Cleófilas: A Cinderella Story
My final paper for an American Literature class circa 2010
In Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories, Sandra Cisneros writes about “the persistence of Mexican culture in the lives of Mexican Americans” (Curiel 51). “Woman Hollering Creek” tells the story of Cleófilas, a woman who struggles to find her voice and gender identity while living in a Mexican-American community―a reality faced by Cisneros and other Chicana writers. Cisneros portrays Cleófilas as a long-suffering Cinderella figure who, despite her debilitating romantic notions, overcomes hardship and finds courage to save herself from marital abuse. Cleófilas’ life before marriage, her naïve telenovela-induced fantasies, and her geographic isolation reveal why Cleófilas struggles to find her voice and gender identity as a Mexican-American; whether or not she succeeds in that struggle is a matter of debate.
Until the 1980s, the Chicana voice had been “excluded from both the mainstream and from ethnic centers of power” (Ganz 19). The Chicano movement of the ’60s did result in progress for male Mexican-American writers, but female writers with the same heritage were either silenced or heard by only a few. This changed with the 1984 publication of Cisneros’ The House on Mango Street. According to Robin Ganz, Cisneros “derived inspiration from her cultural specificity and found her voice in the dingy rooms of her house on Mango Street, on the cruel but comfortable streets of the barrio, and in the smooth and dangerous curves of the borderland arroyos” (19). Because of Cisneros’ persistence, and that of other Chicana writers―Cervantes, Chávez, Zamora, Anzaldúa, and Moraga―an invisible sound barrier cracked and gave way to new, unique voices. Broad aspects of this victory are mirrored in Cleófilas’ story.
While the author and her main character are not identical, Cisneros uses elements from her own life in “Woman Hollering Creek” to imbue the story with authenticity. Much as Cisneros was born “the only sister into a family of six brothers” (Ganz 19), Cleófilas is the only daughter among “six good-for-nothing brothers, and one old man’s complaints” (Cisneros 43). Both Cisneros and Cleófilas are Mexican-Americans―one by birth, the other by marriage. Where their stories diverge, however, is in their home lives. Cisneros recollects that “because of [her] mother, [she] spent [her] childhood afternoons in [her] room reading instead of in the kitchen… [she] never had to change [her] little brothers’ diapers, [she] never had to cook a meal alone, nor was [she] ever sent to do the laundry” (Ganz 22). In contrast, never-ending chores are one of two things Cleófilas has to look forward to in her father’s household; later, when she is married, she finds herself performing similar duties as she cooks and cleans for her husband and son.
Life before marriage shapes Cleófilas’ sense of gender identity more than anything else. “As a teenager,” writes Katherine Payant, “Cleófilas finds her home town boring, with nothing to do but visit with female relatives, attend the one movie playing in town, or watch the telenovelas (soaps)” (100). Despite her boredom, Cleófilas is responsible for her family of six brothers and her father. A friend claims Cleófilas can work miracles with her sewing machine, that she is very clever despite having no mother to advise her. Each of these details indicates the dual role Cleófilas has already assumed by the story’s beginning: that of servant and mother. Although she scarcely has an opportunity to pursue her interests or develop her own voice, Cleófilas accepts both identities―and their responsibilities―for the sake of her family.
That Cleófilas embraces the telenovelas is a natural progression of her role. In America, soap operas target housewives, and although Cleófilas is unmarried while under her father’s roof, she functions in a similar capacity. The telenovelas provide a reward, an escape from reality to the world of the stars. Katherine Payant claims that “the soap stars love their men above all else, and for them, love is the most important thing, even if it involves suffering” (100). Although she has no evil step-mother or sisters, Cleófilas is nonetheless a Cinderella figure who toils away while keeping her dreams alive―dreams she adopts from the telenovelas, dreams which lead to the creation of debilitating fantasies.
Cleófilas’ fantasies fail to prepare her for reality, and the first fantasy to be destroyed is marriage. Although Cisneros gives little insight into how Juan Pedro succeeds in wooing Cleófilas―suggesting that his bride’s passion does most of the work for him―their marriage is described as “the traditional patriarchal arrangement of a daughter being given by her father, Don Serafín, to Juan” (Payant 100). When the newlyweds leave Mexico in Juan’s truck and cross the border into Seguin, Texas, they drive over La Gritona, or Woman Hollering Creek. As Juan points to it, Cleófilas remarks: “‘Such a funny name for a creek so pretty and full of happily ever after'” (47). Unfortunately for Cleófilas, her “dream of romantic fulfillment through marriage turns into a nightmare of poverty, isolation, and violence” (Curiel 55).
