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Like Water for Chocolate | Context

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Magic Realism

From the first pages, where the infant Tita is washed into the world on a tide of her own tears, magical and fantastic events exist side by side with the ordinary in Like Water for Chocolate. More importantly the characters accept these fantastic events without question. Such traits are at the heart of the genre magic realism, which includes these elements:

  • factual narrative voice
  • mixture of reality with the fantastic, mythical, or magical
  • nonlinear movement of time
  • political and social criticism

In most cases the genre of magic realism works to represent the dualities of life in colonized regions—places like Mexico where indigenous religious beliefs coexist with the beliefs of the Catholic Church or there exists a historical tension between dictatorship and democracy, for example.

Literary magic realism is found primarily in Latin American literature. The term was first applied in the 1940s by Cuban novelist Alejo Carpentier, who noticed that much of the fiction he read had some unusual characteristics. In stories and novels that incorporate magic realism, the fantastic and the ordinary are woven together as though they are equally believable, sometimes making it hard for readers to determine where the real ends and the magical begins. Events take place in an otherwise familiar world where recognizable settings and historically accurate details provide the backdrop. Despite the realistic settings, however, the stories have the mood of fables, myths, or tall tales, and they depend on the rich use of symbols, imagery, and metaphor. This bold use of imagery means that ordinary objects often become something more than the literal. For example, the bedspread Tita crochets ends up being kilometers long and represents her growing frustration and longing.

In Like Water for Chocolate magical events are triggered by the actions and the emotions of the characters. Most of the magic has to do with food prepared by Tita, which tends to capture her emotions and convey them to those who eat the meal. Her dishes are responsible for everything from sadness to unbridled lust and ecstasy. They even have the power to turn her sister into an overweight, gassy horror whose funeral no one attends because of the smell. But the magical elements are not restricted to food. Ghosts appear, and their existence is not questioned. Wedding guests produce a literal river of vomit. Chickens go mad and create a living hurricane that bores into the earth. Shower stalls burst into flames from the heat of the women trying to cool off their sexual urges.

Book Structure

Each chapter of Like Water for Chocolate begins with a month, a recipe, and instructions for preparing a dish. The chapters end with the phrase To be continued and a preview of the following month's recipe. This structure is drawn from a 19th-century tradition in Mexican women's literature, which mixes recipes and stories about domestic life with guidelines for moral living. It also includes calendars of Catholic holy days. This structure blends the two areas of life most open to women in traditional Mexican society: the home and the Church.

In Like Water for Chocolate Esquivel reinvents this structure. The recipes and tales of daily life remain, but they are mixed with untraditional messages. Tita and her sister Gertrudis, through their rebellions against their tyrannical mother, Mama Elena, are doing all they can to break free of outdated and strict gender-based traditions. By the time the novel is complete, Gertrudis will have run off with a lover, worked in a brothel, and joined the Mexican Revolution. Tita, meanwhile, will have rejected her mother's decree that Tita care for her mother for the rest of Tita's life, temporarily left home, and had an affair with her sister's husband. Rather than being a guideline for good behavior, the cookbook becomes a recipe for female independence.

Feminism and Like Water for Chocolate

The growth of feminism in Mexico lagged behind the pursuit of women's rights in other countries. In Mexico women did not gain the vote until 1953, as opposed to 1920 in the United States and 1928 in England. This may be, in part, because from 1910 to 1920 (continuing in some ways through 1934), Mexico was torn apart by its own revolution, and the country at the time was extremely violent and male dominated. In this environment, as in society before the revolution, the images of women were dictated by the men who were in charge. Those images tended to be polar opposites. On one end was the pure, submissive, giver-of-life based on the Virgin Mary, as represented by Our Lady of Guadalupe. This woman tended to be very domestic and devoted to the Church. On the other end was the immoral or highly sexual woman (the other half of the traditional "virgin and whore" dichotomy introduced by Austrian neurologist Sigmund Freud), or the sinful, deceptive figure represented by a woman known as La Malinche—"the traitor." La Malinche, who was born Malinalli but later took on the Christian name Marina, was a historical figure from the 1500s, born on the Mexican Gulf Coast. Because she played a role in the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire, serving as adviser and lover to a Spanish conquistador, she is traditionally seen as a symbol of treachery and rebellion. Interestingly, others see her as a heroine who helped spread the word of Christianity and was the mother of the Mestizo race (people of mixed European and American Indian ancestry) in Mexico.

