Latino Fiction Literature Analysis Chapter 5 Part 2
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Latino Fiction &
he Modernist Imagination

By John S. Christie, Ph.D.

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6


 Part I Part I Part I Part 1 Part I Part I

Part II

Part II

Part II

Part II Part II Part II


Part III

Part III

Part III   Part III


Chapter Five (Part II): Carnival and the "department store called america"

    On one level, food connects the immigrant with the past, or the individual with the family.  Indulgence in eating is therefore a ritualistic attempt at tying oneself to past pleasure. This is why so many characters smell like food.  Cisneros's rebellious Lucy (in the opening story of Women) smells like corn, like tortillas, like bread and the scent itself seems to connect the narrator with her true desires, to all the frowned upon pleasures of a mischievous child (3).  In "Obliterate the Night" by Benjamin Alire Saenz, a young woman hovering in nostalgic depression decides her mother smelled like bread and the power of the memory provokes the childishly pathetic plea: "Mama what am I going to do?" (55).  Another Saenz character relates to his migrant grandfather, the cebollero (onion picker) and reaches his Mexican / Chicano heritage through the onions in the supermarket (Saenz 15-16).  Aurora Morales in Getting Home Alive laments the loss of her warm Puerto Rican "pan de agua" (24).   Ed Vega has a story called "The Angel Juan Moncho" in which a party of men on Christmas eve ("it was the night before Christmas and all through El Barrio everybody was stirring..." -75) gather together "hooked in the same circuit" (76) to talk of food, their words carrying the aroma of foods from the island.  A long list (in untranslated Spanish) of favorite dishes completes the paragraph (76).  While the food of the immigrant's homeland ties a character to the positive, stereotypical foods of the U.S. are cause for ridicule and disgust.  In Ana Castillo's So Far From God, rural Chicanas working for the high-tech weapons company Acme International, eat "balogna and Kraft cheese subs from vending machines while toxic chemicals eat off their finger nails (180).  Rolando Hinojosa's migrants are forced for lack of money into surviving on salteens, coldcuts, Coca Cola and worst of all, Velveeta cheese (Klail City 59,66).  Junk food and fast food restaurants (cf. Rechy's Amalia Gomez in a MacDonalds) for obvious reasons contrast with the richness and freshness and abundance of home cooked Mexican, Cuban, Puerto Rican meals.  An elderly character in Vea's La Maravilla laments the Chicano youth's distaste for traditional food: "They wouldn't even take burritos to school, we had to make fucking sandwiches. Can you believe that, sandwiches! Bread like air and meat that was never alive" (49).   Elsewhere in the same novel, Vea makes the contrast explicit: "Mexicans embrace one another with their meals, sumptuous, ample embraces" (104) whereas feeding a person "white food" takes "the red out his marrow, kill[s] his spirit (136).  Describing window drapes, one character remarks: "They're just so...they're just so...Velveeta" and then laughs "happily at locating the perfect word," a synonym evidently for tacky, cheap and tasteless (168).  Because food is so intricately connected to one's notions of culture and value, to spurn the staples of U.S. diet constitutes a rejection of some part of what many people in this country treasure.  You can't be "American" (the ethnocentric nationalist declares), if you don't like MacDonald's and burgers and chips and hot-dogs and peanut butter and jelly, etc.  You can't call yourself truly a part of the U.S. if you eat your large meal for breakfast and skip dinner.  We are what we eat, and the war of diets closely parallels larger cultural skirmishes where the weapons of war are often food and drink, music[64] and sports (i.e. football / futbol).  Further, when a Latino refuses to acknowledge the importance of hamburger, he or she is rebelling against more than the particular manner the meat is prepared.  Behind the patty of meat lie major systems of food production (relying on chemicals), companies within a huge capitalist network (counting on profits) as well as attitudes toward meals and the time it might take to eat one.  What we eat, and when and how and where reveals who we are and discloses much of our cultural baggage.[65]   This idea accounts for the pleasure Latino writers take in listing the aromas and tastes that tie them emotionally to their families and heritages. 

