Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Death by Tradition: Symbolic Punishment in Like Water for Chocolate

Themes of independence and defiance of authority have been a narrative commonplace for as long as anyone can tell, and the use of these themes has been used to encourage or enforce complacency as well as to subvert and reject it. In Alfonso Arau’s adaptation of Like Water for Chocolate, we not only find a rejection of tradition but an understanding that a strict adherence to tradition carries deadly consequences. In many cases those consequences are “deserved”, and the enforcers of tradition are, at best, hypocritical or, at worst, monstrous (in a nearly literal sense). We further find in the film that this deadly sense of confinement is at once physical and metaphysical, and that an attempt to escape it can also be destructive. Like the womb that Dr. Brown describes, there is a subconscious yearning to return to it and that yearning complicates and ultimately ends the life of Tita. Tradition is at once prison guard and prison, and the inmates of that prison often have difficultly existing outside of it, and when Tita escapes for the first time, the narrator informs us that,
Tita, whose hands were now free of her mother’s orders, didn’t know what to ask of them. They could do anything or change into anything. If they could just turn into birds and fly away! She’d like them to take her far, far away. To fly away from herself. She didn’t want to think or make decisions. Above all, she never wanted to speak again. She didn’t want her words to scream out her pain (Arau).

Yet, she does exactly the opposite the second that Chencha, a maid from the ranch, arrives. She doesn’t escape. She speaks. She thinks and makes new decisions. She fails to leave her old life behind.         
            Throughout the film, Tita is repressed by her mother, Elena, forbidding her to marry because it is tradition that the youngest daughter remain at home to take care of the mother’s every need, and when Tita is of a marriageable age and has fallen in love, her mother forbids it, forcing Tita to maintain a strictly domestic existence. In a strange a cruel maneuver, Elena then suggests that Tita’s suitor, Pedro, marry Tita’s older sister, Rosaura. Bizarrely, Pedro agrees to marry Rosaura so that he can remain close to Tita. One hesitates to speculate about “would haves” and “could haves” when dealing with the confines of a particular narrative, but there is no clear reason for Pedro to accept these circumstances, as even his father chides him for it. It seems that Pedro could have just as easily “kidnapped” Tita and run away to live “happily ever after”—just as Tita suggests to him in the latter third of the film. However, this narrative is not just about defying tradition, it is about the power that tradition has to imprison even its reluctant adherents.  We also see the emotional turmoil that such a decision invites, and by accepting these circumstances, Pedro becomes a part of the oppressive tradition that keeps Tita trapped and ultimately guides her to her end.
            Lest we get too far ahead of ourselves, and jump to Tita’s ultimate fate, let us first consider the ways in which the film punishes others who enforce and adhere to tradition while rewarding those who abandon it completely. Let us first begin with Mamá Elena. Although she is the film’s primary villain, she does not necessarily begin as such. It is revealed early on that she had an affair, which resulted in her pregnancy with Tita. When Tita discovers this secret, she feels a small amount of sympathy for her mother because she, like Tita, was frustrated by love and confined by familial and cultural expectation—a role that likely made her into the person she became. It also reveals her, and authority figures like her, as parrots for societal norms that they refused to follow themselves, rendering the ultimate goal of such authorities as power and control instead of maintaining a more reasonable sense of societal order. Consider also Elena’s reaction towards the revolutionaries, when she says that, “the revolution isn’t so bad.” Again, this helps to establish Elena not as one who is legitimately concerned with tradition and the old order as much as she is concerned with maintaining personal control over her family and Tita. It is with no small degree of irony that it is those very revolutionaries that she supported who take her life. For Mamá Elena, she suffers in that she could never be with her lover, Tita’s father, and she suffers again when she is attacked by the revolutionaries, leading to her death. It is my contention, that this suffering is a symbolic, if not direct, punishment for her adherence to the sin of tradition, and this punishment extends to the other members of Tita’s family as well.
            Rosaura also plays by the rules of the family’s tradition when she agrees to marry Pedro. At no
point does she proclaim her love for him, only that she will be his wife and will fulfill her duty as Mamá Elena has decreed. Worse yet, Rosaura and Pedro’s second child is a girl, Esperanza,[1] and Rosaura
promises to force her into the same domestic life that Tita was doomed to. The narrative could not tolerate such crimes against the human spirit, and as such, Rosaura must be “punished.” By this point in the story, Rosaura is already trapped in a loveless marriage with a man who wishes nothing but to be without her and her first-born son has died,[2] she becomes tremendously fat, she is stricken with severe flatulence problems, and has unbearable halitosis—each only happen after Tita learns of her plans for Esperanza, and they only disappear once Tita’s ability to influence the situation improves. However, once the relationship between Tita and Rosaura completely deteriorates and it is certain that Esperanza will be held captive by the same fate as Tita, Rosaura dies from “severe digestive problems”—which, somewhat humorously, seems to be related to her flatulence. The correlation between Rosaura’s troubles and her adherence to tradition is made most plain in the time between she begs Tita to help her with her weight, flatulence, and breath along and the time that she learns of Tita and Pedro’s sexual encounter. So long as Esparanza was safe from harm and the doom of taking care of her mother, Rosuara appeared to be in reasonably good spirits and health; once that changed, she was put in immediate physical and emotional danger. The argument could be made that Tita is the major contributing factor here—and she is—but even if that is the case it is only so because of the circumstances created by Mamá Elena’s demand that family tradition be upheld.
            Of the three sisters, it is only Gertrudis that escapes death and psychological torment. She runs away with a soldier in the heat of passion and never returns to the ranch, except after her mother dies. It
is that escape to freedom that allowed her to live as she saw fit, even placing her in a position of power, a general with the revolutionary army. These circumstances are hardly accidental; they are a direct result of her ability to abandon the ranch. Unlike Tita, she did not seek a return to the womb, she sought to abandon it completely—even if that meant becoming a “disobedient woman [who would] wallow in the river of sin.” Tita, too, chose revolt, but not to the degree of her older sister. Instead, Tita’s revolt was more martyr like and dealt with in destructive half-measures,[3] as she never truly escaped from her mother or the ranch.
            Although Tita did finally rid herself of her mother when she confronted the woman’s ghost and proclaimed that she could live as she pleases, Tita never really lived as she pleased. Instead, she
retreated back to the ranch and Pedro where she waited twenty years for Rosaura to die so that she could be with Pedro. Indeed, if this was her living as she pleased, then so be it. However, that choice to return to the womb of the ranch had severe consequences. It meant that she could not be with Dr. Brown, who offered her a safe, but bland, existence, and it meant that she would have to face the judgment of her community after she moved in with Pedro. It is not that Tita felt threatened by these prospects, but they are an indication that she never really left to live as she wanted. This is not the truly free path of Gertrudis, who was bound by no expectations but her own. Tita’s half-measures ensured that she would endure some kind of suffering, but they, like the actions of Hester Prynne in The Scarlett Letter, would ensure that Esparanza would be able to live up to her name and destroy the traditions that bound Tita and those women who came before her. Tita’s death in the barn confirms her inability to truly escape and belie her desire to even want escape. Instead she chose to return to the womb; she chose death over a life without Pedro; she chose her past instead of her future.
             Tony Spanos argues that Esquivel’s original novel for Like Water for Chocolate “reclaim[s] the kitchen as a place or space of artistic and creative power and not just a place of mere confinement or oppression” (32). I agree with him as far as that goes; it is not the kitchen that confines Tita. It is the
kitchen that allows Tita an illusion of freedom and a very real sense of power over the ranch. It is a place of hope, but that hope can only thrive when it escapes the familial traditions demanded by the ranch—traditions that result in death, loss, and suffering. It is only that Esparanza escapes the ranch with Alex Brown in her marriage to him that she is able to survive and share the story of Tia Tita and what she endured so others could be free.

