Interpreting the menu


The academic Nathanial Gardner
has tasted the many flavours of the classic Mexican novel and film
Como agua para chocolate, and explains why this best-selling work left audiences so satisfied

WHY WAS Como agua such a big hit, both as a book and a film, in Mexico and abroad?
While I am not 100 per cent sure of the exact reasons why this book has been so immensely popular (it has been translated into at least 23 different languages and was the number one selling book in Mexico for three years), I am sure that the fact that this book is so easily accessible has contributed to its popularity. It really is a simple love story told in plain language that everyone can identify with, yet is also has a lot of the classic trappings that create enough tension in the plot to keep us reading. Likewise, the heroines are easy to love and the villains are easy to hate.

It has been said that the three great culinary traditions in the world are the Chinese, the French and the Mexican. Mixing this unique, yet universally recognized element into the novel also helped not only Mexicans to feel proud of an intimate part of their culture, but it touched a point well known by most foreigners. Who couldn’t be enticed by a love story and a nice plate of Mexican food?

To what extent did this film help to shape the revival of Spanish-language and Mexican cinema in the 1990s?
Several critics have stated that it was the film version of Como agua para chocolate that started the boom in Latin American cinema we have seen over the past few years. If you look at many library collections, (and even the growth of Latin American cinema courses) you will see that appears to be the case. It would be naïve to say that this was the only factor though.

Esquivel’s husband demonstrated remarkable faith in this work: to what extent do you believe he was instrumental in its success?
Actually, a commonly accepted version of the story goes that Esquivel, a scriptwriter, originally envisioned the narrative as a film. When she pitched the idea to some film makers, they knocked it back saying such a film would be too expensive to make and suggested she write it as a book. She did. After its immense success as a novel, I am sure that her then husband was easily able to obtain the funds to film the story. The film they created (Esquivel was the scriptwriter) follows the story very closely and was well produced. The fact that it won all the Ariel awards (the Mexican Oscar) the year it came out only strengthens that argument. All of these factors only added to the success of the Esquivel phenomenon.

What is the key underlying theme in this story and what does it tell us both about Mexico but also external perceptions of it?
I am not sure there is one key underlying theme. Some might be tempted to say that if you hold out, you will get your happy ending; but I think this would be misleading. Rosaura, for example, does not have a happy ending. These characters’ lives can be viewed as quite complex, but many of their complications are ones that have resulted from their own decisions. The only real constant is the presence of food and conflict.

Role of men in Mexico

How does Esquivel understand the role of men in Mexican society in this work?
I have never spoken with Laura Esquivel, so I can only talk about what I have read in her novel. Como agua para chocolate portrays a fairly wide range of men: revolutionaries, hired hands, a priest, a doctor, an accountant (Pedro and others). However, the one that the reader is able to view the most and the longest is Pedro. In many ways he can be viewed as the foil of the soldier Juan Alejandrez and is often depicted as emasculated. In some senses he is. If you look closely though, he also fulfills the macho stereotype to some extent. By the latter part of the novel he has both his legal wife Rosaura and their family, while in the meantime he has converted Tita into his lover, his “casa chica” if you like. He only bides his time until he has the De la Garza daughters and their ranch to himself. He is quite a cunning character in some respects.

How does she understand women and the rules of womanhood?
On a very basic level, the women could possibly be broken up into two basic groups: those who are obedient and those who are rebellious. However, there are no truly clean-cut characters with regard to portrayed personalities, because it can also be said that all of them rebel to a certain extent as well as bending their will to what they think society expects of them. The De la Garza women are portrayed as more complex figures, the indigenous women less so. Ultimately, most women, while they might follow different paths for some time, seem to conform to the idea of a woman being a mother and homemaker. Gertrudis is an excellent example of this. She runs off, becomes a prostitute, a soldadera, and a generala, but in the end she settles down with her first love and has a family.

