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Hybridity and subversion of gender norms in Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate

On the surface, Laura Esquivel’s text, “Like Water for Chocolate,” tells of the painfully gradual fruition of a love thwarted by oppressive familial rules and societal expectations. Upon closer examination, however, deeper and broader objectives may be gleaned. The overwhelming presence of domestic convention and activity, juxtaposed with the negative attitudes towards the relationship between biological mother and child, seem to suggest a gendered undertone at the novel’s core.
Esquivel’s text has inspired diverse reactions from its critics. For its appearance of subscribing to the conventions of magical realism, one reviewer remarks that the novel is “simplistic, and Manichean…plagued with banal conventionalisms, bereft of any clear stylistic intention…and without any aspiration other than novelty” (qtd. in Hoeveler 122). Another reviewer holds a more redemptive view of the novel, replying:
…underlying the appearance of conventionalism may be detected as playfully appropriation that serves not only to undermine the canon but, more importantly, to redirect its focus to an aesthetic project in which such binary oppositions as “high art” and “popular” literature are overturned. (Ibsen 134)

After having closely read Esquivel’s text and the reactions of its reviewers, it is my contention that Esquivel re-appropriates symbols of feminine control and repression, such as “maternal instinct,” the domestic sphere of the kitchen, and the act of cooking to subvert gender norms. The text also blurs the lines of genre and the polarities of gender and race, and suggests a validation of racial, cultural, and gender hybridity.
Several poignant moments in the book suggest that Esquivel means to destabilize the reader’s conceptions of the binaries of exterior/domestic, male/female, and inherent/learned thought and behavior. Esquivel’s novel takes place during the Mexican Revolution, a time where many believed women should be silent and obedient. This concern is manifested in the novel’s repeated references to the Manual del Carreño, or the manual of behavior and etiquette. It is for this reason that the title presents a striking paradox:
“Like water for chocolate” is a Mexican expression which means “extremely agitated” referring to water sizzling enough to add chocolate to. The English equivalent would be boiling mad, and in Esquivel’s novel the expression alludes to women’s rage at being confined to the domestic sphere. (Jaffe 202)

Esquivel toys with the technology of representation in creating a title that acts as a two-faced coin or a double-layered depiction. By using a household term to express the underlying rage of those forced into domestic confinement, Esquivel creates a title that conveys the clandestine personal expression that peppers the novel. Just as this household term allows Esquivel to subtly express a woman’s anger, the kitchen in the novel allows Tita, the protagonist, relative freedom of expression and is simultaneously an acceptable place for Tita to spend her time.
Tita can illicit reactions from those who eat her food in a subtle way that doesn’t incriminate her. It is for this reason that “Under Tita’s dominion, then, the kitchen evolves as a space not only of domestic activity but of feminist rebellion” (Jaffe 207). One critic notes, “Exploring these women’s relationships through the metaphor of food activates the appreciation for cooking as both oppressive and subversive” (Segovia 169). It is in this way that Esquivel frames the act of cooking and the space of the kitchen the same way she creates her title; by being simultaneously “oppressive and subversive,” Tita’s cooking allows her a certain degree of self-expression, and this culinary technology of communication acts as a tool through which Tita may express her feelings to others.
The tragedy of Tita’s story is born from the fact that in the De la Garza family, the youngest daughter is destined to single-hood because it is her duty to take care of her mother until death. It is for this reason that Tita’s mother, Mama Elena, keeps perpetual surveillance on Tita and impedes any chance Tita might have at love. One critic argues that the novel’s popularity comes from Mama Elena’s inability to control the power of Tita’s food: “Esquivel’s melodrama has been highly successful as a popular romance for Latin American and Chicana/o audiences because of Mamá Elena’s surveillance of Tita and her inability to control the effects of her daughter’s cooking” (Segovia 174). It is perhaps for this reason that Tita’s quail in rose petal sauce dish is the hallmark dish of the novel.
Although Tita has been forbidden from pursuing her true love for Pedro, her sister’s husband, she expresses her love for him through her quail dish:
It was as if a strange alchemical process had dissolved her entire being in the rose petal sauce, in the tender flesh of the quails, in the wine, in every one of the meal’s aromas. That was the way she entered Pedro’s body, hot, voluptuous, perfumed, totally sensuous…Pedro didn’t offer any resistance. He let Tita penetrate to the farthest corners of his being, and all the while they couldn’t take their eyes off each other. (Esquivel 52)