            On another level, the savoring of food becomes extreme and depending on the situation can suggest over compensation, self-indulgence and nostalgic delusion.  Whether connection to valued heritage or the means of decadent pleasure seeking and indulgence, food is often highlighted.   Laura Esquival's novel Como agua para chocolate (Like Water For Chocolate) ties food to fiction through recipes and has been heralded for demonstrating the matriarchal connections between women through generations established through the kitchen.  The Puerto Rican writer, Aurora Morales speaks of cooking as "a magic, a power, a ritual of love and work" which unites her to "the river of my place on earth, the green and musty river of my grandmothers" (Getting Home Alive 39).  Ana Castillo seems to have borrowed this idea in her novel So Far From God in which La Loca has surpassed the cooking expertise of her mother Sofia and her grandmother.  The narrative even breaks for several pages into "Three of La Loca's Favorite Recipes Just to Whet (sic) Your Appetite."  A part of a larger project privileging the interior over the exterior, the house over the journey, this kind of work emphasizes food in order to celebrate the role of the cook, the maid, the servant -- in Latin American tradition, female occupations.  Recipes, as one of few types of feminine written records are naturally of concern to female authors, yet the kitchen artist/creator figure, while usually a woman, can also be male.  Alfredo Vea includes recipes in his novel La Maravilla, and recognizes as well as Chicana writers that "A recipe is history...The tomal is history you can eat" (107-109)The transmission of recipes through the ages, first orally and then in written form,  parallels the passage of the oral folktales, myths and legends that have become the basis for literature in the Western tradition.  In Arturo Islas's The Rain God Miguel Chico's domestic rituals include cooking a spaghetti sauce "perfected over the years" (25) and where his uncle Felix (in a "trance" and with his son JoEl looking on "drunk with pleasure" -135) annually prepares a bread pudding called "capirotada" (134).  Islas reverses the stereotypical Hispanic male image by allowing his male characters to enter captivatingly pleasant kitchen worlds of fragrance and peace.  Crossing gender barriers, Felix and Miguel and JoEL ("yo"/"el" or "I" and "He") are aligning themselves with the female culinary role.  We assume therefore that like Nina, their own "poetic nature" can "express itself in the subtle mixture of spices" (40) and in fact young JoEl is a poet with an "unearthly sheen" to his eyes (123).

            Roberto G. Fernandez's Raining Backwards which mocks nearly everything includes a recipe for "Barbarita's Refugee Meat Spread, 1961," and instructions to use only "authentic U.S. Department of Agriculture Surplus" tunafish.  The recipe pokes fun at the gossipy right-winger Barbarita at the same time it deflates the importance of traditional cooking handed down through generations of Latin women, and takes a swipe at processed North American conveniences like "Spam."    In The House on Mango Street, Rafaela, an attractive ("too beautiful to look at") young wife indulges in coconut and papaya juices, savoring their sweetness.  They are "sweet sweet like the island."  The drink momentarily frees her from the "empty room" of her apartment where she is kept locked, like Rapunzel, by her jealous husband out playing dominos (Mango 76).  Characters like  Lourdes in Dreaming in Cuban, or Alejo Santinio and his son Hector in House, or Cesar and Nestor in Mambo, or Emilio in Fourteen take this kind of escape through food several steps further to the point of self-destructive over-indulgence.  For each of them, as for the narrator of Cisneros's "Bread," the eating is related to sex and the short-lived, ephemeral pleasure of release from pain in life.  Garcia's Lourdes Puente stuffs herself ("eats, eats, eats, like a Hindu goddess with eight arms, eats, eats, eats, as if famine were imminent" 174) and wears her husband out in bed.  Cisneros's narrator and her adulterous lover drive through the city kissing between bites of "fat-ass" sourdough bread in their literal "feast of the ass" (Bakhtin 5).  While the lovers revel in the tastes and sounds of their traveling party, the reader is aware of a twinge of a problem as the man remembers a "charming city" and the narrator recalls a baby dying from swallowing rat poison in one of the buildings.  This contrast between his memories and her own less nostalgic ones coupled with her desire to be free of the "pain...passed between" them gives the vignette a serious, ironic tone.  Cisneros is blurring the distinctions between genuine festive celebration and melancholic self indulgence. 