Males have a large role in defining tradition in Mexico, but Esquivel gives the role of enforcing them to a matriarch. Is this accurate?
While families like the one described in Como agua para chocolate are probably far and few between – if indeed any exist at all – and the concept of a patriarchal society is still strong in Mexico, I think that what Esquivel has done with her exaggerated example is to underline the fact that women do make up an important part of history, which often goes unsaid, and that they do wield certain levels of power both within the home and society that help to shape the world in which we live.

The tradition of a youngest daughter looking after elderly parents is not traditional in Mexico – does this relate to Esquivel’s own experiences?
The family tradition that Esquivel describes in her novel is something that neither myself nor anyone that I know has ever encountered in Mexico, so I hadn’t really given it much thought. It was so distant from my accepted notions of the Mexican family that I simply dismissed it as a plot enabler. However, I recently came across an interview that Esquivel gave in the early 1990s in which she says that she had a great-aunt named Tita who wasn’t allowed to marry and all she ever did was to take care of her mother. After that woman’s mother died, she also passed away soon after. It’s quite tragic really, so there does seem to be a link to a verifiable reality in this case. That was quite a surprise for me!

A famous Mexican writer once told me that all writers, whether they admit it or not, “escriben a partir de sus propias experiences” (write from their own experiences). As an example, she then told me how Carlos Fuentes had a problem with an ulcer and so he gave one of the characters in his novel an ulcer as well. Obviously there are exceptions to this, but the more I study an author’s life and work the more I find her statement to have some truth to it.

How is the relationship between Mexico and the US delineated in this novel and film?
Both spaces have their function within the novel and film. They somewhat conform to an ideology of stereotypes. The US is where people go to shop or get supplies. It is where the food is bland and tasteless. The novel appears to view their women as uninteresting. However, it is also where people go to seek medical advice or care. It is where those who are well off study. It is where those with wealth have friends. Mexico is the place where magic is possible. Mexico is where the good food and good women are to be found. It is where people go to have a party. It is where the revolutions occur. It is the place where people can let down their hair to a certain extent. Although there are references to darker elements to both sides, such as the mention of brothels on Mexican border and the bandits who are viewed as English-speaking in the film.

The number of characters both in the film and the novel are limited, but they are seen as getting along very well. The only tension between a Mexican and an American is perceived in the way in which Pedro treats Dr Brown, but this is presumably due to the fact that Dr Brown is his rival for Tita’s love. The film underlines these friendships even more as we view Juan De la Garza fraternizing with English-speaking friends after Tita’s birth.

The film and the novel view Mexico as fun and the US as formal. However, the latter appears to be subtly preferred by the De la Garza family as that is where they send their Hope/Esperanza.

Ideal American

Does Esquivel define an “ideal-type” of American that will have resonance among an Hispanic audience?
With regard to Dr John Brown, the novel does portray an “ideal-type” of American that sort of follows this telenovela persona that many of its characters have. In this case, we have a man with no faults. He is well-educated, independent, and intelligent. He is kind, gentile, and caring. Dr Brown is very much a patriarchal figure and this is important as he will become the patriarch of the family at the end of the novel. He also defies the macho stereotype by still accepting Tita after she had lost her virginity (although Chencha’s husband does this as well).

Even the fact that Dr Brown is a widower helps to create this character who is tragically single as opposed to a divorcee or a longtime bachelor. He is not only a “good catch” but he inspires a certain level of compassion from the reader/viewer.

The American way is to employ Mexican women, not marry them – was Esquivel consciously attempting role reversal here?
I don’t know. I do know that had the American characters only wanted to hire the women instead of marry them the resulting narrative would have been quite different.

How does Esquivel deal with the key contemporary theme of race in her novel? Was she a pioneer in this regard?
In many ways the novel and the film incorporate a lot of well known stereotypes that have probably been rightfully criticized. I think this adds to the telenovela characteristics that this novel has. However, we do see both sexes transgressing or attempting to transgress common racial boundaries found in Mexico at that time, and even today. In many ways, and not only on the issue of race, Como agua para chocolate is quite conservative. I do not really think that her novel was pioneer in this regard. I think that the fact that Esperanza was able to marry the man of her choice and Mama Elena was not makes a clear statement in this regard.

