Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories
Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories
THE LITERARY WORK
A collection of 22 short stories and vignettes set in Mexico and the southwestern United States between the early 1900s and the late 1980s; published in English in 1991.
A series of mostly female Mexican and Mexican American narrators share snapshots of their lives and reflect on their identities, cultures, and relationships.
Sandra Cisneros was born in Chicago in 1954 to a Mexican father and a Mexican American mother, the only daughter among seven children. Her upbringing was marked by the constraining influence of her brothers—because they insisted that she play a traditional female role, she often felt like she had “seven fathers” (Cisneros in Matuz, p. 150). She also contended with the displacement caused by her family’s frequent moves between the United States and Mexico. So, from an early age Cisneros confronted the questions about her identity as a female and a Mexican American that would become central to her writing as an adult. Cisneros has dealt with many of these questions in books of poetry and in her widely acclaimed collection of vignettes, The House on Mango Street (1985). In Woman Hollering Creek, written mainly while Cisneros was living in San Antonio, Texas, she focuses on the varied experiences of girls and women with a Mexican heritage—characters who are distinguished by their different levels of income, education, independence, and Americanization, but united by similar histories, needs, and desires.
Some of the events included in this section take place before the action of the stories, but the effects of these events have proved long-lasting. They play a significant role in twentieth-century Mexican and Mexican American culture, and their impact resonates in the lives of Cisneros’s characters.
Guadalupe and Mexican Catholicism
When Hernan Cortes conquered the Aztec Empire in 1521, he brought with him the religion of his native Spain, Catholicism. Spanish missionaries came to Mexico during and after the Conquest, eager to Christianize—and, in their view, civilize—the natives. However, before Cortes’s arrival the Aztecs and other cultures in Mexico had long practiced their own religions. Therefore, many of these natives, although forced to convert, initially resisted the teachings of Catholicism. Just the same, the missionaries were ultimately quite successful at gaining converts.
Part of the missionaries’ success was due to a reported miracle that allowed the Aztecs to conceive of Catholicism as linked to their own native religion. In December 1531 the Virgin Mary is said to have appeared outside Mexico City, at the hill of Tepeyac—a site that was a shrine to Tonantzin, the Aztec mother goddess. The Virgin Mary supposedly spoke here to a native convert to Catholicism named Juan Diego, asking him to tell the bishop of Mexico of her wish that a church be built here in her honor. When the bishop rebuffed him, demanding some proof that this request had come from the Virgin Mary, Juan Diego returned to the hill. This time the Virgin told him to pick some flowers, which grew nearby in a place where flowers normally did not grow and were out of season. He was to place them in his cloak, and open it in front of the bishop. When Juan Diego opened his cloak for the bishop, the flowers fell to the floor and imprinted on the cloak was a picture of the Virgin as she had appeared, with brown skin and dark hair. Juan Diego afterward returned home to find that his uncle had also been visited by the Virgin, who told him that the church was to be dedicated to “the ever Virgin Saint Mary of Guadalupe,” afterwards known simply as the Virgin of Guadalupe (Laso de la Vega in Poole, p. 28).
After hearing of the Virgin of Guadalupe’s appearance, thousands of Indians agreed to be converted. Indians and Spanish colonists alike embraced her as a source of comfort and a symbol of a uniquely Mexican religion and identity—a Catholicized Tonantzin. She came to represent the blending of European and Indian societies, the rebirth of the native goddess Tonatzin as the Virgin of Guadalupe. The cult of Guadalupe is still a powerful force in Mexican and Mexican American life, as Cisneros’s stories “Tepeyac,” “Anguiano Religious Articles… ,” and “Little Miracles, Kept Promises” indicate. The Virgin is regarded by many not just as a symbol of Mexican heritage, but as a source of strength, a confidante, and a granter of miracles. In fact, the Mexican poet Octavio Paz (see The Labyrinth of Solitude , also covered in Latin American Literature and Its Times) once observed, “The Mexican people, after more than two centuries of experiments and defeats, have faith only in the Virgin of Guadalupe and the National Lottery” (Paz in Lafaye, p. xi). Demonstrating this faith, millions of pilgrims every December visit the site where the Virgin of Guadalupe is said to have appeared.
