain all sweet somehow. In the end” (45). Although Cisneros does not indicate whether this woman from the telenovela is suffering physical abuse, one of the ideas that Cleófilas absorbs from the telenovelas is that suffering for love is a good thing—immediate sacrifice and suffering lead the women on television to a final happy ending.
This idea that love is the ultimate good and therefore worth suffering for is embedded in the plots of romance novels and telenovelas. The romance blends love and suffering because, as Ann Barr Snitow argues, romance novels—and I would extend this to telenovelas as well—“Make bridges between contradiction; they soothe ambivalence” (253). In them, love magically converts “a brutal male sexuality” to romance (253); through his relationship with the heroine, the hero softens. Snitow argues that, in romances, cruelty, callousness, and coldness are equated with maleness, and the novels' happy endings offer the “possibility that male coldness, absence, and boredom are not what they seem” (250). In the end, a rational explanation for the male hero's behavior appears, and it becomes apparent that “in spite of his coldness or preoccupation, the hero really loves the heroine and wants to marry her” (250). Before the happy resolution, the heroine may suffer as a result of the hero's indifference or his anger and abuse, but the emphasis is on the happy ending, and the heroine's suffering becomes just part of the plot that leads to this ending. In Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature, Janice Radway describes the message inherent in this process:
When a romance presents the story of a woman who is misunderstood by the hero, mistreated and manhandled, and then suddenly loved, protected, and cared for by him because he recognizes that he mistook the meaning of her behavior, the novel is informing its readers that minor acts of violence can be similarly reinterpreted as the result of misunderstandings or jealousy born of “true love”.
This view of love allows Cleófilas to see the suffering of the character in the telenovela as “… all sweet somehow. In the end”; she believes that for “the great love of one's life,” a woman does “whatever one can, must do, whatever the cost” (44). For most of “Woman Hollering Creek,” her belief in romance allows Cleófilas to retain the hope that, beyond her own suffering, there may be a happy ending.
Because of this belief in happy endings, Cleófilas does not reject the romance plot when her husband begins to beat her as Esperanza does when she is raped in The House on Mango Street. After Esperanza's rape, the gap between the romance plot and her own life becomes too great to reconcile, and she feels betrayed by the images of love and sex she has seen in the media. “They all lied,” she thinks,”All the books and magazines everything that told it wrong” (100). Even after her husband has begun to beat her regularly, however, Cleófilas clings to the romance plot and tries to reconcile it with her own life. She begins thinking of her life as a telenovela in which “the episodes got sadder and sadder. And there were no commercials in between for comic relief. And no happy ending in sight” (52-53). She imagines romance and happy endings as things that happened to someone with a romantic name and thinks that if she were to change her name to something “more poetic than Cleófilas,” her life might be more like the lives of the women in the telenovelas (53).
Radway argues that romantic violence arises from an inability to imagine “a situation in which a woman might acquire and use resources that would allow her to withstand male opposition and coercion” (72), and, for most of “Woman Hollering Creek,” Cleófilas is in this very position. She is simply unable to imagine rejecting the romance plot and resisting her husband. Along with the violence of Cleófilas's life and the images and language of the telenovelas, however, there is a third narrative that emerges in “Woman Hollering Creek.” The creek itself comes to represent the voices of real women who are silenced by violence and by the myths the telenovelas and romance novels perpetuate. After moving to Texas, Cleófilas is always aware of the creek's presence and is fascinated by its name, but it is only when she meets Felice at the end of the story that the creek becomes linked with resistance to the romance plot. When Cleófilas moves to Seguín, she is puzzled by the name of the creek—La Gritona, Woman Hollering. “Such a lovely name for a creek,” she thinks, “Though no one could say whether the woman hollered from anger or from pain” (46). For most of the story, these are the only two emotions that Cleófilas can imagine as this woman's motivation—anger or pain, rage or suffering—because these are the only explanations her life or the telenovelas offer her for a woman's shout. She speculates about whom the creek is named for, imagining it might be La Llorona, the weeping woman of Mexican folklore (51).5 Yet she is unable to come up with an explanation that satisfies her, and the only women she knows in Seguín are unable to or uninterested in helping her. Cleófilas observes that no one in the town “questioned, little less understood” the name Woman Hollering.
Even when she is puzzled by the river, Cleófilas experiences it as “an alive thing, a thing with a voice all its own” (51), and, when she finally seizes an opportunity to leave her husband and return to Mexico, she realizes that the voice of the woman hollering may be a voice of celebration. In the scene in which Cleófilas is leaving Seguín, Cisneros uses a woman's shout, a holler, to represent a voice that resists both male violence and the romance narrative. When Felice, who has promised to give Cleófilas a ride to the Greyhound station, yells as they cross the river, Cleófilas is shocked. Felice yells not out of anger or pain, but because she wants to shout—as a kind of tribute to the woman for whom the river was named and the other women she represents. “Every time I cross the bridge I do that,” Felice tells her, “Because of the name, you know. Woman Hollering. Pues, I holler” (55). “Did you ever notice,” Felice continues, “how nothing around here is named after a woman?” (55). The shout Felice gives is filled with strength, fearlessness, celebration rather than with pain, fear, or pleading—a shout that both Felice and Cleófilas describe as a “a holler like Tarzan” (55-56).
It is appropriate that Felice is the vehicle of such celebration because her emotional and economic self-sufficiency make her unlike any woman Cleófilas has ever met before. When Cleófilas asks if the pickup Felice is driving is her husband's, Felice tells her she does not have a husband; “the pickup was hers. She herself had chosen it. She herself was paying for it” (55). Everything about Felice amazes Cleófilas and helps her begin to imagine alternatives for women beyond either her own life or the lives of love and suffering in the telenovelas and Corín Tellado romance novels. By witnessing the power of Felice's shout—a shout that defies the idea of women as silent victims or suffers—Cleófilas becomes aware of her own voice. After Felice shouts, Cleófilas hears laughter, and her first response to this is to think that Felice must be laughing, but she soon realizes it is not Felice. The sound is “gurgling out of her own throat, a long ribbon of laughter like water” (56). This laughter is a form of expression that cannot be contained or understood within the romance plot that Cleófilas has accepted for most of “Woman Hollering Creek.” Like Felice's shout and the creek itself, it represents a voice in opposition to the romance script and implies Cleófilas's potential to reclaim her own life, as well as her voice, by resisting the popular romance narrative.
The ending of “Woman Hollering Creek,” however, marks only the first step Cisneros depicts in the rejection of equating women with passivity and suffering. While the final scene of this story demonstrates that Cleófilas is beginning to realize that there are other possibilities for women's lives than the ones she has previously imagined, the story does not reveal how she will use this realization, how it will affect her own self-image and her view of the telenovelas. In “Little Miracles, Kept Promises,” Cisneros portrays a young woman who is not only able to resist a traditional narrative but is also capable of appropriating and rewriting it. In this story composed of different characters' petitions to various saints, including the Virgin Mary, Chayo, the character whom Cisneros describes at the greatest length, feels alienated from the other women of her culture—both the Virgin and the women of the telenovelas. Chayo, who wants to devote herself to painting rather than motherhood, tells the Virgin in her letter, “Though no one else in my family, no other woman, neither friend nor relative, no one I know, not even the heroine in the telenovelas, no women, wants to live alone. I do” (127). Chayo even confesses to Mary that she has been unable to accept her, to “let you in my house,” because she has associated Mary with her mother and grandmother's silent acceptance of suffering (127). Chayo desires an image not of a woman suffering but of a woman who is strong and powerful. She writes to Mary, “I wanted you bare-breasted, snakes in your hands. I wanted you leaping and somersaulting the backs of bulls. I wanted you swallowing raw hearts and rattling volcanic ash. I wasn't going to be my mother or my grandma. All that self-sacrifice, all that silent suffering” (127).
Chayo is able to accept Mary only by revising or reinventing her image of her. She begins to see her as the spiritual force that is incarnated in images of Aztec deities as well as in portraits of the Virgin. She views her as Nuestra Senora de Soledad, Our Lady of the Rosary, Our Lady of Perpetual Sorrow and also as Tonantzín, Coatlaxopeuh, Teteoinnan, Toci, Xochiquetzal, and she addresses her as Mighty Guadalupana Coatlaxopeuh Tonantizín. To Chayo, Mary becomes a figure who embodies both the suffering and endurance of women and their strength and power, and this frees her not only to love Mary but to love herself—to choose not to repeat the lives of her mother and grandmother without feeling like a traitor to her race.
The central character in Cisneros's “Bien Pretty” also engages in this process of rewriting or reinventing, both in relation to a traditional Mexican myth and in relation to contemporary romances. Like Chayo, Lupe is an artist. She is a painter who is using her lover, Flavio, as a model for Prince Popocatépetl in her “updated version of the Prince Popocatépetl/Princess Ixtaccíhuatl volcano myth”6 until her lover leaves her and returns to his wife and children in Mexico (144). After Flavio leaves, Lupe continues her job as an art director for a community cultural center but is unable to paint and begins watching television when she comes home from work—first old Mexican movies and then telenovelas—and begins buying Corín Tellado romance novels and magazines with stories about telenovela stars.
Her response to the telenovelas is different than Cleófilas's, however. Lupe realizes what the attraction of telenovelas is, but she also realizes that the images of women in the telenovelas reinforce traditional stereotypes of women. After a conversation with a cashier at Centano's Drugstore about one of the latest telenovelas, “Si Dios quiere,” Lupe thinks:
Amar as vivir. What it comes down to for that woman at Centano's and for me. It was enough to keep us tuning in every day at six-thirty, another episode, another thrill. To relive that living when the universe ran through the blood like river water. Alive. Not the weeks spent writing grant proposals, not the forty hours standing behind a cash register shoving cans of refried beans into plastic sacks.
But what the telenovelas can provide is only a severely limited version of what it means to be alive—living as devising ways to attain the attention and favor of men and, as in “Woman Hollering Creek,” romance linked with suffering. Lupe's frustration with these limitations is illustrated in the dreams she begins having about the telenovelas she is watching—dreams that express her desire to revise the actions of the telenovela characters:
I started dreaming of these Rosas and Briandas and Luceros. And in my dreams I'm slapping the heroine to her senses, because I want them to be women who make things happen, not women who things happen to. Not loves that are tormentosos. Not men powerful and passionate versus women either volatile and evil or sweet and resigned. But women. Real women. The ones I've loved all my life.
In “Bien Pretty,” Cisneros implies both that women can find a different kind of female figure in some popular culture narratives and that where these models are unavailable they can choose to create their own. Lupe can listen, not to “Lola Beltran sobbing ‘Soy infeliz’ into her four cervezas. But Daniela Romo singing ‘Ya no. Es verdad que te adoro, pero mas me adoro yo.’ I love you, honey, but I love me more” (163). By the end of this short story, Lupe realizes that she must make an effort to “right the world and live … the way lives were meant to be lived” (163)—not the way lives are portrayed in the telenovelas. This means living with self-respect, independence, and strength as well as with passion, desire, and pain.
When Lupe returns to her volcano painting to finish it, this need to rewrite the kinds of stories told about women affects her work, and she decides to switch the positions of Prince Popocatépetl and Princess Ixtaccíhuatl because “after all who's to say the sleeping mountain isn't the prince, and the voyeur the princess, right?” (163). What Lupe, like Cleófilas, and Chayo has discovered is a different way of viewing an old story, a process that can be applied both to traditional Mexican and Aztec stories and to popular romance genres in order to yield new narratives.
Cisneros has published three collections of poetry, Bad Boys (1980), My Wicked, Wicked Ways (1987), and Loose Woman (1994); one novel, The House on Mango Street (1983), composed of forty-four brief narratives of vignettes; and one collection of short stories, Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories (1991). She was born in 1954 in Chicago and, like Esperanza Cordero, her narrator from The House on Mango Street, grew up there. Cisneros is a 1978 graduate of the University of Iowa Writer's Workshop, which she attended after graduating with a BA in English from Loyola University. From 1978 to 1980 she taught creative writing at an alternative high school in Chicago. Since the early 1980s she has received several grants and fellowships, including two from the National Endowment for the Arts.
In her interview with Pilar E. Rodríguez Aranda, Cisneros discusses the possibility that “the visual is taking the place of oral myth” and explains that, while she was teaching, she realized she must resort to references to television characters in order to make her points because “that was our common mythology, that's what we had in common, television” (77).
Literally translated telenova means “a novel transmitted by television” (Rector and Trinta 194). Although in the United States they are often referred to as Spanish-language soap operas, Telenovelas differ from American soap operas because they have endings—usually happy ones. A telenovela usually runs for several months, and then a new one begins in the same time slot.
In her article “The Incorporation of Women: A Comparison of North American and Mexican American Popular Culture,” Jean Franco asserts—using the work of Carola Garcia Calderon's Revistas Femininas, La mujer como objecto de consumo—that Harlequins and Corín Tellado romance novels are similar but notes that in the Corín Tellado romance novels, the kind of Spanish romance novels Cleófilas reads in “Woman Hollering Creek” and Lupe reads in “Bien Pretty,” luxury items, expensive clothes, and jewelry are emphasized even more than in Harlequins (Franco 124).
Llorona is a mythical apparition of a weeping woman. Many versions of the Llorona legend exist throughout Mexico and the Pacific and Southwestern portions of the United States. Explanations of the reason for Llorona's sorrow vary greatly among the different versions of the story. In several of these variants, she mourns drowned children and is sighted near a river, creek, or other body of water.
Popocatépetl and Ixtaccíhuatl are dormant volcanoes in central Mexico named after legendary Aztec lovers, Ixtaccíhuatl, an Aztec emperor's daughter, and Popocatépetl, an Aztec warrior. For a description of the myth, see Frances Toor's A Treasury of Mexican Folkways. Mexico, D. F.: Mexico Press, 1947.
Cisneros, Sandra. The House on Mango Street. New York: Random House, 1989.
———. My Wicked, Wicked Ways. New York: Random House, 1992.
———. Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories. New York: Random House, 1991.
Franco, Jean. “The Incorporation of Women: A Comparison of North American and Mexican American Popular Culture.” Studies in Entertainment: Critical Approaches to Mass Culture. Ed. Tania Modleski. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986. 119-138.
Moraga, Cherríe. “From a Long Line of Vendidias: Chicanas and Feminism.” Feminist Studies/Critical Studies. Ed. Teresa de Lauretis. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986. 173-190.
Radway, Janice. Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1984.
Rector, Monica, and Aluizio Ramos Trinta. “The Telenovela.” Diogenes 113-114 (1981): 194-204.
Rodríguez Aranda, Pilar E. “On the Solitary Fate of Being Mexican, Female, Wicked and Thirty-Three: An Interview with Writer Sandra Cisneros.” The Americas Review: A Review of Hispanic Literature and Art of the USA. 18 (1990): 64-80.
Snitow, Ann Barr. “Mass Market Romance: Pornography for Women Is Different.” Powers of Desire: The Politics of Sexuality. Eds. Ann Barr Snitow, Christine Stansell, and Sharon Thompson. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1983. 245-263.
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4528
SOURCE: Spencer, Laura Gutierrez. “Fairy Tales and Opera: The Fate of the Heroine in the Work of Sandra Cisneros.” In Speaking of the Other Self: American Women Writers, edited by Jeanne Campbell Reesman, pp. 278-87. Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 1997.
[In the following essay, Spencer views “La Fabulosa: A Texas Operetta” as a retelling of the opera Carmen and asserts that by allowing her heroine to live, Cisneros is subverting the traditional fate of strong female protagonists in opera and fairy tales.]
Take away the mantillas, the golden colors, the cigars—take away Egypt and the memory of Isis—and the tale you will hear is about any woman at all.
—Catherine Clément, Opera, or the Undoing of Women
Within the Western narrative tradition, female characters are commonly presented within the narrow confines of polarized roles limited to either madonna or whore, villain or victim. In a similar fashion, the fate of these characters also tends to fall to extremes. Depending upon the narrative form, the female protagonist all too often finds either an early end in death or an equally premature, if metaphorical, “demise” as she conveniently disappears into a cloud of anonymity after the hero has come to the rescue and married her. In so many plots, the appropriate denouement of dramatic tension is the death of the heroine. Female characters who are adventurous, inquisitive, active, or otherwise rebel against patriarchal rules of female comportment are often killed in punishment for their disobedience. Unfortunately, the passive, pliant heroine often meets the same fate. Her death is portrayed as a valiant sacrifice for the life or comfort of the male hero. More simply stated, female protagonists, whether they are “good girls” or “bad girls” still die, in literal and metaphoric terms. Catherine Clément, in Opera, or the Undoing of Women, documents this tradition. Among the most famous operas for instance, the death toll includes “nine by knife, two of them suicides; three by fire; two who jump; two consumptives; three who drown; three poisoned; two of fright; and a few unclassifiable, thank god for them, dying without anyone knowing why or how. Still, that is just the first sorting. And with my nice clean slate in my hands, I examine all those dream names in their pigeonholes, like butterflies spread out on boards. All that is left is to write their names above them: Violetta, Mimi, Gilda, Norma, Brunhilde, Senta, Antonia, Marfa. …”1 The misogynistic effect of these plots, of course, is not limited to the world of opera. This tendency comes from the very wellspring of literature, myth.
The most common example of myth in modern times and the form that has had the most impact upon our society is the fairy tale. Many of the tales that we tell our children before they sleep include plots in which male heroes are rewarded for their audacity, courage, and curiosity. Demure princesses are praised for their beauty and kindness, while other female characters, like Goldilocks, are punished for their curiosity and active natures. The active female character in fairy tales is either vilified as a figure of evil or is punished for her audacity.
Throughout her work, Sandra Cisneros has critiqued the fate of the heroine in Western patriarchal literature. She accomplishes this, in part, through reference to popular fairy tales. Cisneros's first book includes a feminist analysis of the social and personal consequences for women who believe in fairy tales and wait for Prince Charming to fulfill their existence. In The House on Mango Street, Cisneros draws attention to the messages that fairy tales impart to females about the roles they should play, or not play, in life. This book contains glimpses of the lives of various women and the social, cultural, and economic forces that have entrapped them in stultifying circumstances. Although individual stories in The House on Mango Street include examinations of prejudice, poverty, domestic abuse, sexual harassment, sexual assault, and sexism, one of the central themes of the book is that the women of Mango Street have been limited in the opportunities available to them to develop their own agendas and talents. This repression serves to subordinate these women's lives to husband and home. The theme of limitation and restriction is represented by many images of trapped women. In these stories women lean out of windows, stand in doorways, stare at the seams between ceiling and walls, and envy other women who “throw green eyes easily like dice and open homes with keys.”2
The stories in The House on Mango Street that take the form of revisionist fairy tales feature characteristic elements of the classic children's stories but are set within a different context and have more specific outcomes for the female characters. They oppose the traditional marriage to the hero and “happily-ever-after” conclusion. Cisneros's version of these fables reveal the truer-to-life consequences for women who are socialized to live their lives waiting for the happy ending. The stories “Rafaela Who Drinks Papaya and Coconut Juice on Tuesdays” and “The Family of Little Feet” allude respectively to “Rapunzel” and “Cinderella.” Cisneros's heroines are young girls and women in the housing projects of Chicago. They do not live happily ever after. Beautiful Rafaela, for instance, is locked in her own house by a jealous husband. She “leans out the window and leans on her elbow and dreams her hair is like Rapunzel's. On the corner there is music from the bar and Rafaela wishes she could go there and dance before she gets old” (House [The House on Mango Street] 76). In “The Family of Little Feet” the little-girl protagonist and her friends are given a bag of used high-heeled shoes. The girls try on heels for the first time in their life and marvel at how the shoes make their legs look beautiful and long. They walk, dance, and strut around the neighborhood until they realize the power of the shoes. On this sojourn, the girls become the objects of leering glances, an angry rebuke, and the offer of a dollar for a kiss from a drunken bum. As if by magic, the shoes have drawn unwanted attention to the budding sexuality of the young girls. As opposed to the blushing Cinderella whose symbol of salvation is a shoe, these young heroines learn that high-heeled shoes “are dangerous” (House, 38). They learn that the power their sexuality holds in attracting attention from males often has negative consequences.
Cisneros's portrayals of fairy-tale heroines are revisionist only in the sense that she applies a feminist analysis to the underlying messages that fairy tales convey to women. In drawing attention to how male domination, denial of personal ambition, lack of education, abuse, and low expectations affect women's lives, Cisneros attacks the weak heroine of the fairy tale who is “unable to act independently or self-assertively; she relies on external agents for rescue; she restricts her ambitions to hearth and nursery.”3 By revealing the concrete effects of waiting for someone to keep us “on a silver string,” the author reveals the other side of the fate of the fairy-tale heroine.
Sandra Cisneros's use of operatic themes dates also to The House on Mango Street. Here, in a manner similar to her use of fairy tales, the author calls attention to the misogyny of patriarchal literature by way of reference to Puccini's Madama Butterfly. In a vignette entitled “A Smart Cookie,” the protagonist's mother laments her own lack of education and the life it might have brought her: “I could've been somebody, you know? my mother says and sighs. She has lived in this city her whole life. She can speak two languages. She can sing an opera. She can fix a T.V.” (House, 83). In this quote, the mother's knowledge of opera serves as confirmation of her intelligence. However, as the story continues, it becomes evident that the author has featured the protagonist of Puccini's opera in the story to represent the patriarchal archetype of feminine virtue and sacrifice. The narrator talks about her mother, saying, “Today while cooking oatmeal she is Madame Butterfly until she sighs and points the wooden spoon at me. I could've been somebody, you know? Esperanza, you go to school. Study hard. That Madame Butterfly was a fool. She stirs the oatmeal. Look at my comadres. She means Izaura whose husband left and Yolanda whose husband is dead. Got to take care all your own, she says shaking her head” (House, 83). The mother in “A Smart Cookie” has seen through the sentimentalization of the heroine's sacrifice. The lives of her sisters and comadres serve as evidence of the foolishness of relegating the direction of one's life to another. The mother's disgust with Butterfly's sacrifice mirrors the disgust she feels over her own self-destruction: “Shame is a bad thing, you know. It keeps you down. You want to know why I quit school? Because I didn't have nice clothes. No clothes, but I had brains. Yup, she says disgusted, stirring again. I was a smart cookie then” (House, 84). Again, Cisneros reveals the danger for women of being more concerned with the opinions and impressions of others and allowing these concerns to dominate one's life. The mother does not perceive poverty but a lack of internal authority to be the source of her loss.
Even though the stories in The House on Mango Street fail to rewrite the tragic fate of the heroine, there is a foreshadowing of the desire to do so. For instance, in the story “Beautiful and Cruel,” the narrator claims as a role model a type of woman that she has seen in the movies. This woman is free, powerful, beautiful, and defiant:
In the movies there is always one with red red lips who is beautiful and cruel. She is the one who drives the men crazy and laughs them all away. Her power is her own. She will not give it away.
I have begun my own quiet war. Simple. Sure. I am one who leaves the table like a man, without putting back the chair or picking up the plate.
The narrator's gesture of defiance, leaving the table “like a man,” signifies that she refuses to become a domesticated female. The heroine that Cisneros has created in this story will not self-destruct, nor will she give up control of her life. In the operatic realm, this character is most easily identified as Carmen. According to Catherine Clément's analysis of the ill-fated heroines of opera, the most feminist of these is “Carmen the Gypsy, Carmen the damned.”4 Carmen indeed is an operatic manifestation of Cisneros's “one with red, red lips,” for Carmen “drives the men crazy and laughs them all away.” Carmen, like the Medusa, the Sphinx, and the Minotaur, is a figure of paradox. The mere fact that she is a woman who acts like a man proves it, for within the symbolic order, the male occupies a position of active supremacy over the passivity of the female. To oppose that order is to invite disaster. Yet, what else could Carmen do? What Cisneros does not mention in “Beautiful and Cruel” is that according to the patriarchal literary tradition, the powerful and defiant female figure is inevitably punished for her audacity. That is why Clément refers to her as “Carmen the damned.” The hierarchical structure upon which patriarchal societies are based cannot allow this carnivalesque figure to upset the social apple cart in which men are allowed more power and choices than women. According to Elisabeth Bronfen, the death of the female protagonist functions to eliminate a threat to the patriarchal order: “Countless examples could be given to illustrate how the death of a woman helps to regenerate the order of society, to eliminate destructive forces or serves to reaggregate the protagonist into her or his community.”5 The defiant Carmen must be suppressed or die, and since she will never give her power away, she is killed.
The story “La Fabulosa: A Texas Operetta” appears in the collection by Sandra Cisneros entitled Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories. This story at first reading is notable because of one salient and surprising element: the heroine does not die. Not only is she not punished for her freewheeling ways, but she flourishes and thrives. In this incongruous tale, the active, independent, and defiant woman is the one who “lives happily ever after.” Upon closer examination, the reader discovers the subtext of this story. This is a revision of Carmen. The first clue Cisneros allows the reader is the title: “La Fabulosa: A Texas Operetta.” The author gives an adulatory nickname to her protagonist, changes the context of the story from Spain to Texas, and calls the work an “operetta,” a small opera.
In the first paragraph of the story Cisneros makes a tongue-in-cheek reference to the Spanish heritage of the original Carmen: “She likes to say she's ‘Spanish,’ but she's from Laredo like the rest of us—or ‘Lardo,’ as we call it. Her name is Berriozábal. Carmen.”6 On one level, the narrator appears to be ridiculing this character, who, like many Mexican Americans, attempts to “whitewash” herself by ignoring her Indian heritage and eschewing the word “Mexican” in exchange for “Spanish.” On another level, of course, Cisneros is associating her protagonist with the operatic figure.
The narrator continues with a description of the protagonist. Her most salient physical trait is her large breasts: “big chichis, I mean big” (Woman [Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories] 61). Carmen's other characteristic trait is her independent nature. “Carmen was a take-it-or-leave-it type of woman. If you don't like it, there's the door. Like that. She was something” (Woman, 61). While in some ways Cisneros's heroine is a quintessential feminist, unlike many authors, Cisneros avoids an idealization of her heroine. The narrator describes her as “not smart. I mean, she didn't know enough to get her teeth cleaned every year, or to buy herself a duplex” (Woman, 62). Although the protagonist is portrayed as a woman of limited attributes, this does not detract from her status as a heroine worthy of a happy end.
Cisneros's plot mirrors the opera in many ways. At the beginning of the Prosper Merimée plot, Carmen has taken as her lover a brigadier named Don José. The Chicana Carmen becomes involved with a corporal at Fort Sam Houston named José Arrambide. The Spanish Don José is engaged to a sweet young thing named Micaela who is waiting for him to marry her. In Cisneros's version, José's high school sweetheart “sold nachos at the mall, still waiting for him to come back to Harlingen, marry her, and buy that three-piece bedroom set on layaway” (Woman, 61). In the figure of Micaela, both plots include a reference to the classic fairy-tale heroine, the demure and passive one who waits for her prince to take charge of her life. She is often used in literature as the virtuous foil of the lecherous, adventurous “witches and bitches.” According to Karen Rowe's analysis of fairy-tale figures, “Because cleverness, will-power, and manipulative skill are allied with vanity, shrewishness, and ugliness, and because of their gruesome fates, odious females hardly recommend themselves as models for young readers. And because they surround alternative roles as life-long maidens or fiendish stepmothers with opprobrium, romantic tales effectively sabotage female assertiveness.”7 Another Micaela-like figure in opera is Alfredo's sister in La Traviata. This virginal character provides the motivation for the courtesan's sacrifice of her own happiness, in order that the other woman may make a financially and socially profitable marriage. Carmen, however, makes no sacrifice and fearlessly confronts her announced fate.
Again, according to Merrimée's story, Carmen entices Don José to abandon the army and join a group of smugglers, then leaves him for a toreador named Escamillo. Cisneros, on the other hand, has Carmen leave José for an ambitious Texas senator named Camilo Escamilla (Woman, 62). In both stories, the besotted José is overcome with rejection and the realization that he has no control over Carmen. The opera ends as José confronts Carmen outside the bullring. Carmen defiantly proclaims her love for Escamillo before she is stabbed to death by her former lover. The violent death of the rebellious heroine is deemed as necessary in a symbolic system where the existence of a free and enterprising female is viewed as seditious and damaging to the social order. This tendency is as common, Rowe observes, in mythic tales as much as opera libretti: “By punishing exhibitions of feminine force, tales admonish, moreover, that any disruptive nonconformity will result in annihilation or social ostracism.”8 While Western literature provides few examples of the rebellious feminine, these characters are necessarily punished in order to serve as an example to potential Carmens.
Catherine Clément has made an intriguing analysis of how Georges Bizet's score musically represents the conflict between the unfettered feminine versus the hierarchical rigidity of the patriarchal order. She identifies Bizet's use of tonality as a technique of representing the patriarchal social order in which the masculine has dominion over the feminine.9 Within this context, the term “tonality” refers to music written in a key according to the paradigm of a seven-tone scale.10 In its linear quality and the rigidity with which the tonal scale differentiates between notes considered harmonious and dissonant in each key, tonality could be said to correspond to the oppositional qualities of symbolic texts.
As Julia Kristeva has emphasized, in Western thought the “symbolic” is based upon the definition of elements of reality by means of restriction. These elements, then, are oriented according to mutual opposition, a system of opposition hierarchically organized in such a manner that good occupies a position superior to evil, light to dark, and male to female. It might be argued that the importance of the symbolic in patriarchal society is to maintain this hierarchical paradigm. The “semiotic” modality, on the other hand, is perceived to be seditious in its ignorance of phallocentric paradigms and traditions. It does not operate upon an epistemology of opposition and heirarchy. One of the primary characteristics of the semiotic modality is the figure of paradox. In its unification of disparate entities, the figure of paradox by definition defies the oppositional structure of the symbolic. The unclassifiable nature of paradox is, at the very least, threatening to the rational order of the symbolic, represented by mythic figures of opposition such as the male hero and the passive heroine.11 When paradox does enter into the realm of myth it is considered to be disruptive, even evil. In Western mythology at least, when a male hero confronts a figure of paradox, the hero inevitably prevails. This pattern is evident when one notes that in classical mythology Theseus slew the Minotaur and defeated an army of Amazons, Perseus beheaded the Medusa, and Hercules took the golden girdle of Ares from Hippolyte, the queen of the Amazons.
According to Clément, Bizet's use of chromaticism serves to challenge the supremacy of the tonal scale just as the semiotic modality challenges the patriarchal authority of the symbolic. Chromaticism, which came into common use in Western music during the end of the Romantic period, was used to stretch and blur the authoritative and restrictive quality of tonal music.12 Clément describes chromaticism as “the sultry, slippery, seductive female who taunts and entraps, who needs to be brought back under tonal domination and absorbed.”13 The correlations between tonality and the symbolic order compared to those of chromaticism and the semiotic are remarkable. Within the domains of language and music, these modalities serve, respectively, to sustain and repudiate patriarchal epistemologies.
Within the text-score of Carmen we can see that chromaticism serves to disrupt a strict sense of tonality, just as the heroine diverts José from his militaristic discipline: as Clément remarks, “Carmen makes her first appearance with the slippery descent of her ‘Habanera’ and it is her harmonic promiscuity—which threatens to undermine Don José's drive for absolute tonal closure at the conclusion of the opera—that finally renders her death musically necessary.”14 The predominance of the symbolic over the semiotic is made manifest by the defeat of the paradoxical figure of the active woman. Although Bizet's opera includes one of the most powerful of operatic heroines, her demise is as ignominious and inevitable as the rest. The Amazon is conquered again.
In her “Texas Operetta,” Sandra Cisneros acknowledges the literary tradition that punishes audacious heroines, yet she chooses to defy that tradition by rewriting millennia of literary history. Instead of imposing a finite conclusion upon the reader, Cisneros offers three possible endings from which to choose. The elective nature of the conclusion is created by the testimonial form of the narration: “According to who you talk to, you hear different” (Woman, 62). The first conclusion is similar to that of the opera in that José attacks Carmen with a knife: “José's friends say he left his initials across those famous chichis with a knife.” The violence of this ending is mitigated by the skeptical attitude of the narrator: “but that sure sounds like talk, don't it?” (Woman, 62).
The second conclusion focuses on the male protagonist's pain: “I heard he went AWOL. Became a bullfighter in Matamoros, just so he could die like a man” (Woman, 62). The figure of Escamillo is alluded to with the reference to bullfighting. The expressed desire to “die like a man” represents the deleterious effect that Carmen's strength has upon the masculinity of the hero. This version of the conclusion turns the narrative violence of self-destructive tendencies toward the male figure. Of course, this particular twist is quite rare in the operatic tradition, as women in opera are forever dying for, or because of, men. This option is provided in the following sentence: “Somebody else said she's the one who wants to die” (Woman, 62).
The first two conclusions provided in “La Fabulosa: A Texas Operetta” fall into the register of the symbolic, under which only one of two opposing forces can prevail. Hélène Cixous deems it inappropriate for feminists to follow this traditional “rational” system in their writing. She observes: “Opposition, hierarchizing exchange, the struggle for mastery which can end only in at least one death (one master-one slave, or two nonmasters = two dead)—all that comes from a period in time governed by phallocentric values.”15 In an effort to provide a literary space where resolution is not based upon unilateral annihilation, Cisneros provides another possible conclusion. Despite the discretionary quality presented by the inclusion of alternate endings, Cisneros uses the voice of the female narrator to give authority to the last and most felicitous conclusion. The narrator begins by denying the veracity of the first two denouements: “Don't you believe it. She ran off with King Kong Cárdenas, a professional wrestler from Crystal City and a sweetie. I know her cousin Lerma, and we saw her just last week at the Floore Country Store in Helotes. Hell, she bought us a beer, two-stepped and twirled away to ‘Hey Baby Qué Pasó’” (Woman, 62). Cisneros refuses to allow the suppression of the rebellious, chromatic feminine. This Carmen not only is not punished, but continues upon her adventurous path, finding love with a nurturing, masculine partner. The Tex-Mex hit “Hey Baby Qué Pasó” includes the only reference to the fate of José in this last version of “La Fabulosa's” conclusion. The lyrics include the phrases: “Hey baby, ¿qué pasó? / Porque me tienes el loco / No me dejes de ese modo.”16 Cisneros uses this musical reference to create the background for Carmen's joyous exit from the story. Instead of the righteous and apocalyptic climax created by Bizet for the death of the heroine, the Chicana author employs a joyous polka by the Texas Tornados, appropriate for triumphant Carmen. In spite of the celebratory quality of the song, one can hear the echoes of José's incredulity in the chorus: “Hey baby, ¿qué pasó?”
Sandra Cisneros is indeed skillful in utilizing long-established literary traditions for revolutionary purposes. Her versions of Cinderella and Rapunzel turn the classic versions inside-out to disclose the real consequences for women of patriarchal socialization. Within her stories, Cisneros reveals the metaphoric death of the fairy-tale heroine. Although the princesses of the classic fairy tales supposedly go on to live “happily ever after,” we never hear of their lives or paths of growth after the nuptials to the handsome prince. Cisneros picks up the tale and tells the real fate of the heroine who lives in patriarchy.
Within the operatic tradition there is no need to uncover the propensity for misogyny. On the contrary, scenes of women murdered at the hands of men or who commit suicide on behalf of men number among the most glorified moments in opera. In one salient characteristic, however, opera differs from the fairy tale. In the classic children's stories, the sweet, pliant princesses are rewarded by marriage to the prince, while the only active characters, witches and wicked stepmothers, are vilified and often punished with gruesome deaths. Opera libretti, on the other hand, tend to punish with remarkable regularity the passive heroine as well as the active, rebellious one. Sandra Cisneros defies this tradition in opera and other narrative forms by recreating the powerful female figure of Carmen and allowing her to live and thrive. Just as she retells the fairy tale in a more realistic light, Cisneros changes the context of the opera Carmen from nineteenth-century Seville to modern-day Texas. However, by altering the standard denouement of the tragedy in a way that contradicts the patriarchal necessity of opposition and the ultimate domination of the male, Cisneros dismisses the tradition of eliminating the paradoxical figure of a powerful woman. Through her revisions of fairy tales and Carmen, Sandra Cisneros's works demonstrate how literature can challenge deeply inculcated values and change the ways in which we perceive the world. Consequently, she tells stories that shake the roots of a literary tradition as old as the fairy tale.
Catherine Clément, Opera, or the Undoing of Women, trans. Betsy Wing (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988), 47.
Sandra Cisneros, The House on Mango Street (Houston: Arte Público Press, 1985), 76. Subsequent references will be cited in the text as House.
Karen E. Rowe, “Feminism and Fairy Tales,” in Don't Bet on the Prince: Contemporary Feminist Fairy Tales in North America and England, ed. Jack E. Zipes (New York: Methuen, 1986), 211.
Elisabeth Bronfen, Over Her Dead Body: Death, Femininity and the Aesthetic (New York: Routledge, 1992), 219.
Sandra Cisneros, Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories (New York: Random House, 1991), 61. Subsequent references will be cited in the text as Woman.
“Tonality,” The New Harvard Dictionary of Music, ed. Don Michael Randel (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1986).
Julia Kristeva, Desire in Language: A Semiotic Approach to Literature and Art, ed. Leon S. Roudiez, trans. Thomas Gora, Alice Jardine, and Roudiez (New York: Columbia University Press, 1980), 38-39.
“Chromaticism,” The New Harvard Dictionary of Music.
Hélène Cixous, “The Laugh of the Medusa,” Signs 1.4 (Summer 1976): 893.
Augie Myers and Bill Sheffield, “(Hey Baby) Qué Pasó” (San Marcos, Tex.: Brujo Music), Los Texas Tornados, compact disc, Reprise Records, 1990.
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7800
SOURCE: Phelan, James. “Sandra Cisneros's ‘Woman Hollering Creek’: Narrative as Rhetoric and as Cultural Practice.” Narrative 6, no. 3 (October 1998): 221-35.
[In the following essay, Phelan utilizes the dialogue form in order to explore the relationship between “Woman Hollering Creek,” Phelan's rhetorical analysis, and the cultural criticism found in The Practice of Everyday Life by Michel de Certeau.]
Note: This essay emerged out of my efforts to think about the relations among Sandra Cisneros's moving story, “Woman Hollering Creek,” the kind of rhetorical analysis I have done in the past, and the kind of cultural criticism suggested by de Certeau's The Practice of Everyday Life. I have adopted the dialogue form in order to avoid a false synthesis of the two approaches and to convey instead their sometimes converging, sometimes diverging, sometimes complementary perspectives. Although Cisneros is not an explicit speaker in this dialogue, I have assumed that “Woman Hollering Creek” is the most important presence: the speakers, RT (for “rhetorical theorist”) and MC (for “Michel de Certeau”), should be judged according to how well they are responsible and responsive to the story.
The positions and insights attributed to MC are frequently based on my interpretations of and extrapolations from The Practice of Everyday Life and so should not be read as the unmediated views of de Certeau himself. RT's positions and insights are built on my earlier work, but RT should not be read as a totally reliable spokesperson for the implied author of this dialogue—if s/he could, there would be no point to the dialogue.
RT: Suppose we begin by trying to describe each other's interests and what we find attractive and limiting in them. If that's OK, I'll go first. (MC nods).
