Gender, Agency, Memory, and Identity in Like Water for Chocolate
Leah A. Cheyne, email@example.com
April 30, 2003
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 In the tradition of the revolutionary melodrama in Mexico, the revolution is superseded by the dramatic tension between family members on a Northern frontier hacienda.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through the presence of the narrator, the grand-niece of the protagonist Tita, and subjective mediation through an historical document, Tita’s hand-made cookbook passed down to the narrator via Tita’s niece, Esperanza.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...