The Chicano in America
In 1848 a war between Mexico and the United States ended with the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, in which Mexico was forced to sell the present-day states of Arizona, California, New Mexico, Utah, Nevada, and parts of Colorado to the United States for $15 million. Texas, also a former Mexican territory, had been annexed by the United States in 1845, a move that helped ignite the war. In the course of just a few years, Mexico had lost about one-half of its land.
Although Mexico no longer owned the territory that became the southwestern United States, many Mexicans (between 86,000 and 116,000) remained on the land after the war. The U.S. government allowed these original Mexican Americans—Chícanos—to choose the citizenship they preferred, and promised to protect their political, land, and property rights. It failed, however, to honor their property claims, tolerating flagrant wrongdoing by newcomers from more established parts of the United States. Many Chicanos found that their unfamiliarity with American language culture, and laws made it easy for them to be exploited by the growing numbers of Anglo Americans that were settling among them, and also by a few wealthy and powerful members of the Chicano elite.
The California gold rush of 1849 and the promise of work building railroad lines in the 1860s brought more Mexicans to the United States. At the end of these events, some returned home, but many settled in California, Texas, and other formerly Mexican lands. Immigration continued from the 1860s into the twentieth century, when political turmoil and economic trouble in Mexico—as well as recruitment efforts by U.S. agriculture interests—heightened the appeal of crossing the border. By 1990 Chícanos in the United States, including recent immigrants and those whose ancestors lived in the Southwest when it had been Mexico, numbered 14.5 million.
Emiliano Zapata and the Mexican Revolution
In Mexico the three decades following the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo were marked by instability, including a series of internal conflicts and a brief period of rule by the French-installed Emperor Maximilian (1864-66). Staging a coup d’etat in 1876, Porfirio Díaz began a 34-year presidency
Emiliano Zapata, bandit-hero of the Revolution, was a peasant. Nonetheless, he cut an impressive figure, as described by one historian:
In tight black pants with giant silver buttons along the outer seam of each leg, an embroidered leather or cotton jacket, a silk handkerchief tied loosely around his neck, silver spurs, a pistol at his waist and, to top it off, a wide felt sombrero with a flowered border, Zapata was impressive and clearly more than a little vain. Somewhat taller than the average villager and of a normal build, he had a long, thick moustache that curled up slightly at the ends, dark skin, dark eyes, and a penetrating gaze. … He wasted little time with talk; when he did speak[,] his words—emerging in “rushes and sparks”—betrayed the nervous energy he had had since childhood.
(Brunk, p. 23)
(1876-80 and 1884-1911) that ended this instability, though at a great cost. Before he came to power, Diaz had aligned himself with the Liberal Party of Mexico, a group that sought to lessen some of the country’s economic inequalities. The party drafted a constitution that limited the special privileges of the wealthy Catholic Church and the military, and provided a bill of rights similar to that of the United States. Once his presidency began, however, Diaz left many of his liberal principles behind and became a dictator.
One of Diaz’s early supporters was José Zapata, a farmer and soldier from the town of Anenecuilco in the southern state of Morelos. Zapata’s support for Diaz hinged on a promise Diaz had made before he came to power: he would see to it that the people of Anenecuilco, whose land had been seized illegally by hacendados—hacienda owners, many of whom descended from 16th-century Spanish colonists—would have their land titles honored by the new government. This promise was one of many that Diaz did not keep, but Zapata’s family did not forget it.
In 1910 Porfirio Díaz was still in power, and frustration with his dictatorship was widespread. Mexicans across the country wanted reform and were willing to fight for it. Some called for protective labor laws, some for an improved public education system, others for a curtailment of Church power; ironically, many of these grievances had been rallying points decades earlier for the Liberals whom Diaz ostensibly supported. When Francisco Madero, a liberal-minded hacendado, called for a national uprising on November 20, 1910, Mexicans across the country slowly began to respond.