Apart from being an explicit allusion to the act of sex, this scene allows us further insight into the power dynamic between Pedro and Tita. It is Tita who penetrates Pedro’s body, but she does so through the food she cooks, which is a product of her typically feminine domestic activity. Here, Esquivel re-appropriates the biblical tale of Adam and Eve, speculating on the nature of the tempting “apple,” or in this case the sensuous quail in rose petal sauce dish, and reversing the roles of masculine and feminine.
Esquivel forces the reader to reevaluate her perceptions of the gender binary by “interrogating gender assignments through the ritual act of cooking, subverting the national romance’s compulsory heterosexuality” (Segovia 170). While Tita transmits her passion to Pedro and Pedro receives her sentiment by eating her food, it is Tita’s sister, Gertrudis, who acts as emissary and begins to overtly act out Tita and Pedro’s fantasy: “With that meal it seemed they had discovered a new system of communication, in which Tita was the transmitter, Pedro the receiver, and poor Gertrudis the medium, the conducting body through which the singular sexual message was passed” (Esquivel 52). One critic argues that Gertrudis constitutes the novel’s hybrid being, embodying the desires of both Tita and Pedro, both man and woman: “As Gertrudis is ignited by Tita’s passion and Pedro’s lust, her thoughts tread the boundaries between virgin/whore, man/woman, and love/hate, following their contours and borders” (Segovia 171). While there is an overt reversal of gender roles between Pedro and Tita at this moment, Gertrudis occupies the middle ground in the gender spectrum.
This gender reversal pervades the entire text, as Tita is the one who transmits her feelings through the food she cooks, and Pedro passively obeys the rules of Mama Elena. Both Pedro and John, Tita’s other love interest, are characterized as feminine, and these characterizations are more apparent in some moments than in others. For example, as previously mentioned, the scene of the quail dish frames Pedro, the one who is “penetrated,” as woman in the exchange of love between he and Tita. As their love story progresses, Pedro is characterized more and more as passive to the wills of the women in the novel. John, as caretaker to Tita, is also framed as feminine, not with passivity but with his nurturing, almost maternal, treatment of Tita. To emphasize the maternal connection between John and Tita, when telling of the moment John comes to the De la Garza ranch to collect Tita, Esquivel writes, “As soon as she saw the doctor, she ran to the corner and curled up in a fetal position” (Esquivel 100). Of this connection, one critic writes, “John…incarnates certain characteristics more generally associated with women: he is patient, nurturing and long-suffering” (Ibsen 142). John is one of the many motherly characters of the novel, whose maternal connection to Tita surpasses that of Tita’s biological mother, Mama Elena.
While Esquivel feminizes the two principle male characters of the text, she also uses domestic symbolism to masculinize the female figures. In a scene immediately following an argument between Tita and her sister, Rosaura, about Pedro:
…the chickens were starting to make a huge ruckus on the patio. It seemed like they’d gone mad or developed a taste for cock-fighting…that whirlwind of feathers…changed into a mighty tornado, destroying everything in its path, starting with the things that were closest…That hen hurricane was boring a hole in the dirt of the patio…The earth swallowed them up. (Esquivel 217-218)

Because of the proximity of this scene to the argument between Rosaura and Tita, it is perhaps safe to speculate that the hens are meant to represent the women of the De la Garza family. The hen represents the domestic sphere in that it is an animal of necessity rather than decadence because it provides meat and eggs for the household. Unlike other birds, the hen is unable to fly, thus limited to the ground, as Tita is limited to the domestic sphere. Esquivel subtly inverts her gendered language when she refers to the torrent of hens as a “cock-fight,” thus subverting the gender norms previously established. The hen tornado is an allegorical representation of the perpetual discontent of the De la Garza women, who, generation after generation, are subject to societal and familial rules.
In reference to the sexual inversion between Tita and Pedro through her quail dish and the re-appropriation of the term, “cock-fight,” in a feminine context, many critics have expressed disapproval of Esquivel’s adherence to a gender binary. Critics such as Miguel Segovia have resisted the essentialist nature of these symbolic representations:
I contest…the essentialisms promulgated by Like Water, especially its heavy reliance on food metaphors for women that audiences unconsciously assimilate…Such moves suppress the way romances indoctrinate the masses with heterosexism and racism, portraying women as bodies for the pleasure of men. (Segovia 165)