Works Cited
Arau, Alfonso, dir. Like Water for Chocolate. Screenplay by Laura Esquivel. 1992. Miramax. Netflix. Web. 19 May 2014.
Spanos, Tony. "The Paradoxical Metaphors of the Kitchen in Laura Esquivel's Like Water for Chocolate." Letras Femeninas 21.1/2 (1995): 29-36. JSTOR. Web. 18 May 2014.

[1] Esperanza translates to “hope” in Spanish. Such a naming is hardly coincidental as Esperanza represents the one chance for the family’s tradition to be destroyed and for the women of the family to truly be free to live as they see fit.
[2] I contend that each of these is direct result of her obedience to her mother’s wishes to marry Pedro and move to San Antonio, away from Tita.
[3] In many ways, Tita’s revolt against her captors is similar to Hester Prynne’s in The Scarlett Letter and even leaves her in a similar state. A comparative approach between Esquivel’s novel and Hawthorne’s has the potential to really open up the narrative of Tita’s life.


  1. This is sort of taking from the discussion we had in class and the notes I wrote down, which was obviously after you wrote this, but would you consider now that there are both positive and negative aspects of tradition represented in this film? The importance of a meal is a tradition going back further than the lives of the characters in this movie and it is what connects the story to the narrator. Sure, Tita is kicking against the goads but she is still upholding a very important tradition even if she is being selective of it.

    Also: as an aside- the parallels between the story in the forefront and the revolution as a backdrop is really well done and arguably the only way this movie could be as successful as it was. The struggle to find a new identity amidst hard oppression could be speaking for both Tita and the country of Mexico. I don't know if we talked about this much in the class discussion but I really appreciated that bit of cinema cleverness.

    1. That's a good question, but I don't think that we're supposed to consider "the meal" as a part of the tradition that is being dealt with in the film. Instead, the meal becomes the conveyance for Tita's rebellion against tradition. If you would be willing to adjust that point to say that rebellion is a tradition in itself, then I would probably find myself agreeing more.

    2. I guess to more directly answer your question: No, I don't think that tradition is treated positively. No one who adheres to the tradition of Tita's family is rewarded. Only those who escape it seem to have a happy life--like Esperanza.

      Even Dr. Brown ends up miserable because he, too, holds to some kind of old custom that forced him to seek the approval of Tita's family--a journey which led to her sexual liaison with Pedro and helped thwart the coming marriage. Brown even eats terrible food because he refuses to change or ask his cook to improve; he just deals with it and doesn't gain anything by the end of the film.

  2. The representation of the Mexican revolution in the film is sometimes criticized in the film. Some see its significance as ignored or downplayed. I'd agree with your view however--that we see both Tita (and the family) undergoing a revolution that parallels the national one.

    I'd also agree that tradition itself isn't being rejected. Tita refashions it from a negative force to a positive one by the end of the film for her grand-niece.

    1. I think that's a good point about "tradition" as a broader idea being not rejected; but that no one who adheres to the family's bizarre tradition survives the film is telling. The old ways had to die, as it were, so that Esperanza and Tita's grand-niece could start the new "tradition" of passing down a legacy that is rejects the draconian constraints of the old ways.

  3. the backdrop for this film is very important, it shows how harsh and beautiful this area of Mexico and Texas was. This is reflected in the people in the film. The harshness in her mother and eldest sister and the beauty in Tita and Gertrude.

  4. I think if the film would have been set in any different location it wouldn't have made as much sense or fit together as well. With the war going on at that time I think that it really helps understand why the characters do the things that they do, and are the way that they are better.