Gender, Agency, Memory, and Identity in Like Water for Chocolate

by Leah A. Cheyne Volume 7, Issue 4 / April 2003 19 minutes (4529 words)

Alfonso Arau’s Like Water for Chocolate (1993) can be read as an allegorical examination of the Mexican Revolution, tracing the effects of the conflicting ideologies underlying the revolution through the displacement onto the family structure. At once removed and central to understanding the narrative, this portrayal of the Mexican Revolution valorizes and romanticizes the contributions of women. It both informs the spectator that this is at once a historical reenactment of the Revolution at a microcosm level, the family, and through the family constructs a critique of the Revolution as it pertains to female identity in terms of power, economics, and race. A critical examination of the narrative construction, character development, and cinematography will illustrate how this focus upon the role of women within the era of the Mexican Revolution is more a reflection of contemporary gendered-social roles than an accurate portrayal of Revolutionary ideals.

To paraphrase Andrés de Luna, how has the film sifted Mexican history for what was of interest: situations, characters, and themes? (174) Based upon Laura Esquivel’s fictional novel of the same name (1989), Like Water for Chocolate is an epic historical melodrama that spans three generations of Mexican women from 1985 through to the 1950s. In the tradition of the revolutionary melodrama in Mexico, the revolution is superseded by the dramatic tension between family members on a Northern frontier hacienda. Through these interpersonal tensions, the social dynamics that have come to signify the official discourse surrounding the revolution are displaced onto various inhabitants and events that inform their lives at the de la Garza hacienda, especially the women.

Both novel and film call attention to the temporal dislocation from the Mexican Revolution through the presence of the narrator, the grand-niece of the protagonist Tita, and subjective mediation through an historical document, Tita’s hand-made cookbook passed down to the narrator via Tita’s niece, Esperanza. The cookbook is an important structural device in both texts. In the novel, each chapter commences with a recipe and method of preparation that establishes the overall mood for that chapter. In the film, it is the foundation of knowledge that enables the narrator and audience to enter and leave the narrative, a bracketing prologue and epilogue. Both the narrator and the cookbook call attention to the personalization of historical discourse concerning the Mexican Revolution, arguably from a feminist vantage point.

Before discerning how the feminist vantage point is construed in Laura Esquivel story, there is another cultural dynamic that informs both texts—“magic realism”. The use of quotations for this term derives from the problematic meaning implied by its usage. In defining Like Water for Chocolate within generic codification, a number of genres, not just melodrama, can be applied to the both texts. The supernatural figures prominently throughout the narratives, enabling an assessment of the Mexican Gothic operating alongside the melodrama. According to Carlos Monsivaís, the ‘Mexican Gothic’ moments involve the secularization of the supernatural. (117) The interiority of Tita erupts through the appearances of the ghosts of Doña Elena and Nacha, symbolically and literally resurfacing the traditional values encapsulating societal expectations impeding Tita’s liberation. “Magic realism” denies what is essential about the ideological investment that Laura Esquivel conveys through the two women informing Tita’s personal struggle amid the public Revolution, whereas moments of the Mexican Gothic frame the context of their appearances in a more appropriate manner.

“Magic realism” is also linked in Laura Esquivel’s texts to national identity and popular culture through the association of Tita’s mestizo cooking and the physical reactions of those who consume her food. While this accentuates the sexual, especially with Gertrudis’ liberation from the hacienda after her consumption of the “quail in rose pedal” meal, violent attacks on Rosaura, and various encounters between Tita and Pedro, it also “constructs a general sense of folkloric and historical depth through placement within the context of the Mexican Revolution and through ongoing references to traditional Mexican cuisine.” (Haveli-Wise 123) In this sense, “magic realism” prefaces the melodramatic moments through gastronomic interior spaces that enable “different women’s voices heard, and revitalizing identity—both personal and collective—as a social and national cultural construction.” (Zamudio-Taylor 45)

In considering both the novel and film as primarily concerned with feminine identity and female contribution to the formation of the Mexican national identity, it is important to raise several questions. Who has agency throughout the texts? To what extent is this agency beneficial? How are the crises resolved? What has been altered or omitted in the adaptation from novel to film? How is ideology infused in the texts? How does this comment upon the cultural dynamics of modern Mexico? Each of these questions require scrutinizing the texts in order to determine the relevance of the revolutionary ideals and a feminine notion of mexicanidad.

