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Sunday, 23 May 2010





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Como agua para chocolate

Last week I reviewed 'El Beso de la mujer arana' and discussed how Latin American authors who began to write following the period known as the 'Boom' used popular writing to engage with political and social issues in a way that was accessible to the masses. Laura Esquivel's first novel, 'Como agua para chocolate' is an outstanding example of such, having been translated into 30 languages.

It won international acclaim and the Spanish language film based on the novel won eleven awards from the Mexican Academy of Motion Pictures. The English translation of the novel 'Like water for chocolate' and sub-titled film were equally successful in the United States and the film was the largest grossing foreign film ever.

The novel's title phrase "Como agua para chocolate" refers to the fact that water must be brought to the brink of boiling several times before it is ready to be used for hot chocolate. Heat is a symbol for desire and physical love throughout the novel. It is also clear early on in the narrative that the title is a euphemism for sexual desire "She turned her head, and her eyes met Pedro's. Tita knew perfectly well how dough feels when it is plunged into boiling oil.

Laura Esquivel

The heat that invaded her body was so real she was afraid she would start to bubble, her face, her stomach, her heart, her breasts" like batter, and unable to endure his gaze she lowered her eyes and hastily crossed the room".

The title of the novel is also a reference to the suppressed rage of one of the two main characters, Tita De la Garza who has spent her whole life tyrannised by her mother, Mama Elena; in Mexico a person said to be boiling over with rage is described as being 'Like water for chocolate'.

The narrator is Tita's great-niece and the story is set in northern Mexico during the early 1900s. The novel's 12 chapters, written one per month in diary/instalment form relate details from over two decades of Tita's life, beginning in 1910 when she is fifteen years old and ending with her death at thirty-nine. Each chapter includes a recipe that Tita prepares for her family during this period.

After her mother refuses to allow her to marry Pedro, the man she loves, Tita channels her frustrated desires into the creation of delicious meals that often have strange, magical effects on her family. The novel is typical of the post-Boom genre of writing, as the magical realist episodes are intrinsic to the development of the story, which is at the same time rooted in real Mexican society in 1910.

The story of intense domestic tension makes the family itself a microcosm for the political tensions at the time of the Mexican Revolution.

The domestic struggle begins when Tita and Pedro fall in love as children. When he is of age, Pedro and his father come to ask if Pedro can have Tita's hand in marriage but Mama Elena refuses. The de la Garza family tradition demands that the youngest daughter remain unmarried to take care of her mother until she dies. Mama Elena offers Pedro Rosaura's hand instead since she is the eldest daughter.

To the dismay of his father, Pedro accepts simply to be closer to Tita. When Tita finds an excuse to not attend Rosaura's engagement party, Mama Elena forces Tita to prepare the wedding banquet as punishment. Yet Tita puts all her desire for Pedro into the cooking and as the wedding guests eat the cake, they are overcome by an "Intoxication" which causes intense longing for their true love.

Gertrudis (ClaudetteMaille) Mamaelena

This is the first of the many magical realist episodes that are woven into the fabric of the narrative and move the story forward. The wedding ends with all the guests crying and vomiting into the river and even Mama Elena unlocks a box holding a photograph of a man who is not her late husband. After Rosaura and Pedro are married Tita spends all her time in the kitchen, which is traditionally a 'woman's domain' and it is there that Tita's rebellion against repression begins to express itself.

Gertrudis, Tita's other sister, elopes with a soldier involved in the Revolution, which symbolises a desire for change in both domestic and political spheres. When a rose given to her secretly by Pedro, Tita uses it to vent her unexpressed passion through a pre-Hispanic recipe - 'Quail in Rose Petal Sauce'.

The meal serves as an aphrodisiac, arousing insatiable desire. When the meal is complete, Gertrudis goes to prepare a shower to rid herself of the pink sweat and rose-scented aroma she emits. The force of her heat and passion, causes the water from the ranch shower to evaporate on contact and eventually sets the structure on fire. Fleeing naked from the burning shower, Gertrudis is scooped up naked onto a galloping horse by Juan who was drawn by the intoxicating rose scent.