The Practice of Everyday Life valuably theorizes the condition of being on the margins of culture without assuming that to be marginal is to be powerless. Indeed, your emphasis on the multiple ways in which those on the margins manage to create room for maneuver within dominant culture is a significant contribution to cultural theory. In identifying this room for maneuver, you develop the key distinction between “strategies” and “tactics.” You define a strategy as a readily identified system of operations in which the borders between the strategy and that which it operates upon are clear and distinct. Scientific rationality, for example, is a strategy par excellence (25): this rationality prescribes a set of rules and procedures—the so-called scientific method—by which to understand a “nature” distinct from those rules and procedures. You define a tactic, by contrast, as a kind of parasitic operation, one in which an individual bends some existing larger system to his or her advantage without the bending itself becoming a more abstract rule or effecting a permanent change in the system.
You point out that the practice of everyday life offers many opportunities for tactical maneuver: “talking, reading, moving about, shopping, cooking, etc.” (25). Those on the margins of culture often become expert tacticians. What you and others in France call la perruque is a tactic par excellence: “the worker's own work disguised as work for his employer” (25); it includes things as simple as “a secretary's writing a love letter on ‘company time’ or as complex as a cabinetmaker's ‘borrowing’ a lathe to make a piece of furniture for his living room” (25).
There's lots more of course, but let me stop there and ask whether you recognize your book in this description of it.
MC: I hope I can do as well with a description of your interests. The rhetorical theorist wants to analyze how authors communicate to readers through texts, with each term in that formulation requiring explication. “Authors” are both historical beings and the causes readers infer for the effects of texts. “Texts” are both words on the page and the literary and cultural conventions—and thus, intertexts—that those words invoke. “Readers” are real people and hypothetical audiences implied by texts. Furthermore, the communication that goes on involves the reader's intellect, emotions, psyche, and ethics. The rhetorical theorist can start an analysis with the author, the reader, or the text, but the starting point will necessarily lead to some consideration of the other variables.
Shall we move on and discuss the limits of our approaches?
RT: Sure, but first a caveat. The limits I see in your approach are limits from my perspective, a function of what I want to know, rather than fundamental flaws in your analysis. As a theorist of culture rather than of literature, you most immediately and clearly offer critics some new ways of thematizing. In the case of “Woman Hollering Creek,” I'd imagine that such thematizing would highlight the story's three main tactical maneuvers: (1) Cleófilas's convincing her husband that she needs to see the doctor; (2) Graciela's calling Felice from the doctor's office to arrange for Cleófilas's ride out of Seguín, while Cleófilas's husband waits in the next room; (3) above all, Felice's reinterpreting the name, “Woman Hollering Creek,” to mean not the weeping and wailing of La Llorona but the whooping and laughing of an independent woman. Developing such an interpretation would involve offering detailed accounts of these maneuvers, as well as considering the significance of their sequence in the final three segments of the narrative. With some additional work, the interpretation might well claim that “Woman Hollering Creek,” is a literary demonstration of your general insights into the nature and value of tactics.
I find such an interpretation to be helpful in the way that most thematic readings of narrative are: it provides a translation of the detailed language and action of the narrative into some readily intelligible broader concepts, allowing us to take in the whole narrative in one fell swoop. But such an interpretation is also limited in the way that most thematic readings of narrative are: it does not account very precisely for the multiple parts of the story or the details of Cisneros's technique, and it does not address itself to the experiential quality of reading the story.
MC: I hope that, before we are finished, I can complicate your view of what I might offer literary critics, but let me follow the protocol and articulate my sense of your limits.
You make too sharp a distinction between literary theory (which you claim as your interest) and cultural theory (which you designate as my interest) and so your helpful attention to technique leads to overly narrow conclusions about effect and literary form. By “overly narrow,” I don't mean “wrong” but rather “limited.” I think you're operating with a view of literature that is too self-contained, too disconnected from culture and its workings. Storytelling is a practice of everyday life; it occurs in culture and it has designs on culture. Any critical practice should talk about those designs.
RT: Thanks for your candor—I guess. Rather than trying to correct each other, I suggest that we turn to a more detailed discussion of “Woman Hollering Creek” and explore the powers and limits of each approach. It's probably helpful to begin with an overview of Cisneros's fabula and of her narration.
Cleófilas Enriqueta DeLeón Hernández marries Juan Pedro Martínez Sánchez and crosses the border with him from Mexico to Seguín, Texas. Isolated in the new culture, Cleófilas soon has to endure beatings from her husband and the likelihood of his infidelity. She has few cultural resources to draw on other than her memory of her father's love and his promise that he would never abandon her. Unexpectedly aided by two sympathetic Chicanas, Graciela and Felice, who want to help her escape her abusive husband, Cleófilas, pregnant with her second child, begins her journey back across the border. The story ends, however, not with her return but with a moment during her escape. Cleófilas is initially amazed by everything about Felice, especially by Felice's “hollering like Tarzan” as they cross the creek called “La Gritona.” The amazement leads to the moment described in the story's concluding sentences: “Then Felice began laughing again, but it wasn't Felice laughing. It was gurgling out of her own throat, a long ribbon of laughter, like water” (56).
To tell this story, Cisneros uses an undramatized, largely effaced narrator and a sequence of fourteen discrete narrative sections. The narrator displays no explicit awareness of the interrelation among the sections; there are no transitional devices and no explicit cross-references between them. This technique requires Cisneros's audience to become active collaborators in constructing the narrative. The fourteen narrative sections are like different pieces of a mosaic whose overall shape and design we need to deduce. Our best strategy is to build up from the numerous local inferences Cisneros's technique guides us to as we read each of the fourteen sections.
Are these initial observations acceptable?
MC: They are fine, but it's also important to identify at the outset the cultural narratives “Woman Hollering Creek” is situating itself in relation to. It's clearly a story of border crossing, and in 1991 such a story by a Chicana writer will have Gloria Anzaldua's Borderlands/La Frontera as an intertext. That is, while “Woman Hollering Creek” is not Anzaldua's book rendered as allegory, Anzaldua's discussion of the borders of identity and of mestiza consciousness is relevant to the story. As Cleófilas crosses the border from Mexico to Texas and then back again to Mexico, her primary identity changes from daughter to wife and back again to daughter but the ending suggests that her return to daughter is a return with a difference.
More specifically, “Woman Hollering Creek” sets up Cleófilas's story against the backdrop of the telenovelas in Mexico, commercialized tales of romance and passion used to sell cosmetics and clothes. These telenovelas shape Cleófilas's ideas—and those of the other Mexican women in the story—about love, marriage, and consumerism. The grim reality of Cleófilas's story functions as an anti-telenovela, an exposure of their dangerous ideological messages about the value of suffering for love and their association of romance with certain clothes, cosmetics, and other fashions. In this way, Cisneros fights fictions of the mass media with her own, high cultural narrative.
“Woman Hollering Creek” is also a feminist coming to consciousness narrative. Graciela, Felice, La Gritona, and of course Cleófilas herself all contribute to Cleófilas's sudden recognition that there is a life for women beyond the roles of daughter and wife. While this recognition of course does not alter the material conditions of her life, it does alter her understanding of what is possible for women.
Finally, the story works with the myth of “La Llorona,” the maternal figure who is weeping for her lost children, and any analysis should address how Cisneros rewrites the myth.
RT: Not entirely. I acknowledge the analogies between the story and the larger cultural narratives, but I'm worried that assimilating it into them will erase its particularity, will turn it into an allegory. But let's keep going with our more specific concerns. What elements of the story would you like to focus on?
MC: Time, voice, the role of reading, the idea of borders. What elements are of most concern to you?
RT: Time and voice are of great interest to me, as is the progression as a whole. OK if I begin with the story's treatment of time?
When MC nods, RT reads:
The day Don Serafín gave Juan Pedro Martínez Sánchez permission to take his daughter Cleófilas Enriqueta DeLeón Hernández as his bride, across her father's threshold, over several miles of dirt road and several miles of paved, over one border and beyond to a town en el otro lado—on the other side—already did he divine the morning his daughter would raise her hand over her eyes, look south, and dream of returning to chores that never ended, six good-for-nothing brothers, and one old man's complaints.
He had said, after all, in the hubbub of parting: I am your father, I will never abandon you. He had said that, hadn't he, when he hugged and then let her go. But at the moment Cleófilas was busy looking for Chela, her maid of honor, to fulfill their bouquet conspiracy. She would not remember her father's words until later: I am your father, I will never abandon you.
Only now as a mother did she remember. Now, when she and Juan Pedrito sat by the creek's edge. How when a man and a woman love each other, sometimes that love sours. But a parent's love for a child, a child's for its parents, is another thing entirely.
This is what Cleófilas thought evenings when Juan Pedro did not come home, and she lay on her side of the bed listening to the hollow roar of the interstate, a distant dog barking, the pecan trees rustling like ladies in stiff petticoats—shh-shh-shh, shh-shh-shh—soothing her to sleep.
What arrests my attention here is the way this opening moves across four different temporal moments. Time 1 and Time 2: Cisneros begins with what appears to be a narrative summary of the thoughts of Cleófilas's father, apparently focalized through him: “The day Don Serafín gave Juan Pedro Martínez Sánchez permission to take his daughter Cleófilas Enriqueta DeLeón Hernández as his bride … already did he divine the morning his daughter would raise her hand over her eyes, look south, and dream of returning …” (43). In reading the first half of the sentence, we infer that the present time of the narrative is Cleófilas's wedding day, but, by the second half we need to revise the inference and re-establish narrative present as the morning Cleófilas would look to return home.
Time 3: As the narration continues, so do our revisions. First, we learn that Don Serafín's divination of the future is actually part of Cleófilas's memory—the focalization, in other words, is through Cleófilas. Furthermore, since the narrator twice uses the adverb “now,” we infer that narrative present is the moment of memory: “Only now as a mother did she remember. Now, when she and Juan Pedrito sat by the creek's edge. How when a man and a woman love each other sometimes that love sours. But a parent's love for a child, a child for a parent's is another thing entirely” (43).
Time 4: Yet this revision is not our last. As the narration continues, the focalization shifts from Cleófilas to the narrator, who offers a summary: “This is what Cleófilas thought evenings … when Juan Pedro did not come home, and she lay on her side of the bed, listening to the roar of the interstate, a distant dog barking, the pecan trees rustling like ladies in stiff petticoats—shh-shh-shh, shh-shh-shh—soothing her to sleep” (44 my italics). The shift in focalization is accompanied by another shift in the present time of the narrative: not when Cleófilas is by the creek but when she is in her bed. Furthermore, when we attend to evenings, we need to make further inferences. Cleófilas's memory of her father's promise is not a singular event occurring on a particular morning or during a particular outing to the creek but something that she experiences over and over again.
MC: Your analysis so far supports one general point about Cisneros's tactical deployment of time. Much of the story plays off traditional, culturally dominant notions of time and its representation in narrative. In the Western tradition, we assume that although narratives may explore the psychological experience of time, they will also at least imply some sense of “real time”—the time we measure with clocks and calendars, the time that moves forward in a straight line. My discussion of memory and story in The Practice of Everyday Life takes this conception of time for granted. “Woman Hollering Creek,” however, adopts the tactic of representing Cleófilas's psychological experience of time without providing any clear backdrop of linear time. It is impossible, for example, to determine just how long Cleófilas lives in Seguín and impossible to place each of the story's fourteen sections on a clear time line.
In adopting this tactic, Cisneros is implicitly claiming that the standard temporal strategies of narrative are not adequate for the story she has to tell. In order to do justice to Cleófilas's experience, time in this narrative needs to move in imperfect circles—or even to stand still. In representing time that way, Cisneros is able to show that, for Cleófilas, past and present intermingle and that any one moment is layered with other, usually similar, occasionally contrasting moments. Nothing like this would ever happen in a telenovela.
RT: OK. So far our discussions of time seem to complement each other pretty well. Adding other details of section one to its treatment of time, I see these effects:
(1) The shifts in the opening sentence lead us to place a significant emphasis on Cleófilas's wedding day and her father's promise. Indeed, as a result of that emphasis, we easily identify the main instability in the present time of the narrative—Cleófilas's unhappiness with her husband—and see it in a clear relation to her past.
(2) We also recognize her “dream of returning” as the alternative to her present situation in which her love has soured, even as that dream means returning to “chores that never ended, six good-for-nothing brothers, and one old man's complaints” (43).
(3) We recognize that both present and past highlight Cleófilas's subordinate position as woman: her father “gives permission” to another man to marry her—and more generally, prior to her marriage, she is surrounded by the men of the family; in the present she is mistreated by her husband who “does not come home” (44).
(4) Once we see that Cleófilas's memory of her father's promise is a recurring one, we also can infer that the present time of the narrative is considerably after her marriage has gone sour: it has been sufficiently long for the unpleasant prospect of returning home to become a “dream.” This passage of time also makes it unlikely that the dream will come true.
(5) More generally, after we experience the sequence of corrections to our hypotheses about the temporal perspective, we infer how Cleófilas experiences time. As you say, for her, time is layered so that any one moment is likely to contain past moments. Thus, for her, time involves repetition: what happens once may—indeed, very likely will—happen again.
(6) As a result of this whole set of inferences, we immediately sympathize with Cleófilas and desire some amelioration of her situation.
MC: I'd just add that the layering of time complicates the sense of space. Although Cleófilas has physically moved from Mexico to Texas, she hasn't been able to relocate herself psychologically. Borders are already getting blurred.
What do you see happening with time later in the story?
RT: In sections two through eleven, Cisneros continues to develop the nonlinear temporality, as she also deepens the gloomy portrait of Cleófilas's existence. More than once, she presents what initially appears to be a singular event and reveals it to be part of a repetitive pattern. Consider, for example, the last two sentences of section five, a section that begins as a description of the “first time” Juan Pedro beats Cleófilas: “She could think of nothing to say, said nothing. Just stroked the dark curls of the man who wept and would weep like a child, his tears of repentance and shame, this time and each” (48 my emphasis). This technique also suggests that Cleófilas experiences the event largely the same way every time. The effect is subtle but clear: our sense of Cleófilas's pain intensifies.
Another technique that Cisneros employs in sections two through eleven to convey the nonlinear sense of time is switching between the past tense and present tense for the narration of action in the present time of the story. As a result, we have difficulty determining whether the present time of the story ever advances past the point we reach at the end of section one. As you said before, it is not possible to locate precisely each of the first eleven sections on a clear time line. The effect is to make us feel lost inside the painful cycles of Cleófilas's life.
MC: You are providing useful specifics. What do you have to say about the last three sections?
RT: There Cisneros shifts from representing the cyclic time of seemingly endless repetition to representing the forward march of linear time. Section twelve represents Cleófilas's talking her husband into letting her go to the doctor; section thirteen presents Graciela's half of the phone conversation with Felice during that visit; and section fourteen narrates Cleófilas's ride with Felice that was arranged during that phone call. Cisneros's shift highlights the climactic nature of the final paragraph, Cleófilas's achievement of voice: “Then Felice began laughing again, but it wasn't Felice laughing. It was gurgling out of her own throat, a long ribbon of laughter, like water” (56). Cleófilas's life, it seems, has finally escaped the repetitive cycles in which present, past, and future are one indistinguishable, depressing whole.
Yet, this sense of climax is tempered by another variation, a sudden break in the chronological flow. Just before the climactic revelation, Cisneros moves the perspective into the future: “Can you imagine, when we crossed the arroyo, she started yelling like a crazy, she [Cleófilas] would later say to her father and brothers” (56 my emphasis). This break not only reveals the important information that Cleófilas does, in fact, arrive home but it also reminds us that Cleófilas's epiphany is only one moment not the beginning of a happily-ever-after life. After this moment, she still faces her life with “chores that never ended, six good-for-nothing brothers, and one old man's complaints” (43).
MC: Again, these specifics are fine. But what is the larger significance of this way of handling time? When Cisneros shifts the narrative back to a more common Western conception of time, she may at first seem to be moving back to a more standard narrative form. Forward movement of time is accompanied by forward progress of the heroine. Yet the treatment is more complicated than that. As you say, despite the moment of epiphany, Cleófilas ends where she began. In a sense, she's traveled in one large circle, both temporally and spatially. Again we should observe the contrast between “Woman Hollering Creek” and the telenovela where change is a constant. In this way also Cisneros writes an anti-telenovela.
RT: OK. Want to begin with voice?
MC: In “Woman Hollering Creek,” Cisneros invites us to thematize voice through her choice of title and through her frequent reliance upon the voices of characters to carry the story. There are several important voices besides that of the narrator: those of Cleófilas, her father, her husband, the men at the ice house, the women who watch the telenovelas. Trini the laundromat attendant, Graciela, and Felice. The ending makes it clear that Cisneros is as concerned with “the voice of the body” as with the voice of the intellect. But orality here is actually subordinated to writing, and nowhere more so than in the ending where Cleófilas's achievement of voice is not quoted but described: “It was gurgling out of her own throat, a long ribbon of laughter, like water.” Cisneros has carefully orchestrated the voices for her anti-telenovela, calling attention in the end to her own writerly function. She announces the story as high art.
RT: Well, perhaps. It won't surprise you to hear me say that I'd rather work up to such conclusions through more specific analyses. Here are some thoughts on the men's voices. Cisneros marks a significant difference between Cleófilas's father, on the one side, and her husband and the men at the ice house on the other. Her father speaks only once, but, as we've seen, he speaks with a voice of parental love that Cleófilas can later recall despite her failure to pay attention on her wedding day: “I am your father, I will never abandon you” (43).
Juan Pedro's voice is also not prominent in the story; indeed, his longest unmediated speech occurs about halfway through the story in a passage that moves from indirect to direct discourse. Like the voice of Cleófilas's father, the voice of Juan Pedro is heard within one of her meditations. The indirect discourse works to allow Cisneros both to represent the different qualities of the two voices and to show how Cleófilas has, if not internalized both voices, at least kept them playing inside her head. Cleófilas has to wonder why she loves her husband, the narrator tells us, when he “says 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 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 his belly and the roof over her head and would have to wake up again early the next day, so why can't you just leave me in peace, woman?” (49). We easily infer both the contrast between Juan Pedro's harsh, complaining voice and Don Serafín's loving one and Cisneros's privileging of the father's voice. While Cleófilas “has to … wonder a little” why she loves her husband, we recognize that he does not deserve her love.
Cisneros gives other evidence of the values associated with Juan Pedro's voice by associating him with the men at the ice house, whose voices are weakened by drink, whose words are often replaced by belches. Yet before the alcohol takes over, they are the leading gossips of the town: “the whispering begins at sunset at the ice house” (50). When Cisneros shows the direct speech of Maximiliano, she reveals a voice of crude misogyny: “What she needs is … and made a gesture as if to yank a woman's buttocks to his groin. … Maximiliano who was said to have killed his wife in an ice-house brawl when she came at him with a mop. I had to shoot, he had said—she was armed” (51). All the others laugh. Again, the inferences are clear: the physical abuse Cleófilas endures is part of a larger atmosphere of male hostility in which she lives. The effect is to make her situation seem more hopeless.
MC: Again, I'm struck by how compatible your specific analyses are with my approach. Perhaps we share more than we initially thought.
RT: Well, we're both interested in the connections between voice and ideology, and Cisneros certainly seems to be attuned to those connections as well. Let's keep going: what are your thoughts about Graciela's voice?
MC: Graciela is comfortable with both American English and Spanish; American idioms flow off her tongue, even as her voice combines pragmatism with compassion and with irony. Her casual remark to Felice that life in the clinic is “A regular soap opera sometimes” (55) contains an irony that runs deeper than she realizes because of the comparison the story makes between the telenovelas and “Woman Hollering Creek” itself. This point also reinforces my earlier observation that the apparent orality of Graciela's speech—indeed, of all the voices—is actually a product of Cisneros's writing. That writing gives us not a transcription of Chicana speech but a representation of it that serves Cisneros's anti-telenovela. What would you say about Felice?
RT: Like Graciela, Felice is comfortable in both American English and in Spanish, but her voice represents qualities in a woman's speech Cleófilas has never before heard: freedom, unconventionality, joie de vivre, strength. Felice's hollering as she crosses the creek is the clearest expression of these qualities, but her dialogue confirms the point:
Did you ever notice … how nothing around here is named after a woman. Unless she's the Virgin. I guess you're only famous if you're a virgin. …
That's why I like the name of that arroyo. Makes you want to holler like Tarzan, right?
And a little later: “I used to have a Pontiac Sunbird. But those cars are for viejas. Pussy cars. Now this here is a real car.” (55).
Cleófilas initially does not know what to make of Felice. “What kind of talk was that coming from a woman?,” she wonders. Cisneros invites us to infer that it's the talk of a Chicana lesbian (more butch than femme?), perhaps the partner of Graciela, perhaps not, but certainly a woman who is comfortable with her identity. That Cleófilas responds so positively to her and her hollering is, thus, all the more telling.
MC: OK, fine. What about Cleófilas's voice, especially since she so rarely speaks directly?
RT: Yes, although much of the narration is focalized through Cleófilas, her direct speech doesn't appear until after Cleófilas persuades Juan Pedro that she needs to see the doctor. The scene itself starts with indirect discourse, but once Cleófilas's succeeds in persuading her husband, Cisneros gives us her voice: “Yes. Next Tuesday at five-thirty. I'll have Juan Pedrito dressed and ready. But those are the only shoes he has. I'll polish them, and we'll be ready. As soon as you come from work. We won't make you ashamed” (53). Although Cleófilas remains subordinate to her husband, her voice here assumes a greater equality than we have seen before: she is taking charge of the visit and reassuring him. This development with Cleofilas's voice here fits with a larger shift in the progression, which I'd now like to discuss.
MC: Tell me what you mean by progression.
RT: It's a term I use to talk about the way in which a story generates its movement from beginning to end—both the details of that movement and the larger principles and purposes governing those details. Progressions can involve both story and discourse, both the what and the how of narrative. At the level of story, narratives typically introduce, complicate, and resolve (to one degree or another) instabilities between and among characters; at the level of discourse, narratives sometimes introduce tensions between narrators and the authorial audience, through such things as the unreliability of the narrator or a marked discrepancy between the narrator's knowledge and the audience's. By talking about instabilities, tensions, and audiences, I am trying to capture the sense in which progression exists both in the narrative text and in the reader's experience of it. Progression, in other words, is a term designed to capture the dynamics of narrative—the textual logic of movement from beginning to end and the experience of following that logic as we read from page the first to page the last. Although instabilities and tensions are the engine driving any progression, other elements of narrative can contribute to narrative dynamics through their role in affecting the audience's understanding of and response to the main sequence of instabilities and tensions. For this reason, some of the conclusions we have already reached about “Woman Hollering Creek” in our discussion of time and voice will be relevant to the analysis of progression.
MC: Can you illustrate how some of our earlier discussion fits with an analysis of the progression?
RT: Sure. Cisneros's use of nonlinear time is part and parcel of her giving us a lyric rather than a narrative progression. That is, after introducing the central instability, Cleófilas's unhappy marriage, and the possible, though imperfect, resolution, her return home, Cisneros neither complicates nor begins to resolve this instability until section twelve. Instead, between sections two and eleven, the instability doesn't change but its texture and depth are gradually revealed. Furthermore, the lyric structure invites us to do what we do in lyric poetry: rather than staying outside the representation and judging, we imaginatively participate in the character's situation. Given Cisneros's interest in showing us Cleófilas trapped in Seguín, her handling of time is especially appropriate. Her frequent use of the iterative and her scrambling of the chronological relations between scenes very effectively convey the sense of painful repetition in Cleófilas's life.
But let me ask you here about the telenovelas. In your book, you argue that we ought not to assume that people such as Cleófilas will be uncritical readers; on the contrary, you suggest, their reading against the grain of dominant ideology can be a very effective tactic. Wouldn't you want to take Cisneros to task for condescending to her characters in her representation of Cleófilas and the other women of her hometown as so deeply taken in by the fantasies of the telenovelas?
MC: Perhaps you are asking, who is to be master, my theory or Cisneros's story? I would not want to answer your question with reference only to Cisneros's representation of the women's responses to the telenovelas. The whole story matters, and since it shows Cleófilas's dawning awareness of the gap between those telenovelas and her actual life, I do not find Cisneros condescending to her; instead, I see Cisneros as starting with Cleófilas as a woman who has internalized the messages of the telenovelas. But tell me more about the progression.
RT: In these first eleven sections, Cisneros introduces and complicates the narrative's main tension: what is the meaning behind the name of the creek? In section four, we learn that Cleófilas wants to know that meaning, but “no one could say whether the woman hollered from anger or pain” and, indeed, “Woman Hollering” was “a name no one from these parts questioned, little less understood” (46). At the end of section four, we learn that upon first hearing the name, Cleófilas “had laughed” because she thought it “such a funny name for a creek so pretty and full of happily ever after” (47). In section nine, we see that Cleófilas, now a mother, no longer thinks that the creek's name is funny or that its sound is full of happily ever after. Instead, she wonders whether the creek, with “its high, silver voice,” is “La Llorona, the weeping woman. La Llorona, who drowned her own children” (51). She becomes “sure” that La Llorona is calling to her. The link between “La Gritona,” “La Llorona,” and Cleófilas's situation suggests that Cleófilas is right to be sure, and so, this tension appears to be resolved.
MC: But the ending changes our view, as Felice shows Cleófilas another possible meaning for the name of “La Gritona.” Is Cisneros setting a trap for the reader? Is there some tactic there to teach us about presuming too much?
RT: If you want to call it that, OK. My preference would be to see the apparent resolution as something following naturally from the technique of leaving so much to the reader's inference. And the effect of the apparent resolution is to deepen our sense of Cleófilas's sorrow and grief. It works very well.
The second striking feature of the progression within the first eleven sections is that Cisneros gives us two pairs of sections that are each repetitions with a difference. Section nine is a variation of section one, as Cisneros gives us Cleófilas's thoughts as she plays with her child beside the creek; section eleven is a variation of section five, as Cisneros recounts Juan Pedro's abuse of Cleófilas. In section one, we acquire only a general knowledge of Cleófilas's situation; by section nine, with its apparent resolution of the tension, we know all that is entailed by her thoughts of how her love has “soured.” Indeed, by section nine, most of the lyric revelation is complete; all that is needed is the fuller revelation of the circle of male hostility that Cisneros provides in the description of Maximiliano at the ice house in section ten. Section eleven, the other scene of repetition, represents Juan Pedro hitting Cleófilas with a book, but it does not explicitly contain any significantly new revelations about Cleófilas's situation.
MC: Is section eleven unnecessary then? Indeed, it may be a gratuitous representation of male violence and oppression.
RT: If section eleven were only reminding us that Cleófilas is a battered wife, then I'd answer in the affirmative. But it's doing more than that. The book Juan Pedro throws at Cleófilas is a love story by Corín Tellado that she is reading as a substitute for the telenovelas, since she has no television. The incident becomes the occasion for Cleófilas to think about the difference between the romantic love stories of the telenovelas and her own life: “Cleófilas thought her life would have to be like that, like a telenovela, only now the episodes got sadder and sadder. And there were no commercials in between for comic relief. And no happy ending in sight. … Everything happened to women with names like jewels. But what happened to a Cleófilas? Nothing. But a crack in the face” (52-53).
MC: Right, and the scene shows that Cisneros does not condescend to Cleófilas as a reader of the narratives of dominant culture. Of course Cleófilas does not do a tactical reading of Corin Tellado but she does finally perceive and acknowledge the gap between the commercialized romances and the realities of her life.
RT: And that admission has important consequences. When we read in section twelve that Cleófilas is persuading Juan Pedro to take her to the doctor, when we hear her speaking voice for the first time, and when that voice assumes an equality with her husband's, we infer that Cleófilas's thinking has reached a new stage. She has stopped waiting for things to happen to her, and she has now begun to take some responsibility for her own unromantically painful life. “Why is she so anxious?” to see the doctor, Juan Pedro wants to know. “Because she is going to make sure the baby is not turned around backward this time to split her down the center” (53). It is this same desire to take responsibility for her life that allows her to go along with Graciela's plan and that gives her the courage to stand by the Cash N Carry and wait for Felice, despite her fear that she will be discovered by Juan Pedro.
MC: Or in my terms, between sections eleven and twelve Cleófilas achieves the realization that she can and must find some room for maneuver in her oppressive situation. In short, she realizes that she can become a tactician.
RT: OK, but I worry that you want to allegorize again. However we describe the change, this understanding about Cleófilas's new attitude helps account for the details of the ending. “Then Felice began laughing again, but it wasn't Felice laughing. It was gurgling out of her own throat, a long ribbon of laughter, like water” (56). Although this laughter surprises both Cleófilas and us, Cisneros has also made it an appropriate surprise, one that makes sense given Cleófilas's own small steps toward independence.
I also see another reason why Cisneros represents the final event through the narrator rather than through a direct rendering of Cleófilas's voice. In section five, Cisneros has emphasized the connection between voice, the body, and oppression. Overpowered not only physically but also emotionally and psychologically by the violence to her body, Cleófilas can neither act nor speak:
She had always said she would strike back if a man, any man, were to strike her.
But 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, didn't break into tears, she didn't run away as she imagined she might when she saw such things in the telenovelas. …
She could think of nothing to say, said nothing.
The final sentences of the story invert the situation of section five, as Cleófilas's body responds almost involuntarily to the psychological and emotional release she feels in exchanging the presence of her husband (and the larger circle of male hostility) for the company of Felice and the new possibility for female responsibility—and perhaps female sexuality—she represents in Cleófilas's eyes. This involuntary quality of the response is beautifully captured in the narrator's sentences, even as the onomatopoeic “gurgling” and the metaphorical “long ribbon of laughter” convey something of the sound of Cleófilas's voice.
MC: Very fine. We need, though, to come back to something I mentioned earlier: the story's relation to the myth of “La Llorona.” Despite the points you've made about the way Cisneros handles the tension about the name of the creek, we have not addressed this dimension of the story sufficiently.
RT: OK. What do you have in mind?
MC: Let's think about “Woman Hollering Creek” itself as a practice of everyday life. Besides offering a counter to the telenovelas, what does Cisneros want to do with it? Her working with “La Gritona” and “La Llorona” indicate that she wants to re-write or at least to add to the narrative surrounding the figure of “La Llorona.” There is a long tradition in Chicano storytelling of the mythical figures being reinterpreted to fit new cultural situations. The myth of “La Malinche,” the Aztec woman who became the interpreter for and sexual partner of Hernando Cortéz, is perhaps the most notable example. Originally thought to be a traitor to her people, La Malinche has been reinterpreted as a figure of resistance, one who managed to maintain her identity as an Aztec and used her influence to preserve the lives of many native Americans. In one version of the story, she drowned a son rather than have Cortéz take him back to Spain. In this version, she and “La Llorona” get conflated, as La Malinche weeps continually about what she has done to her son (see the account in Novas's Everything You Need to Know about Latino History, 60-62). When Cisneros introduces the question of whether “La Gritona” is weeping from pain or rage, the myths of both La Malinche and La Llorona become relevant to the story.
RT: How, then, does the ending fit into this cultural analysis?
MC: The ending shows Cisneros doing her most significant re-writing of the myths. “La Malinche” and “La Llorona” need not be hollering only from pain or from rage. There are other, more appealing possibilities: women can holler like Tarzan, they can give a hoot as Felice does, they can yell “as loud as any mariachi band” (55), they can laugh in a way that their voices sound just “like water,” just like the high, silvery voice of the creek itself.
Thus, in crossing the physical border marked by the creek, Cleófilas also crosses a psychic border and Cisneros crosses a mythic border, adding the stories of “La Felice” and “La Cleófilas” to the narratives surrounding “La Malinche” and “La Llorona.” If “Woman Hollering Creek” becomes as widely known a work as you and I think it deserves to be, then its stories about “women hollering” are likely to acquire the status of new manifestations of the myth.
In any event, I'd underline the point that in crossing the psychic border, Cleófilas has learned about the importance of becoming a tactician. She has not only managed to find some room for maneuver in her situation but also experienced something she never expected through her efforts to negotiate within the narrow limits available to her.
RT: OK, but let me bring your ideas back to the specifics of the progression in the last section, to the way in which Cisneros's narrative technique is working. By ending with the unusual move of reintroducing and quickly resolving the tension about “La Gritona,” Cisneros signals that the narrative's ultimate concern is less with Cleófilas's external situation—which side of the border she is on, whether she is with her husband or her father or somewhere else—than with her own sense of herself, her life, and its possibilities. The joining of her voice with Felice's and with the creek's, made possible in part by her own decision to take some responsibility for her life, signals something more significant than her returning to her father. It also holds out a possibility for further development and growth along the line that she has now begun to travel. The break in the temporal flow does temper the mood of the ending, but such an effect is desirable. As you've been saying, Cisneros is not offering us a telenovela plot but something much more realistic: one moment of laughter will not change the material conditions of Cleófilas's life. At the same time, the flash forward to Cleófilas's telling is also a hopeful sign, one that shows her using her voice among her father and brothers to recall the extraordinary woman.
If you don't have any objections to those ideas, we can return to our initial concerns about each other's limits—my alleged narrowness, your alleged tendency to flatten things out.
MC: What you did with time and with voice convinced me that you don't have to be narrow. But I remain concerned that you always turn in to the technique and, in that sense, away from the bigger cultural issues.
RT: And what you did with time and with voice convinced me that you don't have to flatten things out. Nevertheless, I continue to fret that your desire to do cultural analysis may lead you to do that flattening. But perhaps it is fair to say that neither of us could do what the other does, that neither of us wants to do what the other does, yet each recognizes that the other has significantly improved his understanding of “Woman Hollering Creek”?
MC: I'll accept that.
RT: Should we move on to debate each other's distinctions: strategy and tactics; instabilities and tensions?
MC: If I may borrow from the canonical tradition—“hold, enough!”
Anzaldua, Gloria. Borderlands/La Frontera. San Francisco: Aunt Lute Press, 1987.
Cisneros, Sandra. Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories. New York: Random House, 1991.
de Certeau, Michel. The Practice of Everyday Life. Translated by Steven Rendall. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1984.
Humm, Maggie. Border Traffic. Manchester: Manchester Univ. Press, 1991.
Novas, Himilce. Everything You Need to Know about Latino History. New York: Penguin Books, 1994.
Phelan, James. Narrative as Rhetoric. Columbus: Ohio State Univ. Press, 1996.
———. Reading People, Reading Plots. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1989.
Ricouer, Paul. Time and Narrative. Vols. I-III. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1980s.
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 10590
SOURCE: Guerra, Veronica A. “The Silence of the Obejas: Evolution of Voice in Alma Villanueva's ‘Mother, May I’ and Sandra Cisneros's ‘Woman Hollering Creek’.” In Living Chicana Theory, edited by Carla Trujillo, pp. 320-51. Berkeley: Third Woman Press, 1998.
[In the following essay, Guerra traces the evolution of voice in Chicana literature through an analysis of “Woman Hollering Creek” and Alma Villanueva's poem “Mother, May I.”]
Silenciosa: adj. quiet: person, house, object: noiseless.
Silenciar: v. to muffle, hush up, to cast into oblivion.
So defines and translates the dictionary La Petit Larousse (García, Pelayo y Gross, et al., eds. 1980) the difference between the verb and adjective forms of this word. A derivative of this, “Silenciada” (silenced) forms the past participle form of the verb and can be used both as a participial adjective and as the passive form of the verb in what Noam Chomsky calls the Active/Passive Transformation.
Usually, both English and Spanish speakers use the word “silenciosa” (silent) as well as “silenciada” (silenced) to refer to women and children, as in “The children were silenced” or “The girl was silenced.” While the word “silencioso” (silent) is often applied to men, as in “the strong silent type,” seldom do we hear the word “silenciado” (silenced) applied to men except as a pejorative.
Is it mere coincidence, then, that the adjective form more often than the passive participle form is usually applied to men, whereas the passive form is more often than not applied to women and children? The passive form “silenciada” can often be applied to women and children with no pejorative connotation. However, when one speaks of a “silenced” male, he, in a sense, becomes more effeminate. Yet, when one speaks of the “quiet, silent, strong male,” images of virility and potency are elicited.
These connotations take on even more powerful undertones when one sees them used in the context of literature, especially in the description of men and women characters in fiction as well as poetry. Whether men and women are portrayed as “silent” or “silenced” bears deep implications for the creation of character, point of view, poetic tone, and the concept of voice both as theme and technique in literature. Since much of contemporary Chicana fiction and poetry exploits the concepts of voice and silence both as theme and literary technique, it would be well to explore this gender paradox of “silenciosa/o” and “silenciada/o.” Such an exploration might shed light on how contemporary Chicana literature explodes the myth of the stereotypically “strong silent macho” and the “silent and/or silenced passive female.”
In this essay, explorations of the use of the silence/silenced paradox in Alma Villanueva's poem “Mother, May I” and Sandra Cisneros's story “Woman Hollering Creek” will serve to illustrate the evolution of voice in Chicana literature. First, both works indicate that both authors skillfully employ the concepts of voice and silence (with its ramifications of being silenced) to strengthen narrative point of view and poetic tone and thereby create realistic characters. Second, both literary selections illustrate the theme of voice, especially in the character development of the protagonist.
THE PARADOXICAL THEME OF VOICE AND SILENCE
The theme of voice or the development of voice from a state of virtual silence and non-entity to a state of recognition, self-worth, and identity currently is a topic that interests both literary writers as well as psychologists. A political element that has furthered interest in this psychological construct, of course, has been the development of the women's movement and consciousness raising of women as oppressed minorities. Such an event has indeed been a fortuitous one. Not only has it served to focus on gender inequality, but it has served to fuse a collaboration between the fields of psychology and literature in an effort to create literary characters that are more realistic and that mirror the social dilemma of contemporary women. Whether intentionally or by mere coincidence, both fields now focus interest on this construct, and one even aids the other in either artistic creation and interpretation or in scientific exploration. It is not unknown for psychologists to receive inspiration from fictional characters, and at the same time it is not uncustomary for literary critics to apply the discoveries and theories of psychology to literary analysis and interpretation. Hence, in this essay, reference to a psychological study of women's cognitive styles, Women's Ways of Knowing, by Mary Belensky and her team of psychologists (1986) will frame the interpretation of the theme of these two literary pieces by Alma Villanueva and Sandra Cisneros as well guide the analysis of their technique of narrative point of view, poetic tone, and poetic voice.
A PARADIGM FOR THE THEME OF VOICE AND SILENCE
The text Women's Ways of Knowing by Mary Belensky et al. (1986) resulted from a large cross-sectional study of women from socially and ethnically diverse backgrounds in the United States. Belensky and her associates interviewed hundreds of women in an effort to discover the epistemology and learning style of women. Their study, a pioneer in the field of learning theory and feminine learning styles had many implications for pedagogy and teaching and was one of the more influential pieces in helping to create gender equity in the classroom. Crucial to this exploration, as well as a side benefit of it, was Belensky's discovery of the importance of both inner and outer voice in the development of female cognition.
According to Belensky and her associates, the acquisition of voice evolves in five stages: (1) the initial stage of “the silent woman,” (2) the stage of “listening and received knowledge,” (3) the stage of inner voice and subjective knowledge, (4) the stage of rational voice and procedural knowledge, and finally (5) the stage of connected knowledge or integrated voices (Belensky et al. l986, 134). Belensky claims that though these stages are hierarchical, they are not exactly linear or sequential and there can exist overlap as there exists overlap in the studies of moral development that were done by Kohlberg back in the 1970s. She does say that the stage of received knowledge correlates sharply with and prepares the learner for the stage of procedural or rational knowledge. The stage of subjective knowing and reliance on intuition, however, is a prerequisite for and coincides with the final stage of integrated voices and knowledge. Whereas the silent listening, and procedural or rational stages appear to correlate more with male cognitive style and a reliance on male linear thinking, subjective knowledge, intuition (inner voice), and integrated voice or knowledge appear to correlate more with a female or androgynous cognitive style. At this final stage, there is simultaneous reliance on both intuition and reason, on both analysis and synthesis, on both right brain and left brain, resulting eventually in what is called constructed knowledge.