The use of traditional resources has the potential to become revolutionary when reorganized from the vantage point of women or any other marginalized group. The fact that Esquivel has chosen discourses not just outside the canon but specifically associated with women’s values and experiences allows her to set forth an alternative to the hegemonic standard, based upon the real women’s lives. (Ibsen 117)

Kristine Ibsen’s observations about the literary source provides a starting point for this exploration. In the construction of a Mexican national identity, the dominant discourse has focused upon the patriarchal domination of family, favoring the construction of male identity over female identity, especially in terms of utilizing the Mexican Revolution to support the state. Her comment about discourses needs to be understood in terms of genre and generic conventions. Victor Zamudio-Taylor, when commenting upon the use of first-person diary, cookbook, and feuilleton traditions, states, “These genres have traditionally circumscribed women’s voices through a mode of self-representation situated within sites of domestic everyday life…these sites…are transformed into sources of self-fashioning affirmation and resistance.” (46) However, the extent to which this narrative succeeds in transforming into a feminine affirmation or reflects “real women’s lives” should be approached with caution.

The central focus within both the novel and film rests upon the creation of feminine space, most notably the kitchen. This is informed by reader/viewer identification with both the narrator and the protagonist Tita (Lumi Cavazos). The extent to which this reflects “real women’s lives” is the first point of contestation with Kristine Ibsen’s observation as neither texts purport to authentically represented the Mexican past or the Mexican Revolution since both are works of fiction. It does, however, direct reader/viewer attention to one interpretation of the possible social realm that Mexican women would have been relegated to in the early 20th century. Also, I would argue that in considering both texts as appropriating and critiquing the Revolution to re-evaluate it from a feminine perspective, it is important to diffuse a close textual analysis to take into consideration ideological formation and roles played out by secondary and peripheral characters and the translation of these characters in the adaptation of the novel to screen.

The embodiment of revolutionary ideals and ideologies are not limited to Tita alone, although it is through her domesticated revolution that changes are effected within the family. The novel, through temporal dislocations and the formation of character crises, effectively displaces the social construction of the Mexican Revolution onto the family. As head of the household, Doña Elena’s (Regina Torré) adherence to tradition at all costs and her reign over the hacienda enables a reading of the construction of her character as one closely linked to the Porfirian tyranny besetting Mexico prior to the Revolution. This reading also derives from the narrative establishment of her reign beginning in 1885 and lasting until her death during the revolution. What is interesting in the translation to screen is how this tyrant dies. In the novel, it is her reaction to Tita’s cooking and her precautionary measures that lead to her eventual death. In the film, the blame is shifted away from Tita to the Americans, thereby vilifying the bandits but also providing a physical comeuppance to the emotionally abusive nature of Doña Elena.

As both texts revolve around Tita’s experiences, Doña Elena’s criollo traditions are countered by the mestizo traditions associated with Nacha (Ada Carrasco), the hacienda’s head cook and Tita’s surrogate mother. Reader/viewer identification is positioned to preference the ideological significance of Nacha, the subservient, nurturing mother figure, over Doña Elena. This opposition continues as a central aspect of Tita’s crisis long after their eventual deaths. A part of the “magic realism” informing both texts derives from the appearance of the ghosts of both women: the supportive Nacha in moments of crisis and the guilt inducing Doña Elena after the consummation of her love for Pedro (Marco Leonardi). Each symbolize a part of her subconscious memory and inform her social crisis—personal desire in opposition with external expectations.