In Morelos the battle cry was for land redistribution. Not only did the peasants of Morelos seek to regain the land José Zapata had spoken of—the land that was seized illegally by hacendados—they now had even greater losses to contend with. In an attempt to weaken the economic power of the Catholic Church, the Liberals had banned corporate landholding in their 1857 constitution. Incidentally, this ban also affected land that was held communally by groups of peasants. Putting the ban into practice, the government auctioned off, usually to the highest hacendado bidder, any land that was still communally held in Morelos in the mid-nineteenth century.
by the spring of 1911 a horse trader, farmer, and village council president named Emiliano Zapata had decided that his people’s legal and political attempts to regain their land had been exhausted. It was time to enter the Revolution in quest of justice. Zapata was to become a hero to the peasants of Morelos and neighboring states and a bandit to hacienda owners and a succession of Mexican presidents. For almost nine years, Zapata led the fight for “Land and Liberty”—the goal of his ancestor, José Zapata, and of generations of Morelos’s inhabitants.
The Revolution was long, devastating, and complicated. Presidential power shifted often, as did alliances among rebel groups. It was difficult for those involved to know whom to support and whom to trust. This was especially true for Emiliano Zapata, who counted many former allies among his enemies as the war progressed. Although Zapata and his rebels fought first against President Diaz’s federal troops, or federales, their opponents later included the liberal hacendado Francisco Madero, who had failed to deliver on a promise of land reform after winning the presidency; General Victoriano Huerta, who ousted Madero and terrorized rebel strongholds like Morelos; and Venustiano Carranza, whom Zapata denounced as a corrupt politician after he won the presidency, though they had fought against a common enemy only a month before. Zapata trusted almost no one outside of Morelos during the war, and trusted outsiders even less when they gained the power of the presidency. “Revolutions will come and revolutions will go,” he said in 1914, “but I will continue with mine” (Zapata in Womack, pp. 197-98).
Zapata’s revolution was about land. His “Plan of Ayala,” written in November 1911, called for the immediate return of land to the citizens and villages that held title to it, and for the seizure of remaining hacienda properties held by those who opposed his movement; these lands were to be donated to needy peasants who had no legitimate claims to land.
Zapata never saw the Plan of Ayala enacted, although the peasants of Morelos did have a portion of their land returned to them in the 1920s. He continued to fight stubbornly, however, even after suffering a major defeat at the hands of the Carrancistas (Carranza’s forces) in 1915. In the years following this defeat, his troops and the people of Morelos suffered from food shortages and a plague of deadly diseases. In 1918, in fact, the population of Morelos dropped an astounding 25 percent. Still, Zapata continued to lead the fight until April 1919, when the rebel who trusted no one was deceived by a federal colonel whose soldiers shot him dead at point-blank range.
In “Eyes of Zapata,” Inés speaks of “the hard man’s work I do clearing the field with the hoe and the machete, dirty work that leaves the clothes filthy, work no woman would do before the war” (Cisneros, Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories, p. 86). Throughout the Revolution, women were forced to take on many roles formerly relegated to men. Some, like Inés, worked the fields because their husbands were away fighting. Others, soldaderas, traveled with bands of soldiers, and in addition to cooking and cleaning for them, took charge of medicine, munitions, mail, and train dispatches, and often spied behind enemy lines. Soldadas (female soldiers) actually fought alongside the men. Although most women returned to traditional ways of life after the Revolution, the roles they played during this period helped pave the way for an improvement of the Mexican woman’s position in the late twentieth century.
THE DESTRUCTION OF MORELOS
Only three years into the war, Zapata’s home state of Morelos had already been burned and looted almost beyond recognition by Huerta’s soldiers. The balladeer Marciano Silva, who traveled with Zapata’s forces during this time, describes its appearance:
Our pueblos only plains
White ashes, pictures of horror
Sad deserts, isolated places
Where only sorrow stirs….
(Silva in Brunk, p. 148)
“Mericans” or Mexicans?
One of the issues raised repeatedly in Woman Hollering Creek is the clash between Mexican and American culture in the Chicano communities of the United States. In “Mericans,” for example, a young girl tells of her “awful grandmother” who prays in a church for “the grandchildren born in that barbaric country [the United States] with its barbarian ways” while the girl and her brothers play “B-Fifty-two bomber” and “Flash Gordon” outside (Woman Hollering Creek, pp. 18-19). The contrast between the grandmother’s traditional, religious lifestyle and the carefree, Americanized lifestyle of the children illustrates a larger trend in Chicano society during the 1940s and 1950s.
