“A la mesa y a la cama / Una sola vez se llama”
(To the table or to bed / You must come when you are bid)
As the opening to the book suggests, Like Water for Chocolate seeks to beckon you either to the table or the bed. This book revolves around the femalescapes of the kitchen and the bedroom—both becoming temptations and asking you to decide to which yields the greater pleasures. Our main character is Tita—but she is not our narrator. We get the idea that Laura, the writer, must be narrating because while we follow Tita we are doing so through a third person narration of Tita’s diary. Robbing Tita of her voice becomes a motif of the novel—the book opens with Tita’s recipes and tells the story of her birth, the almost immediate death of her father, and her dire mother’s proclamation that Tita must remain her spinster caretaker. A proclamation that comes when Tita is still a baby which forces us to immediately begin deciding which women are good and which are bad—Mama’s persistent silencing of Tita, her insistence on Tita’s obedience and chastity always have a sour note and force us to side with Tita against Mama. This is something I take issue with—I’ve said in other reviews that women need to eliminate in-fighting if they wish to promote female strength on a larger scale. I maintain that Mama Elena presents a key problem: her treatment of Tita alienates her, relegating her (almost) irreversibly to evil stepmother territory.
The idea of an evil stepmother is that you’ve negated the maternal bond and replaced it with an empty vessel where instead of nurturing there is selfishness—an instant villain if we think that maternal instincts are a basic instinct and privilege of women. Tita is incredibly sympathetic—as the hardworking, ever-downtrodden youngest sister she is the center of many family squabbles. Her mother’s insistence on Tita remaining a spinster take on a sinister tone when the man who pledges his eternal love to Tita is forced to marry her older sister, Rosaura, instead because, as he puts it, it is the closest he will ever be allowed to get to Tita. Tita is dismissed to the kitchen—something meant to be a punishment but becomes rather the opposite, the kitchen becomes Tita’s sanctuary, and Nacha, the family maid, becomes more of a mother to her than Mama Elena ever was.
But this brings me back to Mama Elena.
I’m simply not sold on making Mama the villain—though there is a clear effort made to set up that assumption.
If you take the novel at face value it is easy to make Tita our damsel in distress, Rosaura our ugly stepsister and Mama our evil stepmother with Pedro playing the role of Prince Charming. Having read this book very in depth and watched the movie a half dozen times I can tell you that if you want to read it that way—go for it. It works. The set up is all there, and it is an easy story to love. When Tita cooks a part of me melts away into a foodie-daze and I just fantasize about quails with rose petals and Christmas rolls. I love to cook, I have a Food Network problem, I’m probably going to spend more money on good dinners this year than on books, clothes and movies this year—and I’m ok with that. Tita fulfills a role for us as readers—she is easy to wear, like jeans; her passages are delicious, like your favorite meal. There is something very compelling about her story but at the same time– we need to talk about Mama.
Tita always feels like an unwanted child. I find unwanted children in a pre-Pill era to be a compelling part of literature—surely this was just a different kind of stigma. There was usually no (or extremely few) safe way to get rid of an unwanted child, even if you were a married woman who in theory had better access to medical care than an unmarried woman. For Mama in turn of the century rural Mexico the choices were likely nonexistent. These unwanted children are just born and brought into a family and it seems almost acceptable to resent them—something we the post-Pill pilgrims cannot abide by. We live in the era of children—there are whole stores dedicated to their toys, boutiques for their clothes, regimented outlines of pre-school and pre-kindercare and infant sign language 101 surrounding parents all the time and reminding them: children are precious. I was raised in the 90’s and there is a distinct difference between how child safety was seen then and how it is perceived now—children are more like Faberge eggs now. I mean, I’m fairly certain that my parents used basic safety devices with me (although I did escape from numerous car seats, does that negate their safety value?) but our stairs were never cordoned off (I was told, simply, not to fall down them) and there were no child locks on cabinets (do not go in those or else) and I got plenty of dirt in plenty of cuts and wasn’t allowed to fuss over them (and thanks for that Mom and Dad). So of course the instinct of the modern reader is to coddle and cherish poor unwanted Tita. Especially because she is not merely fitted to a Cinderella role but we get a very detailed account of her physical labor, tantamount to slavery, and the physical and mental abuse Mama subjects her to (some truly awful things happen in the dovecote).
