Sacred Space: A Conversation with Laura Esquivel about Her Trilogy
WRITTEN BY ADELAIDA LUCENA-LOWER
It was only when the Covid-19 pandemic struck and everyone had to shelter at home that many people rediscovered the magic of cooking and baking. The central role of the kitchen in our lives and the importance of cooking for our well-being and mental health was not news to Laura Esquivel, Mexican novelist and politician. The trilogy of novels that started with Like Water for Chocolate (Doubleday, 1992), the international bestseller that became a successful film, underscores that precise message.
Tita’s Diary (Independently published, 2020) is the second novel of the trilogy, although the last to be published. As with the first, it is set during the Mexican Revolution and tells the story of Pedro and Tita, and of Mama Elena, Tita’s mother. It also has recipes and home remedies, and rails against the tradition that in a family the youngest daughter must not marry in order to take care of aging parents. Treading upon the same events and characters of an earlier work is fairly unusual for a novelist. But in Tita’s Diary, Esquivel deepens into the motives not only of the protagonists but of Mama Elena, providing the tragic backstory behind her anger.
“It was important to explore Mama Elena’s motivations and the tragic events that shape her,” Esquivel says. “I noticed how many young people, ages 15-20, attended book signings. I asked myself: why did they relate to a story published thirty years ago and set more than one-hundred years ago. My hypothesis was that they identified with Tita and her condition as victim, and with the mother as an object of desire. Today, young people don’t have a domineering mother such as Mama Elena, who forbids them to marry, but they are in fact victims of an emasculating system that determines who may and may not study, who will risk life emigrating to another country to get a miserable salary, young people who live in a world disconnected from the kitchen, from healthy eating, from the teachings of their ancestors.”
According to Esquivel, the third novel of the trilogy, The Colors of My Past, set in the present, exemplifies the disconnection of modern life. Maria, the protagonist, a descendant of the De la Garza family, is overweight and suffers from eating disorders. She has to heal in many ways by reconnecting through a maternal grandmother and through Tita’s diary, the only object left after a fire. It is a journey back to nature, healthy food, and the kitchen, a journey in which the events in Mama Elena’s life reverberate in Maria’s. “I wanted to speak about the importance of retaking the kitchen as a sacred space,” Esquivel says. “[The kitchen is] the fountainhead of profound changes… I placed the [original] story during the Mexican Revolution because to me it was paramount to establish that personal and family revolutions have more impact that apparently massive events.”
The format of Tita’s Diary might surprise some readers, particularly replicating longhand. Reading a novel that way makes it challenging. We are no longer accustomed to the style, but the choice was deliberate. “My intention was always that Maria would find the diary,” Esquivel argues. “When conceptualizing what she would read, I decided to write it in its totality. And when I did this, I also decided that I wanted my readers to experience it in the same form, as a genuine object. That is why the typography is longhand, why there are pages with burnt corners, why it has flowers, photos, and other signs that denote a real diary.”
The background of these novels is a Mexican ranch. But between the natural world of this ranch and the wonders of the supernatural there are many passages, and they run through the kitchen. “God can be found even in stew,” Esquivel writes, quoting Saint Teresa of Avila. Thus, Tita, the protagonist of the first two novels, learns that a hot cup of chocolate is the way to open the heart, that cooking is a ritual, an offering, a tribute to a wise guide, a way to thank the Earth. That there is no pain that won’t go away with a Christmas roll. That you can eat light, knowledge, history, and your punishment because cooking is chemistry, alchemy, medicine, and philosophy. “Who says that it’s not making love?” Tita muses. There is a dark side as well. A cook’s personal energy and emotional state may trigger a disastrous chemical reaction that infuses a delicious meal with an unexpected quality, and ends up affecting innocent diners, sometimes hilariously.
Esquivel echoes the vague instructions of old cookbooks in her novels. “The recipes,” she says, “are written with an informal narrative language because that is the way inherited family recipes are written in my own family as well as in other Mexican families.” Researching the novels and the traditions of Mexican life came naturally to her. “Truth is I did not find it difficult to compile details on Mexican culture because I had everything at hand through my experiences, in family recipes, and in the oral history of my family.”
The success of novels such as Esquivel’s, where the real and the fantastic mingle, speaks to deep needs that modern societies are not fulfilling. “The world of technology,” Esquivel maintains, “promises to connect us but really it disconnects and divides us. The real connection comes from rituals such as that of the chocolate, from contact with the earth, from love, generosity, and everything that is implied in the cooking and sharing of food: in partaking in communion.”
As Laura Esquivel imagines and recreates rituals, as she draws attention to what is valuable in traditional culture, she keeps the past alive, proposing a return to a life in harmony with the rhythms of nature. “You whip with the heavens,” she writes. Cooking has never been a more transcendental art. Or more indispensable, as we have all found out lately.
ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR: Adelaida Lucena-Lower is a voracious reader and writer of historical fiction. Her current project is set in 8th-century Spain.
Published in Historical Novels Review | Issue 95 (February 2021)