The World War II era was a period of great change in Mexican American history. With a large number of Americans (including some 400,000 Chícanos) fighting overseas, many Mexican American men and women were able to fill vacant jobs at home. Often these jobs—especially the ones producing weapons and equipment for the war—paid higher salaries than previous jobs, allowing Mexican American workers to improve their position in society. As their social positions improved, they began to move out of the barrios and rural areas they had shared with other Mexican Americans and into more diverse urban areas, often leaving behind much of their Mexican culture in the process.
At the same time that World War II was improving the lot of Mexican Americans, Mexican immigration to the United States was dropping significantly. Whereas 44 percent of Mexican Americans in 1930 had been born in Mexico, only 17 percent were Mexican-born in 1950. This change also contributed to the increasing Americanization of Mexican American society, since those born in the United States tended to identify more strongly with American culture than with Mexican culture.
FAR FROM HIS FATHER’S FOOTSTEPS
Although Zapata never veered from his fight for “Land and Liberty/he did not display the same steadfastness in his relationships with women. In fact, at the time of his death Zapata had fathered at least eight children by a number of different women; his first two children, Nicolás and Maria Elena, were the children of Inés Aguilar, the inspiration for the narrator in Cisneros’s “Eyes of Zapata.” As a sad final chapter to Zapata’s story, his son Nicolás would gain considerable power in Morelian politics in the 1930s and 1940s because of his father’s name, only to abuse it by seizing land from the people of Anenecuilcofor himself and his cronies. Ironically, Nicolás’s actions made his father’s famous words about politicians, spoken about 25 years before, ring true: “They’re all a bunch of bastards!” (Zapata in Womack, pp. 205-06).
Of course, a large number of Mexican Americans—regardless of their birthplace—remained ambivalent about their cultural identities and loyalties. Furthermore, ill treatment by members of white society continued, no matter whether one identified more strongly with American or Mexican culture. Like African Americans, Mexican Americans were forced to confront segregation in schools, restaurants, hotels, and movie theaters in the 1940s and 1950s; whether or not they felt American, they knew that signs reading “No Dogs or Mexicans Allowed” applied to them (Gutiérrez, p. 131).
Chícanos vs. vendidos
The 1960s were a time of profound social change in the United States, and the Mexican American community contributed to this change. In the 1950s most Mexican American political leaders sought to integrate their community peacefully into mainstream American society, but, by the early 1960s, many young Mexican Americans were frustrated by the lack of cultural pride and political power in their community. They identified themselves proudly as “Chícanos”—a formerly disparaging term for rural Mexican immigrants—and spoke of the unity of all people of Mexican origin, glorifying Mexican historical figures and embracing Mexicans and Mexican Americans of all classes in a struggle to build a political platform and inspire a cultural renaissance.
Although the Chicano movement had a good deal of support among young people and students, many Mexican Americans thought it was a mistake, preferring the gradual process of reform to the cultural revolution that was being proposed. In 1969 Mexican American activist José Angel Gutiérrez and San Antonio congressman Henry B. González debated the validity of the movement in a famous discussion. González, who had gained esteem for his legislative work on civil rights issues, prided himself as a representative of all groups in his district, not just Mexican Americans. He labeled Gutiérrez and other Chicano activists as “professional Mexicans” who were trying “to stir up the people by appeals to emotion [and] prejudice in order to become leader [s] and achieve selfish ends.” He claimed that their movement was based on “a new racism [that] demands an allegiance to race above all else” (González in Gutiérrez, p. 186).
Gutiérrez, on the other hand, accused González of behaving like a gringo, a white American, and claimed that González and any other Mexican Americans whose goal was assimilation into mainstream culture were vendidos, or sellouts, who were contributing to the oppression of their people. According to Gutiérrez, what the Chicano people needed was “social change that will enable La Raza [literally, “The Mexican Race”] to become masters of their destiny, owners of their resources, both human and natural, and a culturally separate people from the gringo” (Gutiérrez in Gutiérrez, p. 187).