The instance of the chicken tornado is key in addressing Segovia’s concern. Although it is true that Esquivel relies on the assumptions of gender roles in order to subvert them, rather than ignoring them in favor of a more liberating model, she does so to convey the claustrophobic limitations of these cultural conventions. In the case of the chicken tornado, Esquivel underscores the perpetual discontent of the De la Garza women under the confines of societal and familial expectations.
Although Esquivel relies heavily on a gender binary in her subversions of gender norms, other moments in the narrative suggest an erasure on Esquivel’s part of a gender polarity. She reframes her characters in ways that force us to question our perceptions of inherent and learned gendered behavior. For example, when Gertrudis returns to the ranch after her mother’s death (as a colonel for Villa’s army, a gendered subversion in itself), she asks Tita to prepare cream fritters, her favorite dish, for her. Tita leaves the kitchen to talk to Pedro and Gertrudis is left to prepare the cream fritters on her own: “Gertrudis needed the recipe; without it she’d be lost! Carefully, she began to read it and try to follow it…Gertrudis read the recipe as if she were reading hieroglyphics. She didn’t know how much sugar was meant by five pounds, or what a pint of water was…” (Esquivel 191-192). The fact that Gertrudis does not have an inherent culinary consciousness suggests that the gendered role of food preparation is learned, rather than inborn:
Since recipes are a code to which only women normally have access, Ramos Escandón maintains that we may speak of a “female language” suggested by culinary discourse…Nonetheless, Esquivel is careful to note that such language is not biologically determined but learned through oral tradition. Thus, when Gertrudis, although she is a woman, attempts to read a recipe, she is unable to decipher its code… (Ibsen 142)

Gertrudis’ character demonstrates that gendered roles are not only learned, but often forced. She traverses the rigid boundaries of gender roles by being a prominent figure of authority in the army, and by demonstrating the learned nature of successful cooking.
By extension, it is safe to speculate that just as Gertrudis’ gender does not seal her fate as a homemaker, mother, or prostitute, Tita’s fate as the youngest daughter and responsible for caring for her mother until death is similarly not inherent, but societally imposed:
[Tita] is considered as having been born to serve her mother as well as her sisters, not because she is essential and most appropriate for the role but because her mother is devoted to an oppressive “family tradition.” It is not that Tita is inherently or essentially more tied to the kitchen but that she has been subjected to it and therefore conditioned to perform the role. Learning how Tita’s essentialized position is nothing more than social conditioning…helps us think about the heterosexual matrix that subordinates women through the powerful medium of popular gender and ethnic socialization. (Segovia 164)

The heterosexual matrix Segovia mentions is the framework in which Tita and other female characters are placed conveniently and neatly, so that they may occupy a perceived inherently “female” role in the narrative that would make the characters conventionally intelligible to its readers. Esquivel underlines the threat and claustrophobia of this model by illustrating Tita as the victim of one of the restrictive conventions that constitutes the construction of the “heterosexual matrix.”
Tita’s remorse for her imposed tragic fate is embodied in the text’s disavowal of biological mother-child relationships. The poisonous relationship between Tita and Mama Elena results in the close and maternal relationship between Tita and her surrogate indigenous mother, Nacha. John Brown’s deceased Kikapu grandmother, Morning Light, is present as a ghost in the narrative as a nurturing force in Tita’s recovery from her grief. Tita is mysteriously able to breastfeed Roberto when Rosaura, his biological mother, cannot yield breast milk for him. By destroying the preconceived notion of the nurturing connection between biological mother and child, Esquivel brings yet another crucial facet of femininity into question: “In her renunciation and rejection of every biological mother in this text in favor of spiritual mothers like Nacha, Morning Light, and, ultimately Tita herself, this novel expresses a rejection of the womb, the essential female body, as intense as any” (Hoeveler 129). By exposing the failings of biological mother-child relationships, Esquivel questions the innateness of maternal behavior, which, it could be argued, is the behavior most attributed to or associated with women. Esquivel takes up the question of maternity, re-shapes it, and subverts it in a style similar to her use of cooking as a feminine technology of communication, to deflate the myth of its instinctiveness.
Not only do these nurturing relationships between Tita and others stand as examples of failed biological mother-child relationships, but they also underline the integral part that the indigenous presence plays in this “Mexican” text. Just as, previously, Esquivel questions the rigidity of gender boundaries, she expands the scope of this question to national and cultural frontiers:
…the modern Mexican woman’s novel [is] constructed of many traditions, many mutually contradictory religions, cohering only when the heat of pain and love are applied in fairly equal proportions. And so the novel initially asks, what happens when you mix one part Plato with one part Native-American traditions, one part Christian metaphysics with one part pagan mythology? You get a Mexican woman’s novel, a text that proclaims in its very confusion of sources Mexico’s mixed and ambivalent heritage. (Hoeveler 123)