The formation of community, one that exerts expectations, within both texts resides in the various people encountered at the hacienda. Doña Elena’s three daughters, Rosaura (Yareli Arizmendi), Gertrudis (Claudette Maillé), and Tita each embody one of the conflicting ideologies that inform the struggle of the Mexican Revolution. Rosaura, as the eldest daughter and at the top end of the economic hierarchy, also strives to maintain a tyrannical tradition in both texts. Gertrudis, the middle and illegitimate daughter, has no defined place within the social hierarchy of the hacienda and is the only one of the three to actively participate in the revolution occurring outside the hacienda. Tita, closely associated with the mestizo culture through her close bond to Nacha, the head cook, and food, is the oppressed, fighting within the domestic sphere for rights denied to her. Each of these three daughters represents a different approach to the social condition imparted upon them from stifling traditions.

There are various triangular configurations operating within Laura Esquivel’s story; the most important of these in displacing the Revolution onto the family structure is, arguably, the dynamic between the sisters. The film version, contentiously, grants Gertrudis the role of moral center within this triangle and within the narrative through her non-verbal reactions and gestures to the situations the family encounters. The expressive quality of Claudette Maillé’s performance adds an extra dimension of viewer comprehension to the narrative, one that directly criticizes the family tradition without dialogue. Her agency, before her flight from the hacienda, resides in her critical gaze. Interestingly, when she does speak to Tita about the situation, her dialogue calls into question perspective, an important issue throughout both texts. “The truth! Listen, Tita. The real truth is that there is no truth. It all depends. In your case, the truth could be that Rosaura married Pedro without giving a damn what you two loved each other.” This speech not only informs the subjective positioning manifested throughout the narrative, but calls into question the historicization of the Mexican Revolution.

Not only can Gertrudis be considered the moral center of the film, she is also the sexually liberated and active participant of the Revolution. “Her combined ‘male’ bravado and ‘female’ sexuality provide a humorous upending of the masculinist and patriarchal ideal of the Mexican Revolution as it has been depicted in literature and cinema.” (Zamudio-Taylor 50) While a seemingly progressive female representation, one that can be interpreted more as a modern ideal of female identity, this is problematized through the depiction of her not-entirely-egalitarian relationship with Juan Alejándrez. However, in terms of stable relationships within the narrative, Gertrudis’ liberal mentality, physically affectionate relationship, and upbeat music that accompanies the appearance of her and her husband counters and comments upon the romantic triangle between Tita, Pedro, and Rosaura.

Tita and Rosaura competition for Pedro’s affection, the love triangle, forms the central focus of the part of the narrative occurring during the Mexican revolution. Laura Esquivel’s novel and Alfonso Arau’s directing clearly position the reader/spectator to sympathize with Tita, however, some consideration should be given to Rosaura. The ideological positioning of Rosaura is the continuation of Doña Elena, neither of them can properly tend to their children. In the confrontational scene between Rosaura and Tita after Esperanza’s birth, Rosaura’s similarity to Doña Elena’s beliefs is visibly manifested in her hairstyle and mode of dress. The prevalent attitude shared by these women is the appearance of decency as dictated by the patriarchal power structure. Kristine Ibsen has noted, “the superficiality of this cult of domesticity is typified by Elena and Rosaura, who, although by all appearances conform to the marriage plot, become caricatures due to their blind acceptance of the imposed regulations on female behaviour.” (115) While Rosaura is vilified within the narrative for this blind acceptance, ultimately punished through severe indigestion problems, Tita is problematically upheld as the ideal female identity in terms of nurturing mother figure and lover. That Tita achieves personal fulfillment only in death harks back to the stereotypical long, suffering woman.

There are other secondary and peripheral characters that are worthy of examining in establishing the hacienda as a microcosm of Mexican society. Chencha (Pilar Aranda), the mestizo maid, is the most interesting of these characters when examining Laura Esquivel’s adaptation process from novel to film script. Within the novel, Chencha is both the voice and victim of the physical violence occurring during this era. Her reports about the revolution, although exaggerated, bring the brutality of the revolution into the hacienda. (Esquivel 14) This is omitted from the adaptation. The construction of her character, in the adaptation, is reduced to almost caricature status within the hacienda, serving as victim and friend to Tita. Even the severity of the attack on Chencha by American bandits is sidestepped in the film version. Sargento Treviño (Joaquín Garrido) also loses some of the complexity of his character in the adaptation to screen. Instead of being “refined and elegant” (Esquivel 195), he is portrayed as the womanizing, comic relief figure under the command of General Gertrudis upon her triumphant returns to the hacienda. The economic effects of the revolution are further de-emphasized in the film version with the omission of the Chinese merchant character who, in the novel, becomes wealthy from trade between the Northern frontier and Mexico City.

