In certain cultures, people live their lives according to a certain set of rules, according to which the roles of men and women should never get mixed up. Men are the head of their families, the active and free ones, while women are destined to be passive and submissive wives and mothers. Plus, when speaking of women, we often encounter the paradigm virgin – whore, without any middle ground. The two key symbols for this dichotomy are the Virgin of Guadalupe and La Malinche; there is a third image, popular in the Mexican culture and in some states in southern USA, one which is not an escape from the extremes because it leans towards “la Malinche”: la Llorona. As other Chicana feminists, Sandra Cisneros will use the three archetypes in her fiction, but she will reinterpret and give them new dimensions in order to draw attention upon issues like women’s search for identity and their struggle to escape the gender roles forced upon them by the patriarchal society.
When speaking of the legend of la Llorona, its roots can be traced back to goddess Coatlicue. There are many versions of the legend, but Cisneros changes the message of the myth starting from the very title of the short story – Woman Hollering Creek – and does not present la Llorona as a woman who destroys her children, but one who does everything in her power to keep them safe. Cleófilas starts off as a young, naïve woman, who believes that romance, marriage and men are the same as in telenovelas; she gets married and leaves with her husband across the Mexican border, in the USA. Here she enters a world where she does not belong, where she depends more than ever on a male figure and where she is a victim of domestic violence. What’s worse, she falls into a pattern followed by many other women: she takes the abuse without defending herself, trying to hold onto the conviction that it is worth suffering out of love. She is a dreamer, a new mom and has nowhere to turn to; her neighbours, Soledad and Dolores offer her no comfort and it seems that their main purpose is to protect patriarchal values, trapping the young woman in a state where she is reduced to silence.
Cleófilas finds her strength near her most unusual neighbour, the creek with a strange name that nobody bothered to understand. She immediately thinks of La Llorona and, even though she is warned not to go near that place, she is attracted to the water, not because she would want to kill herself, but because she wishes to understand the motivations behind the actions of the woman from the legend and also the reason for her holler. The water is no longer a symbol for death and destruction, marking instead the beginning of a new life. She hears the call of La Llorona and that makes us think that she was in a way chosen to evolve, to build a better life for herself and for her children. Cleófilas finally thinks of a plan to seek help and escape her abusive husband when he threw one of her books at her, threatening the power she found in knowledge.
The protagonist was lucky enough to have a family that would receive her when she returned to Mexico. It is not the mother, but the father who is ready to help his daughter (even here, the traditional roles of men and women are ignored; we are given an example of a man who showed affection towards his child and who has never hit his wife). She was most probably aware that she will be judged by society for leaving her husband, but she proves that she has grown stronger over the time and that the safety of her children and of herself is more important than the rumours that will fly around town. To get back home with her boys, Cleófilas finds help in two strong, independent women: Graciela and Felice.
Felice is the type of woman who has a positive influence over her “sisters” with low self-esteem. She is the embodiment of la Gritona, of the woman who hollers not out of rage or pain, but because she can; she is free, independent and does not have to explain her actions to anyone. Felice mocks weak women and does not care about gender roles. She is unaware of the legend of La Llorona and can interpret the name of the creek in a way that would suit her best. She doesn’t associate that place with pain and betrayal, but with freedom and she doesn’t miss the chance to make her voice stand out. What follows immediately is a stinging arrow sent towards the idea that a woman has to be a virgin to actually value something. At the end of the story, Cleófilas is happy because she saved her boys, she is independent and ready for a new beginning. The end is open and we cannot know for sure what the future holds for her, but we can assume that she no longer let others walk over her.
Sandra Cisneros creates a Llorona who is free from the pressure imposed on her by la Malinche and the Virgin. She is turned from a weak, helpless woman who cries for her sin, into a strong female figure that makes her holler rise above the patriarchal oppression. Her scream is no longer bound to pain bordering on insanity, but to power and independence. She is strong enough to create her own identity, just like Felice did and Cleófilas will do. La Llorona (or la Gritona, as she appears in this short story) is no longer a negative symbol, no longer a victim or a bad mother. She scares those who are weak, but offers support to women who stand up for themselves; through her, women find a way out of the dichotomy virgin/whore. This way, someone like Cleófilas is given the possibility to define her identity as a woman.
by Elena Atudosiei