Although the Chicano movement did revitalize Mexican identity and culture within the United States in the 1960s and early 1970s, its goal of creating a “culturally separate people” within American society was not realized. In fact, despite the attempts by its leaders to gloss over their group’s class differences, the fact remains that the lives of working class and impoverished Mexican Americans were largely unaffected by the movement. Nonetheless, it did leave a permanent mark on American society. Many students, artists, and intellectuals continued to embrace the themes of the Chicano movement well into the 1990s, although it never regained the broad appeal it had enjoyed earlier. As the 1980s approached, most Mexican American members of the middle and working classes seemed more interested in finding a permanent place in the mainstream workforce than in exploring their cultural identities.
Chicanas break with tradition
While male activists and politicians debated the best way to increase the Chicano community’s political power, many Mexican American women struggled to gain power in their personal lives. Traditionally, Mexican women were expected to be passive, subordinate homemakers, faithful to their husbands but accepting of their husbands’ infidelity, much like Cleófilas at the beginning of the short story “Woman Hollering Creek.”
One way in which Chicanas, or female Mexican Americans, were able to step beyond the confines of this traditional role was by working outside the home. Between 1960 and 1970 the number of employed Mexican American wives aged 14 to 54 rose from 24 to 35 percent. By 1980 the percentage of Chicanas in the labor force almost equalled that of white women. Although a number of these Chicanas took jobs out of economic necessity, many gained a sense of freedom and independence from their role as breadwinner and claimed greater authority at home over how money was spent.
Not all Mexican American women found work outside the home liberating, however. For many, the competing demands of home and work were a major source of stress and anxiety. While some working Chicanas found that their spouses were willing to share household chores, a large number had to contend with husbands resentful of their wives’ role as breadwinner and therefore even more insistent that they fulfill all of their traditional marital responsibilities. The tension and conflict that arose out of such situations helped contribute to a growing divorce rate among Mexican Americans and to an increase in Chicana-headed households.
by the 1980s more and more Chicana women—like the narrator of “Never Marry a Mexican”—had rejected the traditional Mexican-style marriage in search of a lifestyle that balanced family responsibilities with personal fulfillment. In Mexico itself in recent years, the status and lifestyles of women have changed in similar, though less extreme, ways. Although traditional ideas of womanhood still weigh heavily on their lives, many Mexican women have begun to work outside the home and to question the dominant influence men have had over their public and private lives.
CÓMO SE LLAMA? (WHAT’S YOUR NAME?)
Since their first incarnation as a group in 1848, Mexican Americans have called themselves by a number of different names, all charged with special significance. First-generation immigrants often identify themselves as Mexicanos, while the terms “Spanish” and “Hispanic” have been associated with those seeking to assimilate into white culture or downplay their Mexican heritage. Cisneros writes in “La Fabulosa”: “She likes to say she’s ‘Spanish/but she’s from Laredo like the rest of us” (Woman Hollering Creek, p. 61). In ? 983 the Los Angeles Times surveyed the Mexican American population of Los Angeles and found that most Mexican Americans born in the United States preferred the term “Mexican American.” “Latino,” a term referring to the entire Spanish-speaking community, was the second choice, and “Hispanic” was third, though especially popular among the middle class. Only four percent of those surveyed identified themselves as “Chicano.”
The 22 stories in Woman Hollering Creek are broken into three sections. The first section deals with childhood on both sides of the Mexican-United States border and includes the stories “My Lucy Friend Who Smells Like Corn,” “Eleven,” “Salvador Late or Early,” “Mexican Movies,” “Barbie-Q,” “Mericans,” and “Tepeyac.” The young narrators of these stories describe moments of happiness, sadness, shame, and confusion, while raising issues to which Cisneros returns throughout the collection. In “Eleven,” for example, 11-year-old Rachel tells of the embarrassment she feels when her teacher, Mrs. Price, forces her to wear an ugly sweater that was left behind in the classroom. Although Rachel tells the teacher that the sweater is not hers, Mrs. Price insists, and it is not until “stupid” Phyllis Lopez remembers that she owns the sweater that Rachel is allowed to take it off (Woman Hollering Creek, p. 9). This is the first of many times that one of Cisneros’s female characters struggles against another character’s controlling influence to assert her own desires.