The construction of characters and their adaptations from novel to film place, to some extent, the immediacy of the Revolution, especially the violence and brutality typically associated with it, at a distance. The revolution is subsumed into the subjective experience of oppression, conflict, and resolution that elevates the personal, subjective experience over the social turmoil The question that this raises is how then does the film portray an image of Mexico and its past? Carlos Monsiváis almost perfectly sums up the nationalistic invocations within Like Water for Chocolate with, “the most vigorous repertory of nationalist feelings has been evoked by the Revolution…produced definitions of the epic, archetypes of the male, scenarios of fatality, and a programmatic pictorialism.” (118) Each of his categories are embedded in the film; although the definitions have been simultaneously inverted and upheld. The Revolution is subsumed into events at the hacienda at the same time that those events are invested with revolutionary ideals that are just as universal in their appeal as they are Mexican.

The epic in Like Water for Chocolate can be defined in terms of the intergenerational structure, the outcome of which is the great-niece as both narrator and a product of the reconciliation phase of the Mexican Revolution. Family history is made epic in the construction of the narrative and through the stylized presentation. While the profilmic events seldom leave the hacienda, with three key exceptions, leaving many of the traumatizing incidents off-screen, the grandeur of the landscape and rusticity of the setting also contribute to the epic nature of the film and “programmatic pictorialism”. The construction of aesthetic space in creating the epic nature of the film also crosses geopolitical borders. The interpersonal relationships transcend not only differing Mexican ideologies, but the Mexican/American border.

In crossing the Mexican/American border, the issue of stereotypes of masculinity according to Carlos Monsivaís come into question as it is the American John Brown (Mario Iván Martinez), the de la Garza family doctor, who rivals Pedro for Tita’s affection. “John also incarnates certain characteristics more generally associated with women: He is patient, nurturing and long-suffering…like the stereotypical self-sacrificing women, he waits a lifetime for Tita only to ultimately give her up to Pedro.” (Ibsen 116) John’s heroism, rescuing Tita from the repressive force of her mother by bringing her to the United States with him, is undermined by his effeminate qualities in both texts. His mannerisms, quirky facial gestures, and glasses deny him the machismo traits bestowed to Pedro. The construction of masculinity within both novel and film is of particular interest in terms of the cross-border appeal and feminine appropriation of mexicanidad on one hand and subsumation of this into a modern national identity on the other. This pertains to the triangular formation between Tita, Pedro, and John.

As the “good” American, John Brown can be viewed as both a point of criticism toward the United States and another appeal to the cross-border market within the film. Contrasted to the Mexicans, his Spanish is terrible; however, his use of English lends an international aspect to the overall film. Contrasted to Pedro, his effeminate qualities diminish his masculinity. This is manifested in the film when, during Tita and Pedro’s confrontation concerning her upcoming marriage to John, a bedridden Pedro snidely asks Tita, “Are you afraid of hurting the little doc’s feelings?” However, his position as family doctor places him as central to the health and well-being of the hacienda. In viewing the film as a microcosm of the Revolution, his intervention at the hacienda, rescuing Tita from Doña Elena, enables her to discover her strengths and return to Mexico a fighter. With the exception of the “quails in rose pedals” recipe, nowhere else in the film is the symbolic value of the Virgin de Guadalupe physically materialized as it is in the shot of Tita sitting at the window at Dr. Brown’s house rediscovering her hands. The episode of Tita in the United States is not about John Brown, but about temporary Mexican displacement in order to improve living conditions, one that could symbolize Mexican migration for economic reasons in a contemporary context.