THE SILENT/SILENCED WOMAN DICHOTOMY
An exploration of Belensky et al.'s (1986) analysis of the first three stages (the silent stage, the listening stage, and the inner voice stage) proves very enlightening when used as a means to explore theme and character interpretation as well as in analysis of literary technique in modern feminist literature. Especially is this application appropriate for Alma Villanueva's “Mother, May I” and Sandra Cisneros's “Woman Hollering Creek,” because both encapsulate within their concentrated narratives the entire evolution of voice in oppressed minority women from the initial stages of silence and being silenced to the intermediate, but climactic stage of subjective knowledge and inner voice. Both works demonstrate movement towards a moment of epiphany, when the main character (Cleofilas in “Woman Hollering Creek”) and the Poetic Persona (the “I” in “Mother, May I”) experience that moment of enlightenment, epiphany, or manifestation and move on to the acquisition of voice.
Like the characters in both Cisneros's and Villanueva's selections, the women sampled in Mary Belensky's study also appear as “silenced” women with little awareness of their “intellectual capabilities.” The silent women, Belensky claims, “live—selfless and voiceless—at the behest of those around them. These women are passive, subdued, and subordinate.” (Belensky et al. l986, 30)
Belensky delineates two stages of silence: the completely silent stage and the listening stage or the stage of received knowledge. At both the silent and listening stage, the silent woman sees life in terms of polarities: good or evil, black or white, right or wrong. There is, however, an important difference: whereas the silent or silenced woman moves in a world totally isolated and incommunicative, the listening woman turns to and worships others in authority, especially those who rule the patriarchal system. The isolated silent woman sees herself as “deaf and dumb” (Belensky et al. 1986, 30). She feels passive, reactive, and dependent, at times, even on the very source of oppression. The listening woman, nevertheless, goes beyond isolation, engages in communication and identifies with the oppressor or those in authority or institutions. She seeks even to imitate them and learn from them as experts and sources of knowledge and authority. This step, though interrupted later by the stage of inner voice and subjective knowledge, is the first step in women's programming into a male patriarchy with male values and a male, more linear rational mode of thinking.
During the initial stage, however, an important distinction exists between the silent woman and the silenced woman. The silenced woman, as the passive participle form of the adjective indicates, connotes a woman totally subjugated by male power. The silent woman, as the descriptive adjective suggests, connotes a woman that may or may not be silenced internally. Many states of consciousness exist that can explain what appears externally as a woman silent by choice. Usually, many of these altered conscious states are the result of brainwashing and stereotyping and represent the internalization of a very male-oriented consumerism that mesmerizes women through advertising into accepting these degrading images. For example, one stereotype could be the mysterious sexual silence of the “femme fatale.” Or it could be the silence of naiveté, the “dumb blond” stereotype content with “pleasing her man.” On the other hand, the silence could be a ploy to “tune out” the world, to escape the drudgery of male patriarchy or to maintain power. If this is the case, then the silence represents a much more advanced stage of “inner voice,” wherein the woman has learned to tune out male programming and listen to her intuition. Whatever the reason, the big difference between being silent and being silenced is the idea of agency and passivity. The woman silent by choice connotes more agency. The silent woman, brainwashed by the “femme fatale,” or “dumb blond” stereotype, however, connotes painless passivity. The silenced woman, aware of her passivity, however, is in a state of very painfully aware submission. This is the woman that appears as the protagonist in both Alma Villanueva's poem and Sandra Cisneros's short story. It is only when the protagonist is in this intermediate stage of painful awareness of being silenced that she can grow from the stage of complete silence to the stage of inner voice and received knowledge. Similarly, in Chicana literature, Norma Alarcón (1988) claims that it is when the protagonist has reached this stage, when they “become women who are brave enough to face their own subjectivity” (150), that they are thrown into a crisis of meaning that enables them to make the break from being silenced and being engendered only as women to accepting their own voice.
THE SILENT/SILENCED STAGE IN VILLANUEVA'S “MOTHER, MAY I”
The curious interplay between the silent woman and the silenced woman shows itself dramatically in what Marta Ester Sánchez refers to as the “Birthing of the Poetic ‘I’ in Alma Villanueva's ‘Mother, May I’” (Sánchez 1985, 24). In this autobiographical poem, the silence and the silencing are more symbolic and multidimensional in meaning than literal. The concept of voice applies not only to the development of the poetic persona's voice but to voice as poetic technique. The thematic oppositions characterizing the relationships among the three central identities of the protagonist in this poem generate, according to Sánchez, different kinds of poetic modes or poetic voices:
I use the term “mode” to identify and describe the different strategies of address used by Chicana poets to communicate with their audiences. These strategies fall into two main categories: narrative, discursive modes and lyrical, imagistic modes. These modes are not mutually exclusive. In some poems they interact and interrelate with each other.
In “Mother, May I,” Villanueva's most interesting and dynamic work, the poet relates the private and intimate details of her life. By doing so she suggests that her own private world is as meaningful and as important as any public one. Villanueva's personal confession, inspired by Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, reveals her use of variants of the two main modes mentioned earlier: a documentary, narrative mode and a mythic cosmic mode.
(Sánchez 1985, 10)
In my analysis of Villanueva, I discovered that both these modes correlate highly with the theme of the silent/silenced woman in juxtaposition to the theme of voice. Villanueva relies on the first mode, the documentary/narrative mode, to express the protagonist's social, concrete reality. In doing so, she focuses on the heroine as the silenced woman, subjugated and oppressed by a dominant white Anglo-Saxon patriarchy. In these scenes, the poetic “I” is passive, acquiescent, and at the mercy of external forces. But then, Villanueva also relies on the poetic, more lyrical and imagistic mode. This she does to express the poetic persona's universal vision of liberation and acquisition of the poetic voice, as well as to describe the altered states of consciousness of the interior silent world of the protagonist, a world of magical realism and poetic images that is her escape from the cruel reality of her social and concrete life. In sum, Alma Villanueva juxtaposes, rather than integrates, the poetic voice and the narrative voice. The poet's narrative style and poetic style fluctuate to show the difference between the moments of silent reverie and the traumas of being silenced. Through this alternating style, the protagonist moves in her journey of initiation into that moment of epiphany when she acquires her intuitive voice and enters the realm of subjective knowledge that Mary Belensky points out in her study.
SUMMARY OF THE POEM
Divided into three parts and spanning about forty pages, “Mother, May I” recounts the joys and innocence of childhood as the protagonist grows up in a San Francisco working-class neighborhood with a Mexican grandmother and aunt who speak primarily Spanish. Because of the mother's absence (she returns only once or twice), the girl grows up attached to her grandmother, a wise old crone, her mentor and educator. At the age of six or seven the child is traumatized through a rape experience, but tells no one about it. Shortly after that, the mother reappears and has the child committed to an orphanage and the grandmother to a retirement home. Eventually the girl goes to a foster home, and the first part ends in another climactic trauma with the death of the grandmother, when the girl secretly and symbolically drops a red rose into the grave at the funeral.
Part II begins when the young protagonist, now an adolescent, escapes from her foster home, goes and lives with her aunt, and gets herself pregnant with a boy whom she dearly loves. Unfortunately, her dreams of marriage and living “happily ever after” are dashed when the boy's family do not allow them to marry, and she is forced to have the child alone. After a few years, though, a reunion with her childhood sweetheart and father of her child does result in marriage. His service in Vietnam, however, cuts short her happiness, and the husband, returning with many traumas, brutalizes her, and he is in turn “locked away.” As part II ends, the poetic persona is looking for her grandmother's gravesite. Upon finding it, she experiences a climactic epiphany in which she begins to find her identity as a person and poet.
To illustrate the heroine's transformation, part III breaks the narrative mode of the poetic voice and shifts to a more metaphoric and imagistic lyrical point of view to represent her shift from a voiceless silent and inarticulate woman to a highly articulate poet who has found her inner voice.
ANALYSIS OF THE THEME OF VOICE AND SILENCE
Villanueva accomplishes the task of communicating the bulk of the theme of silence and voice in this poem through the motif and imagery of what Sánchez (1985) calls the action of “taking in and holding in” versus the action of “giving out,” “expressing” or “expelling.” (42). The metaphor of holding in and repressing are negative in connotation and suggest being silenced by others. The metaphor of taking in, on the contrary, implies ingestion either of food, ideas, or images through listening or silent meditation and is positive (Sánchez l985).
Conversely, the action of expelling, like expelling excrement or repressed feelings, has negative connotations, since it implies a previous silencing, gagging, or repressing, whereas the action of expressing, like voicing opinion or expressing self, is positive (Sánchez 1985).
For example, the physical act of ingesting food is seen as pleasurable when the poet, as an infant, notwithstanding the opinion of her elders, ingests her “little rubber doll” because she hopes it will produce a “baby in her poop.” Being at the oral and anal Freudian stages, the infant girl is spontaneous and has not yet been socialized into “holding in” her bodily impulses. This physical act of ingesting, pleasurable to her, is at odds with society, and though this socialization forms the infant girl's sense of the appropriate use of voice and silence, “From the poem's onset,” claims Sánchez (1985, 44), “the child's creative impulses are in conflict with society's rules. The child expresses her anal and oral impulses but quickly learns to control them” (1985, 44) in the same way that later she is socialized to keep quiet through the silencing efforts of a patriarchal order that defines women's roles as inferior.
Whereas the first experience of holding in, repressing, and silencing occurs in a home where two Mexican women were in turn dominated by machismo, the second experience, notes Sánchez (1985), is related to the experience of male-female sexuality and, traumatically, occurs in the very public setting of the external, social world. The specific incident is the protagonist's rape by an adult male, an aberration from the reproductive sexual act in which the woman takes in—eats, so to speak—the male sperm and releases or creates a baby. Hence a potentially positive and creative experience turns negative as the rapist forces the girl to put his penis into her mouth. The positive action of swallowing in the first example and likewise, figuratively speaking, the positive act of ingesting ideas acquired by listening, is replaced in this second instance by the negative action of gagging, and by the same token, repressing feelings spiritually and subconsciously. The gagging also serves a metaphorical function: It represents the repression of the girl's power of speech to tell about her experience. In the first example, the child expresses her biological functions physically and verbally and quickly learns she is not supposed to express them. In the rape scene, she is forced to experience the rape and is then also intimidated into repressing it (Sánchez 1985).
This theme of the silent voiceless victim who is afraid to denounce her attacker is also reiterated in Cisneros's story, “Red Clowns,” as it is in “Mother, May I.” Esperanza's experience of rape in “Red Clowns” serves, as Herrera-Sobek (1988) says, not only “as a political signifier of women's inferior status,” but also as a painful epiphany, a sobering up or awakening of her situation. Like Esperanza's, the protagonist's response in Villanueva's poem is to block out the rape and to become silent and withdrawn, a reaction common to victims of sexual assault. Both personas (in “Red Clowns” and “Mother, May I”) “become silent entities dominated by ingrained patriarchal vectors where the name of the Father is law, and years of socialization to obey the Father's law transforms the female subject into a willing accomplice in her own rape” (Herrera-Sobek l988, 173).
THE SILENT/SILENCED STAGE IN CISNEROS'S “WOMAN HOLLERING CREEK”
The tense interplay between silence and being silenced also forms the backdrop for Sandra Cisneros's “Woman Hollering Creek.” Cisneros skillfully manipulates time, place, and narrative point of view within the context of a short story with virtually no dialogue and pure narration. Through a stream of consciousness, third-person, limited-omniscience narrative, the reader catches glimpses and impressionistic views in a disjointed time sequence of flashbacks of Cleofilas's rocky marriage and abusive husband.
SUMMARY OF “WOMAN HOLLERING CREEK”
The story begins in the context of a wedding day reverie, when Cleofilas remembers her father saying, “I am your father, I will never abandon you.” It then flashes forward to the present, where she is sitting by the creek's edge with her little boy, Juan Pedrito, recalling “how when a man and a woman love each other, sometimes that love sours.” This flashback foreshadows an impending doom that the reader fears will eventually occur: Cleofilas's disintegration of her “dream” marriage and her eventual return to her father's home. She then, unexpectedly, flashes back again to her girlhood, a time before the marriage when what she “had been waiting for, has been whispering and sighing and giggling for, has been anticipating since she was old enough to lean against the window displays of gauze and butterflies and lace, is passion … the kind the books and songs and telenovelas describe when one finds the great love of one's life.” (Cisneros 1991, 43).
Her silent reverie then takes her to the time right before and after the wedding, in Seguín, Texas. Cleofilas's reverie then flashes to another short recollection of La Gritona, the creek that runs behind the house, and then recalls musing on the strangeness of the name and asking her two neighbors, Dolores and Soledad, about the origin of the name. This scene ends with Cleofilas's tender remembrance of herself crossing the bridge over La Gritona as a newlywed with Juan Pedro, “full of happily ever after,” which is abruptly interrupted by a painful remembrance of the first time he struck her.
From there, four more short, painful flashbacks follow, pointing to the inevitable truth: her own spousal abuse by Juan Pedro and the deteriorating state of her marriage. The flashback and reveries she recalls when sitting by the creek abruptly end, and the scene is now back to a later present where she, pregnant with his second child, is begging Juan Pedro for money and permission to see the doctor. From then on, the movement from moments of silent escape into fantasy to moments of being brutally silenced gain speed, until the moment of transformation at the end, when, while crossing the bridge, she erupts for the first time into laughter.
ANALYSIS OF VOICE AND SILENCE IN “WOMAN HOLLERING CREEK”
It is through this stream of consciousness narrative mode that the reader becomes intimately familiar with the “inner voice” of the protagonist, Cleofilas. Several symbols, images, and events throughout the flashbacks serve to expose Cleofilas's inner voice. Her ruminations reveal her as the silenced, long-suffering woman who never speaks her mind except in her reveries. From the outset, she is disposed to rearranging her life around her husband's, and even the details of her wedding day are all arranged for her:
And yes, they will drive all the way to Laredo to get her wedding dress. That's what they say. Because Juan Pedro wants to get married right away, without a long engagement since he can't take off too much time from work.
(Cisneros 1991, 45)
As in many other short narrative selections by Chicanas, Cleofilas here is typical of what Norma Alarcón says characterizes the “female speaking subject many Chicana writers employ” (Alarcón 1988, 148). Cleofilas, through Cisneros's skillful exploration of Cleofilas's subjectivity, embodies the woman who has to abide by the “symbolic social contract” that says women “may have a voice on the condition that they speak only as wives and mothers” (1988, 148). Hence, Cleofilas, according to this “social contract,” does not question the union, especially if it is approved by her parents. This is revealed in Cleofilas's naiveté about her husband's occupation and her fantasy about what she has been socialized to believe about marriage:
He [Juan Pedro] has a very important position in Seguín, with, with … a beer company, I think, Or was it tires? Yes, he has to be back. So they will get married in the spring when he can take off work, and then they will drive off in his new pickup—did you see it?—to their new home in Seguín. Well, not exactly new, but they're going to paint the house. You know newlyweds. New paint and new furniture. Why not? He can afford it. And later on add maybe a room or two for the children. May they be blessed with many.
(Cisneros 1991, 45)
The narrative point of view of this interior dialogue is ambiguous. For one, it reveals Cleofilas's thoughts, her fantasies, but also behind that, the reader can sense the tone of her family's and neighbor's voices, especially in the lines “May they be blessed with many.” Thus, Cleofilas's inner voice is not just hers but the voice of her society's expectations about marriage, which she has internalized in the process of being socialized by the patriarchal microcosm of her family.
Cleofilas's interior dialogue further serves to accentuate the tension between the fantasy, especially symbolized by the telenovelas, and the reality of her life. The fantasy is the lie the patriarchal world has “fed” her about married life. She constantly returns after episodes of abuse to this fantasy world of her inner voice. But yet even her inner voice, which weaves stories of romantic heroines such as “Topazio” or “Cristal” to assuage the pain of her abuse and neglect, is a voice that she has internalized from what the society, the commercial world of telenovelas, and the materialistic world of patriarchal values have fed her. The voices from the past heard in the flashbacks remind Cleofilas that women speak only as wives and mothers, and that if they are very good, someday “their prince will come,” as he does in the telenovelas. Nonetheless, the voices alternate between the dream promised by the voices in the flashbacks and the present reality:
Cleofilas thought her life would have to be like that, like a telenovela, only now the episodes got sadder and sadder. And there were no commercials in between for comic relief.
(Cisneros 1991, 53)
Thus, slowly but irrevocably, society's internal voices and expectations of happiness and fantasy are replaced by her own real voice, disillusioned yet liberated from the lies that shaped her world. This realization does not come suddenly, and even as the inevitable truth begins to erode her dreams, her recollections of abuse, of the starkness of her married life, are at first glossed over in her efforts at denial and at the false hope that things will change:
Or at times, when he is simply across from her at the table putting pieces of food into his mouth and chewing. Cleofilas thinks, “this is the man I have waited my whole life for?”
Not that he isn't a good man. She has to remind herself why she loves him when she changes the baby's Pampers, or when she mops the kitchen floor, or tries to make the curtains for the doorways without doors, or whiten the linen. Or wonders a little when he kicks the refrigerator and says he hates this shitty house and is going out where he won't be bothered with the baby's howling and her suspicious questions.
(Cisneros 1991, 49)
Besides the internal dialogue between the split voices representing fantasy and reality, certain fictional elements and characters in the setting serve as symbols that further intensify the struggle between Cleofilas's refuge to her silent sanctuary and the reality of being brutally silenced. The two neighbors, Soledad and Dolores, by their very names represent the solitude and pain that surround her:
On the other hand there were the neighbor ladies, one on either side of the house they rented near the arroyo. The Woman Soledad on the left, the Woman Dolores on the right … The neighbor ladies, Soledad, Dolores, they might have known once the name of the arroyo before it turned English but they did not know now. They were too busy remembering the men who had left through either choice or circumstance and would never come back.
(Cisneros l991, 47)
The creek La Gritona (Woman Hollering) also constantly acts as a cruel mockery to Cleofilas's lack of voice. Her heightened curiosity over what the “grito” (holler) means further accentuates the pain and rage Cleofilas has to constantly repress:
La Gritona. Such a funny name for such a lovely arroyo. But that's what they called the creek that ran behind the house. Though no one could say whether the woman had hollered from anger or pain … Pain or rage, Cleofilas wondered when she drove over the bridge.
(Cisneros l991, 47)
It is as if Cleofilas becomes the creek itself. She is La Gritona, surrounded by solitude (Soledad) on the left and pain (Dolores) on the right. The two neighbors (Pain and Solitude) serve as foils that further accentuate Cleofilas's situation as an alienated and helpless woman silenced by an abusive husband as well as by loneliness and pain. Soledad, on the one hand, is a constant reminder of her aloneness, since Juan Pedro is hardly ever around and he has already given her reason to suspect infidelity when she was in the hospital delivering their first child:
A doubt. Slender as a hair. A washed cup set back on the shelf wrong side-up. Her lipstick, and body talc, and hairbrush all arranged in the bathroom a different way.
(Cisneros 1991, 50)
Dolores, on the other hand, is a perfect portrait of the Catholic Stabat Mater statue, whose garden of “red red cockscombs fringed and blushing a thick menstrual blood” (Cisneros 1991, 47) remind the reader of the seven-sword-pierced heart of “La Dolorosa” so often found in small Catholic home altars. Dolores here plays the same role the iconography of the Catholic Family plays in Viramontes's “Snapshots.” Alarcón (1988) says that “within the Mexican/Chicano culture, the authoritative model, however unconscious, to which fathers (masculine values) have recourse is the Catholic Family and its assumed social authority” (150). Viramontes, Alarcón says, uses religious Catholic iconography to allude to religious expectation and dogma that Catholic male hierarchy imposes on women. Alarcón feels that in order to cope, many women of letters (and probably by the same token also protagonists in fiction) in their quest for subjectivity turn to mysticism and “opt for the convent” rather than accept the social symbolic contract engendering them as women.
In Cisneros's short story, both Soledad and Dolores mirror these Hispanic Women of Letters by opting for their own self-inflicted cloistered lives. They prefer isolation and chose their sexually frustrated spinsterhoods, “vistiendo santos” (dressing saints). To look back in retrospect, regretfully, is not an option. Otherwise, they may come face to face with that “crisis of meaning” and risk psychosis, like Olga Ruiz in “Snapshots,” and this would be unbearable. Taken together, both women also serve as constant role models and reminders to Cleofilas of what is expected of her by this symbolic contract as Hispanic wife and mother. Both are also omens warning her of the distasteful destiny that awaits her.
In sum, Cisneros juggles and juxtaposes flashbacks and present time to create a musical, rhythmic style of point and counterpoint that accentuates fantasy and reality. What surrounds Cleofilas appears as dull, discordant, black and white, a mockery of her harmonious and technicolored fantasies. Her drab life of silence and repression always come as staccato points that cut short her silent, inner world of telenovelas and beautiful women with handsome men. Cleofilas is truly a woman caught between the fantasy of silence to which she retreats and the reality of being silenced by an abusive husband.
RECEIVED KNOWLEDGE AND THE LISTENING STAGE
Mary Belensky and her colleagues (1986) conclude, based on their study, that at the positions of received knowledge and procedural knowledge, other voices and external truths prevail. This stage of received knowledge coincides with listening and begins simultaneously with the silent stage. For the listener, a sense of self is embedded in external definitions and roles or in identification with external institutions, disciplines and methods. For women in our society, this typically means adherence to sex role stereotypes or second rung status for women dictated not only by a White Male Patriarchy, but also by the women themselves. This stage is characterized by a programming of women by what Martha Ester Sánchez (1985) calls “female enforcers of male values” (60). Belensky (1986) feels that these women seek gratification in pleasing others, in measuring up to external standards, in being “the good woman” or “good wife” or “good student.” A sense of authority arises primarily through identification with a power group and its agreed upon ways of knowing.
These characteristics of the listening woman at the received knowledge stage clearly surface in the protagonists both in Villanueva's poem and Cisneros' short story.
THE LISTENING STAGE IN “MOTHER, MAY I”
The listening stage and the stage of received knowledge, as in Belensky's case studies, begin in the life of Villanueva's poetic persona simultaneously with the silent and the silenced stage. It, however, continues on afterwards, or as we shall see later, in the third and final stage, the stage of subjective knowledge and inner voice. Ironically, it is this very act of listening which figuratively acts as the Achilles heel in ending the stage of listening and beginning the stage of adherence to intuition and inner voice. Nonetheless, as in the case studies analyzed by Belensky and her associates, listening initially is the skill that men exploit in women to keep them ignorant and submissive (Belensky et al. 1986).
In Villanueva's “Bloodroot,” as in “Mother, May I,” the protagonist's listening stage runs simultaneously with the silent stage. It is evident from the very beginning and forms the backdrop against which the poetic persona is socialized, brainwashed, and programmed into a male-dominated culture. Listening to and identifying with authority can be seen again in Villanueva's use of the metaphors of “taking in” and “holding in” as opposed to “giving out” and “expressing” or “expelling” (Sánchez l985, 42). The first action which molds the young girl into a “listening entity” is again, as in the silent state, the biological ingestion of food. The physical acts of nourishment described in the poem parallel symbolically the more abstract acts of social nourishment obtained through listening. Unfortunately, her action of swallowing a tiny rubber doll to mimic a creative act incurs humorous disapproval from her aunt:
My aunt came in and I peed and pooped and I said—I just made a salad—she didn't look too happy.
(Villanueva in Sánchez l985, 305)
as well as from her grandmother:
I used to swallow my tiny rubber dolly and have a baby in my poop. I loved to find it. My grandma found me doing it. She wasn't mad. She smiled a little. She said—it'll get stuck and grow as big as you and you won't have any room left—so I stopped.
To reinforce the previous claim about the poetic persona's oral and anal stages, again here the child's spontaneous urges to take in literally and listen, figuratively, are in conflict with society's rules. She listens to the family's patriarchal values as embodied in her aunt and grandmother. Just as she is socialized into controlling her physical impulses, the child is also programmed by these same patriarchal values to curb her speech (putting out) and to listen (hold in). She quickly learns not to “express” or “expel” all her words and opinions, but to “hold in” or repress, so that others who are her elders can teach and guide her.
The second instance that reinforces the patriarchal values of listening in women is likewise associated with ingesting or taking in, but takes on a more sinister tone, at the traumatic rape scene when she is forced first to listen to the rapist's instructions. In much the same way, the protagonist in Villanueva's poem finds a parallel in the protagonist in Cherríe Moraga's play Giving Up the Ghost. Corky, the main character in this play, is forced to listen to her rapist whose commands to “Open her legs more” remind her of her father's words. Likewise, the young girl in “Mother, May I,” narrates only the results of the commands the rapist issues her when she says that:
he put me down. he took off my dress. he took off my T-shirt. he took off my panties. and then he said —do you want to suck something good?—
(Villanueva, in Sánchez 1985, 312)
The young girl hopes that if she complies, she will be set free by the rapist. Unfortunately, the humiliation of having to listen to a stranger's commands while suffering the indignity of being stripped only leads to the young girl's ultimate traumatic moment: having to swallow his penis and gag on his sperm:
he'll let me go. so I said —OK— he put it in my mouth and it didn't taste like anything. it hurt my mouth but I wouldn't cry and then he made me lie down and the stickers hurt and I was getting all dirty and I knew if I cried he'd kill me.
According to Sánchez (l985) the positive action of swallowing or taking in, in the first example, is replaced in this second example by the negative action of gagging or holding in. I agree with Sánchez that the gagging serves as a metaphor with multidimensional meanings, referring not only to the physical act of holding in but also the more symbolic acts of repression and silencing. It serves to represent the repression of the girl's powers of speech to tell about her experience. She is forced to experience a very negative “holding in” and then is intimidated into repressing it emotionally and verbally. The rape also represents the initial phase of disillusionment in what Belensky (1986) believes triggers the stage of received knowledge into giving way to the stage of subjective knowledge. The young girl in this poem, like the women in Belensky's study, begins to suspect that listening is not always going to obtain her favors from the male elders that she has been taught to respect, emulate, and worship. She has been betrayed.
The young girl's tomboy stage, which follows immediately after the rape as a way to cope, also is part of Belensky's paradigm of the listening stage. According to Belensky, it is the listening woman's last-ditch effort to identify with the oppressor. It represents not just a coping mechanism but a hope that imitation will bring a sense of control plus the male competitive potential and rational thinking that has made him so successful:
it was then I decided to become a boy, I've found the rooftops. I've found the fences. I've found the highest rock and I've sat on it. I've found the secret places in Golden Gate Park and listened to voices. I've found the ocean and reached it, riding my own bike.
(Villanueva, in Sánchez 1985, 313)
As in Cherríe Moraga's play Giving Up the Ghost, the young protagonist seeks both identification with and revenge against the social order that puts women at a disadvantage in the social symbolic contract. Their imitation of men is both an identification with the oppressor and, ironically, a rebellion against the expectation of men that women act and dress as women. This identification with and rebellion against male norms finds its parallel in Lorna Dee Cervantes's “Bird Ave.” “The representation of tough, teen-age Chicanas,” says Herrera-Sobek, walking down the streets on hot summer days, challenging the world with their street talk and street cunning strikes another blow to the image of the passive, timid Chicana.” (1988, 11) The bright red T-shirt that the poetic “I” in Villanueva's poem wears to her grandmother's funeral is just as loud a scream of rebellion as the shocking, attention-getting costumes, teased hair, and tight skirts of the pachucas in “Bird Ave.” Both the poetic persona in “Mother, May I,” as well as Cat eyes, Mousie, and Flaca Flea in “Bird Ave,” “refuse to capitulate, to fade, disintegrate into nothingness” as a result of their rapes, and “not wishing to display any vulnerability, they hide their wounds in macho body language and a rough exterior” (Herrera-Sobek 1988, 12) as a way to cope with their dissociated feelings and split subjectivities.
THE LISTENING STAGE IN CISNEROS'S “WOMAN HOLLERING CREEK”
Whereas the poetic persona in Villanueva's “Mother, May I,” seeks refuge in the coping mechanism of tomboyish behavior, Cleofilas's arrival at the listening stage expresses itself in a coping mechanism more similar to that of the main character, Arlene, in Helena María Viramontes's “Miss Clairol” (Viramontes 1985). Both women (Cleofilas and Arlene) seek to please their men and “stand by their men.” They listen to and show acceptance of male patriarchal values by fantasizing about the materialistic and commercial world of beauty and sex symbols which the capitalistic male mentality holds up as a mirror for women to imitate. They are the typical “silent” women in Belensky's study, for whom male consumerist values have become so subconsciously embedded that they are blissfully unaware of them. They have internalized the stereotypes of the “femme fatale” or the “dumb blond” of the telenovelas.
Cleofilas's way of knowing in “Woman Hollering Creek” is like that of many of Belensky's subjects at the received knowledge or listening stage. Cleofilas's listening and adherence to these values can be seen during her quiet moments of silent reverie when she fantasizes about the telenovelas:
But what Cleofilas had been waiting for, had been whispering and sighing and giggling for, had been anticipating since she was old enough to lean against the window displays of gauze and butterflies and lace, is passion. Not the kind on the cover of the “¡Alarma!” magazines, mind you, where the lover is photographed with the bloody fork she used to salvage her good name. But passion in its purest crystalline essence. The kind the books and songs and telenovelas describe when one finally finds the great love of one's life, and does whatever one can, one must do at whatever cost.
(Cisneros 1991, 44)
Again here, as before, Cisneros's subtle use of the stream of consciousness, third-person omniscient narrator lets us be privy to Cleofilas's thoughts, which in turn reveal the patriarchal programming about women's status that she has been brainwashed into accepting.
Likewise, in Viramontes's “Miss Clairol” (Viramontes 1985) the author calls the reader's attention to the fact that Arlene, the mother, has already been completely brainwashed into the “if you have one life to live, live it as a blonde,” syndrome. Her feeble attempts at living the American Dream through blond hair contrast with the reality of her drab, alienated empty life. Herrera-Sobek, in Chicana Creativity and Criticism: Charting New Frontiers in American Literature (1988) further supports this view: “This short story is a harsh indictment of a consumer oriented capitalist society that values superficialities such as hair color, nail polish, false eye lashes and trivialities” (32). Like Cleofilas, Arlene is completely alienated from her true harsh reality of poverty because she has “bought into” the Anglo male dream of the sexy, sensuous, and mysterious female whose only occupation is to please the man.
As in the Belensky case studies (1986), the act of listening is also the seed implanted in Cleofilas's mind that eventually destroys her false illusions and tells her that these dreams are not to be trusted. This begins for her the initiation, through painful disillusionment, into the freedom of subjective knowledge and reliance on inner voice as sources of truth. From pages 43 to 53 of her book, Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories, Cisneros again structures the fantasy flashbacks in a manner reminiscent of the point-counterpoint musical structure previously cited. As the crescendo of Cleofilas's fantasy decreases, her moments of disillusionment increase. The inevitable denouement is foreshadowed and hinted slightly at the beginning when she recalls that her father had said before her wedding, “I am your father, I will never abandon you.”
The inevitable disillusionment becomes more insistent on page 47, with the first shocking realization that the husband had struck her. The flashback culminates on page 53, and comes to a close dramatically when, as previously noted, she realizes that “there are no commercials in between for comic relief. And no happy ending in sight” (Cisneros 1991, 53).
She thought this when she sat with the baby out by the creek behind the house. Cleofilas de … ? But somehow she would have to change her name to Topazio, or Yesenia, Cristal, Adriana, Stefania, Andrea, something more poetic than Cleofilas. Everything happened to women with names like jewels. But what happened to a Cleofilas? Nothing. But a crack in the face.
After that, Cisneros shifts narrative point of view from the omniscient stream of consciousness to the third-person, external-objective observer. By so doing, she increases suspense by keeping the reader ignorant of what is on Cleofilas's mind. Simultaneously, she also signals Cleofilas's final disillusionment with her interior world of silent fantasy and her rite of passage to reliance on inner voice and subjective knowing.
STAGE OF SUBJECTIVE KNOWLEDGE AND INNER VOICE
At the stage of subjective knowing, Mary Belensky and her associates (1986) say that women focus on a “quest for self” and “at least, a protection of a space for growth of self” (58) which they see as primary. This means a turning away from listening to external patriarchal values and a turning inward to intuition and that “still small voice” within them. What Belensky and her team of psychologists discovered is that the women who had reached this stage had come there via some trauma or experience of failed male authority. Many subjective knowers in Belensky's study had had fathers who belittled them or squelched their curiosity or chastised them for questioning. “What comes through most strongly in all these stories from women is the picture they paint of failed male authority. Their sense of outrage and disappointment is pervasive” (57-58).
In Chicana literature, images of these women abound also. For example, in her article, “Making Familia From Scratch: Split Subjectivities in the Work of Helena María Viramontes and Cherríe Moraga,” Norma Alarcón's (l988) interpretation of Cherríe Moraga's protagonist Corky and Viramontes's main characters Olga Ruiz and Noemi show that Chicana writing reflects a preoccupation with women's subjectivity and with the patriarchal society “engendering them as women” (35). Likewise, the “trinity” of Pachucas portrayed by Lorna Dee Cervantez in “Bird Ave.” are definitely women whom male authority has failed and who now seek refuge in their inner voice and the subjectivity of their individual selves as well as their sisterhood (Herrera-Sobek 1988, 11).
They flaunt their independence from the world of telenovelas and Clairol commercials as they did towards the culmination of the listening stage by “their visual shocking attention getting costumes of the Pachuca—teased tough hair, and teased tough skirts” (Cervantes in Herrera-Sobek 1988, 11).
As both Alarcón (1988) and Yarbro-Bejarano (1988) indicate, women concerned with their own subjectivity abound in Chicana literature, and the Chicana writers' employment of these female subjects represents not only an innovative literary technique but an act of literary rebellion. Alarcón, for one, claims that Chicanas are increasingly making use of “female-speaking subjects who hark back to explore the subjectivity of women” (1988, 148). Yarbro-Bejarano also reinforces Alarcón's claim when she says that “the fact that Chicanas may tell stories about themselves and other Chicanas challenges the dominant male concept of cultural ownership and literary authority” (1988 141). Yarbro-Bejarano agrees with Gloria Anzaldúa that, “By delving into this deep core, the Chicana writer finds that the self she seeks to define and love is not merely an individual self, but a collective one” (141).
SUBJECTIVE KNOWLEDGE AND INNER VOICE IN “MOTHER, MAY I”
As in Cherríe Moraga's play, Giving Up the Ghost (Moraga 1986), the rape scene in Alma Villanueva's “Mother, May I” serves as the turning point that starts the protagonist's initiation into reliance on inner voice and subjective knowledge. Through the rape, the young girl begins her initiation into disillusionment and awareness that culminates when she returns to visit her grandmother's graveyard for the second time.
Both Villanueva's and Moraga's rape scenes share many similarities. In both, the violent act is visited upon the young women, transforming them into silent, invisible, non-existent entities. Both protagonists find sanctuary in the world of tomboys as a coping mechanism. In both, the act of having to “take in” or “hold in” either the screwdriver or the penis produces a “hole” not only physically but metaphorically: a sense of nothingness spiritually and symbolically. In both, the act of “holding in” produces a long silence and repression of feelings. In Moraga's play, Corky yields fearfully to the commanding voice of someone who reminds her of her father. In Villanueva's poem, the poetic persona is likewise intimidated by a father figure who commands her to “suck something good” and thereafter represses her voice.
In both, the themes of dissociation and the disembodied feeling after sexual assault are reiterated. Corky is transformed into a shapeless entity robbed of feeling and sensations; she becomes a “hole.” Likewise, the poetic persona in Villanueva's poem, Sánchez indicates, “feels more intensely the dissociation between an inner unembodied self and an outer embodied self” (1985, 50). Both Protagonists (Corky and the poetic “I”) “lose their identities as human beings and are transformed into formless entities devoid of feelings and bodily sensations” (Herrera-Sobek 1988, 152).
Whereas the rape scene signals the disintegration and dissociation of personality for both protagonists, for Alma Villanueva's poetic “I” the final graveyard scene initiates her journey into integration and acquisition of voice. Her moment of epiphany is simultaneously a moment of illumination, birthing, and resurrection. Previously at the funeral, the young girl, symbolically and defiantly dressed in red, drops a red rose into her grandmother's grave and hears it squish, just as her voice is squished. As Sánchez says, “The rose is the metaphoric containment of the girl's self” (1985, 49). Her inner voice, which for the time being is repressed, seeks expression in the loud brilliance of “red.” At the second graveyard scene, this action is karmically reversed. The girl's return to her grandmother's grave mirrors also the graveyard scene in Katherine Anne Porter's “The Grave.” In this short story, the main character Miranda and her older brother stumble upon their grandmother's partially exhumed grave and find two treasures: a ring with a dove, and a gargoyle. They reluctantly exchange gifts that are more gender appropriate: the ring for Miranda, the gargoyle for her brother. Shortly afterwards, they come upon a mother rabbit that her brother has killed. They find inside the little fetuses, and whereas the boy is elated by his victory, the girl is horrified by the memory of “crushed life” in a womb that has become a tomb. To cope, she buries the thought in her subconscious until she is in her late twenties. The moment of epiphany comes when she sees some sugared rabbit candies in a marketplace in Mexico, and the entire unpleasant memory of life/death, womb and tomb are resurrected in her subconscious. It is this moment of epiphany that provides her an opportunity to reverse the unpleasantness of the earlier experience and transform it into a release and rebirthing. The grandmother's tomb, the ring Miranda resurrects from it, and the dead fetuses buried in the dead mother's womb/tomb symbolize and foreshadow Miranda's return to the tomb of her buried subconscious and the previously mentioned opportunity to resurrect those long repressed feelings and give them voice.
A parallel symbolic scene occurs when Villanueva's protagonist arrives also at her grandmother's tomb. Her interior as well as vocal dialogue with her grandmother initiates this process:
We look for you, my husband and I. We look for you till I'm dizzy. Are you here, mamacita. Are you here? he says—here it is—he's found you, a “13” in the ground. They said —Jesus Villanueva is “13”— I touch the one, the three. I begin to cry and no one stops me. I didn't know it, but a seed spilled out and my mouth ate it. I think that's when the rose took root.
(Villanueva in Sánchez 1985, 325)
Like the ring, the dead fetuses, and the sugared candy rabbits in Porter's “The Grave,” the seed spilling out of the protagonist's mouth in “Mother, May I,” is also a symbol that triggers her voice and resurrects her repressed feelings from the womb/tomb of her subconscious. The rose (her voice) that was squished takes root. The girl, Sánchez (1985) remarks, figuratively swallows her grandmother's “seed” and in so doing undoes the gagging experience of choking on the semen at the rape scene. The grandmother's tomb, a metaphor for the girl's buried subconscious, becomes now a figurative womb that provides hope of resurrection and the seed of a new life. Sánchez interprets the seed as representing restoration. It is a metaphor for the nurturing grandmother and a restoration of the phallus. But more important than that, it represents the restoration of her personal voice and the birthing of her new, poetic voice.
and she heard a voice, distant and small, but she heard it, and her mouth opened slightly and a word spilled out. The word was “I.”
(Villanueva in Sánchez l985, 325)
The birthing of the poetic “I” that the poetic persona experiences is both a rebirth and a resurrection, and because it takes root from the grandmother's seed, it is a kind of parthenogenesis. Like Jesus' birth, it is virginal, unaided by male intervention. The poet reinvents herself through a matrilineal line going from mother to daughter, purely and asexually.
