Woman Hollering Creek

by Sandra Cisneros

Start Free Trial

Historical Context

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Mexico: The Early Years
From the beginning of the fourteenth through the end of the fifteenth century, the Aztec people built an empire in what is now Mexico by conquering other tribes. Under Montezuma II, from 1502 until 1520, the empire reached its peak in the days before the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors. Led by Hernan Cortes, the Spaniards took the Aztec capital city of Tenochtitlan on August 13, 1521. Subsequently, Cortes took as his interpreter and mistress the Aztec woman La Malinche.

Post-Colonial Times
After three hundred years of colonial rule, Mexico, which at that time comprised much of what is now the southwest of the United States, won her independence from Spain in 1821. In the 1848 treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo that ended the Mexican-American war, Mexico ceded all territory north of the Rio Grande and the Gila River to the United States. Mexican President Antonio Lopez de Santa Ana sold land south of the Gila River to the United States in the Gadsden Purchase of 1853.

Changing Borders
Looking at Mexican history, particularly regarding the changing geographical borders between the United States and Mexico, it is clear why Cisneros, Gloria Anzaldua, and other Chicana writers find the metaphor of borders and borderlands such fertile ground for both fiction and nonfiction writing. Borders, like the U.S.-Mexican border, can be changed overnight by government treaty or reprisals of war, and contested areas can become part of a different country in a moment. But people do not change so readily; their culture, language, folklore, and community history cannot be changed by legal treaties. Consequently, people find themselves strangers in their own land, disenfranchised, often powerless residents of a borderland country not their own. Like the Mexicans who lived in Texas or Arizona before those regions were annexed by the United States, they have no "old country" to return to since other states in Mexico were never their homes, and they are not really a part of the new country linguistically, culturally, or historically. They come to inhabit the edges of communities where the contact of divergent cultures produces hybrid races, languages, and cultures.

Literary Style

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Point of View and Narration
The majority of "Woman Hollering Creek'' is narrated in the third-person omniscient voice. The narrative voice that describes Cleofilas's life in Mexico, her father and brothers, the women friends with whom she gossiped in her town, speaks in longer more lyrical sentences than the narrative voice that describes her life and thoughts in Seguin, Texas. The opening sentence reads: "The day Don Serafra gave Juan Pedro Martinez Sanchez permission to take Cleofilas Enriqueta DeLeon Hernandez 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 the chores that never ended, six good-for-nothing brothers, and one old man's complaints."

In contrast to her present life, her past life in Mexico does seem more and more lyrical, almost idyllic, as her life in Texas spirals downward into more and more abuse, loneliness, and chaos. The short, choppy, incomplete sentences of the Texas sections reach their crescendo as she sits out on the grass with her baby, by Woman Hollering Creek, listening to a voice she interprets as la Llorona, the mythical Weeping Woman who is alleged to have drowned her children. "La Llorona calling to her. She is sure of it. Cleofilas sets the baby's Donald Duck blanket on the grass. Listens. The day sky turning to night. The baby pulling up fistfuls of grass and laughing. La Llorona. Wonders if something as quiet as this drives a woman to the darkness under the trees."

An abrupt change from the third-person narrative voice occurs when Graciela, the clinic physician, speaks in the first person on the telephone to Felice. Suddenly there is action; something happens Cleofilas' silent life of abuse is now given voice by a woman who will help Cleofilas to escape the cycle of abuse and gain some control over her life for the first time.

Setting
The river named Woman Hollering Creek forms the center of the borderland in which the story unfolds. It marks the crossings of culture, language, gender, marriage, enslavement, and freedom that take place in the story. Cleofilas's Mexican "town of gossips ... of dust and despair'' on the one side, is not so different from Seguin, Texas, another town of "gossips ... dust and despair'' on the other side, except that in her father's town she is safe from physical harm.