To what extent was the setting for the story – the borderlands – symbolic or meaningful?
The fact that most of the action of the novel takes place during the Mexican Revolution in this narrative is significant as it can be viewed as a novel of the revolution that takes an entirely different focus on the events. Its main use is as a backdrop and to provide a bit of action and excitement from time to time (like when Gertrudis runs off with a soldier). For the most part, the revolution stays out of the De la Garza ranch. It definitely offers an alternate view of history during what is a key event of Mexico’s modern history, although we must remember that this novel about northern Mexico is being written in Mexico City by a woman who is from the capital.

Likewise, the fact that it is set on the border gives the novel a chance to discuss US/Mexico relations. Through the characters, we see how the US is viewed as well as how the Mexicans are portrayed. There are lots of subtleties as well. I have often wondered why in the film the hired hand speaks to the bandits in broken English when they come and rape Chencha and attack Mama Elena. Are we to assume that the bandits are American? Is it a subtle commentary with regard to who the bandits are in the border lands? Should we make parallels with violence in Mexican border towns today?

Cookery and food play a very important role in this story. Do you think the Mexican relationship with food is fully understood in the US?
I am sure that all the Mexico enthusiasts in the US are very clued up about this source of national culture and pride. However, while I know that the US public is extremely familiar with standard Mexican fare, I am not entirely sure that the general public understands just how deeply connected Mexican food is connected to Mexican identity.

What is true is that Mexican food is well known and well loved not only in the US or Mexico but worldwide. The fact that two Mexican taco shops have appeared in the last twelve months here in Glasgow and the fact that you can find Mexican food in as unexpected places as New Delhi, Tokyo, Stockholm and La Paz, Bolivia shows you just how ubiquitous this cuisine really is and how it continues to grow. Personally, I don’t know of another Latin American country whose food is so well represented and recognized throughout the world. Surely it was the general appeal of Mexican food that helped the novel to find audiences around the globe.

What were the main criticisms of this novel and film, and were these valid?
I think that whenever a novel becomes a bestseller and is hugely popular there is a temptation to classify it as “light” and essentially not worthy of serious literary criticism. Both the film and novel were slighted in this regard. In the world of academia a popular comment was to say that the public thought the narrative was “chocolate” whereas the critics thought it was “water”. I disagree. While the story does play on stereotypes and has a plot that is easily digested, there are themes and elements that can be points of important analysis: be they the use of magic realism in the novel or references to non-mainstream religious groups in the film. Even the inclusion of the Kickapoo Indians within the narrative has some significant implications within the book. I am definitely not alone in this opinion, dozens of critical articles and chapters on that would agree; the ones I mention in my bibliography in my book are just the tip of the iceberg.

Where does your interest in Esquivel’s work originate?
I originally came across Como agua para chocolate as a student in the late 1990s. I heard all the hype and naturally wanted to know what it was all about. A friend found out about my interest in the novel and gave me a copy of it as a present. (Interestingly enough, it was that same edition I used while writing my book on the subject.) I read and enjoyed Como agua para chocolate so much that I soon bought Esquivel’s second book, La ley del amor, as well. So, when Grant and Cutler offered me the chance participate in their series with a book on Como agua para chocolate, I immediately agreed.

What else have you been working on?
I recently finished a scholarly edition of Elena Poniatowska’s Querido Diego te abraza Quiela that is in the process of being published by Manchester University Press. It should be available for sale in 2010. Also, I am working on a project that analyses the photo history of the 1968 Tlatelolco student massacre. Elena Poniatowska recently offered me the opportunity to translate her award-winning novel El tren pasa primero into English so I am in the process of securing a press that might have an interest in such a project as well.

Nathanial Gardner is a lecturer in Latin American Studies at the University of Glasgow. Read a REVIEW of his book here

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