Pedro’s masculinity, on the other hand, can be seen as possessing machismo traits. This needs to be understood in terms of specific sequences that inform his relationship with Tita. During the watermelon sequence, the restless heat of environment transforms into his seduction of Tita against the wall. When Tita is creating the “mole” for Roberto’s baptism party, Arau’s long take on Marco Leonardi’s face enables the spectator to explore the subtle shifts in his facial gestures that connote an inexpressible inner state. It is Pedro’s agency, through his words, actions, and gaze, the drives the love story, not Tita. Marco Leonardi performance as this character is eroticized, made “other” in the voracious appetite of his glances, jealousy directed at John Brown, and sensuous interaction with Lumi Cavazos. Pedro’s passion and desire for Tita also defines the fatalistic melodramatic elements within the narrative when, at the peak of uninhibited intimacy with her, he suddenly dies. Tita’s choice to follow him in death instead of continuing in life problematizes a feminist reading of the film through a shift in focus from her struggles to the union of two lovers led by the male.

In a post-NAFTA context, it is the combination of these two male figures through the union of their children, John Brown’s son Alex and Pedro’s daughter Esperanza, that the restrictions of family tradition are lifted. The concern then becomes at what cost to the formation of identity is this achieved? A part of the reconciliation process at work within the later portions of the texts can be viewed as the restoration of relations between Mexico and the United States through the marriage of Esperanza (Sandra Arau) and Alex (Andrés Garcia Jr.). Alfonso Arau creates an interesting critique of the Manifest Destiny early in the film, one that figuratively and literally foreshadows later events in the narrative. As John Brown explains to Tita human spirituality through the metaphor of matches, he shows her illustrations of the tunnel, a consequence of burning all the matches at once. Arau’s camera frames the image of two lovers at the end of the tunnel and an attempted graphic match edits a shot of Alex with Mary Ellen playing outside a window in the next shot, visibly equating Alex with John’s comment, “showing us the path that we forgot at birth, the same path that calls us back to our divine origins.” This figuratively foreshadows Alex and Esperanza’s union, including her departure to the United States, and literally Tita and Pedro’s union after death. The issue of Manifest Destiny lays in the intermarriage of the two nationalities embodied in Alex and Esperanza, the product of which is the narrator. Addressing the spectator in perfect Spanish and professing that her Christmas rolls are not as good as her mother, what is the female Mexican if not la raza cosmic? Is it this cultural hybridity predicated upon two clashing culinary techniques with the mexicanidad dying out? These are questions left open by the text.

Thematically, Mexican cinema has addressed questions of traditions, values, societal issues, gender roles, political topics, the historical past, identity, national character and culture. Aesthetically, the cinema of Mexico has reflected all the beauty, grace, passion, color, and expression of its art and national culture. (Maciel 94)

This quote by David R. Maciel perfectly synthesizes Like Water for Chocolate in terms of de-historicizing and romanticizing the distant past and the Mexican Revolution problematically. The national and international appeal of the film derives from the “universalizing” of themes traditionally associated with the Revolution through the melodramatic mode and personalizing the social impact of the era.

In terms of delineating major temporal shifts, the films employs title cards with dates laid over images of the rural landscape. The “beauty, grace, passion, and color” is found within these establishing landscape shots. Set in the twilight of a past-Mexico, the predominant use of orange, yellow, and red lighting continues throughout most of the narrative. The pastoral in these shots dominates the world of the film, even when the narrative follows Tita to Eagle Pass, Texas. In this fictional world, authenticity, if it exists, is in the construction of the costumes, hairstyles, and rusticating of the setting.

With most of the narrative temporally set within the era of the revolution, Laura Esquivel mostly limits the reader/viewer to events occurring at the de la Garza hacienda. The mobilization affecting the Northern frontier during revolution is not a concern within this story, even when Gertrudis returns to the hacienda with the troops. Issues of culture, race, and the economic hierarchy are defined within both texts by the relationships between individuals at the hacienda. While much of the brutality and violence associated with the Mexican revolution remains off-screen, the few scenes that display transgressive acts establish heroism and machismo or comment on American intervention in Mexico. A part of the process of de-historicizing and romanticizing the past can be found in the noted lack of modernization in the representation of this era. Only during the reconciliation process are modern conveniences, the radio and refrigerator, visualized for the spectator.