Psychologically, something very similar happens, claims Mary Belensky (1986), to women who are “subjectivist knowers.” “Looking back on their childhood many of these women … no longer are willing to rely on higher status, powerful authorities … but instead they consider turning to … female peers, mothers, sisters, and grandmothers” (60).
This psychological behavior pattern is echoed metaphorically in Villanueva's poem. The grandmother, literally buried in the earth, figuratively in the girl's subconscious becomes a womb that provides the heroine with a new source of life. This primordial connection between women is echoed also in Villanueva's “Bloodroot” and, as previously mentioned, in Katherine Anne Porter's “The Grave.” This tomb/womb, death/resurrection archetype reiterates the Demeter/Persephone myth: an archetypal violent separation and eventual reunion between mother and daughter that signals the circular death and rebirth cycle of the seasons in a very pure and chaste parthenogenic manner without the intervention of male agency. Sánchez also repeats this fact when she says that Villanueva dramatically rejects the genital model of birthing in favor of a more magical, non-genital one. “The seed,” she says, “is absorbed by the mouth. The interaction is between woman and woman in this metaphoric virgin birth” (1985, 54). The woman who has rediscovered her inner voice and subjective knowledge gives birth to herself, reinvents herself. The grandmother's name, María de Jesus, suggests Sánchez, implies an androgyny of gender inherent in the name of Jesus. In Catholic mythology, she says, it also suggests a non-genital birth as Christ is conceived by Mary without “knowing man.”
As Sánchez states, Villanueva shares with many women poets a preoccupation with giving birth to themselves and their poetic voices by becoming, so to speak, their mothers.
SUBJECTIVE KNOWLEDGE AND INNER VOICE IN “WOMAN HOLLERING CREEK”
Cleofilas's moment of awareness when she realizes she has no other alternative but to rely on her inner voice for guidance happens less dramatically than the birthing of the poetic “I” in Villanueva's poem, “Mother, May I.” Cleofilas's journey of transformation literally and figuratively begins when she begs Juan Pedro for permission and money to go see the doctor, and culminates in her journey with Felice, the nurse, as they make their escape across La Gritona, Woman Hollering creek. Again, as in Villanueva's poem, Cleofilas's pregnancy foreshadows her own imminent birth, for she carries not just Juan Pedro's seed but also the seeds of repressed silence gestating in her subconscious and eager to be allowed to birth in a new voice.
It is by no accident that the two nurses who plan her escape are each named Felice and Graciela, symbolically, “happiness” and “grace.” Both have come along at a rare moment of “grace” to bring her happiness and serve as midwives in the birthing of her new self. As in Villanueva's poem, this metaphorical birthing of the inner voice is also a parthenogenesis, a virgin birth resulting from a trinity or sisterhood of women without the intervention of a male.
Cleofilas's escape in the truck with Felice is truly a moment of grace, when the door of opportunity opens and she must pass through or never be freed. The moment of epiphany arrives when both she and Felice cross over the creek, and Felice lets out a yell “like a mariachi.” The bridge and the creek symbolically become a birth canal and Felice's scream as well as Cleofilas's “ribbon of laughter” are simultaneously the primal scream and birth pangs of both mother and first born. Cleofilas's crossing of the bridge physically also signals her transition from a stage of repression and silencing to a stage of inner voice and subjective knowledge. Cisneros's portrayal of Cleofilas's reaction as a “long ribbon of laughter like water” (56) is a very aesthetic and fitting conclusion, since nowhere before then does the reader even catch a glimmer of Cleofilas's smile or giggle. “Her laughter, gurgling like water,” (56) becomes for Cleofilas the first explosive attempt to resurrect from the tomb/womb of the subconscious her repressed and long buried feelings.
Cisneros now allows us to see Cleofilas from the narrative point of view of the third-person camera angle, from the outside. There is no longer any need to probe her subconscious thoughts, for Cleofilas has released her silent fantasy world in exchange for freedom and voice. Cisneros's skillful portrayal of the dialogue between Felice and Cleofilas suggests openness. Felice's comment, “Nothing around here is named after a woman? Really unless she's the Virgin” (55), suggests to Cleofilas this woman's awareness and ultimate triumph over the male-dominated society that surrounds them. Felice owns a power that she, Cleofilas, did not have up to now and which she admires:
Everything about this woman, this Felice, amazed Cleofilas. The fact that she drove a pickup, a pickup, mind you, but when Cleofilas asked if it belonged to her husband, she said she didn't have a husband. The pickup was hers. She had chosen it. She herself was paying for it.
Felice's spontaneous behavior is a totally pleasant surprise to Cleofilas:
What kind of talk was that coming from a woman?” Cleofilas thought. But then again, Felice was like no other woman she had ever met.
Hence, Cleofilas and the poetic persona in “Mother, May I” illustrate in their respective epiphanies the power of women to evolve from a passive state of being silent and silenced, through a stage of listening, to a more blissful stage of inner voice and subjective knowledge. These protagonists illustrate not only the theme of the evolution of voice but also illustrate a fresh innovation as well as rebellion in literary technique that, according to some Latina writers, has resulted in “Hispanic women taking the literary world by storm.” Like the main characters, for example, in Viramontes's “Snapshots” and Cherríe Moraga's Giving Up the Ghost, both Cleofilas and the poetic persona in “Mother, May I” are women who are brave enough to explore their own subjectivity. The action in both narratives now comes full circle, and as mentioned previously, in the introduction, both protagonists are thrown into what Alarcón claims is a “crisis of meaning that begins with their own gendered personal identity and its relational position with others” (1988, 152). This crisis of meaning, as portrayed by both the poetic persona and Cleofilas, culminates in an awakened state of awareness that is the beginning of subjective knowing and acquisition of an inner voice.
It is also by no coincidence that in both these stories both protagonists engage in a regretful looking back at the past before they achieve their own identity and voice. Again here, an analogy is appropriate: Norma Alarcón says that “in looking back (and so many Chicana writers have their speaking subjects look back …) both Corky in Cherríe Moraga's Giving up the Ghost and Olga Ruiz in Viramontes's ‘Snapshots’ enact, as Irigaray asserts, an analysis ‘after the fact’ of the treacherous route on the way to becoming a ‘woman’ or not becoming a ‘woman’” (Alarcón 1988, 150). Like Olga and Corky, Cleofilas in particular also looks back with both pleasure initially, and later with increasing regret and disenchantment and likewise arrives at that “crisis of meaning” when she must choose between remaining as a silenced victim or becoming an articulate human being.
In conclusion, both Villanueva's “Mother, I,” and Cisneros's “Woman Hollering Creek” mirror and encapsulate in concentrated narrative form the mythic journey a woman takes in her rite of passage from a subjugated underworld of silence to a liberated stage of discovering an inner voice, a subjective fountain of knowledge and an intuitive wellspring from which she draws strength. The story of Persephone's rescue from the underworld and her eventual return to her mother, Demeter, forms the archetype that underlies the rescue of both Cleofilas and the poetic “I” in “Mother, May I” from the dark underworld of their subconsciously repressed voices. Both works, though brief, are powerful and dramatic and relevant not just because they find validity in the psychological reality of voice documented by Belensky and other psychologists, but because they point to the eternal, mythic archetype of death/resurrection, the tomb/womb paradox. Both literary selections affirm the power of women to provide a world hungry for meaning a modicum of faith in the regenerative powers of Earth as Gaia, the fecund female principle.
Alarcón, Norma. 1988. “Making Familia from Scratch: Split Subjectivities in the Work of Helena María Viramontes and Cherríe Moraga,” in María Herrera-Sobek & Helena María Viramontes, Chicana Creativity and Criticism: Charting New Frontiers in American Literature. Houston: Arte Público Press.
Belensky, Mary F., Blythe Clinchy, Nancy Goldberger, and Jill Tarule. 1986. Women's Ways of Knowing. New York: Basic Books.
Cisneros, Sandra. 1991. Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories. New York. Vintage Books.
Herrera-Sobek, María. 1988. “The Politics of Rape,” in María Herrera-Sobek and Helena María Viramontes, Chicana Creativity and Criticism: Charting New Frontiers in American Literature. Houston: Arte Público Press.
Herrera-Sobek, María, and Helena María Viramontes. 1988. Chicana Creativity and Criticism: Charting New Frontiers in American Literature. Houston: Arte Público Press.
Moraga, Cherríe. 1986. Giving Up the Ghost. Los Angeles: West End Press.
Sánchez, Marta Ester. 1985. Contemporary Chicana Poetry: A Critical Approach to an Emerging Literature. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Villanueva, Alma. 1978. Mother, May I? Pittsburg: Motheroot Publications.
Viramontes, Helena María. 1985. The Moths and Other Stories. Houston: Arte Público Press.
Yarbro-Bejarano, Yvonne. 1988. “Chicana Literature from a Chicana Feminist Perspective,” in María Herrera-Sobek and Helena María Viramontes, Chicana Creativity and Criticism: Charting New Frontiers in American Literature. Houston: Arte Público Press.
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 13299
SOURCE: Brady, Mary Pat. “The Contrapuntal Geographies of Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories.” American Literature 71, no. 1 (March 1999): 117-50.
[In the following essay, Brady examines the representation of space in Woman Hollering Creek, arguing that “Cisneros's stories perform their critique of the production of space in multiple ways, within individual stories and through the interplay between and among them.”]
Driving down streets with buildings that remind him, he says, how charming this city is. And me remembering when I was little, a cousin's baby who died from swallowing rat poison in a building like these.
That's just how it is. And that's how we drove. With all his new city memories and all my old. Him kissing me between big bites of bread.
—Sandra Cisneros, “Bread”
The conclusion of Sandra Cisneros's “Bread,” a story from Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories (1991) in which the narrator remembers an afternoon spent in a car with a lover, suggests that our perceptions of space evolve out of complex and disjunctive interpretive processes.1 As a mobile memory, a kind of drive-by narrative, the brief sketch moves toward this interpretive aporia and past it, implicitly critiquing the tendency to romanticize poverty and destabilizing “charming” as a value-laden spatial descriptor. Beyond suggesting that disparate interpretations of particular spaces emerge from different viewpoints or class positions, “Bread” implies that spatial narratives help to sustain class structures, allowing rat-infested buildings to be seen as “charming” homes. This interpretive disjunction also illustrates the impulse to produce “charming” landscapes that erase labor and minimize capitalist exploitation by placing the landscape in a time frame different from that of its observers.2 Characterizing the story's neighborhood as “charming” threatens to shift it into a different temporal modality.3 The narrator of “Bread” lyrically refuses to surrender her memory of dangerous tenements to a romantic spatial construction that erases the consequences of uneven development.
As “Bread” indicates, much is at stake in the representation of space. Cindi Katz argues that “[s]ocial power is reflected in and through the production and control of space.”4 Space is not a transparent or irrelevant backdrop for history; the production of space is part of the production of history.5 Therefore, although the spatial is often equated with the material and placed outside the social, Doreen Massey argues that it can be more accurately conceptualized as “social relations stretched out.”6 Power accrues to those who exercise control over the environment; similarly, power adheres to those who produce narratives that sustain and naturalize places as opaque, natural, or fixed—and thus beyond contestation or negotiation.
Rather than assuming that time is boundless while places are defined by immobile boundaries, Massey argues that a trenchant conception of places imagines them as “articulated moments in networks of social relations and understandings.” Places are not frozen in time; rather, “places are processes, too.”7 Massey's reconceptualization refuses romanticized attachments to places as refuges from change, static signs of a heritage, or locales with a “real” meaning. Conceptualizing place as process draws attention to ongoing contests over the production of space and the struggle to control its representation—to determine how social existence will be “spatially inscribed.”8 Any dominant claim to public space must contend with repeated challenges; as Gillian Rose says, it must also police bodies to discipline “every new body” to “guarantee” the ongoing construction of public space.9 Such disciplining includes not only mundane city ordinances about nudity, urination, and advertisements but also the broad cultural meanings allowed to accrue to state-protected monuments and symbols. Tremendous energy is expended to remind us that “all the world's a stage” (and merely a stage) and thus to mask the “relations of power and discipline” concretized into “the apparently innocent spatiality of social life.”10
Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories is an extraordinary example of a text that considers the shifting terrains of power and makes explicit some of the terms of contemporary spatiality through both its narrative style and content.11 The collection explores how “spatial control, whether enforced through the power of convention and symbolism or through the straightforward threat of violence,”12 fundamentally constitutes various axes of identity, carrying out what Michel de Certeau calls “a labor that constantly transforms places.”13 Cisneros's stories perform their critique of the production of space in multiple ways, within individual stories and through the interplay between and among them.
I explore this critique by focusing first on how the collection's narrative techniques call into question various spacial representations and attempt to make visible stories hidden within them. Second, because a number of stories in the collection challenge the notion of place as bound to a single meaning, I examine the way they question the constitution of particular public monuments to reveal multiple, competing meanings that ultimately support an account of place as process, as subject to changing significance. As theorists of space point out, the process of changing spatial relations is frequently violent; thus the maintenance of a given set of relations also requires the continuous threat of violence. Woman Hollering Creek [Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories] examines the nuances of such violence, both latent and manifest. Cisneros's account of how violence is partly mediated through the public/private binary is the focus of the third section of my discussion.
LA VIDA DE LOITER-IA
The spatial narrative strategies of Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories, perhaps surprisingly, resemble those of contemporary gay literature, or “loiterature,” as Ross Chambers calls it. Chambers defines loiterature as a “genre which, in opposition to dominant forms of narrative, relies on techniques of digression, interruption, deferral and episodicity … to make observations of modern life that are unsystematic, even disordered, and are usually oriented toward the everyday, the ordinary and the trivial (what is called ‘flâneur realism’).” Loiterly narrators, like flâneurs, walk around, observing, pausing and commenting, instigating, and joking. Loiterature works as an “oppositional comment on the ambitious pretensions of aesthetic sublimity, and on the blindness, rigidity and exclusionary formalism of disciplined and systematic modes of knowledge.”14 Loiterly writing is spatial writing—tricky in its use of juxtaposition and humor, and wry in its cruising observations on the spatial inscriptions of social life. The stories in Woman Hollering Creek, like loiterature, explore the links between wandering around and unauthorized desire, between ruses and prohibitions, playing with episodicity and digression to make observations on contemporary Chicana life and to bring “the everyday” into sharp focus. Yet if these stories defy narrative postulates by relying on seemingly unsystematic asides and digressions, they also shrewdly exploit complex relationships between reader, narrative voice, text, and spatial gestures. Out of these relationships emerges a stunning portrayal of the manner in which spatial differentiation affects social processes.
Many of the stories (for example, “Eleven” and “Mexican Movies”) defy, or at least ignore, the conventions of storytelling. In less than a dozen sentences, “Salvador, Late or Early” offers a portrait of “Salvador inside that wrinkled shirt, inside the throat that must clear itself and apologize each time it speaks, inside that forty-pound body of boy with its geography of scars” (10). Without the soothing structure of a beginning, middle, or end, without a goal to tug a reader through the plot, these brief stories emphasize through contrast the predictability of conventional narratives. They also function as momentary interruptions of the flow of the collection's more conventionally structured stories.
Most of the stories include teasing, flirtatious exchanges, joking asides, and minor secrets; some make deadly serious revelations. Their digressive and fragmentary nature highlights minor details and experiences, but more importantly it forces the reader to look around, to linger and remember. Like the ex-votos (prayer-petitions appended to the walls and statues of churches) that compose the first half of “Little Miracles, Kept Promises,” Cisneros's digressions are social. They play with relationality and take social strictures seriously; their turn to ruses and episodes masks the production of a social identity that can be “a pertinent micro-level political contingency,” to use Philip Brian Harper's words, for those who have been largely outside “the historical distribution of the power to conceive of oneself as a centered, whole [storytelling/history writing] entity.”15 Cisneros's narrators suggest the significance and sophistication of their heretofore ignored and invalidated knowledge, conceptualizing alternative epistemologies as they offer asides and digressions that refuse or challenge systematization—all the while appearing simply to loiter.
Often a conversational tone belies the disruptive revelation toward which the narrative meanders. Near the end of “Remember the Alamo,” for example, the narrator reveals a young boy's sexual assault: “Sweating, pressing himself against you, pink pink peepee blind and seamless as an eye, pink as a baby rat, your hand small and rubbing it, yes, like this, like so, and your skull being crushed by that sour smell and the taste like tears inside your sore mouth.” Yet the next sentence negates this revelation: “No, Tristán doesn't have memories like that” (67). The narrative rushes past the disclosure, nearly erasing the volcanic memory by denying it. In brief asides, other narrators reveal instances of violence and abuse that similarly jerk their narratives. In “My Tocaya,” Patrícia nonchalantly mentions that her friend's father “was mean” (36) and “Maybe [he] beat her” (37), distancing herself from these bitter revelations by speaking in the mocking tones of a belligerent teenager.
These parenthetical declarations, like the narrator's pause in “Eyes of Zapata” to describe her mother's violent murder, function both as counterpoint to the lyric descriptions and jumbled lists found throughout the stories and as a strategy for making dangerous revelations. Such revelations, the narratives imply, cannot yet be the subject of a story, or rather, they can be the subject only by being masked as asides. So while the stories may be loiterly, they are neither naive nor invested in the production of nostalgic fantasies. Instead, they use contrapuntal techniques to rupture themselves, turning lyric moments into caustic humor, forcing a gap, like an exposed cut, between humor and bitter revelation.16
Though a loiterly story such as “Anguiano Religious Articles” purports to offer only gentle parody of the commercial aspects of Chicano Catholic culture, a quiet aside draws it into the matrix of the collection's broad critique of repressive social norms. The two-page monologue meanders through an account of an errand, pausing occasionally as the narrator looks around:
A statue is what I was thinking, or maybe those pretty 3-D pictures, the ones made from strips of cardboard that you look at sideways and you see the Santo Niño de Atocha, and you look at it straight and it's La Virgen, and you look at it from the other side and it's Saint Lucy with her eyes on a plate or maybe San Martín Caballero cutting his Roman cape in half with a sword and giving it to a beggar, only I want to know how come he didn't give that beggar all of his cape if he's so saintly, right?
This passage plays with religious campiness as the narrator invokes the regal sweetness of the child Jesus and the solemnity of the virgin, both of which are humorously contrasted with the grotesque image of “Saint Lucy with her eyes on a plate.” In a manner typical of other narrators in the collection, she then concludes with a question that interrogates the logic of a narrative heretofore taken for granted. The apparent digression turns a religious story typically used to encourage self-sacrifice into a means of questioning received pieties.
Cisneros's seemingly straightforward narrative style masks its shrewdness by deploying child-like or nonchalant voices to destabilize the apparent solidity and neutrality of the built environment. Loiterly narrators are attuned to the changeable nature of space because they are busy pausing, noticing, and digressing. The stories in Woman Hollering Creek rely on common spatial denominators but interweave them with memories, prohibitions, and anxieties that make space felt. Acknowledging the emotion-laden aspects of spatiality undermines the positivist tendency to treat the material as objective, largely unchanging, and outside the vitality of living, sociality, and relationships. Cisneros's stories resist the tendency “to think of space as an abstract, metaphysical container for our lives,”17 suggesting instead that space exists in relation to identity and agency.
Most of the stories' narrators presume their audience's familiarity with particular sites (as indicated by phrases such as “you know the one”). Rather than including lengthy descriptions, the narrators refer to stores, streets, buildings, restaurants, and other geographic markers in asides or as part of a gesture of connection. Often reworking her lyric descriptions of sites into the stuff of humor and imagination, Cisneros establishes an important theoretical insight through her construction of an audience familiar with the communities in her narratives. Location is integral to the construction of identity and community. References to places are frequently gestures of intimacy. Local knowledge works as an exchange, an invocation of shared knowledge and inclusion that suggests places are produced out of and through relationality.
The stories therefore invoke their audiences—as well as the sites of their telling—with brief, conversational gestures (“You must have seen her in the paper”  or “You know the religious store” ). Some stories, particularly “One Holy Night,” “Bien Pretty,” and “Remember the Alamo,” don't identify an audience; nevertheless, they emphasize their orality, their spoken status, challenging the reader to hear the narrator rather than simply read the text.18 This emphasis on monologue and dialogue makes the reader the other half of a conversation, thereby establishing a sense of community and intimacy. Or the monologues and dialogues turn the reader into a kind of metiche (a busybody) who takes pleasure in overhearing someone else's conversation. When the narrators become gossipy performance artists, they reveal the short stories as scripts.19
The narrators themselves are alternately chismoleras (gossips) and metiches whose performances imply the participatory nature of storytelling/listening and the communal aspects of meaning making. When they assume the mantle of chismolera, the narrators underscore the pleasures, tensions, and power imparted in making revelations. “My Tocaya” and “La Fabulosa: A Texas Operetta” are told entirely in the form of chisme (gossip). A typical teenage question, “Now why didn't anyone ask me?” initiates “My Tocaya” and indicates the narrator's sense of holding undervalued, ignored, and even maligned knowledge. Gossip functions through its apparent informality and portability, as well as through its reliance on anonymity, voyeurism, and distance from authoritative textuality. Gossip also assumes an oppositional relationship to official discourse, to sanctioned categories of knowledge and methods of acquiring information. It can, as Lisa Lowe argues, satirize private life and official discourses even as it pillages them. Gossip is powerful because it “derides the separation of ‘public’ and ‘private’ spheres, transgressing these separations symbolic of bourgeois order.”20 According to Francine Masiello, by blurring the line between “fiction” and “reality” gossip can “challenge the uses of language in relation to the authority of the state.”21Woman Hollering Creek laces together its critique of spatial relations through its nuanced and elaborate uses of the comparative strategy inherent in gossip.
English and Spanish are used contrapuntally throughout the collection.22 Spanish words appear in place of English words, sometimes translated literally and sometimes not at all. The musicality of one language rubs against the cacophony of the other. At times the English translation of a Spanish word follows it or vice versa, creating redundancy and emphasis. Often a narrator will obviously mistranslate a Spanish idiom. “La Fabulosa: A Texas Operetta,” for example, mimics the speech of a lively gossip but also undermines it with too literal and thus mocking translations: “Yeah, sure, he was her sometime sweetheart, but what's that to a woman who's twenty and got the world by the eggs” (62). Rather than rendering the vernacular Spanish “huevos” as the vernacular English “balls,” the speaker translates the word literally as eggs. This satirical double joke simultaneously alludes to the complexity of translation and the range of meanings opened by fluency in two languages.
These multiple and flexible comparative strategies invite us to conceive of space, in Kristin Ross's words, as “active [and] generative,” and thereby “to experience space as created by our interactions, as something that our bodies reactivate, and that through this reactivation, in turn modifies and transforms us.”23 Because a contrapuntal technique relies on interaction, it underscores this revised concept of space as interactive. Thus, contrapuntal narrative strategies work well with the insistently voiced style of the text to reinforce its spatial critique. That is to say, by “talking about” things as they wander into stores and bars or past public monuments, by slyly pointing out differences and alluding to contrasting experiences and epistemologies, Cisneros's narrators deconstruct the built environment by casually underscoring the power relations that streets, stop signs, and walls make concrete.
SHAPING PUBLIC MEMORIES
“Every history,” according to Philip Fisher, “has, in addition to its actual sites, a small list of privileged settings.”24 These privileged settings play key roles in the emergence and transformation of a national imaginary. The meanings allowed to accrue to “actual sites” and “privileged settings” can therefore be fiercely contested, since the maintenance of spatial dominance relies in part on the “power to narrate, or to block other narratives from forming and emerging.”25 Conversely, public memory can be very effectively shaped through the construction of particular places.26 Thus when counterpublics create counterspaces or counternarratives of public monuments, according to Henri Lefebvre, they not only challenge the dominance of an only apparently unified public memory but also shake “the existing space to its foundations, along with its strategies and aims—namely, the imposition of homogeneity and transparency everywhere within the purview of power and its established order.”27
Four stories in Woman Hollering Creek interrogate the production of two well-known shrines: Tepeyac, site of the basilica dedicated to the Virgin of Guadalupe in Mexico City, and the Alamo in San Antonio, Texas. Complicated and seemingly oppositional, both sites play significant roles as commodified symbols of nationalism, although their complex positions in Spanish and Anglo imperialism have been muted and stabilized through triumphalist rhetoric. Both serve, in Bill Brown's phrase, as “prosthetics of empire,” their meanings and interpretations vigorously protected by state ideology.28 Both encode gender assignments. Both emerge through complex formations of race and sexuality.
According to Sahagún, one of the chroniclers of the Spanish conquest, worship of la Virgen de Guadalupe initially centered at El cerro de Tepeyac, a hill north of Tenotchitlan where the Mexica had “a temple consecrated to the mother of gods, called Tonantzín, which means, ‘our mother.’”29 Sahagún argues that Tonantzín and Quetzalcoatl were the Aztecs' principal creative forces and should be considered the premier “couple” in their pantheon. In 1531 the Virgin appeared numerous times to Juan Diego and, speaking in Nauhatl, requested a shrine in her honor at Tepeyac.30 The mass veneration that quickly emerged there was initially contested by many clergy, who argued that it was simply a clever means of continuing to worship Tonantzín. Others saw the transformation of a pre-Cortesian site as an effective tool for converting the populace.31 The Virgin also became a favorite with the Creole classes, who quickly began to resent both Spain and the Peninsulares sent to govern the colony because the Peninsulares repeatedly invoked Europe's superiority to America.32
Not surprisingly, two Guadalupan traditions emerged. One developed among the Creole ruling classes, to whom the Virgin appealed as the primary means to distinguish Mexico and ultimately to elevate the colony above Spain. “Among the Indians,” however, “the cult found devotion because the Virgin's message in the Nican Mopohua was specifically directed to them and their misery, a plight that troubled Hispanics, whether Peninsular or Creole, far less.”33 The two traditions became so widely disparate that two separate Guadalupan festivals were apparently celebrated, and eventually two distinct accounts of the Virgin were published: one in Spanish, the other in Nahuatl.34
The Spanish book, Miguel Sánchez's 1648 Imagen de la Virgen María, Madre de Dios de Guadalupe, milagrosamente aparecida en la Ciudad de México, recounts the history of devotion beginning with the apparitions in 1531. Sánchez weaves together stories about the Virgin that had been appearing on ex-votos at the Tepeyac shrine, myths, and legends, legitimizing them all by casting them in the language of the Bible. In an extraordinary rhetorical maneuver, Sánchez claims that the “Spanish Conquest” had only one purpose: to prepare the way for the Virgin's appearance.35 This argument pleased the Creole classes and initiated Guadalupe's role in a nascent Mexican nationalism,36 because, as Margarita Zires explains, Sánchez was appropriating the Spaniards' most sophisticated spiritual weapons.37 Sánchez thus initiates a political project that gave Mexico an identity not as a colony of Spain but as a “Tierra Santa,” a holy land, and the Mexicans an identity as “un pueblo elegido,” a chosen people.38
One year later, Luis Laso de la Vega published Huei Tlamahuiçoltica Omonexiti. This text combined two documents; one narrated the Virgin's apparitions, and the other described the miracles attributed to her.39 These texts, also culled from ex-votos and circulating narratives, were polished in an eloquent Nahuatl by an anonymous writer who invokes Nahua, rather than biblical, religious symbolism and language, and emphasizes the Virgin's empathy for the suffering of the Mexica peoples at the hands of the Spanish.40 Thus, the Virgin is identified as “She Who Banishes Those That Ate Us” and “She Who Crushed the Serpent's Head.”41
The Virgin of Guadalupe emerges then not only as a means of evangelization and domination and a mechanism through which the Creoles appropriated the Christian symbols and religious power of the Spanish,42 but also as a symbol of defiance and resistance to whom corridos would eventually be sung hailing her as the “Queen of the American Indians.”43 A symbol both of conquest and resistance, the Virgin's flexible historical trajectories make available a pre-Cortesian past as well as a post-Cortesian history of struggle. As Norma Alarcón explains, “her invention was underway as the national Virgin Mary and goddess only twelve years after Cortes' arrival,” and she became “capable of alternatively evoking the Catholic and meek Virgin Mother and the prepatriarchal and powerful earth goddess.”44 Hence Tepeyac itself became a shifting relay among multiple traditions and opposed political and social demands.
“Mericans,” the first of Cisneros's stories to take up this complex icon and the site of her apparitions, offers the narrator Micaela's brief account of the hours she and her two brothers spend waiting and playing in the famous square before the shrine to la Virgen de Guadalupe in Mexico City, while their “awful grandmother” prays inside the church (17). The portrait of the square and the Basilica emerges through a series of prohibitions (“we must not … we cannot … we have promised”). Micaela's jocular, irreverent tone reduces her abuelita's sign of the cross to “kissing her thumb” and renames the repetitive prayers of the rosary “Mumbling. Mumbling. Mumbling” (17). Micaela repeatedly moves between the church where her grandmother prays and the square where her brothers play. Counterpoised to her unwillingness to join in the insistent prayers of the “awful grandmother” are her frustrated attempts to enter her brothers' constantly shifting games. These games, like the square and the church, are defined by prohibitions made primarily in gendered terms.
Outside, Micaela watches as a tourist asks in a “Spanish too big for her mouth” for “Un foto” of Micaela's older brother. When Micaela's brother offers his siblings some gum, the tourist exclaims, “‘But you speak English!’” Micaela's brother then replies nonchalantly, “‘Yeah … ‘we're Mericans’” (20). Here the story undercuts the “relation of mastery predicated between the seer and the seen.”45 The tourists' approach and their mistaken presumption of the children's nationality link the space of the shrine to the global commodity markets of tourism. In contrast, Micaela correctly assesses the tourists' position (“they're not from here”), supplanting their reliance on a standard specular frame (a visual code that makes ethnicity and nationality identifiable via skin color) with a cultural acumen marked by normative gender assignments: “Ladies don't come to church dressed in pants. And everybody knows men aren't supposed to wear shorts” (20).
The tourists have come in search of an unchanging Other, a relic outside their own temporal order. So they attempt to include Micaela's brother in their construction of a quaint portrait that can be preserved and taken home. For the tourists, the young boy is as static and unchanging, as outside their own temporality, as the Basilica itself. The irony of the story is that the tourists themselves become objects of curiosity and amusement. Hence,, the Basilica is simultaneously represented as religious shrine and tourist site, an object of veneration and of curiosity, although for the children it appears to be neither. Or rather, it is alternately theater and playground as well as tourist site and shrine. The juxtaposition of the presumptuous tourists and the disapproving “awful grandmother” characterizes the crossing of identities forced upon the children and suggests the kind of shuttle diplomacy in which the collection itself engages. The story concludes abruptly with Micaela's musing refrain, “We're Mericans, we're Mericans, and inside the awful grandmother prays” (20). “Mericans” plays upon “Americans” and “Mexicans.” Micaela opposes this hybrid identity category to the “awful grandmother,” who seems to function metonymically as both the Church and Mexico.46 But “Mericans” also suggests the children's hybridized sense of space; the next story, “Tepeyac,” makes that sense even more complex.
As Laura Pulido points out in another context, the state has a commercial and national interest in producing certain places as objects of desire.47 Tourist guides provide maps of potential experiences and pleasures at such sites, cooperating with the state by promising to deliver them unchanged and outside of time. Literature often participates in this process, of course, but “Tepeyac” reverses the work of the guidebook, suggesting that the object of desire is not the place but an unrecoverable, unnamable memory. “Tepeyac” follows “Mericans,” but the significance of their juxtaposition is complicated. The narrator of “Tepeyac” is an adult, not a child; the story is an intimate, internal journey, not an amusing snapshot or episode. Yet like a guidebook, “Tepeyac” enumerates the highlights of a walking tour, focusing, however, on the commercial and less picturesque aspects of the tourist site—shoe-shine men, photographers, “women frying lunch in vats of oil,” people selling holy cards and balloons, and the neighborhood tortillería and tailorshop (22-23). By interweaving memories of walking to her grandfather's store and descriptions of people who make their living taking advantage of tourists and pilgrims, the narrator deprives Tepeyac of its privileged status. In some sense, she “privatizes” the shrine; more importantly, she suggests that, in Massey's words, places require “the notion of articulation.”48 No place exists apart from the social interactions that construct it or the discursive systems that elaborate it.
As the walking tour nears an end, the narrator begins a count, in Spanish, of the steps from the street to her grandparents' door. Then, in an extraordinary transition, she continues the count until it identifies not steps but the years that have passed since her visits to Tepeyac as a child. The story thus brings us into the “present tense” of the narrator, who has returned to find everything in the neighborhood transformed, including the earthquake-damaged Basilica, which is now “crumbling and closed” (23). If tourism flourishes by alternately invoking the comfort of sameness and the anxiety of disappearance and loss, “Tepeyac” functions as a means of confronting loss and change. What is lost for the narrator, however, seems not to be the once-familiar neighborhood; her visit is not an attempt to recover a memory or return to an experience. Rather, the trip is an effort to acknowledge the loss of a memory, to indicate its unavailability and lay it aside. The narrator notes that among his grandchildren her grandfather was “least familiar with” her, and he did not remember her. As an adult she suggests the surprise he might have felt that she, “after all this time,” is the one to “remember when everything else is forgotten, you who took with you to your stone bed something irretrievable, without a name” (23). “Tepeyac” becomes an allegory of an irretrievably lost relationship with a beloved grandfather and, by extension, with Mexico because both relationships were truncated and fragmented.
Katherine Rios insightfully argues that the “I” who remembers in “Tepeyac” is “the transgressive one who crossed over” the multiple borders between Mexico and “that borrowed country” (23), between memories and expectations, and then began to write about these crossings.49 In the slippage between steps and years, “Tepeyac” allegorizes the costs of these crossings. The story's title indicates the potential breadth of this loss. Tepeyac is the pre-Cortesian place name, and for the child of “Mericans” it is a meaningless fragment, a spatial referent without a history. For the adult narrator, Tepeyac is more than a remnant of the havoc wrought by imperialism. It is more than the place name left behind by a conquered, largely dismantled, and romanticized earlier civilization: it also suggests alternatives to the current hegemonic order. To allegorize it is to keep that alternative within memory's reach.
Three hundred years after the Virgin purportedly appeared at Tepeyac, the Alamo, a shrine originally dedicated to San Antoino, became a symbol of nationalism and Manifest Destiny. In 1835 Texans declared their independence from Mexico. Early the next year, the battle over the Alamo, a church with a collapsed roof surrounded by the walls of a former convent and barracks for the various Indian communities enslaved by the Spanish prior to Mexican independence, was waged. Better armed and fortified, though outnumbered, the young republicans barricaded themselves inside the Alamo but were nonetheless defeated by Mexican troops. The defeated settlers transformed their loss into highly effective propaganda, making “Remember the Alamo” a battle cry for revenge. During the 1846-1848 U.S. war against a newly decolonized Mexico, the battle cry resurfaced and was again used to justify U.S. aggression. During the next few decades the Alamo served first as an army post and then as a supply store and whisky house. The site itself disappeared from public memory, although the battle cry continued to circulate, encapsulating a series of dyads that fed the national imaginary: us/them, civilized/savage, Anglo/Mexican, conquest/defeat, ours/theirs; pure-bred/mongrel.50
It is important to note that the Alamo did not settle immediately into the hyperreal site made famous in movies and tourist brochures. At the turn of the century a fierce battle was waged first to preserve the original buildings and later to control their memory.51 Adina de Zavala, who led the preservation battle, wanted to remember the Alamo as a mission church, thereby recalling its role during the Spanish colonial period and signaling Mexican American history in Texas. Intent on preserving the memory of the Tejanos who fought alongside Anglos for the independence of Texas, de Zavala, the granddaughter of the first vice-president of the Republic of Texas, collected numerous maps and histories of the church and fort and lobbied for funds to purchase the Alamo for public preservation. She turned to Clara Driscoll, who donated the funds and subsequently wrested control of the buildings from de Zavala. Driscoll advocated a narrative of Texas independence that centered at the Alamo and eliminated any reference to Tejanos' participation in the independence movement or in the government of the Republic. Heir to a railroad and ranching fortune that grew in part through the economic reconfiguration of South Texas—a reconfiguration that left Tejanos economically devastated—Driscoll began the process of producing the Alamo as a tourist site and symbol of white supremacy. Her campaign to preserve the site as a symbol of Anglo masculinist heroism resulted, in Richard Flores's words, in the “bifurcation of the past, as events between ‘Texans’ and ‘Mexicans,’ and the uncoupling of the Battle of the Alamo from its social and political ground legitimate[d] the place of Anglo-Americans in the emerging class structure of South Texas.”52 Battles over the shrine's lagacy continue in rituals such as the Anglo-controlled Festival of San Jacinto and the Chicano crowning of El Rey Feo.53
Unlike Tepeyac, which functions as a central construct in two of Cisneros's stories, the Alamo apparently serves only to situate the reader. The story's title quotes the battle cry, “Remember the Alamo,” but the site itself is given only cursory attention: “Every Thursday night at the Travesty. Behind the Alamo, you can't miss it. One-man show, girl. Flamenco, salsa, tango, fandango, merengue, cumbia, cha-cha-chá. Don't forget. The Travesty. Remember the Alamo” (63). The Travesty is a gay Chicano club featuring drag shows; the narrator, Rudy Cantú, dances there as “Tristán,” a name that means “very sad” and plays with “tan, tan,” a common Spanish phrase for “The End.” The club's name also puns on the surname of William Barret Travis, who apparently arrived in Texas shortly before its declaration of independence, having recently killed a man and abandoned his wife and children.54 According to the mythology that developed around the battle for the Alamo, at a crucial point Travis told the defenders that they were doomed to defeat and then drew a line in the sand, daring all those committed enough to cross the line and continue to fight.55 Whether true or not, the story has come to embody Anglo masculinity and heroism. Calling the gay club “The Travesty” ironically critiques conventional masculinity as symbolized by the Alamo's constellation of war, death, courage, and violence. Cisneros reworks the site as “the place” of homosexuality, which functions as the necessary scandal of heterosexuality. The club's location “behind” the Alamo positions it in the heart of a tourist zone but outside of tourism's purview. “Remember the Alamo” both quotes the battle cry and ironically twists its significance, reducing it to a directional signal while suggesting that the Alamo itself has more than one meaning.
The narration of “Remember the Alamo” is periodically fractured by a list of unexplained names that force the reader to speculate on their significance; between these chunks of names, the narrator, Rudy Cantú moves in and out of the character Tristán. Through a contrapuntal alternation between fantasy and disavowal, the story alludes to Rudy's alienation from his family, his loss of lovers, and his early sexual molestation, as well as to his ongoing experience with homophobia, shame, and illness. The speaking subject assumes two positions, and in the interstices between them we get a mini-portrait, a retablo, of the enforcement of homophobia through space. Speaking of Tristán, Rudy claims: “He's not scared of the low-rider types who come up at the Esquire Bar, that beer-stinking, piss-soaked hole, jukebox screaming Brenda Lee's ‘I'm Sorry.’ ¿Eres maricón? You a fag? Gives them a look like the edge of a razor across lip” (66). Built into this portrait of hate speech is Rudy's fantasy of a response, his desire to enact violence against the speaker: the razor screams across the homophobe's lips, the victimizer's blood flowing in time to Brenda Lee's wailing. This scenario demonstrates how hate-speech polices space by invoking fear, implying that it is not safe for Rudy to enter the ironically named Esquire Bar. If in his fantasy life Tristán can walk the streets of San Antonio unharassed, Rudy cannot. Uttering the word maricón—coupled with the gay man's anxiety that the word might be accompanied with physical violence—clears the streets, so to speak, produces boundaries and limits, exits and entrances. Sexual spatial segregation is maintained: the Travesty counters the Esquire, or, in a binarist spatial logic, enables the Esquire's dominance.56
What, then, does this story have to do with the Alamo? How does it challenge the dominant narrative of the shrine and its place in public memory? “Remember the Alamo” suggests that public monuments have more than one meaning and more than one function. If they are used to organize public memories, they may also be appropriated to organize countermemories. In this sense, the Alamo is not, or is not simply, a sign of a white-supremacist, nationalist narrative but is also the ironic pointer for a contesting narrative of struggle and defiance. By using the battle cry to point to alternative social spaces, the story puts into play multiple meanings of the Alamo and hence of the nation for which it pretends to be a synecdoche but may be simply a prosthesis.