Only after 1920 and the official end of the revolution did these images begin to change as women began to demand a new identify for themselves. The changes were slow to develop, however, and were often impeded by other women—those from the middle or upper class who had the most to gain from retaining the status quo in Mexico. These women actually benefitted from a caste system and from keeping women from the lower class as servants and as cooks in the kitchen. Esquivel demonstrates this conflict in her novel, which focuses almost entirely on women and shows that the upper-level individuals standing in the way of change are not men but other women.

Through her characters Esquivel explores key issues through different kinds of women who try to figure out their places in a changing society. However, these roles do not necessarily match the ideals of traditional feminist literature, which focuses on female characters who act independently, as their own agents, and are free from the civil, political, economic, and social domination of male figures. For example, Tita's goal is simply to become a wife and mother, but this seemingly traditional gender role is significant because her goal is at odds with the tradition that says she must be her mother's caretaker. Tita therefore seems to exemplify Gertrudis's statement that there are "many truths" in life. The author Esquivel suggests that when it comes to rights, choices, and identities for women, each woman must determine her own path.

The Mexican Revolution

Like Water for Chocolate touches on two different revolutions. The first revolution occurs within the De la Garza family, as Tita and Gertrudis begin to fight against the suffocating traditions imposed by the inflexible and dictatorial Mama Elena. The second is the Mexican Revolution that is being fought all around them, also in response to an oppressive leadership. Each revolution becomes a metaphor for the other.

The Mexican Revolution was a long, bloody struggle that lasted from 1910 to 1920. It began as a rebellion against the government of Mexican general Porfirio Diaz, which favored the wealthy landowners and industrialists over the common people. Diaz's leadership was challenged by Mexican statesman Francisco Madero, whom he had thrown in prison. Upon Madero's release, however, he went to the city of San Antonio and began pushing for a revolt. Although that revolt failed, it sparked fervor among Mexican revolutionaries such as Pascual Orozco, Pancho Villa, and Emiliano Zapata. Inspired by Madero, their goal was to overthrow the existing government, revive democracy, separate church and state, and reclaim Mexico for the everyday man and woman. With their ragtag armies of peasants and farmers, they began attacking government garrisons. In 1911 Diaz was forced to resign, and Madero was put in his place. However, Madero proved to be an inadequate leader, and the revolutionaries who had put him in power turned against him.

Unrest and violence continued over the next several years, with new leaders put in place and new factions arising. In 1917 President Venustiano Carranza was given dictatorial powers that allowed him to confiscate land from the wealthy landowners and guarantee workers' rights, but he remained in power by killing those who opposed him. He was killed on May 21, 1920, and a new president was elected in November. This event marked the end of the revolution, although violence between the government and the rebels continued until 1934 when the reformist president Lazaro Cardenas finally put in place the reforms that the rebels had been fighting for.

In Like Water for Chocolate the De la Garza women represent the different factions of the Mexican War as they wage their own private revolution. Mama Elena represents the oppressive government, determined to keep the old laws and traditions in place. Rosaura represents the elite landowners who benefit from the existing system. She obtains what she wants (Pedro, and later the ranch itself) by following Elena's dictates without question. Gertrudis, who becomes a general in the Mexican Revolution, is also a fierce rebel in the social arena, blazing a trail for other women by actively throwing off the expectations of both her mother and society at large. Caught in the middle, like many of the people in Mexico, is Tita. She is both the keeper of tradition, represented by the recipes she so carefully prepares and preserves, and someone who is desperate for her own freedom. Her dual struggle is in fact at the heart of the novel.

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