Poverty is never a part of Cleófilas’ fantasies, at least not outside of María de Nadie, a telenovela that Cleófilas’ neighbor Soledad references later in the story. In fact, when Cleófilas first hears the word “Seguin,” the sound of it reminds her of the “tinkle of money. She [hopes] to wear outfits like the women on the tele, like Lucía Méndez. And have a lovely house” (Cisneros 45). However, the “lovely” house she expects to move into is no prince’s castle: it lacks a washing machine and requires a new coat of paint. Juan’s job does not yield enough for a washer or a television set, forcing Cleófilas to take her son (and their clothes) to the laundromat. At the laundromat, Cleófilas is made to feel like a fool and an outsider. The laundromat attendant scolds her in Spanish for putting too much soap in the machines, for sitting on a washer, and for allowing her son to walk around without a diaper (46). When Cleófilas asks how Woman Hollering Creek received its name, she is met with this response: “‘What do you want to know for?'” (46). Although the attendant speaks Cleófilas’ language, the laundromat is just one of many places in Seguin where Cleófilas feels like an outsider. The town, which takes pride in its “bronze pecan the size of a baby carriage in front of the city hall” (50), is a far cry from the “leafy zócalo” (plaza) of Mexico City.
Even sounds in Seguin are different, as are their sources, and both serve to further alienate Cleófilas from society. When she lies awake at night, Cleófilas can hear the pecan trees outside her window “rustling like ladies in stiff petticoats” (44), along with dogs barking and cars driving along the interstate. Where “huddled whispering” once took place on the church steps every Sunday, an ice house now serves as the local rumor mill. Unfortunately, the ice house offers Cleófilas no more sense of belonging than the laundromat. She sits in silence with her husband, politely sipping “a beer until it grows warm” (48) and saying nothing―for she neither knows nor understands English. Worse, she cannot visit the ice house or any other place in town without being driven by her husband. The ice house “subsumes both the zócalo and the church steps into a commodified and alcohol-mediated sociality that largely excludes women caring for children” (Brady 141). Cleófilas regards the town as one of dust and despair, built in such a way that women have to depend on husbands if they want to go anywhere (Cisneros 50-51).
That Juan begins abusing Cleófilas “when they [are] barely man and wife” (48) does not make the situation any better. Speaking on Cleófilas’ sense of isolation and the abuse from Juan Pedro, Mary Brady states:
In mapping the city, Cleófilas effectively shows how its spatial structure reinforces the patriarchal system that leaves her bleeding and bruised. Absent from this map are the battered women’s shelters, crisis care centers, or ESL schools that might help her respond to abuse without having to return to “a father with a head like a burro and those six clumsy brothers” (45), who don’t necessarily ensure her future safety or happiness. (141)
The first time Juan abuses Cleófilas, he repeatedly slaps her until her lip bleeds “an orchid of blood” (Cisneros 47). She is so surprised that she neither runs away nor cries “as she imagined she might when she saw such things in the telenovelas” (47). Instead, Cleófilas stands voiceless, defenseless, and alone as she takes the beating. Worse, after her husband has finished, Juan Pedro weeps “tears of repentance and shame, this time and each” (48), falling into his wife’s arms so that she can hold him and stroke his dark curls like a mother comforting a child. Cleófilas begins to reevaluate her marriage to “this man, this father, this rival, this keeper, this lord, this master, this husband till kingdom come” (49). Juan Pedro was supposed to be her prince, but Cleófilas realizes that he is little more than a boy. Ironically, Cleófilas’ own son comes to be called Juan Pedrito; the -ito suffix means “little” Juan Pedro.
At home with her son, Cleófilas is “flanked by her disinterested neighbors Soledad and Dolores (solitude and sorrow)” (Brady 140). Behind their homes runs Woman Hollering Creek, which is “reminiscent of popular folktales about ‘La Llorona,’ a nameless tragic woman who drowned herself and her children” (Mullen 11). Early in the story, Cleófilas sits with her son by the creek’s edge, thinking about how she and her husband have fallen out of love. As her son pulls fistfuls of grass and laughs, Cleófilas wonders “if something as quiet as this drives a woman to the darkness under the trees” (Cisneros 51). It is then that she remembers her father’s words from her wedding day: “I am your father, I will never abandon you” (43). This memory leads Cleófilas to entertain thoughts of returning home, but she is too fearful of the shame and gossip that would follow. At this point, Cleófilas still clings to a dangerous lie from the telenovelas: that “to suffer for love is good. The pain all sweet somehow. In the end” (45).