            For many of Hijuelos's male characters, eating and sex constitute full-time obsessions.   An entire page is devoted to Alejo Santinio's stuffing of himself, his "absorbing endlessly as if life could be stored," he and his friends "eating and drinking voraciously, like babies suckling breasts, men fucking women" (House 145).  The exuberance of Hijuelos's description reveals an authentic glee in feasting and the reader cannot help but be appreciative even as she or he judges from a distance.   Emilio Montez O'Brien is orally fixated upon suckling and he too succumbs to periods of sexual debauchery.   One of Emilio's fourteen sisters, Irene, and  a Greek "fellow" have a romance which Hijuelos describes as "moving through the thickest field of sensations, with hungry bites and long appraisals of tasty morsels, with the promise of a happy future and many satisfying meals" (77).  In these cases, the celebration of eating and sex combine to form a carnivalesque release from the difficulties of Latino life, here specifically the pain of the Cuban exile.  


             It is difficult to entirely separate images of food from those of drink (alcohol) or from music.  The lovers in "Bread" turn the tango on the radio up "loud loud loud" (Creek 84) as if the music were "inside" them, and Rafaela leans out her window to hear the music from the dance hall/bar down the street (House 76) as she laments her inability to demonstrate her youthful sex appeal.  Food, like alcohol, sex and music in all three Hijuelos novels is tied to regression.  Orfalindo Buitureyra from Hinojoso's Klail City "glides away" during a tango and goes on "three-four day drunks" ("parrandas serias"), drinking, singing and dancing (132-135).   Vega's Mayonesa Peralta in love with a woman whom he thinks is having an affair with Ernest Hemingway puts himself through his own form of drunken mystery rites twice a year.  At one point in Mambo, the landlady, Mrs. Shannon (a frequently unwanted visitor) brings over a spice cake and Cesar compares it to "kissing a woman for the first time," Nestor to "rum drenched pineapple" and Delores to "eating flan with Poppy"(153).  One food sparking various cherished memories (kissing, rum, a father) as each character to varying degrees, regresses to an oral stage of peaceful infancy.  In Cisneros, eating the bread takes them back to "when he wasn't married, like before the kids, like if all the pain hadn't passed between [them]" in much the same way that Lourdes goes into the "early-morning refuge" of her bakery, "wanting to work with bread" because "what sorrow could there be in that" (Dreaming 18).  In fact, she uses her pastries as weapons, sending pictures of eclairs to her mother in Cuba in an effort to convince Celia that Castro's Cuba denies the pleasure of such things (117).  Like Hector and Alejo, the "flesh amassed rapidly" and she gains 118 pounds (20). 

            The meshing of dance, song, music, sex, and food is typical to the atmosphere of festival Bakhtin discusses.  Music and dance send characters into reminiscent daydreams from which they sometimes never recover.  Though whether such a state is negative or positive depends on the individual work, the idea of any one or several aspects of the carnivalesque transporting someone beyond the practical reality around them is common to Latino fiction.  For Cuban men, the song and drink and dance remove them from the frustration and burden of everyday working life.  Indulging in musical memories, Cesar Castillo, repeatedly journeys "back to the plazas of small towns in Cuba, to Havana, to past moments of courtship and love, passion, and a way of life that was fading from existence" (39).  This is the reason for the seemingly endless lists of Mambo songs and singers and dancers and musicians -- Hijuelos's Whitmanesque catalogues of a bygone era.  The famous records bring Cesar back to an idealized past success so vivid that he romanticizes how people used to walk down Broadway and look up at the "silhouettes" of the brothers framed in a window, composing their music (27), though how he could have known this is uncertain.  The music frees him to dance with feet "darting in and out like agitated compass needles "(79), a metaphor Hijuelos uses twice as if to suggest it too is the invention of his character's memory.  The power of his memories is enhanced by the near epic similes such as one describing the real "Rey de Mambo" Perez Prado "off in another world and bending his body in a hundred shapes" (22).  Nestor too is "lost" in the melody of his trumpet (113), his "specialty" mournful solos, the 22 versions of a song "about torment beyond all sorrow" (40).  