The Texas side of the creek proves to be a dangerous place for Cleofilas. Her immediate environment, her house and the houses of her neighbors, Dolores and Soledad, is a predominately female setting. But it is a dangerous one since Juan Pedro often stays away at night, and because when he is there he is often violent. The ice house, a predominately male setting, is another dangerous place that makes her feel mute and vulnerable. After all, Maximiliano killed his wife there. Even at the clinic Cleofilas cannot feel safe because her husband is in the waiting room. Only in Felice's truck, in the competent hands of this fierce, independent woman, can Cleofilas allow a ripple of laughter to escape from her throat. She is safe in Felice's care.

Structure
"Woman Hollering Creek," like the telenovelas Cleofilas watches, is episodic. It does not follow a linear storyline with smooth transitions from one setting or topic to another. ''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." Although the story moves back and forth in time, and from setting to setting as Cleofilas thinks back to her life in Mexico, each episode, like soap operas, takes place in one time and one place.

The episodic nature of "Woman Hollering Creek'' and Cisneros's novel The House on Mango Street is a stylistic choice that links the author to the Chicano writers who preceded her, like Rudolfo Anaya, Tomas Rivera, and Rolando Hinojosa. As Reed Dasenbrock and Feroza Jussawalla write in the introduction to their interview with Cisneros (in Interviews with Writers of the Post-Colonial World, 1992), "There are some strong continuities between the two generations and groups of writers: both use a mosaic of discontinuous forms in place of a continuous, linear narrative." Cisneros takes her craft very seriously, as she tells Dasenbrock and Jussawalla, and she believes a writer needs to be a meticulous carpenter of small rooms, small stories, before she can take on building a house.

Symbols and Images
Cisneros employs much symbolism in the names she chooses for her characters. Notably, Cleofilas' neighbors on either side are widowed women named Dolores and Soledad, which mean "sorrow" and "alone," respectively. The two women who come to her aid are Graciela, which is a Hispanic version of the name Grace, and Felice, which means "happiness." Cleofilas's name is clarified by Graciela, who tries to explain it to Felice over the phone: ''One of those Mexican saints, I guess. A martyr or something." This point is underscored by Jean Wyatt who notes that Mexican culture reveres women who suffer, as Cleofilas admires the tortured souls on the telenovelas.

The borderlands formed by Woman Hollering Creek are important images in Cisneros's story just as they are in the writing of many of her Chicana colleagues, such as Gloria Anzaldua. For people who live on the edges of cultures and languages different from their own, the concept of borders and borderlands is important because it symbolizes places where life is hard and losses are monumental. Yet they are also places where the fluidity of cultures allows new formulations and transformations to occur. For example, Cleofilas did not imagine the changes that would take place in her life on the banks of Woman Hollering Creek when she was a teenager watching telenovelas in Mexico. Only by moving across the border through marriage, to the edges of a linguistic community in which she is truly silenced by her inability to speak English, does she find herself in the care and company of two women like Graciela, her doctor, and Felice, her driver to safety. Only through her contact with these women, who have found the space in the fluidity of the borderlands to recreate themselves outside of their assigned sex roles, can Cleofilas imagine a new life where suffering for love is not the central motive.

La Llorona, another important image in ''Woman Hollering Creek," is the model for the woman who suffers endlessly for love. La Llorona, the Weeping Woman, has been a well-known character of Mexican folklore for so many centuries that her precise origins are themselves the subject of myth. Most often she is described as a woman who drowned her children and who wanders forever in the night crying. One myth says she killed her children because their father was from a higher social class and abandoned her. The same fate awaits modern-day Maria, the star of the telenovela "Maria de Nadie." In other legends, La Llorona merges into La Malinche, the mistress of the conqueror Hernan Cortes, who is alleged to have killed the son she had by Cortes when Cortes threatened to take him back to Spain. In "Woman Hollering Creek," La Llorona, a figure known to Cleofilas since her childhood, appears as a voice calling her as she sits by the bank of the creek with her baby.