I’m not dismissing Tita as a character—there could be many pages written about her and all of them would have some interesting perspectives. However I’m all about giving a voice to the women without voices. Esquivel is giving Tita a voice, the narrator is bringing Tita’s story out of the cookbook-dairy she kept and into the light, but Mama remains in the dark for the majority of the book. It’s time for someone to talk about Elena.
Mama Elena is gruff and distinctly lacks nurturing qualities. When her husband dies she simply keeps going, never breaking stride, never looking back, and she becomes a veritable battle-axe. Mama fights off intruders with a shotgun and an attitude that is definitely more deadly. Even paralyzed at one point Mama remains a force to be reckoned with, backing Tita into a corner and compelling her movements from her sick bed. And when Mama dies she, unsurprisingly, haunts her daughter. Mama’s ghost haunts in numerous ways—she is a presence we feel long after Esquivel (and Tita) stop writing her name on the page.
Esquivel illuminates one key part of Mama’s story, and it has to do with Tita’s middle sister Gertrudis. It is revealed that Gertrudis is Mama’s lovechild from an affair with a mixed race man— a man she loved so much that when she found out she was pregnant she prepared to leave her husband and older daughter Rosaura and follow her love somewhere else. But the man is killed—his death destroys Mama Elena. We discover that she had been forbidden to marry him and had to suffer the marriage she was given instead—it comes as no small surprise that she wields a similar whip against Rosaura and Tita, the unwanted products of the husband she never cared for.
Mama’s affair highlights her rebellious characteristics and after the third time I read through Mama’s sections in the book I really began to appreciate how very powerful a character she was and how little credit I had given her. Mama is nontraditional in every way but comes off as traditional because she is strict—like an onion, you have to peel back the layers with her to get to the core. She wanted to marry a mixed race man—the first rebellious act of a young Elena. The idea of leaving her husband is rebellious on its own, but the idea that she would also leave Rosaura is fascinating to me. We should not take for granted that maternity is inherently feminine or an innate characteristic of the biologically female. I’ve been reading a lot of Judith Butler recently and gender performance really underscores for me the importance of not falling into a binary definition of gender. In the book Mama Elena is almost always Mama Elena. Even her daughters frequently think of their mother’s first name when describing her in the diary pages. Just because Elena is a mama does not mean that should come to define her above and beyond her own definition of herself. Elena’s willingness to leave one child in favor of another, the cruel and obvious ways she pits her two unwanted daughters against one another, the way she identifies a pick of the litter and a runt from among her own children might not be palatable, but it is not invalid. Mama was not given a choice in being a mother—she chose to see being a mother through to the end but one wonders what Mama might have chosen to do if there was a magic pill that allowed her to elect temporary infertility. Elena runs her own estate, does not see a need for a husband to help protect her or run her affairs, manages her daughters, and controls nearly every character in the book (even from beyond the grave). Mama is incredibly strong—titanium strong. Not palatable, but strong.
Esquivel sets us up to savor Tita like one of her exotic and delightful dishes. And when beckoned to the table—you should come. Enjoy the food—especially because it really is quite good. That’s Tita—savory, delicious, and filling every time. I always like Tita when I read this book. The title harkens you to both seductively smooth, velvety hot chocolate but also to passion, lust. Tita is always the chocolate, and who doesn’t grab for chocolate when it’s on the table? Still, sometimes something gets put on the table that doesn’t suit your palate. Don’t spit it out. Let it sit on the tongue—consider why it isn’t melting away as easily as the chocolate.
You might be pleasantly surprised by why it lingers.
Laura Esquivel is a Mexican novelist and screenwriter who wrote the novel and screenplay of Like Water for Chocolate. She utilized magical realism like other notable Latin American writers Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Isabel Allende. The book is also considered a memoir as Esquivel has said it was inspired by an aunt—Like Water For Chocolate was an international best-seller and the film which won both Ariel Awards and the Mexican Academy of Motion Picture awards. It was one of the best selling foreign novels and films to hit the US. Other notable works by Esquivel are The Law of Love and Malinche which tracks the relationship of La Malinche and Hernando Cortez.