            Hijuelos's central male characters all exhibit an excessive desire to escape "the troubles of the world" (Mambo 8):  Alejo Santinio through food and drink; his son Hector through food; his wife Mercedes through nostalgic dreaming; The Mambo Kings through music, sex and food; Nelson through his medicinal concoctions (Fourteen 61); his son Emilio through sex and alcohol (228) and the list goes on.   Where the men are often caught in a permanent, sometimes debilitating, state of nostalgic pain, alleviated momentarily by food, music or sex, the women often escape via reading romances or detective novels or through music as is the case with one of the sisters, Maria, who falls in love when Antoine Rameau sings his aria.  Margarita finds some relief in exploration of her own body and later in familial love and Mariella, the mother, like Mercedes in House gets tangled up in a longing for a Cuban past.  This is often the fate of those women, unlike Delores, who can't adjust.  In Garcia's  Dreaming, we see Felicia enraptured by a sexist Beny Mora record which she plays (as Cesar Castillo does) over and over while she dances in the dark (165).  Felicia lives "on the fringe of life" (184) in a Faulknerian oblivion (a la Emily Grierson).  She forces her son to dance because "everything makes sense when they dance," but when the music stops, she recalls her husband's physical abuse (78).  In practical ways, she is a "Not-mama" to her daughters (121) and she will step over the boundary society has described for her between sanity and insanity.  Cofer's character, Franco Loco, having been attacked by a jealous man with a machete and now completely oblivious to reality, dances a "last dance, hour by hour, day after day," forever frozen ("time had stopped like a dropped clock") in the last pleasurable moment he can recall (Line of the Sun 111).  Often it is music or dance that allows temporary escape from the kinds of borders set up by society to restrain and control one's spiritual or instinctual expression.  For Teresa in Castillo's The Mixquiahuala Letters, the ability to dance is at least partially a means of expressing her (homosexual and therefore illicit) love for her friend Alicia.  Teresa's lyrics portray how Alicia danced "with such carefree sweet delusion like a hit of pure cocaine" (77).  Later she describes Alicia dancing with Egberto, her hair giving off an "illusion of innocence" (125).  Despite recognizing that the dance is not reality, Teresa still longs for Alicia "to come out and dance with [her], rid [herself] of one night of memories and heartaches" (125).  In Dreaming in Cuban, as with Rachel's dance of "invented steps" in Woolf's Voyage Out (166), Felicia invents her own music which allows her release from an unbearable domestic relationship.  Before this, her mother Celia, trapped in a similar domestic nightmare with Jorge Del Pino and his family in the house on Palmas street, had dreamed of dancing flamenco in Spain: "she would drink whiskey with tourists...[and] stride through the darkness with nothing but a tambourine" (42).  When Felicia dies, Celia dances on the broken shells at a Santeria ritual in a "mad flamenco" of grief.  Connecting her somehow to an instinctual deliverance, the dance encaptivates her as Nestor's trumpet does or Cesar's sentimental record.  Ultimately, for Cuban-American male characters, submersion in the carnivalesque is usually a rejection of life in the U.S.  When Nestor Castillo dies, he is completing his overall failure to join a generation of Cuban immigrants progressing in America.  He carries around a right wing pamphlet entitled "Forward America" because it contrasts so vividly with the book in his head that takes him back to Cuba.  For Celia in the Garcia novel, the dance is part of her abandoning the material world, but this is not seen as delusionary or negative.  Pilar is an awkward dancer; she dances "like an American" (224) and this deficiency is a barrier between her U.S. self and the rhythms of Cuba.  Thus, toward the end of the novel, when she buys a string base and begins to struggle with rhythm and beat, she is, in essence, reconnecting herself to her African-Cuban heritage, reestablishing an instinctual bond with her country via music.  

