November 2006

Jason Summers

Frontera Ramera


Starting a column on US Latina/o, Hispanic and Latin American literature seems common sense to me -- they are our neighbors locally and nationally, our 300-million population includes them, and yet it does not yet match their numbers in the greater Americas. Spanish is becoming a second language in the US, and the stories of these people are our stories. So let's meet the neighbors.

Remembering the First Time

Things probably can't get much worse if your name is synonymous with "you're fucked." Laura Esquivel's newest novel, Malinche, gives us the story of Native American woman who serves as interpreter in Hernán Cortés's service in his conquest of New Spain (colonial Mexico). Amongst Mexicans and Mexican Americans she is popularly and vulgarly known as "la chingada," which means the (fucked / fucked-over) woman. In this time of debate over immigration, language and ethnicity, Esquivel's novel shows us the arrival of the Americas' first "illegal immigrants:" white Europeans.

Born around 1500, Malinche is the daughter of a chieftain who dies, and then the child is betrayed by a mother who wants nothing to do with the painful past. Malinche is given into slavery with another tribe near Mexico's Gulf coast in the Yucatán Peninsula. This tribe -- the Cintla -- gives her to the Spaniards as a gift in 1519, and her multilingualism soon converts her into Cortés's translator and then his lover. Cortés had a son with her, but married her to one of his followers. In Mexican and Mexican-American culture today, she is seen as mother figure, victim and betrayer, a woman both venerated and despised by the majority of mestizos who are descended from such historic pairings.

While this new novel looks at an ancient story, it echoes Esquivel's earlier Like Water For Chocolate. Malinche holds "the hope that one day she would be able to do whatever she wanted, marry whom she wanted, and have children." This novel again explores the too-familiar problem of the story of a woman trapped by the society in which she lives, who also carries a thread of independent thinking, but the story lacks the warmth of the earlier book and its recipes as centerpieces to each chapter.

Mexican Nobel laureate Octavio Paz noted in his The Labyrinth of Solitude that "woman transmits or conserves, but does not create, the values and energies that are given to her by nature or society. In a world made in the image of men, woman is only a reflection of masculine will and desire." He goes on to speak of Malinche in particular in her form of "la chingada" -- she is passive, inert and open. By his earlier definition, all women living in a man's world hold that same place. Esquivel's novel fights that stereotype: Malinche is active, intelligent and passionate. But other stereotypes creep in to replace it.

The most powerful man of the story is conquistador Hernán Cortés. He obsesses over power and glory, and is perhaps the best-realized of the characters because he was the best-documented. He is a man of speech, but unable to use his skills without his tongue -- Malinche. The other power figure in the novel is Aztec emperor Moctezuma, portrayed as a pious fool and coward, who regrets the Aztec religious practices of ritual sacrifice wrongly introduced into an earlier, "pure" set of practices. This sort of religious revisionism appears several times in the text, including when Malinche's family follows a religious practice that avoids naming most Native American gods, at her birth, her father says "Our Lord, the keeper of all things, the maker of people, the inventor of man, has sent you forth unto the earth," and also in a too-strong linking between Native American practices and Christianity, particularly between Quetazlcóatl and Christ.

At the same time that Esquivel writes the story, she also includes a second telling in the form of a simulated codice -- a Native American form of telling history by drawing glyphs representative of particular events. The small pictures accompany the text singly, but the entire set appears as a fold-out of the book's dust jacket. This representation adds a moment of historical interest, but at the same time, the inclusion of such a text is a reminder of how few of the Native American texts survived the European invasion.

Malinche is not a perfect book, but it reads easily and fast, with Esquivel's screenwriter sensibility producing great visuals, sharp beats, and occasional moments of deep identification. The story is one we know, but the telling will hold you, even when Esquivel's tone falters a bit.