Feminism in "Like Water for Chocolate"
"I grew up in a modern home, but my grandmother lived across the street in an old house that was built when churches were illegal in Mexico. She had a chapel in the home, right between the kitchen and dining room. The smell of nuts and chilies and garlic got all mixed up with the smells from the chapel, my grandmother's carnations, the liniments and healing herbs" (Esquivel, cited by Egeake, 2009).
Despite its popularity with the public, "Like Water for Chocolate (1989)," has often been dismissed as a "poor imitation of the male canon" (Ibsen, 1997, p. 111), which, until relatively recently, had dominated Mexican literature. Antonio Marquet, for example, describes the novel as "simplistic ... infantile ... full of banal conventionalities, lacking any clearly defined stylistic intention and ... whose only aspiration is to be trendy" (cited by Ibsen, 1997, p. 111). However, and as argued by Ibsen (1997), "Esquivel 'feminizes' her novel by presenting a community of women sustained through an activity - the preparation of food - that transcends social barriers of class, race, and generation" (p.112). As such, this paper will portray the way in which Esquivel's life affected her life by considering the way in which Mama Elena De la Garza uses her power as the "head of the household" in order to dominate and control her daughters.
A Woman Empowered by Male Contributes
Mexican women, like their counterparts throughout the world, have fought, and continue to fight, a long and hard battle to gain their rights. As portrayed in Laura Esquivel's "Like Water for Chocolate" (1989), tradition in Mexico meant that Tita is forbidden to marry because it is her responsibility to care for her mother until she dies, while culture continues to dictate the role and place of women. Even today, for example, "it is viewed as dishonerable for women to be seen without an escort" (Indigo Guide, 2009) in certain venues in Mexico. As such, Esquiviel's novel focuses in mostly female characters, some of whom she depicts through gender roles that are usually associated with men, thus showing them as cruel and violent, while others, whether "to the table or bed ... Must come when [they] are bid" (Esquive, 1989, p.1).
Mama Elena De la Garza is a harsh, cruel woman who is far-removed from the traditional view of mothers. Instead, Mama Elena is portrayed as an evil mother - an authoritarian, tyrannical, twisted woman, who takes delight in using her power to destroy her daughters - while also being "merciless, killing with a single blow" (Esquive, 1989, p. 47). Mama Elena rules her household with an iron fist, and a dominating power that is often cruel, even heartless. As such, "when it came to dividing, dismantling, dismembering, desolating, detaching, dispossessing, destroying, or dominating, Mama Elena was a pro" (Esquive, 1989, p. 97).
Tita is Mama Elena's youngest child, which means that she is viewed as being responsible for taking care of her widowed mother. Therefore, when Mama Elena learns that Pedro Muzquiz wants to marry Tita, not only does the old woman refusing, stating "... you have to take care of me until the day I die" (Esquive, 1989, p. 8), but when Tita attempts to reason with her mother, "a very angry Mama Elena left the kitchen, and for the next week she didn't speak a single word to her" (Esquive, 1989, p. 9).
The way in which Mama Elena controls and dominates her children can also be seen in the way in which they jump to obey her every command. For example, on hearing the words, "That's it for today" (Esquive, 1989, p. 8), the children "all sprang into action" (Esquive, 1989, p. 7), each one of them fulfilling a list of chores before going to their bedrooms to "read, say their prayers, and go to sleep" (Ibid.). In addition, their work had to be perfect, and there room for discussion or debate - young women, in the eyes of Mama Elena, did not have an opinion and under no circumstances were they to go against her wishes. If they did, then she disowned them.
Besides her tyrannical behavior, Mama Elena is also a cruel, heartless woman. After having forbidden Tita's marriage, for example, she suggests that Pedro should marry Rosaura, thus treating marriage as if it is a business arrangement rather than an act of commitment between two people who live each other. However, her cruelty is further demonstrated by her forcing Tita to cook the food for the wedding. "I won't have disobedience," she tells the heartbroken young girl, "not am I going to let you ruin your sister's wedding, with you acting like a victim. You're in charge of all the preparations starting now, and don't ever let me catch you with a single tear on your long face, do you hear?" (Esquive, 1989, p. 20). It would seem that although intent on destroying others, for Tita Mama Elena "had made an exception; she had been killing her off a little at a time since she was a child" (Esquive, 1989, p. 47). However, Tita's inability to marry the man she loves due to rules that are predominantly male meant that she "... couldn't resist the temptation to violate the oh-so-rigid rules her mother imposed in the kitchen ... and in life" (Esquive, 1989, pp. 199-200).
Esquivel uses scenes such as this in order to address the way in which tradition and conventional attitudes are so entrenched within Mexican society. Her use of food, for example, is used as a narrative device that point towards the way in which woman are faced with "rules she has not made and over which she has no control" (Halevi-Wise, 1997, p. 123). It is through food that Tita both compares and understands her own emotional and physical state: It "was then that she understood how dough feels when it is plunged into boiling oil (Halevi-Wise, 1997, p. 21); "She felt so lost and lonely! One last chile in walnut sauce left on the platter after a fancy dinner couldn't feel any worse than she did" (Esquive, 1989, p. 61); "At thirty-nine she was still as sharp and fresh as a cucumber that had just been cut" (Esquive, 1989, p. 236). Although expressed with humor, such examples are also concrete, thus transcending abstract notions of what it means to be a woman in Mexican society.
