Like Water for Chocolate (1989): Agency and autonomy via breaking tradition while literally eating your feelings
I encountered this book while I was enrolled in two Spanish classes–one in Latin American/South American/Spanish cinema, and the other in Latin American magical realism. When I signed up for the course in magical realism (needing a 300-level Spanish class to complete my minor), one of my fellow a cappella group members asked me to explain exactly what magical realism was.
I tried my best to explain: “Well, it’s like fantasy, but it isn’t fantasy. And it’s like surrealism, but it’s not exactly surrealism. Um, I guess I’ll tell you after I start the class.”
Although the principles of magical realism still seem difficult to categorize, everything started to come together when explained by my charmingly enthusiastic Spanish professor. Magical realism, or at least Latin American magical realism, seems to be characterized by the central principle of uncommon occurrences being taken by the characters as everyday events in an otherwise ordinary world. When I say “uncommon,” I mean that the living world blends with the world of the dead, characters live for generations longer than humanly possible, a town finds an enormous, beautiful drowned man that they worship and act as if he is a new citizen, a man turns into an axolotl, a couple finds awinged old man that they think might be an angel (so they keep him as a sideshow attraction), and characters suffer an absurdly long traffic jam (though I guess that last one came true near Beijing. Pfft, not so magical after all, I guess). I haven’t read the above English translations, but reading any of those stories will help give you an idea of what magical realism is like.
There are, of course, a number of American magical realism novels (Everything Is Illuminated is a popular one), but I feel like American readers, in general, don’t embrace it as a genre in the way readers do in Latin America. I mean, what do I know? I don’t live there. But as a reader, it seems like the most comfortable place for Americans to find magical realism is in children’s books.
I guess I’m a little off-track, but these are the sort of things you need to think about when you’re reading Like Water for Chocolate (or watching the extremely true-to-book movie adaptation we saw in our film class). I read this book (in English) in my free time while I was pinched between a class about the genre and a class in which we were going to watch the film, so every “aha” I had was like a chemical reaction that occurred from the combination of these three elements.
Like Water for Chocolate takes place in Mexico during the Mexican revolution and centers around a girl named Tita, the youngest of three daughters of the tradition-loving Mama Elena. According to tradition, the youngest daughter of the family must remain unmarried and care for her aging mother until her mother’s passing, at which time the daughter will be free to do as she pleases. The problem, however, is that Tita is proposed to by her neighbor, Pedro, long before her mother passes away. Asserting tradition above all else, Mama Elena forbids Tita to marry Pedro, offering her middle daughter, Rosaura, to him instead.
Pedro catches Tita by surprise when he seems to change his mind and takes Rosaura as his bride instead of her, and naturally, Tita is heartbroken. Pedro promises Tita that he is only trying to get closer to her by marrying Rosaura, but Tita’s sadness is immeasurable. She feels overlooked, oppressed, and miserable–and to top it off, it is her job to bake Rosaura’s wedding cake. Cooking is usually Tita’s only solace, but at the loss of her love, she is inconsolable. As she bakes, her tears fall into the batter, and when the guests at the wedding reception eat the cake, they all fall ill and weep with the power of Tita’s sadness.
Tita has, essentially, cooked up empathy–she has the unintentional power to infuse her feelings into her food, and others’ lives are changed because of it. Over the years, she becomes a stronger person, and eventually her own life is able to change.
This book is divided into twelve chapters each labeled with a month and given a recipe that corresponds with a meal cooked within the chapters. Now, let me establish something–although this book has to do with romance and contains recipes, it isn’t a simple, fluffy read. These recipes are not the light sort of things you’d find in the back of a chick lit book about a “culinary diva.” (Of course, I haven’t read The Secret Ingredient, so maybe I’m way off the mark here. To be fair, I love detective TV shows and might even get a kick out of that book.) On a purely ease-of-cooking and American-cuisine-typicality scale, Like Water for Chocolate is on the complete other end of the spectrum with recipes for ox-tail soup, chiles in walnut sauce, and quail with rose petals. But my point is, the recipes in Like Water for Chocolate are included by the narrator, Tita’s great-niece, as a way of conveying the importance of passion and food in Tita’s life and segueing into the action of the chapter. Throughout this book, food is feeling, and it’s the only way in which Tita is able to assert any sort of autonomy in the presence of her mother.
Speaking of female autonomy, it’s really remarkable the amount of power women have in this book–both for good and for evil. Mama Elena, as matriarch of the family, controls her daughters and the men surrounding them, reinforcing the tradition that will keep her in her daughters’ care until she dies. She manipulates her children’s relationships to her benefit and seems to be watching them always, whether or not she is present. She has an eerie, omniscient, omnipotent quality that threatens divine-like punishment for children who break tradition.
The thing is, at least two of her three daughters do break tradition. I’ve already covered the way in which Tita begins to assert her independence by expressing herself and her love for Pedro through her cooking, and she also fights tradition by continuing to love Pedro in spite of his marriage to Rosaura and her mother’s rules. What I haven’t mentioned is Gertrudis, the girls’ oldest sister, who eats Tita’s lusty quail with rose petals and experiences a sexual awakening, running from the house to try to cool down in the shower. When her skin is too hot for even the water to cool, she runs off, fueled by passion, and becomes a revolutionary.
Rosaura, on the other hand, is a follower. She accepts the marriage her mother arranges and suffers bad luck all her life, perhaps because of the love she stole from her sister. As a result of following orders, Rosaura’s husband doesn’t love her, one of her children dies, the other child will not breastfeed, and with time, Rosaura only becomes uglier and fatter as she begins to reek. She is beyond help and grows bitter and cruel, like Mama Elena–and, just like her mother, Rosaura chooses to impose the marriage tradition upon her own daughter, Esperanza, continuing the horrible, controlling cycle.
This is a fairly easy read, but is intensely moving and powerful. Tita is a likeable character with whom readers able to empathize, almost as if we were spoon-fed some of her magical cooking–and in a sense, by means of this book, we are. With every eye-opening recipe and heart-wrenching twist, we get a taste of the misery the characters face because of their susceptibility to the vicious perpetuation of tradition without reason.
256 pages, and it probably took me longer to write this entry than it did to read the book.
It’s a remarkable, well-told story that makes magical realism accessible. And, even based purely on enjoyability, this book definitely deserves a spot on everyone’s reading list.