In “Little Miracles, Kept Promises,” Tepeyac returns for yet another examination, perhaps suggesting an unquenchable human desire to recapture a relationship with an “original,” unmediated place. After quoting a series of ex-votos, Rosario De Leon reconsiders La Virgen de Guadalupe.57 For Mexicanos and Chicanas, ex-votos traditionally commemorate a miracle or blessing received, or record a promise should a petition be answered. More importantly, they are public expressions that form an archive of a community's needs and concerns. People have appropriated the walls of churches in this manner to tell the stories of their profoundest concerns. It is significant that Rosario's reconsideration of Tepeyac comes after a series of ex-votos, since ex-votos contributed to the mythology that developed around the Virgin of Guadalupe and were the source from which the first two published texts on the site drew their material.58 Rosario's story is in itself a kind of ex-voto. Indeed the resonances between these ex-votos and many of the other stories in the collection suggest that ex-votos may be a model for the structure of Cisneros's collection. Furthermore, as Rosario's ex-voto reconsiders Guadalupe's meaning, it draws attention to the spatial implications of this particular form of religious expression.
Rosario describes her initial rejection of the icon and denounces its role in enforcing the subjugation of Chicanas. Avoiding the roles of “madre sufrida” (long-suffering mother) and “la dolorosa” (the sorrowful one) entails refusing to venerate the icon that symbolizes the ideology of subjugation. She concludes that she can “empower” herself only by rewriting the narrative of “the virgin” through a rethinking of place:
I don't know how it all fell in place. How I finally understood who you are. No longer Mary the mild, but our mother Tonantzín. Your church at Tepeyac built on the site of her temple. Sacred ground no matter whose goddess claims it.
That you could have the power to rally a people when a country was born, and again during civil war, and during a farmworkers' strike in California made me think maybe there is power in my mother's patience, strength in my grandmother's endurance.
Rosario resuscitates the history of Tepeyac to transform the narrative of the Virgin of Guadalupe that had all but replaced the original narrative of Tonantzín. Rosario's models of power incorporate only public struggles, which she treats as analogous to her mother's and grandmother's “patience” and “endurance.” This translation from the public to the private through the nostalgic revival of a supplanted consensus neatly mirrors the ongoing contests over the meaning of public monuments, even as it remains caught within the structure that governs their production. Thus, the “public” meaning inspires the production of a “private” meaning.59 If Rosario attempts to disrupt the ruling consensus (so that Tepeyac symbolizes a rebellious refusal to submit instead of a conquered Mexico), she does not actually supplant it. Similarly, the gay club's ironic name can comment on prevailing interpretations of the Alamo's history, but it cannot force the Daughters of the Alamo to reconsider the version of events they offer tourists. For both these attempts at defiance depend upon the dominant consensus to establish their own identity, and they also come finally to rely on a static concept of place. Yet by positioning these two monuments in relation to one another, and by juxtaposing multiple conceptions of them, Cisneros's stories unmask their apparent fixity and transparency.
The contrapuntal play between the Alamo and Tepeyac makes it easier to understand places as processes, as nodes in articulated networks rather than static locales. The ecclesiastical erasure of Guadalupe's pre-Cortesian past and the refusal of the Daughters of the Alamo to acknowledge the mission/fort's role in the organization of Spanish and Mexican communities are examples of what Walter Mignolo calls the “colonization of memory.” Woman Hollering Creek responds to such colonization through remembering and rewriting. It enables us to understand how, “seen from an Amerindian perspective the world, more often than not, looks like coexisting territories within the same space.”60 Tepeyac, for example, home to a millennial-old tradition, is also a tourist site and a contemporary religious shrine. These coexisting territories refer to one another, but their simultaneity is not universally acknowledged. Because places emerge out of complex systems of articulation, acknowledging that they exist as simultaneous, not successive, topographies requires fluency in several discursive systems. The value of such fluency—the ironies it makes possible as well as the bitterness it implies—emerges neatly when Rudy Cantú says, “Remember the Alamo.” Questions such as which Alamo should be remembered, and how, are built into that statement and left unanswered.
By giving Tepeyac a textual weight allowed no other site in this collection, and by situating “Remember the Alamo” in the midst of the Tepeyac stories, Cisneros establishes an alternative mapping system that implies what Mignolo calls the “mobility of the center,”61 and thereby challenges the dominant locus of articulation. One narrator, for example, refers to the United States as “el otro lado” [“the other side,” 69], thus giving Mexico nominating power. If, as Brian Harley argues, maps traditionally center their cultures' “Holy Lands” in order to establish a “subliminal geography” that gives “geopolitical force and meaning to representation,”62 then the alternate mappings provided in these stories suggest a differently conceived space that challenges the consensus about what public monuments such as the Alamo and the Basilica “mean” and what kinds of hegemonic work they can continue to perform.
THE VIOLENT COPULA BETWEEN PUBLIC AND PRIVATE
It may belabor the obvious to point out that the monumental status of public structures reflects a social commitment to the entrenched logic of the (gendered, racialized, sexualized) public/private binary. What may be less apparent is the extent to which violence, or the threat of violence, pervades this matrix. Put another way, if monuments function to announce and preserve notions of “the public” and of available, shared space, they do so in tandem with a widespread anxiety about the looming violence inherent in using public spaces. Almost built into public structures themselves is a longing for the private, for a safety that is not shared. This perception of the public as dangerous and the private as safe has extraordinary ramifications.
Feminist geographers argue that some women develop individual mental maps, charting their routes, their living spaces, and their leisure choices through a series of risk-assessment scales emerging from their fear of sexual assault.63 These maps reflect women's assumption that they are safest at home and most at risk in public. Such maps, however, mistakenly chart the geography of crime. The majority of violent crimes against women occur in homes and are committed by acquaintances.64 One of the primary effects of this “mismapping” is the reproduction of public space as (apparently) available to all yet fully accessible only to some. So while public space is constructed to invite full participation, to invite all to identify themselves as fully vested citizens, it can guarantee its status only by withholding complete rights and privileges from the majority. Public space “belongs” to men (albeit to some men more than others) because women are ostensibly “at risk” in it; they may not claim it as theirs to navigate freely.
Why do women fear the “wrong” spaces and the “wrong” people? Because when parents, schools and other governmental institutions, and the media incessantly warn about crime, they overwhelmingly locate it in public spaces. Indeed, virtually all the “sources of information from which women learn about sexual danger suggest it is a public sphere phenomenon.”65 From an early age women are taught to worry about sex crimes; as a result they develop a set of “unspoken rules about dress, behavior, lifestyle, sexuality, and female loyalty and passivity in relationships” and construct “a series of boundaries in the physical and social worlds which [women] must not cross if they wish to remain safe.”66 Young girls are taught to limit their public movements to restricted arenas, while boys' access to space increases as they grow older.67 As women grow older, their “mental maps of feared environments are elaborated by images gained from hearing the frightening experiences and advice of others; and from media reporting.”68 Yet another source of women's anxiety about public space is sexual harassment.69 Rachel Pain contends that “the common occurrence of sexual harassment in public space acts to remind women of sexual danger by routinely creating a state of insecurity and unease amongst women.”70 A habit of blame also comes into play here. The seemingly innocuous question, “What was she doing there?” blames victims for their attacks and implicitly accuses them of faulty orienteering. As Mark Seltzer puts it, the serial killer's piles of bodies have “come to function as a way of imagining and situating, albeit in violently pathologized form, the very idea of ‘the public’ and more exactly, the relations of bodies and persons to public spaces.”71 The media's production of the paranoid public sphere exaggerates its danger, and if it suggests that men too may be at risk, this fact does not alleviate women's concerns.72
In three stories, Cisneros offers a stunning analysis of the problematics of the public/private binary and the costs entailed in challenging its myriad contradictions. “One Holy Night” explores how the threat of violence to women reinscribes gendered space. If the street “properly” belongs to men, women working on corners and in front of stores are interlopers—suspect, available, and unprotected. They are made responsible when attacked because a “good girl” would know better. The public/private binary also shores up domestic violence by keeping it tucked away. The story “Woman Hollering Creek,” in a chilling revision of the llorona myth, offers an illustration of the complex role of violence within patriarchy.73 Valentine argues that the “inability of women to enjoy independence and freedom to move safely in public space is … one of the pressures which encourages them to seek from one man protection from all,” thus reinforcing women's “confinement” in homes and creating a “cycle of fear [that] becomes one subsystem by which male dominance, patriarchy, is maintained and perpetuated.”74 Yet another impact of the rendering of public space as dangerous is that women are less mobile. Limiting women's mobility limits the range of their desires. It makes the category of the “flâneuse” inconceivable and transforms women who insist on mobility, on transgressing boundaries, into prostitutes. “Eyes of Zapata,” examines the experience of a woman who defies these structures and calls into question spatial categories that attempt to control her.
“One Holy Night” brings to an abrupt halt the series of memory pieces in Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories. From a small Mexican town, a young narrator recounts, almost in the form of a testimonio, the events that led up to her “Holy Night” with an older man and her subsequent exile. The nameless thirteen-year-old narrator describes meeting “Boy Baby, Chaq Uxmal Paoloquin,” a thirty-seven-year-old man who befriends her as she tends the family pushcart selling mangoes and cucumbers. She accompanies him one afternoon to his rented room, where he shows her his gun collection and they have sex. When the narrator reveals that she is pregnant, her grandmother vainly goes in search of “the demonio,” takes the narrator out of school, burns “the pushcart and [sends her] here, miles from home, in this town of dust, with one wrinkled witch woman who rubs [her] belly with jade, and sixteen nosy cousins” (27).
The story points insistently to the spatial logic that condemns the narrator; indeed, nearly the first words out of her mouth show the extent to which she has internalized that logic: “I don't know how many girls have gone bad from selling cucumbers. I know I'm not the first” (27-28). As a young girl working alone in public, she is always already sexually available and suspect, nearly public property. The narrator never distances herself from that characterization, nor does she critique the spatiality that renders it plausible. She is adamant, however, in her refusal to accede to its logical extension: “I'm not saying I'm not bad. I'm not saying I'm special. But I'm not like the Allport Street girls, who stand in doorways and go with men into alleys” (28). That a spatial referent denotes prostitutes and that a spatial metaphor is later used to describe the narrator's mother, who “took the crooked walk too” (28), suggest how much sexuality and normative gender assignments are understood spatially or are made manifest through references to space.
“One Holy Night” illustrates the myriad discourses that help to naturalize this spatial logic and render it invisible. One of the most interesting means of obscuring this use of spatiality is the discursive refusal to characterize the narrator's sexual encounter as rape, even though it involves a young, vulnerable, clearly naive girl and a much older man. Throughout “One Holy Night,” the narrator refers to the movies, songs, and secrets that have provided her education on sexuality. In hindsight she suggests the inadequacy of that education and the extent to which her romanticized view of a privileged heterosexuality has been demolished. At the same time, she avoids describing her experience as rape by emphasizing her own agency. She thus builds a case for her own culpability and suggests that this assault was what she desired because she was “in love” with Boy Baby. She then slides over Boy Baby's display of guns with its implicit threat of violence:
It was there, under one bald bulb, in the back room of the Esparza garage, in the single room with pink curtains, that he showed me the guns—twenty-four in all. Rifles and pistols, one rusty musket, a machine gun, and several tiny weapons with mother-of-pearl handles that looked like toys. So you'll see who I am, he said, laying them out on the bed of newspapers. So you'll understand. But I didn't want to know.
Having shown the girl a menacing array of weapons, Boy Baby spins a tale of Mayan temples, tears, and insurrection, and then says, “You must not tell anyone what I am going to do” (30). His injunction to secrecy further ritualizes the ensuing sexual assault because it presumes a narrative of shame. So despite her desire to believe the contrary, the narrator's agency is located not in a choice to have sex (that is something Boy Baby will “do” to her) but in a choice to keep silent. The guns function not simply to guarantee the image Boy Baby builds of himself as a revolutionary but also to warn the narrator of his potential for violence. Why else would she view the guns and wish not “to know”? Her rush not to know who Boy Baby really is contrasts starkly with her desire to know the rituals and secrets of romanticized heterosexuality.
The narratives that the family turn to also block recognition of the encounter as rape. Without the category of “rape,” the narrator bears ultimate responsibility for her pregnancy, and its spatial underpinnings remain opaque. An economy of blame helps to obscure the nature of the encounter and undergirds the spatial logic that facilitates it: “When Abuelita found out I was going to dar a luz [have a baby], she cried until her eyes were little, and blamed Uncle Lalo, and Uncle Lalo blamed this country, and Abuelita blamed the infamy of men” (32). Blame circulates among the family members, and blame circulates transnationally, with morality nostalgically located in Mexico: “But Uncle Lalo says if they had never left Mexico in the first place, shame enough would have kept a girl from doing devil things” (28). Uncle Lalo's response suggests a rhetoric of mourning and loss developed complexly around the family's earlier escape from a sentence of shame: “[T]hey were going to send me to Mexico, to San Dionisio de Tlaltepango, where I have cousins and where I was conceived and would've been born had my grandma not thought it wise to send my mother here to the United States so that neighbors in San Dionisio de Tlatepango wouldn't ask why her belly was suddenly big” (33). By coming “here” because “there” was no longer tenable, the familiar structures of “there” are left behind; those structures are then nostalgically refigured as guarantors of a morality that can now be understood only as forfeited. Also, by blaming the “infamy of men,” Abuelita invokes men's traditional role as protectors of women. And by calling it “infamy,” Abuelita assigns to herself, and by extension to all women, a certain helplessness that ensures the continuity of the violence of patriarchy and the inevitability of men exploiting their physical dominance over women.
Throughout much of the story, the reader moves with the narrator—along streets with the pushcart, in front of a grocery store, into a room “that used to be a closet—pink plastic curtains on a narrow window, a dirty cot covered with newspapers, and a cardboard box filled with socks and rusty tools” (29), back through streets into a kind of captivity, and finally to lonely isolation. The narrator again turns to spatial metaphors to describe her impulse to proclaim her hard-won knowledge: “I wanted to stand on top of the highest building, the top-top floor, and yell, I know” (30). This panoramic point of view contrasts sharply with her ever narrowing world, and her desire to recapture it drenches the story in bitter irony. The young narrator has learned what “her place” is, and she desperately wants to transcend it. Yet she must battle instead with the lesson Esther Madriz contends all women learn as part of their socialization, that “some rights are reserved for men, such as the right to use public places.”75 Foreclosing mobility is clearly one means of limiting the range of desire.76
Cisneros's title story explores a different aspect of spatiality—how private violence is tacitly sanctioned by the arrangement of public space. The central figure, Cleófilas, has moved from a town in Mexico to Seguin, a small town in Texas several hours north of the border. Shortly after her marriage, Cleófilas's husband begins to beat her. When she becomes pregnant with her second child, she insists on a visit to the doctor. A nurse sees her bruises and arranges for a friend to drive Cleófilas to San Antonio so that she can escape her increasingly violent husband by taking a bus back to her father's home in Mexico.
Cleófilas lives in isolation, flanked by her disinterested neighbors Soledad and Dolores (solitude and sorrow). Her husband ensures her isolation and dependence upon him by refusing to allow her to write or phone her family in Mexico. Her sense of isolation appears heightened by the spatial design of Seguin:
This town of dust, despair. Houses further apart perhaps, though no more privacy because of it. No leafy zócalo in the center of town, though the murmur of talk is clear enough all the same. No huddled whispering on the church steps each Sunday. Because here the whispering begins at sunset at the ice house instead. This town with its silly pride for a bronze pecan the size of a baby carriage in front of the city hall. TV repair shop, drugstore, hardware, dry cleaner's, chiropractor's, liquor store, bail bonds, empty storefront, and nothing, nothing, nothing of interest. Nothing one could walk to, at any rate. Because 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. There is no place to go. Unless one counts the neighbor ladies. Soledad on one side, Dolores on the other. Or the creek.
Cleófilas characterizes her home in Mexico in terms of relationships, however vexed, while she characterizes Seguin in terms of her isolation and hopelessness. The Mexican town's main space for organizing sociality, the central town square (el zócalo), has been replaced by a “bronze pecan the size of a baby carriage.” The other organizer of relationships, the church, has been replaced by the bar (the ice house). The ice house subsumes both the zócalo and the church steps into a commodified and alcohol-mediated sociality that largely excludes women caring for children. The other spaces in the town are also organized around commodity exchange, shutting out someone with few economic resources. Cleófilas's “map” of the city, imbued as it is with her sense of the structure of her relationship with her husband, provides few models for resistance. In mapping the city, Cleófilas effectively shows how its spatial structure reinforces the patriarchal system that leaves her bleeding and bruised. Absent from this map are the battered women's shelters, crisis care centers, or ESL schools that might help her respond to abuse without having to return to “a father with a head like a burro and those six clumsy brothers” (45), who don't necessarily ensure her future safety or happiness.
The spatial organization of Seguin combines with Cleófilas's social isolation to give her a sense that violence is closing in on her:
Was Cleófilas just exaggerating as her husband always said? It seemed the newspapers were full of such stories. This woman found on the side of the interstate. This one pushed from a moving car. This one's cadaver, this one unconscious, this one beaten blue. Her ex-husband, her husband, her lover, her father, her brother, her uncle, her friend, her co-worker. Always. The same grisly news in the pages of the dailies. She dunked a glass under the soapy water for a moment—shivered.
This chilling inventory of commonplace violence accompanies a commonplace activity—washing dishes. The glass submerged in water symbolizes Cleófilas's immersion in abuse and isolation. The repetition emphasizes the pervasiveness of violence, just as Cleófilas's map emphasizes her powerlessness to escape the next attack.
Cleófilas's eventual escape is dependent on mobility; Cisneros thus reinforces the extent to which mobility is a carefully restricted privilege. Women are not allowed to move about freely. As Dolores Hayden explains, “One of the consistent ways to limit the economic and political rights of groups has been to constrain social reproduction by limiting access to space.”77 Curtailing women's mobility makes it more difficult for them to take advantage of the economic opportunities that shape spatial production and challenge systems of social reproduction. Limiting women's movements therefore not only curtails the range of their desires but also hinders their financial independence.
“Eyes of Zapata,” one of the most complex stories in Cisneros's collection, portrays Inés Alfaro, a woman who runs up against this prohibition against movement and encounters the myriad linguistic and physical traps set to punish women who attempt to move about freely and pursue their desire to live independently. The bloody efforts of the Mexican government to put down Zapata's revolution frame the narrative. Bodies “twist like leather” in the sun; towns are “burned and blistered” as Zapata's forces attempt to overthrow a repressive system of land management. Yet one of the limitations of this revolution emerges as Inés describes her mother's and her own persecution because they refuse to adhere to the codes “appropriate” for women.
Throughout the story, Inés complains about the way language structures mobility. Derisive words function as directional devices—stop, yield, merge, caution—regulating the flow of desire, directing the course of behavior, and channeling power. Inés reveals the implicit violence built into the murmured words that regulate mobility and structure spatiality: “Mujeriego. I dislike the word. Why not hombriega? Why not? The word loses its luster. Hombriega. Is that what I am? my mother? but in the mouth of men, the word is flint-edged and heavy, makes a drum of the body, something to maim and bruise, and sometimes kill” (105). Mujeriega means “skirt-chaser.” Inés's question suggests that there is no equivalent category for women; their pursuit of desire is not sanctioned even by slang: hombriega means “prostitute.”
Inés might just as easily have asked, “Why not callejera?” a term analogous to mujeriega. A callejero wanders the streets; he is a flâneur, a loiterer. Even more than the word flâneur, callejero emphasizes the spatial aspects of desire (since calle means avenue or street). A callejera, however, usually connotes a prostitute. Thus, words like hombriega and callejera are parodies of themselves. And they parody a woman's attempt to define her own desires, to suggest that she might legitimately have access to mobility, to space, to self-defined pleasure. Callejera and hombriega are the whispered words of regulatory gossip, once again indicating how knowledge and behavior are catalogued and governed through gossip.78 But these words also suggest that such categories cannot of themselves curtail desire. Finally, these terms usefully draw attention to the way the regulation of space reinforces the regulation of desire and pleasure, and the extent to which social reality, in all its minutia, is spatialized.
Inés's query, “Why not hombriega?” goes unanswered, even as it echoes throughout the collection, indeed throughout Cisneros's poetry as well.79 That it is left unanswered points to the difficulty of responding without reconstituting the grounds of inquiry; as Yolanda Broyles-González astutely notes, “Asking new questions [requires] the designing of a new informational politics.”80 To this end, Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories makes manifest, in story after story, the extent to which the shaping of space, whether for social or economic reproduction, has an impact on identity, desire, and experience. Cisneros's nuanced and superbly crafted collection draws attention to these shaping forces and relentlessly critiques them through parody, blunt asides, and painful meditations. Like the speaker in Evangelina Vigil-Piñon's poem, “Tavern Taboo,” who complains, “I hate to walk by a man and be psst at / I hate to sit at a table at some mistake joint / and be psst at,”81 the collection grinds against the gears of the informal and formal mechanisms of control that all too often violently reproduce the spatial status quo.
Sandra Cisneros, Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories (New York: Random House, 1991), 84. All citations from this story collection will be given parenthetically in the text.
Don Mitchell elaborates on this point to argue that “landscape is both a work and an erasure of work” (The Lie of the Land: Migrant Workers and the California Landscape [Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1996], 6). Mitchell further suggests that the production of landscape is in part an attempt to remove a scene from contemporaneity and thereby make it static and untouched by the political economy.
Johannes Fabian argues in Time and the Other: How Anthropology Makes Its Object (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1983) that temporal modalities are often used to reinforce a series of hierarchies. Western European anthropologists, for example, presume a hierarchy of progress toward something like “civilization” (contemporaneous with European society). This conception uses time as a means to naturalize moral hierarchies. Those communities not considered “Western-European” lag behind Europe in the progressive race toward civilized culture. In this sense, calling the landscape of “Bread” “charming” suggests that it is being shifted out of contemporaneity and into a realm either of nostalgia or “underdevelopment.” In either case, the privileged position (coevalness) lies with the fluid temporality of the observer.
Cindi Katz, “Growing Girls/Closing Circles,” in Full Circles: Geographies of Women over the Life Course, ed. Cindi Katz and Janice Monk (New York: Routledge, 1993), 88.
As Caren Kaplan puts it, “When a ‘place on a map’ can be seen to be a ‘place in history’ as well, the terms of critical practice have made a significant shift” (Questions of Travel: Postmodern Discourses of Displacement (Durham, N.C.: Duke Univ. Press, 1996), 25.
Doreen Massey, Space, Place, and Gender (Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1994), 2.
Ibid., 154, 155.
Edward Soja, Thirdspace: Journeys to Los Angeles and Other Real-and-Imagined Places (Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell, 1996), 46.
Gillian Rose, Feminism and Geography: The Limits of Knowledge (Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1993), 37.
Edward Soja, Postmodern Geographies (London: Verso, 1989), 6.
It is not surprising that Sandra Cisneros has written a text so deeply aware of spatiality. In an early essay she explains that she wrote The House on Mango Street (1985) in part as a response to Gaston Bachelard's The Poetics of Space. She found herself resisting the tendency to romanticize space evinced by her fellow graduate students at the Iowa Writers Program; she also found herself highly conscious of the effects of her own life on her perceptions of space; see her “Ghosts and Voices: Writing from Obsession,” The Americas Review 15 (spring 1987): 69-72.
Massey, Space, Place, and Gender, 180.
Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life (Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press, 1984), 118.
Ross Chambers, “Messing Around: Gayness and Loiterature in Alan Hollinghurst's The Swimming-Pool Library,” in Textuality and Sexuality: Reading Theories and Practices, ed. Judith Still and Michael Worten (Manchester, Eng.: Manchester Univ. Press, 1993), 207, 208. I have also found helpful Chambers's “Pointless Stories, Storyless Points: Roland Barthes between ‘Soirées de Paris’ and ‘Incidents,’” L'Esprit Créateur 34 (summer 1994): 12-30; and “Mediations and the Escalator Principle,” Modern Fiction Studies 40 (winter 1994): 765-806.
Chambers formulates loiterature as an extension of Michel de Certeau's theories of perspective and narrative, which emerge from his discussion of the flâneur. The playful concept of loiterature is useful not only because it expands de Certeau's concept of storytelling as ruse, but also because it brings to the fore literature's ongoing engagement with spatiality. Chambers's use of the flâneur offers an important narrative paradigm for initially exploring Cisneros's collection, but its connection to a masculinist bourgeois trajectory may limit its valences. Contemporary geographers have also found the concept of the flâneur appealing, and there are many analyses of the figure of the flâneur. Among the most useful is Elizabeth Wilson's “The Invisible Flâneur,” in Postmodern Cities and Spaces, ed. Sophie Watson and Katherine Gibson (New York: Routledge, 1995), 59-79.
Philip Brian Harper, Framing the Margins (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1994), 11.
In my discussion of contrapuntal techniques, I am drawing upon Fernando Ortiz's landmark text Cuban Counterpoint: Tobacco and Sugar (Durham, N.C.: Duke Univ. Press, 1995), and Edward Said's Culture and Imperialism (New York: Vintage, 1994).
Kristin Ross, The Emergence of Social Space: Rimbaud and the Paris Commune (Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1988), 8.
It is useful to point out here that this narrative style has something in common with the testimonio, a genre that Sonia Saldívar-Hull argues has been important for contemporary Chicana writers; see her forthcoming Feminism in the Borderlands (Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press). Thus the text can be understood, like the testimonio, as “a practice, a part of the struggle for hegemony” (George Yudice, “Testimonio and Postmodernism,” in The Real Thing: Testimonial Discourse and Latin America, ed. George Gugelberger [Durham, N.C.: Duke Univ. Press, 1996], 57). My claim is not that these stories are testimonios or that testimonios provide the generic paradigm for them, but rather that the stories often resonate with the voices and concerns of testimonios.
Cisneros has directed performances of “Little Miracles, Kept Promises” in San Antonio, Texas.
Lisa Lowe, Immigrant Acts: On Asian American Cultural Politics (Durham, N.C.: Duke Univ. Press, 1996), 116.
Francine Masiello, “Melodrama, Sex, and Nation in Latin America's Fin de Siglo,” Modern Language Quarterly 57 (June 1996): 270.
For an informed discussion of language in the collection, see Harryette Mullen, “A Silence between Us like a Language”: The Untranslatability of Experience in Sandra Cisneros's Woman Hollering Creek,” MELUS 21 (summer 1996): 3-20.
Kristin Ross, Fast Cars, Clean Bodies: Decolonization and the Reordering of French Culture (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1995), 35.
Philip Fisher, Hard Facts: Setting and Form in the American Novel (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1985), 9.
Edward Said, Culture and Imperialism, xiii.
See David Harvey, Justice, Nature, and the Geography of Difference (Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell, 1996), 231.
Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith (Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell, 1991), 383.
Bill Brown, “Science Fiction, the World's Fair, and the Prosthetics of Empire, 1910-1915,” in Cultures of U.S. Imperialism, ed. Amy Kaplan and Donald E. Pease (Durham, N.C.: Duke Univ. Press, 1993), 129.
Sahagún, quoted in Jacques Lafaye, Quetzalcoatl and Guadalupe: The Formation of Mexican National Consciousness, 1531-1813 (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1975), 215.
See Ana Castillo, introduction to Goddess of the Americas/La Diosa de las Américas: Writings on The Virgin of Guadalupe, ed. Ana Castillo (New York: Riverhead Books, 1996), xix.
In his highly influential work, Jacques Lafaye argues that there is a great deal of evidence that missionaries initially installed at Tepeyac an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe of Estremadura, Spain, known as the “Dark Lady of Villuercas” and credited with helping to defeat the Moors in 1492. This “Spanish Virgin” was apparently the favorite icon of Cortes as well as other Conquistadores; her placement would have been both a reflection of Cortesian power and a practice within the long Catholic tradition of converting a local populace by subsuming their religious tradition into Catholicism. According to Lafaye, the Virgin of Guadalupe at Tepeyac quickly developed a local history and missionaries erased nearly all ties to Estremadura, in part because they wanted to keep the alms in Mexico rather than turn them over to Spain. Thus her feast was switched from September to December and a new image was proffered. See Lafaye, Quetzalcoatl and Guadalupe, 211-53.
The extraordinary phrase “pre-Cortesian” is taken from Rafael Pérez-Torres and serves to emphasize the more destructive arrival of Hernán Cortes rather than that of Columbus, while also calling attention to the imposition of Cartesian epistemologies; see Pérez-Torres, Movements in Chicano Poetry: Against Myths, Against Margins (Cambridge, Eng.: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1995), 19.
Woodrow Borah, “Queen of Mexico and Empress of the Americas: La Guadalupana of Tepeyac,” Mexican Studies/Estudios Mexicanos 12 (summer 1996): 331.
See Margarita Zires, “Los mitos de la Virgen de Guadalupe. Su proceso de construcción y reinterpretación en el México pasado y contemporáneo,” Mexican Studies/Estudios Mexicanos 10 (summer 1994): 292.
As Lafaye explains, “Miguel Sánchez went so far as to claim that the image of Guadalupe was ‘the first creole woman, a native of this land’” (Quetzalcoatl and Guadalupe, 250).
See Zires, “Los mitos de la Virgen de Guadalupe,” 293.
Miguel Sánchez, Imagen de la Virgen María, quoted in Zires, “Los mitos de la Virgen de Guadalupe,” 296.
See Sylvia Santaballa, “Nican Motecpana: Nahuatl Miracles of the Virgin of Guadalupe,” Latin American Indian Literature Journal 11 (spring 1995): 52.
See Borah, “Queen of Mexico and Empress of the Americas,” 338, and Santaballa, “Nican Motecpana,” 53.
Castillo, introduction to Goddess of the Americas/La Diosa de las Américas, xvi.
See Zires, “Los mitos de la Virgen de Guadalupe,” 286.
See Maria Herrera-Sobek, The Mexican Corrido: A Feminist Analysis (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1990), 42.
Norma Alarcón, “Traddutora, Traditora: A Paradigmatic Figure of Chicana Feminism,” Cultural Critique 13 (fall 1989): 60.
Mary Louise Pratt, Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation (London: Routledge, 1992), 204.
Compare this pun to Tato Laviera's notion of “AmeRíca,” a play upon Puerto Rico and America that also challenges nationalist identity constructions; see his AmeRícan (Houston: Arte Público, 1985).
See Laura Pulido, Environmentalism and Economic Justice: Two Chicano Struggles in the Southwest (Tucson: Univ. of Arizona Press, 1996), 204-5. Pulido is writing about the state of New Mexico's construction of an enchanted indigenous heritage and local activists' ability to take advantage of that fetishization. This construction is also, of course, a way to elide the production of atomic knowledge in that region and the history of Chicano and Pueblo literary resistance to it.
Massey, Space, Place, and Gender, 8.
Katherine Rios, “‘And You Know What I Have to Say Isn't Always Pleasant’: Translating the Unspoken Word in Cisneros' Woman Hollering Creek,” in Chicana (W)rites: On Word and Film, ed. Maria Herrera-Sobek and Helena Viramontes (Berkeley, Calif.: Third Woman Press, 1995), 202.
For useful discussions of the Alamo in popular culture, see the essays collected in Alamo Images: Changing Perceptions of a Texas Experience, ed. Susan Prendergast Schoelwer (Dallas, Tex.: Southern Methodist Univ. Press, 1985).
The history throughout this section is taken from Richard Flores, “Private Visions, Public Culture: The Making of the Alamo,” Cultural Anthropology 10 (February 1995): 99-115.
See Holly Brear, Inherit the Alamo: Myth and Ritual at an American Shrine (Austin: Univ. of Texas Press, 1995), 18-22.
Sonia Saldívar-Hull first pointed out to me the ironic punning on Travis's name.
See Rudolfo Acuña, Occupied America, 3d ed. (New York: Harper & Row, 1989), 8-9.
Edward Soja and Barbara Hooper explain that modernist binarisms such as capital/labor, self/other, individual/collective effectively naturalize the uneven development upon which capital depends; see their “The Spaces that Difference Makes,” in Place and the Politics of Identity, ed. Michael Keith and Steven Pile (London: Routledge, 1993), 183-205.
For a useful introduction to ex-votos, see Jorge Durand and Douglas Massey, Miracles on the Border: Retablos of the Mexican Migrants to the United States (Tucson: Univ. of Arizona Press, 1995).
The museum of the Basilica of Guadalupe, for example, includes an early ex-voto that shows a procession of children begging the Virgin of Guadalupe to relieve them from the 1544 Plague of Cocolixtli, while other paintings illustrate the apparitions (See Durand and Massey, Miracles on the Border, 13-14).
It should be noted that the United Farm Workers' use of the Virgin of Guadalupe was not without its detractors. In a brief but useful discussion, Pulido points out that the use of the Virgin worked as a “form of praxis and reinforced culture as difference,” but this tactic also became the “subject of scorn.” So, for example, one supporter withdrew her financial backing of the farm workers because of their use of religious icons (see Pulido, Environmentalism and Economic Justice, 202).
Walter Mignolo, The Darker Side of the Renaissance (Ann Arbor: Univ. of Michigan Press, 1995), 127, 246.
Brian Harley, “Deconstructing the Map,” in Writing Worlds: Discourse, Text, and Metaphor in the Representation of Landscape, ed. Trevor J. Barnes and James S. Duncan (London: Routledge, 1992), 236.
My discussion of women's fear of public space draws from the following works: Rachel Pain, “Space, Sexual Violence, and Social Control: Integrating Geographical and Feminist Analyses of Women's Fear of Crime,” Progress in Human Geography 15 (December 1991): 415-31; Yvette Flores-Ortiz, “La Mujer y La Violencia: A Culturally Based Model for the Understanding and Treatment of Domestic Violence in Chicana/Latina Communities,” in Chicana Critical Issues, ed. Norma Alarcón et al. (Berkeley, Calif.: Third Woman Press, 1993); and Gill Valentine, “The Geography of Women's Fear,” Area 21 (December 1989): 385-90.
In Nothing Bad Happens to Good Girls (Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press, 1997), Esther Madriz explains that while “victimization rates are lower among women and the elderly than among men and the young,” women and the elderly, across racial lines, fear crime more than men (11). Additionally, “in spite of all the messages suggesting that women are safer at home, women murder victims are more than ten times as likely as men to have been victims of intimate violence. In 1992 about 75 percent of violent crimes committed by lone offenders and 45 percent of those committed by multiple offenders were perpetuated by someone known to the victim” (17). Representations of women and crime are also at odds with statistical indicators: “Women are more likely to be victims of property crimes, muggings, and domestic violence, yet the media continually depict women as predominantly victims of sexual attacks. This image reinforces the idea that what is most important about women is their sexuality” (85).
Pain, “Space, Sexual Violence, and Social Control,” 421.
Katz, “Growing Girls/Closing Circles,” 90-93.
Valentine, “The Geography of Women's Fear,” 386.
See Madriz, Nothing Bad Happens to Good Girls, 61.
Pain, “Space, Sexual Violence, and Social Control,” 417.
Mark Seltzer, “Serial Killers (II): The Pathological Public Sphere,” Critical Inquiry 22 (fall 1995): 129.
While physical violence threatens women as a class, it does not affect women uniformly. White women are much safer in public spaces than they typically imagine, and women of color face additional and complex spatial risks. Some lesbians experience frequent verbal assaults as well as physical threats and violence. The geographies of racism and homophobia intersect with crime to force women to navigate spaces differently. Women are valued differently, and this difference is reflected both in statistics and responses to violence against women; see Madriz, Nothing Bad Happens to Good Girls, 12. Effective means of preventing violence vary drastically among women (see Flores-Ortiz, “La Mujer y La Violencia,” 168), and the majority of public resources targeted at prevention have been designed and distributed with heterosexual white women in mind; see G. Chezia Carraway, “Violence against Women of Color,” Stanford Law Review 43 (July 1991): 1303-50; Milyoung Cho, “Waking Up from a Domestic Nightmare,” Third Force 2 (May/June 1994): 25-29; Kimberlé Crenshaw, “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color,” Stanford Law Review 43 (July 1991): 1241-99.
For an important analysis of this revision, see Sonia Saldívar-Hull's forthcoming Feminism in the Borderlands. For other discussions of the reworking of the llorona myth, see Tey Dianna Rebolledo, Women Singing in the Snow: A Cultural Analysis of Chicana Literature (Tucson: Univ. of Arizona Press, 1995). For a critique of this revisioning, see Rosaura Sanchez, “Reconstructing Chicana Gender Identity,” in American Literary History 9 (summer 1997): 350-64.
Valentine, “The Geography of Women's Fear,” 389.
Madriz, Nothing Bad Happens to Good Girls, 19.
Further complicating this story is the revelation, near its close, that Boy Baby may be a serial killer: “The next thing we hear, he's in the newspaper clippings his sister sends. A picture of him looking very much like stone, police hooked on either arm … on the road to Las Grutas de Xtacumbilxuna, the Caves of the Hidden Girl … eleven female bodies … the last seven years …” (34). This image contrasts with the portrait “Boy Baby” had built of himself as Chaq Uxmal Paloquín, a Mayan prince, who will lead an uprising and “bring back the grandeur of my people from those who have broken the arrows, from those who have pushed the ancient stones off their pedestals” (29). Not surprisingly, Boy Baby has used this narrative to seduce the young narrator, and in granting her the status of his queen, “Ixtel,” he has ceremoniously erased the great age difference between them. More significant, however, is the suggestion here of a link between a serial killer and colonialism, between a nearly prosaic sense of a history of oppression and an individual figure who uses that history not to lead an uprising but to murder young girls. The story, in some sense, suggests in the geography lesson that “Chaq” imparts (“making a map with the heel of his boot, this is where I come from, the Yucatán, the ancient cities,” 27) that serial killing is a latter day version of imperialism, colonization individuated. Yet another way to approach this complicated plot detail is to read it as a critique of a kind of vulgar cultural nationalism—one that proclaims a readiness to revolt against oppressors while relying on a cinematic visual and narrative code that romanticizes and commodifies earlier resistance efforts and depends on the exploitation of women in its creation of a heroic masculinist warrior stance.
Dolores Hayden, The Power of Place: Urban Landscapes as Public History (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1995), 22.
See Masiello, “Melodrama, Sex, and Nation in Latin America's Fin de Siglo,” 277.
See Sandra Cisneros, My Wicked, Wicked Ways (Berkeley: Third Woman Press, 1987), and Loose Woman (New York: Alfred Knopf, 1994).
Yolanda Broyles-González, El Teatro Campesino: Theater in the Chicano Movement (Austin: Univ. of Texas Press, 1994), xvi.