            A short story by Helena Viramontes centers around a similar problem.  Aura Rodriguez, a solitary, nearly agoraphobic woman (who, like Felicia, resembles Faulkner's Emily) is moved by the dancing and music of her vagabond neighbors.  She lives in fear of street thugs, hates their music, and never ventures outside "her perimeters." When she sees her neighbors dance with "barefoot freedom," she recalls how at a dance as a 13 year old, her role was to fill the broken toilet with water, and how the dance went on without her (Moths 110).   In this extreme case, Aura's incapacity to "loosen her inhibitions" (110) will, the story suggests, lead to her murdering an innocent person.  In general, for women, music and dance imply freedom from convention, the trap of domesticity, the confinement of marriage or from depression.   This is why Celia in Dreaming in Cuban and Josephina in La Maravilla both have white pianos made in Spain, the country to which their romantic pasts are bound.   In a friend's restaurant called "La Casa" (26), the protagonist of Villanueva's novel senses that a "naked feminine soul was fiercely and finally revealed" by the "uncontrolled ecstasy" (69) of the flamenco (28), creating a "restful ... lull from reality" (31).  "Dancing always seemed to solve the riddle" (137), Villanueva writes, referring no doubt to the riddle of male/female relations.  The dance is often opposed to "proper" society which accounts for Cecile Pineda's sarcasm when, in Love Queen, she speaks of the Tango: "the shocking new steps that made good society act like pimps and whores, and perfectly good whores act like society" (Love Queen 17).   According to the heroine's mother, it is clearly, "the dance of Satan" and therefore highly popular among rebels of the church (41).  But for Ana Magdelena who can "glide sinuously to the captivating strains of the tango" (132) dancing brings her the power "to make everything in the world come to her" (135).    Cisneros writes of a young woman named Marin in The House on Mango Street "under the streetlight, dancing by herself," (28) longing to escape her aunt's rigidity.  Later, Esperanza, the narrator, will be released momentarily from the embarrassment she suffers over her old saddle shoes (representative of her parents' poverty) and dance with her uncle "like in the movies" (46). 


            For Eliud Martinez's complicated hero, Miguel Velasquez, the combination of drink and music is required for the would-be writer.  Like his mentor, the mysterious "borracho magnifico" (possibly a fictionalized Poe), the artist must drink and follow William Blake's prescription to "never disobey the vital impulses of [his/her] recalcitrant spirit" (98).  Like Nabokov's Humbert Humbert in Lolita,[66] the artist is also a "madman, a creature of infinite melancholy, with a bubble of hot poison in [his/her] loins and a super-voluptuous flame permanently aglow in [his/her] subtle spine" (Lolita 17).  Sex and creativity are linked: "the procreative drive and creativity both have their source in the genitals" (Voice 169).   Drinking, for Miguel, is a "wild dance, a dangerous one to be sure, but one from which he learned many things about himself, about life and memory, about women and love" (101).  He admires the hard-drinking writers: O'Neill, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Thomas Wolfe, and Rulfo" all who "benefited from booze" (173).  Voice-haunted Journey demonstrates the inability of the novelist main character to complete his work because of his obsession with maintaining control of his life.  Hyper-conscious of his life as material for his art, he cannot get it all down in words.  It changes and moves too frequently and can't be captured in its entirety.  The metafictional novel itself mirrors that inability as Martinez bounces from plot to discourse and weaves the lives and dreams and memories of his characters into the lives of the fictional work within the novel as it is created, piece by piece, by the main character.  Though constantly in search of Dionysian escape through the elements of the carnivalesque, Miguel fails as father to his daughters, as husband to his wife, as novelist, as college professor (sex abuse charges forestall his tenure), and most importantly, he is rendered incapable of coming to terms with his own past and cultural heritage.  He fails at writing of "his family and the people they knew, [and] about their hardships in that vast land called Texas" (252) and consequently cannot turn his own story into an ordered completeness.   The explosion of allusions throughout the novel, reflects Miguel's fanatical desire to include everything he has ever read, to rationally categorize and make sense of all the literature he knows.  He is out to prove that his father was wrong when he warned him: "Hijo, es peligroso leer tanto.  Uno se puede volver loco" [Son, it's dangerous to read so much.  One could go crazy] (217).

            Miguel Velasquez (if we ignore metafictional qualities of the novel for the moment) is "haunted" by memories in ways similar to Cesar Castillo in Hijuelos's The Mambo Kings Play songs of Love.  Both men rework the past in certain phrases and sensations.  Miguel on his airplane, Cesar in the Hotel Splendour -- both men are provoked by music into memories: for Cesar, his dead brother's famous hit song "Beautiful Maria of My Soul" which he plays on a record player over and over; for Miguel, an "Ave Maria" sung at his brother's funeral.  Both men seek some kind of mindless oblivion in orgasm: "the moment of magic and the edge of the sexual abyss" (Voice 127).  Both mourn a dead brother.