La Gritona, which means "woman hollering," may be the new image of La Llorona. Cleofilas wonders why the woman is hollering—is it from anger or pain? Why does such a pretty creek ''full of happily ever after" have such a strange name, and why can no one explain its meaning? In the story, Cleofilas begins to think of the image of La Gritona, the Hollering Woman, as La Llorona, the Weeping Woman, and begins to hear the holler as a cry of pain with which she identifies very strongly. Yet in the end, here in the borderlands, the cry of La Gritona is transformed in the throat of Felice, who always laughs and yells "like Tarzan," symbol of great physical power, as she drives her pickup truck over the creek.

Ideas for Group Discussions

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Sandra Cisneros first introduced "Woman Hollering Creek" in her 1991 work titled Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories. Through the eyes of a young Mexican woman named Cleofilas, Cisneros relates the cultural difficulties Mexican women face after moving from Mexico to the United States.

1. Research the folklore surrounding the mythical woman, La Llorona. How have Chicana writers redefined her as a role model for modern women?

2. Compare Gloria Anzaldua's account of the conquest of Mexico by the Spaniards to the account in an encyclopedia or a world history textbook. What defines her point of view? How and why is it distinct?

3. Compare the works of Chicano writers (Rudolfo Anaya, Tomas Rivera, Rolando Hinojosa) to Chicana writers (Gloria Anzaldua, Denise Chavez, Ana Castillo, Sandra Cisneros). What characteristics do these works share? How are they different?

4. Research into the resources available to abused women, particularly women living on the margins of society. Does Cleofilas's rescue seem like a realistic ending for many abused women? Explain why or why not.

Social Concerns

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Woman Hollering Creek" was first published in Sandra Cisneros's 1991 collection of short stories, Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories. Like her novel, The House on Mango Street, published in 1983, which describes the lives of Mexican immigrants in a Chicago neighborhood, "Woman Hollering Creek" describes the lives of Mexicans who have crossed the border to live on "el otro lado"—the other side—in the American Southwest. Critically acclaimed as a major voice in Chicana and feminist literature, Cisneros's numerous awards have established her as an important voice in the American literary mainstream as well. Cisneros's work is widely anthologized, and her novel, short stories, and poetry are part of many high school and college literature classes.

In "Woman Hollering Creek" Cisneros writes of a woman, Cleofilas, who is trapped in a constricting, culturally assigned gender role due to her linguistic isolation, violent marriage, and poverty. Weaving in allusions to women of Mexican history and folklore, making it clear that women across the centuries have suffered the same alienation and victimization, Cisneros presents a woman who struggles to prevail over romantic notions of domestic bliss by leaving her husband, thus awakening the power within her.

Looking at Mexican history, particularly regarding the changing geographical borders between the United States and Mexico, it is clear why Cisneros, Gloria Anzaldua, and other Chicana-writers find the metaphor of borders and borderlands such fertile ground for both fiction and nonfiction writing. Borders, like the U.S.-Mexican border, can be changed overnight by government treaty or reprisals of war, and contested areas can become part of a different country in a moment. But people do not change so readily; their culture, language, folklore, and community history cannot be changed by legal treaties. Consequently, people find themselves strangers in their own land, disenfranchised, often powerless residents of a borderland country not their own. Like the Mexicans who lived in Texas or Arizona before those regions were annexed by the United States, they have no "old country" to return to since other states in Mexico were never their homes, and they are not really a part of the new country linguistically, culturally, or historically. They come to inhabit the edges of communities where the contact of divergent cultures produces hybrid races, languages, and cultures.

Compare and Contrast

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Texas: According to 1995-96 U.S. Census Bureau statistics, 17 percent of all people living in the state subsist beneath the poverty threshold, which is defined as $16,036 for a family of four.

New Hampshire: According to the same statistics, 5.9 percent of all residents in this state live beneath the poverty line.

Texas: According to 1996 statistics, 2.5 million state residents speak Spanish, and 714,958 are defined as "linguistically isolated," meaning that they know little English.

Maine: According to the same statistics, 4,527 people in this state speak Spanish as their primary language.