The cross-border appeal of the English translation of the novel and the film resides in a delicate negotiation in the representation of gender identity in terms of sexuality and power. While on the surface of the film it may appear to be a progressive film exploring the repressive impact of tradition on women and a celebration of their willingness to break from tradition, a close reading of narrative and aesthetic considerations reveal this to not be the case. Feminine power within the world of the film derives from the preparation of food in the creation of community, individual expression, and culture. However, it is the masculine gaze and action that determines the course of the narrative. It is the subsumption of the feminine culinary mestizo culture within the formation of the Mexican national identity still dictated by the patriarchal structure.

“By framing the political participation in terms of family, and be imagining the nation as a community of cooks, women tacitly acknowledged the patriarchal structure of society.” (Pilcher 150) That is exactly what Like Water for Chocolate ultimately does. “Food functions as a narrative device in the novel: Like a cinematic montage, bridging both temporal and spatial displacements, it transports both the characters and the reader into a sensual dimension of reality.” (Ibsen 114) Both Laura Esquivel’s novel and Alfonso Arau’s cinematic adaptation create repasts distant past, one instilled with a sensuality through emotional excess of the melodrama, food and sex, that informs the formation of female mexicanidad, one that the spectator, whether Mexican or American, is invited to feast upon.

“The national histories of our literature are as artificial as our political frontiers. Both are a consequence of the great failure of the wars of independence.” (Paz 12) Paz’s comment on the literary situation in Mexico perhaps best sums up the situation of Mexican women in a modern context, one that the novel and film attempts to address veiled amid the discourse of the Mexican Revolution. Liberation is an illusory ideal in a society and identity built on tradition and memory but, like the female characters in the film, it is one worth striving for.

Works Cited

Esquivel, Laura. Like Water for Chocolate. Trans. Carol Christensen and Thomas Christensen. Toronto: Random House of Canada Limited, 1992.

Haveli-Wise, Yael. “Storytelling in Laura Esquivel’s Como Agua Para Chocolate.” The Other Mirror: Women’s Narrative in Mexico, 1980-1995. Ed. Kristine Ibsen. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1996. 123-131.

Ibsen, Kristine. “On Recipes, Reading, and Revolution: Postboom Parody in Como Agua Para

Chocolate.” The Other Mirror: Women’s Narrative in Mexico, 1980-1995. Ed. Kristine Ibsen. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1996. 111-122.

Luna, Andrés de. “Labyrinths of History.” Mexican Cinema. Ed. Paulo Antonio Paranagua. Trans. Ana M. López. London: British Film Institute, 1995. 171-177.

Maciel, David R. “The Contemporary Cinema of Mexico, 1976-1994.” New Latin American Cinema: Volume Two. Ed. Michael T. Martin. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1997. 94-120.

Monsivaís, Carlos. “Mythologies.” Mexican Cinema. Ed. Paulo Antonio Paranagua. Trans. Ana M. López. London: British Film Institute, 1995. 117-127.

Paz, Octavio. “From Octavio Paz’s Introduction to the Mexican Edition.” New Poetry of Mexico. Ed. Mark Strand. New York: E.P. Dutton & Co., Inc., 1970. 11-17.

Pilcher, Jeremy M. “Recipes for Patria. National Cuisine in a Global Prespective.” ¡Que vivan los tamales! Food and the Making of Mexican Identity. Alburquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1998. 143-161.

Zamudio-Taylor, Victor and Inma Guiu. “Criss-Crossing Texts: Reading Images in Like Water for Chocolate.” The Mexican Cinema Project. Ed. Chon E. Noriega and Steven Ricci. Los Angeles: UCLA Film and Television Archives, 1994. 45-51

Volume 7, Issue 4 / April 2003 Essays feminismmexican cinemapolitical