The passion overtly expressed by Gertrudis and Juan is representative of Tita's own thwarted love and desire for Pedro. The disappearance of Gertrudis reveals much about female sexuality in 'Como agua para chocolate'. While Tita can only articulate her sexuality within the domestic sphere, Gertrudis is able to exceed these boundaries without a second thought.

Her flight can be seen as a triumph, wherein she sheds notions of social propriety to pursue her unbridled desires. Conversely, her departure from the ranch is also a sort of expulsion from 'decent society'. The free expression of female desire clearly has no place in the ordered domestic realm. The contrasting experiences of Gertrudis and Tita illustrate the only two possibilities for female desire, both of which are extremes: stifled and unarticulated or hypersexualized.


Magical realism is used to provoke a sense of national identity through popular culture by the use 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, Tita's violent attacks and ultimate revenge on Rosaura, who eventually dies of 'serious digestive problems' following a spate of particularly vicious rows between the sisters.

It also helps convey a sense of folklore and history within the context of the Mexican Revolution using a family recipe book for traditional Mexican dishes. The magical realist events brought about by the food prepared from these recipes preface melodramatic events which enable women's voices to be heard, both on a personal and collective level. Therefore the narrative addresses and attempts to deal with both feminist and political themes.

All female characters in 'Como agua para chocolate' are battling for liberation in one way or other. This also includes Tita's tyrannical mother Do a Elena, who herself represents both the oppressive patriarchal system and the traditions which incarcerate Tita. However, it transpires that Do a Elena was also frustrated by a loveless marriage to Tita's father and that Gertrudis is the result of an affair with a 'Mulatto'.

This truth is revealed when Gertrudis and Juan have a 'Mulatto' baby, since Juan threatens to leave Gertrudis for infidelity. This suggests that in spite of her apparent, dramatic liberation from the repressive environment of the hacienda, she has not escaped accepted social norms and she and Juan have become conventional. This implies that even following a revolution, life must return to 'normal' and that it is perhaps retaining some traditions.

With most of the narrative temporarily set within the era of the revolution, Laura Esquivel mostly limits the reader/viewer to events occurring at the de la Garza hacienda.

The revolutionary activities affecting the Northern frontier during the revolution are not intrinsic to this story, even when Gertrudis returns to the hacienda with the troops. Issues of culture, race, economic hierarchy and patriarchy are defined by the relationships between individuals at the hacienda. While much of the brutality and violence associated with the Mexican revolution is absent from the narrative, the few instances of transgressive acts are used to establish heroism and machismo, or to comment on US intervention in Mexico.

However, the relationship between the US and Mexico is very romanticised, since the main medium used to present it is the character Dr. John Brown, a local North American doctor, takes pity on Tita and brings her to live in his house. He patiently nurses her back to health, cares for her physical ailments, revives her broken spirit and offers to marry her.

However when returns from a trip to the US, Tita confesses she has had further relations with Pedro. John replies that he still wishes to marry her but that she must decide for herself with whom she wishes to spend her life. Tita decides not to marry him and to continue her affair with Pedro, which causes her to be the subject of malicious gossip for the rest of her life.


While on the surface 'Como agua para chocolate' appears to be a progressive narrative that celebrates women's willingness to break from tradition, a closer reading reveals that real change is stifled. Feminine power is derived from the preparation of food and through fulfilling other traditional roles such as marriage and motherhood but it is essentially the masculine gaze and agency which determine the course of the novel. Pedro's decision to marry Rosaura and the implication that Tita will only find liberation and redemption through marriage after Mama Elena's death are examples of this.

There is no possibility for Tita to define herself outside traditional feminine roles. In creating the female-centered cast of characters, Esquivel creates a world in which although men are physically present only occasionally, the legacy of sexism and the confinement of women to the domestic sphere persist. Esquivel does not offer her readers the vision of Utopian sisterhood but an insight into the way women are restricted by standards of societal propriety perpetuated by other women. Although a medium for self-expression, the culinary 'mestizo' culture that represents both femininity and Mexican national identity, it still occurs within the context of traditional, patriarchal structures.

This suggests that for woman and for Mexican society itself, which has an identity so deeply rooted in tradition, true liberation is an illusory ideal, yet one well worth striving for.


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