            From the "insanity of family meals" in Hijuelos's Fourteen Sisters (174) to the Halloween festival in Alex Abella's The Killing of the Saints, the carnivalesque represents in Abella's words: "a burgeoning cry for release, a shifting onto a public sphere of all the fears, desires and malfunctions of private life" (227). 

            Some writers view with cynicism the Latino's futile attempt to recreate the physical pleasures of a lost way of life.  Judith Cofer's novel The Line of the Sun concludes that the efforts of her Patterson, New Jersey neighbors ("in cold rooms stories above the frozen ground") produce no more than vague parodies of the "smells and sounds" of Puerto Rican "routines" (223).  Some writers, like Cofer or Nicholas Mohr, view the elements of carnival as indications of a character's embracing a delusionary enabling fiction, as a psychological problem best overcome.  Others like Fernandez display the images satirically, or like Hijuelos with humorous detachment.  Still others show an unresolved sympathy toward characters (victims or heroes) caught in their own small festivals.  We have already seen how it takes a carnival occurrence to alter Ed Vega's Don Sinforoso Figueroa in such a way that he finds, unexpectedly, true love in a a rich woman's garden oasis.  Before the "warm summer rain," he has embarked on an "odyssey" in search of his favorite food, a richly seasoned fricassee of "cabrito" or goat meat.  This business adventure to buy goats and sell them to the barrio Puerto Ricans turns into a slapstick comedy where Vega mocks the police, the Puerto Rican youth movements and most of all, the vehemence and fervor which people can attach to symbols of their lost past.  It is not uncoincidental that the goat winds up in a new paradise within the city, and that Don Sinfo abandons for the moment the impossible task of recreating an Edenic Puerto Rico through the nostalgic dream of eating "cabrito." 

            An inconclusive attitude on the part of Latino writers toward the meaning of the carnivalesque is part of the larger, non-judgmental, polyphonic quality in the fiction itself.   To indulge in the emotional power of these ingredients (and one feels the enjoyment the writer is having recalling smells and sounds and tastes) is not only to escape practicality or to avoid social responsibility, but also to expose the imperfections within official society.  Like the festival of the dead, as Gonzalez-Crussi notes, the carnival in general has "the unambiguous ridicule everyone, rich or poor, humbled or exalted, foolish or wise" (39) and to show life less seriously.  Establishing the carnival idiom within the fiction directs the reader's perspective and his or her laughter is pointed in either direction from a flexible liminal position between the official and the folk.   We laugh at both the nostalgic dreamers and the pragmatism of the American dream.


[64]Though outside the scope of this study, the Puerto Rican scholar Juan Flores, has done extensive work on the relationship between music and Nuyorican culture.  See Divided Borders and his article "Puerto Rican and Proud, Boyee!: Rap, Roots and Amnesia." published by Ollantay Center for the Arts, 1993.  For consideration of Cuban-Americans and music see Perez-Firmat's Life on the Hyphen.

[65]Miguel Algarin, the Puerto Rican / Nuyorican poet suggests that the idea of fast food is actually worse than the meal itself.  Rejecting claims of superiority made by Puerto Ricans on the island, he condemns the place as a US product:

don't lie to me

don't fill me full of vain

disturbing love for an island

filled with Burger Kings

for I know there are no cuchifritos

in Borinquen ("A Mongo Affair")

[66]A book often alluded to in Martinez's novel: Miguel sees a young teenager "a little older than Lolita (142), and he refers to one woman as a "nina-mujer-hembra," a woman so familiar as to be "like a character out of a novel" (89). 



Continue: Chapter 6 Part I

Last Updated:
July 25, 2011
Copyright 2006 design and content by John S. Christie and Jose B. Gonzalez
Copyright 2006 Latino Boom: An Anthology of U.S. Latino Literature, Pearson Education, Inc.
Copyright 2006 Latino Fiction and the Modernist Imagination, John S. Christie