Evangelina Vigil-Piñón, “Tavern Taboo,” in Infinite Divisions: An Anthology of Chicana Literature, ed. Tey Diana Rebolledo and Eliana S. Rivero (Tucson: Univ. of Arizona Press, 1993), 188.
For carefully reading this essay and providing helpful criticism and encouragement, I would like to thank Daniel Cooper Alarcón, Ali Behdad, Myriam Chancy, Kate McCullough, Catherine Ramirez, Sonnet Retman, José Saldívar, Sonia Saldívar-Hull, Valerie Smith, Edward Soja, Teresa Tensuan, and Dorothy Wang.
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9397
SOURCE: Carbonell, Ana Maria. “From Llorona to Gritona: Coatlicue in Feminist Tales by Viramontes and Cisneros.”1MELUS 24, no. 2 (summer 1999): 53-74.
[In the following essay, Carbonell investigates the influence of the fertility goddess Coatlicue and the mythical Mexican figure of La Llorona in “Woman Hollering Creek” and Helena Maria Viramontes's “The Cariboo Café.”]
In Borderlands/La Frontera, Gloria Anzaldua discusses the significance of the pre-conquest fertility goddess, Coatlicue, to contemporary Chicana feminist struggles. According to Anzaldua, “Coatlicue states which disrupt the smooth flow (complacency) of life are exactly what propel the soul to do its work: make soul, increase consciousness of itself” (46). A psychic and emotional process foregrounding conflict and struggle instead of easy resolutions and compliance to social oppression, the Coatlicue state encourages Anzaldua to delve into the depths of her consciousness and acknowledge the negative forces affecting her life, among them racism, homophobia, poverty, and misogyny. Coatlicue brings suffering to the forefront of consciousness, providing a clearer vision as to whom or what to confront. She prompts Anzaldua to assert herself fully in the face of external psychic, physical or emotional violence so she will emerge completa or whole: instead of victimhood, Coatlicue encourages resistance against external forces that diminish a sense of self. In pitting creative resistance against destructive energy, this ancient goddess, representing “a cosmic process” rather than a fixed entity, embodies the act of struggle inherent within the principle of contradiction—the dynamic tension between conflicting forces, such as creation and destruction, lightness and darkness, masculinity and femininity.2
Many goddesses have descended from Coatlicue, among them Cihuacoatl, the patron of midwives who, like her precursor, embodies a holistic figure that embraces both death and creation. In turn, Anzaldua and many folklorists have drawn the connection between Cihuacoatl and the legendary Mexican and Chicano figure of La Llorona (the weeping or wailing woman).3 Recurring themes in the maternal legend of La Llorona include: her white dress; her wandering at night wailing at the loss of her children whom she has often killed herself; and her association with water—she either roams by bodies of water or drowns her victims. Similarly, Cihuacoatl covers herself in chalk, dresses in white, and wanders the streets at night weeping and wailing, foreboding war (Barakat 290).
Within folkloric literature on the La Llorona legend, La Llorona emerges as both a figure of maternal betrayal and maternal resistance. While she is most often imagined as a destructive figure, contemporary Chicana writers Helena Maria Viramontes and Sandra Cisneros, by constructing defiant Llorona heroines in their respective short stories, “The Cariboo Cafe” and “Woman Hollering Creek,” have propagated and vitalized the set of tales about maternal resistance. Their contemporary Llorona tales give voice to the violated Latina mother who, in “The Cariboo Cafe” fights against poverty, a military dictatorship and the U.S. immigration service (INS) and, in “Woman Hollering Creek,” struggles against wife battery and economic and emotional dependency on men. Viramontes and Cisneros do not explicitly invoke La Llorona's pre-conquest antecedents in their writings, yet they make implicit references to pre-conquest figures, and their Llorona heroines undergo a transformative process that strikingly resembles the process described by Anzaldua in her “Coatlicue State.” In putting these writers in dialogue with ethnographic literature on La Llorona and with contemporary Chicana feminist work, such as Anzaldua's, a genealogy of La Llorona as both an ethnographic and literary figure emerges that foregrounds her as a resistant, culturally specific maternal figure.
In examining ethnographic accounts dating back to the colonial period, La Llorona and her antecedent, Cihuacoatl, repeatedly emerge as dangerous and destructive figures. These tales of maternal betrayal describe La Llorona as a treacherous, selfish woman who murders her own children, usually through drowning. The motivations provided include: insanity, parental neglect or abuse, and/or revenge for being abandoned by a lover. In addition, La Llorona often seeks to murder other children or women out of envy for her loss and to seduce or kill men out of spite.4 Since she is usually associated with water, water emerges as a negative image through which she commits her treacherous and vengeful deeds. Sometimes she is condemned to wander eternally the streets at night lamenting her sins, echoing a Christian model of repentance that attests to the enormous destructiveness of her actions (Obregon 15; Lomax Hawes 159; Horcasitas and Butterworth 210 and 212). In all these cases, her behavior stems from a state of selfishness or insanity disconnected from a social setting, carrying little social value.
La Llorona's precursor, Cihuacoatl, has also been mobilized as a destructive figure. According to Fray Diego Duran writing in 1570, Aztecan high priests would manipulate the image of this popular goddess as a “cunning device” to obtain more sacrificial victims for their war gods. These priests would solicit an ordinary woman to impersonate Cihuacoatl and carry a cradle that contained not a child, but a sacrificial knife. She would then disappear into a body of water, strategically leaving the cradle with the knife behind, so others would interpret it as a sign that the gods desired more sacrificial victims (Duran 171-77; Anzaldua 95).
Nevertheless, these negative portrayals have not succeeded in fully erasing the holistic attributes of these ancient figures. As Anzaldua has suggested, the Aztecs debased La Llorona's pre-Columbian antecedents by splitting apart their original all-inclusive contradictory natures. Cihuacoatl, originally the patron of midwives, is an ancient earth goddess of both war and birth. However, the militaristic Azteca-Mexica culture, which terrorized other civilizations by, as Duran suggests, manipulatively demanding sacrificial victims for their war gods, focused on her destructive aspects by replacing Cihuacoatl's child—a sign of fertility—with the sacrificial knife (Nash 350 and 355; Candelaria 2; Messinger Cypess Chapter 2). This exchange of symbols transmuted her exclusively into an agent of destruction and erased her life-giving powers as a fertility goddess. More generally, the Azteca-Mexica culture split Coatlicue's multifaceted attributes by severing her numerous descendants—Tonantzin, Coatlopeuh and Cihuacoatl—from one another. Tonantzin and Coatlopeuh became the “good mother” while Cihuacoatl became the “bad mother” (Anzaldua 27).
The Spanish polarized Coatlicue's attributes even further. They desexualized and continued to extol Tonantzin and Coatlopeuh, associating her with Our Lady of Guadalupe or the Virgin Mary, and oversexualized Cihuacoatl (Anzaldua 27-28), associating her with the seductive La Llorona who, in turn, has been linked to the highly denigrated La Malinche, Cortes's Indian slave, translator, guide and consort.5 Because La Malinche was used as a sexual object by the Spanish, she has been misguidedly labeled a whore and has inherited the epithet of La Chingada who, in contrast to the closed aggressive act of el chingon, according to Mexican cultural critic Octavio Paz, represents complete openness and voluntary submission. Paz claims she willingly opened herself up, sexually, politically, and culturally, to the Spanish, permitting the downfall of indigenous Mexico (Paz 86). Fortunately, several excellent feminist revisions of La Malinche have recently emerged which locate her within the political and social climate of the conquest, articulating her limited choices as a slave and elucidating her constructive behavior as a mediator between the Spanish and the indigenous peoples, who found themselves on the brink of annihilation.6
This pervasive denigration of female agency in Mexican culture has created the well-known virgin-versus-whore paradigm, a dualistic structure that attempts to police female behavior by extolling the Virgin's passivity and selflessness while denigrating figures who take action, such as La Malinche and La Llorona, as selfish, treacherous and destructive. Within such a worldview, Our Lady of Guadalupe is divested of her rebellious, proactive potential and seen as all-giving and completely selfless; La Malinche's constructive and proactive abilities as a mediator between Spanish and Indian peoples are labeled traitorous, holding her exclusively responsible for the downfall of indigenous Mexico; and La Llorona—a combination of both extremes—is depicted as a seductress and murderess who continues either to commit treacherous behavior or eternally and impotently weep for her sins. This binary opposition, representing women as either safely passive or dangerously active, undercuts the principle of duality embedded within La Llorona in the shape of Coatlicue, a principle that by its very definition not only allows for, but encourages female agency. Coatlicue encourages resistance by pitting the desire for survival against the act of destruction.
Despite these negative portrayals of La Llorona and Cihuacoatl, depictions of La Llorona as a resistant maternal figure who confronts the unjust race, class, and gender hierarchy of colonial Mexico also emerge from within folkloric literature. By emphasizing' the lover's betrayal and locating his actions within a social context, these ethnographic accounts highlight the hostile forces influencing La Llorona's life and provide a social reason for her behavior. In describing La Llorona's race or class position and claiming the lover abandons her to mary another woman of his own higher social status, these interpretations register the unegalitarian structure of colonial society and shift the onus of responsibility for the tragic outcome of the tale—culminating in the act of infanticide in some versions—from La Llorona to the lover. One particular variant, collected in Reseda, California from a woman born in San Antonio, locates La Llorona within colonial Mexico and shows the extreme disenfranchisement of Indian mothers in this society:
When the Spanish arrived in Mexico, they were impressed by the beauty of the Indian children. The Spanish took the children (the most beautiful) and gave them to their wives. Some of the Indian women killed their children in order to keep the Spaniards from taking them. La Llorona is one such woman. She now is searching constantly for her children, whose faces she sees in all children. She kills the children to be united with her own again.
(Lomax Hawes 159)
In this instance, La Llorona's ability to protect and care for her children is severely threatened. The actions of the Spanish not only rupture the mother-child bond, but also catapult the Indian children into servitude—they become objects of beauty for the Spanish women. La Llorona's infanticide in this version is not vengeful, but rather constitutes a desperate attempt to continue to exercise her maternal rights—to protect her offspring from virtual enslavement within the Spanish world. Also, unlike the tales of maternal betrayal, this Llorona's killing of other children “to be united with her own” is not out of envy, but out of a desire to defend them as well against the aggression of the conquistadors. Historicized versions such as this one provide a social frame for La Llorona's actions, suggesting her infanticide is not the result of female psychological aberration but rather, as Chicano anthropologist Jose Limon has explained, constitutes “an induced national malaise, a perhaps temporary insanity produced historically by those who socially dominate” (86).7 Whereas the historical context may not necessarily justify her behavior—her deeds may be extreme and even inappropriate—it may, at least, explain her actions, showing that her response cannot be interpreted in isolation from the hierarchical social system that surrounds her.
In these Llorona tales of resistance, maternal identity resembles feminist psychoanalytic definitions of the female “self-in-relation,” an interdependent versus a dependent or independent self.8 Yet, whereas the female self's community consists of other interdependent adults, the “community” to which the maternal self belongs is comprised of dependent children. Therefore, the maternal self is responsible for defending her own welfare as well as that of her children. Consequently, La Llorona's actions in these tales of resistance constitute a necessary, if extreme, response to domination that allows her to continue to enact her motherlove—to protect and nurture both herself and her children.
These maternal-resistance tales give literary form to Anzaldua's “Coatlicue State.” By focusing on the lover's betrayal, these narratives name the oppressor and explicitly introduce the source of La Llorona's suffering, thus providing her with something tangible to combat. Viramontes and Cisneros pick up on this set of tales by focusing on the male perpetrator and contemporizing the historical frame. They “transculturate”9 dominant representations of the maternal self rooted in popular depictions of La Llorona tales of betrayal by teasing out and highlighting constructive indigenous figures already inscribed within this hybrid figure.
In “The Cariboo Cafe,” La Llorona's perpetrator is not her lover but the governments of her country and the United States, overtaken by a male-dominated international military state comprised of a Central American dictatorship and the INS. This military complex betrays her by suddenly abducting her child and dismembering her relational maternal self. In “Woman Hollering Creek,” the Mexican heroine's oppressor is her abusive husband living en el otro lado—on the other side of the border—who betrays her romantic notions of female dependency and the American dream. Viramontes's and Cisneros's heroines undergo a psychic transformation much like entering Anzaldua's Coatlicue state. Whereas at first they cannot apprehend the extent to which they are negatively affected by a military state or wife battery, eventually, upon entering literary spaces that represent the depths of Coatlicue's powers—the Cariboo Cafe and Seguin, Texas, respectively—they grasp the magnitude of their oppression and respond with resistance. They reclaim their voice by transforming themselves from Llorona figures who wail at their loss into Gritonas who holler at their oppressors.
Like other Llorona tales of maternal resistance, Viramontes's narrative is rooted within particular historical events, namely the recent wave of dictatorial rule throughout Latin America. Similar to the Indian Llorona in the Reseda account who loses her children to the Spanish ruling class, Viramontes's protagonist, the nameless washer woman, loses her child to the prevailing power structure: She embodies one of the many Latin American women (and men) who has lost a loved one under a totalitarian regime. Viramontes demonstrates how the tactics of these dictatorships elicit responses in the population that mimic La Llorona's unceasing search for her lost children. Because these regimes ambiguously label their victims “disappeared;” friends and family can never confirm their loved ones' deaths with absolute certainty. Such ambiguity enables the dictatorship officially to evade accountability and to instill psychological disequilibrium in the community. For the survivors, then, “[t]he disappeared maintains a permanent and imaginary presence” (Schroeder and Giorgi). The washer woman explicitly identifies herself as a Llorona figure who joins others like her in search of her lost children. She says: “It is the night of La Llorona. The women come up from the depths of sorrow to search for the children. I join them, frantic, desperate … wailing” (68).
As one of the disappeared, the washer woman's son Geraldo “maintains a permanent and imaginary presence” in his mother's psyche. The historical circumstances of her life—the military's cruel and confusing tactics—generate her obsession with retrieving Geraldo. Like La Llorona who endlessly seeks out her children, the washer woman understandably continues to search for her son even when she crosses the border into the U.S. In this tale, La Llorona embodies one of the thousands of Latin American women, such as the famous Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo in Argentina, who continue to wail for, shout for, and demand official acknowledgment of the “disappeared.”
Like a mythical ghost, La Llorona wanders through the pages of Viramontes's text, wailing at the loss of her child while she continues to combat the external forces disrupting her familial life. A victim of patriarchal abuse, this Llorona refuses to be silenced and let her son's “disappearance” vanish from the official record. Her presence registers the active transformation of familial separation and destruction into familial preservation and reconstruction. Instead of accepting defeat, she reconnects familial ties broken by government policies that sanction war, terrorize people, and create conditions of poverty. This behavior marks the endurance of the Coatlicue state—the incarnation of struggle prompted by acknowledging destructive forces and refusing to fall victim to them.
The fragmented, multi-ethnic world of Los Angeles in the 1980s constitutes the historical framework of “The Cariboo Cafe.” The U.S.'s global economic and political policies have induced worldwide migrations, bringing together people from various social backgrounds in this postmodern city. Viramontes links U.S. foreign policy with Latin American dictatorships by showing the interrelated effects they both have on ostensibly unrelated characters. Both Latin American totalitarian states and the U.S.'s self-serving economic and political involvement in other countries, as in Vietnam and Latin America, disrupt familial unity in this narrative by killing children and creating extreme conditions of poverty. Through the use of a constantly shifting narrative voice, the text explores the lives of a non-Latino working class cafe owner, an undocumented Latina child, Sonya, and a political refugee from Central America, the washer woman.10 Viramontes links these characters by depicting each of them, to a different extent, as Llorona figures whose central concern in the tales of maternal resistance is to maintain or reestablish family unity so she can protect and care for her children. All of these characters either lose or are threatened with the loss of a child or dependent, and actively attempt, with varying degrees of success, to recuperate or prevent that loss.
The La Llorona narrative converges for all three of these characters in Macky, the young undocumented boy who, on the mythical level, represents La Llorona's endangered child. For Sonya, he is literally the younger brother she must protect; for the cafe owner, he represents Jo Jo, his son who died in Vietnam; and for the washer woman, he embodies her “disappeared” son Geraldo.11 Significantly, the threatened child is male, suggesting that La Llorona counters male hegemony not only by protecting her child from tyranny, but also by preventing him from participating in the patriarchal order himself. Like La Llorona who in many tales polices destructive male behavior, such as drunkenness, harassment or rape, by frightening or killing guilty men, this Llorona too attempts to control such behavior by holding fast to her boy and protecting him from the influences of the patriarchal world.12
The washer woman most explicitly embodies La Llorona as a resistant maternal figure because she “succeeds” in reconstructing her motherhood (albeit, as we shall see, through death) despite severe violation to the maternal self through poverty and the loss of her only son. In her mind, she can repair the maternal self only by reasserting her ability to protect and care for Geraldo. As the final scene unfolds, we see that in such a brutal environment reconstructing her motherhood takes place on a spiritual level in which she metaphysically reincorporates her son back into her womb, the only place where she can protect him from such hostile and uncaring external forces.
Both poverty and the washer woman's son's abduction cause the disruption of the mother-child bond. Poverty leads her to work incessantly, preventing her from enacting her maternal role of meeting her son's physical and emotional needs. More specifically, water becomes the active disruptive force: “When my son wanted to hold my hand,” she says, “I held soap instead. When he wanted to play, my feet were in pools of water” (70). Since la Llorona is repeatedly associated with water, and often negatively so, this reference to water unmistakably connects the washer woman to La Llorona.
Yet water has different connotations within the range of Llorona tales. While water usually holds positive qualities in Aztec mythology, associated with the Paradise of Tlaloc, this agriculturally focused society deemed excessive water and different kinds of water destructive, as the following transcription of the legend of Tlaloc demonstrates:
It is said that the abode of the God of water had four rooms, and that in the middle of a large patio there are four large jars of water. The water in one jar is very good, and from this jar come the rains when grain and seeds sprout and the weather is good. In another jar the water is bad, and when the rains come from this jar, cobwebs form on the grain and the grain mildews. The third jar contains water that sends freezing rains; the fourth jar sends the rains that prevent the grain from heading or cause it to wither.
Consequently, water in folkloric tales of La Llorona holds two meanings: Llorona tales of maternal betrayal interpret the water that surrounds La Llorona as disruptive—water becomes either the source of her victims' deaths or her means of escape; while tales of maternal resistance define the water as a source of rebirth—the Indian children in the Reseda account, for example, escape servitude through drowning. Viramontes's interpretation of water is complex: she capitalizes on the use of water as a detrimental force by associating it with the washer woman's unceasing back-breaking labor. As an index of her life-draining work, water becomes destructive through its excessive, unwelcome presence, interfering with the mother-child relationship, disrupting their bond and, therefore, endangering the child's well-being. Viramontes makes it clear, however, that this excessive water does not constitute an inherent aspect of her Llorona's identity. Rather, it arises from the external material conditions of her life. Unlike versions of the myth that link La Llorona's internal world with the destructive powers of water, Viramontes's narrative associates this harmful water with the dehumanizing economic conditions of the washer woman's outer social world against which she struggles.
The dictatorship's terroristic tactics more acutely violate the washer woman's motherhood. Geraldo's abduction, which occurs while he's en route to the corner store to buy his mother a mango, indicates the extent to which the dictatorship infiltrates this woman's life, suggesting that no female space is “private” and safe from patriarchal power. The military even infiltrates her psychological space by making her question her own maternal competence. Momentarily internalizing the version of the myth that portrays her as a selfish destroyer of children, she charges herself with parental neglect and self-centeredness: “It was my fault. I shouldn't have sent him out to fetch me a mango” (68). Her belief that her nephew's pregnant wife won't let her hold the newborn baby because she is a “bad omen” further connects her to the destructive Llorona figure who murders other people's children out of spite or envy. However, the text ultimately overturns this momentary self-doubt by focusing on the washer woman's unswerving commitment to motherhood. The magnitude of her resistance lies in refusing to let go of her relational maternal identity in the face of the dictatorship's non-relational aggressive worldview. Although the dictatorship physically severs her from her son, psychologically she upholds her relational sense of self and continues to search for her son.
Her search ends when she crosses the border into the U.S. and finds Sonya and Macky wandering the streets of LA, lost and without parental care. Since Macky has no adult mother and she has no son, she assumes he must be her Geraldo, searching for her just as she seeks him. She takes the two children to the “Double Zero Cafe”—the endpoint of human survival where the most abysmal of human conditions exist. In this space, ex-cons/junkies OD, vomit and defecate on walls; undocumented immigrants run and hide “like roaches when the lightswitch goes on”; and a bigoted owner, who has lost his sense of self because he has lost his family, calls the police on human beings he can only see as “illegal.” It is a place where an impoverished washer woman from Central America gets shot to death for refusing to let go of the boy she believes is her son. This cafe constitutes Coatlicue's place—a site of contradiction where life and death, beauty and horror come together: Coatlicue … es el monstruo que se traga el sol cada dia y le da luz cada manana” (Anzaldua, 46); Coatlicue is the monster who swallows the sun every day and gives it light each morning. In this zone, the washer woman enters “the Coatlicue state” where she is pushed to confront the magnitude and horror of her oppression and respond with equally powerful actions—the acceptance of death in order to maintain her connection with her son. In this space, she finds “beauty;” since she reconstitutes her motherhood by refusing to lose her son again, as well as “horror,” since, in order to do so, she must face her own physical destruction.
In addition, the name of the restaurant, “the Cariboo Cafe,” alludes to a hidden indigenous presence. As Debra Castillo has pointed out, the two remaining letters—“OO,” which give the restaurant the name “zero zero”—presuppose that what is explicitly missing but implicitly present is the Carib, one of the first groups of Indians to be conquered by European conquistadors. The missing Carib therefore represents the suppression of indigenous peoples and suggests the washer woman's struggle is located on a continuum with the conquest. As Castillo states, “What remains undefined is the nameless act of violence that has suppressed the Carib, as well as the outline of the form the history of its repression might take” (81). By targeting and confronting her enemy within the confines of this cafe, this Llorona figure names the “nameless act of violence that has suppressed the Carib” and continues to suppress Latina women today.
The washer woman reconstructs her motherhood in this final scene at the cafe by becoming a speaking subject. She transforms her silence into laughter and howling. Because the objective of totalitarian regimes is to silence their populations—to turn people into objects who submit to the dictatorship—these direct affronts constitute an act of protest and demonstrate a mode of self-healing. Torturers terrorize their victims by telling them nobody will hear them if they scream and that it is futile to use their voice. Those who continue to live outside of detention do not dare to speak either, out of fear their words will be interpreted as “subversive,” and they too will be taken in for questioning, tortured, and become one of the “disappeared” (SERPAJ xvi-xvii). As one woman who lived through a military dictatorship explained, “The whole country was run like a prison. The actual prisons were merely the punishment cells” (Weschler 92).
One way in which victims of dictatorships can reconstitute their selfhood and at least partially overcome their trauma is to transform the self from the object of repression to the subject of one's actions (SERPAJ xvi), to move from silenced object to speaking subject. The washer woman's subjectivity undergoes precisely this transformation. Back in Central America, the first time her maternal self was violated, she was silenced into submission: when her friend Maria insulted the military by referring to them as “babes farted out of the devil's ass,” she responded with utter silence, checking to make sure nobody heard the affront (71). However, in LA, faced with losing her “child” once again when the cafe owner calls La Migra, she overcomes her silence and directly confronts her oppressors. Equating the INS with the Central American dictatorship (because the INS persecutes the very same people persecuted back home by sending them back to a politically threatening situation), she appropriates Maria's epithet. Whereas before she was silenced into submission, afraid of the impact of her words, this time she hollers at her oppressors, going even further than Maria by using the second person pronoun instead of the third, confronting her persecutors directly: “To hell with you all,” she says, “because you can no longer frighten me. … I will fight you all because you're all farted out of the Devil's ass, and you'll not take us with you” (emphasis added; 75).
Because of the military's extreme invasiveness into her maternal world, the only way to reconstruct her motherhood and regain control over Geraldo's well-being is by returning him to her womb:
She crushes Geraldo against her, so tight, as if she wants to conceal him in her body again, return him to her belly so that they will not castrate him and hang his small, blue penis on her door, not crush his face so that he is unrecognizable, not bury him among the heaps of bones, and ears, and teeth, and jaws, because no one, but she, cared to know that he cried.
She continues to preserve her connection to her son up through her death when she says, “But I hold onto his hand. That I can feel, you see, I'll never let go. Because we are going home. My son and I” (75). Significantly, the text gives the washer woman the last words of the narrative, asserting her connection to her son over the INS/police's fatal violence.
The description of the washer woman's death in liquid terms—as she is shot, she is “blinded by liquid darkness”—again connects her to La Llorona. Because she finds union with her son in the afterlife—she is going “home”—water becomes the medium through which she can actively transform her dismembered self into a unified maternal figure. As Limon has suggested, La Llorona kills herself and her children, usually through drowning, because water represents a place of rebirth.13 Unlike the excessive water that comes from her work, however, which functions to cleanse more economically powerful people by washing their clothes, this water cleanses her own spiritual well-being; it allows her to discard the mutilation and destruction she experiences in the material world for union with her son and wholeness in the spiritual world.
As a displaced political refugee, the washer woman has no place to call home. Because both her home country and the U.S. constitute hostile, abusive environments, she can only survive in a transmaterial world. Believing she is taking Geraldo/Macky with her (although literally he survives) in a continuation of his “imaginary presence,” the washer woman embodies La Llorona who kills herself and her children. Yet the killing here is not born out of spite, remorse or envy, but out of a desperate attempt to preserve her motherhood, mirroring Limon's view of the infanticide as “an induced national malaise … produced by those who socially dominate.” The political and economic conditions of this particular Llorona's life may not justify her suicidal and infanticidal behavior, but they do set the conditions for such extreme behavior. On a spiritual or psychological plane, at least—the only space available to her since the military has destroyed her physical connection with her son—the washer woman reconstructs and makes permanent her motherhood by refusing ever to lose her son again. Like others who have suffered under the injustices of Latin American dictatorships and who continue to protest for justice, the washer woman, in her own way, declares, nunca mas—never again.14
Similar to the washer woman in “The Cariboo Cafe,” Cleofilas, the Mexican protagonist of “Woman Hollering Creek,” regains her voice by transforming herself from a stereotypical Llorona figure, a weeping victim, to a Gritona, a hollering warrior. In contrast to the washer woman, however, who reconstructs the severed connection with her child, Cleofilas prevents the destruction of the maternal self in the first place by leaving her physically and emotionally abusive husband.
Like her precursor Coatlicue, La Llorona figure in this text—renamed La Gritona (the Hollering Woman)—forces Cleofilas to become aware of her inner power to defend herself by exposing her to life's contradictions: Cleofilas becomes aware of death and destruction, represented by male dominance, as well as survival, practiced by women's resistance to this aggression. La Gritona relentlessly pursues Cleofilas until she recognizes both the source of the violence that surrounds her and the power within herself to defend the maternal self. Notably, Tey Diana Rebolledo's interpretation of La Llorona in her reading of Anzaldua's poem, “My Black Angelos,” reflects Anzaldua's Coatlicue State. Rebolledo writes: “La Llorona stalks the speaker [of the poem] and infuses herself into her as finally La Llorona and speaker become one. … In spite of the fear, or terror or disgust we feel, in spite of the desire to be ‘safe’ from this horrifying creature and all that she represents, she is part of us and our culture. She will continue to stalk us and to haunt us until we come to terms with her” (80). Similarly, Cleofilas eventually “become[s] one” with La Gritona by eventually internalizing la Gritona's voice. First, however, she must “come to terms” with La Gritona/Coatlicue by recognizing the horrible aspects of her culture that constitute part of Coatlicue's duality. La Llorona who “stalks” her embodies Anzaldua's Coatlicue who induces women to recognize patriarchy and to struggle against it instead of accepting its aggression and falling victim to its violence. For Cleofilas, this means recognizing that patriarchy has infiltrated her own home in the form of a dominating, abusive husband.
However, Cleofilas's initial internalization of several rose-tinted myths—among them the American dream, idealized romantic love, and standard interpretations of the La Llorona legend—represses her ability to listen fully to La Llorona and to recognize the dangers of patriarchal society. These defense mechanisms impoverish her awareness as to whom or what she must confront, thereby debilitating her ability to defend herself and her children. Cleofilas must debunk these illusions in order to gain greater awareness of the external forces attacking her relational self, to recognize that her own husband is her most immediate adversary.
Filled with visions of romantic love and prosperity en el otro lado—on the other side of the border—Cleofilas marries Juan Pedro, a working class Mexican-American living in Seguin, Texas. Back in Mexico, left in charge of a household of seven men after her mother died, her daily life had consisted of “chores that never ended, six good-for-nothing brothers, and one old man's complaints” (43). In search of “passion”—the kind depicted in her favorite telenovelas—she leaves her monotonous life in Mexico for a man whom she believes will fulfill her every desire. Her illusions, however, fall apart one by one. America does not represent the land of prosperity she had envisioned; her luxurious dreams of fine clothing and a new home are shattered when Juan Pedro won't save money because he prefers to spend it on payments for his new pickup and won't take her to a much-needed prenatal appointment because he's ashamed the doctor will see Cleofilas's black and blue marks. Her aspirations are destroyed as she realizes this life of “happily ever after” includes a husband who not only deprives her of basic economic needs, but is also a slob, an emotional invalid, an adulterer and, worst of all, a batterer.
Her entrance into this abysmal situation in which all her dreams evaporate marks the place of growth and renewal for Cleofilas. Like the “zero zero place” in “The Cariboo Cafe,” this town by the creek where La Gritona dwells symbolizes the site of Coatlicue, a place of contradictions where the epitome of maternal violation—the beating of a pregnant wife—can be met with maternal self-defense. In Seguin, Texas, Cleofilas comes to terms with the horrible reality of wife battery and confronts it by recognizing her potential as a resourceful mother who escapes her batterer in the best way she can. She becomes aware of Coatlicue's all-embracing contradictions by experiencing a husband's abusive behavior first hand and acknowledging life's malicious underside for the first time. Her lived experience of married life provides her with greater knowledge about patriarchal gender relations, allowing her to shed her previous illusions that welcomed male dependency. Before, ignorant of patriarchal abuse, she willingly walked into the hands of her oppressor. Afterwards, recognizing her man of happily ever after as an antagonist, she makes the self-reliant choice to protect herself and her children by leaving him.
Like Viramontes, Cisneros alludes to pre-conquest culture by suggesting that the mystery of the creek's name—Woman Hollering—has indigenous roots. When Cleofilas asks about the name's origins, the townspeople respond with: “Pues, alla de los indios, quien sabe” (46); “Well, way back from the Indians, who knows.” The townspeople's flippant response suggests their inability to comprehend the significance of La Gritona's indigenous roots, of Coatlicue's power. Living in a post-conquest world, the town discards its Indian culture. Cleofilas, on the other hand, chooses to listen to the creek with its indigenous origins. As the text unfolds, her identification with “the Woman Hollering Creek” helps her to find the necessary strength and ability to move herself and her children out of a life-threatening situation, suggesting that the indigenous origins of the figure can provide important strategies of resistance for contemporary Chicana and Mexican women.
Cisneros transculturates depictions of La Llorona that portray her as a wailing, suffering victim by reconstructing her as a hollering, resourceful figure. Cleofilas herself changes from La Llorona to La Gritona as she transforms her world of pain and suffering into a world of self-sufficiency and autonomy. Upon arriving in Seguin, Texas, she espouses the views of her telenovelas that romanticize the anguish that comes with “loving” a man: “Because to suffer for love is good. The pain all sweet somehow. In the end” (45). Isolated from a more complex social world because houses in Seguin, Texas are so far apart women without cars depend on men for transportation, Cleofilas is wedged between two neighbors, Soledad and Dolores (Solitude and Pains), who spend all their time “remembering the men who had left” (47). The telenovelas and these neighbors romanticize male dependency and the pain and suffering such a frame of mind creates. Yet, Cleofilas also lives right next to the creek named after La Gritona, another “neighbor” whose alternative voice she initially cannot hear: “There is no place to go. Unless one counts the neighbor ladies. Soledad on one side, Dolores on the other. Or the creek” (51).
Supported by newspaper stories of countless women who, like her, are abused by men—husbands, boyfriends, uncles or co-workers—Cleofilas steers away from dependency on men and begins to listen to the creek. Her lived experience of her own “dream” delegitimizes the myths about prosperity in the U.S. and romantic love, bringing her even closer to the creek. Cleofilas sees her husband's betrayal most clearly when he hits her with one of her romantic novels—the only replacement for her telenovelas now that she lives in the U.S. without a television. The first time her husband beats her, she is so shocked she doesn't fight back; she even comforts him as he weeps and repents. But, when he hits her with her “love book,” the very symbol of passionate, caring male love, she cannot forgive him. His act of violence contradicts the male hero's prescribed behavior as a loving, passionate, and caretaking man, defying the ideology of romantic love contained within the novel. His use of this particular sacred item as a weapon starkly puts into relief the disjuncture between her lived reality and her previously held romantic notions.
Recognizing her husband as her enemy, Cleofilas turns away from Soledad and Dolores and goes to the creek. This arroyo, which calls to her as she sits on its banks with her baby boy, awakens her to her inner ability to protect herself and her dependent children from her husband's abuse. Her determination to resist patriarchal abuse, however, entails the contradictory realization that her most viable choice for survival includes what she most fears: to leave her husband and return to her father's house in Mexico—a safer yet different form of dependency on men.
Notably, as in “The Cariboo Cafe,” the child in this Llorona tale is also a boy, again suggesting that her maternal resistance to male hegemony includes holding fast to male children so they do not wander into the patriarchal world themselves. Like the mythical Llorona figure who punishes abusive male conduct, such as drunkenness, rape or harassment, this Llorona also circumvents errant male behavior.
The full potential of La Gritona's vigorous holler does not reveal itself until later in the narrative when Cleofilas meets two women at the health clinic, Graciela and Felice, who help her accomplish her goal of returning to Mexico. The presence of this supportive female community in this Llorona tale undermines standard depictions of the story in which La Llorona steals other women's babies out of envy. Instead of pitting women against each other because of the abuse they experience from men, Cisneros constructs an alternative narrative in which women work together to combat this abuse.
The names of these supportive women, Graciela and Felice—roughly translated as Grace and Happiness—sharply contrast with those of Soledad and Dolores. As these names suggest, Graciela and Felice replace the ideology of male-focused, romanticized suffering, embraced by Cleofilas's two neighbors, with female autonomy and self-fulfillment. Felice, who drives Cleofilas to the bus station, represents the zenith of female self-reliance. Firstly, she owns her own pickup truck—it's not her husband's or her brother's or her father's, as Cleofilas immediately assumes. The fact that she has bought her own vehicle and moreover a pickup—not a Pontiac Sunbird, which are, as Felice explains, “for viejas. Pussy cars … not a real car” like her truck (55), signals her ability to seize power from a world traditionally reserved for men. Her truck, more practical than a Pontiac, becomes an index of female self-sufficiency in a town where little is accessible on foot and public transportation appears to be insufficient or nonexistent. In contrast to Juan Pedro's pickup, which introduced Cleofilas into a world of confinement and abuse, Felice's truck brings Cleofilas greater liberation by providing her with the crucial transportation she needs to escape her batterer. As part of a community of women who assist each other in overcoming the cycle of female dependency, Felice embodies a relational self whose own self-sufficiency, materialized in her pickup, benefits the broader female community.
When Felice crosses La Gritona creek and “let[s] out a yell like any mariachi” and “hollers like Tarzan” (55), startling both Cleofilas and her son, she announces her autonomous and defiant sense of self. While Cleofilas had been wondering all along whether La Gritona hollers out of “pain or rage,” she finally learns that this shout registers something else—“a hoot,” a third term embodying the contradictions within the Coatlicue state—an exclamation of a woman's assertiveness in a world seething with male aggression. Felice's pickup demonstrates her autonomy, and the Tarzan-like nature of her holler declares her bold, self-protective posture in the face of potential adversaries. In embodying Tarzan, Felice again defies circumscribed gender roles by embracing an element of the traditionally male world, namely an assertive, fearless voice. Like her truck, this voice is not used for purposes of control and domination. Rather, it functions to defend and protect the relational female self.
Whereas Cleofilas does not “holler” within the confines of the narrative, the text suggests she begins to internalize La Gritona's voice and power. Because Cleofilas escapes one male-centered world to return to another, to a life with six brothers and a father in Mexico, it may be difficult to envision her as a self-reliant and defiant heroine. However, given the circumstances of her life—her pregnancy, her baby boy, poverty, and alienation from U.S. culture and the English language—her decision to return to her father's house becomes an act of survival. In refusing to generalize about all men by pointing out important differences between Juan Pedro and Cleofilas's father, the text portrays her father's home as a viable, safe alternative to living with Juan Pedro. Unlike her husband, her father had never raised a hand to her mother, and unlike a marriage, the love between a child and a parent, according to the text, is more resilient: “when a man and a woman love each other, sometimes that love sours. But a parent's love for a child, a child's for its parents, is another thing entirely” (43). When her father tells her, “I am your father. I will never abandon you” (43), Cisneros demonstrates the potency of parental love in nongendered terms. This statement attests to her father's steady commitment to his daughter and demonstrates how, like La Gritona, Felice, Graciela, and Cleofilas, he too can overstep gendered categories and embody a relational worldview.
Most importantly, Cleofilas's return to her father's home includes an important difference: she returns as a Gritona. The text traces Cleofilas's increasing connection with La Gritona until, as Rebolledo suggests, La Llorona and the protagonist “become one” and the same figure. When Cleofilas first arrives in Seguin, Texas, she immediately becomes intrigued by the name of the creek; then she hears La Llorona/La Gritona calling her; and then she meets Felice, La Gritona incarnate, who “hollers like Tarzan.” Finally, Cleofilas herself acquires La Gritona's voice: “Then Felice began laughing again, but it wasn't Felice laughing. It was gurgling out of [Cleofilas's] own throat, a long ribbon of laughter, like water” (56).
By transposing Felice's powerful Gritona voice onto Cleofilas, the text articulates Cleofilas's own ability to protect and care for herself and her children. In this story, Felice does not function as a female inversion of “the knight in shining armor,” saving helpless women from distress. Although she and Graciela assist Cleofilas in achieving her goal, the decision to leave her husband is ultimately Cleofilas's. Her own persistence and planning get her and her children out of Juan Pedro's domain: her insistence that he drive her to the doctor gives her the connection she needs with the outside world; her ability to save money, despite the fact she and her husband are in debt, gives her the necessary cash for the bus fares home and suggests a premeditated departure; and her reneging on her promise to Juan Pedro to keep silent about the battery to the doctor attests to her ability to take the initiative in helping herself by asking for assistance. In short, Cisneros fictionalizes the fact that a battered women will not leave her batterer unless she makes the decision to do so herself—unless she finds her own voice.
The final lines of the narrative indicate Cleofilas's transformation by having “laughter” replace the suffering she previously embraced from her telenovelas. In associating water with a “long ribbon of laughter,” Cisneros defines water, which traditionally encircles La Llorona figure, as a source of positive change, overturning standard interpretations of the myth that connect water with death and destruction. In contrast to Viramontes's use of water to refer to the washer woman's labor as an external destructive force, but similar to her use of it as a source of rebirth, Cisneros draws on predominant interpretations of water in Aztec mythology as representing a productive realm, a source of vegetation and life. Instead of murdering her children, Cleofilas saves herself and her children from a life-threatening situation through the renewed vitality she finds in the realm of water in the creek. Resembling Anzaldua's “Coatlicue state,” Cleofilas plunges into La Gritona's watery depths and emerges completa, continuing to struggle for survival. Her laughter, “gurgling from her throat,” depicts the beginnings of an ongoing affirmation of the self that will eventually surface as her own holler.