Texas: The U. S. Census Bureau states that, according to 1996 statistics, nearly 25 percent of the state's residents speak Spanish.

California: The Census Bureau states that 30 percent of the state's residents speak Spanish—a total of 4 million people; 2 million of whom are identified as "linguistically isolated."

Literary Precedents

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Cisneros periodically wrote poems and stories throughout her childhood and adolescence, but it was not until she attended the University of Iowa's Writers Workshop in the late 1970s that she realized her experiences as a Latina woman were unique and outside the realm of dominant American culture. Following this realization, Cisneros decided to write about conflicts directly related to her upbringing, including divided cultural loyalties, feelings of alienation, and degradation associated with poverty. Straying from her training as a poet, Cisneros published The House on Mango Street in 1983, marking her entrance into the world of Latina fiction. Cisneros describes her first novel as a string of little pearls. Each little pearl, each story, can be read and understood on its own, or the whole collection can be seen as a necklace, to be read as a whole.

Critics have placed Cisneros among a group of contemporary Latino writers which include Gary Soto, Ana Castillo, Pat Mora, and Luis Rodriguez. In her work, Cisneros has noted that she reads the books of these authors and responds to them in her writing. Other critics have noticed the influence of the Mexican ballad, or popular romantic song, in Cisneros's writing, particularly when observing the epigraphic structure throughout "Woman Hollering Creek."

Bibliography and Further Reading

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Sources
Anzaldua, Gloria, Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza, Spinsters/Aunt Lute, 1987.

Campbell, Bebe Moore, "Crossing Borders," in The New York Times Book Review, May 26,1991, pp. 6-7.

Candelaria, Cordelia, "La Mahnche, Feminist Prototype," in Frontiers, Vol 5, No 2,1980, pp. 1-6

Candelaria, Cordelia, "Letting La Llorona Go, or Re-reading History's Tender Mercies," in Heresies, Vol 7, No. 3, 1993, pp 111-15.

Cisneros, Sandra, "Ghost and Voices: Writing from Obsession," an excerpt from "From a Writer's Notebook," in The Americas Review, Vol 15, No. 1, Spring, 1987, p. 73.

Doyle, Jacqueline, "Haunting the Borderlands: La Llorona in Sandra Cisneros's 'Woman Hollering Creek'," in Frontiers, Vol 16, No. 1, Winter, 1996, pp 53-71.

Dasenbrock, Reed and Feroza Jussawalla, Interviews with Writers of the Post-Colonial World, University Press of Mississippi, 1992.

Paz, Octavio, Labyrinth of Solitude: Life and Thought in Mexico, translated by Lysander Kemp, Grove Press, 1950.

Prescott, Peter and Karen Springen, ''Seven for Summer,'' in Newsweek, June 3,1991, p. 60.

Wyatt, Jean, ''On Not Being La Malinche: Border Negotiations of Gender in Sandra Cisneros's 'Never Marry a Mexican' and 'Woman Hollering Creek'," in Tuba Studies in Women's Literature, Vol 14, No 2, Fall, 1995, pp. 243-71.

Further Reading
Chavez, Lorenzo, "Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stones," in Hispanic, April, 1991, p. 52.
Offers a brief overview of Woman Hollering Creek, praising the collection's language, humor, and realistic depiction of barrio life.

Ponce, Mernhelen, "A Semblance of Order to Lives and Loves," in Belles Lettres: A Review of Books by Women, Vol. 7, No. 2, Winter, 1991-92, pp. 40,44.
Laudatory overview of Woman Hollering Creek, claiming that, unlike Cisneros's earlier fiction, this collection "resonates with voices of wiser Mexicanas/Chicanas."

"Sandra Cisneros," in Contemporary Literary Criticism, Volume 69, edited by Roger Matuz, Gale, 1992, pp. 143-56.
Reprinted criticism on Cisneros's early works. Included are excerpted essays by Julian Olivares, Barbara Kingsolver, and Bebe Moore Campbell, among others.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Previous

Characters

Next

Critical Essays