The second section consists only of two stories, “One Holy Night” and “My Tocaya,” both of which deal with love, deception, and the confusion of adolescence. In “One Holy Night,” an eighth-grade girl in a Southwestern town falls in love with a Mexican man, Chaq Uxmal Paloquin, or “Baby Boy,” who enchants her with stories about his royal Mayan ancestry. After she is “initiated” as his Queen, the girl is not ashamed but excited to finally find out how sex feels, and is even tickled that “it wasn’t a big deal” (Woman Hollering Creek, p. 30). When the girl’s grandmother learns what has happened, she goes searching for the man responsible, only to find that he has left town. A few weeks later, the girl discovers that she is pregnant. While she spends the last months of her pregnancy living with relatives in Mexico, her family contacts Baby Boy’s sister, who reveals that his words to the girl have been lies. His name is Chato, meaning “fat-face,” and he has no Mayan blood. This revelation—and the newspaper clippings his sister sends that suggest he has been involved in rape or murder—does not change the girl’s feelings, however. She stares at the face in the clippings and muses about the children she will have and the man she loves.
The third section of stories deals primarily with grown women, all of Mexican heritage but from very different walks of life. “Little Miracles, Kept Promises” is a collection of letters requesting help from above or giving thanks for help granted. In one letter, college-educated Barbara Ybañez of San Antonio asks San Antonio de Padua for “a man who isn’t a pain in the nalgas…. Someone please who never calls himself ‘Hispanic’ unless he’s applying for a grant from Washington, D.C.” (Woman Holleñng Creek, p. 117). After a fire has destroyed her home, Adelfa Vásquez from Escobas, Texas, asks San Martin de Porres to send “clothes, furniture, shoes, dishes… anything that don’t eat” and to convince her daughter to quit school so she can stay home and help her parents (Woman Hollering Creek, p. 117). Leocadia Dimas of San Marcos, Texas, writes to thank Don Pedrito Jaramillo, the Healer of Los Olmos, for “THE GOOD DOCTORS THAT DID THEIR JOB WELL” while operating on the cancer in her granddaughter (Woman Hollering Creek, p. 119). Finally, Rosario De Leon, who has just cut off her hair to give to the Virgin of Guadalupe, sorts through the web of emotions that led her, after years of resistance, to embrace Guadalupe and what she represents:
I don’t know how it all fell into place. How I finally understood who you are. No longer Mary the mild, but our mother Tonantzin…. 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.
(Woman Hollering Creek, p. 128)
Rosario’s struggle to accept the nurturing aspects of her culture while rejecting its oppressive elements is a struggle faced by other characters in Woman Hollering Creek, though some face more extreme oppression than others. In the title story, a young Mexican woman, Cleó-filas, marries a Mexican man and moves with him across the border to the United States, where she discovers desolation in traditional married life. Beaten by her husband and isolated from society except for her widowed neighbors, Dolores (meaning “pain”) and Soledad (meaning “solitude”), Cleófilas withdraws into a fantasy world of telenovelas (soap operas) and romance novels. Meanwhile, while watching her infant son laugh, she muses about what the name of the creek near her house—La Gritona, or “Screaming Woman”—might signify. She concludes that it may be a reference to “La Llorona,” the “weeping woman” of Mexican folklore who kills her own child. When Cleófilas subsequently breaks down in a doctor’s exam room, a sympathetic woman there arranges for a friend to drive Cleófilas to a bus station so she can escape from her husband and return to Mexico. Felice, the Chicana woman driving her to freedom (whose name means “happiness”), is a revelation to Cleófilas. She is brash, independent, irreverent, and single, and when she drives over La Gritona Creek, she lets out a “holler like Tarzan” in honor of its name (Woman Hollering Creek, p. 55). Amazed at Felice’s behavior and at her own realization that the name of the creek might represent a woman hooting in joy instead of howling in pain, Cleófilas discovers that she herself is laughing, released for a moment from her pain by this woman hollering next to her.