Both the washer woman in “The Cariboo Cafe” and Cleofilas in “Woman Hollering Creek” actively transform external threats of maternal destruction into acts of maternal resistance. Their entrance into “the Coatlicue state” is fictionalized by their entrance into “the zero zero place” and Seguin, Texas, respectively, where they face extreme threats to the maternal self. Instead of falling victim to this aggression, they struggle to reconstruct their motherhood despite their limited options. These limitations, depicted in the ambiguous conclusions to both of these stories, suggest that Latina women are fighting against enormous adversaries: economic disadvantage and dependency on men, totalitarian regimes, the INS, and battery. Even though these endings need not be celebrated, these tales construct Llorona figures who defy victimhood and exercise agency by confronting external violence with their most creative form of self-protection and fulfillment: the washer woman protects her psyche and restores her motherhood within the spiritual world while Cleofilas finds physical safety and economic security for herself and her children within her father's home. Perhaps the inconclusiveness of these narratives indicate, as Cherrie Moraga has suggested, La Llorona's ongoing search “to find and manifest [her] true sel[f],” a task that is far from completed given the economic and political conditions of Latinas' lives.15
Viramontes's and Cisneros's writings demonstrate how ancient Mexican figures such as La Llorona can be mobilized to construct powerful and resilient heroines. Putting these short stories in dialogue with contemporary Chicana feminism as well as folkloric literature on the La Llorona legend enables us to see a culturally specific genealogy of female resistance rooted within pre-Conquest, pre-Aztec feminine representations. The portrayal of a psychic frame-of-mind that strikingly resembles Anzaldua's concept of “the Coatlicue state” in these contemporary tales suggests that, of the multiple interpretations to the legend, one that continues to survive within Chicana feminist writings is La Llorona as Gritona or as her antecedents, Cihuacoatl and Coatlicue. These figures provide useful models and strategies that encourage change, conflict, and resistance instead of compliance to maternal violation. Moreover, the fact that Viramontes and Cisneros utilize La Llorona figure to differing ends—the washer woman's defiance against her oppressors includes suicide while Cleofilas's resistance involves escape—demonstrates the elasticity of the figure and suggests she can be mobilized for a range of interventions.
La Llorona's ancient weeping may testify to women's pain, but in these tales of maternal resistance this pain-filled wail also embodies a battle cry—a holler prompted by the continuing presence of Coatlicue who demands confrontation and resistance.
In Spanish “llorona” refers to a woman who wails or weeps whereas “gritona” refers to a woman who shouts or hollers.
See Chapters 3 and 4 of Borderlands/La Frontera for Anzaldua's discussion of Coatlicue.
See Anzaldua 35 and Anderson and Dibble's Florentine Codex for Fray Bernadino de Sahagun's description of Cihuacoatl (3-4). Many scholars have noted the unmistakable resemblance between Cihuacoatl and La Llorona. See, for example, Janvier 162; Obregon 15; and Barakat 290.
For accounts of La Llorona murdering out of revenge or jealousy see, respectively, Toor 531, and Leddy 276. For accounts of her murdering her child because she does not love him, see Horcasitas and Butterworth 217 & 212. Sometimes La Llorona simply is depicted as a female bogey-man and no motivation is provided. See Lomax Hawes, 155 or Barakat, 293.
Examples in which La Llorona is associated with La Malinche can be found in Leddy 273; Mirande and Enriquez 32-33; Horcasitas and Butterworth 216; and Paz 86.
For some powerful feminist interpretations of La Malinche, see Alarcon, Candelaria, del Castillo, and Messinger Cypess.
In many ways my interpretation of La Llorona mirrors Limon's: to see her as an active female figure, to locate her historically, and to understand her actions as an understandable if extreme response to betrayal.
The term can be found in Nancy Chodorow's work. Subsequently, Valerie Smith carried it to literary criticism in her reading of Harriet Jacobs's slave narrative.
Cuban sociologist Fernando Ortiz coined the term transculturation in order to complexify the more reductive terms acculturation and deculturation and to better understand colonial and postcolonial relations in Cuba. Transculturation suggests that subordinate cultures often take up dominant representations and invent new cultural meanings. The term has since been taken up by Uruguayan literary critic Angel Rama and cultural critic Mary Louise Pratt.
Although, according to Roberta Fernandez, Viramontes has stated in her public readings and in private conversation that the washer woman comes from El Salvador, the text itself never states this fact (78). I agree with Fernandez that Viramontes's use of the term “contras” suggests, to a U.S.-based audience, that the brutal regime depicted in the text must therefore be the Sandinistas. Viramontes may be using “contra” literally, to refer to a group that is simply “against” the prevailing order (her use of the lower case “c’ supports this more general use of the word). Also, in El Salvador the guerillas are generally referred to as “los contrarios”—those against—but the shorter term “los contras” is also used. Nonetheless, I find this term to be a confusing and unfortunate choice of words, with the most unfortunate confusion being to assume that the Sandinistas resemble the ruthless dictatorship depicted in the text.
For a more in-depth analysis of Sonya and the cafe owner as Llorona figures, see Carbonell.
Drunkards or lascivious men who pursue women are usually the victims in these tales. See, for example, Horcasitas and Butterworth 217. Perez's contemporary version of the myth has La Llorona reform two drunk men who harass her by frightening them until one of them faints (315-16).
Limon 76. Limon chooses to seek the meaning of water as rebirth through Freud instead of through Aztec mythology. Interestingly, both representational systems offer similar conclusions.
The phrase nunca mas “concluded the memorable opinion given by Attorney General Julio Cesar Strassera … at the trial of Argentinean commanders accused of human right abuses” (SERPAJ vii). It has since become the title of three different books, each confronting the legacy of human rights violations in Argentina, Uruguay, and Brazil.
For Moraga, “[w]e wander not in search of our dead children, but our lost selves, our lost sexuality, our lost spirituality, our lost sabiduria. … To find and manifest our true selves (‘the woman before the fall’) what might have to change in the world as we know it?” The eternal wandering of La Llorona symbolizes the vast social and political transformations, on a revolutionary level, that are required in order to overturn standard definitions of Latina womanhood. The ambiguous endings to Cisneros's and Viramontes's stories express Moraga's point about the magnitude, and therefore present incompleteness, of Chicana feminist liberation.
Alarcon, Norma. “Traddutora, Traditora: A Paradigmatic Figure of Chicana Feminism.” Cultural Critique Fall 1989: 57-87.
Anderson, Arthur and Charles Dibble. Florentine Codex (General History of New Spain) by Fray Bernadino de Sahagun. Book I, 3-4. Santa Fe, 1950.
Anzaldua, Gloria. Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza. San Francisco: Spinsters / Aunt Lute, 1987.
Barakat, Robert A. “Aztec Motifs in ‘La Llorona.” Southern Folklore Quarterly 9.4 (1965): 288-96.
Candelaria, Cordelia. “La Malinche, Feminist Prototype.” Frontiers.2. (1980): 1-6.
Carbonell, Ana Maria. “Reconstructing Motherhood: The Female Gothic and Transcultural Strategies in African American and Chicana Feminist Writings.” Diss. U of California, Santa Cruz, 1996.
Caso, Alonso. The Aztecs: People of the Sun. Trans. Lowell Dunham. Norman: U of Oklahoma P, 1958.
Castillo, Debra. Talking Back: Toward a Latin American Feminist Literary Criticism. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1992.
Chodorow, Nancy. The Reproduction of Mothering: Psychoanalysis and the Sociology of Gender. Berkeley: U of California P, 1978.
Cisneros, Sandra. “Woman Hollering Creek.” Woman Hollering Creek and Other Short Stories. New York: Random House, 1991.
del Castillo, Adelaida R. “Malintzin Tenepal: A Preliminary Look into a New Perspective.” Essays on La Mujer. Eds. Rosaura Sanchez and Rosa Martinez Cruz. Los Angeles: U of California, Chicano Studies Center, 1978. 124-49.
Duran, Fray Diego. Historia de las Indias de Nueva Espana y Islas de Tierra Firme (1570). Mexico: Editora Nacional, 1951.
Fernandez, Roberta. “‘The Cariboo Cafe’: Helena Maria Viramontes discourses with her social and cultural contexts.” Women's Studies. 17.1-2 (1989): 71-85.
Horcasitas, Fernando and Douglas Butterworth. La Llorona in Tlalocan. IV. (1963): 204-24.
Janvier, Thomas. Legends of the City of Mexico. New York, 1910.
Leddy, Betty. “La Llorona in Southern Arizona.” Western Folklore. 7.3 (July 1948): 272-77.
Limon, Jose E. “La Llorona, the Third Legend of Greater Mexico: Cultural Symbols, Women, and the Political Unconscious” in Renato Rosaldo Lecture Series Monograph. No. 2, 1984-1985. Tucson: Mexican American Studies and Research Center, U of Arizona, Spring, 1986. 59-93.
Lomax Hawes, Bess. “La Llorona in Juvenile Hall.” Western Folklore 27.3 (July, 1968): 153-70.
Messinger Cypess, Sandra. La Malinche in Mexican Literature: From History to Myth. Austin: U of Texas P, 1991.
Mirande and Enriquez. La Chicana: The Mexican-American Woman. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1979.
Moraga, Cherrie. Unpublished paper on La Llorona, 1995.
Nash, June. “The Aztecs and the Ideology of Male Dominance.” Signs 4.2 (Winter 1978): 349-62.
Obregon, Don Luis Gonzalez. The Streets of Mexico. Trans. Blanche Collet Wagner. San Francisco: George Fields, 1937.
Ortiz, Fernando. Contrapunteo Cubano (1947). Caracas: Biblioteca Ayacucho, 1978.
Paz, Octavio. The Labyrinth of Solitude: Life and Thought in Mexico. New York: Grove P, 1962.
Perez, Soledad. “The Weeping Woman.” The Third Woman: Minority Women Writers of the United States. Ed. Dexter Fisher. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1980.
Rebolledo, Tey Diana. Women Singing in the Snow: A Cultural Analysis of Chicana Literature. Tucson: U of Arizona P, 1995.
Schroeder, Damian and Victor Giorgi, “Donde Estan, Donde Estoy, Donde Estamos?” El Malestar de Nuestra Cultura. Buenos Aires: Interno y XXV Symposium de APA, Vol. 1, 1986.
SERPAJ (Servicio Paz y Justicia). Uruguay: Nunca Mas: Human Rights Violations, 1972-1985. Trans. Elizabeth Hampsten. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 1992.
Toor, Frances. A Treasury of Mexican Folkways. New York: Crown, 1947.
Viramontes, Helena Maria. “The Cariboo Cafe.” The Moths and Other Stories. Houston: Arte Publico, 1985.
Weschler, Lawrence. A Miracle, A Universe: Settling Accounts with Torturers. New York: Pantheon, 1990.
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7523
SOURCE: Payant, Katherine. “Borderland Themes in Sandra Cisneros's Woman Hollering Creek.” In The Immigrant Experience in North American Literature: Carving out a Niche, edited by Katherine B. Payant and Toby Rose, pp. 95-108. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1999.
[In the following essay, Payant explores the borderland theme in the stories comprising Woman Hollering Creek.]
For a writer with quite a small oeuvre—a novella, a volume of poems, and a book of short fiction—Chicana feminist Sandra Cisneros has become widely read and known. Cisneros blurs lines between genres, calling her fiction, often vignettes rather than structured narratives, “lazy poems” (“Do You Know Me?” 79). Her Bildungsroman, The House on Mango Street, is read both as a young adult novel and as a work of adult fiction, and her most recent book of short stories, Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories (1991), includes prose poems similar to those in Mango Street [The House on Mango Street], and longer works. Most of her fiction is composed as first-person narratives told to us by the central protagonist. She speaks for people like herself or whom she has known—Mexican and Chicana girls and women who grew up “on the borderlands.” According to Cisneros, “If I were asked what it is I write about, I would have to say I write about those ghosts inside that haunt me” (“Ghosts and Voices” 73). Part of those ghosts are the myths and legends of the borderlands, which can hold women back in their quests for self-identity, or, when creatively adapted, can offer possibilities for constructing new cultural motifs.
In The House on Mango Street, like Cisneros's childhood home, located in Chicago's barrio, the protagonist Esperanza says, “Mexicans don't like their women strong” (10). One could say that all of Cisneros's female characters either struggle to be strong and succeed, thus transcending culturally dictated gender roles, or are defeated in their struggle (Lewis 69). The fact that they live “on the borders,” straddling two or three cultures, requires them to combine several ways of thinking and being, a stressful situation that also has great potential for empowerment. Though some of her characters seem to fail in effectively creating a healthy hybrid identity that works for them, several others find new insights and strengths.
It may be useful to place Cisneros in the history of Mexican American writing. Mexican Americans are the most numerous of all immigrant groups and are also one of our oldest ethnic groups, many having come here at least as long ago as people with Anglo roots. Therefore, it is a stretch to call these Mexican Americans immigrants. Until recently, it has been argued that they were an “invisible” or forgotten minority, and certainly their literature received little attention from mainstream culture (Leal and Barron 10). Going back to the earliest accounts of explorers and settlers in the Southwest, moving on to early folklore and legends to the nineteenth-century corridos (narrative ballads) of the borderlands, to the first literature written in English in the twentieth century, to the flowering of Chicano literature in the 1960s, Mexican Americans have long been writing of their experiences. Though some of the early modern literature was, according to literary historian Raymund A. Paredes “tentative and subdued, even submissive,” rather than “proud and defiant” (45) from the earliest days much of the popular literature dealt with conflicts with the dominant Anglo culture (36-39). Certainly this animosity Chicanos feel for the “arrogant, ruthless, and avaricious” Anglo culture dominates much Mexican American writing of the last several decades, whether by males or females (Paredes 36).
As pointed out in the introduction, the Chicano political movement of the 1960s was in some sense an outgrowth of the civil rights movement of those times. At first the fiction coming out of this movement was predominantly male (Savin 354). Critical of Anglo culture as sterile, materialist and prejudiced, it documented the experiences of Mexican American men. Fiction writers such as Rudolfo Anaya, (Bless Me, Ultima, 1972) and Tomas Rivera (… Y no se lo trago la tierra, [And the Earth Did Not Devour Him 1971]), and poets such as Rodolfo Gonzales (I Am Joaquin, 1967) set the themes and tone of Mexican American literature for future decades. Liberally combining English and Spanish, including Chicano slang, sometimes drawing on Native American folklore, they told the stories of the barrios, the migrant workers, and restless young male seekers, trying to find identity in an unaccepting gringo world.
The 1980s and 1990s, however, have been the decades of the Chicanas. Left out of the political debates of the earlier decades, women of Mexican American heritage are now documenting their experiences and those of their Chicana sisters. Until this time, women had either been portrayed traditionally, as mothers or healers, or as Ada Savin says, la chingada [the violated one] by their carnales [brothers] (354). Though Cisneros is perhaps the best known of these Chicana writers, others include Bernice Zamora, Gloria Anzaldúa, and Cherríe Moraga.
A central theme in much of this Chicana writing, including Cisneros's, is “life on the borderlands,” an idea that is elaborated by poet Anzaldúa in her seminal work Borderlands/La Frontera (1987). In this multigenre work—part essay, memoir, and poetry—Anzaldúa discusses what it means to be a mestiza—a hybrid creature, not Mexican, not Anglo, not Indian, but something different than all three, a person at the crossroads, full of energy whose “future depends on the breaking down of paradigms” (80). A mestiza must know her history; she must cross linguistic barriers and straddle several cultures, in fact, creating a new culture. She must not be bound by rigid, linear ways of thinking and behavior, by traditional subject-object dualities, or prescribed methods of reaching her goals. A mestiza copes by “developing a tolerance for contradictions, a tolerance for ambiguity. She learns to juggle cultures. … Not only does she sustain contradictions, she turns the ambivalence into something else” (79).
The goal should not be articulated, because there are endless possibilities for the future for such a person, but if it were, Anzaldúa envisions a world where people of all nations, races, classes, genders, and sexual preferences would be united in a pluralistic vision of respectful humanity, eventually even a new, blended race of humanity.
As L. M. Lewis, says, all the stories in Woman Hollering Creek [Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories] are interrelated and form a continuum. The stories can be grouped into three types: those concerning pre-adolescent girls; those dealing with adolescents who undergo some kind of initiation, and the third group of longer stories describing the efforts of adult women to break away from culturally determined roles. In the process, some of these characters seem to create a comfortable space for themselves on the borders of cultures.
In the first group of stories, actually vignettes, girls seem secure in poor, but happy and warm homes. The opening piece, “My Lucy Friend Who Smells Like Corn,” celebrates that phenomenon of girlhood, “best friends,” girls so close they “could be sisters, right?” (5) Another story, “Mexican Movies,” describes the fun of eating popcorn in the darkened theater, indulging in horseplay in the aisles, and sleepily being carried to bed by one's parents. There are sad moments, when the cruelty of the Anglo world intrudes, as in “Eleven” when a mean teacher makes the protagonist wear a ratty old sweater that doesn't belong to her. Jeff Thompson points out (417) that there is social satire in Cisneros's description of the stereotyped Mexicans in the movies who wear big sombreros and “never tear the dresses off the ladies” (12). The borderlands' theme appears when the family pays a visit to Mexico to the grandparents (Cisneros's family made extensive visits across the border). Some American tourists take the children's picture outside the cathedral where their grandmother is praying to the Virgin de Guadalupe. Disappointed, they discover that these cute Mexican kids speak English; the protagonist tells us she understands Spanish only when she “pays attention.” We're “Mericans” says the girl's little brother, an inadvertent combination of Mexican and American, reflecting the children's hybrid status (19-20).
There are some suggestions of gender restrictions in these early pieces: for example, the brothers' cry “‘Girl. We can't play with a girl,’” her “brothers' favorite insult now” (18), and in “Barbie—Q,” where the protagonist and her sister learn, like all little girls, about appearance and fashion, by dressing their somewhat damaged Barbie dolls acquired at a fire sale. The distortions of these dolls suggests both the poverty of the girls—that they must play with damaged goods—and also possibly the damage done to females by the culture. According to Thompson (417), the damage emphasizes the lengths to which society will go in concealing woman's flaws, especially her lack of a penis. If the doll is dressed for the prom who's to know she has a damaged foot “so long as you don't lift her dress, right … ?” (16). Though the adult reader can detect the barriers and social restrictions already surrounding these children, as in most Bildungs of girls, self-awareness or knowledge of limitations does not come until adolescence in the next two stories, “One Holy Night,” and “My Tocaya” (Namesake).
As many feminist psychologists have pointed out, adolescent girls who flourish and even excel in childhood come up against traditional role restrictions and expectations with the onset of puberty. Some rebel, but many unconsciously restrict their hopes for themselves. In “One Holy Night” the protagonist tells of her sexual initiation at the hands of Boy Baby Chaq Uxmal Paloquin, a thirty-seven-year-old drifter (who just may be a serial killer) who tells the naive girl he is descended from Mayan kings. Here Cisneros wryly combines traditional native myth with the harsh realities for a teenager growing up in an American barrio, where the threat of shame doesn't stop a girl from “doing devil things” (28), as would have been the case in Mexico. Unlike in the title story and “Bien Pretty,” where native myth is a source of empowerment, here it is falsified and used to seduce. The girl tells us she fell in love with Chaq, with the mysterious spell he wove of tales of “the people of the sun … of the temples,” and the “strange language” he spoke. Chaq tells the girl, who sells produce from a pushcart in front of the Jewel supermarket, he is destined to father a savior who will bring back the grandeur of his people (29), and he seduces her, the Virgin, his queen, in his messy room in the back of a garage. The ironic symbolism of the parallel with the Incarnation in Christian myth is obvious, but Chaq is no god, only a dangerous drifter trying to take advantage of a naive young girl.
The protagonist is not only seduced by the romance of the myth, she seeks sexual experience to possess the knowledge of adult women. After her defloration, it seems she has become “part of history” and the drama of love, that perhaps other people can spot her new identity as an experienced woman, but soon she realizes that she appears no different to anyone. Cisneros emphasizes the universality of the disillusionment of sexual initiation for women. The protagonist feels a commonality with other women now, all of whom wait to find out what sexual love is like and find it is a “big deal over nothing” (30).
As time passes, she is pregnant and “the truth started to seep out like a dangerous gasoline” (31). Her angry family burns the pushcart, a symbol of their daughter's shame, and begins searching for Chaq. A letter finally arrives at the garage from the seducer's sister, who, ironically, is a nun; his family are just common Mexican people and are not Mayan royalty. The protagonist is then exiled to a Mexican village where her own mother came from, having been sent from there to the United States to escape the shame of being pregnant with the protagonist. Thus, the cycle of female oppression continues. At the end of her story, the girl is waiting stoically for her baby to be born: “I don't think they [people] understand how it is to be a girl. I don't think they know how it is to have to wait your whole life” (34). Efforts to join the sisterhood of adult women have led to stasis and entrapment.
The other adolescent story, “My Tocaya,” concerns Patricia Benavidez, told to us in scornful tones by her tocaya, Patricia. Patricia is trapped by the patriarchy in her father's taco shop, “bored, a little sad,” who acts out by wearing rhinestone earrings and glitter high heels to school. The narrator says she dislikes her because she affects a phony English accent and calls herself “Trish.” In the narrator, however, one detects a certain envy for Trish's attempts to create a new identity, to break out of her dull life, and perhaps sympathy—“Maybe her father beat her,” says the other Patricia (37), who has heard the father beats Trish's brother. One day Trish disappears, and after a few days, she seemingly turns up dead in a drainage ditch. The community turns her into a saintly, murdered virgin, shedding buckets of tears for a girl they had no use for when alive. “She was my little princess,” says the child-beating father, and the narrator finally truly feels sorry, recognizing the insincerity. At the anticlimatic end, a defeated Trish returns home to the renewed scorn of the tocaya: “She couldn't even die right” (40). However, although Trish does not escape her oppressive situation, she does have her fifteen minutes of fame by having her face in all the city newspapers. In fact, though Thompson feels that Trish's story emphasizes the dangers (rape and death) faced by young women and the impossibility of escape (419), one could see the story more positively—that in fact, the gutsy Trish is a kind of doppelganger, an alter ego for the critical narrator, a girl who dared to do something the narrator never would.
The last group of stories, “There Was a Man, There Was a Woman,” occupying more than three-fourths of the book, concern the struggles of women of varying ages to escape the restraints of their gender roles and to find an identity on cultural borders. These stories focus on relationships with men, with protagonists attempting to define themselves through men. In one of these, “The Eyes of Zapata,” Inés, the mistress of Emilio Zapata, never leaves the small villages of her homeland; another, Cleófilas, briefly immigrates to the “other side” (en el otro lado) with her husband, and others are educated, “liberated” Chicanas who can't speak Spanish well, and who are searching for some understanding and comfort with a heritage they understand only superficially.
Though it doesn't deal overtly with cultural borders, the longest story, “The Eyes of Zapata,” does relate to the theme of border crossing. One could see Inés as a typical female victim. Zapata never marries her, in fact, having at least two other wives; he also takes away her son to be with him. She is a victim of the continual violence that sweeps over the villages of Mexico as the Zapatistas and the federales struggle for supremacy. Yet, as two critics have pointed out, Inés is a powerful figure of feminine strength (Thompson 415; Lewis 75). First, because she defies her father to live with Zapata, she resists patriarchal authority; she refuses to reject the memory of her mother, who was killed because she broke a cultural taboo—she was unfaithful to Inés's father. Second, because Inés lives most of her life apart from Zapata, she faces her pain of her past and that of her countrymen and women honestly and alone. According to Thompson, it is her acknowledgment of male suffering as well as female—“We are all widows” (87), says Inés—that makes her one of Cisneros's stronger women (416). Though suffering greatly from Zapata's treatment, she acknowledges her responsibility for their affair. Forced to retreat to her father's home, Inés “claims that same identity with all the women of her family and demonstrates it by naming her daughter after her mother” (Lewis 100). Not fully independent because she can escape only through leaving her body in nightly dreams, she has gained power through association with her past (her mother) and her daughter. Thus, though she never leaves the villages of Mexico, like some other Cisneros characters, Inés transcends traditional gender borders.
The title story, “Woman Hollering Creek,” has received the most attention from critics. Narrated mostly in third-person limited perspective, it is the story of a contemporary Mexican girl, Cleófilas, who marries Juan and moves with him to the “other side,” a little Texas town named Seguin. Cisneros describes this marriage as the traditional patriarchal arrangement of a daughter being given by her father, Don Serafín, to Juan. As in some of the other stories, Cisneros stresses the influence of community mores and popular culture. As a teenager, Cleófilas finds her home town boring, with nothing to do but visit with female relatives, attend the one movie playing in town, or watch the telenovelas (soaps). The telenovelas have steeped Cleófilas with a desire for “passion,” the desire to find “the great love of one's life,” and to do whatever one can do, at whatever cost to find that love. The soap stars love their men above all else, and for them, love is the most important thing, even if it involves suffering. In fact, the suffering is somehow “sweet,” because it proves the depth of one's passion (44-45).
Cisneros suggests that for young immigrant woman without education or perspective, immigration to “the other side” can be just as restrictive as life in Mexico. Cleófilas had felt that the name of the Texan town “Seguin” had sounded romantic and like the “tinkle of money,” not ugly the way the names of Mexican villages sound. With the fine job Juan has, they will live in a nicer house, and she will be able to wear the lovely clothes of the women on the tele. One is reminded of the immigrant stories of the turn of the century, when Jews and Italians came seeking the good life in America, or the “Golden Mountain” of the nineteenth-century Chinese, who found only discrimination and poverty. Not surprisingly, the reality of Seguin is Juan's modest job with a beer company, a dilapidated house, no zocalo (town square) to congregate in, and few female neighbors to provide the warm community bonds of the Mexican village. Her two closest neighbors are lonely older women, Dolores and Soledad (sorrow and solitude), who have lost their husbands. As Oscar Handlin pointed out in his study of the immigrant experience, the loneliness and alienation of the uprooted can be profound (94).
For women immigrants, confined to the home by children and lack of English, alienation and loneliness can be even greater than for men. When the children begin to come, Cleófilas realizes she is trapped. Observing that American towns are built so that one must depend on husbands, Cleófilas suffers the boredom and restraint of more affluent suburban housewives. Juan is not at all like the handsome men in the soaps, but rather as dull as Seguin. Cleófilas is also embarrassed to discover she does not know the American customs, when she lets her baby run around the Laundromat without his diaper and is reprimanded by the proprietor. The only thing she finds of interest in Sequin is the lovely, mysterious arroyo in the back of their property—a deep, wide creek called La Gritona, “Woman Hollering.” Cleófilas wonders if the voice in the creek she hears calling to her “in a high silver voice” is La Llorona, the Weeping Woman, a figure in Mexican myth, who, in one version of the story, suffers because she killed her own children. As she observes her own child playing on a blanket in the backyard, she wonders if the quiet “drives a woman to the darkness under the trees” (51).
Juan, too, is trapped—Cisneros's feminism does not prevent her from seeing the suffering and suppressed longings of the working-class men in her stories. He gathers to drink in the evenings with his friends, and whatever thoughts and longings they wish to express become strangled in their drunkenness and perhaps in the restraints that prevent men from baring their souls. Thinks Cleófilas, “They want to tell each other what they want to tell themselves. But what is bumping like a helium balloon at the ceiling of the brain never finds its way out” (48). Sometimes at the end of the evening their “fists speak” what their lips cannot, and they fight with each other, or, in the case of Juan, their rage and confusion are expressed in wife beating.
As Jean Wyatt has suggested, Cisneros's portrayal of Juan Pedrito and Cleófilas's disintegrating marriage reads like a textbook case study of domestic violence (256). Though Cleófilas has always told herself she would strike back if a man ever struck her, she is paralyzed the first time Juan hits her, the epitome of female passivity. She had never ever seen her father strike her mother and this is outside any frame of reference she has. And Juan is so penitent and ashamed each time it happens. Other troubles intrude too, because after she comes home from the hospital with her second son, her personal things seem somewhat disarranged in the house, and a “slender doubt” appears. Is there another woman? Cleófilas by now has developed a good amount of self-awareness. Juan is a tyrant: “the man, this father [a telling description], this rival, this keeper, this lord, this master, this husband till kingdom come” (49-50). According to Jacqueline Doyle, the use of wording from the Christian “Our Father” emphasizes the hierarchical nature of patriarchy, established early in the church by the words of St. Paul telling wives to submit themselves to their husbands' rule (63).
Cleófilas has no recourse but to go back to the other patriarchy—the home of her father and brothers, whom she was expected to serve. She realizes this is a sort of defeat and disgrace, but can think of nothing else for herself—she has no skills, no English, no money. Her new motherhood causes her to remember her familial bonds, specifically when her father reminded her that he would never abandon her (Doyle 61-62). The patriarchy can be constricting, but it does offer security.
Help comes in the form of two strong Chicana women, Graciela and Felice (grace and felicity), who show Cleófilas what aware, powerful Mexican American women can be, and provide a contrast with the two traditional neighbors. They are comfortable on Anzaldúa's border, moving easily from Chicano to Anglo culture and even from female to male culture. Seeing Cleófilas's bruises, Graciela, a nurse at the prenatal clinic, arranges with her friend Felice to drive Cleófilas to the bus station in San Antonio. Cleófilas is full of admiration and amazement for these women, who speak “Spanglish,” an English laced with Spanish phrases, drive their own pickup trucks, and don't seem to have husbands to define them. For their part, these two comadres find Cleófilas a quaint, pitiful creature whose life ironically seems like a soap opera; they think she may be named after one of those Mexican saints, “a martyr, or something” (54).
On the way out of town, as they cross over the arroyo, here a border between Anglo and Mexican culture and traditional female and male culture, Felice lets out a yell that startles the fearful Cleófilas (Wyatt 245). Felice explains she always yells when she goes over the creek; since there are so few things named for women, except for the suffering Virgin, she likes to affirm a different sort of woman—one who can holler in joy at being alive and strong and free, “like Tarzan.” The story ends with Cleófilas surprising herself by laughing in pleasure as she tells this story to her father and brothers back in Mexico. Does this laugh at the end suggest, as some critics have said, that Cleófilas has achieved self-awareness, a transformation that will enable her to someday cross borders at will, like Felice (Wyatt 243; Doyle 61; Fiore 71)? One could argue that realistically, Cleófilas has been defeated in her struggle for self-realization. She is going back to a static life, now tied down with two children, and it is hard to see much future for her. Nevertheless, in the story, the voice of La Llorona is not crying, but laughing as is Cleófilas.
Doyle argues that the key to a full understanding of “Woman Hollering Creek” is the image of La Llorona, a traditional Mexican icon, which Cisneros adapts to fit her thematic purpose. Doyle points out that La Llorona of myth is an ambiguous, multifaceted creature (58). In one version of the story, she is a poor girl who marries above her station, then is rejected by her aristocratic husband, who takes a wealthy mistress. In revenge she kills her children; some say that she is precolonial, based on an Aztec goddess to whom babies were sacrificed. These versions of the tale see La Llorona as a fearsome mother (mujer mala), but others portray her as a more passive figure, a Mater Dolorosa, the Virgin of the Pieta, weeping for her lost child. On one hand, La Llorona cries for all the violated women and girls; on the other, she is a dark, powerful, terrifying figure of depravity (58). However, in “Woman Hollering Creek,” La Llorona is not calling to Cleófilas to kill her children or to submit passively to her female fate. For Cisneros, La Llorona is a female figure whose cry is not a feeble weeping, but a grito, a yell or shout signifying womanly strength and joy in that strength. In this interpretation, Cleófilas's laugh at the ending of the story becomes her own grito of independence (Doyle 65). Jean Wyatt provides a different twist on this interpretation, saying the masculine “Tarzan” yell of Felice suggests the desirability of sometimes crossing gender boundaries, as well as the boundaries of culture such as language (261). Cleófilas has, briefly, truly been to “the other side.”
In From the Other Side: Women, Gender, and Immigrant Life in the U.S. 1820-1990, Donna Gabaccia criticizes writers who portray Third World women as pitiful creatures fleeing their patriarchal cultures—the oppression of violent males in their lives—who need the help of empowered American feminists. “Criticism of patriarchy in other cultures remains an important prop for American ethnocentrism” (112) says Gabaccia. She also points out that some scholars “deny the existence or at least the uniqueness of Latin machismo, seeing it as a value-laden misunderstanding of Latin gender relations” (73). Does Cisneros, a second-generation (maybe 2.5-generation since her mother was born in the United States) writer contribute to this view of the superiority of American culture? Perhaps if one examined only “Women Hollering Creek,” one would have to say yes, but other stories in the collection give a more complex picture of the effect of their culture on these women.
“Never Marry a Mexican” deals with living on boundaries and cultural interstices that are not crossed comfortably, but instead bring profound loneliness and bitterness. The protagonist, Clemencia, is a second-generation Chicana artist, translator, and substitute teacher who years ago was involved in an affair with her married Anglo professor, Drew. She has also been involved with other married men (never Hispanic men), and sees herself as a betrayer of other women, as powerful, vindictive, and cruel. Like Drew, she ironically calls herself “Malinche,” (traitor) after Dona Marina, the Aztec woman who became Cortéz's lover and translator; Drew sees himself as Cortéz, being attracted by the dark beauty of Clemencia. According to folklore, Malinche betrayed the Aztecs to the Spanish, had a son with Cortéz, and is seen by Mexicans to this day as a symbol of chingada (the violated one) as well as female treachery, an abused victim, who is yet somehow responsible for her violated state, According to many Chicano feminists, icons such as La Llorona and Malinche are so deeply embedded in the thinking of Mexican women as to be unconscious (Alarcón 184). Clemencia fails to see the ironic parallel: just as Cortes violated and abandoned Dona Marina, Drew has used and abandoned her. Though she appropriates for herself the active, even violent male role (the chingón or violator) in her memories of their relationship, using language such as “I leapt inside you and split you like an apple” (78) and sees herself as violating the wives of the men with whom she sleeps, in fact, Clemencia is powerless and a “disabled” pathetic, lonely, and disturbed person. Here negotiations between borders, as Wyatt says, create “only confusion and finally, a newly rigid gender definition” (243).
“Never Marry a Mexican” also reveals the ambiguity of linguistic borders. The title of the story is double-edged since it refers to Clemencia's mother's warning to “never marry a Mexican” and Drew's statement at their last meeting that he would never marry a Mexican woman. Clemencia's mother had warned her off Mexican men because Clemencia's own father had been Mexican, from a middle-class family with traditional ideas about women's roles, the sort of boy who would get off a bus if a girl acquaintance boarded and he couldn't pay her fare (70). Her father's family constantly criticized her mother because she did not know to keep house properly and was of a lower social class. After her father's death, Clemencia's mother remarried to an Anglo man, having begun the affair with the new husband while the father lay sick in a hospital bed, in a weird parallel to Clemencia's sleeping with the husbands of women giving birth. After her mother's remarriage, Clemencia feels she neglects Clemencia for her new Anglo family. Though Clemencia is angry with her mother at being rejected for Anglos, one suspects that she has turned racial prejudice against Mexicans toward herself and toward other women. Outrageous acts such as sleeping with men when their wives are giving birth give her a sense of “crazy joy,” but seem to suggest a deep self-hatred. At one point near the end of her story, Clemencia says that on bad nights when her blood is full of poison, if she were “to kill someone,” she herself might get in the line of fire (76).
Clemencia tells Drew's young son, with whom she is having an affair to spite his father, of a night when she slept at his house when his mother, Megan, was away. The next morning she obsessively explores the other woman's turf, her personal items and clothing, saying to herself, “Calidad. Quality” (81). Ironically, Megan's lifestyle proclaims a kind of gentility in the same way that her stylish Mexican father's had and reinforces Clemencia's self-loathing. Megan's lipsticks are coral and pink, what one would expect of a light-skinned redhead, and all the clothing seems clean and utterly chic, in a way that Clemencia feels she could never be. Finally, in an act she sees as revenge, she sticks gummy bear candies into various personal items of Megan's such as her makeup case and her diaphragm in an attempt to torment her with the knowledge of another woman. She hides one in the nesting babushka dolls, identical to the ones that Drew had given her, and keeps the tiniest one (she calls it the baby) for herself. Later, on the way home she throws it into a filthy ditch. This could be seen as an attack on Megan's sexuality or Clemencia's own self, the inner core of her being. As Wyatt suggests, this action could be the childless Clemencia's appropriation of Megan's maternity (252), and then rejection of that maternity. At the end of the story, the supposedly masculine Clemencia, who has rejected her femaleness by giving others so much pain, wishes to mother the suffering people she sees on the streets: “There, there, it's all right, honey” (83).
Clemencia certainly does not present an image of a strong, self-actualized Chicana woman. Although she is outwardly liberated, with middle-class occupations and a comfortable lifestyle, she hates both her Mexican and female side, allows gringo men to use her and obviously derives no pleasure from her relations with them or in her cruelty to others by taking on the negative aspects of the male role. Cisneros has spoken of the difficulty of living as a Mexican woman in American society, of often feeling like a foreigner, even though she was born here (Aranda 66). Wyatt feels that Clemencia shows this “double unbelonging” in her inability to master Anglo idiom. Clemencia says, “that's … water under the damn” (73). In a more dangerous way, by misunderstanding the full implications of the Malinche/Cortéz story for Mexican women, she has allowed herself to be violated. Clemencia seems to misunderstand the several different elements in her background and is unable to combine them into a healthy identity. Lewis, however, believes that the obvious defects of Clemencia's character suggest that a successful combination might be found (71).
Lewis believes, and I agree, that Lupe in “Bien Pretty,” the last story in the collection, represents a character who achieves synthesis and emerges from her experience a strong Chicana woman. As such, her story presents a fitting end to the volume. In some respects, Lupe is like Clemencia. She is an artist and a tough cookie who has just moved to San Antonio from the Bay Area, where years ago she was an activist student and a participant in the first grape strike. Recently dropped by her long-time boyfriend, Eduardo, for a blonde financial consultant, she has gotten a job as a director at a community arts center and intends to get back to creating her own art, which she has neglected. Her comadre Beatriz tells her that Texas is full of rednecks, and not a place for a “Meskin” woman; later, Lupe says she had no idea she would run into trouble from a Mexican man.
The theme of this story is not so much gender relations as it is achieving an understanding of one's roots and learning to live comfortably on the border between cultures. Ironically, Lupe achieves this through being rejected by her lover. From the beginning, Lupe knows she has a weak connection to her Mexican roots, but longs for a stronger one. She is not fully comfortable with Spanish and admires those who are. She is renting the home of a Texan poet of Mexican American descent that is just crammed full of “Southwestern funk,” folk-art objects from Mexican/Aztec/Spanish and even Middle Eastern origins. When she moves from San Antonio, she brings with her a hodgepodge of belongings including a futon, a wok, some rebozos, some flamenco shoes, a Tae Kwon Do uniform, crystals, and a bunch of Latin tapes of all her favorite groups. These multicultural objects, plus her newly acquired home, seem to represent her lack of a firm identity.