The violence that Tita suffers at the hands of her mother is also depictive of male brutality. For example, Mama Elena appears to be made up of characteristics that are normally attributed to men rather than women, while a closer reading of the text shows that all of the female characters are stronger than their male counterparts. It is Tita, rather than Pedro, who finally dares to confront her mother and Rosura, while even before her rebellion, Tita wields a significant amount of power through the strange effects of her cooking. In addition, it is Tita that ultimately "penetrates" Pedro through the sensual power of the dishes she produces in the kitchen: "It was as if a strange alchemical process had dissolved her entire being in the rose petal sauce, in the tender flesh of the quails, in the wine, and in each and every one of the meal's aromas. In this way, she penetrated Petro's body, hot, voluptuous, aromatic, totally sensuous" (Esquive, 1989, p. 52). In contrast, Pedro, and indeed the other male characters, are portrayed as being indecisive and weak, and prone to petty jealousies. Although, for example, Pedro claims to love Tita, he is not strong enough to challenge her mother's refusal to allow him to marry Tita, but instead accepts Rosaura as his bride. Furthermore, his weak nature is displayed in his refusal to consumate his marriage, as well as the fact that the only reason that he chooses to do so is because "Lord, this is not lust nor lewdness, but to make a child to serve you" (Esquive, 1989, p. 52).
The male characters within the novel also depict various traits that are typically seen as feminine. For example, Pedro is long-suffering, as seen by his willingness to wait a life for the woman he loves, while also being nurturing and patient. Such femininity is also portrayed by characters such as Sargent Trevifio, who despite being a male, manages to decipher recipes, which are normally percieved as being a female domain, while Gerturdis is unable to understand its code, as seen by her reading the "recipe as if she were reading hieroglyphics" (Esquive, 1989, p. 192).
Furthermore, Pedro's intuition is wholly 'feminine' on several occasions (Butler, 1979), as seen by his somewhat dramatic statement that he "... was going to marry [Rosaura] with a great love for Tita that will never die" (Esquive, 1989, p. 11).
Sexuality is also a significant theme within "Like Water for Chocolate" (1989). As argued by Glen (1994), "Tita was the transmitter, Pedro the receiver, and poor Gertrudis the medium, the conducting body through which the singular sexual message was passed" (p. 42), thus once again depicting the way in which stereotypical female and male characteristics are inversed. This concept is demonstrated by the way in which Gertrudis escapes with a revolutionary, who "Without slowing his gallop, so as not to waste a moment, he leaned over, put his arm around her waist, and lifted her onto the horse in front of him, face to face, and carried her away" (Esquive, 1989, p 55), while her time spent in a brothel in order to satisfy her sexual needs is a parodic inversion of sexual roles. The same notion is also displayed by Gertrudis' ability on the battlefield, while Tita and Pedro's first sexual encounter, during which "Pedro ... pulled her to a brass bed ... and, throwing himself upon her, caused her to lose her viginity and learn of true love" (Esquive, 1989, p. 158), simply demonstrates the way in which her culinary powers enabled her to win the man she loved.
"...[E]ach of us is born with a box of matches inside us but we can't strike them all by ourselves; just as in the experiment, we need oxygen and a candle to help. In this case, the oxygen, for example, would come from the breath of the person you love; the candle could be any kind of food, music, caress, word, or sound that engenders the explosion that lights one of the matches." (115)
Contemporary Mexico, although having accepted certain feminine values and the egality of women, is still a nation that colored by predominantly male conceptions of society and the role of women. As such, the "sentimentalization of womanhood" (Franco, 1992), is challenged by Esquivel through the use of a "female language" (Vaughn, 1997, p. 41) that is "not bilogically determined but learned through oral tradition" (Ibsen, 1997, p. 114). In other words, Esquivel takes the traditional Mexican view of women and turns it on its head, thus portraying women through predominantly male characteristics and men as the so-called 'weaker sex.' As such, she demonstrates the way in which domesticity has proved to be antithetical to the home: "Whether it is through false words, false behaviors, or false interiors ... sentimental beliefs in Happily Ever After distort, trvialize, and artificially sweeten Home so that it loses its full meaning" (Thompkins, 1997, p. 88), while also undermining what it means to be a woman in contemporary Mexico.
Butler, Cornelia Flora. The Passive Female and Social Change: A Cross-Cultural Comparison of Women's Magazine Fiction. Female and Male in Latin America: Essays. Ed. Ann Pescatello. Pittsburgh: U of Pittsburgh P, 1979. 59-86.
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Vaughn, 1997. "EN DÓNDE VAN A FLOREAR": LA "FLOR DE LIS" AND THE PROBLEMATICS OF IDENTITY." In The Other Mirror: Women's Narrative in Mexico, 1980-1995. (Ed. Kristine Ibsen). Publisher: Greenwood Press. Place of Publication: Westport, CT. Publication Year: 1997.