In the end, however, Cleófilas concludes that the risk to herself and her young child is greater than the shame of “returning to her father’s house with… no husband” (Curiel 55). Her choice is spurred by a second pregnancy and escalating abuse, the latter of which destroys what remains of Cleófilas’ fantasies. That Juan Pedro “doesn’t care at all for music or telenovelas or romance or roses or the moon floating pearly over the arroyo, or through the bedroom window” (Cisneros 49) is painful enough, but when he throws a book at her―”her book, a love story by Corín Tellado” (52)―it stings far worse than any beating. Not only does Juan Pedro dismiss Cleófilas’ interests, but he also uses them to harm her. Cleófilas realizes that returning home to her father and brothers in Mexico “is a sort of defeat and disgrace” (Payant 101), but since she possesses “no skills, no English, [or] money” (101), return is her only option. Under her father’s roof, Cleófilas will at least find safety, as well as a list of never-ending chores.
Like Cinderella, Cleófilas seems doomed to perform menial labor beneath the thumb of her parental figure. However, Cleófilas’ father is loving, and Cisneros gives Cleófilas this small victory: in retreat, she finally finds her voice. Felice and Graciela, two independent Chicanas who aid Cleófilas across the border, “show [her] what aware, powerful Mexican women can be, and provide a contrast with the two traditional neighbors” (Payant 101). When Cleófilas goes to the clinic for a prenatal checkup, Graciela (whose name means grace) sees her bruises and arranges for Felice (joy or happiness) to drive her over the border without Juan Pedro’s knowledge. As Felice and Cleófilas cross Woman Hollering Creek, Felice “[opens] her mouth and [lets] out a yell as loud as any mariachi. Which startle[s] not only Cleófilas, but Juan Pedrito as well” (Cisneros 55). Cleófilas wonders who this crazy, independent woman is that drives her own truck and crosses the border at will. The creek, Felice says, makes her want to holler like Tarzan. As Cleófilas ponders this, she is surprised by the sound of another voice: her own, which gurgles like water out of her throat, a “long ribbon of laughter” (56).
Critics have interpreted the final scene in disparate ways. According to Katherine Payant, “One could argue that… Cleófilas has been defeated in her struggle for self-realization. She is going back to a static life, now tied down with two children, and it is hard to see much future for her” (102). Payant has a point: Cleófilas’ life before marriage, specifically caring for her father and brothers while living in Mexico, is both inevitable and unfair. While the telenovelas provide a means of escape, they also solidify Cleófilas’ identity as a housewife, warp her perceptions of reality, and, after the dreams they inspire are broken, fuel her return to Mexico. But however temporary the moment, Cisneros does write the ending as a personal epiphany for her heroine: Barbara Curiel concludes that “Cleófilas returns to Mexico with a new self-knowledge and an awareness of other women who have renegotiated Latina womanhood in their own way” (56). While Cisneros does not grant Cleófilas the same escape from traditional gender models as she herself was given, she does draw a parallel to the Chicana movement and underscores its importance. Her message is this: if one wants to be heard, one must fight; but first, one must find a voice. Until Cleófilas finds hers, she will continue to be a servant to―not a champion of―her Mexican heritage.
Cleófilas’ personal journey is not so different from Cinderella’s, nor is it foreign to Cisneros and other Chicana writers. For Cleófilas, unfortunately, her fantasies fail to prepare her for reality, spelling certain doom for any hope of Mexican-American acculturation: her upbringing offers but one model of gender identity, and she marries a toad of a prince before successfully discovering her own voice. A more positive note is that Cleófilas escapes from an abusive relationship and anticipates reuniting with her family in Mexico. With exposure to an alternate gender model (from Graciela and Felice) and the discovery of her own voice, Cleófilas finds a new and exciting sense of hope not born of telenovelas and fantasies, but from the experience of overcoming real-world hardship. La consentida, the princess, no longer waits in silence for a prince.
Brady, Mary Pat. “The Contrapuntal Geographies of Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories.” American Literature 71.1 (1999): 117-150. JSTOR. Web. 29 Nov. 2010.
Cisneros, Sandra. Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories. New York: Vintage, 1991. Print.
Curiel, Barbara Brinson. “Sandra Cisneros, Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories.” Reading U.S. Latina Writers: Remapping American Literature. Ed. Alvina E. Quintana. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005. 51-60. Print.
Ganz, Robin. “Sandra Cisneros: Border Crossings and Beyond.” MELUS 19.1 (1994): 19-29. JSTOR. Web. 30 Nov. 2010.
Mullen, Harryette. “‘A Silence between Us Like a Language’: The Untranslatability of Experience in Sandra Cisneros’s Woman Hollering Creek.” MELUS 21.2 (1996): 3-20. JSTOR. Web. 30 Nov. 2010.
Payant, Katherine. “Borderland Themes in Sandra Cisneros’s Woman Hollering Creek.” The Immigrant Experience in North American Literature: Carving Out a Niche. Ed. Katherine Payant and Toby Rose. Connecticut: Greenwood, 1999. 95-108. Print.