The contrast between the indigenous past of Nacha and Morning Light and the more western or European ideals expressed by Mama Elena constitute the hybridity that lies at the novel’s core. Just like Mexico’s history, Esquivel’s narrative is a fusion of traditions and standards. By framing the text as a recipe, where many seemingly disparate “ingredients” may meld together with “the heat of pain and love,” Hoeveler underlines the hybridity of the text as well as the universality of the love and pain that propel the narrative forward. Esquivel frames the text as a product of many beliefs and value systems, and simultaneously toys with hierarchical conventions and the technology of representation; instead of a rendering of a culture or society existing in a vacuum, free from other influences, Esquivel’s text is a representation of a composite of traditions.
The hybridity of Esquivel’s novel makes it more universally intelligible, and therefore, it enjoys a widely popular readership. While its designation to a category of genre remains foggy, its worldwide popularity cannot be disputed:
Whether Esquivel was working, as some critics have claimed, in the tradition of “folletin,” sentimental romances that were serialized for the lower-classes in Mexico during the first half of the twentieth century, or whether she is writing as a contemporary “magical realist,” it is less significant than the fact that her novel was the first to garner international attention for the field of Mexican women’s literature. (Hoeveler 122)

Just as Like Water occupies a nebulous space in the categorizations of genre, many of its most memorable “ingredients,” such as the sensuous quail dish or the numerous failed biological mother-child relationships, also complicate the gender distinctions in the novel: “…Esquivel plays with the recipe of the traditional romance, queering cultural values and multiculturalism” (Segovia 170). She re-appropriates symbols or ideas of conventional femininity, such as maternity, food preparation, and sexual submission, in ways that alienate the reader from her previously conceived ideas of gendered behavior and re-structures these conventions in ways that subvert gender norms.
The chronological placement of the diegesis in history, during the height of the Mexican Revolution at the start of the twentieth century, may also be regarded as a strategic choice on Esquivel’s part: “…the fact that Esquivel situates her novel at the time of the revolution suggests a specific historical moment in which nineteenth-century values of the Porfiriato were overturned” (Ibsen 139). The juxtaposition of the chronological placement of the diegesis and the actual year this novel was published, 1989, brings the deconstruction of antiquated values of the era of the Mexican Revolution into the present. The strong reactions of the critics featured in this analysis, whether celebratory or not, show us that we are still thinking about, and sensitive to, the gender issues present within a fictive Mexican family whose chronological context is one hundred years behind us.

Works Cited
Esquivel, Laura. Like Water for Chocolate. New York: Doubleday, 1989.
Hoeveler, Diane Long. “Like Words for Pain/ Like Water for Chocolate: Mouths, wombs,
and the Mexican Woman’s Novel.” Women of Color: Defining the Issues, Hearing the Voices. Ed. Boles, Janet K. and Diane Long Hoeveler. Westport: Greenwood Press, 2001. 121-132.
Ibsen, Kristine. “On Recipes, Reading and Revolution: Postboom Parody in Como agua
para chocolate.” Hispanic Review 63.2 (1995): 133-146.
Jaffe, Janice A. “Latin American Women Writers’ Novel Recipes and Laura Esquivel’s
Like Water for Chocolate.” Scenes of the Apple: Food and the Female Body in Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century Women’s Writing. Ed. Heller, Tamar and Patricia Moran. Albany: SUNY Press, 2003. 199-213.
Segovia, Miguel A. “Only Cauldrons Know the Secrets of Their Soups: Queer romance
and Like Water for Chocolate.” Velvet Barrios: Popular Culture and Chicana/o Sexualities. Ed. Gaspar de Alba, Alicia. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003. 163-178.