The remaining pieces in the third section of Woman Hollering Creek share some issues with the pieces above and also introduce new subjects. They include stories of personal discovery, conflicting cultural loyalties, broken hearts, and gossip, and are told by a number of different voices, including an artist who has an affair with her white teacher and, later, his son (“Never Marry a Mexican”); a common-law wife of Zapata who transforms herself into a bird so she can transcend the limits of space and time to relive the moments spent with him (“Eyes of Zapata”); a working-class Chicana incensed at the “crab ass” owner of a religious store (“An-guiano Religious Articles Rosaries Statues Medals Incense Candles Talismans Perfumes Oils Herbs”); and an artist who falls in love with her exterminator, a poet who looks like an Aztec god, only to be left by him after he reveals that he is married and has four children (“Bien Pretty”).
Redefining Guadalupe and La Malinche
At the end of the title story of Woman Hollering Creek, two women meet. Cleófilas, a Mexican, is the wounded product of an oppressive marriage. Felice, a Chicana, is a free-spirited, independent woman. Discussing the creek they’re driving over, which is called “La Gritona,” or “Screaming Woman,” the Chicana says to the Mexicana “Did you ever notice… how nothing around here is named after a woman? Really. Unless she’s the Virgin. I guess you’re only famous if you’re a virgin” (Woman Hollering Creek, p. 55).
In another story in this collection, “Little Miracles, Kept Promises,” a young woman explains to the Virgin of Guadalupe how the woman was treated when she rejected the Virgin because of the “self-sacrifice” and “silent suffering” she represented:
Don’t think it was easy going without you. Don’t think I didn’t get my share of it from everyone. Heretic. Atheist. Malinchista. Hocicona. But I wouldn’t shut my yap. My mouth always getting me in trouble. Is that what they teach you at the university? Miss High-and-Mighty. Miss Thinks-She’s-Too-Good-for-Us. Acting like a bolilla, a white girl. Malinche.
(Woman Hollering Creek, pp. 127-28)
These two excerpts refer to two central paradigms by which women in Mexican and Mexican American society have been judged. The Virgin of Guadalupe represents purity, unselfish sacrifice, motherhood, and, to many, passivity verging on martyrdom, characteristics echoed darkly by the broken life of Cleófilas. La Malinche, on the other hand, is the incarnation of cultural betrayal: the Indian woman who, with the Spaniard Cortés, is credited with creating the first mestizo child—and may have killed him. Felice attests to the ubiquity of the Virgin in Mexican and Mexican American culture. She is, as Felice explains, the only woman things are named for in her part of Texas. The name of Malinche likewise surfaces quite often in Mexican and Mexican American culture, but only when insults are being hurled, as Rosario of “Little Miracles, Kept Promises” can attest.
LA MALINCHE/LA LLORONA
Cortés may have brought Catholicism to Mexico, but he is probably better known in Mexico for being the first to mix Indian blood with European. The legend relates that his Indian mistress, Malinche (also called Doña Marina), was a willing perpetrator of what some have described as a crime of cultural betrayal. She is said to have given birth to the first mestizo child, the mixed European-Amerindian issue of her union with Cortés. In fact, Malinche served as a translator and go-between for the Indians and Spaniards, a border figure who linked the two cultures in other ways besides having a mestizo child. Legend, however, overpowers history in the matter of this original birth. In some versions of the legend, La Malinche rejects her role as a mother, stabbing her child to protest Cortés’s decision to return to Spain and then becoming a “weeping woman” (“La Llorona7’) who forever laments what she has done. However, Chicana writers tend to separate the figures of La Malinche and La Llorona. They associate La Llorona with creating as well as destroying life, connecting her particularly to changeable nature, especially to water, death by drowning, and forces cloaked by night. Her weeping they associate with a mourning for their lost selves, lost because of the discrimination and violence pressing in on them, and because of the assimilation of their children into the overpowering mainstream American culture. In other words, La Llorona has become associated with a search for one’s self, taking on a positive dimension. In this way, Sandra Cisneros, in Woman Hollering Creek, “can play on the folklore surrounding La Llorona and turn her into an active heroine” (Rebolledo and Rivero, p. 194).