The success of “Bien Pretty” is in large part due to the marvelous character of Flavio Munguía Galindo, Lupe's pest exterminator, who is almost her downfall. The story is preceded by a series of passionate love messages from a “Rogelio Velasco,” the pen name of this rat, who teaches Lupe some important lessons about who she is. He is the sort of guy who thrills one's soul with romance, and has “Romelia. Forever,” tattooed on his arm, and “Elsa” above his left nipple. Flavio is a pretty man, says Lupe, and she tells him this, which is a big mistake. Though he has the soul of a poet, he is actually a common chaparrito, short and stocky, with a flat, wide face that to Lupe appears as the sleeping face of an Olmec warrior, a perfect man made of red clay by the hands of God. When Flavio comes to her house to exterminate her roaches, not only is she powerfully attracted to him, she sees him as a subject for a romantic painting of an Indian prince from myth, kneeling beside his sleeping princess with volcanoes in the background, so she hires him as a model.
In addition to his exotic looks, Lupe is attracted to Flavio's strong sense of Mexican identity. He murmurs “real” Spanish to her when they make love and knows all the contemporary Latin dances. When Lupe prattles New Age jargon about yin and yang, how all forces of nature come in pairs, how one must get oneself in balance, Flavio connects it to a myth he learned not from a book, but from his peasant grandmother. When Lupe says if she can let go of the present and return to her roots, she will recover her destiny, he tells her, “You Americans have a strange way of thinking about time. You think old ages end, but that's not so. … American time is running alongside the calendar of the sun” (149-150). The past is not a dead thing to return to; it still exists with the present, and each affects who we are.
Flavio is not a person who must search for long-dead roots. When he teaches Lupe the contemporary dances, she wants to be taught “indigenous dances,” a request that Flavio finds amusing. When she scolds him for wearing name brand American clothes, annoyed, he tells her, “I don't have to dress in a serape and sombrero to be Mexican, I know who I am” (151). Angry and hurt, Lupe wants to punch him, but she realizes he is right: she “was not Mexican” (152). Eventually, over tacos in the local diner, Flavio tells Lupe of his two “wives,” (actually only one is legal) and four sons who need him in Mexico. He tells her that one “can love many people,” that it (him leaving) is part of the “yin and yang” of life. Recognizing that he means this in a way she doesn't, Lupe watches him slide out of the booth and her life.
Lupe's anger and hurt over Flavio's rejection first lead her to ineffectual New Age crystals, incense, visualizations of positive images, and conjurings of loving thoughts and forgiveness, accompanied by folk music tapes of Amazon flutes, Tibetan gongs, and Aztec ocarinas. This conglomeration of cultural symbols gives her nothing but “an uncontrollable desire to bash in Flavio's skull” (157). She goes to her local voodoo shop and buys magic folk powders and herbs, along with an image of the Virgin de Guadalupe, so all spiritual bases, ancient and Christian, can be covered.
Healing and self-knowledge begins with burning Flavio's “Rogelio” poems in the Weber grill (though she does save one, pretty in Spanish, but just plain “goofy” in English). At first, she regresses, obsessively watching telenovelas, telling herself she is doing “research.” She wishes somehow to wake up all these suffering women by slapping them (like she needs slapping) and helping them to become “women who make things happen, not women who things happen to.” She wishes these TV women were fierce like her comadres and female relatives, passionate and powerful women (161). Earlier, Flavio had told her an instructive tale about his own grandmother, a woman with five husbands, who, with their baby, left the second husband the minute she found out he had been unfaithful. She went to Cheyenne, Wyoming, with her sister and stayed there fourteen years. The stereotypes of long-suffering Mexican women tormented by love are the fantasies of the media that many Mexican women overcome.
The primary source of Lupe's new knowledge is art—her own work and the myths of both ancient and contemporary culture—and also the example of other women. Buying a Mexican women's magazine, like the telenovelas perpetuating traditional images of women, Lupe recognizes herself in the angry-sad working-class cashier, who says she is waiting to rush home to her favorite soap. Later, Lupe thinks that she was not created to live vicariously in the soaps or to suffer for love. She will not sing the lyrics of the sad girls, but of pop singer Daniela Romo: “Ya no. Es verdad que te adoro, pero más me ador yo. I love you, honey, but I love me more” (163). She will enjoy life—its pain and grief, as well as its joy, and above all she will live. Lupe begins her painting of the Indian prince and princess again, but this time the prince sleeping under the volcano will be awakened by the princess.
Like many second-generation ethnic women writers, Cisneros has altered the themes of traditional folk art to create a new, truly hybrid context for the character's search, and in this case she has added to the old images positive images from contemporary culture. Even though Flavio has awakened Lupe, she is now an actor, not a passive “princess” waiting for her man. The end of her story finds her rushing home from work to paint on the roof, as she watches flocks of birds swoop and soar powerfully through the twilight sky, squawking their joy in the moment. This theme of cultural combination is also found in the earlier vignette “Little Miracles, Kept Promises,” where college student Chayo combines the traditional long-suffering Virgin de Guadalupe with powerful Aztec goddesses; this syncretism will give her strength to resist family pressures to marry (128).
In Chicano Narrative: The Dialectics of Difference, Ramón Saldívar says that Chicano literature, by its nature rooted in conflict will not show characters who have fixed, centralized identities but rather characters who exist on the “unstable borderline” between several identities. There will always be unresolved dialectical tension (174). Certainly, this tension of unresolved ambiguity is present in most of the stories in Woman Hollering Creek. However, by being the last story in the volume “Bien Pretty” does seem to partially resolve this tension for the entire work. In this final story, Cisneros suggests that the children of the early stories, whose growth toward strong, joyful adulthood was sidetracked by rigid gender or social expectations, through personal struggle, through the help of their comadres, and through adapting images from the several cultures that surround them, can find a place on the border. By recognizing the restricting aspects of their cultures and capitalizing on their powerful pleasures and strengths, Chicana women can become comfortable with “life in the borderlands.”
Although Cisneros does criticize the patriarchy of traditional Mexican culture and says that women must overcome its influence, she does not reinforce white Anglo ethnocentricity. Continually celebrating her Mexican heritage, she suggests all that would be lost through total assimilation: the language, the music, the folkways and arts, the warmth and security of community. The borderland is an ambiguous, risky, confusing place, but with thought, care, and much strength, a woman can be secure and even happy there.
Alarcón, Norma. “Chicana Feminist Literature: A Re-vision through Malintzin/or Malintzin: Putting Flesh Back on the Object.” This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color. Ed. Cherríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa. New York: Kitchen Table, 1983. 182-190.
Anzaldúa, Gloria. Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza. San Francisco: Aunt Lute, 1987.
Aranda, Pilar E. Rodríguez. “On the Solitary of Being Mexican, Female, Wicked and Thirty-Three: An Interview with Writer Sandra Cisneros.” The Americas Review: A Review of Hispanic Literature and Art of the USA. 18.1 (1990): 64-80.
Cisneros, Sandra. “Do You Know Me?: I Wrote The House on Mango Street.” The Americas Review 15.1 (1987): 69-79.
———. “Ghosts and Voices: Writing from Obsession.” The Americas Review: A Review of Hispanic Literature and Art of the USA 15.1 (1987): 69-73.
———. The House on Mango Street. New York: Vintage, 1991.
———. Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories. New York: Vintage, 1991.
Doyle, Jacqueline. “Haunting the Borderlands: La Llorona in Sandra Cisneros's ‘Woman Hollering Creek.’” Frontiers: A Journal of Women's Studies 16.1 (1996): 53-70.
Fiore, Teresa. “Crossing and Recrossing ‘Woman Hollering Creek.’” Prospero: Rivista di culture anglo-germaniche 1 (1994): 61-75.
Gabaccia, Donna. From the Other Side: Women, Gender and Immigrant Life in the U.S., 1820-1990. Bloomington, Indiana UP, 1994.
Handlin, Oscar. The Uprooted: The Story of the Great Migrations that Made the American People. Boston: Little, 1951.
Leal, Luis, and Pepe Barron. “Chicano Literature: An Overview.” Three American Literatures: Essays in Chicano, Native American, and Asian-American Literature for Teachers of American Literature. Ed. Houston A. Baker, Jr. New York: MLA, 1982. 9-32.
Lewis, L. M. “Ethnic and Gender Identity: Parallel Growth in Sandra Cisneros's Woman Hollering Creek.” Short Story 2.2 (1994): 69-78.
Paredes, Raymund A. “The Evolution of Chicano Literature.” Three American Literatures: Essays in Chicano, Native American, and Asian-American Literature for Teachers of American Literature. Ed. Houston A. Baker, Jr. New York: MLA, 1982. 33-79.
Saldívar, Ramón. Chicano Narrative: The Dialectics of Difference. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1990.
Savin, Ada. “Mexican-American Literature.” New Immigrant Literatures in the United States: A Sourcebook to Our Multicultural Literary Heritage. Ed. Alpana Sharma Knippling. Westport: Greenwood, 1996: 341-365.
Thompson, Jeff. “‘What is Called Heaven’: Identity in Sandra Cisneros's Woman Hollering Creek.” Studies in Short Fiction 31 (1994): 415-24.
Wyatt, Jean. “On Not Being La Malinche: Border Negotiations of Gender in Sandra Cisneros's ‘Never Marry a Mexican,’ and ‘Woman Hollering Creek.’” Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature 14.2 (1995): 243-271.
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6210
SOURCE: Fitts, Alexandra. “Sandra Cisneros's Modern Malinche: A Reconsideration of Feminine Archetypes in Woman Hollering Creek.” International Fiction Review (January 2002): 11-22.
[In the following essay, Fitts discusses Cisneros's representations of three Hispanic female icons in the stories of Woman Hollering Creek: La Malinche in “Never Marry a Mexican;” the Virgin of Guadalupe in “Little Miracles, Kept Promises;” and La Llorona in “Woman Hollering Creek.”]
Sandra Cisneros's collection of stories Woman Hollering Creek [Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories] (1991) depicts the situation of the Mexican-American woman: typically caught between two cultures, she resides in a cultural borderland.1 The topics of the stories range from the confusions of a bicultural and bilingual childhood to the struggles of a dark-skinned woman to recognize her own beauty in the land of Barbie dolls and blond beauty queens. While Cisneros does not attempt to force easy resolutions on such complex subject matter, she does search for a “place” that will respect Spanish and Indian heritage along with Mexican tradition without resorting to a nostalgic longing for a distant motherland (a Mexico that, in some cases, the characters have never seen). Her characters engage in a continual process of cultural mediation, as they struggle to reconcile their Mexican past with their American present. Further complicating this struggle is the fact that most of her characters are young women who must sort through the competing stories that they hear about a woman's “place” until they find one where they can reside comfortably. Part of this negotiation is the incorporation of key feminine archetypes from the Mexican tradition and the reconsideration of these figures in a way that will reflect the realities of the modern Chicana experience. Cisneros reevaluates, and in a way revalues, the three most prevalent representations of Mexican womanhood: the passive virgin, the sinful seductress, and the traitorous mother, idolized in the figures of the Virgin of Guadalupe, La Malinche, and La Llorona. Along the lines of U.S. feminism, these female icons could be seen as promoting an image of women that is detrimental, but they may also serve as emblems of feminine power and pre-conquest Mexican beliefs. Sandra Cisneros tackles each of these feminine figures in Woman Hollering Creek. La Malinche in “Never Marry a Mexican,” the Virgin of Guadalupe in “Little Miracles, Kept Promises,” and La Llorona in “Woman Hollering Creek.” Rather than merely casting aside these figures, Cisneros searches for a transformation of them that will allow for the past while opening up the future. However, her goal does not seem to be as uncomplicated as merely redeeming these figures as powerful female icons. Instead, she modernizes and adds nuance to their legends and their legacies.
It could be said that the place of the Mexican-American woman is by force of immigration always in the borderlands. Of course, many Chicanas physically inhabit the borderlands between Mexico and the United States—that place that is neither entirely one country nor the other, but something else, a unique amalgamation of the two. The Mexican-American woman, however, is not marginalized by her physical location as much as she is by both her sex and her ethnicity. In the words of Chicana critic and activist Gloria Anzaldua, “this is her home / this thin edge of / barbwire.”2 She must live on the fence because she can never occupy a full place in any of the cultures to which she nominally belongs. In the U.S., she is separated by her color, her language, and her history. In Mexican and Chicano societies, she is defined and limited by the traditions of machismo and the teachings of the Catholic Church. Anzaldua writes, “Alienated from her mother culture, ‘alien’ in the dominant culture, the woman of color does not feel safe within the inner life of her Self. Petrified, she can't respond, her face caught between los intersticios (the cracks), the spaces between the different worlds she inhabits.”3 Much of this can be said for any person, male or female, who lives as a minority within a dominant culture. Anzaldua makes a special case for the Chicana, however. Dominated in both cultures, she is even less at home in either than is a male, be he white, Mexican, or Chicano. Furthermore, the Mexican and Chicana woman has repeatedly served as mediator between the two cultures. She is too often the sexual property that links white men and Mexican men in a system of exchange.
The historical representative of this sexualized position as cultural mediator is La Malinche. Malinche, dona Marina, Malinalli—she has many names and many incarnations. What we know of her is that she was an Indian woman who served as interpreter and lover to Herman Cortes while he conquered her land and massacred her people. Infamous as a traitor and a whore, her legacy has been to serve as a representative of the victimization of the native people of Mexico at the hands of the whites, and as the shameful reminder of a woman's complicity.
In his famous work The Labyrinth of Solitude, originally published in 1950, Octavio Paz reflects at great length on La Malinche's role in the formation of the Mexican consciousness. To him, she is la Chingada, the “violated Mother.” Paz spends quite a bit of time defining the word “chingada,” all the while avoiding its most common and vulgar usage. Most commonly, la chingada means “the screwed one.” Paz claims that this verb always implies unwillingness and victimization, but he also points out that La Malinche “gave herself voluntarily to the conquistador.”4 For Paz, the proof of her victimization lies in Cortes's abandonment of La Malinche once she had served his purposes. So, she is not only a traitor and a whore, but also a woman not cunning enough to hold on to her man or even to realize that he is abusing her. In fact, La Malinche's sin is one of omission rather than commission. According to Paz, “her passivity is abject: she does not resist violence, but is an inert heap of bones, blood and dust. Her taint is constitutional and resides … in her sex” (85). He traces the Mexican repudiation of the Mother (and thus of women) to their shame of origin, the shame that rests with La Malinche's collaboration and her sinful sexuality. La Malinche is the figurative mother of all post-Conquest Mexicans, and thus, of all Chicanos. Her sin, like Eve's, must be born by her sons and, more pointedly, by her daughters.
Cherrie Moraga describes the impact that La Malinche's story has had on Hispanic women's sexuality. She writes, “[c]hicanas' negative perceptions of ourselves as sexual persons and our consequential betrayal of each other finds its roots in a four-hundred year long Mexican history and mythology.”5 The weight of guilt imposed on women for La Malinche's betrayal of her people and for her sexual transgressions has led to a deeply conflicted self-image. In order to be “true” to her people, a Mexican or Chicana woman must deny her sexuality, for “the woman who defies her role as subservient to her husband, father, brother, or son by taking control of her own sexual destiny is purported to be a ‘traitor to her race’ by contributing to the ‘genocide’ of her people” (113).
Sandra Cisneros tackles the legacy of La Malinche in the story “Never Marry a Mexican.”6 In this story, a Chicana woman seeks revenge on the white lover who has rejected her by becoming the sexual tutor of his teenaged son. Though the first-person narrator does not say how the son will pay for the sins of the father, it is clear that he must pay, as she lulls him into false confidence waiting for the right moment or, as she puts it, the moment when she will snap her teeth. The reference to La Malinche and Cortes is made explicit from the start, as she recalls that her lover, Drew, used to call her his “Malinalli” (another name for Malinche) and that he looked like Cortes with his dark beard and white skin. Like the legendary Malinche, the narrator is an accomplice in her own domination and a traitor to the “sisterhood.”7 She admits, “I've been accomplice, committed premeditated crimes. I'm guilty of having caused deliberate pain to other women. I'm vindictive and cruel, and I'm capable of anything” (“NM” [“Never Marry a Mexican.”] 68). She also says that, though a painter, she must support herself in other ways. Sometimes she acts as a translator, though she also relies on the generosity of her lovers, which, she says, “is a form of prostitution” (“NM” 71). She translates the language (although Spanish is now the “native” language), as did La Malinche, but also serves as a cultural intermediary, a sort of ambassador to the white world in which she moves but which she does not fully inhabit.
Cisneros's Malinche is a complex, modern figure. She is at once victim and victimizer, as she turns her hurt and anger on others. She is certainly not the “abjectly passive” victim that Paz described, but she does allow herself to fall into relationship after relationship with unavailable men—always married, and always white. For the narrator, whose real name is Clemencia, the issues of race and gender are at odds, as she feels forced to choose her primary allegiance. Clemencia's parents are both Mexican, her father born in Mexico, her mother in the U.S. The title of the story, “Never Marry a Mexican,” is her mother's often-repeated advice. Clemencia's mother felt inescapable discrimination from both cultures. As a lower-class Chicana, she was looked down on by her husband's upper-middle-class Mexican family, but she also suffered discrimination in mainstream U.S. society because of her dark skin. The answer, for her, was to marry out and supposedly up, and she instilled in her daughters the belief that the only appropriate future husbands for them were whites.
Clemencia buys into this prejudice against her own heritage to some extent, but her feelings about race are more complex than those expressed by her mother. She says that she never saw Mexican men, or Latin men of any sort, as potential lovers, yet she considers her mother to be the true traitor because she married a white man almost immediately after the death of Clemencia's father. Clemencia and her sister move from their suburban neighborhood to the Mexican part of town in a romanticized quest for a cultural connection. At first, they think the neighborhood is quaint and charming, but soon they realize that the realities of life in the barrio are anything but charming. Not fully at home in either culture, she ultimately decides that she must define and situate herself as a Chicana, though this decision is perhaps a moot point, as her lovers clearly have also been taught to “never marry a Mexican.” Though born in the U.S. to a mother who does not even speak Spanish, she is Mexican in the eyes of the world. To the white men with whom she has affairs, she is a sexual mystery, the exotic dark-skinned woman with whom they can have sex before going home to their pale, polished wives.
Though Clemencia struggles with the allegiance she feels, or is forced into, with others of her race, her lack of loyalty to other women is much clearer. Where La Malinche is considered primarily as a traitor to her race, we see in Clemencia the impact of a woman's betrayal of the “sisterhood” of other women. The problem is that Clemencia feels no such sisterhood with white women—already excluded from their society, she is well aware of the power differential between a white woman and a dark-skinned woman, and for her, this difference negates any kinship they might share. She says, thinking of her lover's son: “All I know is I was sleeping with your father the night you were born. In the same bed where you were conceived. I was sleeping with your father and didn't give a damn about that woman, your mother. If she was a brown woman like me, I might've had a harder time living with myself, but since she's not, I don't care” (“NM” 76).
Cisneros complicates La Malinche, as she is represented by Clemenda. She is neither entirely a victim, nor merely a self-serving woman who betrays her people for her own gain. Like La Malinche, she is defined by her race and her sex, and she struggles with these meanings that are imposed on her body. However, this story does not present an apology for La Malinche, nor an uncomplicated recuperation of the figure. While the reader may sympathize with Clemencia up to a point, she ultimately turns into a sort of obsessive stalker, who can find power only through sexuality and, perhaps, violence. The contradictions of her legacy remain intact, as Cisneros lends some justification (and perhaps sympathy) to her actions, but falls short of a whole-hearted vindication of La Malinche.
Unsurprisingiy, a number of Chicana writers have taken up La Malinche's cause more fully than does Cisneros, seeing her as a victim not only of the conquistadors, but also of the pervasive sexism of Latin culture. In La Malinche in Mexican Literature, Sandra Messinger Cypess discusses Chicana writers' reconsideration of the legacy of La Malinche, saying that “they have incorporated the figure into their creative works as another way to make her their own, to transform her into their own image instead of accepting the image of La Malinche constructed by patriarchal cuitural forces.”8
Gloria Anzaldua traces the figure of Malinche back to the powerful goddesses of the Aztecs. She claims that the male-dominated culture, even before the time of the Conquest, sought to weaken the power of the primary creator goddess, Coatlicue, and divided her in two—the good mother, Tonantsin, and the sexual being, Tlatzoteotl. With the incorporation of the ancient pantheon into the Catholic religion, the two opposing female figures metamorphosed into La Virgen de Guadalupe (the pure mother) and La Malinche (the sexualized, evil temptress), though, ironically, it is La Malinche who is the figurative mother of the mestizo race. Anzaldua sees both of these figures as working to oppress Mexican and Chicana women—the Virgin of Guadalupe by robbing them of their sexuality, and La Malinche by making them ashamed of both their gender and their Indian heritage. Anzaldua calls not for a disavowal of these “mothers,” but rather a reconsideration of their legacy. To cast them aside would further deny the Indian and Mexican past; to embrace them unchanged would be an acceptance of gender roles that do not allow for sexual independence and self-expression.
The Virgin of Guadalupe is the patron saint of Mexico and its most powerful religious icon. She appeared in 1531 on the site of a former shrine to Tonantsin, the Aztec goddess who most resembled the Christian concept of the “Mother of God.” The Virgin of Guadalupe became an important symbol of criollo and mestizo identity, as she appeared both to an Indian and as an Indian herself. While the Virgin of Guadalupe is considered a saint of the people and is an enormously powerful popular icon, her image is still that of the Virgin, and connotes all the negative aspects about women's sexuality (or lack thereof) that the cult of virginity entails.9 In Our Lady of Guadalupe, Jeanette Rodriguez writes that “Our Lady of Guadalupe is often experienced as a Marian image to support and encourage passivity in women, and thus is viewed as an instrument of patriarchal oppression and control.”10
Nevertheless, even feminist critics such as Anzaldua cannot fail to see the power of such an omnipresent female icon. In fact, she sees the figure of the Virgin of Guadalupe as “a synthesis of the old world and the new, of the religion and culture of the two races of our psyche, the conqueror and conquered.” Perhaps more importantly, she can serve as a Chicano emblem, because she “is the symbol of ethnic identity and of the tolerance for ambiguity that Chicanos-mexicanos, people of mixed race, people who have Indian blood, people who cross cultures, by necessity possess.”11 Jacqueline Doyle refers to her as “a threshold between human and divine, the living and the dead, and as a mediator between competing cultures.”12 This position as cultural mediator is important, as it provides a link between the Mexican past and the American present. The omnipresence and force of the figure in the Mexican and Chicano cultures is undisputed. However difficult it may be to accept a representation of female power and cultural complexity that is also a symbol of women's passivity and oppression, for Chicanas the Virgin of Guadalupe is also an ethnic symbol and tied to their Mexican heritage. Merely rejecting the Virgin on feminist grounds denies the validity of Chicanas' history and in some cases their faith.13 Cherrie Moraga contrasts her own repudiation of the image of the Virgin with the passionate faith of so many Mexican women. She writes, “I left the church in tears, knowing how for so many years I had closed my heart to the passionate pull of such faith that promised no end to the pain. I grew white.”14
Cisneros's book also reflects the importance of the Virgin of Guadalupe in the Chicano psyche and cultural practice, as numerous stories in Woman Hollering Creek make mention of her. The most interesting of these in its treatment of the Virgin is “Little Miracles, Kept Promise.”15 The story takes the form of a series of notes to the Virgin and other popular saints, left at a shrine somewhere in Texas. They ask for everything from overtime pay to a good man, and they give thanks for recovering a stolen truck or for graduating from high school. The authors of the notes reflect a wide variety of Chicano lifestyles—some write in Spanish, most in English, some display a traditional and unquestioning faith, others the petty complaints of disgruntled teenagers. The last note in the story is from a young woman, Chayo, who writes of the challenges of being a modern Chicana. She is nagged by her mother for cutting her hair, for spending too much time alone, for becoming a painter. She describes herself as “straddling both” worlds, but her mother accuses her of being a malinchista, a “white girl” who is betraying her Mexican heritage by attempting to break out of the role that it defines for women. This is not an uncommon epithet, and it is used to imply that a woman is a traitor for “consorting with Anglos or accepting Anglo cultural patterns.”16
Again, we see La Malinche as the betrayer of her culture, in this case because she is stepping outside the bounds of acceptable behavior for women and daring to express feminine power and sexuality. We learn that Chayo has left a note and a braid of her hair to give thanks to the Virgin because she has found out that she is not pregnant and she is not sure that she wants to be a mother.17 We also learn of Chayo's struggles with her race, her gender, and her religious beliefs. Her mother's Virgin is not one to whom Chayo can relate, just as she cannot imagine herself in her mother's abnegating role. She does not want a passionless Virgin who calmly forgives all, but rather: “I wanted you bare-breasted, snakes in your hands. I wanted you leaping and somersaulting the backs of bulls. I wanted you swallowing raw hearts and rattling volcanic ash. I wasn't going to be my mother or my grandma. All that self-sacrifice, all that silent suffering. Hell no. Not here. Not me” (“LM” [“Little Miracles, Kept Promise”] 127).
Now, however, Chayo has come to terms with the Virgin, and the way that she has done this is by accepting a version of her that is neither exactly Malinche nor Virgen. Chayo recognizes the power of both, and rather than deny either of them, she sees their ability to help her negotiate her position in each of her two cultures. She is able to accept both the Virgin's pacifism and Malinche's sexuality through knowledge of her own Indian heritage. She learns of the goddess's transition from the Aztec serpent goddess, to Tonantsin, to Guadalupe, and, seeing “all of her facets,” Chayo can recognize the strength of the image. She finds a goddess who has snakes in her hands, but who still allows for the beliefs of Catholicism: “that you could have the power to rally a people when a country was born, and again during civil war, and during a farmworkers' strike in California made me think that there is power in my mother's patience, strength in my grandmother's endurance” (“LM” 128). She ends the story saying, “I could love you, and finally learn to love me” (“LM” 128).
In an essay called “Guadalupe the Sex Goddess” in the collection Goddess of the Americas, Cisneros describes her own youthful discomfort with her body, and the reluctance to discuss sex or birth control: “What a culture of denial. Don't get pregnant! But no one tells you how not to. This is why I was angry for so many years every time I saw la Virgen de Guadalupe, my culture's role model for brown women like me. She was damn dangerous, an ideal so lofty and unrealistic it was laughable.”18 Like Chayo in “Little Miracles, Kept Promises,” Cisneros writes that she came to her own acceptance of the Virgin through a knowledge of her pre-Colombian past. Most importantly, she states, “My Virgen de Guadalupe is not the mother of God. She is God. She is a face for a god without a face, an indigena for a god without ethnicity, a female deity for a god who is genderless” (50). This understanding of the Virgin, which seems to be the one at which Chayo eventually arrives, is a clear reflection of Anzaldua's claims for the Virgin of Guadalupe as a mediator of not just culture, but also gender, race, and history.
While La Malinche and the Virgin of Guadalupe are figures that appear again and again in modern Chicana writing, there is a third female figure that has left a lasting impact on the construction of Mexican and Chicana womanhood. The title figure of Cisneros's book is the “hollering woman,” or La Llorona, of Mexican legend. According to Americo Paredes, La Llorona is “the wailing woman in white [seeking] her children who died in childbirth. Originally an Aztec goddess who sacrificed babies and disappeared shrieking into lakes or rivers, La Llorona usually appears near a well, stream, or washing place. The Hispanicized form has La Llorona murdering her own children born out of wedlock when her lover married a woman of his own station.”19
Again, we see an Aztec female goddess transformed into a guilty reminder of a woman's sin. Though there are various versions of the legend, La Llorona is guilty on a number of scores, all affronts to the accepted roles for women. She is a sexual transgressor, but even more importantly, she betrays all of the traditional notions of motherhood. When her children became a burden to her, she simply murdered them. Like La Malinche, La Llorona is a symbol of motherhood gone wrong. La Malinche's betrayal of her “children” was in her sinful collaboration with their oppressive “father,” but La Llorona's betrayal of motherhood is even more perverse. For this sin she is doomed to an eternity of repentance with her continual wailing as a reminder to all of her crime, and of the repercussions of transgression.
Cisneros's first transformation of La Llorona is one from the “wailing woman” of legend to the “hollering woman” of the title story.20 Woman Hollering Creek is a real place, situated in Texas near San Antonio. Cleofilas, the protagonist of the story, wonders about the origin of this appellation, thinking: “La Gritona. Such a funny name for such a lovely arroyo. But that's what they call the creek that ran behind the house. Though no one could say whether the woman had hollered from anger or pain. The natives only knew the arroyo one crossed on the way to San Antonio, and then once again on the way back, was called Woman Hollering, a name no one from these parts questioned, little less understood” (“WHC” [“Woman Hollering Creek”] 46).
Cleofilas wants to understand how the creek came to have this name, and why the woman was hollering. The only answer that she can find is that the name is a somewhat inaccurate translation of La Llorona, who could be said to wail or sob, but not exactly to holler. Cleofilas's desire to understand the hollering woman stems more from personal circumstances than from her interest in geography. She has come to Texas from Mexico as a new bride, spurred by hopes that are a mix of fairy tales, romance novels, and soap operas. Bored with life in her pueblo, she longs for passion, excitement, new clothes, and a pretty house. However, not long after her arrival in Seguin, Texas, Cleofilas begins to realize that in some ways her life is like a soap opera, “only now the episodes got sadder and sadder” (“WHC” 52). As she grows more and more desperate in her marriage, Cleofilas, like La Llorona, is drawn to the water. She sits by the creek that she had originally thought “so pretty and full of happily ever after” (“WHC” 47), and begins to understand the despair that could drive a woman to destruction. As she plays with her own child, she thinks that she hears La Llorona calling to her, and wonders about the quiet desperation that might have led to her violent actions. Cleofilas does not think of La Llorona simply as a woman who drowned her own children out of selfishness or evil. Instead, she contemplates the causes that would lead a woman to “the darkness under the trees.” Cleofilas, however, evidences some resources that La Llorona must not have possessed, and it is through Cleofilas's resolution of her desperate situation that Cisneros rewrites the story of La Llorona.
First, Cleofilas has a family in Mexico to whom she can turn. It is her father rather than her mother who is the source of protection and solace. Cleofilas's mother is not present in her life, though it is not explained if she has died or has merely left. It is Cleofilas's father who nurtures and reassures his daughter. Presciently, he sensed that her marriage would fail and, as she left home, assured her, “I am your father. I will never abandon you” (“WHC” 43). By casting the father in this role, Cisneros further complicates stereotypes of mothers and motherhood. Perhaps a “perfect,” Marian mother is not a necessity. Her neighbors wonder how Cleofilas will mature into a wife and mother herself without the example of her own mother, but clearly her father has provided the strength and support that she needs. Cleofilas is also able to draw on unexpected reserves of inner strength. Initially concerned about the shame of returning to Mexico, she realizes that the price that she will pay if she stays is much higher. Pregnant with her second child, she tricks her husband, Juan Pedro, into driving her to town for a doctor's visit, and once she is left alone in the office, she begs the nurse to help her escape. The nurse, Graciela, and her friend, Felice, become Cleofilas's most important allies. In this case, as opposed to Clemencia's situation in “Never Marry a Mexican,” there is a bond of sisterhood, as two unknown women with whom she has little in common conspire to help her.
Felice agrees to drive Cleofilas and her son to the bus station in San Antonio. As Cleofilas is fleeing to safety with this stranger, Felice does something that shocks her: “when they drove across the arroyo, the driver opened her mouth and let out a yell as loud as any mariachi” (“WHC” 55). At Cleofilas's surprised response, Felice explains: “Every time I cross that bridge I do that. Because of the name, you know. Woman Hollering. Pues, I holler. She said this in a Spanish pocked with English and laughed. Did you ever notice, Felice continued, how nothing around here is named for a woman? Really. Unless she's the Virgin. I guess you're only famous if you're a virgin. She laughed again” (“WHC” 55). For the first time, Cleofilas is able to imagine a woman hollering for some reason other than pain or rage. Felice's yell is one of independence—a true grito.21 Also for the first time, Cleofilas is able to see her own strength and independence and laughs, rejoicing in her freedom.
It is Felice's more assimilated position in U.S. culture that enables her to envision a scream of joy rather than despair. She is presented as a modern, “American” woman, in contrast to Cleofilas's naive immigrant. Felice does not need to ask her husband to drive her anywhere; first, she does not have a husband, and second, she has her own truck. Cleofilas marvels at this level of independence: “when Cleofilas asked if it was her husband's, she said she didn't have a husband. The pickup was hers. She herself had chosen it. She herself was paying for it” (“WHC” 55). Ironically, it may also be Felice's distance from the Spanish language that leads to her interpretation of the creek's name. Though she speaks Spanish to Cleofilas, she frequently reverts to English, and her conversation with her friend Graciela is the reverse—English sprinkled with a few Spanish phrases. Like the other natives of the area, Felice seems to be unaware of the Spanish origins of the “hollering woman” and does not translate the name back to La Llorona, as does Cleofilas. She is happily ignorant of the hollering woman's association with pain and betrayal.
The story “Woman Hollering Creek” acknowledges women's suffering, as Cleofilas sees her dreams shatter and her marriage crumble. However, she does not succumb to despair, or heed the keening siren's call of La Llorona. In fact, the only sobbing in the story is that of Juan Pedro each time that he beats her and begs forgiveness. Cleofilas neither drowns nor abandons her children. Instead, she saves them, and herself, by drawing on resources that come from both sides of the border. From Mexico, she has her protective father and extended family. From the U.S., she has women like Graciela and Felice, who are able to imagine a woman whose power does not have to come from either her virginity or the support of a man.
In Borderlands, Gloria Anzaldua proposes a “conciencia mestiza” that accepts without assimilating, that draws strength from both sides of the border. Importantly, it is also a “conciencia de mujer.” Not just a hybrid of races, this mestiza consciousness would allow for a complicated understanding of gender. Rather than rejecting either white or Mexican culture, she says that “we will have to leave the opposite bank, the split between the two mortal combatants somehow healed so that we are on both shores at once, see through serpent and eagle eyes.”22 The mestiza “communicates that rupture, documents the struggle. She reinterprets history, and using new symbols, she shapes new myths.”23
This is precisely Sandra Cisneros's accomplishment in Woman Hollering Creek. In this collection of stories, Cisneros tackles a number of Mexican religious and cultural icons, particularly those female archetypes whose images often still define the role of Chicanas. While all of these symbols are shown to have power in the construction of Chicano identity, some are questioned more than others. La Malinche did not fare exceptionally well in Cisneros's retelling of her story. While she does modernize La Malinche and provide some shading to her villainy, ultimately, she is still a traitor. The reader can comprehend Clemencia's confusion and anger, but she is still an overtly sexualized figure who trades her body for power. In the end, Clemencia is not so terribly far from the La Malinche described by Paz.
However, the stories “Woman Hollering Creek” and “Little Miracles, Kept Promises” represent precisely the reconsideration of female archetypes that Anzaldua calls for. Cleofilas learns from her time in the U.S. that life is not a telenovela and that being a wife and mother may not be the only possibilities open for women. While remaining true to her beliefs, she rejects the passive abnegation of the Virgin. In “Little Miracles, Kept Promises,” Chayo does not cast aside the legacy of her mythical and actual fore-mothers, but manages to find strength in certain parts of their images. She does not need to either entirely reject or entirely accept their proscribed roles. Instead, she can recognize the strength of the Virgin without emulating her passivity and aspire to the sexual freedom of La Malinche without betraying her culture. We see in this story that through a reconnection to both her Indian and her Mexican past, a young Chicana can negotiate the unstable ground of her own cultural borderland.
A number of feminist scholars have searched for a recuperation of the “goddess” as a representation of feminine power, and many Chicanas have found this matriarchal figure in Guadalupe and La Malinche, and in their fore-mothers, Tonantsin and Coatlicue.24 The revaluation of the passive Virgin or of the reviled Malinche and Llorona can be more than a image-boosting exercise. As Margaret Randall writes in “Guadalupe, Subversive Virgin”: “A saint or secular being may be spawned by the orthodoxy, but claimed, or reclaimed by people in need. More impressive still is when groups of people gain self-knowledge and power enough to produce warriors of their own. Control of our history, of our stories, has traditionally been in the hands of those who hold power over our lives. Social change is largely about people retrieving their stories.”25
The fact that Cisneros does not offer an easy reconciliation with La Malinche does not weaken her reconsideration of these three figures. In fact, her refusal to valorize or validate all aspects of their legacies further elucidates the struggle to come to terms with such contradictory images. As Anzaldua points out in Borderlands, “[l]iving in a state of psychic unrest, in a Borderland, is what makes poets write and artists create.”26 The borderland is not, and cannot be, a place of ease and security. It is precisely that unease, insecurity, and ambivalence that make the borderlands such a fertile zone.”
Sandra Cisneros, Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories (New York: Random House, 1991).
Gloria Anzaldua, Borderlands/La frontera (San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books, 1987) 20.
Octavio Paz, The Labyrinth of Solitude (New York: Grove Press, 1961) 86.
Cherrie Moraga, Loving in the War Years (Boston: South End Press, 1983) 99.
Subsequent references appear in the text in parentheses following the abbreviation NM.
It is not clear whether the historical Malinche was a willing accomplice of Cortes. She was probably given to Cortes as a slave, and was about fourteen years old at the time of the Conquest.
Sandra Messinger Cypess, La Malinche in Mexican Literature: From History to Myth (Austin: University of Texas Press) 142.
It is interesting that, while passivity is celebrated as a feminine virtue in the Virgin of Guadalupe, it is precisely the “abject passivity” of La Malinche that Paz condemned. It would seem that passivity is a virtue only as long as a woman's passivity does not lead to her sexual victimization.
Jeanette Rodriguez, Our Lady of Guadalupe: Faith and Empowerment among Mexican-American Women (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1994) xviii.
Jacqueline Doyle, “Assumptions of the Virgin in Recent Chicana Writing,” Women's Studies 26 (1997): 181.
The acceptance or rejection of the Virgin of Guadalupe is much more than a political or moral issue for many Chicanas, who must attempt to reconcile their religious faith with the negative images that have so long been cast upon the Virgin. As Ana Castillo writes in the introduction to Goddess of the Americas, “we make no claim to represent the Catholic Church here, thank goodness. The only claim we make is our right to love her” (xxiii).
Subsequent references are cited in parentheses in the text following the abbreviation LM.
Messinger Cypress 138.
The image of Chayo cutting her hair is symbolic of a shedding of stereotypically feminine appearance and behavior. In her article “Assumptions of the Virgin in Recent Chicana Writing,” Jacqueline Doyle also points out that the braid can be seen as representative of Chayo's weaving of cultures (187).
Sandra Cisneros, “Guadalupe the Sex Goddess,” Goddess of the Americas: Writings on the Virgin of Guadalupe, ed. Ana Castillo (New York: Riverhead Books, 1996) 48.
Americo Paredes, Folktales of Mexico (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970) xvi.
Subsequent references are cited in parentheses in the text following the abbreviation WHC.
El grito de Dolores (The shout of Dolores) was the cry for Mexican independence sounded by Miguel Hidalgo on 15 September 1810 and celebrated as a national holiday in Mexico.
Mary Daly studied the power of the goddess myths in the ground-breaking Gyn/Ecology: The Metaethics of Radical Feminism (Beacon Press: Boston, 1978). For a more recent compilation, see The Concept of the Goddess, eds. Sandra Billington and Miranda Green (London: Routledge, 1996). Gloria Anzaldua's Borderlands provides an analysis of Aztec/Mexican goddesses.
Margaret Randall, “Guadalupe, Subversive Virgin,” Goddess of the Americas 122.