These two paradigms for womanhood appear repeatedly in Woman Holleñng Creek. They are part of the cultural heritage with which Cisneros’s characters must wrestle. Rather than accept Guadalupe as the paragon of womanhood and Malinche as the embodiment of evil, however, these characters tell stories that help to redefine the significance of each figure. In the process, Cisneros’s women help to redefine themselves.
When Rosario decides to accept the Virgin of Guadalupe into her life, she does so strictly on her own terms. To her, Guadalupe now represents the birth of Mexican culture, a tie to her Indian heritage, the power and unity of her people, and the strength of her mother and grandmother. Similarly, when Cleófilas joins Felice in laughter, she is choosing to put a positive spin on an ambiguous figure. La Gritona may be “La Llorona/La Malinche,” crying because she has betrayed her society by rejecting the traditional role of motherhood, but she could also be a hollering woman, like the cheerful, liberated Chicana at Cleófilas’s side. Rosario and Cleófilas—two women from different countries (the United States and Mexico, respectively) and radically different circumstances—have both learned to start shaping for themselves the models of womanhood that Mexican culture has bequeathed to them.
The story’s reinterpretation of traditional role models is part of a larger literary trend. Other Chicana writers have modified their estimation of the Virgin of Guadalupe, acknowledging her goodness but viewing her tendency to accept and endure as a negative rather than a positive quality, and condemning what they deem to be her failure to act on her own behalf. Similarly, while the reaction of Chicano writers to the traditionally traitorous La Malinche is “varied and complex,” many think of her as a survivor, “a woman who, with a clairvoyant sense, cast her lot with the Spaniards in order to ensure survival of her race.… It was often because of Malinche’s diplomacy and intelligence that a more total annihilation of the Indian tribes of Mexico did not occur” (Rebolledo and Rivero, pp. 192-93).
Sandra Cisneros is one of the three or four best known Latina writers in the United States and probably the best known Chicana writer. Set in Chicago, her first major success, The House on Mango Street (1985), has been translated into a number of languages and is used widely in American classrooms from middle school to graduate school. Such far-reaching acclaim for an American Latina writer would have been unheard of before the early 1980s. Although some magazines and journals that grew out of the Chicano movement printed Latina literature in the 1970s, it was not until 1983 that established Latina writers began to emerge. Cisneros has explained that she began writing because of what was missing in the literature around her. “She couldn’t see herself in the novels and stories she was reading” (Stavans, p. 74). In essence, her stories or “verbal photographs” in Woman Hollering Creek help fill the vacuum by bringing to life recognizable females, ones that defy old stereotypes. “Cisneros’s intention isn’t only to explain a trauma or to re-create a certain flavor of childhood, but to offer a persuasive portrait of Chicanas as aggressive and independent” (Stavans, p. 74). According to at least one scholar, she has “inherited the mantle of Tomás Rivera” (see… and the earth did not part , also covered in Latin Amencan Literature and Its Times). She did not speak in Spanish, however; she was the next generation; she had an authentic Mexican American voice (Shorris, p. 390).
Woman Hollering Creek was received by Mexican American and mainstream critics as a huge success. It won a number of awards and was praised for its emotional power, its range of characters, and the originality of its style, which was described as “poetic descriptions” into which Cisneros “breathes narrative life” (Prescott and Springen in Mooney, p. 348).
Chicano scholar Ilan Stavans spoke of Cisneros’s “breathtaking prose” and described Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories as a “candid, engaging” work. “Cisneros’s major contribution to Latino letters,” this critic declared, “can be found in her strength of approaching the Hispanic experience north of Rio Grande in a non-apologetic, authentic fashion” (Stavans, pp. 16, 74). Similarly, the scholar Earl Shorris applauded Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories as a superior work. Shorris preferred it to Cisneros’s House on Mango Street] in his estimation, “the style and tone often wobbled, but the book contained some beautifully realized stories, characters that the reader married and remarried at the end of the paragraph” (Shorris, p. 390).
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